Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Ten Favorite War Movies

I had to wait to finalize this list until I'd seen Monuments Men a second time, to know whether or not it really belonged on this list.  It does.  I've seen most of these many times, some of them more than twenty.  The only other exception is Defiance, which I've also only seen twice, but which is so phenomenal I must love it.

You'll notice a lot of patterns here.  Lots of WWII movies.  Lots of big ensemble casts.  Lots of true stories.  Lots of John Wayne, though interestingly, he's not in either of my top 2 movies.  Those both feature Steve McQueen and James Coburn.  Hmm.  Anyway, most of these are also from the '50s and '60s, when war movies were still about heroes.  In the '70s, war movies got cynical, and I find them depressing.



1. The Great Escape (1963)

The Nazis brilliantly put all their worst eggs (Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, James Garner...) in one prison camp, and naturally all those escape artists work together to escape.  I love this on so many levels, from the whole band-of-misfits-working-together angle to the clever planning to the actual escape itself.  And it's based on a true story!

2. Hell is for Heroes (1962)

One small American squad (Bobby Darin, Steve McQueen, Fess Parker, James Coburn, Bob Newhart...) holds off a Nazi attack thanks to lots of clever ruses and some spectacular sacrifices.  This was written by Robert Pirosh, who also created my beloved Combat!, and this whole movie almost feels like a long episode of the show.  Lots of human interest, some great humor, heroics, and my dearest Bobby Darin.  LOVE!

3. Operation Pacific (1951)

Commander Duke Gifford (John Wayne) leads a submarine crew on a bunch of adventures (most of them based on actual WWII events) and tries to win back his ex-wife (Patricia Neal).  My 6-year-old son asks to watch this at least once a month right now.  This is a clean and lovely movie.

4. The Longest Day (1962)

The story of the D-Day invasion, told from many viewpoints, with one of the most impressive casts ever assembled:  John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Sal Mineo, Richard Todd, and a very young Sean Connery, to name a very few.  Until we had kids and lost our big chunks of movie-watching time, Cowboy and I used to watch this together every D-Day.

5. Gettysburg (1993)

Another talented ensemble cast shows many of the events leading up to and during the turning point of the American Civil War.  Jeff Daniels turns in a wonderful performance as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberalain, one of my personal heroes.

6. Monuments Men (2014)

A special American task force tries to rescue important art from the Nazis.  Another great ensemble cast (Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, John Goodman, George Clooney), and another true story.

7. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Sgt. Stryker (John Wayne) takes a group of Marines from boot camp to the battle of Iwo Jima.  This is one of John Wayne's sadder, more multi-faceted characters.

8. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

A bunch of Allied POWs (including William Holden and Alec Guinness) build a bridge for their Japanese captors, then try to blow it up.  A fascinating study in morale and endurance.  And a true story.

9. Defiance (2008)

Three Jewish brothers (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell) in Nazi-occupied Poland help lots of other Jews hide out in the Belarussian forest.  Gets grim and intense, but so, so good.  And guess what?  Another true story!

10. D-Day:  The Sixth of June (1956)

A woman who's engaged to a British officer (Richard Todd) falls in love with an American officer (Robert Taylor), and both men end up storming the Normandy beaches together.  Personally, I think anyone who ditches Richard Todd for Robert Taylor is an idiot.

31 comments:

  1. Defiance sounds interesting. I'm in the middle of reading Schindler's List for the first time (watched the movie about 4 years ago), so that caught my eye. I'm gonna check that out. Plus, I like Liev Schreiber; he does a great job playing brooding characters.

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    1. If you like Liev, you should definitely see Defiance. He's a little bit second-fiddle to Daniel Craig's character, but turns in another of his phenomenal performances. I went through a big Liev Schreiber phase about 4 years ago, and I'm still a big fan of his. This is one of my favorite movies of his, for sure. He definitely broods well! Yum.

      I saw Schindler's List once, when I was in college, and wow -- heart-rending. I'm not sure I could handle reading a book about it!

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    2. Oh, I think I will see it now. I'm trying to talk my brother into watching it, as he's a huge history buff. :-)

      Yeah, Schindler's List is rough watching. If you're a reader, though, I would recommend reading the book, at least once. Some parts of the movie (like, certain lines or scenes) were a tiny bit exaggerated, just for dramatic effect. It made for a great movie, but I never want to gloss over history, so the book made it more realistic for me. Maybe I'll blog about it one of these days.

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    3. Aha! Well, then if the book crosses my path some time, I'll give it a try :-)

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  2. I LOVE THE GREAT ESCAPE!!!!!!! I grew up with that movie! So many good memories. But I haven't seen it in years! :( Love this list!

