By Maureen Lee Lenker
July 20, 2017 at 12:05 PM EDT
07/21/17
type
  • Movie

There are perhaps few genres so rich in titles as the war movie. From the war-time romance of From Here to Eternity to the grueling opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan to the multiple meditations on the folly and cost of the Vietnam War (Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July), there is no shortage of films that dissect the particulars of war. Whether a picture is reminding us “war is hell” or studying the quiet stoicism and bravery of those on the battlefield, the war story has been told in just about every way imaginable.

Opening to rave reviews, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tackles a subject that Hollywood rarely examines – the retreat from Dunkirk. It is not the triumphant tale of its parallel moment, the storming of the beach at Normandy, but in its tale of civilians who came to the front to rescue their own boys, Dunkirk offers a searing look at a quintessential, but oft-overlooked moment in British history. Before you watch nearly every major British male actor tell the tale of the evacuation from Dunkirk, here are nine classic war movies worth a look.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

 

Everett Collection

All Quiet on the Western Front was such a harrowing depiction of the horrors of war that is was frequently banned in war-torn countries for harming morale, including Nazi Germany. The film, based on the 1928 Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name, tells the story of gung-ho young German soldiers who are disillusioned by the horrors of World War I. Many German veterans of the first World War, who had since moved to Los Angeles, were featured as extras, filling the trenches in battle scenes and adding to the authenticity. These veterans told director Lewis Milestone about their experiences, including a moment where a soldier was blown up by an artillery shell, leaving only his hands clutching barbed wire – a horrific tableau Milestone incorporated in the film. Made before the advent of the Production Code, it is one of early Hollywood’s most gritty and violent pictures. Star Lew Ayres was so moved by his experiences that he became a lifelong pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II. The film has cast a long shadow on war movies, influencing everything from Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket. Christoper Nolan adds to that list, citing the film as a primary influence on Dunkirk.

Available on: Apple, Google Play, Vudu

They Were Expendable (1945)

 

Everett Collection

We’d be hard pressed to make a list of classic war movies and not include at least one John Wayne title (despite the fact that he never actually served in the armed forces). Based on the real-life story of Medal of Honor recipient John Bulkeley and his defense of the Philippines with PT Boats, the film was praised for it realistic and documentary-like feel. Director John Ford had just returned from filming World War II itself, working as a documentarian embedded with various armed forces, making acclaimed films like The Battle of Midway (1942). The Navy supplied actual PT boats for the shooting of this film – a tale of small, quick ships making a difference in an air/sea battle against larger destroyers (so, in some ways, similar to Dunkirk). Unlike many other war-time films, Ford scaled back heavy sentiment, patriotism, and propaganda, turning instead to a real-world authenticity and a straightforward tale of military courage, loneliness, and sacrifice. Engulfed in shooting combat footage, Ford was only convinced to make the film after serving with the film’s inspiration, John Bulkeley, during the invasion of Normandy.

Available on: Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Vudu

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

 

Everett Collection

Choosing to focus on the psychology of war and emotional drama rather than spectacle, Twelve O’Clock High was ahead of its time when it was released. The film tells the story of United States Army’s Eighth Air Force flying daylight bombing missions over occupied France and Germany in the early days of American involvement in World War II. Gregory Peck stars as tough-as-nails commander Frank Savage, who suffers under the devastating psychological toll of war. The U.S. Air Force offered production assistance, supplying B-17 bombers for filming. Noted for its authenticity, the film used actual wartime footage for its air combat scenes, shooting very little new footage for the film. For an early scene, stunt pilot Paul Mantz was paid a record-breaking $4500 to crash-land a B-17 bomber by himself (the first time a B-17 was flown solo). Veterans of the actual campaign frequently pointed to the film as the only Hollywood movie to accurately capture their combat experience.

Available on: Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Vudu

Stalag 17 (1953)

 

Everett Collection

Adapted from a stage play, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 was unlike any war movie American audiences had seen prior to its release – focusing on prisoners of war rather than expansive battle scenes, the film exhibits a confining claustrophobia and a distinctive cynicism and pitch black sense of humor. William Holden stars in an Oscar-winning role as Sergeant J.J. Sefton, a cynical, self-preservationist POW who must ferret out a traitor when his fellow soldiers suspect him of being an informer to their cruel German guards. Studios feared the film’s dark sense of humor and bitter take on soldiers confined in prison camps would deter audiences, but it became a hit. Legendary director Otto Preminger has a memorable on-screen role as a sadistic, sardonic prison commander.

