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The Best War Movies — Tanks for the Memories

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glory PHOTO USEI’ve been on various TV and radio stations discussing my favorite movies over the years. When it’s around the holidays, it has been discussing my favorite Christmas movies. When Robin Williams died, it was discussing his film career. It wasn’t until yesterday morning on Memorial Day, that I had ever been asked to talk about war films. I was on KOGO 600 AM discussing them with Ted Garcia, and decided to write a much longer list than the 10 minutes we spent discussing some.

This list is in no particular order, and comes in various categories.

Going back to the Civil War:

GLORY. What a great cast: Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Cary Elwes. It won three of the five Oscars it was nominated for. It tells the story of the first unit of the Union army that was made up entirely of African-Americans.

GETTYSBURG.  Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, C. Thomas Howell, Sam Elliott…and even the actors you might not know like Donal Logue, Stephen Lang, and one-time James Bond George Lazenby – all were just perfect for their roles.

For the World Wars:

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. In 1977, I was an 8-year-old that was discovering Alec Guinness in Star Wars. It would be 20 years later, that I discovered him from a movie 20 years earlier than Star Wars. Guinness won an Oscar for “best actor” and the movie snagged 6 other gold statues. Well deserved.

DAS BOOT. This is the first movie I watched that had subtitles. I was 12, it was on HBO, and I thought I’d be bored. Submarine movies, with words on the screen, aren’t what usually appeal to kids that have an Atari game system with 50 cartridges to play.
PATTON. George C. Scott won a well-deserved Oscar, portraying one of the best characters on screen ever. I used to have a boss that jokingly quoted many lines Patton barked at his soldiers.

THE GREAT ESCAPE. Nice to see James Garner was able to escape his Maverick character. Interesting fun fact: Steve McQueen, who loved motorcycles and race cars, did all his stunts on the motorcycle. He also played the character that was chasing him on the motorcycle, since he was riding better than the stuntman (there’s no way a studio would let an actor do that today).

shinclders list PHOTOSCHINDLER’S LIST. Powerful movie. It brought Spielberg his first Oscars.

THE DIRTY DOZEN. There might not be a tougher cast in movie history: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Jim Brown after football, and Telly Savalas before lollipops.

Vietnam War:

FULL METAL JACKET. The first time I ever heard about an Oscar controversy was with this movie. It didn’t get nominated for “best picture” and critics were furious. Legendary director Stanley Kubrick didn’t get a nomination for it (it did snag a “best adapted screenplay” nomination). It didn’t deserve a nomination for “best picture” that year. Two of the cast members we were introduced to: R. Lee Ermey (the drill sergeant) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Pyle), both were a little over-the-top. It was great seeing former Chula Vista boy Matthew Modine (Joker). It’s a good war film, but not great.
APOCALYPSE NOW. The great Marlon Brando with a shaved head. Martin Sheen going nuts (including during the filming). The film starting with music by The Doors (The End), had water skiing with the Stones (Satisfaction), and a helicopter attack with Wagner (Flight of the Valkyries)

BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY  Tom Cruise got a much deserved Oscar nomination playing Ron Kovic. It was interesting to learn a lot about a man I knew little about.

PLATOON  I saw it as a senior in high school. My friends went nuts over how great it was. I just complained about how they had Charlie Sheen narrate it, when I couldn’t stop thinking about how he sounded like his dad…who narrated Apocalypse Now. When I watched it a few years later on HBO, I appreciated it more.
GARDENS OF STONE. It was cool meeting D.B. Sweeney at a party in San Diego. I was able to tell him I loved this movie. He asked, “What branch of the military are you in?”

He was shocked I never was, because those are the only people that bring up that movie to him. It’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful, subtle picture by Francis Ford Coppola.

BAT 21. Country singer Jerry Reed didn’t just do cheesy Burt Reynolds movies. He stars with Danny Glover and Gene Hackman about a guy shot down behind enemy lines.

American sniper PHOOTContemporary war films:

AMERICAN SNIPER  It was nice to see Clint Eastwood make a great movie again. He had done some turkeys the last few years, and although they took a few liberties with the real story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle…Bradley Cooper knocks it out of the park.

THE MESSENGER. It’s crazy to think that Woody from Cheers, could actually do some interesting work on film. The young Ben Foster, so intimidating in 3:10 to Yuma, is great as the naïve, caring soldier. Their job in this? They’re the ones that arrive and let parents and loved ones know they lost a soldier. Just heartbreaking. It made my Top 10 list that year.

THE HURT LOCKER. Although it’s really flawed with how ridiculous and unrealistic it was, Jeremy Renner tore it up. Director Kathryn Bigelow became the first female director to win an Oscar (beating out her ex-husband, James Cameron).

