William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Top 10 Military Movies

Here’s my list.

  1. Twelve O’Clock High : Inarguably the best. No show, no false notes, no forced emotion like you see so much nowadays. No political correctness in the sense that there are no directorial heavy-handed “war is evil” sub-tones. No actors posing or posturing. Utterly realistic. This takes place during a time when the outcome of the war was by no means assured. The actors believe it: there is no foreshadowing of ultimate victory here as in so many other movies. A son of a general learns his lesson that even the privileged must do what is expected of them. Gregory Peck is the perfect leader, trying to get “Maximum effort” from his men, giving more of himself than he asks from anybody.
  2. Tora! Tora! Tora! : Stays exceptionally close to what is known historically. Brilliant idea to have a Japanese director direct Japanese actors reading lines written by Japanese writers. Increases the sense of realism to a remarkable degree. The “special effects” are astonishing, especially since no computers were involved (Thank God). Gordon Prange (who wrote many Pearl Harbor books) contributed to the script—which is why we never see the emperor Hirohito’s involvement (Prange could never let himself believe that the Showa emperor was what he was). People who know me won’t watch this with me anymore because I like to point out just what did and did not happen at each moment in the movie.
  3. The Train : The modern answer to “What is worth fighting and dying for?” is nothing. Ask anybody. It is the wrong answer. “Labiche! Here’s your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Give you a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck: you stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche—a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine; they always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it! They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn’t tell me why you did what you did.”
  4. Stalag 17 : I never tire of watching this. This is Wilder at his very best. I swear I can see into the windows of those Russian showers. This movie is about one thing: the triumph of duty over cynicism. Because it is a mystery set in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, I don’t want to spoil the ending if you haven’t yet seen it. “Ach so.” “At ease.”
  5. Bridge on the River Kwai : This movie continues the theme: Life is duty. But it’s not always easy to see what that duty is. What is astonishing is to watch Saito lose everything as he gains exactly what he claims he wants. Col. Nicholson’s awakening pops like a high voltage switch, but in slow motion. One man again returns to do what he does not want, but does so because he knows it’s the right thing to do.
  6. The Caine Mutiny : Just as fresh today as when it first came out. Watch with a lefty and hear them cheer on theory-spouting Keefer. You want to believe with Keefer that you don’t have to do what you’re told because you obviously know better than your superiors. Everybody comes to Keefer’s side, which leads to the mutiny. The post courts martial scene, when we see yet again how easy it is to fall in love with an idea you want to be true, is just stunning, amazing. Mandatory viewing in today’s therapy culture. I recommend reading the book, too.
  7. The Guns of Navarone : A cynic discovers a spy in the heroes’ group but refuses his responsibility. “I’ll leave the killing to you, an officer and a gentleman, a leader of men!” “You had free ride up to this time. Someone’s got to take the responsibility if the job’s going to get done! You think that’s easy?” Those are maybe the truest words in any movie. Writing them doesn’t do justice to the way Gregory Peck as Mallory brings them off. The entire point of the movie is this scene; blowing the guns of Navarone up is an afterthought. (Plus, I lust after the suit Peck wore in the beginning of the movie.)
  8. The Sand Pebbles : You might say that this movie is a dirge, the pacing is intentionally slow to stave off the ending which you know is coming but cannot avoid. Isn’t communism fun? The tension between the captain and old crew and newly arrived machinist’s mate Holman is initially caused because Holman wants to do what he thinks is his duty. The loyalty between the two groups never evaporates and it is the captain and crew who finds themselves doing what they must, which forces Holman to do what he doesn’t want. “What the hell happened!”
  9. Das Boot : Boredom, disinterest, waiting, exhilaration, sheer terror, incomprehension of orders from above, and at last duty, even to a failed cause. You can smell the sweat and the fumes emanating from the head, the burning wreckage and flesh of a torpedoed ship. No place is safe during war.
  10. From Here to Eternity : A new bugler refuses to box for his commander because he sees his job is soldering. He never buckles under the pressure….well, that’s the line. Truth is, I can’t put my finger on why I like this movie so much. Watching Burt Lancaster as the sharp top sergeant has something to do with it. The love stories are there, but they don’t appear to drive the movie. The love, not called that of course, between the men is stronger then between the men and women. It all falls back to people doing what they feel they must, even though they knowingly put themselves in harm’s way.

