Yeah, yeah, I know, Starship Troopers is science fiction and not what one would normally call a "war movie." But when you think about it, what is the plot of Starship Troopers? Humans are battling alien bugs from a faraway planet. Humans battle these bugs by ground, through the Mobile Infantry, and the Fleet, the human air force of the future. And on top of that, Starship Troopers is a parody of World War II propaganda movies (the "Would You Like to Know More?" segments, how everyone is so damn gung ho). And I remember something the great actor/technical advisor Dale Dye said about Starship Troopers the novel, that it's an important military novel despite its sci fi trappings. Dye worked on Starship Troopers and appeared in it in a brief cameo. He didn't care for the movie (I believe he didn't appreciate the parody aspects of it), but the fact that he wanted to be a part of it is good enough, I think, to include it here on this list.
4. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
The great thing about The Dirty Dozen, aside from being one of the ultimate "guy" movies, is that it shows that maybe not everyone fighting the Nazis in World War II was a great person or even an upstanding citizen. The members of the Dirty Dozen were all murderers and thugs, the kind of people who, regardless of the time period, are likely in jail somewhere. How often do you see that kind of thing in a World War II movie, especially since that war is considered the last "great" war? Not very.
3. Stalag 17 (1953)
Stalag 17 tells the story of a German POW camp in World War II. The camp is filled with captured American soldiers. Now, based on that description you would think the movie would be horrific. But it isn't. It's actually a comedy of sorts (it inspired the TV show Hogan's Heroes). William Holden gives a great performance as the shifty Sgt. Sefton, an American POW who is essentially out for himself, but the stand-out performance belongs to Robert Strauss as Animal, the goofy POW that, when he isn't engaged in hijinks with Harvey Lembeck's Shapiro, is lusting after Betty Grable and or women in general (he flips out when he sees a group of women walk to the showers). If you haven't seen this classic movie, seek it out as soon as you can. It's well worth checking out.
2. Platoon (1986)
One of director Oliver Stone's best movies, Platoon tells the story of an idealistic soldier, played by Charlie Sheen, who struggles with the overall meaning of the nastiness he is forced to deal with in the jungles of Vietnam. Sheen's Chris volunteered to fight, unlike many of the people around him. He wanted to go to war for his country. And you see him interact with the "good guy" of the war, in Willem Dafoe, and the bad guy, brilliantly played by Tom Berenger. Which side will Chris fall on? Everything about this movie is brutal, nasty, grimy; there's very little "hope" here. It isn't quite a horror movie, but it's damn close. Even the "light" scenes, where we see everyone drinking and smoking pot and singing and trying to have a good time, have an aura of doom about them. Remember what John C. McGinley's character said about the new LT, "He ain't gonna make it, there's just no fucking way." You could say that for just about every character in the movie.
1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan isn't a perfect movie, as it has several "slow" moments, but the "fast" moments, the moments where we get to see the horrors of war up close and personal, more than make up for the movie's slow moments. The D-Day invasion that takes up the first chunk of the movie is a sadly thrilling and horrifying swirl of violence. You can't hear anything, there's danger around every corner, and you're not sure what you're going to run into next. Will the man you're trying to talk to suddenly lose an arm, a leg, or his face in a hail of bullets or some kind of up close explosion? The last segment of the movie, which is all about battling over a bridge, almost duplicates the feel of the D-Day scenes, but it can't quite match it. It comes close, though. Still a profound, sad movie fifteen years later.
Based on the Pulitizer-Prize winning The Killer Angels, this is the most meticulous Civil War movie ever. It wonderfully showcases the three days of 1863 that changed the course of the war as North and South collide in a small Pennsylvania town and the movie shows every bit of it (aided by how it was shot on the real battlefield). The cast is good like Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee and Jeff Daniels as a Union officer but the star is how well director Ronald F. Maxwell recreates it all, especially Pickett's epic charge, showing how brutal warring on your own can be but how it was sadly necessary to allow our nation to grow.
4. Paths of Glory
World War I is often overlooked for its sheer horror, the classic idea of "civilized" warfare blown away by gas attacks and brutal trench battles. Stanley Kubrick's masterwork showcases this, the officers sitting back in houses sipping tea and giving orders, seemingly not caring of the men who have to fight and die in the mud. Kirk Douglas is an officer who gets a first-hand look at that, like the shocking idea of three men who refused a suicide mission shot for "cowardience." Horrifying and yet with a glimmer of heart that reminds you that every war must give way to a peace and hopefully a better tomorrow.
