Top War Movies, Part 1

War, the ultimate conflict, throws people into new, often terrifying situations where they must confront life, death, each other, and their own character. On the front, in the command center, or at home, war is an adventure because it is a journey of discovery. War may not be a fun or happy adventure, but it is an adventure nevertheless.

As adventure movies, war films have it all: conflict, heroes and villains, action, thrills, psychology, character study, even humor. Some war movies are exercises in patriotism (John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Burt Lancaster). Others are cynical in stripping away the bunk. Some look at the darkest and noblest of human deeds (Schindler’s List). Sometimes they’re made from the perspective of the “enemy” (Das Boot, Letters from Iwo Jima).

Here’s a rundown of the best of the bunch:


The Thin Red Line (1998) / Director: Terrence Malick / Stars: Sean Penn,  Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Cusack
Based on James Jones’ autobiographical novel of the WWII battle of Guadalcanal, the film explores the spiritual toll of killing on the men of C-Company. Transcendental, lyrical, and poetic are not typically adjectives associated with war movies, but they aptly describe this somewhat overlong (170 minute) master work, which had the misfortune of being released in the same year as “Saving Private Ryan.”


Paths of Glory (1957) / Director: Stanley Kubrick / Stars: Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou
Colonel Dax (Douglas) is a French lawyer trying to defend three soldiers charged with cowardice because their regiment fails in a suicide mission ordered by the stupid, arrogant, and ruthless general Broulard (Menjou) in World War I. At the age of 28, Kubrick made what remains probably the greatest indictment of war’s folly (even considering his Dr. Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket): The road to the firing squad is the bitter path of glory for powerless men who must die for the sake of power’s pride. Based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb, itself based on real-life events. Ever proud, the French government banned the film from public exhibition for 20 years.


Apocalypse Now (1979) / Director: Francis Ford Coppola / Stars: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
During the Vietnam War, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent into the Cambodian jungle to assassinate the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has a local tribe worshiping him as a god. It’s a surreal journey into madness (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” proclaims Robert Duvall’s macho surfer Col. Kilgore), where you have to be deranged to survive. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s the Heart of Darkness, the film itself was hellish to make (the star had a heart attack, a monsoon destroyed the set, etc.).

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) / Director: Stanley Kubrick / Stars: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
The inane try to counter the insane as statesmen frantically try to defuse a nuclear showdown between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in this arena of the absurd. Peter Sellers plays multiple roles, and brilliantly. If only the silly fighting could stay in the war room, where it belongs…


Das Boot (1981) Stars: Jurgen Prochnow, Erwin Leder
Talk about the pressure of war… Deep in the ocean in 1942, a German crew abroad a creaky U-boat fight panic, claustrophobia, and a bungling high command as they bravely pursue their duty to destroy Allied shipping and block essential supplies from reaching Britain. Overall, the Germans paid a fearsome price: only 12,000 of 40,000 U-boat men in World War II survived.

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