Honourable mentions: Casablanca (I was shocked the first time I saw the ending, truly; it is only here and not above because it’s not strictly a military movie, though it is in my top 10 of all movies), Patton (another that should be in the top 10, except that there can only be 10 top 10s), Sands of Iwo Jima (The Duke doesn’t make it), The Green Berets (This time he does), Buck Privates (“Who’s on First?”), African Queen (Bogart creates a role later reprised by Wayne in Rooster Cogburn) , Great Escape (McQueen almost made it), Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux (“I can kill again!”), Big Red One (Luke wields a rifle), Heartbreak Ridge (Clint Eastwood before he softened), The Hunt for Red October (Stayed close to the book), Little Big Man (Book was 7.5 orders of magnitude better; read it today), Stripes (“Would they send us someplace special for that?”), Zulu (Didn’t hone too close to history, but good), Run Silent, Run Deep (Better to read Beach, especially his history), Dirty Dozen (Everybody’s late night favorite).

As I look back over the list, which I made without considering anything but which I thought best, I see that all of these movies were made by adults for adults. No gratuitous explosions, no CGI (on the whole, a very negative influence in movies), no mugging, no petulant directing (as in nearly every movie made about Vietnam). No meditations on the already well learned lesson that war is bad (“It is? Really? If only we had known! Thank you, Mr Director!”). And except for From Here to Eternity and just slightly Sand Pebbles, no unnecessary love stories.

The major theme in the movies is obviously duty and personal honor, now almost dead concepts in our society. Not that plenty of individuals don’t hold tightly onto these ideas; they do. But it’s exceedingly rare to find examples of them in popular entertainment. The predominant messages nowadays seems to be, feel good about yourself, save your own skin, complain about trivialities because those trivialities might cause minor inconvenience or they might sting (“He called me a bad name!”) . Very strange, especially considering the religion upon which our culture is based was founded on the idea of a man doing what He thought He had to but wanted to avoid. At this time, I have no explanation for the change in tide.

60 Comments

  1. Great list. I would add Galipoli, Catch 22, Breaker Morant, and best of all The Light Horsemen(1987). What was that Modagshi movie with the choppers? That was a great movie too. The Deer Hunter was good too – there are so many.

  2. An excellent list. I’ll add that Twelve O’Clock High also became very popular in management courses and seminars as a study in leadership.

  3. What? The Longest Day doesn’t make it? Not even an honorable mention?

    Sad…

  4. Great topic. You probably have invented a great political litmus test – for guys at least.

    Twelve O’Clock High: Absolutely agree — this is probably one of the most popular leadership movies.
    Tora! Tora! Tora! : Agree, much better than Midway.
    The Train : Doesn’t stand out for me.
    Stalag 17 : Agree.
    Bridge on the River Kwai : Agree, but really depressing.
    The Caine Mutiny : Absolutely agree and your comments are spot on — this is a litmus test for those who feel more than think.
    The Guns of Navarone : Agree.
    The Sand Pebbles : I have to see this again.
    Das Boot : Absolutely agree – the scene where the Captain lets the chief engineer do his job is another critical point.
    From Here to Eternity : Not one of my favorites.
    Casablanca: Too campy for me …African Queen is better.
    Patton: Absolutely agree.
    Sands of Iwo Jima: Agree.
    The Green Berets: OK.
    Buck Privates: Uhh?
    African Queen: Agree – though not really a war movie.
    Great Escape: Like the Longest Day, too much of a showcase.
    Big Red One: I have to see this again.
    Heartbreak Ridge: Agree – what color is your t-shirt?
    The Hunt for Red October – Agree. A great page turner of a book that was excruciatingly badly written. The last time I could stand watching Alex Baldwin.
    Little Big Man: So So.
    Stripes: Agree, but last part was a bit silly and unfunny
    Zulu: I really like this movie…should be watched with Zulu Dawn with Peter O’Toole which is historically more complete and explains why so many Victoria Crosses were handed out for Rorke’s Drift. Propaganda, akin to the beatification of Custer.
    Run Silent, Run Deep: Agree, though the Enemy Below is equally interesting but spoiled by the Good German bit.
    Dirty Dozen: Agree — Telly Savalas is an arch type to be truly worried about.

    Missing Greats:

    When we were soldiers — a great Mel Gibson movie without a visual crucifixion.
    Waterloo — Plummer is the quintessential Wellington and the visuals are terrific. It also kept the Russian Army busy and harmless for a bit. Sadly, the original 3 hour version is still not available.
    Enemy at the Gates — Two men, one gun and a few bullets – ain’t socialism great!!
    Stalingrad – German made. Really, really nasty.

    The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan — well, actually the whole thing, but the landing was truly amazing.
    633 Squadron — Target fixation will get you killed
    The recent TV movie about the US Regiment in the Argonne Forest

    Best low budget epic movie — Gettysburg — Shaara’s amazing book (Killer Angels) was the movie script!!

