The Greatest War Movie Ever?

War movies are about the closest most civilians'and most servicemen'will ever get to a war. Hollywood, for all of its failings (and there are many), often succeeds in portraying the facsimile of battle, if not the battle itself or the heart-rending interior carnage. But, God bless them, they do try and often attain a measure of success.

What makes a great war movie: Is it the cinematic battle scenes only? If so, then the recent "Lord of the Rings/Two Towers" or "Troy" would undoubtedly qualify. Older veterans, sailors who served aboard ships in the Pacific over 60 years ago, perhaps cannot watch "Midway" without tense, white-knuckle moments. Likewise, Civil War buffs cannot watch "Gods and Generals" or "Glory" without a great deal of sympathy for both Union and Confederate soldiers. And that is the way it should be.

How many people saw "Das Boot" (The Boat), a stark portrayal of life aboard a German submarine during World War II, and still felt some sense of commiseration for the sailors of the Third Reich aboard that U-boat, even though the real sailors torpedoed American ships? The terror of war is shared equally by the soldiers of each side. Perhaps the sniper bullet that kills the enemy wounds the victor as much as the victim: a mortal wound for the one killed, a lingering wound, unfelt for 50 years, for the victorious shooter.

Personally, and all artistic preferences are always personal, I tried to compile a list of great war movies. I apologize if I've overlooked many. My background is neither soldier nor civilian but simply an enlisted man who entered the service, if not starry-eyed then somewhat idealistic, and exited open-eyed and somewhat cynical.

