To put together a Top Ten list for the broad category of War Films is a daunting task. When such a list can fail to include classics such as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Henry V, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, and The Last Samurai you know that is an arbitrary list – one that invites disagreement from all sides.
When it comes to war films, these are the 10 that I rank best. There are different aspects of each film that contribute to its position on this Top 10 list. I won’t pretend that there aren’t influences at play. In some cases the position on the list speaks just as much to how it emotionally impacted me upon first viewing as it does to revolutionary cinematography.
In other words: It’s my opinion. And the fact is, everyone deserves to have their own opinion…mine just always happens to be right.
10) Good Morning Vietnam – Robin Williams taught me to believe in the power of laughter. His soul burned brighter than other people’s and that cosmic glow was broadcast through film and television. That magnetism was inspirational to people like me who have experienced the glory and devastation of bipolar. And to the normal people out there, Williams was just a hilarious comedic genius. So, leave it to Williams to be the one to make war funny. It’d been done before in classics like MASH, but never with the deeply political black eye of America – the Vietnam War. Williams should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor that year. He lost to Michael Douglas’ portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street – which enrages me because Douglas’ character was a supporting character. Had Douglas won in the correct category of Best Supporting Actor, Williams would have won Best Actor. Instead he would be given a make-good Academy Award for Good Will Hunting in 1997.
The movie Good Morning Vietnam is packed full of Robin Williams comedy on the mic, much of it adlibbed by the actor. The film tells the story of Armed Forces DJ Adrian Cronauer, who strives to entertain the troops during the dark times of the Vietnam Police Action. But just because there is comedy in the film, it isn’t a comedy per se. There is both character drama and military actions in the film. In the end I guess you may want to call it a Dramady. But, whatever you call it – it’s one of the greats.
9) Saving Private Ryan – Among the best of prolific filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s career achievements, Saving Private Ryan is an epic war film originally released in 1998. The horrific opening sequence depicting the Normandy landing at Omaha Beach does incredible job of painting the horrors of war. The story follows an Army Ranger Captain played by Tom Hanks as he and his squad search for Private James Francis Ryan – the last surviving brother of three servicemen killed in action. The supporting cast includes Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, and Vin Diesel.
8) Schindler’s List – Also from Steven Spielberg is his passion project Schindler’s List. Based on the novel Shindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. The film follows Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, who saved more than a thousand mostly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust by employing them in his factories during World War II. The film stars Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Göth, and Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern. Spielberg has wanted to make the film for some time, and finally received financing on the condition he first direct Jurassic Park. Schindler’s List won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography.
7) The Killing Fields – Based upon the true story of Cambodian Dith Pran and American Journalist Sydney Schanberg, The Killing Fields is a 1984 British film about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The brutally realistic film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture. Haing S Ngor won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Pran who is unable to escape Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge take over. I was very young when I saw this film. I knew nothing of Cambodia or the Khmer Rouge. My eyes were quickly opened to the atrocities of the regime.
6) Kelly’s Heroes – Not heavy drama, Kelly’s Heroes is a fun filled 1970 World War II film about a group of American soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. The film stars Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, and Donald Sutherland. Eastwood and Sutherland were the lynch pins that made me fall in love with this film. Eastwood is the quintessential tough guy, uber cool and confident. Sutherland though plays a character who goes by the moniker “Oddball” and steals the show. Oddball is a hippy who also happens to be the commander of a tank platoon. I will forever cherish the line “why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?”
5) 300 – When I think of war films, I tend to think of Vietnam or World War II. 300 is a different animal. The film is a 2006 period action film from director Zack Snyder based on a comic book series by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. It depicts a fictionalized version of the Battle of Thermopylae within the Persian Wars. To capture a comic book -like look to the film, Snyder uses superimposition chroma key technique. In the film, King Leonidas takes 300 Spartans into battle against the Persian God-King Xerxes. I just remember seeing the movie and thinking to myself “Wow! That’s a damn good movie.”
4) Glory – It’s hard to think of a time that Denzel Washington wasn’t a film star, but Glory is the 1989 movie that propelled Washington from TV star to movie star. The film tells the story of the African-American 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. The screenplay by Kevin Jarre was based on the books Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard, and the personal letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Glory was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three, including a Best Supporting Actor award for Washington.
3) The Great Escape – Released in 1963, The Great Escape is a film based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 nonfiction book of the same name. It gives a firsthand account of an grand escape plan from a German POW camp during World War II.. The film stars Steve McQueen – and you don’t get much cooler than him. Also staring are James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, and Hannes Messemer. The true story shows the great lengths prisoners would go through to try to escape during the war – seeing it as their duty. One of the best films of all time. McQueen did his own motorcycle stunts during the escape sequences and those stunts are considered some of the best ever captured on film.
2) The Dirty Dozen – Directed by Robert Aldrich, The Dirty Dozen is a 1967 film about taking the worst prisoners the Army had in captivity and sending them behind enemy lines for a suicide mission during World War II. If the prisoners live they gain their freedom, if not, dying for your country is better than rotting in jail. The film stars Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Robert Ryan, Telly Savalas, Robert Webber and Donald Sutherland. The screenplay is based on the 1965 bestseller by E. M. Nathanson which was inspired by a real-life WWII unit of behind-the-lines demolition specialists from the 101st Airborne Division named the “Filthy Thirteen”
1) Gallipoli – A World War I movie told from the prospective of members of the Australian Army, Gallipoli was released in 1981. It stars Mel Gibson, still early in his career, and Mark Lee. The pair play Olympic-caliber sprinters who enlist in the service and are then recruited as runners when communication lines go down. The film culminates in the Battle of Nek, but it is the friendship of the characters play by Gibson and Lee that make the film special. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance.
Peace. Love. Trust.