  5. Briggs

    November 26, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Ari,

    I like The Longest Day well enough—it’s an order of magnitude or two better than, say, Saving Private Ryan which started at D-Day—but I don’t think it’s ultimately successful. I don’t have anything negative to say, except the compilation cast and story was a little too compilation-y.

    John,

    Good additions.

  6. Matt,

    Fair enough. Your inclusion of Tora! Tora! Tora! is interesting, by the way. As a Japanese speaker, I find that Tora! Tora! Tora! is one of the best examinations of Japan’s role in Pearl Harbor– certainly better than the Ben Affleck mess of a “film.” It also, funnily enough, was more accurate with the Japanese language of the era than Letters from Iwo Jima. Not that the aforementioned film was bad (I personally enjoyed it), but Letters had a few too many anachronistic uses of language for me to suspend disbelief. Oh well.

    But no mention of Lawrence, either? I dunno, sir.

    I also must argue that Kurosawa’s Ran is, if not a “Western” exemplar of the war movie, at the very least an interesting take on the subject itself. Perhaps a bit more nihilistic than your list, but I think nowhere is Kurosawa’s brilliance with the wide shot more evident than in Ran. Plus, it’s one of the most interesting treatments of King Lear ever done, if you ask me.

    By the way, what kind of formatting is allowed in comments? I rather dislike not being able to properly format film titles.

  7. Regeneration? If not a top 10, certainly an honourable mention.

  8. Red Dawn. . .

    For obvious reasons

  9. Briggs

    November 26, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Ari,

    I’ll agree with you about Ran; a definite honourable mention. You can use most HTML markup tags. Certainly the em tag.

    Conrad,

    I’ve never seen, nor even heard, of Regeneration. Looks interesting.

    the Deetz,

    Ok, file that one under guilty pleasure.

  10. All quiet on the Western Front is a good war movie and a great book.

  11. Matt,

    One last comment before I go out: The Final Countdown deserves mention just for being so darn…err… something.

    Man, I need to go watch your list again. I’m excited.

    Bill,

    Mueller: Listen, the sum of an arithmetic series is S = A + L times N over 2. Interesting, isn’t it?
    Katczinsky: What do you want to learn that stuff for…? One day you’ll stop a bullet and it’ll all be worthless.

  12. Great topic. You probably have invented a great political litmus test – for guys at least.

    Twelve O’Clock High: Absolutely agree — this is probably one of the most popular leadership movies.

    Tora! Tora! Tora! : Agree, much better than Midway.

    The Train : Doesn’t stand out for me.

    Stalag 17 : Agree.

    Bridge on the River Kwai : Agree, but really depressing.

    The Caine Mutiny : Absolutely agree and your comments are spot on — this is a litmus test for those who feel more than think.

    The Guns of Navarone : Agree.

    The Sand Pebbles : I have to see this again.

    Das Boot : Absolutely agree – the scene where the Captain lets the Chief Engineer do his job is another critical leadership point.

    From Here to Eternity : Not one of my favorites.

    Casablanca: Too campy for me …African Queen is better.

    Patton: Absolutely agree.

    Sands of Iwo Jima: Agree.

    The Green Berets: OK.

    Buck Privates: Uhh?

    African Queen: Agree – though not really a war movie.

    Great Escape: Like the Longest Day, too much of a showcase.

    Big Red One: I have to see this again.

    Heartbreak Ridge: Agree – what color is your t-shirt?

    The Hunt for Red October – Agree. A great page turner of a book that was excruciatingly badly written. The last time I could stand watching Alex Baldwin.

    Little Big Man: So So.

    Stripes: Agree, but last part was a bit silly and unfunny

    Zulu: I really like this movie…should be watched with Zulu Dawn with Peter O’Toole which is historically more complete and explains why so many Victoria Crosses were handed out for Rorke’s Drift. Propaganda, akin to the beatification of Custer.

    Run Silent, Run Deep: Agree, though the Enemy Below is equally interesting but spoiled by the Good German bit.

    Dirty Dozen: Agree — Telly Savalas is an arch type to be truly worried about.

    Missing Greats:

    When we were soldiers — a great Mel Gibson movie without a visual crucifixion.

    Waterloo — Plummer is the quintessential Wellington and the visuals are terrific. It also kept the Russian Army busy and harmless for a bit. Sadly, the original 3 hour version is still not available.

    Enemy at the Gates — Two men, one gun and a few bullets – ain’t socialism great!!

    Stalingrad – German made. Really, really nasty.

    The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan — well, actually the whole thing, but the landing was truly amazing.

    633 Squadron — Target fixation will get you killed

    The recent TV movie about the US Regiment in the Argonne Forest

    Best low budget epic movie — Gettysburg — Shaara’s amazing book (Killer Angels) was the movie script!!

