The war film. One of the most common subjects for movies over the last century, and for good reason. Wars are very much a part of our history, and to understand and come to terms with such events, it is necessary to explore them fully.

It is no surprise then that there are numerous war movies in the IMDb250 list. They cover several different wars, looking at various elements such as soldier training, battles, prison camps, and the fallout after the war is over. Here are five war movies from the IMDb250 list, and by that definition five of the greatest war movies ever made.

Apocalypse Now (1979) – 8.6 No. 36

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film needs no introduction. Considered not just one of the greatest war movies of all time, but one of the greatest movies period. Its production was beleaguered by controversy, rumour, and an increasingly excessive budget. But is it cinematic genius or an overindulgent mess?

Col Kurtz has gone off the reservation, and the US government want him gone. Captain Willard is not exactly a picture of mental health himself, but is the man chosen to carry out the mission. An insane mission, but that is the theme here. A war borne out of insanity, and fought much in the same style. From the Air Cavalry’s iconic flight, and then attack to the sounds of Wagner, things just get weirder. The further Sheen and his team travel into the warzone, the more the reasons for the failures of the Vietnam war become clear. When Willard inquires about the identity of the commanding officer at a particular US outpos, the answer ‘i thought it was you’ tells you everything.

Apocalypse Now is incredible. Half political statement, half art film, whatever your thoughts on the storyline, and its accuracy or lack of it, there can be no denying that it is truly inspired filmmaking. Every scene is visually stunning. From the napalm explosions of the air strike to the murky, flare lit boat travels through the vietcong, Apocalypse Now is an experience, not a movie. Every chapter is surreal, yet in a strange way completely believable. A Colonel holed up in Cambodia with his own tribe, a bridge that is built and destroyed on a nightly basis, trading diesel fuel for two hours with a couple of playboy bunnies in the middle of a war zone, Apocalypse Now is unlike any movie ever made.

Is it the greatest movie ever made? Many will balk at the idea, but i honestly wouldn’t like to try and argue the case of any other film against it. It is beyond comparison of any sort. Apocalypse now is an experience, it is a taste of a war, a symbolic representation of ill-advised military action, and conveys the same message that every war film should, that war is man’s insanity.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – 7.9 No. 235

All Quiet on the Western Front is unusual in several ways. It is about the first world war, where so many films have been made about the second one. It tells the story from the point of view of German soldiers, controversial at the time as it was considered as a sympathetic view of the enemy.

All Quiet follows the fortunes, or inevitable lack of, of a class of young men inspired by their teacher to enlist. We follow these men through their training, which consists of nothing more than a couple of marching drills, then they are zipped straight to the front. They find conditions at base are bad. No food, rat problems, heavy bombardment on a constant basis. By the time they face their first real action, they have lost several of their number. After their first experience at the front, their number has further decreased. When they return for dinner, the cook is put out when he realises that having prepared food for 150, less than half that number have survived. The soldiers are overjoyed, it will be the first good meal they have had since they arrived.

As the numbers diminish, we see the horrors of the war through the eyes of one young man in particular. He watches a friend die, he watches an enemy die. He nearly dies himself, then finds he is no longer able to cope with normal life whilst on leave, and returns early. In a couple of years that fresh faced, energetic recruit has become a jaded, emotionally damaged man.

 All Quiet on the Western Front combines truly harrowing battle scenes with genuinely emotional character moments. The cinematography is very impressive, and the message at the heart of the film is beautifully delivered. A stunning movie, particularly considering its age, that could compete with any for the title of best war film ever made.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – 8.4 No. 72

The Bridge on the River Kwai is that most British of war films, the ‘stiff upper lip’-style, fighting against the odds story. Despite its title, and the memories i had of seeing it, the bridge itself, though fully the basis of the story, doesn’t appear until halfway through, and even then you don’t really see much of it.

Set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, this is a story about one man’s obsession. Alec Guinness is an officer of high principles. When his captors demand the officers work on the titular bridge, he refuses. Threatened with death, locked in the cook house, he refuses to give in, and eventually wins out – no officer will be forced into manual labour. They DO decide to work on the bridge, however, and Guinness’ obsessive personality takes over. He and his team set about making the best bridge possible, surveying the location, setting the correct foundation. Despite the fact it is being built to assist the enemy, it becomes his project.