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    1. Isn't it the most? My brother and I used to reenact various scenes from it in the backyard when we were kids. (Not digging actual tunnels, though.) I quote it a lot still. "Zzzzzzt! The Russian front!" is a favorite :-D

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  3. I'll have to see Defiance one day – I like Liev Schreiber and ADORE Jamie Bell! And of course you already know how much I like the WW2 setting. Also, that was a really interesting observation you made about how the approach on war films changed over time – I haven't seen enough war films, especially not older ones, to make out the difference myself but I can totally see it makes sense. I might prefer the cynical touch myself, though.

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    1. Defiance is great -- I think you would dig it a lot. Very character-oriented and introspective and a bit cynical, but it's not about Russia, so not everybody dies :-)

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  4. I think my favorites so far are They Were Expendable, Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Longest Day. Also The Caine Mutiny, if that can actually be counted as a war film, and The Enemy Below was very good too.

    The ones highest on my list to see are Battleground (Pirosh again—have you seen that one?) and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

    Have you read any of the books the films were based on? I enjoyed The Longest Day and They Were Expendable, and Walter Lord's Day of Infamy, thought not actually connected with a movie, makes an excellent companion piece on Pearl Harbor.

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    1. I saw both They Were Expendable and Tora! Tora! Tora! in high school, and don't recall much of either, I'm afraid. But I've seen Battleground once, long ago, and would like to see it again. For some reason, I keep confusing it with A Walk in the Sun in my head, I'm not sure why, other than that Walk reminded me of a Combat! ep. I've wanted to see The Caine Mutiny for a long time (Bogart!), but haven't yet. I may have seen The Enemy Below, but I can't remember it at all, so kind of thinking I haven't. Back in the mid-90s, I watched a LOT of war movies -- in 1994, when it was the 50th anniversary of D-Day, war movies on VHS poured onto the market and we watched lots and lots of them, so sometimes they blur a bit, if I only watched them once.

      I've read The Longest Day twice, and I really love it, but haven't read the other two you mention. I did read Walter Lord's book about the Titanic, A Night to Remember and found it very moving.

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    2. I'd definitely recommend those first two. They Were Expendable stuck with me for a long time after viewing—so many poignant, beautifully filmed moment. Plus it has everything on the checklist: WWII, ensemble cast, true story, John Wayne. :) Tora! Tora! Tora! is similar to The Longest Day in some ways: it traces the build-up to the attack carefully, from the perspective of both sides (foreign subtitles and all).

      All I've seen of Battleground so far are the clips on the TCM website, but that closing scene gives me chills every time. Almost as good as the "Marseillaise" in Casablanca. Incidentally, have you ever seen Pirosh's job application letter? Love that.

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  5. I'm really looking forward to seeing The Monuments Men! I'm so glad you liked it!

    Hmm... but two of my favorite war movies are not on this list... Sergeant York (1941) and War Horse (2011). Have you seen them? Definitely recommend both!

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    1. I've seen them both. Sergeant York I liked pretty well. And War Horse... too much sadness. Not something I can watch over and over, I'm afraid, though it was beautiful.

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  6. I have actually seen most of these movies. Some of them I watched a lot time ago, but I did watch them.
    In terms of realistic war movies, The Great Escape is probably my favorite as well. I liked it a lot when I was a kid, and I still enjoy it today. I have also seen several History Channel type specials on the true story. :) The Bridge on the River Kwai is another favorite of mine as well. Alec Guinness is truly fantastic in the film.
    Gettysburg and Defiance are two very under-watched movies that people need to see. Both of them are so good! I don't understand the negative reviews for Defiance at all.
    Kelly's Heroes is one of my other favorites, although it is more of a comedy than anything else, and Lawrence of Arabia is not necessarily a traditional war movie, but I like it as well.
    Excellent list! I agree with what you said about Saving Private Ryan on my blog. It is a good movie and all, but it is not the type of war movie that I like. Also, I could never get over how boring the characters were in that movie.

    -James

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    1. I STILL need to see Kelly's Heroes! Isn't that awful? But I just checked the library website again, and they have a copy now! They didn't last time I looked. So I've put it on my list of things to get next time I have a chance. Thanks for reminding me of it!

      I didn't know Defiance got negative reviews. I remember when it was out, I was gone visiting relatives and never got to the theater to see it, but I didn't know it wasn't well-reviewed. Huh. I think it's quite good. (Obviously.)

      Lawrence of Arabia... I like the first half. So very great. But after he's attacked... he gets fanatical and it all gets weird. Great score, though and great acting. So beautifully filmed.

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  7. Hey, Rachel! I really need to see "Defiance." I keep meaning to and just never get around to it. I'm not that much of a war movie fan honestly, that would be my sister, but there are a few that I do like. My favorite is probably "Lawrence of Arabia" for its epicness, but I also like "The Guns of Navarrone" and "Valkyrie." The latter one I don't want that often, though, because I can't stop crying. Love your list!