  13. Great topic. You probably have invented a great political litmus test – for guys at least.

    Twelve O’Clock High: Absolutely agree — this is probably one of the most popular leadership movies.

    Tora! Tora! Tora! : Agree, much better than Midway.

    The Train : Doesn’t stand out for me.

    Stalag 17 : Agree.

    Bridge on the River Kwai : Agree, but really depressing.

    The Caine Mutiny : Absolutely agree and your comments are spot on — this is a litmus test for those who feel more than think.

    The Guns of Navarone : Agree.

    The Sand Pebbles : I have to see this again.

    Das Boot : Absolutely agree – the scene where the Captain lets the Chief Engineer do his job is another critical leadership point.

    From Here to Eternity : Not one of my favorites.

    Casablanca: Too campy for me …African Queen is better.

    Patton: Absolutely agree.

    Sands of Iwo Jima: Agree.

    The Green Berets: OK.

    Buck Privates: Uhh?

    African Queen: Agree – though not really a war movie.

    Great Escape: Like the Longest Day, too much of a showcase.

    Big Red One: I have to see this again.

    Heartbreak Ridge: Agree – what color is your t-shirt?

    The Hunt for Red October – Agree. A great page turner of a book that was excruciatingly badly written. The last time I could stand watching Alex Baldwin.

    Little Big Man: So So.

    Stripes: Agree, but last part was a bit silly and unfunny.

    Zulu: I really like this movie…should be watched with Zulu Dawn with Peter O’Toole which is historically more complete and explains why so many Victoria Crosses were handed out for Rorke’s Drift. Propaganda, akin to the beatification of Custer.

    Run Silent, Run Deep: Agree, though the Enemy Below is equally interesting but spoiled by the Good German bit.

    Dirty Dozen: Agree — Telly Savalas is an arch type to be truly worried about.

    Missing Greats:

    When We Were Soldiers — a great Mel Gibson movie without a visual crucifixion.

    Waterloo — Plummer is the quintessential Wellington and the visuals are terrific. It also kept the Russian Army busy and harmless for a bit. Sadly, the original 3 hour version is still not available.

    Enemy at the Gates — Two men, one gun and a few bullets – ain’t socialism great!!

    Stalingrad – German made. Really, really nasty.

    The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan — well, actually the whole thing, but the landing was truly amazing.

    633 Squadron — Target fixation will get you killed

    The recent TV movie about the US Regiment in the Argonne Forest

    Best low budget epic movie — Gettysburg — Shaara’s amazing book (Killer Angels) was the movie script!!

  14. What about ‘The Enemy Below’? 1957, Robert Mitchum, Kurt Jurgens

    I watch it every time it’s on tv.

  15. Also agree-great topic.

    I’m a sucker for submarine movies. I second the choice of The Enemy Below, and I don’t mind the good German.

    Also agree that Midway was disappointing, although it had potential, and the military part was pretty accurate. Needed to drop the love interest soap opera, though.

    Another good one, that’s a cold war movie and a submariner too, is Ice Station Zebra. Has a convuluted plot that I’m still learning about every time I see it.

  16. I always get a little choked up when I watch the ending of To Hell And Back.

  17. Briggs

    November 26, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    Bernie,

    Ok, Buck Privates is a stretch. But I always liked Abbot and Costello.

  18. Briggs:
    Like escargot, Abbot and Costello are definitely an acquired taste.

    Netflix/Blockbuster should start advertising on your Blog!

  19. Great topic.

    Ricky Schroeder was in “The Lost Battalion” tv movie about the Argonne woods. Great flick.

    “The Longest Day” is my personal favorite. First time in my life that the Germans spoke German and used subtitles, not English with a German accent!

    Add to the list “Glory” (Black Civil War Regiment with Matthew Broderick).

    Agree that “Killer Angels” was a terrific book that the movie “Gettysburg” was based on. A little too much exposition made some of the dialog stilted but who can forget the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge down Big Round Top? And, Pickett’s Charge. “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg!”

  20. Gregory Peck!

    Looks like there are not many made after 1990?! You guys watch too much TCM or AMC. :)

    I want to mention G.I Jane starring Demi Moore just because…

  21. I also like “The Enemy Below”. Also, in “Navarone” Gregory Peck pulls off a great line along the lines (paraphrased) of, “…you’ve got me in the mood to use this thing, and so help me God, I’m going to use it on you if you don’t…”.

  22. You’re forgetting Dr. Strangelove. It’s not anti war by showing the cruelty of war it’s just saying the obvious: people are crazy.

    And The Grand Illusion from France. Not that they know too much about war.

    And of course Top Secret—that’s my number one.

  23. Briggs

    November 26, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    JH,

    GI Jane. Oh, groan…

    Costanza,

    That line came right after the one I quoted.

