This weekend, Peter Weir graces us with The Way Back, a tale of daring escape from a Siberian gulag. On viewing the trailer, I hastily concluded that the characters were military prisoners of war, which I have since found not to be the case. However, it got Fourth Wall discussion brewing along those lines. In due fashion this week’s Listicle salutes the soldier in film. From comedy to adventure to stark, sobering drama, soldiers have faced a great deal on the movie screen.
War is a great backdrop for a movie, no matter how prominently the conflict itself features in the story. It is just as useful as a “McGuffin,” that is to say a contrivance to allow certain characters and situations to play out in the film’s plot. In choosing today’s movies we did not seek merely to list our favorite war films, but expanded the scope to any great film about war and the effect it has on those meant to fight it.
Only after the discussions for this list began did William Bibbiani, Julia Rhodes, and I realize how many great films would surely be left out. There are many ways to tell the soldier’s tale, and a list of ten hardly does the idea justice. However, you may trust that we’ve picked some of our very favorites.
The Dirty Dozen (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1967)
This film stands in not only for its excellent self, but for the whole glorious idea of the military “caper” or “heist” movie. Maybe Where Eagles Dare is more up your street, or The Guns Of Navarone, Kelly’s Heroes or Inglourious Basterds. But one thing a war context allows is any number of daring commando missions, always carried out off the record. The Dirty Dozen has come to stand as the icon and unshaven grandfather of them all.
Having clashed with his superior officers once too many, Major Lee Marvin is put in charge of nearly every other rough-looking dude in Hollywood on a high-profile suicide mission. He is given twelve military convicts, each facing capital punishment or life imprisonment, to organize a secret invasion unit to infiltrate and assassinate a nest of Nazi high commanders holed up in a French chateau. The mission looks bad enough, but first he’s got to whip each and every one of them into some kind of order. They are crass, unruly, and mostly resigned to giving the finger to the same military that expects them to risk their lives one more time. The Major, however, still has a career on paper and does not intend to fail, even though he’s essentially been set up just to do that.
So he works those soldiers into the ground, and doesn’t let go until he has cultivated a sense of respect in them, and has convinced the majority that they have a chance at success (and a subsequent pardon). Standouts in the cast are dim-witted Donald Sutherland, weasely John Cassavettes, stone-cold Charles Bronson, and a delightfully nasty turn by Telly Savalas. You thought he was mean in Horror Express? Well, just you wait…
This film has plenty of action, adventure and comedy to keep things moving for two and a half hours. You can never go wrong with beating up on Nazis. But The Dirty Dozen has so much to offer besides! The invasion makes for a thrilling climax, but the best of the fun is watching Lee Marvin knock their sorry heads together until they finally start believing in each other. They they can stick it to their uptight commanding officers without mercy, before finally given a crack at the enemy. Twelve men who threw their lives away finally get a chance to live every soldier’s dream.
Breaker Morant (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1980)
Ah, the court-martial. A chance for the little guy to get kicked around and unjustly made an example of by officers who weren’t there and nonetheless think they know better. At least, that’s how it usually works in the movies. The grave cousin of the courtroom drama, the court-martial drama lends itself to all manner of sordid intrigue.
In the case of Breaker Morant – a drama based in historical fact – three Australian soldiers, fighting for Lord Kitchener’s British army in the Boer War, find themselves charged with executing a few ill-chosen enemies. To save their superiors and their country a certain amount of political embarrassment, they are brought to court on capital charges. Their position is nearly hopeless from the start. Those from down under command very little respect among their British commanders, regardless of whether or not they were acting under the orders of such commanders at the time.
This is the mystery. Lieutenant “Breaker” Morant himself (it’s Edward Woodward, the guy from The Wicker Man) is a poet and a misfit but also a damned fine soldier. He defies his accusers with dignified contempt. As the case grows more and more grave against him and his men, it seems they have only one friend in the world – the major hastily appointed to their defense (and himself a countryman of theirs), and despite his hard work and impassioned rhetoric on their behalf it seems that nobody is to come out a winner.
