Besides being the much touted 11/11/11 (and the release day of the SKYRIM video game and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 on Blu-Ray and DVD), today is first and foremost VETERAN'S DAY (REMEMBRANCE DAY in Canada).
Remembering those who risked their lives fighting and those that died so that we might be free should be a priority for everyone. Of course war is a hot topic for Movies, and Hollywood has turned out some great titles on the subject, on pretty much every war ever fought (sorry, the great battle of the Rebellion against the Empire doesn't count).
From the rah-rah World War II titles, to the controversial US involvement during the war in Vietnam, to a nation torn in the civil war, Movies have had war covered since the beginning of the medium.
In honor of the day, I have compiled a list of some of my favorite war movies of all time. It being 11/11/11, I have included...11 titles (and an honorable mention). Some are films everyone knows of and others not so much. I'll probably get yelled at for leaving off SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), I have my reasons but that's a whole other topic entirely for another blog post. Also notably missing is GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), but that is not really a war movie as it is a movie set during wartime (of course that conflict being the Civil War), and it is just a small part of the greater epic.
Some great movies have been made about the other side's experience in wars as well such as Wolfgang Petersen's DAS BOOT (1981 - Nazi submarine) and Clint Eastwood's LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006 - Japanese Infantry). Here though I focus on the North American experience.
1. BAND OF BROTHERS (HBO Mini-series, 2001, Various Directors - World War II)
Ok I know, BAND OF BROTHERS is a TV mini-series but it is an HBO original, and let's face it HBO goes beyond the confines of TV and this series is a prime example of that.
Executive produced by Hollywood A-listers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, this 10 part series chronicles the exploits of E "Easy" Company (506th regiment of the 101st Airborne division) starting with their basic training right through to V-J day.
It has everything - D-Day, Operation Market Garden, invading Hitler's mountain retreat and even liberating a concentration camp - and packs quite an emotional punch. The ensemble cast which includes Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Fassbender to name a few, really nailed the material and sold the hardships, camaraderie and dangers of fighting in a major conflict - not to mention, protecting each other's back.
Followed up in 2010 with THE PACIFIC (obviously covering the battles in...the Pacific over those in Europe), BAND OF BROTHERS has held up over the 10 years since it first aired as a solid war story making this a must-see - actually a must OWN (a dual set of BOB and THE PACIFIC on Blu-Ray and DVD was released this past Tuesday). Full disclosure, I have not yet seen THE PACIFIC, something I plan to rectify and soon.
2. THE LONGEST DAY (20th Century Fox, 1962, Various Directors - World War II)
THE LONGEST DAY has quite possibly the greatest ensemble cast ever assembled (you'll find most of the titles I list have star-studded ensemble casts) for the big screen. Produced by Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck (during a period where he was not the Fox head), the cast boasts the likes of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Richard Beymer, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Fabian, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner - and that's just to name a few!
Based on the book by Cornelius Ryan, this is an ambitious movie - that completely works - chronicling the full events surrounding D-Day and the Allied invasion of Normandy. It not only covers the Allies, but the German side as well.
Casting aside, this movie is epic on every level, that not only boasts realism, but is full of heroic cinematic exploits that take it beyond the realms of entertainment.
3. THE THIN RED LINE (20th Century Fox, 1998, Directed by Terence Malick - World War II)
1998 was a big year for war movies. Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN came out (and yes I know many of you think should be on this list as I mention above I have my reasons) and Terence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE which I think is the better movie of the two.
I often refer to THE THIN RED LINE as the anti-LONGEST DAY. Sure it's a different battle (Guadalcanal) but like THE LONGEST DAY this film features a long list of Hollywood A-listers which include Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, John Cusack, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody and more.
THE LONGEST DAY has huge battles and covers the D-Day invasion in great detail. In THE THIN RED LINE, the Guadalcanal battle is secondary to the inner feelings and thoughts of the individuals involved. Right from the beginning of the movie, you sense a feeling of loss and the internal struggles and confusion of men forced to deal straight on with the horrors around them. In fact, it starts with two soldiers who are AWOL - not exactly a heroic move.
Nature seems to be also in conflict with the soldiers in many parts of this movie (shots of soldiers fending off snakes in the grass for instance) and the outstanding Hans Zimmer score (EASILY his best work) and haunting voice over sets this movie apart from virtually any other war movie (let alone many other movies) ever made.
4. MEN IN WAR (United Artists, 1957, Directed by Anthony Mann - Korea)
MEN IN WAR is an emotional powerhouse of a movie, chronicling the march of a platoon during the Korean conflict, trapped behind enemy lines following a retreat, and just trying to survive.
The most haunting image from this movie is that of a catatonic Colonel (Robert Keith) whom a Sergeant (Aldo Ray) is more concerned about than the troops. Sitting with a blank stare and a cigarette barely hanging out of his mouth, this visual of the Colonel at once tells the tale of men broken by the horrors of war. A very quiet with a minimalist score by Elmer Bernstein, MEN IN WAR focuses on the inner struggles of men just trying to stay alive in the midst of overwhelming odds - much like THE THIN RED LINE but on a different scale.
5. THE DEER HUNTER (Universal, 1978, Directed by Michael Cimino - Vietnam)
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1978, THE DEER HUNTER is best known for the sequences that take place in a POW camp, and the Russian Roulette scenes involving Christopher Walken who took home the Best Actor in a Supporting role Oscar.
Also featuring Robert DeNiro, John Cazale, John Savage and Meryl Streep, men from a blue-collar Pennsylvania factory town go off to fight in Vietnam, end up experiencing all kinds of horrific treatment at the hands of their captors (see paragraph above) then struggle to re-integrate back into American life.