    WJB,

    Yes, I was negligent, Top Secret is a definite Honourable Mention.

    I know we’re all supposed to see the wit, sagacity, and wisdom of the line “No fighting in the war room”, but that’s no better than one of my jokes. Still, Kubrick…Thank you, Mr Director!

  24. Bernie,
    Abbot and Costello were great but I won’t eat snails.

    Briggs,
    Well written, with all of your summing up there. I haven’t seen some on that list but I’m not going to say which.
    I watched Hunt for Red October with friends, one of whom was a submariner in the Royal Navy at the time who gave a ‘helpful’ running commentary on where it was wrong. The ‘dodging’ tactics were apparently quite correct although my terminology is not. Where was “Zulu” incorrect? I know the soldiers were not welsh.
    “The Eagle Has Landed”, For atmosphere and excitement. Is a great afternoon film.
    “The battle of Britain”: Churchill’s words summing it up.
    “Reach for the Sky” is a fabulous story about the man.
    “Sink the Bismarck”, “The Great Escape”, “The Dam Busters”. I’m surprised most of these have not appeared above.
    They haven’t made one about Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of my heroes from the age of about eight, but they ought to. HMS Victory in Portsmouth is one of the greatest historical destinations. To stand on lower deck, painted red, by order of the Admiralty to disguise the blood. I expect they don’t tell children that now.
    Then the plaque, “here Nelson fell”, words on a brass plaque set into the upper deck.
    King George V, I think, remarked,
    “I’m not surprised, I nearly tripped over it myself.”
    As you say, such a film would be sterilised for the modern pallet, any females would be shown as strong and most influential. The culture of 21st Century would find it’s way in, they work it into Henry VIII, why not have Lady Hamilton doing Karate?
    Perhaps we will see a change in this approach. Storytellers make modern day judgements that are out of context, and reveal a lack of insight and, ironically, a lack of compassion towards the characters they portray.
    The older films had an honesty and believability about them that is, strangely, refreshing to watch. There’s a delicate balance between aesthetics and realism. The great old films achieved this in good measure. Modern filmmakers covering any historical subject don’t know when to keep their sugar dry.
    On ”Saving Private Ryan”,
    I treated a delightful gentleman who was involved in the D-Day landings. He said they had to jump out of the boat up to their high chest in water. He was carrying a Bren gun, which, he said, was extremely heavy, above his head to keep it dry. He was the mug as this would have made him the target, (although he didn’t tell me that), he did, regularly remark that he had a piece of shrapnel “the size of a corned beef tin” in his shoulder blade that was left in situ. He didn’t give much detail of what he saw. He lost friends, one of them six feet from him. They didn’t knock the Bren gun out though. “No one can ever know, a man can’t make sense of such a scene, complete madness, and you don’t know what you’re doing.” He said. “A man shouldn’t have to see those things”.
    I’d say the ”Private Ryan” beach-landing scene was accurate as is reasonable to expect.
    I’m reminded to watch some from that list though. I find when counting favourite films it’s best to have a top ten in the loosest sense,
    i.e. like 10! = as many as you like if you run out of slots.

  25. Nothing on the US Cavalry…. shame…

    1. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon –
    2. Fort Apache
    3. Rio Grande

    They may come under the Western catagory but they are still military movies.

  26. Not a movie, as such, but Band of Brothers (2001) rang quite true for me.

    Also:

    Black Hawk Down (2001) for demonstrating the power of capital in equipping and training soldiers

    The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel (1951) on a man on the other side doing his duty

    The Der Untergang (Downfall – 2004), engrossingly recounting Hitler’s final days

    Glory (1989) gives some insight into US Civil War, and features Denzel Washington with a dangerous glow not seen in his later movies

    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) grabbed my imagination, allowing me to fully understand how it might have been live in that earlier time

    Sergeant York (1941), which seriously examines the tension between faith and duty, including duty to kill — when was the last time a western movie took faith seriously?

    We Were Soldiers (2002), which I second, for its honesty, and the modern production values (especially the sound) which adds to the sense of being there. My review — and response to some of its critics — is here (covers the Australian Blu-ray version).

    And for my number one: a wobbly, jiggly, cowardly, mommy’s boy Charles Laughton surviving and making the hardest choice of all, while under enemy occupation, in Jean Renoir’s This Land Is Mine (1943).

  27. Briggs

    November 26, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    Stephen,

    We’ll not agree with Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. It was visually sumptuous, I’ll admit. But it had next to nothing to do with O’Brian’s books, of which I am a very great fan. The meaning, context, relationships, plot, everything, was changed radically from the books, and never once in a good way. I mean to write about this at length later.

    Bob,

    Good additions, all.