One of the most poignant moments is a scene in which the prisoners are cautiously released from jail to aid their captors in defending the outpost from an outside attack. This they do, like true soldiers. Whether or not it will elevate them in the eyes of those who judge them is a matter of grave doubt. All in all, it is a stirring and memorable tragedy proving that that even fighting allies aren’t always necessarily on the same side.
M*A*S*H (dir. Robert Altman, 1970)
Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. So seems the case for the central characters of one of Robert Altman’s best-loved films. Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, and Tom Skerritt play a trio of mischievous Army doctors in the Korea who take one look at the face of war and make the only sense they can of it – nonsense! They buck their superiors at every turn, defying any rule that clashes with the practical reality of their work, or that merely rubs them the wrong way. If they weren’t so invaluable, and so charismatic, they could never get away with it. However, their antics boost morale and ultimately win hearts wherever they go.
There is no room in the world of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Trapper John McIntyre (Gould), and Duke Forrest (Skerritt) for the uptight. Major Frank Burns (a memorably hateful Robert Duvall) will find this out in no time flat. Underlying their devil-may-care attitude is a large quantity of heart. They could not care less about the war. Their only duty is to the wounded in their care, and when it gets down to that business, they are the best. It’s every other hoop the Army would have them jump through that goes wanting.
At one point, the disgusted head nurse (Sally Kellerman) asks how such a person as Pierce ever achieved his position (as captain) in the Army medical corps. The answer is simple: “He was drafted.” Just so. The surgeons are there to get a job done, and they do it. In the meantime, they do not intend to be any more miserable than necessary while doing it.
From blackmail to football to sexual escapades, there is never a dull moment around the Army surgical hospital. The resulting TV spinoff had much appeal of its own, but Altman’s original film has an outrageous, darkly hilarious quality that could never be matched again.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Believe it or not, this film fought a long battle with La Grande Illusion for the crowning spot in my segment of the list. While the latter is considered one of the greatest films made on the subject of war (and indeed it is), Strangelove is my own all-time favorite. Though popularly known as a satire of Cold War nuclear anxiety, the movie forges beyond a mere Cuban missile crisis into a homegrown World War III, carried out by the very few individuals that know it’s even happening.
The human capacity for self-destruction has seldom been so incisively, or so hilariously, examined on the screen. This film is bursting with over-the-top characters, all of them blustering for the last word in a world crisis that none of them truly grasps in the slightest. To describe this movie briefly hardly does it justice. To begin with, the cast is positively stellar. Sterling Hayden plays the eerie madman of a general who issues an Strategic Air Command attack on Russia in a fit of nationalistic sexual paranoia. Peter Sellers plays triple comic roles as the RAF captain determined to stop him, the American president determined to save face with the Russians, and the creepy ex-Nazi scientist determined to implement his master plan for the human race… all for the good of the nation, of course.
This is no mere nuke scare. In the attempt to apprehend the rogue general, a full-blown siege erupts between the Air Force and the Army. Meanwhile, Slim Pickens leads a cross-section of average joes on a daring (but ill-advised) bombing of Communist Russia, who might or might not have a doomsday contingency plan in effect. Meanwhile, it’s all slapstick in the War Room of the Pentagon (where, by the way, there is no fighting allowed!), as George C. Scott gives the performance of his life as a thinly veiled spoof of Curtis LeMay, who thinks that the sneak attack on Russia just might be a pretty good idea after all.
It just gets wilder and funnier (and somehow more grim all at once), culminating in an unforgettable ending. It’s just the greatest movie ever made, is all. At its core it is just as much about the officers and suits versus the soldiers as Grand Illusion, Breaker Morant, and so on. As the War Room crowd tries to manage the disaster in hypothetical, statistical terms, the troops in uniform are shooting and bombing the snot out of each other, all over a tragic misunderstanding.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (dir. David Lean, 1957)
The Geneva Convention always seemed like one of the most optimistic documents in human history to me. War isn’t particularly humane, you know, so the idea of killing each other in droves while trying not to be a dick about it is pretty ironic. David Lean’s still incredible war epic The Bridge On The River Kwai embraces that irony. It’s a damning document of the power of ideals to unify soldiers as well as lead them astray.
