Armed struggles

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


A war movie is more than two soldiers in a foxhole. The war movie genre, employing armed conflict as a canvas, invites the filmmaker to portray human behavior in the starkest terms. These behaviors happen on the battlefield and off and even before the war and after.

This genre includes standard depictions of war, anti-war movies, post-nuclear apocalypse movies, and films about the Jewish Holocaust.

"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is unequalled to this day in showing how war trashes idealism, transforming starry-eyed youngsters into embittered men. Lew Ayres is the universal soldier in the universal foxhole.

"Grand Illusion" (1937), directed by Jean Renoir, has Erich von Stroheim as the German commander of a prison camp whose gentlemanly treatment of captured French soldiers betrays the class nature of warfare.

"Sergeant York" (1941), directed by Howard Hawks, can be enjoyed for its gentle Americana as much as for its "factual" account of how backwoods roughneck Alvin York ended up the most decorated American hero of World War I.

"Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is a no-nonsense account of General Jimmy Doolittle's famous air raid on Japan. The verisimilitude of the bombing sequences is breathtaking.

"Battleground" (1949), directed by William Wellman, was hailed in its time as the first gritty non-propagandistic depiction of the American soldiers during World War II. By today's standards it's a taut account of the Battle of the Bulge.

"Twelve O'Clock High" (1949), directed by Henry King, is the touchstone film about bomber crews flying missions over Europe during World War II. Gregory Peck is the flinty, misunderstood commander.

"The Red Badge of Courage" (1951), directed by John Huston from Stephen Crane's novel, is the benchmark Civil War movie. Audie Murphy, a real war hero, is well cast as the green recruit who flees from his first battle but returns to the front lines.

"From Here to Eternity" (1953), directed by Fred Zinneman, is note-perfect in capturing the messy ennui of peacetime Army life in Hawaii in the days just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which sweeps over the characters like a tidal wave at the end of the movie.

"Stalag 17" (1953), directed by Billy Wilder, hits not a single false note in its portrayal of the pathos, humor, comaraderie, anxiety, and heroism of life inside a Nazi prison camp during World War II. William Holden is brilliant.

"The Caine Mutiny" (1954), directed by Edward Dmytryk, posits what would happen if U.S. Naval officers seized control of a ship when they felt the captain had lost his mind in a crisis. Humphrey Bogart is memorable as the marble-clicking Captain Queeg.

"To Hell and Back" (1955), directed by Jesse Hibbs, is a convincing account of how Audie Murphy became the most decorated soldier of World War II. It does not hurt the authenticity, of course, that Audie Murphy plays himself.

"Mister Roberts" (1955), directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, uses humor to capture a slice of the World War II experience that was familiar to many--the supply line. In this case, it's a cargo ship.

"The Burmese Harp" (1956), directed by Kon Ichikawa, reaches lyrical heights in depicting the hysteria of Japanese soldiers in the last, desperate, suicidal days of the war in the Pacific. A Japanese private transcends the horror around him by undergoing a religious experience.

"Paths of Glory" (1957), directed by Stanley Kubrick, can still whip audiences into a frenzy of outrage with its portraits of the cruelties of war, at the front and in the rear, during trench fighting in World War I. Kubrick's wizardry with tracking shots has never been put to better use.

"Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957), directed by John Huston, has tough Marine Robert Mitchum and sweet nun Deborah Kerr forced to hide out together in a cave when the Japanese storm onto the island where they are stranded in the Pacific during World War II. A touching bond develops between them as they plot how to survive.

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), directed by David Lean, is a paean to the distinctive courage and resilience of the British side during World War II. Japanese use POWs to build a bridge in the jungle by exploiting British pride.

"Pork Chop Hill" (1959), directed by Lewis Milestone, borrows the conventions of World War II movies for gritty Korean War story of Americans who lay siege to a hill, then become the besieged. The combat sequences are chaotic and almost non-stop.

"Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), directed by Stanley Kramer, sums up the various dilemmas faced by the Allies during the occupation and war crimes trials after World War II. Spencer Tracy as a judge is the American Everyman who must sort out one kind of Nazi evil from another.