    All,

    I have just been reminded by my family that I have forgot one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies. Down Periscope, a modern throwback to the way they used to make B movies; great fun.

  28. One of the all time greats and for many critics the best of all time was, “In Harm’s Way.” Wayne never better and with an all start supporting cast. From the start of WWII with Pearl getting hit, to the stomping across the Pacific and the battle scene’s were terrrific.

    FERV888

  29. I confess, I haven’t read any of the Master and Commander books. Last time I read something of the kind was back in the early 70s when, as a young lad, I plowed throught the entire Hornblower series.

    I was primed by the movie version of M&C by the brilliant sound design (when that cannonball careens through the ship, a power surround sound system and subwoofer makes half the scene), and when the young fellow — Midshipman is he? — had to lose an arm, it had me.

    But if you know a book, a movie version can be horrible. Especially if it constitutes a betrayal of the book. One movie that should have been able to appear on your top ten list is Starship Troopers. Unfortunately, the movie was made by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumeier, both of whom avowedly repudiated the themes of the book. Apparently the movie is fairly enjoyable to those who don’t know the book (although quite how they can overcome the ludicrous science and total military incompetence, I don’t understand).

    As to the Robert Heinlein book itself, my son, who is now an Infantry Lieutenant in the Australian Army, lent it to one of his classmates last year, and the classmate pronounced that it was the first novel he had ever read which properly expressed why one might fight.

  30. I agree with Steve D. The books are almost always better than the movies. From Here To Eternity was a dull movie but a classic great book. Catch 22 did not work at all as a movie, but is a tremendous book.

    Maybe you need to make a different list for readers, all two or three of us that are left. Books make you think; movies are TSDs.

  31. Alan D. McIntire

    November 26, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    I enjoyed Herman Wouk’s book, “The Caine Mutiny”, but found the movie a disappointment. I think the general case for me is, if I see the movie first I can enjoy both the movie and the book, but if I’ve read the book first, the movie is generally a disappointment, having edited out a lot of interesting scenes covered in the book.

    How about putting an end of the war movie in there,
    “The Best Years of our Lives”, with Frederick March and Dana Andrews? My father, like the lead character in the movie, was a WWII Army Air Force combat veteran. That movie had my father in tears.

  32. Ferv888,
    The start of World War II with Pearl Harbour getting hit?

  33. No mention of Full Metal Jacket?

  34. Master and Commander was extremely disappointing – except for a couple of scenes of life below decks.
    Patrick O’Brian would have been disappointed and probably pretty annoyed.

    Joy:
    “The Eagle Has Landed” — Agree
    “The Battle of Britain” — Not as memorable as 633 Squadron despite Churchill’s exquisite epigram
    “Reach for the Sky” I only have a vague recollection of this one.
    “Sink the Bismarck” — Agree, the propaganda value was immense given the tragedy of the Hood
    “The Great Escape” — A showcase – McQueen and Garner were pretty good
    “The Dam Busters” – interesting but really poor special effects.

  35. Bernie,
    If you do nothing else, do yourself a favour and watch “Reach for the Sky“ again. This is a totally true story about Douglas Bader. That’s how to lead. Not sure it could be implemented in the office though, they might think you’d lost it if you started knotting a sheet and climbing out of the window. He was a driven man and one of the ‘few’ Churchill referred to in his speech. Had it been a work of fiction, no one would have believed it could ever happen.
    “Dam Busters” Am I too forgiving not to notice the special effects? I grew up being subjected to “Dr. Who” after all. The Darlics were enough to send a girl running behind the sofa. I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s the story that counts for me. As I know it really happened, that’s what gives the impact. Special effects are an afterthought.

  36. Sorry to be a smart-arse but the 20th Maine charged down Little Round Top – not the big one.

  37. Joy:
    Will do. Bader certainly was one amazing dude.

  38. I won’t dwelve much in the thematic of the post, it’s not my fav theme in cinema, but I agree with the mentions I can recognize and I like the commentary that you put in your selections. I got quite interested in the Caine’s Mutiny only for your comment on it.

    I just didn’t like this sentence:

    The modern answer to “What is worth fighting and dying for?” is nothing

    I resent that remark. First, because it’s a common pattern I see from elder people, yearning for their youth times (oh, those were the times, when we had true beards and were true honorable men! When honor was a meaningful word and etc. Nowadays, just junk!), and not even realizing it’s a very potent consequence of the observer effect. My granny said that her times were the best, even though there was no water, there was famine, disease, no electricity, ignorance, prejudice and superstition abounded. But hey, those were the times, where right now people are just dumb and idiotic.

    I bet that if we had a time machine, these myths would be broken in that same day, for we would send all these yearning people to the times they all so yearn, until they would shout to take them back asap. It would take an hour or two, I guess.

