The Guardian’s Top 10 war movies

Clint Eastwood firing two MP40s at the same time in "Where Eagles Dare."

Clint Eastwood firing two MP40s at the same time in “Where Eagles Dare.”

Yeah, I know, The Guardian. I’d as soon ask Jane Fonda for her top ten war pictures as I would The Guardian.

But I didn’t ask; they just published it on their own initiative the other day, and I find such lists irresistible. So here is their list, but with my comments on each:

10. “Where Eagles Dare” — They included one slam-bang, fun-to-watch action picture, and I appreciate the gesture. I actually think of this one as less a war movie, and more an action/spy story. But it is of course technically a war picture, and probably fires more (blank, I hope) rounds from Schmeisser machine pistols than any other film ever made (in this scene alone). Best bit — the battle on the cable car/ski lift thing.
9. “Rome, Open City” — Haven’t seen it. Sounds intriguing.
8. “La Grande Illusion” — Also sounds interesting. Need to put it on my list.
7. “The Deer Hunter” — Some fine performances by some great American actors, but perhaps a bit too ponderous, too impressed with its own seriousness. And the whole Russian roulette thing only makes sense in the way The Guardian sees it: “as a metaphor for America’s suicidal intervention in south-east Asia.”
6. “Three Kings” — Saw this, but quickly forgot it. “Kelly’s Heroes” did the same thing better (or at least, more entertainingly, although it is unfortunately an exemplar of the wearisome “WWII was so much fun!” genre so prevalent at the time). All I remember is a character’s graphic description of what a bullet does when it enters the body (or was that in something else?). Why did The Guardian include it? Why else? “What Three Kings is really concerned with is challenging some of the bogus US triumphalism that clung to the war at the time.” Bogus? Really? I thought that was supposed to be the “good war” in the estimation of people who opposed going in and finishing the job in 2003.
5. “Come and See” — Haven’t seen it. Sounds like something extremely unpleasant, that would mostly tell me something I knew — the Nazis were really, really bad guys.
4. “Ran” — The Kurozawa classic that I’ve never seen, and need to. It’s in my Netflix queue. Maybe this weekend.
3. “The Thin Red Line” — The most disappointing war picture I’ve ever seen. I went to see it right after reading James Jones’ superb novel, and was sickened by Hollywood’s cheesy, gauzy, preachy version of it. I hated it so much I wrote a column about how bad it was, which you can read here. (It’s a Word file — you have to go to your “downloads” folder to read it.)
2. “Paths of Glory” — I’ve only ever seen parts of it, and I want to see the whole thing. It probably deserves to be here more than another Kubrick film that too often makes lists such as this one, “Full Metal Jacket.”
1. “Apocalypse Now” — An awesome piece of film-making. Although this is another one that I don’t exactly think of as a “war picture.” The Vietnam War is just used as a setting for retelling Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is more about the war in men’s souls than a bang-bang war. Most people’s favorite bits, such as Robert Duvall’s surf-mad air cav colonel, are to me fun to watch, but distracting, and degrading to the film’s artistic value. I like the slower, darker, quieter, more contemplative narrative, the plot thread of the film that stays true to Conrad. I like the parts when Willard is talking to himself, narrating. So did a lot of people, obviously, since this seems to have launched a whole new career for Martin Sheen doing commercial voiceovers.

Mainly, what’s glaringly missing from this list are such obvious greats as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Platoon,” “Black Hawk Down,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Stalag 17,” “The Big Red One,” and maybe “The Hurt Locker.” (And, for sentimental reasons, because I loved it as a kid, “The Great Escape.”)

And of course, “The Thin Red Line” would be on a 10 worst list, if I were compiling it.

Aside from the foreign classics that serve to air the critics’ erudition, their guiding preference for iconic anti-war works, and the fun pick of “Where Eagles Dare,” it’s like they phoned this list in.

43 thoughts on “The Guardian’s Top 10 war movies

  1. bud

    A few of my favorites in no particular order:

    Tora! Tora! Tora!
    Apocalypse Now
    All Quiet on the Western Front (1930s version, but the remake wasn’t bad)
    Catch 22
    Kelly’s Heroes
    Das Boot (Good to see something from the German perspective)
    Letters from Iwo Jima (And the Japanese)
    Enemy at the Gates (Let’s not forget the Russians)
    The Longest Day (Every time I watch Ryan I find more to not like about it so this is my favorite D-Day movie)
    Sink the Bismarck
    Bridge on the River Kwai
    War Horse (Yes it had it’s cheesy moments but I’m a sucker for an animal movie)

    Some bad ones:

