14 October 2014

FWS Top 10: The Most Important War Movies

War. It is one of the most explored topics in human history, and it is the one of greatest agents of change in global events. Despite the horror and pain of human conflict, is often the topic of cinema, and even the best American movie ever made: 1939's Gone With The Wind is set against the backdrop of the Civil War and its aftermath. War movies can be much more than just showing cool guns and explosion, they are an opportunity for a conversation about the conflict itself and how it effected individuals and the nation at large. War movies were a staple in my life, and since I've never served in the military, war movies were the beginning of my understanding about the military and the lives of soldiers. While FWS is mainly devoted to military science fiction, war films are very important to the genre as a whole. Here is my Top Ten most important war films, and these were chosen by me to reflect something that these film changed about society or a genre or even myself. Only Platoon is in any order of importance. Watch for the FWS Armory blogpost on sniper rifle in about a week!

1. PLATOON (1987)
There is a reason why 1987's Platoon  is number one on this list: it altered the national conversation about Vietnam. Platoon was a national mutual cathartic experience that allowed the United States, as a whole, to final talk about the horror that was the Vietnam War, and the mistreatment of the veterans of that war. While no movie made about armed conflict could be really considered anti-war, this film comes damn close, and Platoon is one film that will stay with you due to its haunting depiction of war and how no survivor of combat is left untouched. No battles are glorious, no soldier a saint, the enemy are not monster, Platoon lays bare the sins of war on the psychic of the soldier and how we must chose carefully when and how we as a nation t deploy troops into combat. Most Vietnam War veterans I know cannot watch Platoon much than once, it is too close to the truth. This film changed me, and continues to effect my writing and outlook on war.

World War II movies had been done...to death by the time Saving Private Ryan would come to the silver screen, but it would relaunch the interest in the 2nd World War for over a decade. Without SOPR, Call of Duty, Band of Brothers, Medal of Honor would not have been made. No only would the film's setting relight interest in World War II, it would also alter how war movies were shoot and produced. SOPR did more than just that, it showed the truth of the Normandy Landings on June 6th, 1944. While the D-DAY landing had been shown on screen in 1962's The Longest Day, the horror of the beach landing was too much for 1960's audiences. Here in SPOR, we experience the hell that those soldiers of the Greatest Generation had to suffer through to rid the world of the Nazi scourge. Everything in this film works and shows the genius of Steven Spielberg.

3. GLORY (1989)
War is hell, and at times, the tactics of the day seem stupid to modern peoples. This is the truth of 1989's Glory. This is one of the first war films to demonstrate the hell of Civil War era combat and the tactics of the day to modern audiences with modern film-making. While interest in the Civil War never seems to wane, Glory would delivery the power of the Civil War to the masses. Glory would also shed some light on the then little known Black Union units, and the challenges of bring them into the fight. Glory would be packed with talents in front and behind the camera, making one of the greatest war movies ever committed to film, and move over, it stays with you. I can remember showing this film to my maternal Grandfather (whom I am named for), and despite being a study of history and lover of the Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War, he walked out on this film, calling it inaccurate and stupid. That is the power of truth in film-making.

It is rare that a film is made during the events that it portrayals, and Zero Dark Thirty altered the conversation about elements involved in the War on Terror. The events that are seen in Zero Dark Thirty are subject of national conversations, nightly news, and heated online discussion. This made the job of the film just that much harder, and the cast and crew pulled it off. The scenes with the CIA torturing at those black sites sheds light on both sides of the argument for and against torture. In addition, it displayed Operation: NEPTUNE SPEAR in the right context and with honest realism. That portion of the film is some of the most intense combat sequences I've seen in many years. I feel that this film will only grow in importance to the next generations as a look at these crazy times in human history.

While tons of movies have been made about the 2nd World War and Vietnam, the event from October 3th and 4th, 1993 were forgotten by many American until the Newspaper series and book by Mark Bowden that fueled this 2001 Ridley Scott film. Honestly, the first time you see this modern war epic is an rare experience. My wife and I were on the edge of our seats and by the end, there were tears in our eyes. Black Hawk Down would masterfully cast light on this battle and the men involved, allowing for these heroes' efforts and valor to be honored by the world.In addition, Black Hawk Down is just one hell of a war film that inspirited new directions n film making and the more books and documentaries on the Battle of Mogdishu. On a personally note, Black Hawk Down would rekindle my interest in the military, leading to this blog and my book Endangered Species, along with paintball.

