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My favorite war movies of the 30's-60's

  • Aug 21, 2010
As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I have always loved watching war movies. The theme in war movies that sparks my interest the most are those that elaborate on the challenges of leadership and the command of men. From the Civil War to Vietnam, on land sea, or air all these movies have valuable lessons in military leadership. So, tell me what you think.
1
Twelve O'Clock High
Henry King's 1950 film "Twelve O'clock High" is one of the best movies depicting the challenges command can be, especially when taking a high casualty rate as our "fly boys" did with the new concept of daylight bombing in the early years of WW 2. This is in the days before the B-17's had p-51 fighter escort all the way to the target and back. Thus, few aircrews actually survived to reach the 25 mission requirement before rotating home. In this story General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) a desk bound staff chief, is sent to the group after the Bomber Commander is relieved of duty. He must take command of a "hard luck" bomber group. His command challenge is his struggle to whip his group into a disciplined fighting unit in spite of heavy losses. At first encountering resistance and becoming unpopular because of his harsh exacting standards, Savage eventually shows the pilots how to take pride in their unit and serve above and beyond the standards of the Army Air Corps. He even has a nervous breakdown himself. One of the very best movies for showing how hard leadership is when all around you are dying and in fear of losing their lives. By the way, the movie has a great cast and story line.
See the full review, "Leading men is hard when all are dying around you.".
2
In Harms Way
Otto Preminger's 1965 film "In Harms Way" is one of the best movies at depicting how a good leader puts the mission before his personal relationships, even when it involves family and good friends.. Captain Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne), and Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas), are part of the Navy's effort to retaliate for, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Torrey is romantically involved with nurse Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal), and also tries to restore his relationship with his estranged son, Jeremiah, a young Naval officer. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. I love the tensions the movie sets up between Wayne's character who was an absentee father and his son who resents his father's involvement in his life. Also, Wayne's friendship for Douglas vs. the duty of a superior disciplining a subordinate. A classic war movie that should be viewed by all who like the genre.
See the full review, "It is tough to order family and friends into "harm's way."".
3
Sands of Iwo Jima
Allan Dwan's 1950 film "Sands of Iwo Jima" the "Duke" plays the hard as nails uncompromising Sgt. Stryker. He is tasked with training a Marine rifle squad before they invade Iwo. Needless to say he is unpopular with the men, but in the end he makes a fighting unit out of them and earns their respect. One of the few movies that the "Duke" dies in. Makes one just want to cry. By the way, I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. A classic war movie that should be viewed by all who like the genre.
See the full review, "Great war movie that focuses on military leadership".
4
Seven Days in May (1964)
John Frankenheimer's 1964 film "Seven Days In May" has it all for me in a movie. A great cast, supererb writing and great cinematography!!! This film is one of the best movies at showing the tensions between the civilian authority over our military. A concept that I wholeheartedly support as part of our constitution. Unfortunately, it has been tested to a smaller degree recently with the General McChrystal flap. At the height of the cold war, an unpopular U.S. President (Fredric March), manages to get a nuclear disarmament treaty through the Senate, but finds that the nation is turning against him. Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), a Marine Colonel, finds evidence that General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), the wildly popular head of the Joint Chiefs and certain Presidential Candidate in 2 years is not planning to wait. Casey goes to the president with the information and this very famous line from the movie. "I'm suggesting Mr. President, there's a military plot to take over the Government of these United States, next Sunday..." Working with a small circle of reliable and loyal officials, (a great cast of actors in this movie) President Lyman tries to get the evidence of Scott's treachery and stop him. Another reason why this movie is so high on my list is the sharp dialogue written by the brilliant Rod Serling!!! For instance, one of my fave lines in the movie spoken by Ava Gardner to Kirk Douglas. "I'll make you two promises: a very good steak, medium rare, and the truth, which is very rare." I wish modern movies were written this well!