3. Apocalypse Now
Okay, it's true that Hearts of Darkness is actually a better movie. But this is still a powerful piece, less on Vietnam itself and more on how man's inhumanity to man shines through in war time. It's brutal in so many ways and while we get action (the famous helicopter charge), what's truly terrifying is how this was truly hell on Earth and how easily "moral" soldiers can descend into darkness through it. Brutal now as it was then, wonderful as a psychological piece as well as a brutal take on one of the most vicious wars in history.
Overlooked at times, this take on the first all-black regiment of the United States remains a powerful tale. It's not just the Confederates they have to worry about but also those within the Union who don't think they have the right to fight for themselves. It's a powerful tale with Matthew Broderick as the leader who has to make harsh decisions in command, Morgan Freeman as a veteran ready to fight and Denzel Washington in his Oscar-winning role as a former slave not sure if he even wants to fight for this country. The final storming of the Confederate fort, a total suicide mission, is brilliantly shot with James Horner's gorgeous score making you feel every moment to the sad climax. An ending to the soldiers but the birth of the idea of how blacks were as able to fight as any white man, if not more.
1. The Longest Day
Based on Cornelius Ryan's best-seller, this massive epic had nearly 50 major stars from America, England and elsewhere but still manages to tell the best version yet of the D-Day invasion. It's good because it also shows the German point of view, from the poor commander on the beach who sees the end of Germany coming (when asked where the fleet is, he responds "Right at me!") to the bungling that allowed the Allies to gain a beachhead. But we get great bits like Red Buttons as a paratrooper stuck on a rooftop and watching his unit wiped out to the wild street fighting. The shots of the invasion force on the beach are amazing as you realize this isn't CGI but rather thousands of real men and equipment replicating the massive effort. A true classic of one of the key battles in history, well worth watching today.
Shawn S. Lealos
Robert Altman created a war movie so great that it ended up as one of the most popular television shows in history. While most people know about the TV show, not as many today have seen the movie it was based on. That needs to change for anyone who hasn't seen it. Donald Sutherland stars as Hawkeye and Tom Skerritt is Duke, the two military doctors in the Korean War who try to survive the horrors of war with humor. The movie is actually about a football game, but the jokes are strong and the entire movie is a great war comedy.
4. Apocalypse Now
I would argue that the best movie about making movies was Hearts of Darkness, which tells the making of Apocalypse Now. Martin Sheen almost died, Marlon Brando was a giant headache, and Francis Ford Coppola had a legitimate nervous breakdown. However, what resulted was one of the best war movies ever made, as Sheen's soldier takes a journey into darkness to assassinate Brando's deserter. The movie is a great look at the darkness that can take over a man's soul when war overcomes him.
3. Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick made a more famous war movie later in his career, but Paths of Glory remains a true masterpiece. When watching the opening of this movie, it is clear it had a strong influence on Steven Spielberg because this is exactly where Saving Private Ryan lifted its long beach shot from, as Paths of Glory has one of the best trenches long shots in all of cinema. The film is about men falsely accused of cowardice and put on trial, with the threat of a firing squad if found guilty. Kirk Douglas stars and the movie is a true classic.
2. Inglourious Basterds
If you are looking at an alternative history war movie, there isn't one better than Inglourious Basterds. Of course, it is Quentin Tarantino, so that has to be expected. The cast was amazing, with Brad Pitt on top form as the man leading the Nazi hunters, Christophe Waltz winning an Oscar for his role as the Jew hunter, and Michael Fassbender even popping up in an impressive smaller role. The movie had great dialogue, some fantastic twists and is still - in my opinion - Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece and best movie.
1. Pan's Labyrinth
One might not think of Pan's Labyrinth as a war movie, but it really is. This is Guillermo Del Toro's best movie, which is high praise considering his great filmography. This movie is a dark fairy tale about a girl who is horrified by the real world and heads into a fantasy world that is actually more dangerous than the one she left. Everything she finds in the fantasy world parallels the real-world horrors, including the Spanish Civil War and the military step father who has stepped into her life. This is a tragedy that is fully seeped in the mythology of the Spanish conflict and one of the best movies ever made in any genre.