As we head into another long holiday weekend (yes, the blog will be closed on Monday), Memorial Day seems like a good opportunity to watch some classic war movies. In this week’s Roundtable, we’ll offer our suggestions for some of the best.
For me, the film that best embodies both the heroism and sacrifice of war is 1989’s ‘Glory‘. The movie tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first all-black regiment of soldiers in both the Union Army and in American history. Unlike many other war movies, the men aren’t just fighting for their country; they’re fighting for their own personal liberty, which makes their story even more engaging. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of a Union private, and both Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick are great here as well. Although it only covers one small aspect of the Civil War, I can’t think of a better American film on the War between the States than ‘Glory’.
It’s more of a sidelines-of-war story, but ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai‘ is hard to beat. So many great characters. A glimpse at the idiocy of war, and the ultimate folly of seemingly important work. That ending! They don’t get any better or more iconic than this one.
Made almost 70 years ago, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives‘ explores the deep emotional and social challenges of veterans returning from WWII. This movie deservedly won 7 Academy Awards. As was the fashion of the time, the stories and dialog are direct without irony or sarcasm. Unspoken emotion and pain still found plenty of places to hide – in silence, in anger, in alcohol. The film is still amazingly relevant, as the challenges faced by the characters are the same faced by our veterans today. The technologies of war may change over time, but the hearts of men do not.
It doesn’t get mentioned as often as the heavy hitters of the genre, but a little piece of my heart will always belong to ‘The Guns of Navarone‘. Fairly light for a war film, ‘The Guns of Navarone’ rides on the back of its memorable characterizations. Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn all shine in career-highlight performances. The film has more of an adventure feel, and doesn’t spend much time moralizing about the folly of war. Instead, it simply gives these characters a goal and lets them get to it. By keeping the scope small (which isn’t to say that the movie itself feels small), we’re allowed to sit back and enjoy the ride.
I was 17-years-old when ‘Saving Private Ryan‘ opened, but even then I was aware of the necessity of large screens and loud top-notch sound for certain movies. A few days after it opened, I traveled 45 minutes from my desert hometown to see it at the biggest screen in the area, which happened to be the AMC 30 at the Ontario Mills mall in Southern California. A friend and I made the mid-week morning journey to see it together. When we got there, I was surprised to see that we were the only youngsters there. Without exaggeration, everyone else in the theater – of which there were probably 20 or 30 other couples – were old enough to remember World War II.
The film itself completely pulled me in. The opening beach sequence nearly put me into shock. Throughout the picture, I experienced the heavy emotions and loss that the characters went through. As the closing credits ran, nobody moved. Once all the tears had dried up, I mustered up the courage to look around the theater. I’ve never seen so many aged men sobbing in my life. Many of them were being tightly held in the arms of their wives. It was obvious that much of what they saw in the movie rang true. What an amazing and unforgettable moviegoing experience.
M. Enois Duarte
A long-time favorite war movie of mine is Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon‘. Although other movies dealing with Vietnam had been released prior to this 1980s classic, this particular masterpiece was the first told by an actual veteran of the war and loosely based on real-life experiences. Ingeniously, Stone structured the narrative like a modern-day Greek allegory, situating his main character – the innocent and inexperienced Chris Taylor – between the battle of good versus evil. The landscape serves not only as a literal war against the Viet Cong but also as a metaphorical battle for the psychological and emotional battle of one’s moral integrity.
‘A Bridge Too Far‘ is a World War II epic that succeeds as microcosm for the entire war while presenting a balance between enjoyable, popcorn entertainment and the very somber consequences of a righteous but nevertheless misguided offensive. The film is packed with stars, but amazingly unlike the work of many other ensemble casts, what’s on screen is scene after scene of compelling narrative. Of course, so much went on behind the film – what it took to get it made, to stage all of the airborne footage, how it dealt with an ambitious but disastrous Allied offensive – that you the sense that the everyone on screen is working together to accomplish something. That fear of failure pervading the characters makes it incredibly difficult not to root the good guys in spite of the fated conclusion.
I can’t think of another movie that better captures the chaos, confusion and madness of war than Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece ‘Apocalypse Now‘. At the end of its notoriously troubled production, the director famously stated: “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It’s crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” Considering the results, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.
Whichever version you favor (I personally think that the original 1979 theatrical cut is still the artistically superior film, though I’ve come to appreciate the longer ‘Redux’ version as a different film with different intentions), ‘Apocalypse Now’ is more than just a war movie. It’s a movie about the very heart of the human soul, and the ease with which darkness can consume it. It’s brilliant.
What are your picks for some of the best war movies to watch this Memorial Day weekend? Share them in the Comments below.