    Midway (The whole romantic subplot ruined this otherwise decent film)
    Pearl Harbor (Perhaps the worst war movie ever made)
    The Green Beret (This offensive piece of crap gives Pearl Harbor a run for it’s money)
    Battle of the Bulge (The Americans fought well in this battle but you’d never know it from this)
    The Patriot

    1. Bill

      I didn’t know there was a ,Western Front,remake.I don’t watch movies,anymore,unless documentaries count.
      ‘War Movies’ have always seemed like ‘machismo projected entertainment’ of some sort,that I don’t get.
      Lewis Puller’s ,’Fortunate Son:The Healing Of A Vietnam Vet’,and his eventual aftermath,is about as much as I want to know…

  2. Mark Stewart

    Bud got Das Boot, so there is also Last of the Mohicans, Sgt. York, and Glory.

    I’d add Master and Commander, even though it wasn’t great, for being a good distillation of some great books.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Three Kings and Kelly’s Heroes are pretty bad movies.

    Some movies that haven’t been mentioned:

    Empire of the Sun (Best scene here)
    The Dirty Dozen (Trivia: John Wayne was first offered Lee Marvin’s role, but turned it down).
    We Were Soldiers (the telegram scene is pretty tough to watch)
    Patton (George C. Scott was great)
    A Bridge Too Far (Better than “The Longest Day” in my opinion)

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      John Wayne would have been AWFUL as Reisman in “The Dirty Dozen.”

      I loved that movie when it first came out — not as much as I loved “The Great Escape,” but I liked it a lot.

      I don’t think it’s borne up as well when I’ve seen it again over the years, though. Now I see it and think it’s… a little cheesy.

      If you can find a copy of the novel it’s based on, by E.M. Nathanson, definitely read it. Maybe I can dig up one of my tattered old copies if you can’t. Since I read it when I was 14, it made a huge impression. I can still, if you give me a minute, list all of the dozen (some of whom have different names from the movie). It’s really good.

      As great as Lee Marvin was in the film, the character was really different in the book — younger (a captain, not a major), less flamboyant, more self-contained. Interesting backstory.

      And the Telly Savalas character was made up of three characters in the book — a shy young guy who killed a woman but has no memory of it; a tough Southern gangster from Phenix City, Alabama; and a Bible-quoting jailhouse convert from Tennessee.

      The one black guy in the group had a far more interesting backstory than Jim Brown did in the movie. He (not Wladislaw) had been an officer, and a former football star in college (that part would have made Jim Brown perfect).

      Let’s see if I can remember them all:
      1. Samson Posey
      2, Glenn Gilpin
      3. Ken Sawyer
      4. Myron O’Dell
      5. Calvin Ezra Smith
      6. Archer Maggot
      7. Luis Jimenez
      8. Joe Wladislaw
      9. Victor Franko
      10. Vernon Pinkley
      11. Napoleon White

      Oh, man! I can remember everything about the other guy except his name. His crime was that he held up a shop that was tended by an old man and a girl. He pistol-whipped the old man, and tried to rape the girl, but got caught when the girl screamed…

      Got it!

      12. Roscoe Lever

      That’s it. The original Dirty Dozen.

      I think I did this once before on the blog, but I couldn’t find it…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, I found where I did this before — I tried it TWICE before, in comments (which don’t show up in normal searches of the blog).

        I failed both times previously. Maybe I’m getting smarter… about remembering useless stuff.

    2. Bart

      All of the movies Bryan listed are among my favorites. However, the best one of all for me was Empire of the Sun. Christian Bale should have won an Oscar for Best Performance, hands down. It was not the usual war movie about soldiers in combat but it was a great presentation about the other side of war and the human sacrifice not glorified. My favorite scene is P-51, Cadillac of the skies and at the end of the scene when he told the doctor he couldn’t remember what his parents looked like. My sister-in-law can’t watch it again, she cries too much.

    3. JesseS

      My great grandfather served under Patton (lied about his age, in his case claiming he was younger than he really was) and hated him about as much as anyone else. He thought the movie was a great comedy.

  4. Phillip

    Since the Guardian is a British newspaper, their mention of the “foreign classics that serve to air the critics’ erudition” would have to count 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 10, American films being technically foreign to the UK. In any case, why does mention of foreign films have to be for “airing…erudition?” Can’t it just be an obvious answer? Especially on the topic of war films, since war has actually affected (first-hand) so many places in the world far more than it has the US, it seems logical to include foreign films. And of course, most of the non-English-language films are about wars that took place on European soil, including the UK as Europe.

    Also, aren’t most great war films anti-war films on some level, if it’s accurately depicting the real effects of war?

