|Scene from Dunkirk|
This past weekend, director Christopher Nolan's latest Dunkirk was released to high acclaim and a debut atop the box office. It is one of the best war films not only of the year, but possibly in the larger canon. This inspired me to try and compile a list of the war films that I feel exemplify the genre as well as create riveting experiences. In all honesty, it was difficult to limit it to 10, and it's just as difficult to land on the 20 that I landed on. Still, these are the films that I think of when exploring the grand and expansive horrors of war and the consequences that they bring to the mainland. For the sake of posterity, I won't include Holocaust movies and focus on the struggles of soldiers and the moral issues that arise in every personal choice. Feel free to share your personal favorites in the comments.
1. Sergeant York (1941)
When I think of war cinema, this film from director Howard Hawks defines exactly what I look for. Lead by a great performance by Gary Cooper, this is a story of a man grappling with faith and patriotism as he prepares for World War (then known as The Great War). There's a great back story that explores his excellent marksmanship and several conversations with the local priest (Walter Brennan). While it is light on war action, it does have a great and strategic capture scene that reflects Hawks' gift for building intensity. Still, this tale of an Average Joe who becomes a cultural hero embodies a template that all war films should try to achieve. It's about more than the conflict. It's also about the individual fighting for freedom.
Over the more than a century of film making, there hasn't been a more powerful moment in a war film than one that comes towards the middle of this Best Picture winner. A German soldier, who was eager to join the war, finds himself next to a wounded enemy while in combat. It could be a moment to defeat the foe. Instead, it's a moment where everything is pulled back to reveal the shocking reality in what is the greatest anti-war movie of all time: they are all just human. More than any other film, this expertly shot film shows the allure of war followed by the tragedies that come with being on the front line during the Great War. The film is full of amazing moments like this, and it's amazing to think that it is almost 90 years old.
3. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
There were few directors who filmed the war quite like William Wyler. While Mrs. Miniver showed the struggles of war on the British homeland, he managed to outdo himself with a war film that didn't show an ounce of combat. Much like All Quiet on the Western Front, the film's power comes from the quiet symbolism of men realizing how disconnected war has made them. This incredible movie focuses on the year following the soldiers' return, and it isn't necessarily the triumphant welcome that other films would suggest. There's inabilities to do basic work because of shell shock. Even handicapped actor Harold Russell (who is the only person to win two Oscars in the same year for the same role) showed a vulnerability that still seemed taboo in the few years after the war had ended. Still, no portrait of soldiers grappling with demons that none of us can possibly understand helped to create something more powerful, iconic, and timeless about how soldiers are treated by their loved ones and by society.
4. Apocalypse Now (1979)
The film was such a massive undertaking that it inspired its own amazing documentary (Hearts of Darkness) where director Francis Ford Coppola went insane. Still, the magic that he captures on screen is arguably one of the few times that a war can be described as poetic. With stunning visuals and a lingering gaze that emphasizes insanity, Apocalypse Now turned the Vietnam War into a chaotic landscape full of beautiful, destructive imagery. This is a film so unapologetic that it refuses to leave you and even managed to turn "Ride of the Valkyries" into the warm up song for the apocalypse. Add in great performances, and you get one of the films that, if nothing else, captures the insanity of war in ways that will leave the viewer stunned, unable to forget anything that they had just seen.
5. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Don't let the running time fool you. This is the quickest four hours of your life. Director David Lean has made a career out of making awe-inspiring visuals in epics that redefined the genre. However, he managed to outdo himself with a war epic that is so sparse that it makes the lengthy introduction of people in the desert - rising from a small speck - into something beautiful. Maurice Jarre's score compliments the film nicely, leaving a grander sense of things unseen. Most of all, this is an epic that can be perfectly seen in the eyes of T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O'Toole. The way that he stares with the desire for power is haunting and charismatic in ways that raise the question as to how Toole never won an Oscar. This is magnificent and will make you reconsider not seeing movies on the big screen.
6. Cabaret (1972)
It may seem odd to place this musical on the list, and especially so high. However, it does seem like the perfect musical for a World War II movie. It opens with Joel Grey asking the audience to set aside their troubles and enjoy the show. After all, what do we do in times of grief? We turn to entertainment. But what happens when there's impending war with Nazis literally outside your door? In one of the more wonderful and scandalous stories, director Bob Fosse finds a way to make vaudeville numbers into poignant commentaries not only of the plot, but of a tolerance that is being fought for during the war. It may not have a lot of eye popping visuals when it comes to violence, but it does have a lot of Nazi intimidation, which counts for something.