    Now, that people have probably have forgotten what is worth dying for in this era of wealth and peace, is paradoxically probably correct. The corollary is that it is only true because we live in a good age, so it’s more difficult to discern good from evil. It’s also a more complex world. Full of stuff. It’s such an Apples to Oranges comparison, that I resent it. Sorry.

  39. Joy: As it happens, I’ve been working my way through Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War. I just finished and returned to the library volume 2, which brings me up to January of 1941 as the history begins in 1918, where the seeds of WW II, at least in Europe, are planted.

    The thing is, in terms of naval action, the only action so far that didn’t take place in the Atlantic Ocean was some German commerce raiding in the Indian Ocean, and although there is some discussion of the Burma Road and its use to supply the Chinese already fighting the Japanese in China, Churchill writes in this volume about how he hopes to not be fighting Japan any time soon.

    I also understand that in terms of naval fighting in the Atlantic, the British were far more heavily involved than any other forces. In particular, aside from some material support (such as the “destroyers for bases” deal and the construction of a great quantity of merchant shipping) the US largely left the fighting in the Atlantic in the capable hands of the British Navy

    “In Harm’s Way” is a story about a particular officer in the United State’s Navy who fought in the Pacific theater. As such, the vast majority of the characters are American (the main exception being an Australian) and for the US Navy in the Pacific Ocean, the war basically does start with the raid on Pearl Harbor.

    I must also comment on the “Hunt for Red October”. During the scene where Jack Ryan is lowered by helicopter to the Dallas, I couldn’t help but notice that theMy ocean was absolutely flat despite the supposedly terrible weather at the time.

    When I first saw this post, I made my own list, of course, and I made an effort to think of movies that were not about the Second World War. I also note that the title is “military movies” not “war movies” which removes two of the movies (“The Year of Living Dangerously” and “1776”) on my list.

    My “best” list is this:
    “In Harm’s Way”
    “Top Gun”
    “Hot Shots!”
    “Hell is for Heroes”
    “The Battle of Britain”
    “Patton”
    “Glory”
    “The Crossing”
    “Down Periscope”
    “BAT 21”

    “The Crossing” is a TV movie, (HBO, I think) I hope that’s all right. I wanted to have something in my list from the American Revolution.

    “Top Gun” and “Hot Shots” are a pair. You can’t really appreciate “Hot Shots!” unless you’ve seen “Top Gun”.

    My “honorable mention” list is much shorter.
    “The Bridges at Toko Ri”
    “Flight of the Intruder”
    “Gallipoli”

  40. To pick up on Briggs’ excellent description of the Caine Mutiny, the film ‘A Few Good Men’ attempts to develop the same theme but fails as a piece of propagandistic tripe. It is clumsy where Mutiny is subtle, though it does give us the metaphor of ‘on the wall.’

  41. It also gave us that classic line:

    You want the truth? huh? You can’t HANDLE the truth!

    But I agree, it’s simplistic. It gives a simple answer, where a more complex and disturbing one could have been found.

  42. Jonathan Guthrie:
    I haven’t seen most of those films.
    “The Gathering Storm” is supposed to be a good read.
    Seeds of war always are sewn before the outbreak or declaration occurs.
    On 1st September 1939 Hitler’s army invaded Poland;
    3rd September 1939,Britain and France declared war on Germany; Commonwealth nations joined; Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa had all joined by 10th September 1939.

  43. “Where Eagles Dare”, not “The Eagle has Landed”
    With Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, where they land by parachute in the snow at night in the mountains, that one!Not the one when they land on the moon.

  44. Jonathan Guthrie,

    Top Gun is like… I dunno… like McDonald’s french fries. It’s a guilty pleasure that has no real substance to it. It’s full of manufactured fake pleasure and in the end leaves you feeling a bit empty despite consuming so much of something. I really enjoy watching it with friends and calling out all the silly lines.

    By the way, I think La Vita e Bella is a potential “overlooked” addition, as well as Kagemusha. In fact, most of Kurosawa’s earlier pieces about war in Japan are quite good. It’s too bad nobody seems to have the same skillfulness that Kurosawa had– the Japanese directors included. None of the current Japanese-made war movies are even remotely as good as what Kurosawa gave us. They all seem to be of the same The Last Samurai mindset.

  45. Top Gun is like… I dunno… like McDonald’s french fries

    Ahah! So true! And I agree with La Vita e Bella. One of the most, if not the most, optimistic movie I’ve ever seen in my life. A father and a son in the middle of literal Hell, and laughing and playing as if it wasn’t. What best definition of hope is ever written or imagined? And please, don’t start with the nailed man on some branch of a tree, it simply doesn’t compare.

