My Favorite War Films

There’s something about war that inspires people’s imagination. Whether it’s the sword fight of a film like Captain Blood or the archery of Robin Hood or the sheer firepower of Battle of the Bulge, warfare has long been a favorite subject for Hollywood.

I think that one reason for this is simply because when someone’s shooting at you or trying to kill you with an axe or mace, there’s no space to worry about nuances, only to focus on the raw emotions, the unfiltered interaction between people. Stripping away all the pretensions of society, warfare is interesting and therefore excellent fodder for movies.
Since today is Memorial Day here in the United States, I’ve been thinking about war films and trying to decide which are a few that I really have found thought-provoking, frightening perhaps, and great cinema. And I’ll start with one that I’m sure will surprise you…

Iron Man

robert downey jr ironmanThe film is based on a comic book character so it’s not exactly Apocalypse Now, but in many ways, the storyline of Iron Man serves as a great example of what I find interesting about this genre. It starts out with Tony Stark, head of a highly technological arms manufacturer demonstrating the seeming invincibility of its new weapon line in a war zone. The demonstration is ambushed and Stark is kidnapped by guerilla rebels, all armed with Stark Industries equipment. While a prisoner, Stark is forced to create some powerful weapons and instead creates capability-enhancing body armor and fights his way through the rebels and back to the United States. 
Along the way he has an epiphany and decides that he wants to stop making weapons of destruction and work towards peace instead, just to find that his executive team then blocks him: they want to continue making money from arms deals.

In this nutshell are encapsulated all war films. The hubris of technological warfare (just as we were told about the “surgical strikes” during the Gulf War, just to later find that they weren’t quite as precise as we’d be told), the aggression of guerilla warriors who fight out of passion, the evils of the corporation and its momentum, and the business of war.

Full Metal Jacket

I’ve always been a big fan of Stanley Kubrick and when I found out he was working on a film about the Vietnam War, I was intrigued. Then he released Full Metal Jacket and I was both impressed and disappointed in the film. Like many films, this has a clear delineation between the first and second acts, where it’s almost two different films.  In FMJ the first half of the film is a powerful depiction of what I imagine it’s like in boot camp, while the second half is about what actually transpires when they’re “in country”, actually in Vietnam.
The first half is truly great filmmaking, and I defy anyone to watch it and not be shocked and stunned when Private Pyle (as played by veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio) ends his time in boot camp. Boot camp is one of those situations that’s tailor-made for dramatic storytelling, and it’s appeared in many, many movies throughout the years, but I think Kubrick, in Full Metal Jacket, captured it the best. Problem is, the second half of the movie wasn’t anywhere near as good in my opinion.

And…

Saving Private Ryan was an emotional assault and the first hour of the film, the depiction of the landing on Normandy, was as physical a film experience as I’ve had in a theater. Unfortunately, the rest of the film then devolved into a fairly pedestrian war movie, and by the end I really didn’t care much whether the titular Private Ryan was saved or not.
The pair of Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers are a fascinating view of the Battle of Iwo Jima told from the Japanese and American perspectives, respectively. Either works as a standalone film, but together it’s terrific, showing how what one side thinks is a critical strategic issue is a pointless hassle by the other. It also humanizes war in a way that most films still don’t, showing us the challenges, camaraderie and ultimate futility of the Japanese position dug in to the hills of the tiny island of Iwo Jima. Director Clint Eastwood created a thoughtful addition to the WWII canon of cinema.
I’ll add one more and then am really hoping you, dear reader, will add your own favorite war films to this discussion. My last addition is the wry, humorous, and ultimately depressing film M*A*S*H. Set during the least examined war of 20th Century America, the Korean War, the film is set in a medical field unit and focuses on the ways in which non-combatants cope with the endless stress of battle. It’s also notable – as is the similar film Catch-22 - in how it highlights the stupidity of not just war itself but of the military chain of command.
Enough about mine, though. What are your favorite war films, and why?

2 thoughts on “My Favorite War Films

  1. Cooper Strange

    I had a Vietnam vet tell me We Were Soldiers is the ONLY Vietnam film that is accurate. Some bigs things, some little things. If you want a film to tell you what it is really like, We Were Soldiers is good for that. And of course, in addition, it is a very well told story of a very important event, which combined with some ridiculous decision making by the top brass, catapults our nation into the most controversial war our nation has fought. The best aspect of We Were Soldiers is that it take away all that macro decisions which have been argued over and over again, and instead focuses on men fighting for each other, on both sides.

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  2. Kate

    Agree with you on “Full Metal Jacket”, and I absolutely think of it as two distinctly different films – one with Vincent D’Onofrio and one without. The other one that has always stuck with me is “Platoon” – not a particular fan of Stone or Sheen, but that movie haunted me.

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