7. The Deer Hunter (1978)
It may be at times way too melodramatic and at other points factually inaccurate/insensitive, but director Michael Cimino's war epic is one of the greatest emotional roller coasters in history. He manages to use the excessive running time of three hours to allow characters to develop naturally, starting with a vibrant wedding and an even more iconic bar scene that inspires them to go to war. This hour of happiness may be slowly unraveled in the two hours to come, but it's necessary to understand the struggles that soldiers face when imprisoned and tortured. It is a film that helped to launch Christopher Walken's (who deservedly won an Oscar for his work here) career and showed the extent to which a Vietnam War movie could tell a story. As critics could claim, it was at times manipulative, but it doesn't mean that it isn't psychologically a horrifying film full of iconic and scarring moments.
8. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
In the modern conversation, is there a war scene that is more iconic than the opening Battle of Normandy Beach scene? Everyone mentions how realistic and intense those minutes are, updating The Longest Day with a budget and charisma that only Steven Spielberg could bring to the table. Yet the kicker is that it's only the beginning of something more harrowing to come. The film has an incredible supporting cast full of names that have gone onto great careers in the 20 years since. It also has a lot of memorable intimate moments that elevate the generic soldiers to something of fallen heroes when those tragic moments come. In some ways, it restarted cinema's fascination with World War II, but few could compete with Spielberg's ability to make something so big feel so personal and thus more thrilling.
9. Jules and Jim (1962)
This is another example of an unexpected war film. Director Francois Truffaut was always more obsessed with romance and cinema. However, his greatest film tackles a love triangle set around the Great War that sees a trio of friends separated when they fight for opposite sides. Its beautiful score by Georges Delerue manages to capture the youthful innocence leading up to the war, and the struggle to return to that mentality in the years following. It's a film that show the complexities of war, and how separation impacts the otherwise very simple emotional stakes of a friendship. Truffaut's earnestness for romance definitely helps to elevate this to more than a silly melodrama.
10. Gone with the Wind (1939)
In some ways, cultural evolution hasn't been kind to this Civil War epic. Yes, it is riddled with sometimes troubling attitudes regarding racism and sexism. However, it's the portrait of a woman who is just as stubborn and unwilling to change as the Antebellum South story it tells. Vivien Leigh's performance as Scarlett O'Hara is one of cinema's most iconic performances, and her evolution (or lack thereof) throughout the film is both charming, off-putting, and at times very silly. Still, it's a gorgeous film that reflects the extent to which Hollywood's classic era could reach. With gorgeous visuals and an iconic Max Steiner score, the film is more than a great last line. It may run long, but it needs time to show the horrors of war and how a part of history disappeared in ways that are sorrowful, yet hopeful to those who struggle to carry on.
11. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Director Oliver Stone was the first Vietnam War veteran to win an Oscar with Platoon. It was a harrowing tale full of intense action. However, his later film about a veteran (Tom Cruise) who was greatly injured during the war is a far more fascinating movie. Cruise has never been better than when he has a frustrated cry for fairness. The Vietnam War wasn't fair on everyone, and Stone lets every last personal detail shine through in this film. It's a film that shows the struggle for intimacy and respect that one has when their dreams of fighting for their country is met alongside a controversial war full of protesters who hate your guts.
12. Dunkirk (2017)
Considering how specific war can be, it seems downright impossible to reinvent the genre from a story standpoint. Yet not since Apocalypse Now has a director found a way to work around the limitations of history by molding time to his whim. Director Christopher Nolan has created one of the most intense and exciting cinematic experiences in years with a film that feels like a combination of every great war subgenre into one compelling story of a country working towards a common goal. It is a horror film where the villain is never seen, and the sky bends in unexpected ways. The fighter plane scenes are intense, but not more than a harmless rescue boat stuck in the middle of all the chaos. This may not be a typical ensemble movie, but it's also one of the strongest uses of small characters in quite some time. This is the type of movie that Howard Hawks would've made had he the budget and tools to pull off these fantastic, beautiful scenes.
13. Coming Home (1978)
What the Vietnam War did better than any other war was reflect the struggles of soldiers at home. Director Hal Ashby's contribution is in many ways The Best Years of Our Lives for this era down to a powerful finale in which Jon Voight shares his experiences with a local school. He is ravaged by what he experienced, and he is thankfully better off than the brilliant performance by Bruce Dern. Much like the other films, it's the intimacy on display here that creates the most powerful moments, capturing a longing for a more innocent time when thoughts of destruction didn't ruin their perception of reality. It's also a film that shows the tension between veterans and society, of whom hate them for participating in an unjust war. In some ways, this film is a psychological horror film, and probably the best anecdote for providing proper health care to veterans as well.