  46. A superb article. ‘Off topic’, but nonetheless superb.

  47. No The Americanization of Emily?

  48. Luis,
    Do you mean the scarecrow? “The Wizard of Oz” is not a military movie, although it does feature Russian monkey-soldiers.

  49. I think you guys are being too hard on the Master and Commander movie. A two hour movie to summarize a 20 volume opus is bound to get a 1000 things wrong. This business of relationships changing is somewhat true but that’s only because there’s no way to do what O’Brian did.

    O’Brian put men with 19th century morality in the 19th century. It would be so alien and disorienting to see in a movie without the expertly presented context of the books. Suppose the Jack had maintained the distance and detachment from the midshipmen he would have had in the books? To modern audiences it would have seemed unnecessarily cold without all kinds of explanation not really available to the director. Suppose they had shown Stephen as the near cold blooded killer he could sometimes be? (I seem to recall him dissecting some spies and awarding some organs – spleens? – to a friend.)

    The relationship between the Doctor and the Captain was roughly correct. They were tied together by a love of music. Stephen never scolded Jack on the quarterdeck (I had a fear of that – it’s a low bar, I admit but it was still a relief). The doctor *was* opposed to most forms of corporal punishment and could get in trouble because of it. The doctor *could* be petulant about not getting to collect biological samples. A lot of the events in the movie did happen in some book or other (just not the books advertised in the title).

    Anyway, this turned into a longer rant than I thought.

    I look forward to your posting on O’Brian.

    Great posting. I’d have made room for “The Great Escape” and possibly “Patton.”

  50. It’s a long span between Melville and O’Brian with Conrad in the middle. Therefore I would like to add Melville’s “Billy Budd” as one of the best nautical movies of all time.

    I would also like to add “Apocalypse Now” aka “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad as one of the war movies deserving, if not a top ten, at least an honourable mention.

  51. Joe:
    I don’t think that M&C handled the Maturin – Aubrey relationship well at all. The substitution of a French Raider for an American was pure box office – understandable but really awkward. Unfortunately it will be years before an Aubrey movie is attempted again.

  52. I have a soft spot for “The Cruel Sea” and “Ice Cold in Alex”.

    It was very striking how popular “Das Boot” was on British TV – popular in the sense of overhearing all sorts of people talking about it.

  53. Bob T. , you really hit it with the Wayne trilogy. The movies were based on books by a retired Calvary officer. I just this night watched “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” for the umteenth time, still good. Also, “The Seachers” is a war/military movie. I also just watched “Sargent York”. All very good. I will add another, “To Hell and Back” about/with Audie Murphy.

  54. Joy:

    Agree that “Where Eagles Dare” is quite a good film, though I’ve read that Burton was drunk through some of the shooting compelling Eastwood to do a “stunt” or two originally assigned to Burton’s character.

    “The Eagle Has Landed” is based on Higgins’ fine novel of a German commando raid in Britain gone very, very wrong.

  55. Zulu is one of my favorites.

  56. One that belongs at least in the top 50 but never makes anyone’s list is “The Man Who Never Was” (1956). No gore, no violence even, but a great war movie nevertheless. The opening sequence by itself is worth the price of the film.

    Another never-listed great (equally free of bloodshed, as it happens) is “Ike — Countdown to D-Day” (2004), with Tom Selleck as Eisenhower.

  57. The Kubrick masterpiece “Paths of Glory” is number 1 with a bullet. Nothing else comes close. Any list that does not include this film has simply not been thought through carefully. No Korea War era movies, specifically MASH? Sorry, it should be included. Also, no Viet Nam era film is included. Is there a reason? Personally, I would include the Mel Gibson movie We Were Soldiers. But I could see Hamburger Hill as a close second. I have not included Apocalypse Now, a great movie, because for me its a bit too pretentious.

  58. Briggs

    December 12, 2008 at 4:32 am

    boqueronmanon,

    No, I thought carefully and I purposely left Paths of Glory off the list. I know it’s one of those “films” one is supposed to praise, but I cannot. I don’t for an instant doubt the veracity of its story—I’m sure these and worse things happened.

    But it takes absolutely no effort to create a war movie that says (as I mentioned in the original article) “War is bad and bad things happen in war.” This is a truth that has always been evident. It’s far more difficult to show what good can come out of the sometimes brutal necessity of war. This is probably why few movies from after WWII show up.

    Now that I think of it, I can see I left off every movie that claimed or hinted that all authority is bad (Apocalypse Now) or personal responsibility should be allowed to be left to a whim (MASH).

  59. Fix Bayonets

    Go Tell the Spartans

    The Best Years of our Lives

    Gardens of Stone

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