Friday, April 25, 2008

Top 10 War Films

War is one of the worst atrocities resulting from humanity's sin. There is little glory found in the death and disconnection that defines the human condition. Yet in the midst of such pain and despair, we can sometimes find glimpses of heroism and hope. These are some of the best-made movies giving us a picture of war. I must admit, many of the films are difficult for me to recommend, as many of them deal with the darker realities of sin--violence, pain, offensive language, death, etc. While it is hard for me to enjoy them, I can also appreciate them for their artistic value and contemplative merits. Use caution and discernment when choosing to watch any of these films.

(Note: While there are movies that use war as a backdrop or setting--like Casablanca or Gone With the Wind--or movies that center around battles or warriors--like Gladiator or Braveheart--I have chosen to include only films that focus entirely around a historical war, including battles and soldiers. I have also chosen to leave out mini-series--like Band of Brothers. Each of the films mentioned is great in its own right.)

10. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): This classic war film is seemingly timeless in its portrayal of WWI from the perspective of a young German soldier. He starts off with vibrance and patriotism, only to be radically transformed over the course of the film into a dark and brooding character. There are some powerful scenes in this Best Picture winner.

9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): Probably the most accessible film on the list, this Best Picture winner follows the story of a British platoon in WWII who are captured by the Japanese and forced to build a railway bridge. The epic film follows British Colonel Nicholson as he attempts to lead his men through the process and wrestles with some tough questions. Should they try to escape? Should they try to sabotage the bridge? Should they simply do their best? This has one of the best endings in a film.

8. Glory (1989): The only Civil War film on the list follows an all-African-American company's dealings with the dual sins of war and racism. Based on real letters written by Colonel Shaw, this film deals with the battles of prejudice and equality just as much as the gun-filled battles the company must go through. Denzel Washington earned an Oscar for his great performance as a passionate black soldier.

7. Saving Private Ryan (1998): The opening scene of D-Day on Normandy beach might be in the top 10 opening scenes of a film. The chaos and intensity of the scene gives Saving Private Ryan a secure place in film history. We see a great deal of compassion in the middle of violence in this film as a small platoon of soldiers searches for a Private Ryan in the middle of WWII. The star-studded cast also helped this film at the box office.

6. The Pianist (2002): This story of redemption and forgiveness is a great contrast of dark and light, and the grey areas we find ourselves in. Polish pianist Wadysaw Szpilman is a Jew living in the times of the German occupation during World War II. The audience follows Szpilman as he tried to hide from the Germans, moving from place to place until he finds himself hunkered down in an abandoned building. Without wanting to spoil the plot, this film creates an interesting relationship between the Germans and Szpilman, giving us a glimpse of grace in the middle of a dark and lonely setting.

5. Apocalypse Now (1979): Based on Joseph Conrad's short story, Heart of Darkness, this is one of the darkest and most symbolic war films on the list. A renegade colonel (Marlon Brando, in a very intense role) has set himself up as a god in Cambodia during the Vietnam war, and it is the job of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) to go take care of the problem. The performances are great and the symbolism is heavy.

4. Full Metal Jacket (1987): The entire opening monologue from intense drill sergeant Hartman is one of the most offensive, intense, and incredible scenes I've ever seen. It's a perfect opening to Kubrick's Vietnam War film, which is filled with absurdly cynical humor and brutal violence. The film is split into two parts--basic training, and combat in Vietnam--and is filled with some emotionally powerful scenes. The cinematography is great, as is the acting from R. Lee Ermey and Matthew Modine. This is definitely not a film for the faint-of-heart or easily offended.

3. Paths of Glory (1957): When French soldiers in World War I refuse to follow orders on a suicide mission against the Germans, they are brought to trial by the corrupt military leadership. Their only defense is their commander, Colonol Dax (Kirk Douglas). The entire trial is a staged farce, leaving both Dax and the audience confused and frustrated at the lack of justice. Stanley Kubrick's second film on this list is both a great portrayal of WW I trench warfare and the injustice that can occur in the hands of corrupt leadership. Douglas' performance is phenomanal as Dax, and the film raises a number of deep moral questions.

2. Schindler's List (1993): This is one of the greatest films of all-time, focusing on the atrocities that happened to Jews during World War II and the redemptive act of a courageous factory owner. This is the second Spielberg film on the list, and is unique in its horrifyingly realistic portrayal of the Nazi prison camps. I am not sure what else to say that hasn't already been said about this film. It is transcendent and powerful.

1. The Thin Red Line (1998): Absolutely phenomenal. One of the most visually stunning and haunting films I have ever seen. The soundtrack, the dreamlike cinematography, the insightful and powerful script, and some incredibly complex characters make this my top war movie of all time. Director Terrence Malick waited 20 years before making this film about World War II and the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. It has an amazing cast and some stellar performances. There is a tight balance between the beauty and the depravity of humanity throughout the film, as well as humanity's connection with nature and God. The narration throughout the film--a Malick trademark--is eloquent and inspirational. The pacing is slow-and-steady, at times leaving the audience as impatient and tense as the on-screen soldiers hidden in the grass. It is not your typical war film; it is moving and beautiful in a very transcendent way.

Honorable Mentions: Patton, Platoon, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gettysburgh, Black Hawk Down, Three Kings

Further discussion: What are your thoughts on war films? Do they have value in showing us the darker side of humanity? Any films that you wish made the list?

1 comment:

  1. The only one that I think I would add would be Tora! Tora! Tora!