Tuesday, August 3, 2010

13 Great War Movies That You Probably Never Saw

Probably The Greatest War Movies of All Time

Its been quite some time since I wrote a post on Cinema and what better Cinema than exhilarating war movies. Instead of the usual Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Killing Fields or Saving Private Ryan types, what you'll find here is a refined list of select war movies outside the media and public radar that are truly great and one of the finest in all war filmdom. Believe the WebSnacker, they are all good as gold. 

The Big Red One (Sam Fuller/1980) – Ranked one of the 500 greatest movies of all time by Empire magazine, this is a tough, unsentimental World War II film from ace drama veteran Sam Fuller apparently based on his own experiences. Lee Marvin is excellent as the battle-weary commander of a squad of young soldiers, leading them through a variety of wartime situations – some funny, some frightening, some sad – all quite powerful and moving. With Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Robert Carradine, Kelly Ward and Bobby DiCiccio. An extended version - The Big Red One: The Reconstruction was released at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. 

The Battle of Algiers (Gilo Pontecorvo/1965) – Not screened in France for 5 years after its release, this landmark guerrilla warfare movie is a fine example of Italian neorealism cinema with a great score by Ennio Morricone. Based on actual events of the Algerian war (1954-62), this is an intelligent, restrained and straight forward account of the Algerian revolt, which nearly toppled the entire French government and resulted in an almost successful assassination plot against President DeGaulle. This fascinating Italian-Algerian production was filmed in black and white pseudo-documentary newsreel style presenting the landmark revolt from the point-of-view of those involved in the fighting – an angle rarely seen elsewhere. In French starring Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef.

The Boys in Company C (Sidney J Furie/1978) – 1978 was the year of Vietnam War films and this glossy but tough little, Golden Globe nominated movie directed by Sidney J. Furie (Ipcress File, Entity) went largely overlooked by the American public. The main appeal is a good, solid cast of then unknowns including Stan Shaw (so memorable in the Great Santini), R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) and Andrew Stevens. A group of young marines move from the torture of boot camp to the terror of war in a way that is funny, action-packed and at times, harrowing. The Boys in Company C is the first in Furie's Vietnam War trilogy, followed by 2001's Under Heavy Fire and 2006's The Veteran, both starring with Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers) 

Cross Of Iron (Sam Peckinpah/1977) – Peckinpah’s (Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) idea of a WWII film was to focus on the German Army on the Russian front thereby blurring any ‘who are the good guys’ distinctions. His antagonists are an aristocratic monster of a captain (Maxmilian Schell) who wants the titular medal at whatever cost and the tough but compassionate sergeant (a very, effective James Coburn) who simply wants to his boys alive. Long and episodic, the highlights are the battle scenes, which are frequent, brutal and extremely disorienting – like real combat itself. Based on the book - Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich With James Mason and David Warner.

49th Parallel (Michael Powell/1941)- Not exactly a full blown war movie but undoubtedly the greatest WWII-era thriller, beating out all of Hitchcock’s and Fritz Lang’s best efforts at the game of suspense. Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey are among the stars but the real attraction is a tense, convincing script (which deservedly received an Oscar) and superb direction. When a Nazi U-boat is sunk in Hudson Bay, Canada; 6 survivors try and make their way to freedom in the still—neutral United States. Photography by Frederick Young (Lawrence of Arabia) and the film's editor was a then little-known David Lean (A Passage to India).

Go Tell The Spartans (Ted Post/1978) – Who would have thought the best picture about the Vietnam before Platoon would be a small-scale film from a journeyman director. Burt Lancaster heads a group of military advisers who realizes he’s involved in a no-win situation in this cult anti-war classic based on Daniel Ford's 1967 novel - Incident at Muc Wa. The constant refrain of “it’s their war” and the 1964 setting lend the film both poignancy and bitterness. Unlike typical Hollywood action war dramas, you know there is no happy ending, not then, not now. The final images of an American walking through a cemetery saying “I’m going home” are all too appropriate. 

Hamburger Hill (John Irvin/1987) – A brilliant retelling of the Battle of Hamburger Hill chronicling the U.S. Army's assault on a heavily fortified but strategically insignificant hill during the Vietnam War. Starring Dylan McDermott (his debut), Courtney B Vance, Don Cheadle, Steven Weber and Michael Boatman, this intense movie beautifully captures the utter pointlessness of warfare. Directed by John Irvin (Dogs of War, Raw Deal) and written by James Carabatsos (Heartbreak Ridge).