Available on: DVD/Blu-ray

Mister Roberts (1955)

 

Everett Collection

A huge hit on Broadway as a play, Mister Roberts went on to become one of the top box office hits of 1955. While most war films are usually intense or dour, Roberts sets itself apart with its broad humor, slapstick physical comedy, and its poignant conclusion. John Ford returned to the waters of Midway in the Pacific, where he’d filmed documentary battle footage in World War II, to shoot this far more light-hearted picture. Ford was replaced partway through filming after clashing with Henry Fonda, who had originated the title role on Broadway eight years prior. Fonda stars as Douglas A. Roberts, a kindly lieutenant who sacrifices his dream of seeing combat on the front lines to protect his men from the cruel rule of Captain Morton (Jimmy Cagney). Though production was troubled with Fonda and Ford even coming to blows, the film became beloved by audiences. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for one of his first major roles as the daffy, fun-loving Ensign Pulver. It also marked film great William Powell’s last movie due to his declining health.

Available on: Amazon, Apple, Vudu

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Everett Collection

 

“Madness….madness!” – Bridge on the River Kwais final lines succinctly sum up the film and director David Lean’s take on what he once described as the “folly and waste of war.” Prisoners of war led by the obsessive Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) build a bridge under the command of the Japanese as a testament to British honor, not realizing that the Allied forces are simultaneously working on a plan to destroy it. With a grueling shoot in Sri Lanka, the film marked David Lean’s first major epic before he went on to make Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The film also shot Alec Guinness to international acclaim, and he long considered it the finest work he ever did onscreen. Lean also inadvertently created an earworm when he insisted on having the troops march into the POW camp whistling the British military march, “Colonel Bogey’s March” – it has since become an iconic theme in Hollywood history.

Available on: Apple, Google Play, Vudu

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

 

Everett Collection

Plot-wise, The Guns of Navarone shares a good deal with Dunkirk with its tale of Allied soldiers who must destroy German guns in the Greek islands to enable the evacuation of endangered British troops. Featuring an international cast that includes Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven, the film was designed to appeal to a wide global audience. A war film, the movie also uses the structure of a genre-spanning action trope, a tale of specialists bringing their individual personal skills to a dangerous mission (similar to The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven). Gregory Peck found the entire plot and the suggestion that six commandoes could defeat the Nazi army a bit ludicrous, comparing it to the silent slapstick comedy of the Keystone Cops. Still, he and the cast recognized the only way to make it work was to fully commit to the roles, resulting in a believable and rip-roaring good time. Though Navarone is not a real place, the scenario was based on an actual World War II Battle in the Aegean Sea. Lifelong pacifist Gregory Peck was disappointed in later years that people latched on to the adventurous spirit of the film over its pointed anti-war message.

Available on: Apple, Google Play, Vudu

The Longest Day (1962)

 

Everett Collection

Before Saving Private Ryan, there was The Longest Day, a docudrama style account of the D-Day landings at Normandy. Featuring a massive ensemble cast, including the likes of Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, and Richard Burton, the film was one of the first to depict World War II from an international perspective. It jumps between critical moments of D-Day on the French, German, British, and American front lines, and the film employed the assistance of key military personnel from each nation who had witnessed the action firsthand. Director Daryl F. Zanuck even had a representative from each nation direct their country’s portions of the film in an effort to create an even-handed look at the military action. In a rare move, the film marked one of the first World War II films to feature soldiers speaking in their native tongues with subtitles at the bottom. Though great pains were taken to ensure accuracy, Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly walked out of the film because he was so frustrated with its inconsistencies.

Available on: Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Vudu

The Great Escape (1963)

 

Everett Collection

Based on a real mass escape from Stalag Luft III prison in Nazi occupied Poland, The Great Escape brought bravado stunts, motorcycle riding, thrilling action sequences, and a wry sense of humor to the war film. Though the film merged several characters and twisted many of the facts of the real-life escape, it has become one of the most beloved war/action-adventure films of all time. An ensemble film featuring James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and more, it’s best remembered as Steve McQueen’s picture for his thrilling motorcycle stunts (a sequence that has been recreated in countless films, including this summer’s Wonder Woman). McQueen was a notorious daredevil in real life and earned multiple speeding tickets on his bike while shooting the film. In contrast to the cynicism and in-fighting of the POWs in Stalag 17, this film took the tack of amplifying the courage, resourcefulness, and foolhardy bravery of the prisoners in contrast to the strict obedience of their German captors. Ironically, many of the German actors in the film had been POWs in American and Soviet camps during the war and had made numerous escape attempts themselves.

Available on: Apple, Google Play, Vudu

type
  • Movie
Genre
mpaa
  • PG-13
release date
  • 07/21/17
director
Performers
Complete Coverage
Advertisement

Comments

EDIT POST