The most memorable war films
Charlie Sheen in 1986's "Platoon."
War is bloody hell. We must pay homage to the warriors on Remembrance Day, not to the conflicts that inspired or required ordinary men and women to go into combat.
Throughout the history of mankind, many have paid the ultimate price for acts of duty, self-sacrifice and courage. Throughout the history of cinema, the best filmmakers have tried to separate these warriors from the wars they fight and from the propaganda and politics behind them. Whether you watch Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (which won the best picture Oscar for 1930), Sam Fuller’s caustic The Big Red One (the restored version) or David Ayer’s current war thriller Fury (with Brad Pitt as a tank commander), you see how these filmmakers continue to humanize the warriors even when making anti-war films. As Francis Ford Coppola once told me when he re-edited his own Vietnam War classic into Apocalypse Now Redux: “All war films are anti-war films!”
Here are seven other timeless war films which honour the soldiers whom we remember on Tuesday (caution - graphics scenes):
• Saving Private Ryan (1998): The opening 22-plus minutes of action footage — showing American troops landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, during the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy — remain among the most terrifying, horrific and realistic battle scenes ever filmed. As staged by Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg, these WWII sequences show how fear, valour, desperation and determination merged among the soldiers trying to survive the German gunfire.
• Passchendaele (2008): Set during WWI, this Canadian-made war drama was a passionate, personal effort by filmmaker and actor Paul Gross. While it is a fiction set against the backdrop of the real Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, the story was triggered by a family war story that he gleaned in an intimate conversation with his maternal grandfather. Serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Michael Joseph Dunne was a war veteran haunted by a violent act that demonstrates how, even in victory, a man’s moral compass can be damaged.
• Das Boot (1981): With Jurgen Prochnow as the hardened, cynical and apolitical captain of a Nazi U-boat patrolling the Atlantic during WWII, Wolfgang Petersen’s German film flips the switch. We see how members of “the enemy” tried to survive the rigours of war. No other film has ever so effectively showcased submarine service.
• Platoon (1986): Oliver Stone, the first U.S. Vietnam War vet to make a film about that dirty war, fictionalized his own experiences and created an American classic. Charlie Sheen (before he turned foolish) co-stars as a disillusioned volunteer who is mentored by Willem Dafoe and frightened by the savagery of Tom Berenger. Dafoe’s crucifixion scene is iconic.
• Glory (1989): Even more poignant now than when I first saw it on release, Edward Zwick’s drama is based on the true story of the first all-black volunteer company to fight for the Union side in the U.S. Civil War. Oscar-winner Denzel Washington co-stars with Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick in a harrowing tale of courage under fire and racism in the face of reason.
• The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): Rife with moral and military complexity, British filmmaker David Lean’s WWII epic is based on the French novel by Pierre Boulle. Winner of seven Oscars, this is a metaphoric fiction that was loosely inspired by the building of the Burma Railway. William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa co-star in a saga about Japanese terror, POW slave labour, sabotage, the rules of engagement and honour.
• Sergeant York (1941): With Gary Cooper winning the Oscar as best actor, Howard Hawks’ inspirational film tells the true if incredible tale of how a Tennessee hillbilly became a WWI hero despite his desire to be a conscientious objector. Up against the Germans in the Argonne Forest in France near the end of the war in 1918, Alvin York fought ferociously before convincing 132 German combatants to surrender, thus saving countless lives on both sides. Like many vets, York never was comfortable about being called a hero, insisting he just did what had to be done.