    All of that being said, there’s definitely a 20th-century bias (WWI or WWII, Vietnam) to the Guardian’s list, as well as many of the other suggestions here. How about best war films having to do with wars pre-dating the 20th-century. I’ll throw a couple nominees into the pot here, both “Henry V”s, the Olivier and Branagh. Back to WWII, I see no one has mentioned Downfall yet. That’s a classic if for no other reason than to allow everyday citizens the chance to remix the Hitler rant scene.

    Does the Cold War count as war? I see that it made the Guardian’s other list of top comedies, but I think it could make this list too (no reason not to allow satire in this category): Dr. Strangelove.

    Finally, some here have mentioned documentaries. I’d always put “Why We Fight” by Jarecki (using Eisenhower’s famous Farewell Address as a jumping-off point), “Fog of War” by Errol Morris, and “Restrepo.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Silly of me, I know, but I don’t think of anything British as “foreign.” Or from Australia, New Zealand or Canada, either. “Foreign film,” to me, means “foreign-language film.”

      Good additions, Phillip!

      The Branagh Henry V was awesome. I admit that I watch the most obvious part — the ‘band of brothers’ scene — more than any other part, but he did that so well. Just watched it again. Goose bumps.

      Just watched the Olivier version of that speech. Not nearly as good. His voice is brassy, nasal, grating, pedantic. Lacks the warmth, the emotional connection with the men, that Branagh brought to it.

      “Downfall” is a good call, too. But is it more of a psychological/political film than a war film?

      Haven’t seen “Restrepo” yet. It’s in my Netflix queue, and I’ve been waiting for a night when I have enough time to watch it in one go, and that never happens when I remember it.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Oh, and my observation about “airing the critics’ erudition” simply refers to the fact that it always seems a bit elitist to me to list movies that your readers are unlikely to have seen.

        There’s value in it — you might learn about a good film you’ve missed, and can order it. I put two of those above at the top of my Netflix DVD list.

        But when you put several on a list like this, it sort of seems like showing off.

        1. Bill

          It’s hard to consider movie critics elitist,when dealing with a 3rd -rate ‘art form’.The arts are important;literature,visual arts,and music .Movies are not.People waste so much time with movies,they know very little about great artists,books or music.I sound elitist,but I believe what I say is true.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Films are, in their best incarnation, a permanent record of the marriage of theatre, music, photography, etc.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Also, not to have one of our arguments again, but when you say, “Also, aren’t most great war films anti-war films on some level, if it’s accurately depicting the real effects of war?”

      No. I would say not.

      There are films that look at battle unflinchingly, such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Black Hawk Down,” that to me are by no means anti-war films. Not only unflinching in terms of blood, but in terms of morally disturbing things — such as Americans shooting prisoners, and in one instance in “Black Hawk,” a woman.

      An anti-war film, to me, is one that beats you about the head and shoulders with the idea that war is futile and stupid and anyone who decides to involve a nation in war is evil and unjustified, and we should never, ever engage in it.

      That’s at the most extreme end of the spectrum. “Born on the Fourth of July” is an antiwar film in that sense. So, I’m assuming (although I’ve never seen it), is “Johnny Got His Gun.”

      Other anti-war films — “Apocalypse Now,” –are redeemed by the fact that they’re not that extreme.

      1. Phillip

        That’s your view of “anti-war” because you want to bring that phrase always to the here and now, I think any good movie, if it aspires to the level of art, conveys the moral ambiguities of human behavior, and what represents the inability of man to resolve the mix of good and evil that resides within all of us than war? Who’s not ultimately anti-war except a psychopath?–or at least somebody completely disconnected from his/her humanity. Who wouldn’t agree that war, whatever the circumstances that got us there, is hell on everybody involved? A movie that sanitizes war and merely glorifies it or refuses to acknowledge our shared, common human responsibility for war existing at all, is just propaganda. In that sense, Saving Private Ryan is, to me, a profoundly anti-war movie. I think many of the great war movies have this in common, and that does not mean that they must take a position that this or that war should not have been fought, except that we have to find every means possible to push push push towards that world where war becomes extinct or nearly so.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I don’t think we’ve seen a film that “sanitizes war” since the 1960s.

          You know what kind of spoiled “The Great Escape” for me? When I was watching it yet again a few years back, and my daughter asked, What’s with all that cheesy, sprightly, upbeat music in the background, like something light and funny is going on?’

          That was something I had never noticed. But that was the default style of WWII movies during my childhood. Golly, it was just so darned much fun whipping those Nazis, everything about it makes us feel good!