Gritty and raw, this movie never fails to impress me upon repeat viewings. One of the most powerful screenings was during a celebration of the Academy Awards 75th year, and the Academy screened all 75 Best Picture winners over the course of a year. I remember someone yelling "Bravo" loudly from the back of the theater several times during the credits, and I felt the same way.
6. BATAAN (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1943, Directed by Tay Garnett - World War II)
Set in the Phillipines, 13 men are given the task of blowing up an enemy bridge, then making sure it doesn't get rebuilt.
Claustrophobic and extremely suspenseful, the Black-and-White photography greatly enhances the tension of this movie. Oh yeah...and Ricky Ricardo himself (Desi Arnaz) is part of the cast.
7. WHERE EAGLES DARE (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968, Directed by Brian G. Hutton - World War II)
Proof that not all war movies need to be serious or introspective. This is a rip-roaring action film that must NOT be missed taking full advantage of the World War II setting in a unique and interesting way.
Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood penetrate a Nazi fortress to rescue a captured American General, but there is so much more going on and it unfolds masterfully with great action sequences thrown in - like the one pictured above on a cable car (I think a scene from the 1979 OO7 picture MOONRAKER was inspired by this movie). I can't go into all the plot twists and turns, you're just going to have to witness those for yourself.
This movie is such a "guys" movie, and such a fun watch that repeat viewings are almost mandatory. Even mentioning it usually ends up in me watching it shortly after (yeah it'll probably happen tonight). In fact, the website TRAILERS FROM HELL featured it as their Wednesday entry this week as part of Clint Eastwood week.
8. PLATOON (Hemdale/Orion, 1986, Directed by Oliver Stone - Vietnam)
One of my favorite filmmakers, Oliver Stone is best known for his political movies like the masterpiece JFK (1991), and his Vietnam trilogy - PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (see below) and HEAVEN & EARTH (1993).
Ok so many of you might wonder what set Charlie Sheen off this past year after his TWO AND A HALF MEN debacle? Well, perhaps it was the horrors of war because this Academy Award winner for Best Picture (and Stone won for Director) features the war in Vietnam as seen through innocent Charlie's characters eyes.
Commanded by two officers with differing view points (Willem DaFoe and Tom Berenger), volunteer Charlie finds himself caught between not only the war around him, but some fairly heavy moral conflicts as well.
PLATOON is another movie I can watch over and over, and still experience the power and personal experience of Oliver Stone (translating his own Vietnam war demons) of it every single time.
9. THE GREAT ESCAPE (United Artists, 1963, Directed by John Sturges - World War II)
Another "movie" movie where the war setting spawns great action sequences and a cinematic iconic image with a motorcycle jump over a fence that cemented actor Steve McQueen as a Movie Star.
Another ensemble cast from director John Sturges who also directed THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) including James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Here we have POWs plotting a major escape from a Nazi camp thanks to an elaborate tunnel system (HOGAN'S HEROES can thank this movie for inspiration). McQueen is the rebel who has his own ideas of escape...and spends most of the movie in the camp prison-house in another cinematic iconic moment where he repeatedly throws a baseball against the wall.
Also notable from this movie is the ROUSING Elmer Bernstein score which easily makes my list of all-time favorite scores. The theme brash and bold, and will stick with you long after viewing. And yes, I am humming it now.
Note on the soundtrack - INTRADA has a 3 disc version of the score which includes an expanded version of it as well as the original soundtrack album remastered. A must for every soundtrack collector.
10. GLORY (TriStar, 1989, Directed by Edward Zwick - Civil War)
Matthew Broderick leads an all-black regiment (which includes Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington who won the Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar that year) into battle during a war where race was a pretty big issue (hello...slavery!).
Such a powerful movie, and Denzel just blows it out of the water. I also love the quiet moments between the battles - like Broderick staring out to sea and watching birds fly not having any idea of the death and destruction going on around them. It's such a peaceful and beautifully shot moment before the chaos of battle that is about to follow.
Another movie that has a memorable score, this time by James Horner. An emotional punch, this score easily ranks as one of Horner's best.
GLORY was one of the first laserdisc titles I ever purchased, and I still have that copy as part of my collection.
11. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (Universal, 1989, Directed by Oliver Stone - Vietnam)
Excellent companion piece to Oliver Stone's PLATOON (see above), BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY is based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a patriotic all-American who is very ideal of American strength. Kovic, played excellently by mega-star Tom Cruise, goes to war and not only shoots and kills his own troops in back, but gets shot himself and is paralyzed.
Kovic returns to America to find himself increasingly disillusioned with everything around him, especially after time spent in the Veteran's Administration hospital where he is subjected to less than ideal conditions and treatment. He fights his disablement without success almost to the point of hurting himself further.
Kovic questions everything which takes his life on a very dark path, but finally he is able to clears his conscience and becomes that which at the beginning of the movie he despised, a war protester.
I love BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (which won Oliver Stone a second Academy Award for Best Director after PLATOON), because it's main focus is on the returning vets and their assimilation, rather than the war itself (which Stone covered so well in PLATOON). Way better than the material on which it is based, anyone who says Tom Cruise can't act, should take a look at this (along with JERRY MAGUIRE and MAGNOLIA). Oh yeah, and a great score by John Williams.
Ok I wanted 11 titles, but this 12th one kept nagging at me, so I am listing an honorable mention.
THE BIG PARADE (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1925, Directed by King Vidor - World War I)
Yeah it may have gotten bumped from the main 11, but definitely worth mentioning.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (Columbia, 1957, Directed by David Lean - World War II)