1987 would see the release of two of the most iconic Vietnam War era films: Platoon and this film shot by one of the greatest directors of the 20th century: Stanley Kubrick. Full Metal Jacket was in some ways the opposite of Platoon. Instead of the jungle and a platoon of core character, Full Metal Jacket followed Marines Joker and Cowboy from the Island to the Battle of Hue City during the Tet Offensive. While many remember the film for the hard-edged DI played expertly by former Marine DI R. Lee Ermey, the film is much more than some of the best uses of English profanity, it shows the strangeness of combat in Vietnam, and its unfairness. While many remember the basic training scenes, once the film moves to Vietnam, we see a different side of the experiences of the American soldier while in-county. This film is a surreal trip into this strange war with masterful direction and acting.  It also address the duality of man’s view to war and killing.
7. DAS BOOT (1981)
Rare are films that depict the other side of a war, and even rarer are films about 3rd Reich Germany, and added to that, U-boat films. During both world wars, German submarines were were the assassins of the seas and their tactics of attacking shipping vessels would brand them cowards and dishonorable. In 1981, director Wolfgang Petersen would forge one of the great classics of war cinema about these assassins of the seas by adding a layer of humanity and reality to the World War II U-Boat commander and crew of U-96. Using accurate U-Boat interiors and realistic conditions with veteran consultants, Das Boot cast a harsh light into the world of submarine combat, no matter the nationality. The films breaks the idea that all serving members of the 3rd Reich military were Nazis, and the "glory" of service in a metal tube underwater. Das Boot is gripping in its filming of the struggles, the panic, and the boredom of the service of U-96.

In 1989, Oliver Stone would direct another Vietnam War film, and this time, it was more about the fight after leaving Vietnam War. This film tells the story of Ron Kovic, a dedicated Marine, and who willing signed up for service in Vietnam, and during his 2nd tour of duty, his world changed. In January of 1969, Kovic received an spinal cord injury from hostile gunfire, leaving him paralyzed. During his recovery, Kovic would see the sorry state of America’s care of Veterans, and he would soon be an advocate for veterans’ rights. Through his book and 1989 film, Kovic and Stone were able to bring attention to state of the VA in America and need for improved care for veterans. As a film, Born on the 4th of July would be considered Tom Cruise’s greatest performance and the other side of the coin of the more combat-centered Vietnam War films of this era.
9. THE DAY AFTER (1983)
Many believed during the Cold War that the next big war would be the last one for our species. World War III was envisioned as beginning in mushroom clouds and ending in pillars of ashes and blasted shadows. In 1983, ABC network would create a stark TV mini-series on aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. This film would be released at difficult point in US/Soviet relations, and its airing would alter national foreign policy. The Day After tells the story of the horror of nuclear war via two Midwestern American cities and survivors of the apocalypse. This film scared the utter shit out of me and unlike the zombie apocalypse, nuclear war is still all too real. No more was this more true when I was seven years old when The Day After was aired. The mere thought of a nuclear exchange between the Superpowers would spell the end of the world as we know it, and an altering of human civilization that we would never come back from. 100 million would watch The Day After, and the American public would achieve a collective clarity on the policies of nuclear arms, resulting new international nuclear arms policies on limitation. After President Reagan watched the mini-series, he understood that his own administration’s nuclear arms policy would have to be changed due to the lack of national will. The public had been education on what could happen if our bombs outgrew our words, and a war was fought in mere minutes.       

10. M*A*S*H (1970)
This is an unusual choice, and a personal one. M*A*S*H was the only war movie that my paternal Grandfather ever saw. My Grandfather was a full-bird Colonel, who served in World War II (Pacific) and the Korean War as an infantry commander, and had zero desire to see a “war film”. However, he did see M*A*S*H. and loved it. To him, the film was darkly funny, especially to those veterans of Korea. M*A*S*H came at low point in the popularity of war films, given the Vietnam War, however, M*A*S*H became a hit, and fueled a TV series on NBC that would outlast the real Korean War by several years. M*A*S*H is an important war film for bucking the trend of thinly veiled propaganda war movie along with adding some realism to war films and the unique culture that is created by soldiers away from home. It would also give rise to the longest running military television drama of all time. Lastly, M*A*S*H also was a different kind of war film that did not deal directly with the combat or the infantry, but the medical side of a combat zone.