Sir Alec Guiness, always great but at his very best here, plays Col. Nicholson, a British officer in World War II who places his code above all other things. He and his men are in a Japanese prison camp and forced to build a bridge for their enemies. Nicholson spends half the film rebelling against his oppressor, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), not because he’s the enemy, but because he refuses to follow a code of the Geneva Convention that states that imprisoned officers are not required to perform manual labor. It would reek of laziness if weren’t for the fact that his rebellion places him in a hot box for days on end. His men aren’t disappointed in their leader, they take pride in his adherence to the proper rules of conduct. Saito cannot martyr this man or his men will be even less motivated to work on the bridge, the completion of which Saito’s own honor rests. It sounds thrilling, I know. But actually it is. In David Lean’s hands this war of wills is as epic as any actual war that could possibly surround it.
The Bridge On The River Kwai is about the principles soldiers live by. Nicholson thrives on order. The soldier’s life is one of rules and any deviation from those rules in his eyes leads to chaos and ruin. The rules are a matter of pride, and his pride eventually leads him to not only build Saito’s bridge – once Saito loses their test of wills – but also build a better bridge than Saito ever could as a testament to his own principles. William Holden plays what many would consider the voice of reason, a man who just plain doesn’t want to be a soldier. He sticks to those principles but is eventually placed in a position to be a greater soldier than he ever thought possible by destroying Nicholson’s bridge. By the end of the film Nicholson is so entrenched in his own dogma that he can’t see the forest for the trees: that his dedication to the propriety of war is helping the enemy to win it. And they are surrounded by soldiers whom these principles either inspire and infuriate. It’s a little on the nose, but it’s impossible to deny the film’s final line, reducing an epic conflict to a single word, illustrated beautifully by the tragic events that preceded it: “Madness.”
Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1996)
Robert Heinlein’s classic novel Starship Troopers is on the reading list for the United States Marine Corps. This novel about soldiers in exoskeletons fighting killer bugs from outer space has a recurring theme of social responsibility requiring personal sacrifice. It’s also badass. Paul Verhoeven took Heinlein’s novel and cleverly subverted it into a satirical anti-war document, utilizing familiar propaganda techniques to criticize the pro-war machine. My brother is a marine, and he hates Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. I am a film critic. I think it’s badass.
Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers features a war fought exclusively by grizzled veterans and pretty people, reducing the representations of soldiers to hardened veterans who know everything and should be followed blindly, and two-dimensional stand-ins for prospective enlistees. Join the Corps, it says, and you too will be among the chosen. The enemy is a faceless menace. Seriously, most of the bugs don’t even have faces. They are viewed as one-dimensional aggressors who started the war by attacking Buenos Aires, a large enough city to be well known to the target audience but not so familiar to be viewed as an exploitatively sentimental location to set a tragedy. The truth of the matter, that humanity invaded the bugs’ land without thought for the consequences of those actions, is hidden away in a throwaway joke about Mormons.
A group of young actors with statuesque features – Denise Richards, Capser Van Dien, etc. – are motivated by the attack to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the war effort. Every death is heroic or tragic to the extent that most are incredibly hilarious. Every victory is tempered with irony. Soldiers do not cheer when they capture the enemy, they cheer when they realize the captured enemy is afraid. Satirical news stories reveal a society run by military rule is a dark one indeed, with executions of murderers arrested earlier that day simulcast across every television station. The film ends with the surviving young cast members promoted to a ridiculous degree within months of enlisting, essentially running the war effort at an age when most people still have trouble figuring out how to do their own taxes. War, Starship Troopers tells us, is perfect. Life becomes simple and death always has nobility and value. And it struggles so overtly hard to teach us these things that the opposite lesson – undoubtedly the point – is sold more perfectly than the surface Fascist propaganda ever could.
