Note: This piece was originally published on Sept. 5, 2013. All rights are reserved.
Yes, like it or not, the drumbeat for war is sounding again and stirring passions. The debate inside the beltway over whether to bomb Syria is taking place as these words are being written. Justifications, warnings and predictions are in the air. With uncertainty swirling about, one thing is for sure -- filmmakers are paying attention to what’s happening. They are taking notes for the movies to be made about what’s happening … and what will follow.
As a setting for compelling stories the extremes of war have been useful to filmmakers throughout the history of movies. The first American feature-length motion picture to receive widespread distribution was D.W. Griffith’s rather warped melodrama about the American Civil War and its aftermath, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).
Depending on what might be called a “war movie,” at least 20 such feature films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The problem with arriving at an exact number is that while some movies are set during wars, not all of them seem like traditional “war movies.” Which opens the door to the problem of defining that term.
Well, for today’s purpose “war movies” are going to be divided into two categories: heroic and anti-war. Still, most of the best war movies, at least in my book, have at least a hint of anti-war sentiment in them. Some might call it sanity. After all, war isn’t just hell, it’s crazy hell.
For this week’s list of favorites a “heroic war film” is about the quest to bravely fight through that crazy hell as part of a larger purpose. Such films are usually about losing oneself in the pursuit of that quest. Whereas, an “anti-war film” is more about the toll of war, or the sheer folly of it.
Thus, I have to cheat for this week’s favorites list -- two different sets of five favorites are needed to cover the war front.
Heroic War Films
- “Attack” (1956): B&W. 107 minutes. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin. Note: This gritty WWII yarn pits extremes against one another with cynicism as the referee. Cooney is the hated officer who owes his rank to political pull. Caught in the throes of a fit of cowardice he fails to support his men when it counts most. One of them, Costa, survives and wants Cooney to pay.
- “The Deer Hunter” (1978): Color. 182 minutes. Directed by Michael Cimino. Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale. Note: This tense story pulls three pals loose from their familiar blue collar moorings. It drops them into unimagined horrors in another world -- Vietnam. Then it explores the nature of heroism staring into the madness of a dilemma with no good options.
- “The Great Escape” (1963): Color. 172 minutes. Directed by John Sturges. Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence. Note: McQueen is at his antihero best in this somewhat true WWII story about captured Americans and Brits in a German prisoner of war camp, plotting a massive escape. Their ingenuity and dedication are the stuff of a great adventure … whether they get away with it or not.
- “The Thin Red Line” (1998): Color. 170 minutes. Directed by Terrence Malick. Cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson. Note: When Malick makes a WWII movie it’s going to be different from most war movies. This one lingers on the soldiers’ dreams and boredom, then explodes into action most of them have extreme difficulty handling. Of course, there are those charmed individuals who somehow thrive in combat.
- “The Train” (1964): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau. Note: In 1944 a German colonel wants to grab a bunch of important art and take it out of France, to Germany, before the approaching Allied troops can liberate Paris. The French resistance wants to prevent the Nazis on the train from completing their thieving mission.
- “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn. Note: Coming just after the Cuban Missile Crisis this outrageous, nuke-mocking black comedy worked like a charm. Poof! The fallout shelter-building-craze began to go out of style in the suburbs. Trivia: owing to the assassination of JFK in November of 1963 this film's release was delayed two months.
- “Forbidden Games” (1952): B&W. 86 minutes. Directed by René Clément. Cast: Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly, Amédée. Note: An orphaned and confused little girl is taken in by a family. In this subtle anti-war classic the devastating toll of mechanized war, as seen by children -- who can hardly grasp what’s happening around them -- is stunning. Don’t look for a lot of battle scenes in this one.
- “King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at Richmond’s long-lost Biograph Theatre (in 1972) was a zany French comedy; Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Bates. The story is set amid the harsh but absurd realities of way too much war (WWI). Hey, when the world goes crazy, why shouldn’t the crazy people take over the town?
- “Paths of Glory” (1957): B&W. 88 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou. Note: In the trench warfare stalemate of WWI, the search for glory becomes a fool’s errand. Living in mud with dead bodies piling up, blame-shifting begins to obscure the mission -- what is the mission? Honest men start to look like enemies to their corrupt superior officers.
- “Seven Beauties” (1975): Color. 115 minutes. Directed by Lina Wertmüller. Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler. Note: This film is a unique combination of comedy and tragedy. Caught in a war, if they want to survive, what -- if anything! -- will captive soldiers refuse to do? What will their families at home, facing starvation, refuse to do? This unforgettable look at Italy in WWII takes you there.
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