A fascinating character study. Interrupted however, and far too frequently, by the story of an American officer, played by William Holden, who has escaped from the camp. We follow his escape, his downtime, and his eventual grudging return to destroy the bridge. This thread very much disturbs the underlying story, and was clearly shoehorned in to allow the film to be sold to the American audience. It isn’t Holden’s fault, but the Hollywood ending of the reluctant American hero undermines the true story at heart, that of a British officer forced to focus his mind on a project, any project, in order to survive his incarceration.

The Bridge on the River Kwai deserves a place on the list for the main crux of the story, but really, a different cut that removes the extraneous sub-plot involving William Holden would push the film up the list in my opinion. As it stands, it is a highly flawed attempt at mixing a dramatic character study with a Hollywood pleasing anti-hero’s story.

 Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) – 8.0 No. 183

 Who is responsible for the atrocities at the heart of World War II, and the atrocities committed during Hitler’s reign? Judgement at Nuremberg attempts to explore that question, and in the process creates a compelling legal drama and a thought provoking cross examination of the actions of the German people during the period.

Four high profile German judges stand trial for the atrocities that they sanctioned during the Holocaust. We follow the case through the eyes of one of the three judges hearing the trial. During the trial, he hears compelling argument both from the prosecution and the young German defence attorney, a passionate, hugely talented young man. Away from the trial, the judge is exposed to German people and German culture, learning about how the war affected the civilian populace.

The movie puts not just the judges on trial, but the whole country. How far does responsibility stretch. Are you guilty just through knowledge of the events, through inaction? Is turning a blind eye, or hiding away in ignorance excuse enough? How much did the German population really know of what was going on? Some of the defendant’s arguments, that there was nothing that could be done to stop Hitler, that the judges stayed in power to try and continue to uphold the law, that the people involved were working for the good of their fatherland, range from compelling to ludicrous. Whilst the final verdict is never really in any doubt, the journey is fascinating, and you really are forced to think about how you would act if forced into such an abominable situation.

With some fantastic acting performances, and intelligently crafted court room scenes, Judgement at Nuremberg is one of the most important war films ever made. Without showing a gun being fired, or a soldier in uniform, it tells the story of a country torn apart by conflict, and its place in the IMDb250 list is well deserved.

 Stalag 17 (1953) – 8.0 No. 206

Alongside some of the other war flms i have watched over the last two weeks, Stalag 17 is a definite change of tone. Adapted from a broadway play, and directed by Billy Wilder, it is a much lighter film, and speaks much more to theatrical entertainment than it does serious commentary.

Stalag 17 is a POW camp, much like in the later The Great Escape. American soldiers spend their time in their hut, making their own entertainment, amusing each other, generally having a pretty good time. Escape attempts are made however, but with a mole apparently working amongst the group, not much success is met. Suspicion falls upon William Holden’s Sefton, very much the camp scrounger, who trades his goods with the German guards for various privileges. This makes him unpopular amongst the other men, and his unrepentant attitude makes him the subject of much anger. With an attempt planned to smuggle out an injured officer, the mole must be found, and silenced.

Stalag 17 is a strange one. For me, the marriage of upbeat entertainment and the occasional, really very dark moments of violence is an uneasy one at best. It serves well to make the few scenes of this nature more shocking, but it really doesn’t fit together well. The cast are entertaining enough, but there are no real laugh out loud moments, and the overall effect is very much uninspiring. Much like the meshing of two different styles in The Lady Vanishes that i looked at a few weeks ago, i just don’t really get it, and maybe it is just me, as both films are obviously in the IMDb250 list.

 It also probably doesn’t help that the style and tone is so different to the four other war films i’ve watched over the last fortnight, and that’s really why i wanted to do some updates with films that have some kind of connection, to allow for some comparison. For me Stalag 17 is not deserving of its place on the list, and i can think of several war films not in the list that i would place in its stead.
That’s it for this week. Come back next Monday for Gary’s next update, and then in two weeks when i’ll be looking at five movies from world cinema.
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