"The Counterfeit Traitor" (1962), directed by George Seaton, follows the harrowing exploits of double agent William Holden, a Nazi-sympathizing industrialist who is secretly spying on Germany for the Allied side. Few movies are this effective in conveying the high stakes and personal sacrifices involved in winning World War II.

"The Longest Day" (1962), directed by Ken Annakin, suffers from the hokeyness of being an all-star 1960s Hollywood epic, but its spectacular set pieces and cast of thousands captures the staggering scale of the invasion of Normandy. The parts are greater than the sum.

"Damn the Defiant!" (1962), directed by Lewis Gilbert, is warfare under sail on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars. British warship Defiant is having trouble below decks when it's not trading cannon fire with the French.

"The Americanization of Emily" (1964), directed by Arthur Hiller, was one of the first American movies about World War II to convey an anti-war and anti-brass attitude. It's a cynical comedy about an admiral's aide, James Garner, who is disconcerted to learn he has been picked to be covered with glory as the first casualty of D-Day.

"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is the greatest film satire of all. When the kids ask someday for an explanation of the Cold War, this is the movie to show them.

"King Rat" (1965), directed by Bryan Forbes, gets into the twisted social dynamic that evolves as a result of the privation inside a Japanese POW camp for British and American soldiers. George Segal is the corporal made king.

"King of Hearts" (1966), directed by Philippe de Broca, is a war movie in the sense that only war could bring these events to pass. When residents of a French village flee approaching armies during World War I, the folks from the local insane asylum take over the village and run it themselves.

"The Dirty Dozen" (1967), directed by Robert Aldrich, is the best of the rowdy, chest-thumping, comic book style World War II movies. Ragtag bunch of misfit criminals redeem themselves by becoming commandos and pulling off impossible mission behind Nazi lines. Willie and Phil it ain't.

"The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1968), directed by Tony Richardson, reflects the anti-war fervor and iconoclastic spirit of the 1960s. With its broad satire and Monty Python-esque animated sequences, it sends up a lot of the hokum surrounding the fabled charge at Balaclava.

"Patton" (1970), directed by Franklin Schaffner, is not, to its credit, a hagiography of the impetuous and eccentric tank commander, portrayed with gusto by George C. Scott. Karl Malden, as Omar Bradley, provides the movie's moral compass.

"Catch-22" (1970), directed by Mike Nichols, hits the highlights of Joseph Heller's absurdist novel of life in the military during World War II. Although often thought of as a 1960s period piece, it only seems to get more relevant with the passage of time, especially the Milo Minderbinder sequences.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970), directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda, and Kinji Fukasuku, is the exhaustive, definitive account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, told from both sides. It's engrossing even though no detail is too small to be left out.

"M*A*S*H" (1970), directed by Robert Altman, is a landmark American movie by virtue of its nose-thumbing attitude toward the military. In certain respects this is the first true Vietnam War movie even though it is set in the Korean War.

"Slaughterhouse Five" (1972), directed by George Roy Hill, juxtaposes Billy Pilgrim's experiences as a POW during World War II, where he witnesses the firebombing of Dresden, with his later visits to a friendly distant planet. Kurt Vonnegut's celebrated novel about about a man "unstuck in time" unfolds gracefully on screen.

"Go Tell the Spartans" (1978), directed by Ted Post, is a Vietnam War movie set in 1964, when Americans were just "advisors" and people stateside had scarcely heard of the country. But even then, as Burt Lancaster finds out, the handwriting was on the wall.

"The Deer Hunter" (1978), directed by Michael Cimino, would be the greatest of all Vietnam War movies if it had more conviction about its theme that it was the working classes that bore the brunt of the war. Even though it opts for the personal over the political, it still packs a wallop.

"Apocalypse Now" (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, sprawls all over the place in trying to portray the madness of the Vietnam War. Though ostensibly based on Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness," it really owes its soul to Michael Herr's book of war reportage "Dispatches."

"Breaker Morant" (1979), directed by Bruce Beresford, though set in South Africa during the Dutch-British Boer War, is about Australians and their particular courage, even when they are sacrificed for political expediency. This movie illustrates how Australians view the British quite differently than Americans do.