5
The Longest Day
The 1962 film "The Longest Day" is one of the best movies showing how important it is for subordinate leaders to see the mission through when the plan falters from the start. "The Longest Day" tells the story of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in WWII. There are 42 stars in the movie, some seen only briefly, who together interlace the story of five separate invasion points that made up the operation. Although the actual story and hardships depicted of the invasion of the movie outshines all the star power, John Wayne figures prominently as an airborne battalion commander. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. This is a great movie showing the leadership challenges of conducting such a large military operation.
See the full review, "Leadership on the global scale".
6
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
John Ford's 1949 film "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" is one of the best movies at depicting how a good leader mentors his subordinates preparing them for leadership roles and increasing responsibility. Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), a Civil War hero on the eve of retirement during the Indian Wars of the 1870's, takes out a last patrol to stop an impending massive Indian attack. Besides having to develop Lt. Flint Cohill, (John Agar) and the "wet behind the ears" 2nd Lt. Ross Pennell, (Harry Carey, Jr.), Brittles is encumbered by women who must be evacuated, Brittles finds his mission imperiled. I love the film because he deftly shows the impetuous and "hot headed" junior officers how to deal with the Cavalry troop of men and how to use diplomacy with the Indians. Brittles shows it didn't always have to be about fighting with the Indians in order to get what you wanted, fair diplomacy often worked as well. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. A classic war movie that should be viewed by all who like the genre.
See the full review, "How to mentor subordinates for increasing leadership responsibility".
7
Strategic Air Command
Anthony Mann's 1955 film "Strategic Air Command" is the best movie showing the daily grind, time spent away from family, and challenges for leaders during the "Cold War." SAC's motto "Peace Through Strength" was very appropriate. Seen by most people as one of the offensive arms in the American arsenal, it actually kept the nuclear peace with Russia because it was so well equipped and had highly trained personnel. SAC's success is due in no small part to Gen. Curtis LeMay, an Air Force strategic genius. A cigar smoking tough as nails leader, who knew what he wanted to get done and was the kind of leader that always got 110% out of his people. OK, now a little about the movie. Believing his fighting days are over, Robert "Dutch" Holland (James Stewart, who in real life was a bomber squadron commander in WW 2 and wound up retiring as a General in the Air Force reserves,) had become a successful ballplayer for the Cardinals, only to be recalled into the newly-formed Strategic Air Command,. Set in 1955, when the Cold War is rapidly heating up, SAC has been formed to provide the ultimate deterrent to nuclear war. Holland, promoted to Lt. Colonel, grudgingly accepts the assignment, along with some other equally unhappy airmen, many of whom are old acquaintances from WW 2. Holland's wife Sally (June Allyson) is less than pleased with the turn their life has taken, and isn't happy about her husband being sent out on dangerous missions when there isn't even a war going on. The movie is great at displaying Dutch's leadership skills, and how over the next few months, he helps form SAC into a tightly run, well oiled machine, even when it means long stretches away from home. The example he set for his men, staying in SAC even when he had every reason and opportunity to leave, has done more good for the force than he can imagine.
See the full review, "Peace Through Strength".
8
Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick's 1957 film Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" depicts the futility and irony of the war in the trenches in WWI. French battalion commander Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack. In this mesmerizing film, the director Kubrick (who also helped to write the screen play), highlights a true episode in World War I which combines the idea that class differences are more important than national differences with the cannon-fodder theory of war, the theory that soldiers are merely pawns in the hands of generals who play at war as if it were a game of chess. I am a huge WW I buff and I impress upon my students the criminal neglect of the British and French generals to properly lead their men. They lost over 60,000 men in the first day of battle in the Somme. The Viet Nam wall has 55,000 names of the men we lost in over 10 years fighting. That was the scale of the gross failure of leadership depicted in this very important film!!!
See the full review, "When the leadership at the top is rotten!!!".
9
The Fighting Seabees
Edward Ludwig's 1944 film "The Fighting Seabees the "Duke" plays Lt. Cmdr Wedge Donovan, a civilian construction manager who is tasked to form the Navy's first Construction Battalion, (CBCBs=Seabees). The new CBs have to both build and be ready to fight.Donovan a hard nosed construction manager at first chafes under military control, but once commissioned, he learns the importance of doing things the Navy way. This turns him into a great leader and his unit into a very effective force. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. This is one of the few movies that the "Duke" dies in. Makes one just want to cry.
