With this list of films, we attempt to pay tribute to those who gave the last true measure of devotion. Thank you veterans and those now serving in the military. Caution: These films depict wartime violence and several contain harsh language. Click on the links for extended reviews and the reasons for the ratings.
WE WERE SOLDIERS (2002). Mel Gibson, Maleleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper. Writer/director Randall Wallace (THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK) captures the heat, the fear, and the uncertainty felt by American soldiers in Vietnam. Or, he at least comes as close as we would ever want to experience. The emotions are downright palpable. As the director explores the true spirit of American combat forces, he wisely takes us out of the action, relieving us occasionally of the battle intensity. During these moments, the film looks at the wives back home. They have their own battles to fight; the constant fear that their men will not return and a country’s polarization over the first televised war.
It is a difficult film to sit through. But there are many outstanding moments that make the violence endurable (or almost). Mel Gibson gives perhaps his best performance. Several times he delivers little quotable bon mots – to his kid, to his wife, to a fellow officer. These could have been sappy and untrue, but Gibson handles them with clarity of intension. It is a pitch-perfect performance. In the film, Col. Moore is portrayed as a religious man. Several times he is seen in prayer, reflecting a reverence for God and a need for the Almighty’s direction. Indeed, he reminded me of what King David might have been like when heading his armies. The cinematography, score and other technical achievements are all outstanding.
Rated R (four uses of God’s name followed by a curse, 20 obscenities, and a few milder expletives –but a lot less language than in most war movies from the past few decades; the battlefield violence is graphic and often gory).
BROTHERS AT WAR (2009). Jake Rademacher sets out to understand the experience, sacrifice, and motivation of his two brothers serving in Iraq. The film follows Jake's exploits as he risks everything –including his life – to tell his brothers' story. Often humorous though sometimes downright lethal, Brothers At War is a remarkable journey that finds Jake embedded with four combat units in Iraq. Though we critics often overuse words like powerful and dynamic, they effectively convey the effect of this documentary. It’s gut-wrenching at moments, but Brothers At War gives you a clarification seldom offered by filmmakers. You’ll be disturbed by what a soldier undertakes in the name of a cause, but ultimately you’ll be uplifted, encouraged and inspired by this powerful, dynamic film. R (offensive language, mainly expressed by way of the f- and s-words – around 50 of the f-word, 30 of the s-word; two misuses of Jesus’ name and two profane uses of God’s name; there is always an aura of danger; we see several dead bodies and during one documented attack, two soldiers are wounded badly, there is a graphic shot of the bloodied face of one soldier).
PATTON (1970). George C. Scott. This heads the list because it is one of the best war/anti-war films ever made. Truly a textbook example of outstanding filmmaking, it is a faithful account of one of the most colorful and controversial warriors of all time. Caution: It does contain profanity. Patton used colorful language, and so does the movie. He was a complex man: on one hand a foul-mouthed eccentric, on the other, a soft-spoken connoisseur who swore allegiance to God as well as country.
THE LONGEST DAY (1962). An All-star cast is featured in Darryl F. Zanuck’s detailed take on the invasion of Normandy. It is considered by many reviewers to be one of the best of the war films.
MRS. MINIVER (1942). An important account of the early days of WW2 and its effects on a naive world. Oscar performances from both Greer Garson and Teresa Wright in a film that exposes the horror of war without the gruesomeness of today's "realism."
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). All-star cast includes Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough and James Garner. Splendid wartime drama of men set to escape a Nazi P.O.W. camp. Based on a true story. Entertaining script, cast and musical score. And no profanity.
THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (1944). True account (well given a sentimental/patriotic slant) of five close-knit brothers killed in battle during WW2. Deals mainly with the family growing up, with folksy life lessons and gentle humor. Today's generation may cringe at some of the dated dialogue, including the expression, “That's swell.” But I would remind under-twenty-somethings that, in their future, the idiom “dude” will also cause ridicule. Starring Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond, Bobby Driscoll, Anne Baxter.
(1998) Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon. A squadron is ordered to find and safely retrieve a soldier whose three brothers have been killed in combat. The first battle scene taking place on Omaha Beach is over 20 minutes long, containing controversial amounts of horrific violence. Now famous for its grisly action scenes, the most moving moments do not take place during battle, but toward the beginning as the mother hears of her sons' deaths, and at the end when a veteran, who has returned to the cemetery in France, salutes a fallen comrade. A powerful film that has led to a renewed interest in the sacrifices made during WW2. Rated R (there is profanity & obscenity sprinkled throughout, but not the overwhelming amount I had anticipated; extremely graphic, often nauseating, wartime violence, including parts of bodies exposed, amputations, one man carrying his own arm, bullets going through helmets, lots of blood spurting any time someone is shot, etc; two sexual conversations, but treated tastefully; a mother's reaction to the news of her three sons' deaths is heartbreaking; much intensity).