          I was hip to it when it was as over-the-top as in “Hogan’s Heroes” — which, even when I was young, seemed a painfully disrespectful trivialization of the experience. But even a far darker, serious film like “Stalag 17” had its moments of hilarity — Hollywood couldn’t help itself.

          In any case, we don’t see films like those any more.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          A side comment on the thought that war is “is hell on everybody involved”…

          There are men who like war — who, once they’ve been in combat, can never again adjust to civilian life. We see them mostly portrayed in fiction — Capt. Willard in “Apocalypse Now,” who couldn’t adjust to being stateside with his wife, and couldn’t wait to get out in the bush again with Charlie; and the main character in “The Hurt Locker,” who lived to be back out there on the very edge of death, disarming bombs. Then there’s John Hersey’s antihero in “The War Lover.”

          But there are indications there are some such people in real life, who yearn to get back out there…

          Of course, one could say that war is hell on these men, as well, because it has brought out something in them that would have stayed buried. Maybe they could have led tranquil lives if they hadn’t discovered this compulsion in themselves…

          1. Phillip

            In that regard, it’s worth remembering (today especially) that the suicide rate among veterans in this country has now topped 22 a DAY.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            And I assume that most of those are people who can’t get over the trauma of what they experienced in combat.

            But I suppose some are like the ones I mentioned above — their nervous systems just can’t adjust to peacetime activities.

            With both categories, I gather, there’s a problem with alienation from the civilian world — a sense of being surrounded by people who have zero understanding of what you’ve been through.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            One of the most fascinating things I ever learned about PTSD was that Audie Murphy — the most decorated soldier in WWII, a symbol of America’s triumph, who built a movie career on his notoriety, including a movie about his wartime exploits that was in that cheesy 1950’s style…

            … I need to bring this sentence to an end…

            suffered from PTSD (although his generation called it “battle fatigue,” as the previous one had called it “shell shock”).

            He spoke out about it, and became an advocate for PTSD sufferers from Korea and Vietnam. Which makes him one more kind of hero.

    3. Kathryn Fenner

      I thought about Downfall, but could not place the name in my Candide-befuddled brain…..and my battle-bruised elbow….

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Finished watching “Gallipoli” last night — which, like “Restrepo,” I’d meant to see for years.

    It was… OK. I could see fairly early what was going to happen. I knew Gallipoli was a bloody travesty, so the end was not going to be good for the main characters.

    It’s one of those films that spends most of its time helping you get to know the boys BEFORE they arrive in a war zone, to increase your sense of loss when they die.

    I sensed early on that one of the two main characters would die, and the other would survive. And I could tell which one — the one that would make us sadder, of course.

    I knew as the end approached that the message wouldn’t arrive in time, despite the effort to create suspense, and all those men would die for nothing. Because this was Gallipoli.

    Knowing all those things kind of spoiled it for me.

  6. Norm Ivey

    Joyeaux Noel is a French movie that tells the story of the spontaneous Christmas truces that sprang up among the combatants facing off in the trenches during WWI. Probably meant to be an anti-war movie, but it doesn’t come off as preachy. It just recognizes that the men who fight wars are just that, while the wars themselves are orchestrated by politicians and generals. Worth the time to watch it if you can stand subtitles.

    A Midnight Clear is more of a typical war movie that uses a Christmas truce in WWII as its setting, but which has a much more brutal ending. Also worth watching, but it’s not a family holiday movie…

    1. Bill

      Full version:

      Mravinsky was the authority on this masterpiece. He owned this symphony. Believe me when I say his interpretation of this symphony has not been surpassed yet because I have heard them all. If you want to feel the effects Nazi atrocities had on the peoples of USSR, listen to Mravinsky; not to mention the atrocities committed by the totalitarian regime whose sole aim seems to have been to resolve any social issue with means of “dictatorship of the proletariat!”

  7. Doug Ross

    At the risk of eliciting a visceral response, Coming Home is a great movie – Job Voight’s acting was superb. There are side effects of war that everyone should keep in mind before we ever make the decision to enter into battle.

    Glory is also a good choice, Mark. And what about Stripes? That’s the fact, Jack!

    I judge a movie partly on whether after seeing it the first time, if I’m flipping channels and come across it again, I have to stop and watch it again. Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Blackhawk Down fall into that category.

  8. Rose

    There’s a quiet, solemn HBO movie starring Kevin Bacon, called “Taking Chance,” that I recommend. It’s based on the journal of a Marine who escorted the body of Marine PFC Chance Phelps, KIA in Iraq, from a base in Delaware to his hometown in Wyoming.

