The grimy and exhausted foot soldier, a cigarette dangling from the lips, is a complicated and irresistible force — in movies and in life.
Prediction: War movies will outlast every other Hollywood genre, because we keep having wars. They provide abject lessons in cruelty and courage. Often, there are heavy doses of moral ambiguity, which Hollywood likes almost as much as sex. (Come to think of it, when was the last time you saw a truly sexy movie?)
Point is, war movies frighten and inspire us. Most of them are anti-war movies in that they powerfully remind us of the horrors of combat.
Where does this year’s Oscar front-runner, “1917,” rank with the best of them? Certainly, I’d put it in my top 10, based on its novel camerawork and overall impact. It has that ultimate trait all the great ones do, in that you can’t get it out of your head, even days later.
Our ranking criteria: WWI and beyond, with a battlefield component. Like all masterpieces, our movies have a look all their own. And, obviously, amazing lasting power.
I don’t want to start a war, but I’d put “Apocalypse Now” at No. 1. And look at how low I ranked “Saving Private Ryan.” I’m expecting flak on that one.
My top 10 war films
1. “Apocalypse Now” (1979). The raw guitar licks, the smell of napalm in the morning. … This legendary film is where mayhem meets moral ambiguity. How can combat, the most immoral of all acts, have any ethics whatsoever? How far can emotional detachment go before evil intrudes? Stuff like that. The hippest, most distinctive and influential masterpiece.
2. “The Longest Day” (1962). A near-biblical look at the sweaty brawls of combat, during one of the most pivotal days in world history. Is this the most amazing and bullheaded male cast ever: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton? No wonder it required multiple directors.
3. “The Dirty Dozen” (1967). The audacious premise: Even a bunch of notorious psychos can have a good moment. More than a cheer-along attack on a Nazi officers’ retreat, “The Dirty Dozen” is a study in leadership, muddy testosterone and redemption. It also boasts the best ending in movie history, edging out “Casablanca” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
4. “The Deer Hunter” (1978). I could watch this troubling movie a million times, if only to admire the way Meryl Streep turns demurely away from a lens at points when every other actor would turn toward it. What elevates this, besides another astounding cast, is the overlap between home life and combat. It also raises the question: Wasn’t De Niro, at 35, better when he didn’t worry so much about being De Niro?
5. “Downfall” ( 2004 ). Playing Adolf Hitler in his final hours, Bruno Ganz gives one of the most memorable performances in film history. Taut, gory and tragic, ”Downfall” explores Hitler’s human side and the hold he had over his followers, which makes him even more of a cautionary monster. A bold and brilliant film, start to finish.
6. “1917” (2019). At first a buddy film, it quickly becomes a study in the deepest reserves of battlefield bravery. Shot compellingly — through foxholes and across rivers — in what appears to be one extended take. You can’t get the question out of your head: Why do directors bother so much with multiple angles when the one perfect shot is all you ever need?
7. “Das Boot” (1981). Tingles on the back of the neck; the heart beats faster with every passing minute of this German U-boat saga. As with most of these war movies, the tension and anticipation seem to close in on the audience. “Das Boot” does what every gripping war movie does: It makes you say, “Get me the hell out of here.”
8. “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016). This highly underrated look at pacifism and courage under fire boasts perhaps the most horrid war scenes ever. But what a story. And what a performance by Andrew Garfield. How did this great film not win a single major Academy Award? #oscarssolame
9. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Overrated, though certainly one of the 10 best. It seems to lose its mojo after the first 20 minutes. But what a 20 minutes they are.
10. MASH (1970). This playful and cocky attack against toxic authority, and unjust wars, is nothing but fun. Should war movies ever be fun? In the right hands, yes. Because satire is still the sharpest sword.
Honorable mentions: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), “Patton” (1970), The Great Escape” (1963), “The Thin Red Line” (1998), “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), “Platoon” (1986), “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970), “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), “Stalag 17” (1953), “Black Hawk Down” (2001), “Stalingrad” (1993), “Paths of Glory” (1957), “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970), “Battleground” (1949).