See the full review, "He gave his last full measure, great film about combat engineers".
10
Flying Leathernecks
Nicholas Ray's 1951 film "The Flying Leathernecks" is one of the best movies at depicting how a good leader puts the mission before his personal relationships, even when it involves friends. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. This movie is similar in theme to another of the "Duke's" movie "In Harm's Way." Major Daniel Kirby (John Wayne) takes command of a squadron of Marine fliers just before they are about to go into combat. While the men are well meaning, he finds them undisciplined and prone to always finding excuses to do what is easy rather than what is necessary. The root of the problem is the second in command, Capt. Carl 'Griff' Griffin Robert Ryan). Griff is the best flier in the group but Kirby finds him a poor commander who is not prepared to the difficult decision that all commanders have to make - to put men in harm's way knowing that they may be killed. This movie is great at depicting the importance of a leader serving as a mentor to prepare subordinates for increasing leadership responsibility.
See the full review, "It is tough to order friends into "harm's way."".
11
55 Days at Peking
Nicholas Ray's 1963 "55 Days In Peking" is one of the best movies at depicting how good leaders U.S. Marine major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston, and British Ambassador Sir Arthur Robinson (David Niven), must also often times be good diplomats. Diplomats, soldiers and other representatives of a dozen nations fend off the siege of the International Compound in Peking during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The disparate interests unite for survival despite competing factions, overwhelming odds, delayed relief and tacit support of the Boxers by the Empress of China and her generals. This film has a great cast. It is not always about defeating an enemy in combat, sometimes one has to use diplomacy to prevent bloodshed. This movie is an excellent portrayal of that lesson.
See the full review, "Sometimes a good military leader must be a good diplomat"".
12
Battle of Britain (1969)
Guy Hamilton's 1969 film "Battle of Britain" is one of the best movies showing the collective heroism and leadership of dedicated pilots who took to the skies again & again in the face of overwhelming odds. I also think it has one of the greatest soundtracks of any war movie made, especially if you love classical music. The German Luftwaffe's planes outnumber the R.A.F's by more than 2 to 1. "The Battle of Britain" tells the story of the of the air war in the early days of World War 2 for control of the skies over Britain as the new Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force determine whether or not an invasion can take place. The intrepid leadership skills shown by hundreds of young 20 somethings is the reason Winston Churchill uttered one of his most memorable quotes. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
See the full review, "Leadership and courage by youngsters".
13
A Gathering of Eagles
Delbert Mann's 1963 film "A Gathering of Eagles" is one of the best movies showing the daily grind, time spent away from family, and challenges for leaders during the "Cold War." SAC's motto "Peace Through Strength" was very appropriate. Seen by most people as one of the offensive arms in the American arsenal, it actually kept the nuclear peace with Russia because it was so well equipped and had highly trained personnel. SAC's success is due in no small part to Gen. Curtis LeMay, an Air Force strategic genius. A cigar smoking tough as nails leader, who knew what he wanted to get done and was the kind of leader that always got 110% out of his people. OK, now a little about the movie. Air Force Colonel Jim Caldwell (Rock Hudson) has just been re-assigned as a cold war B-52 commander who must shape up his men to pass a grueling inspection that the previous commander had failed, and had been fired for. He is also recently married, and as a tough commanding officer doing whatever he has to do to shape his men up, his wife sees a side to him that she hadn't seen before. This movie has a similar story line to the "Strategic Air Command" This movie is great at depicting the importance of a leader serving as a mentor to prepare subordinates of increasing leadership responsibility.
See the full review, "Peace Through Strength Redux".

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August 21, 2010
A very complete list, good job!
August 21, 2010
Happy to do it, I will be doing an Orson Welles list in a few days.
August 21, 2010
Excellent!
 
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About the list creator
Michael Neulander ()
Ranked #1
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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