COURAGE UNDER FIRE. The cast might not sound impressive when you hear Meg Ryan and Lou Diamond Phillips, but they were amazing. Both of them were tough and interesting characters. Denzel Washington didn’t get an Oscar nomination, and it’s one of his best roles ever. He played an alcoholic in a realistic way. An interesting early role for Matt Damon, too. Find this movie, and thank me later.

Comedy in war:

STRANGLELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. Another Kubrick film. This was the first satire I ever saw on film. Peter Sellers may have been a nut in real life, but was a comedic genius on the big screen.

BILOXI BLUES. In the Neil Simon trilogy of semi-autobiographical stories…I hated the first one, Brighton Beach Memoirs. Biloxi was the second, and it was amazing. Matthew Broderick was perfect as the witty and wimpy soldier. Casting Christopher Walker as the crazy drill sergeant – priceless.

STRIPES. Do-way diddy, diddy dum diddy-do!

CATCH-22. This movie was considered a bust in 1970, even by many of the cast members. Sure, the book was better, but how can you not enjoy Alan Arkin and the rest of this star-studded cast?

M*A*S*H*. This was the war parody that was the big hit in 1970. I liked the TV show more, but I was a kid in the ‘70s. The movie was just a tad dark for me.

Best documentaries:

RESTREPO. Even if you’re not a fan of documentaries, you’ll enjoy this one about photojournalists in the Afghanistan war.

THE TILLMAN STORY. This came out the same year as Restrepo (2010). It’s heartbreaking to find out the real details about NFL player Pat Tillman.

LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM. It was nominated for an Oscar last year. Isn’t that reason enough to watch it?

DEAR AMERICA: LETTERS HOME FROM VIETNAM. An amazing cast narrates these real letters sent from Vietnam. They include Robert De Niro, Robert Downey, Jr, Robin Williams, Tom Berenger, Ellen Burstyn, Michael J. Fox, Willem Dafoe, Matt and Kevin Dillon, Martin Sheen, and more. You get the usual Vietnam songs by CCR, Dylan, and Buffalo Springfield…but including songs like Gimme Shelter, Are You Experienced, I’m Eighteen, Walk Like a Man, I Shall Be Released, Five to One, Blue Christmas, The Beat Goes on, Under the Boardwalk, What’s Going On, and the only movie to ever use the Love tune “Signed D.C.”…this is simply, the best war movie nobody knows about.

Most overrated:

Fury PHOTO USEFURY. This is one on the list everyone probably saw, because it starred Brad Pitt. I also know everyone liked it, because I had to argue with all my friends about this lame movie.

GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. The movie has its moments, but I didn’t think Robin Williams was as funny as he should’ve been. It was entertaining enough, but highly overrated.

JARHEAD. I don’t have the time to go into all the details on why this was a bad movie. It baffles me that so many people love it.

LONE SURVIVOR. It was entertaining enough, but flawed on a few levels. The main one being why they let the people go that were tied up, causing this epic battle. Everybody watching thought of better solutions. Easily one of the most powerful endings of a movie that year, though.

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. I didn’t hate it, but found the opening scene at D Day so over-the-top, that it took away how horrific that probably was for those soldiers. Also didn’t like a lot of the contrived stuff Spielberg put in.

BLACK HAWK DOWN. I missed this at theatres and kept hearing how great it was. A friend finally made me watch it. Very disappointing.

THE THIN RED LINE. Terrence Malick is considered a genius, but his scripts always leave me wanting more. The cinematography, and Sean Penn, were solid.

CASUALTIES OF WAR. Great story for a war film…soldiers raping women. Casting Sean Penn as the menacing soldier, and Michael J. Fox as the meek one trying to speak up, was perfect. The movie just wasn’t as good as it should’ve been.

Guilty pleasure:

TOP GUN. It came out my senior year. I used to play basketball with the pilots at the Miramar base when it was being filmed there. They shared great stories. Tom Skerritt as the boss with words of wisdom, the gorgeous Kelly McGillis, Goose as comic relief…this is what a popcorn flick should be (it should’ve dropped the cheesy Kenny Loggins songs, though)

So, what war films did I miss?


  • MrIntuition

    “We Were Solders” based on a book co-written by two of the principals in the film — Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and reporter Joe Galloway (both of whom were decorated for their actions during the battle). It surprised me, having read the book, how closely the movie version of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley was to the book. It’s one of the few “true stories” that really is.

  • Wendi Doll ;)

    You forgot to categorize “Pearl Harbor” under the most racist film. Just kidding. Well sort of…

  • Denver Forester

    The Sands of Iwo Jima, Battleground, 12 O’clock High, the Bridges at Toki Ri, Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone is my guilty pleasure

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