  1. For me personally every list would open with the Richard Attenborough masterpiece "A Bridge Too Far", for the next position "The Longest Day" (looks like I'm Cornelius Ryan fan)... "Zulu" by Cy Endfield. Trilogy (or rather movie duology) of Jeff Shaara "God's and Generals" and "Gettysburg". "Battle of Britain" by Guy Hamilton.

    So many others... but still I prefer those older ones, less CGI more acting and old school special effects.

  2. All of those are amazing pictures, especially Zulu and the Battle of Britain. You are correct, less CGI the better. It is always interesting what people pick, for example, the Bridge over the River Kwai is often cited as one of the best war films of all time.
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. On the subject of the film, “The Day After;” I saw the film on November 20, 1983. I was attending Auto Track Radar Tech School at Keesler Air Force Base, in Biloxi Mississippi. I cannot say it was a “Good Film.” The only place it has in history, other than the 100 million watching it, is that it was the first nuclear war film that depicted the effects of a nuclear war on the citizenry. The British film “Threads” is be a far better film on that subject.
    On the implication that it changed U.S. foreign policy; “The Day After” aired only two months after the true event that changed foreign policy. During the previous year, Soviet Intelligence believed that the United States was preparing for a nuclear strike, (Reagan’s Evil Empire speeches only made matters worse.) They came to the conclusion that the communications exercise “Able Archer ’83,” which concluded on September 26th, 1983, was a cover for the operation. The thing that scared everyone into changing policies was the fact that the Soviet Union was preparing for war, and no one knew about it until several months later.
    In my opinion, the best depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear war is the book “War Day.”

  4. Wow! Incredible information there! I re-watched The Day After in preparation for this blogpost, and I do agree that Threads is a more compelling story. The book "War Day" is an excellent read, and the plans to bring it to the cinema should have been carried out. Amazing novel. My brother owned and it and read it around 1988.
    Thanks for the comment!

  5. Agree with your Grandfather on Glory - nice liberal propaganda. You missed a few - from a Desert Storm combat veteran:

    The Cross of Iron (German Eastern Front)
    The Lost Battalion (WWI)
    Sgt York (1941)
    Apocalypse Now (Helicopter Attack Scene)
    We Were Soldiers Once
    Brave Heart
    Letters From Iwo Jima/Flags of our Fathers
    Kingdom of Heaven
    Lawrence of Arabia
    Last of the Mohicans
    Last Samurai
    Pearl Harbor (Battle Scenes)/Tora Tora Tora
    The Patriot
    Zulu/Zulu Dawn

  6. I came very close to putting Last of the Mohicans on that list and Clint Eastwood's dual WWII films. Last Samurai is one of my favorites, due to my love of Japanese history.

  7. The movie "Black Hawk Down" got my interest to read the book which the film was based on. Amazing book, filled with not just the viewpoints of the soldiers, but also their opposition. It's probably one the first books that I can recall going into so much depth and detail about a single battle.

    Even more so the historical significance - it was probably the first time anyone provided a full story on a post-Cold War battle, compiling all the records, accounts, and research into a single work. It also gives an insight into Special Operations units (such as the relationship between the Rangers and DELTA), and the differences in how they work and operate. There's just so much to get out of it.

  8. No Top Gun in the list?!
    Just joking…

    I would add to the list "Where Eagles Dare" & "The Guns of Navarone".
    I like the notion of a small group of heroes that can make an impact on the course of war and history. Like Archimedes with is lever that can move the planet…
    I wonder how historical accurate are those kind a stories? Not the stories behind the two movies which are fictional but the possibility of a few capable brave men to alter the world.


  9. If you asked me I would of picked the hurt locker as the no.1 & platoon no 3 & black hawk down as no2 for the reason that it explains all of the Iraqi conflict in a non traditional way. It was more about brotherhood instead of raw combat.

  10. Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down book is one of the best modern war historical accounts, and this made me a lifelong Mark Bowden reader.
    I agree that "Where Eagles Dare" and " Guns of Navarone" are some of the best, and some great examples of SPECOPS films. At times, the fate of some history altering mission comes down to a few people.
    While enjoyed "The Hurt Locker", there was a major scene that turned me off to the film: the sniper/counter-sniper scene with the M107 .50 BMG. There is so much wrong with that scene that I just could not get over. I will have pop "The Hurt Locker" into the old DVD player and give it another try.

  11. Eod knows how to use a Barret m107 it's part of their training to blow an ied at shitton far range. Seems sensible to try that out on a human ( if u can call a body bomb packing Iraqi insurgent human).

  12. Lol! I will add that to the functions of the M107 and the McMillan Rifle