A call to duty
War films have always been a staple of cinema -- providing the inspiration for some of the greatest and most honored films ever.
During the silent era there were D.W. Griffith’s controversial “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” (1925) and William Wellman’s “Wings” (1927), which won the first best film Oscar. The 1930 antiwar film “All Quiet on the Western Front” was the first sound film to earn the best picture Oscar. The academy also gave its highest honor to 1970’s “Patton,” about World War II Gen. George Patton, 1978’s “The Deer Hunter,” one of the first films on the Vietnam War, and 2009’s “The Hurt Locker,” set during the Iraq war.
On Veterans Day on Friday, the U.S. pays homage to the military men and women who have served our country in past and current conflicts. For this occasion we asked writer and film producer Steven Jay Rubin, author of the book “Combat Films: American Realism, 1945-2010,” to select Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam combat films he most admires.
“Gettysburg,” 1993. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell; stars Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger.
“Ron Maxwell probably created the most ambitious Civil War movies ever made. The Battle of Little Round Top, in which Jeff Daniels plays Col. Joshua Chamberlain fighting off the Confederates, is viscerally one of the most amazing combat sequences ever done of any war film -- the brutality, the whole scope of it, the sense of time and place and the physicality of the battle. There is nothing genteel about the Civil War. It was brutal and this was perhaps one of the most brutal battles of the Civil War. The way Ron Maxwell shot it with the moving camera was very complicated. They had to create a dolly that would go up and down a hill, which obviously is very difficult for a camera crew. The performances are marvelous.”
World War I
“Paths of Glory,” 1957. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, stars Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, George Macready
“The perception of World War I is that it was just madness. They would send soldiers into the battlefield and they had no chance of surviving. I thought the madness and craziness of fighting that war was perfectly captured in ‘Paths of Glory.’ Even though the movie’s combat sequences are not the whole movie -- it’s really more a story of the madness of the commanding officers of this French division -- I thought it was a terrific commentary on the war, combined with a very realistic tone. When Kirk Douglas was in those trenches and you see the charge, you feel like you are in that war. This is the ultimate antiwar film and the finest World War I movie ever made.”
World War II
“Saving Private Ryan,” 1998. Directed by Steven Spielberg, stars Tom Hanks, Matt Damon.
“‘Saving Private Ryan’ raised the bar so high. Up until 1998, you would have to go to a movie like ‘The Longest Day’ to say this must have been close to what the actual D-day was in terms of realistic combat action. Then you look at what Spielberg did in ‘Private Ryan’ and you realize they had barely scraped the surface. I think the visceral impact just changed the whole nature of the way people view horror. You are literally numb.”
“Pork Chop Hill,” 1959. Directed by Lewis Milestone, stars Gregory Peck.
“Korea was an ugly war. It wasn’t even declared to be a war. It was a police action. The film is the first time I felt that a filmmaker -- Lewis Milestone, who had great experience filming combat action all the way back to 1930’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ -- took a narrative story and gave it almost a documentary flavor in terms of how a unit would assault a hill. The terminology, the gritty action, the physicality of the movie just seemed like it was out of the U.S. Army infantry manual.”
“Platoon,” 1986. Directed by Oliver Stone, stars Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger
“Aside from it being a very realistic autobiographical portrait of one soldier’s combat action, the movie did amazing things in terms of healing the breach between the military and the public. Before ‘Platoon,’ I don’t think the average person on the street respected what American soldiers did in Vietnam on a day-to day-basis. The political aspects of the war affected the feeling toward combat soldiers. There was no respect for the hell they had to go through. I think ‘Platoon’ is a step-by-step primer in combat action in the bush. I don’t even think that Oliver Stone knew the power the film had when it came out.”
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Three great war films
Some of the most famous films examine the disillusionment of war.
Jean Renoir’s 1937 antiwar film set in a World War I POW camp was the first foreign production to earn a best film Oscar nomination.
‘Il Generale della Rovere’
Roberto Rossellini directed this 1959 World War II drama starring Italian director Vittorio De Sica as a con man arrested by the Gestapo.
‘War and Peace’
Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel won the 1968 best foreign film Oscar.