It’s The Triumph of the Will as a comedy, with giant bugs. It’s a damnation of everything military recruiters preach as gospel. It tanked at the box office, naturally. It’s a shame, because it’s one of the smartest and most entertaining movies of the 1990’s. Maybe Paul Verhoeven willfully missed the point, but his point is just as powerful.
“Generation Kill” (dirs. Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones, 2008)
“Generation Kill” is not about a war. It’s about the people who fight it and their constant conflict not with the enemy – like Jarhead, the soldiers “Generation Kill” are rarely allowed to actually put their combat expertise to practical use – but with bureaucrats more interested in chain of command and career preservation than the successful implementation of their job. All of the superior officers have faith that their superior officers know what they’re doing. All of the grunts know better. They probably couldn’t run a war if their lives depended on it, but they’ve been trained to make life or death choices on the fly and now have to run every single one of those decisions through a minefield of red tape. They are repeatedly given opportunities to make a difference and repeatedly told not to. They are also hilarious. These are men who roll into enemy territory, wave and say, “Vote Republican.”
Once again, I am a film critic, and have neither the authority nor academic expertise to suggest how to fight, let alone win a war, but watching this true story unfold is an exercise in desperation. You find yourself pleading for somebody above the ground floor to see common sense. These are men with a superior officer who steals enemy weapons and fires them for no reason, confusing his soldiers with the sounds of hostile gunfire. These are men who are ordered to abandon a truck full of supplies valuable to the enemy, and then chastised when the men in charge realize that the company’s precious flag was left inside. These are men who can’t requisition the grease needed to make their guns work. These are men who are supposed to be placated by deliveries from Pizza Hut. These men are screwed.
And yet they are simply men, sharing amusing anecdotes and vicious rumors that Jennifer Lopez has died tragically in her prime stateside. Men who just want to do the damned job they signed up to do. Men who are asked to sweep a mine field even though they aren’t properly trained. The daily grind of soldiering contrasts powerfully with the image of war as a sweeping force for change. The notion that this collection of FUBAR moments could possibly make the world a better place is a ridiculous notion. Anti-war protesters use to say, “We’re not against the soldiers. We’re against the war.” In contrast, “Generation Kill” shows us a system that is very pro-war, and thoroughly against their own soldiers. It’s a pitiable situation, but a very entertaining, funny and smart mini-series that deserves greater recognition.
Full Metal Jacket (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
I took a college course on propaganda, and wrote my final twenty-page research paper on three Vietnam war movies: Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Jacob’s Ladder. This required me to spend a weekend holed up in my dorm room watching and re-watching three of the most depressing war flicks you can find. I finally emerged into the sunlight, hollow-eyed and shellshocked, with an A paper. I’m not sure I’ve watched any of them since.
The Vietnam conflict laid out a whole new set of guidelines for war (and anti-war) movies. Even those firing the weapons didn’t necessarily want to be there, and soldiers returning to the States from that brutal clusterf*$% were greeted by a country divided, a populace in the midst of a sea change. American and British movies chronicling the World Wars have an entirely different tone: there was no doubt we were the heroes, the victors, swooping in to save the day. Vietnam films are an uglier bunch.
Full Metal Jacket may be my favorite Kubrick movie. Based on the book The Short-Timers, it’s uneven and more like two movies, both of them vicious and sad. The first segment takes place at Parris Island recruit training camp. Journalist Joker (Matthew Modine) and his fellow soldiers, including the doomed Gomer Pyle (Vincent d’Onofrio), submit to verbal abuse from their drill sergeant (former Marine R. Lee Ermey, now famous for his shrieky, pottymouthed insults). Poor Pyle endures hazing at the hands of everyone around him, and his eyes take on a horrifying dead sheen before he loses it completely. After a shocking cut, the movie transitions overseas.
Joker is one of film’s most complex soldiers. The helmet on the cover of the DVD is Joker’s. It bears the slogan “BORN TO KILL” as well as a peace sign button. “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man,” he says. “The Jungian thing.” During an interview, Private Eightball mentions that his fellow soldiers “don’t really want to be involved in this war…[the Army] took away our freedom and gave it to the, to the gookers, you know. But they don’t want it. They’d rather be alive than free, I guess. Poor dumb bastards.” That’s what Full Metal Jacket is all about. Freedom, duty, (un?)necessary brutality, and the spoils of war. Joker, Pyle, Animal Mother, Eightball, and the rest of the Lusthog squad are some of the most complex committed to film, and they inspire sympathy, confusion, and frustration with a culture that reveres violence.
