As the United States celebrates Memorial Day in commemoration of the men and women who died in military service and the unofficial start to summer, Cinema Sentries takes a look at their favorite war movies.
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) by Greg Barbrick
William Wyler's The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946) is a brilliantly crafted study of three returning World War II veterans. It won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director - and set attendance records. There are a number of reasons this film is so special, chief among them being its realism in regards to how difficult it was for these heroes to resume their lives in the fictional town of Boones Ferry. Neither they, nor their loved ones are able to simply fall back into the old routines immediately. But by the end of the film, everyone has at least made a start. I have been called a romantic because of my abiding feelings towards this movie, and that is fine. The combination of comedy, drama, and yes even a bit of romance add up to one of the most bittersweet pictures of all time. I can think of no other film that honors returning vets with such dignity and class.
Paths of Glory (1957) by El Bicho
Stanley Kubrick's film is an adaptation of Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel of the same name, which was inspired by the Souain corporals affair during WWI when four French soldiers were executed to set an example to the rest of the troops. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, an officer stuck in the middle, as the generals look to advance their careers on the backs of the troops in the trenches by sending them on a highly dangerous attack.
When a group of soldiers doesn't take part in the suicidal mission, the generals decide to randomly court martial a few to send a message that insubordination will not be tolerated. The film exposes the injustice of soldiers sacrificed in vain due to the weakness and corruption of their superiors, which likely hasn't been an isolated event throughout history.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) by Mat Brewster
At the heart of many great war movies is not only the question of why men must seemingly perpetually be in conflict, but what it means to be a soldier involved in war. David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai tackles both these questions and manages to not only be a great war movie, but an artful piece of cinema as well. At the heart of the story are two commanders on opposite sides of the war. Col. Nicholson (played by the always brilliant Alec Guinness) is the captured British leader and Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) stands as the Japanese commander who desperately needs to build a bridge. Both eternally proud men, they at first conflict with one another over the duties of captured officers, but learn to compromise and work together for the benefit of the men they serve.
Together they build the bridge on the river Kwai - Saito for the strategic value and Nicholson to gain discipline and morale with his captured soldiers. Juxtapositioning against these two proud commanders is Col. Shears (William Holden) who escapes the camp only to be asked to lead the mission back in to destroy the bridge. In stark contrast to both Nicholson's and Saito's fierce allegiance to military conduct and their men, Shears has more of a devil-may-care attitude and seems to only care about himself having no warm feelings to honor, duty or service during wartime.
The film does a masterful job of demonstrating the great courage and honor of soldiers but also the ultimate futility of war itself. It is brilliantly cast, acted, shot, and written, and I defy you to watch it and not find yourself whistling the "Colonel Bogey March."
Apocalypse Now (1979) by El Bicho
Dealing with the insanity of war and man, Francis Ford Coppola and his co-writer John Milius transferred Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness from the jungles of the Congo to that of Vietnam and Cambodia for this epic tale as Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is given the assignment to assassinate Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has gone rogue.
The film boasts a star-studded cast and outstanding set pieces that evoke that invoke madness, from the iconic helicopter attack on the beach where Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) would like to surf set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to the USO show that ends in chaos and just about every time the American Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) speaks. Madness nearly overtook the making of the film as well, which Coppola reveals in the outstanding documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse: "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane."
Full Metal Jacket (1987) by El Bicho
Based on Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers, Kubrick's film is divided into two parts. The first shows drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, who ad-libbed much of his dialogue, in a brilliant performance that is equal parts hysterical and terrifying) turn young recruits into "killers...indestructible men, men without fear."
Private "Joker" (Matthew Modine) is the narrator and part two follows his exploits in Vietnam, including the Tet Offensive. He works for Star and Stripers wears a peace button on his vest and the words "Born to Kill" on his helmet, confounding his superiors as he is slightly confounded by what he has become.
The Thin Red Line (1998) by Dusty Somers
Any time a new Terrence Malick work comes out, it sends the film world into a frenzy -- just this month, anticipation was palpable for the premiere of Malick's latest, The Tree of Life, at Cannes. The film was initially slated to bow at the 2010 festival, and the characteristic delay just upped the eagerness.
So imagine what it was like in 1998, when Malick released his first film in 20 years. (His recent stretch of two films and another on the way in six years is downright prolific.) That film was The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones' WWII novel that transcends the temporal concerns of most war movies and explores the interconnectedness of man, nature and violence in a meditative three-hour epic.
Like all Malick films, this one features breathtaking photography and a spiritual awareness that sets it apart from its contemporaries, including its higher profile, battle-fetishistic cousin Saving Private Ryan. Malick compiled a cast of huge names (including Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, Nick Nolte and John Cusack along with up-and-comers Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody and John C. Reilly), but this isn't a film that relies on star power. Here, even the most glamorous of movie stars is just another man trying to survive.
Why We Fight (2005) by El Bicho
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight -- the title taken from Frank Capra's WWII film series -- investigates how the United States of America has become such a force in the world militarily since WWII, regardless of President or political party in charge. In one of the film's more powerful scenes a world map highlights the countries where the United States has been involved in altering the leadership over the past 50-plus years through the military or CIA.
The U.S.'s actions through the years are examined and theories about the United States' foreign policy from different viewpoints are presented, but the crux of the discussion is voiced by Senator John McCain, who poses the question, "When does [the United States] go from a force of good to a force of imperialism?" That debate is shaped by arguments and opinions made by people such as William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; Richard Perle, a leading advocate and architect of the 2003 Iraq War; Chalmers Johnson, political scientist and former CIA consultant; and Charles Lewis, founder of Center for Public Integrity. Some see it as the duty of America to spread democracy and freedom while others see the actions as economic colonialism where instead of taking over a country we open up new, free markets for our businesses. Both views have validity to them. There is righteousness in freeing people from oppression, yet the figurative gold rush in reconstruction efforts and other activities leaves a taint with some and keeps our work from being completely selfless.
What's your favorite war film?