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    1. Defiance is more of a drama in a war setting, really -- there are soldiers, but they're not the focus.

      I like the first half of Lawrence of Arabia :-) And I love The Guns of Navarrone too -- have you read the book? Fantastic. Haven't seen Valkyrie, actually. Though I did see The Plot to Kill Hitler, which tells the same basic story.

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  8. I love Gettysburg! Actually, I prefer Gods and Generals but they're both such good historical movies. I think one of the main reasons why I like G&G better is because of the soundtrack, and Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee which is just MEANT TO BE. I thought Martin Sheen was lousy. As always, I might add. :-P
    I haven't seen a lot of war movies from the 50s and 60s, so a lot of these aren't familiar. I really want to see Defiance! Didn't Joshua Bell play the soundtrack?
    My favorite war movies are The Blue and the Gray, The Patriot, Gods and Generals and Gettysburg. Glory was also really amazing too, but I've only seen it once and I don't remember it too well. Oh, and of course Horatio Hornblower. Duh. :-)

    ~Emma

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    1. I like Gods and Generals too, but I don't love it like I love Gettysburg. I do like the switch to Robert Duvall, as I prefer him over Martin Sheen too.

      Amazon.com says yes, Joshua Bell is featured on the Defiance soundtrack.

      I dearly love The Blue and the Gray -- if this was a list of top 15, it would be on there. The Patriot is wonderful too, but I haven't been able to watch it since Heath Ledger died. I haven't seen Glory yet, but I know I should :-)

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  9. Oh yes, and I also really love the WWII movie Shining Through. Most critics thought it was lame but I personally think it's amazing. I definitely recommend it!

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    1. I've never heard of Shining Through! Just looked it up on imdb.com and wow! What a cast! John Gielgud and Liam Neeson -- I need to find that!

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  10. You have been tagged!
    http://ramblingsfromaustralia.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/what-ho-another-sunshine-award.html
    ~Evie

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    1. Thanks! I'm in the middle of getting ready for the read-along of The Old Man and the Sea that I'm hosting on my other blog starting tomorrow, but when I've got that well in hand, I'll post my response :-)

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    2. Sure thing! :) Get to it when you have time :)

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  11. I'd like to read the book of The Longest Day sometime. Watched the movie recently, and was surprised that many of the more famous actors only appeared in one or two scenes, such as Henry Fonda. I would have liked to have learned more about what happened their characters (perhaps the books goes into more detail?)

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    1. The book does go into a lot more detail about that happened both before and after, IIRC -- it's been at least a decade since I last read it. Like the movie, it focuses on a few specific people in various ranks on both sides to illustrate what it was like for everyone.

      Many of the famous actors did little more than cameos, it's true. That's due in part to the fact that many of them were working on other films at the time and could only make it to the shoots for a few days. Richard Burton, for instance, was in Italy shooting Cleopatra at the time and used a day off here and there to shoot his scenes for The Longest Day.

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  12. I haven't seen a whole lot of older war movies (eh, if any), so I can't compare them to more recent ones, but I think there is still a lot of heroics in war movies today.

    I definitely agree with Defiance on your list though, that one was great. A few that would be on my list are: War Horse (WWI), Flyboys (WWI), Sisters of war (WWII) and The sinking of the Laconia (WWII, though this is technically not a movie, but a miniseries)

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    1. Modern war movies do have heroic actions, but they're so often viewed cynically -- "All these heroic actions are for what?" they like to ask. Like in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks' character tells Ryan, "Earn this!" What? How are you dying a heroic death if you charge the person you save to earn being saved?

      I saw War Horse once and it was too sad for me to ever want to watch it again or love it. I'd like to see Flyboys. The other two I haven't heard of -- I'll have to look them up on imdb.

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    2. I don't necessarily dislike a little bit of cynicism, or, more accurately, looking critically at what happens/happened during wartime. For example, I think it's accurate to portray the trench warfare in WWI as not just heroic, but also show the misery and the drudgery and the unnecessary loss of lives in that conflict. But there should be a balance, not just cynicism (like in the BBC miniseries Birdsong, brrr....)

      I do have the feeling that the really cynical war-movies were more from the '90s/early '00s and they're now making more heroic productions again?

      Sisters of War is about nurses (both professional and religious) who get caught up in the conflict in East-Asia during WWII. The Sinking of the Laconia is about the accidental sinking of a passenger ship by a German submarine during WWII and how the submarine crew took all the (mainly British) survivors on board for a while. A wonderful story of unlikely friendships in wartime. I'll write about this production for the next Femnista issue actually!

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    3. Yeah, I don't particularly like the "rah-rah, war is fun" kind of movies. I like movies that show people doing heroic things during war and that explore what the toll of war is -- don't glamorize it, but don't denigrate bravery either.

      I look forward to your Femnista article!

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Agree or disagree? That is the question...

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