Jacob’s Ladder (dir. Adrian Lyne, 1990)
Jacob’s Ladder is a bizarre, uncomfortable combination of horror film, war movie, and psychological thriller. Like other Vietnam flicks, it’s ugly. It’s frightening. Its combat sequences are horrific. Lyne, who generally veers toward romance, the up-close-and-personal, pulled out all the stops with the story of a mailman who returns shellshocked from the war to a world still teeming with demons.
The U.S. government experimented with new biological weapons during Vietnam (think Agent Orange). Jacob’s Ladder portrays a squadron of soldiers who got dosed with a new drug, a kind that turned them into killing machines. Drug-induced paranoia affects the entire movie: the combat sequences feature armed men, their green uniforms dingy and blood-splattered, crouching wide-eyed in the underbrush while chaos rages around them. Their open eyes see nothing–the drugs are doing the killing. Firearms aren’t the only weapons on display here; the much more personal bayonet plays a large part in Jacob Singer’s (Tim Robbins) final outcome. Jarring sound effects and horrific, hallucinatory imagery punctuated by equally shocking tenderness between Jacob and his family in two separate time periods (watch for a pre-Home Alone, blond and angelic Macaulay Culkin as Jacob’s son).
While Jacob and his fellow soldiers (including Ving Rhames and character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince) struggle to find out why a faceless enemy is killing them off one by one, Jacob encounters angels and demons in his everyday life. Even his wife Jezebel (a telling name, no?), played by the lovely Elizabeth Pena, adopts a sinister role. It could be said the soldiers returning from Vietnam were thrown into a kind of purgatory, and Jacob’s Ladder makes that frighteningly literal.
Atonement (dir. Joe Wright, 2007)
Atonement was the Academy’s darling for a few moments in 2007. It brought The Lovely Bones‘s Saoirse Ronan to the big screen, much to everyone’s delight. It gave Keira Knightley an opportunity to play someone a little more complex than bratty-turned-tough Elizabeth in the Pirates movies. James McAvoy, who often plays sexy, working-class gentlemen with an edge, got one of his best roles as Robbie Turner. The movie follows the idly rich Tallis family, including precocious thirteen-year-old Briony (Ronan) and college-aged Cecilia (Knightley). Mr. Tallis is putting the housekeeper’s son Robbie (McAvoy) through medical school, much to Cecilia’s disappointment. Cecilia and Robbie can’t ignore their attraction. It’s a Romeo and Juliet story if ever there were one–or perhaps another take on Great Expectations. As in all great romances, the world explodes in the protagonists’ faces, tearing them apart. After Briony, whose overactive imaginination perceives wickedness in desire, accuses Robbie of raping her cousin, the authorities send him to the front lines of the World War.
The movie’s title is multifaceted. Robbie must atone for a crime he didn’t commit, while Cecilia becomes a nurse to make amends for her involvement in his exile, and to put herself closer to caring for him. Briony, on the other hand, spends her entire life atoning for her crime–her precociousness, her desire for drama. All three characters are a part of the war. All three fight their own inner battles. But only Robbie is truly on the front lines. Death and destruction–from a group of nuns murdered and put on display by enemy troops, to the hysterical exhaustion of soldiers finally witnessing the end of their tours, to the brutalized landscape of a country torn to bits–reign in Robbie’s world.
Briony’s narration carries the film, and though her imagination gives us a satisfying end, she reveals it’s untrue–that Robbie and Cecilia died, he of blood poisoning just before coming home, she in a flooded subway during the Blitz. A magnificent score by Dario Marianelli, lovely, sweeping cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and Christopher Hampton’s screenplay make Atonement not only a doomed romance, but a sad tale of the way war affects not only those fighting, but everyone around them.