War is hell for people who've been there. For the rest of us, it can sometimes seem the stuff of great adventures.
Agony, death and the ceaseless suffering of the survivors. Excitement, romance and the unflagging certainty that we could whip the bad guys. War is about all of those things. War movies are about all of them as well.
There are many exceptional movies about wars. Trying to list just twelve of them requires a campaign of attrition that leaves many casualties. This list is of movies that could be described as anti-war. The world would be better if no one were allowed to wage war without having seen at least one of these.
#1) Grand Illusion (1937) Written by Charles Spaak and Jean Renoir. Directed Jean Renoir.
With his powerful look at life in a World War I camp for prisoners of war, Renoir tried to warn the world to avoid the horrors of another widespread war. That World War II was fought anyway does nothing to dim the movie's haunting, hopeful suggestion that some spark of humanity can survive even the bloodiest conflict. The director Erich von Stroheim gives a subtle, masterful performance that gives Grand Illusion much of its power.
It set some of the pattern for such prisoner-of-war movies as Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963). If that were all it accomplished, Grand Illusion would be worthwhile. Instead it is one of the greatest films ever made and perhaps the greatest French film. (Its competition would be Renoir's Rules of the Game, aka La règle du jeu, 1939).
Renoir was the son of the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir. Many images from the son's movie are so striking and masterfully composed that they too could grace museum walls.
#2) One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1941) Written and directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell.
There are no weak elements in this gripping thriller about a crew of British aviators during World War II. Their plane is shot down over Nazi-occupied Holland and they get help from many brave Dutch citizens as they try to make their way back to safety.
The movie is riveting. Bits of humor break up the suspense. It all comes together in a rousing but mournful celebration of the unbroken spirits of people determined to free their country and its people from those who seek to conquer them.
#3) All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Directed by Lewis Milestone. Written by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott and Del Andrews. Adapted from Erich Maria Remarque's novel. Academy Awards for Director and Best Picture. Added to the National Film Registry in 1990 and named one of the Top 100 movies by the American Film Institute in 1998.
Young men are transformed by World War I from eager recruits to battle-weary soldiers, or much worse. This is a flawless big-screen treatment of the landmark novel.
Everything about the movie works well. Lew Ayres is perfectly cast as a young German soldier struggling to make some sense of war's senselessness. Unforgettable images suggest some of what war does to us, including the haunting moment in which the title is revealed to be the grimmest irony.
#4 & 5) Henry V (1944) Starring and directed by Laurence Olivier.
(1989) Starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh.
These are two exceptional movie versions of William Shakespeare's play about the king who united medieval Britain.
Each movie reflects the spirit of the time in which it was made. Olivier's wartime version is rousing and was intended to rally its audiences to continue supporting efforts to turn back Hitler and his hordes. Branagh made his during a time of relative peace and so he more fully considers the terrible costs of war. Both are well worth watching.
#6) Twelve O'Clock High (1949) Directed by Henry King. Written by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Dean Jagger. Named to the National Film Registry in 1998.
Gregory Peck is haunting as the commander of a squadron of fliers during World War II who is haunted by his responsibilities. The movie powerfully suggests the tolls that wars inflict and the heroism of those who try to soldier on under crushing burdens.
#7) The Red Badge of Courage (1951) Directed by John Huston. Written by Albert Band. Adapted from Stephen Crane's novel.
Real-life war hero Audie Murphy stars in this exemplary adaption of the classic novel about a young man caught between his courage and cowardice during the U.S. Civil War. The battle scenes are both stirring and upsetting. The movie presents the more personal dramatic moments with masterful restraint that makes them linger in memory long after the movie ends.
#8) Paths of Glory (1957) Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Written by Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson. Adapted from Humphrey Cobb's novel.
A general's flawed battle plan leads to disaster. He seeks to shift attention from his actions by sentencing three soldiers to execution for cowardice. Kirk Douglas and Adolphe Menjou are memorable in this complex consideration of where one's responsibilities lie in times of war.
#9) The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, 1979) Directed by Volker Schlondorff. Written by Schlondorff and Jean-Claude Carriere. Adapted from Gunter Grass' novel. Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
David Bennent gives a heartbreaking performance as a young man who sees what Nazis and other adults are capable of. He does not want to be like them and so he wills himself not to grow up.
The movie has been targetted for boycotts because of scenes in which the boy has sex with an older girl. One hopes this is another instance in which attempts to repress a work actually draw more attention to it. The Tin Drum deserves the largest possible audience because it richly rewards viewers.
#10) Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Directed by William Wyler. Written by Robert Sherwood. Academy Awards for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Fredric March) and Supporting Actor (Harold Russell, an injured veteran who also received a special Academy Award for inspiring other injured veterans). Named to the National Film Registry in 1989.
World War II is over and several soldiers try with varying degrees of success to adjust to civilian life. A powerhouse cast movingly brings to life the triumphs and setbacks that war's painful aftermaths can cause.
#11) Execution of Private Slovik (made for television, 1974) Directed by Lamont Jackson. Written by Richard Levinson and William Link.
Martin Sheen has given many powerful performances. His portrayal of the first U.S. soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion is likely his best. The movie suggests that Sheen's character did not deserve his punishment, but the nuanced screenplay deftly manages the near-impossible by making Sheen's character a hero of sorts while not making villains of those who challenge him.
#12) The Caine Mutiny (1954) Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Stanley Roberts and Michael Blankfort. Adapted from Herman Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
This is a provocative consideration of what it can mean when the military's chain of command is challenged. Humphrey Bogart gives one of his best performances as a naval commander who appears to be losing his mind. Several other actors give exceptional supporting performances, including Jose Ferrer, Van Johnson and -- especially -- Fred MacMurray, as an officer who understands himself with remorseful clarity.
The movie drags when its attention falls on a standard-issue romance between two characters for whom it is possible to feel happy but whom it is difficult le to remember shortly after the movie ends. Everything else about the movie is absorbing.
From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) would be on a longer list. So might Friendly Persuasion (1956), which is not in every respect a masterpiece but which does feature moving performances by Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire and Tony Perkins as a Quaker family trying to hold on to their pacifist faiths during the U.S. Civil War.
Other movies that deserve acclaim greater than merely being mentioned alphabetically include Apocalypse Now (1979), Glory (1989), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Platoon (1986) and Stalag 17 (1953). Perhaps less well-known and certainly undeservedly so are Johnny Got His Gun, the adaptation of Dalton Trumbo's novel, (1971) and A Rumor of War (1980), a powerful made-for-TV drama about a Vietnam-era court martial.
There are many war-themed movies I have yet to see, including King Vidor's silent The Big Parade (1925), John Huston's Across the Pacific (1942), and Stairway to Heaven (aka A Matter of Life and Death, 1946) by Powell and Pressburger.