Kanal (Andrej Wajda/1956) – Polish resistance fighters flee the Nazis by struggling through the labyrinth of Warsaw’s sewers in this tense, hellish vision of futility. Winner of the special jury prize at the 1957 Cannes Film festival, Oscar winner Andrej Wajda’s masterpiece is one of those rare films that hit you in the gut, the heart and the brain. KanaƂ was the second film in Wajda's War trilogy, preceded by the superb A Generation and followed by Ashes and Diamonds. In Polish.


Kelly’s Heroes (Brian Hutton/1970) – A ragtag group of soldiers headed by Clint Eastwood shangai some tanks and head behind enemy lines in search of a cache of German gold. Clint Eastwood squints and scowls in the lead at hammy co-stars Donald Sutherland (as a doped-up, laid back hippie in uniform), Telly Savalas and Don Rickles. A big-budget, wide screen version of WWII sitcoms like Hogan’s Heroes, this is popcorn action with slapdash charm directed by Brian G.Hutton, the same guy who gave us the 1968 hit - Where Eagles Dare also starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton. Harry Dean Stanton also co-stars. You can hear the "Tiger Tank" from the movie's soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

Pork Chop Hill (Lewis Milestone/1959) – Very similar to Hamburger Hill, a Korean anti-war picture based on the best selling book by SLA Marshall and directed by the Academy award winning Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, Ocean's 11, Of Mice and Men, Mutiny on the Bounty). A brutal film that almost entirely centers on an infantry assault on the eponymous hill depicting the bitter struggle for supremacy between the US Army and the Communist (Chinese and Korean) forces at the end of the Korean War. This film adds the element of psychology to the standard battle scenes – the US men are not only bombarded by Korean artillery but also by loudspeakers positioned on the hill. Gregory Peck (Omen) heads a tough, realistic cast that includes Rip Torn, George Peppard, Martin Landau and Robert Blake.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (Richard Fleischer/Toshiro Masuda/Kinji fakasaku/1970) – This is a war action thriller starring Jason Robards, Joseph Cotton and Martin Balsam guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Date: December, 1941, Place: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The U.S. naval base is about to be bombed and we know it. But the directors weave the story and action so expertly, continuously building tension that we’re captive to its spell of intrigue and bomb fire. A massive hit in Japan but a flop in the US. Oscar Winner for Best Special Effects with 4 more nominations. This is what Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor should have really been. 

The Train (John Frankenheimer/1964) – A visually stunning, thought-provoking and ultimately heartbreaking thriller based on the book - Le Front De L'Art by Rose Valland . With the Third Reich crumbling, Col. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is ordered to gather the spoils of a French art museum and ship them by (you guessed it) a train to Germany. The Resistance finds out and begs railway inspector Labiche (Burt Lancaster) to intercept the train and get the paintings back. But will he risk the lives of his men for the sake of preserving art – is any masterpiece worth more than a human life? The action scenes are spectacular and the performances are strong. A great film.

Zulu (Cy Endfield/1964) – Forget that Michael Caine made his first starring appearance in this thriller, forget that Stanley Baker gave an excellent portrayal as a Royal Engineers officer faced with a battle against titanic odds – this is a must see for its insights into contemporary South Africa. This brilliant account of the Battle of Roarke’s Drift, in which a few dozen poorly armed British soldiers defended a tiny mission against an army of 4000 determined Zulu warriors, has tension that builds slowly and inexorably during the first hour. Director Endfield sets up a situation in which there are no heroes or saints and even the noblest of action are ambiguous. A provocative historical thriller that inspired the equally good 1979 prequel - Zulu Dawn starring Peter O’Toole and Burt Lancaster. 


  1. In a weird way, I haven't watched any of them. But, will certainly download some of them, at least to watch them. Thank you for the list.

  2. hey great post, i was goin to do a similar post on war movies... but my list has the usual movies which are of course classics. am goin to watch all te movies u have mentioned ... thx fr te list.

  3. glad to see a fellow blogger from India who shares my enthusiasm for authentic cinema. thanks for the comments and your visit.

  4. thank you Arjit and the Realist. Hope you guys kike them all!

  5. So movies have been there since even before my birth huh? Then why those oldies consider movie watching is something bad.. :)

  6. Good list. I have seen "Tora, Tora, Tora" and "Battle of Algiers" in this list. Need to check out the others.

  7. Thnaks Gouri and Giri, you'll probably enjoy Zulu and the Train though my favorite is the Big Red One and 49th Parallel.

  8. Good choices altough I have seen most of them. I would add these to the list:

    Come and see (Russia)

    Stalingrad (Germany)


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