An earlier essay'Hollywood Invasion!'listed three impressive movies, and I would place one or two on the list somewhere. Perhaps "The Beast", "Black Hawk Down," and "Three Kings" wouldn't make most Oscar lists'or even your own--but they do possess more than a little of the uncomfortably, foul flavor of war, while certain memorable scenes remain in my memory. The bleakness of Afghanistan (ironically a desert in Israel), together with the hollow existence of the Russian tank crew, and the decrepit condition of the tank itself (The Beast) seemed to symbolize the hollowness of their mission, and made the movie unforgettable. Likewise, "Three Kings," unlike most war movies, tried to show both the savagery to civilians and the emotional and physical scarring that individual soldiers suffered, even in a war that wasn't really a war. 'A conflict is much easier for the American public to swallow than a war,' said Swofford. 'War still has that messy Vietnam feeling'the Vietnam War was not an official war either, but a perpetually escalating conflict with many poor, dead, sad fuckers. Conflicts'or even better yet, a series of operations'sounds smaller and less complex and costly than wars.' Before the word "War" is outlawed altogether in Orwellian America'but not war itself'other memorable war movies will emerge. Was "Platoon" a great war movie or a cinematic blasphemy? Half the combat veterans of Vietnam see it one way or the other. Did Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone disgrace his fellow American soldiers by making "Born on the Fourth of July"? Or did each of those unforgettable movies deserve the Oscars they won? Can you hate a movie, hate the violence or the point-of-view, and yet recognize its greatness while still hating it? Was "Apocalypse Now" a greater movie than either? Or how about the unforgettable "Full Metal Jacket" or "The Deer Hunter" (which may be great but I loathe, personally)? "Saving Private Ryan" could not even be shown on Veterans Day here in America. There is something intrinsically anti-American about that. Maybe for that reason alone'that Spielberg's graphic movie (but hardly controversial) made powerful people uncomfortable'it should perhaps be added to most lists. I would add a pair of black & white movies to my list: "All Quiet On The Western Front," and the equally powerful but lesser known "Paths of Glory," directed by Stanley Kubrick. These two films were made about trench warfare during World War I, and anyone who watches them cannot help but be moved by the folly of war. Each movie also employs singular, powerful scenes that seem out of place in the film. The frightened singer in Paths of Glory, a young woman forced to sing before battle-hardened troops (Kubrick's daughter in a rare role), may be one of the most moving antiwar images caught on film. While it is difficult to leave "Stalingrad" off my list, it is even more difficult to overlook it. The quality of greatness may be in its feeling of utter hopelessness, a quality of grimness that moviegoers call Cinema Verite, something "Enemy at the Gates" tried to emulate. Few Americans know, or like to admit, the great sacrifice Russian soldiers made in World War II, or the great debt we in the so-called 'free world' really owe them. The only reason American and British soldiers landed successfully in Normandy, as any honest historian will admit, was because most of the best German soldiers had already been killed or wounded on the Eastern Front, during epic battles like Stalingrad. Which is the greatest Civil War movie ever made? Is "Gone with the Wind" a war movie? Was Ted Turner's "Andersonville" a war movie, however great? How about an overlooked anti-war movie of the Civil War, a movie that was neither shown on television nor available on videotape for many years--"Shenandoah." Not technically a war movie, this was another film produced during the Vietnam War (1965). "Shenandoah" contained a clear vision of dissent within a theme of resistance that would have made Thoreau proud. Jimmy Stewart's unforgettable lines ('Burn the train!'), and his resistance to any government (both the Union and the Confederacy) that attempted to appropriate his horses and his sons was quite compelling. Maybe the simple fact that Americans fought Americans'and 600,000 died--makes all movies about the Civil War, essentially, anti-war statements. No Hollywood heroes but many acts of heroism (and thousands more of self sacrifice), few villains but many acts of villainy. One reason why America remained isolationist for 50 years afterwards, until Wilson's intervention in World War I, may have been that most Americans remembered war. And now they don't. Imagine the sad, shattered idealism of 1914, the hubris, the unquestioned nationalism disguised as love of one's country. Imagine someone uttering the slogan today: The War to End All Wars? Which brings me to two other movies of that era, movies about imperial adventures that came to unexpected, tragic ends (something we may eventually learn ourselves): "Lawrence of Arabia" and the lesser known "Gallipoli". Neither are strictly war movies; they exist on multiple planes, as the best movies always do. Lawrence was a guerilla fighter, warrior-philosopher'and imperialist. The movie explores the legend of T.E. Lawrence as guerilla fighter, but Lawrence himself warned the British about the myriad hazards of involvement in the Middle East--which the British have almost learned. Gallipoli may be the better of the two movies, although it has none of the Oscars of the larger epic. Still, I rate it higher on some levels, and have seen it more often. As an actor, Mel Gibson is no Peter O'Toole, nor does he need to be. The movie is about rosy young soldiers, foolish old politicians, blind patriotism and the romantic yet woefully false notions of war'the same notions Swofford echoed nearly 90 years later when he wrote his book, Jarhead. 'I know that the United States will win any war it fights, against any country,' he wrote somewhat presciently in 2003, just before Gulf War II. 'If colonialism weren't out of style, I'm sure we'd take over the entire Middle East, not only safeguard the oil reserves, but take the oil reserves. We are here to announce that you no longer own your own country, thank you for your cooperation, more details will follow.' (Italics his). "Gallipoli" remains a memorable anti-war movie. I cannot imagine Swofford and his fellow soldiers watching it without thinking of the wastefulness of war, wastefulness of lives squandered for nothing. Politicians and patriotic slogans send many a young man off to war. Unfortunately the clear, rational reasons, all the pomp, all the grand or necessary purposes of war, become the blood, smashed bones, and muddy bodies of the soldiers soon enmeshed (entrapped?) in the confusion of battle. The patriotic bunting, yellow ribbons, and decals may as well be on another planet then. Finally, what constitutes a war movie anyway? Is "The Terminator" a war movie? Many people might think so, and I tend to agree; a powerful film about insurgents fighting powerful war machines. The Pentagon, by the way, is developing powerful surrogate machines to fight insurgents--as if the AC-130 gunship wasn't already. And "Star Wars"--are those movies about war--or are they sci-fi costume dramas? What about "War of The Worlds"? Is it one of the best science fiction war movies? Hollywood seems to think so; a remake is soon to be released. Are John Wayne movies better than most modern movies? Maybe, but war movies made soon after WW II seldom tried to show the gray areas of war, with a few exceptions I mentioned below. The least chauvinistic, bleakest, and thus perhaps the most honest movie of the immediate postwar era might be the little known "Attack!" Try to compare this film to "Patton" for example, a pair of movies so different, yet set in the same European "theatre" (strange name for battleground). Perhaps one of the finest films about warriors who returned from World War II, "The Best Years of Our Lives," was made only a year after the war. Another earlier era flick, "12 O'Clock High," remains moving not only for the great performances, but for the aspect of realism: some of the footage was actual air combat. "The Bridge on the River Kwai," by contrast, took one unspectacular aspect of war, starving and tortured POWs, and created an intricate anti-war movie. Perhaps someone will take the equally shameful Abu Ghraib incidents--ongoing as I write this--and turn that story into a powerful antiwar movie. Don't be surprised if Americans are cast as the villains. Maybe there are no great war movies because there are no great wars. Maybe the best war movie is one that inspires people NOT to want to go to war, inspires people to practice the art of peace, rather than the science of war. Maybe the best war movie of all time will be about the last war ever.

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Columns on STR: 149

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman can be found wandering the back roads of America. Doug authored the political crime thriller, The Guns of Dallas  and wrote and directed the Independent feature film,Throwing Caution to the Windnaturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA. Write him at Roadmovie2 @