Here’s my list.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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!”
- 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.
- 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.