"The Big Red One" (1980), directed by Samuel Fuller, draws on the director's own World War II experiences for an unsentimental view of the war in Africa and Italy. Its portrayal of war from the perspective of a single infantry unit is utterly convincing.

"Kagemusha" (1980), directed by Akira Kurosawa, is THE Japanese martial epic as a humble thief is persuaded to pose as a warlord who has died in order to keep the throne from falling to others.

"Gallipolli" (1981), directed by Peter Weir, employs class conflict themes to lend depth to a story of young Australian soldiers whose lives were squandered wholesale by British commanders on the Turkish front during World War I.

"Das Boot" (1981), directed by Wolfgang Peterson, successfully mounts a sympathetic portrayal of German sailors aboard a German U-boat during World War II while at the same time being anti-war, anti-Nazi, and anti-brass. No mean feat, that.

"The Day After" (1983), directed by Nicholas Meyer, is an ambitious attempt to portray what would happen to the good people of Lawrence, Kansas, in the wake of a devastating nuclear war. A Hollywood budget permits a large-canvas portrayal of the scale of the horror.

"Testament" (1983), directed by Lynne Littman, is a post- apocalypse movie that focuses almost entirely on radiation poisoning from fallout. A single suburban American family is the focus of a movie of almost overwhelming pathos.

"Threads" (1984), directed by Mick Jackson, does what "The Day After" does, but on a smaller budget and in England. Its intimacy is what makes it effective and its final freeze frame is the most horrifying of all post-apocalypse images.

"The Killing Fields" (1984), directed by Roland Joffe, conveys the horrors of the Khmer Rouge holocaust in Cambodia while nimbly sidestepping the contention of historians that it was American intervention and destabilization in Cambodia that triggered these events. The "kingdom and the power" of the New York Times is central to this movie's meaning.

"The Wannsee Conference" (1984), directed by Heinz Schirk, is a re-creation, based on actual minutes taken, of the 1942 Nazi conference in which details of how to exterminate European Jews were ironed out. Were wealthy Jews to be spared? What about people who were half Jewish? The SS has the answers.

"Ran" (1985), directed by Akira Kurosawa, is "King Lear" outfitted in Samurai armor as aging king sets off power struggles by dividing his kingdom between his jealous sons.

"Platoon" (1986), directed by Oliver Stone, was rightly hailed for being a Vietnam War movie more concerned with showing the texture of the war rather than making a grand statement. Along the way, of course, some statements are made, as in any Stone movie.

"Full Metal Jacket" (1987), directed by Stanley Kubrick, follows a group of Marines from boot camp to Vietnam, where they arrive just in time for the Tet Offensive in 1968. Every reference to a female in this movie carries symbolic weight.

"Born on the Fourth of July" (1989), directed by Oliver Stone, portrays the odyssey of Ron Kovic, the gung ho Marine who was wounded in the Vietnam War, returned home a paraplegic and became a key figure in the anti-war movement. This is a movie that needs an all-American actor like Tom Cruise and he's up for the task.

"Glory" (1989), directed by Edward Zwick, is a meticulously made account of a unit of black soldiers that fought on the Union side during the Civil War. Re-creating this minutely studied era on film to the satisfaction of scholars is not easy, which is perhaps why so few Civil War movies get made.

"Korczak" (1990), directed by Andrzej Wajda, is the true story of Janusz Korczak, a Jewish doctor who struggles courageously to keep the orphanage he runs in Warsaw a haven away from the depravity surrounding it during the Nazi occupation. Because it is on a smaller scale, this movie can show things "Schindler's List" cannot.

"Europa, Europa" (1991), directed by Agnieszka Holland, is the improbable but true story of a German Jewish teenager who survives the Holocaust during World War II by joining the Hitler Youth and passing himself off as a model Aryan. It is by turns funny and touching.

"Schindler's List" (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg, is the epic that needed to be made about the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis. Spielberg's skill is in stripping away abstraction and making the depravity immediate and tactile.


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