RED TAILS (2011). Over the years, I’ve seen quite a few war films that indicated the bravery, compassion and the uniqueness of the American soldier. Sadly, there are few films that spotlight this quality in men of color. There are some, just not that many. Red Tails does. It’s a positive film that after spotlighting bad behavior ultimately unites us all as Americans.
NEVER SO FEW (1959). This is a well-acted wartime romance mixed with action sequences of American forces fighting the Japanese in Burma. Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Peter Lawford, Gina Lollobrigida.
THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK (1983). Made for television, this true story concerns a priest (Gregory Peck) who harbored allied POW escapees and the Nazi official (Christopher Plummer) who tries to catch him. Contains a very powerful ending. A true example of Christ's compassion, which reminds us to love our enemies. Not rated.
BATTLEGROUND (1949). Van Johnson and James Whitmore head an impressive ensemble in this reflective account of the Battle of the Bulge. Oscars went to the writer (Robert Pirosh) and cinematographer (Paul C. Vogel). Engrossing and moving.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957). A psychological battle of wills, great action sequences, and a moving show of comradeship as POWs build a bridge for their captors. Epic in scope and dynamically involving. Directed by David Lean and starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa and Jack Hawkins. Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970). This involving war drama details Japan’s step-by-step movements leading up to the surprise bombardment.
12 O’CLOCK HIGH (1949). A brilliant WW2 epic about stressed-out flyers based in England, this film successfully shows men dealing with stress and finding meaning. Stars Gregory Peck, with Dean Jagger giving an Oscar performance for his supporting role.
(2005). Director John Dahl recreates the gritty reality-based story of one of the most spectacular rescue missions ever to take place in American history: “the great raid on Cabanatuan,” the daring exploit that would liberate more than 500 U.S. prisoners of war on the Philippines in 1945. A gripping depiction of human resilience, the film vividly brings to life the personal courage and audacious heroism that allowed a small but stoic band of World War II soldiers to attempt the impossible in the hope of freeing their captured brothers. R (3 profanities, 8 or so obscenities and a few minor expletives, but for a war film, the language is very mild; what’s more, there is a great deal of thoughtful dialogue and several moments that reveal men of faith and a reverence for God; the film receives its rating mainly for the graphic violence and themes including a narration at the top that details the abuse of victims including the fact that 15,000 people died during the Death March; that said, nothing is done exploitatively – this is not a Rambo movie, but a real moment in history; yes, some of it is difficult to watch, but so many gave up so much in order to end a cancer that threatened to destroy the soul of man. Their sacrifice should be depicted and therefore, remembered).
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. Clint Eastwood directed and Steven Spielberg was one of the producers. February 1945: even as victory in Europe was finally within reach, the war in the Pacific raged on. One of the most crucial and bloodiest battles of the war was the struggle for the island of Iwo Jima, which culminated with what would become one of the most iconic images in history: five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Spielberg can sleep well, knowing they have made a masterpiece that succeeds on many levels. the artistic and technical merits stand out as the screenplay scrutinizes the guilt-ridden lives of those in the picture. Mr. Eastwoods vision gives us a thoroughly involving examination of men taken over by war and publicity.
CAPTAIN NEWMAN, M.D. (1963). No matter the justification for war, we all pay a price. This comedy/drama concerns psychiatrist Gregory Peck battling bureaucracy on a stateside air base during WWII as he attempts to aid troubled soldiers. Singer Bobby Darin was deservedly nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar. The film also stars Angie Dickinson, Tony Curtis, Eddie Albert Larry Storch and Robert Duvall.
IN HARMS WAY (1965). John Wayne heads an all-star cast in Otto Preminger’s epic account of the beginning of WWII. Though overlong and at times melodramatic, still the director’s scope, battle sequences and the Duke’s solid performance (his nickname is Rock) make for interesting viewing.
VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965). Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard lead a daring escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in this first-rate, action-charged war drama.
VALKYRIE (2008). Based on the true story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), the film tells of the daring plot to kill Adolph Hitler. Aided by a sophisticated cameral drive, the director’s clever visceral style, and a fine supporting cast, VALKYRIE becomes a topnotch action thriller. It’s a testament to the writer/director that we’re sitting there fully believing the would-be assassins might just achieve their task. Now, that’s good cinema technique, when it causes us to hope for a new outcome. PG-13 for one obscene word (the f-word), but I caught no misuse of God’s name or other offending language. The film also features some wartime atrocities and a few jolting explosions, one causing the disfigurement of the lead (he loses a hand and an eye), but the filmmakers do not assault us with battlefront atrocities; although there are graphic executions of several men who attempted the assassination, nothing is meant to be exploitive, rather, simply informative. An image is worth a thousand words.
RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958). Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable star as officers at odds in this tense, well-made submarine drama. Directed by Robert Wise, who tackled every film genre there is, and did them each well (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Executive Suite, Helen of Troy, Tribute to a Bad Man, I Want to Live…and the list goes on).
A FAREWELL TO ARMS
THE FIGHTING 69TH
THE LOST PATROL
PATHS OF GLORY