    Band of Brothers (I know it’s not a movie, but it was excellent).
    A Bridge Too Far
    Saving Private Ryan (for the most part)
    Empire of the Sun
    We Were Soldiers
    Das Boot

    I love Patton too but not sure I’d still rate it with my top ones.
    I haven’t seen War Horse or Letters from Iwo Jima yet

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Band of Brothers” was the best thing ever made for television.

      And it had the kind of anti-war message in it that I appreciate. It’s very similar to a powerful on in “Saving Private Ryan.”

      There’s this great scene in which the actor portraying David Kenyon Webster — the writer, from Harvard — is riding past thousands of surrendering Germans being marched toward the rear (the opposite direction from which he and Easy Company are traveling) and he spots some senior German officers. He starts shouting at them (excuse the language):

      Hey, you! That’s right, you stupid Kraut bastards! That’s right! Say hello to Ford, and General fuckin’ Motors! You stupid fascist pigs! Look at you! You have horses! What were you thinking? Dragging our asses half way around the world, interrupting our lives… For what, you ignorant, servile scum! What the fuck are we doing here?

      To explain what I mean by this… I grew up with shows like “Combat,” which gave a sort of timeless sense of the war. Sgt. Saunders and his men were soldiers, had always been soldiers, and would always be soldiers. And they would always be making their way across France in a picaresque manner, doing what they were born to do.

      Well, what Webster is shouting at those Germans is that NO, we were NOT born to do this. This is a huge interruption in the way life is supposed to be.

      That lies at the core of Tom Hanks’ character in “Saving Private Ryan.” His men think HE was born to be a soldier, and can’t imagine him in any other role (as Reuben says, “Cap’n didn’t go to school, they assembled him at OCS outta spare body parts of dead GIs.”) — hence their intense curiosity about what he did before the war. And their stunned silence when they learn the reality:

      I’m a schoolteacher. I teach English composition… in this little town called Adley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of the baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it’s a big, a big mystery. So, I guess I’ve changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today. Ah, Ryan. I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if… You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.

      There, you learn this this is NOT supposed to be where he is. This was not the way his life was supposed to go.

      Now… on the other hand…

      Dick Winters was a real-life guy who had no desire to be a warrior. After surviving D-Day (having led his men in an action that should have gotten him the Medal of Honor, but he “only” received a Distinguished Service Cross for it), he took a quiet moment to pray that “I would make it through D plus 1. I also promised that if some way I could get home again, I would find a nice peaceful town and spend the rest of my life in peace.”

      That’s all he wanted.

      And yet, by having been forced to be a soldier, he and everyone around him found that he was superbly suited to it. He was one of those rare men who thought quickly and clearly under fire, and communicated his calm and his self-assuredness to his men. He knew what to do, and how to give orders so that it got done. He had a gift.

      And that gift actually was a thing of value — to his society, and to the world. And here’s where we separate. Here’s where we draw a line between being “anti-war” as an absolutist position — that war is always wrong and evil and has no redeeming qualities — and my position, which is that sometimes nations need people like Dick Winters to step forward and exercise those abilities that they have. In other words, the warrior is a valuable member of society like the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker (actually, nowadays, perhaps more valuable than the candlestick-maker).

      Which seems like a good place to stop, a little more than an hour before 11 o’clock on Nov. 11.

      1. bud

        My dad always called it Armistice Day. He was a man that did not like change. Never adopted Exxon either. To him it was always Esso. Interstates were the super highway. Interesting since he was a WW II vet.

      2. Steve Gordy

        In “Saving Private Ryan,” my favorite moment is when the dying Capt. Miller tells Ryan, “Earn this!” That sums up the entire film.

        “Band of Brothers” is what “Saving Private Ryan” might have been if they’d been able to make it 9 hours long.

    1. Bill

      I had become so quiet and so small in the grass by the pond that I was barely noticeable, hardly there… I sat there watching their living room shining out of the dark beside the pond. It looked like a fairy-tale functioning happily in the post-World War II gothic of America before television crippled the imagination and turned people indoors and away from living out their own fantasies with dignity… Anyway, I just kept getting smaller and smaller beside the pond, more and more unnoticed in the darkening summer grass until I disappeared into the 32 years that have passed since then…

  9. Burl Burlingame

    Did anyone mention “Lawrence of Arabia”?

    “Band of Brothers” — oddly, I was discussing that just this morning with our education director. She is perplexed by the violence in it, and doesn’t think that war movies should show the effects of violence.

    One of the things “Ryan” did so well is illustrate that every bullet fired has a trajectory and winds up somewhere. Most movies show only the firing end of the arc and not the striking end.

Comments are closed.