14. Casablanca (1942)
It is considered one of the greatest love stories in cinematic history. Its theme song, "As Time Goes By", is still used as the company's theme music. It may not seem like a war movie at heart, but it does capture the tension of the era as everyone tries to escape the chaos in a bar where everything is at peace. That is until Ingrid Bergman returns into Humphrey Bogart's life and pulls up a deep and complicated past. What can possibly go wrong? It has one of the greatest misquoted lines in history ("Play it again, Sam" doesn't appear in the movie), and an even greater finale. Even if you don't love war movies, it's hard to say no to this powerful, soaring story of love and conflicted forces that keep people apart.
15. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
It's true that there's plenty to nitpick in regards to accuracy with this film from director Kathryn Bigelow. Still, her follow-up to The Hurt Locker produced something even grander and more controversial. The War on Terrorism isn't a conventional war, and thus is presented in a way that sees the psychological issues that come with obsession. It ruins peoples lives, creates uncomfortable circumstances, and even makes America look bad. Still, Jessica Chastain gives one of her greatest performances and captures the desperation for closure that, when granted to her, doesn't feel as rewarding as she expected. It may be a cold and calculating movie, but it still manages to capture the attitude of post-9/11 America better than about any other movie of the past 16 years. Based on how taboo the subject still is, it's likely to hold that honor for a little while longer.
16. Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
One of the great lost arts is the fighter pilot movie. There is something grand about seeing planes soar through the air, escaping danger by inches. Few films captured the intense and rigorous training better than this film that also sees one of Gregory Peck's most underrated performances. It's a film whose set design feels almost as mechanical as the planes that they operate in. Still, it's here that Peck operates best as a commander who forces his team to button up and literally fly straight. Few films explore the dynamic of why Peck worked so amazingly well as an actor quite like this, and it helps to build excitement for the war ahead. Still, it's the final half when things get really intense and interesting that this film elevates itself to the status of being a cinematic great. Still, everything before is really good.
17. From Here to Eternity (1953)
Even if you don't love the film, it's worth reading up on to discover the ways that Frank Sinatra's work here connects to Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" novel. Beyond that fascinating note, it's still one of the greatest war films for showing the intimate lives of soldiers, who are enjoying their last moments of freedom before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With great performances from Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, and Deborah Kerr, this is one of the best ensemble war movies of the 50's, and proof that back story is often important. Of course, the only thing greater than the eventual bombing scene is that now iconic romp on the beach. It's a moment of pure passion that few films could dream of having, and of which this film radiates beautifully with over and over again.
18. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Nobody made war movies quite like the French. Director Jacques Demy's film about love in the time of war is a bittersweet story. It features the familiar connection that is so wonderfully captured through song and bright, colorful, MGM-esque sets. Demy's fascination with classic Hollywood seems never-ending, even as he takes a nice spin on the genre by making a powerful second and third act that sees the romance start to fade. In theory, this is one of the least war films on the list. However, the struggles to maintain a faithful relationship while your boyfriend is at war is a theme that hasn't been explored enough, especially to song. There's so many twists and turns here that it works like a classic musical, but is modern and personal in ways more tragic than someone like Vincente Minnelli could possibly fathom trying to be.
19. The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Of the various branches of the military, the navy seems to get the least amount of iconic movies made about them. Still, this vehicle that stars Humphrey Bogart as an ornery captain is a great example of what leadership in the face of chaos can look like. The film builds to a tense and memorable fight scene. However, it is the third act's courtroom scene that makes this film into what it is. In ways reminiscent of Rashomon, it poses a lot of questions as to what leadership means, and if a person who is stressed could possibly be competent to be in that position. Whatever the case may be, Bogart plays the grey area beautifully and turns in another great performance in a career full of great roles.
20. Dawn Patrol (1938)
In the 1930's, there were few actors who were as great at being action stars as Errol Flynn. He had the handsome looks and the physical skill to make films ranging from Robin Hood to Captain Blood to Dodge City into triumphant heroes that the audience could root for. It makes sense then why this fighter pilot film is so charming and captures the enthusiasm that comes with hard working soldiers. This is, if nothing else, one of the more fun war movies of its time that makes the idea of heroes into something almost mythic. It also helps that Flynn was also great at making a room brighter with his banter, even alongside Basil Rathbone and David Niven. This may not be the most technically impressive movie, but it definitely will make you want to fly into the sky.