If you haven’t heard of George S. Patton or Erwin Rommel or Marshal Zukhov and you still claim to be a World War 2 buff with a knack for war films, here’s an advice: talk less and watch more. General George S. Patton believed himself to be the reincarnation of soldiers serving the Roman Empire and Napoleon, among other past lives. While this belief and others made those around him view him as eccentric (or worse), it also captured the temperament of a man who saw himself as a soldier first and couldn’t picture himself serving any other function in life. Co-written by Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola, Franklin J. Schaffner’s epic-scaled biopic focuses on Patton’s World War II experience. That’s more than enough to fill a film, and more than enough to offer a complex, nuanced, often unflattering depiction of the hard-charging general whose victories in North Africa, Sicily, and elsewhere could be overshadowed by diplomatic gaffes, a megalomaniacal temperament, and abusive incidents, like the assault of shell-shocked soldiers he labeled cowards. The film reduces two such incidents into one, but it otherwise doesn’t let Patton off easy, giving room for George C. Scott’s full-bodied performance to capture the complexity of a born soldier for whom glory and ugliness often went hand in hand.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
This list doesn’t want for Best Picture winners, among them David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, which also took the prizes for Best Director, Best Actor (for Alec Guinness), and Best Adapted Screenplay (though blacklisted writers Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman wouldn’t receive credit until years later). It’s easy for the Academy to get behind great war movies, which tend to use spectacle and a grand scope to address weighty themes. Kwai contains all of the above, but it feels remarkably intimate thanks to its focus on a handful of characters played by Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden, Alec Guinness, and others. The product of contrasting cultures, the film finds each figure responding to his experiences as part of a Japanese prison camp in Burma differently — yet none is more fascinating than Guinness’s Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, who comes to treat the forced construction of the eponymous railway bridge as a test of British gumption. The film treats his obsession as both an admirable manifestation of national spirit and a kind of war-stoked madness whose contradictions remain tangled to the end.
The Big Red One (1980)
Sam Fuller had already been a crime reporter, pulp novelist, screenwriter, and soldier before he became a director. While he brought his World War II experiences to many of his films, Fuller wrote most of his autobiographical elements into this project, a sprawling war film based on his experiences in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division. He had first tried to film The Big Red One in the 1950s but couldn’t make it happen. Its realization looked increasingly less likely as the years went on, but the always intrepid Fuller persisted. Used to working on small budgets, he barely left Israel to create a war-spanning story that follows a 1st Infantry squad from North Africa, through Italy, D-Day, and finally to a Czech concentration camp. Playing a Fuller surrogate, Robert Carradine co-stars alongside Mark Hamill and Lee Marvin, the latter playing a hardened veteran of both World Wars. Fuller finds creative ways to stage the war on a budget — making particularly ingenious use of a watch during the Normandy sequence — and its limitations ultimately serve the film, keeping the focus on the experiences of a tight band of soldiers as they make their way from continent to continent and, ultimately, to the dark heart of the war itself. In the process, Fuller captures the ravages of war on both soldiers and civilians while also depicting why sometimes fighting becomes the only choice.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
One of the favorites films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola well the thing is this is the only film with the ability to make you see the war from a very different perspective. Debuting in the Evening Standard in 1934, cartoonist David Low’s aging, walrus-mustache, potbellied Colonel Blimp came to embody all that was out of touch and out-of-date in a certain type of British military man. Released in the thick of World War II, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp serves as a kind of origin story for the character but also, and above all, as a defense of his place in history and in shaping the national character. Roger Livesey stars as Clive Candy, a lifelong British soldier first seen losing a war-games exercise after his young opponent chooses not to play by the rules. The film then flashes back to Candy’s younger days when those rules still applied. It follows him from an attempt to defend Britain from German propaganda at the turn of the century through the ups and downs that followed. Along the way, he falls in love with a series of women played by Deborah Kerr and befriends a German officer (Anton Walbrook) whose attitudes change with the shifting circumstances of his nation. At once comic and elegiac, it’s clear-eyed about the changing times that have made Candy’s notions about the proper way to fight dangerously out-of-date. But it also admires the way he embodies the best traits of an England that prides itself on civility and fair play even in battle — a vision of itself that’s in the process of being forcibly changed by the demands of an enemy that finds no virtue in such values.
Apocalypse Now (1975)
Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness keeps true to Conrad’s use of a river journey as a trip into the most forbidding reaches of the human psyche while transposing the action to the still-fresh Vietnam War. Martin Sheen stars as Captain Willard, a special-ops soldier charged with ending the career of the insane, abusive, charismatic Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) with “extreme prejudice.” Doing so means making a dangerous journey to a camp that Kurtz rules over like a god, with stops along the way that include time with a battle-happy surf-enthusiast commander of a helicopter unit (Robert Duvall), a USO appearance from some Playboy Playmates that stirs madness, and encounters with locals made tragic by the fog of war. (The extended versions released in 2001 and 2019 include even more episodes, including a French plantation sequence that provides an even stronger connection to the colonialism of Conrad’s book and the colonialist roots of the war.) Coppola famously had a difficult time making the film, so difficult that his experiences inspired the great making-of doc Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. That chaos may not have been necessary to create the sense of a world spinning out of control, but maybe it didn’t hurt. Sheen plays Willard as a man always on the verge of giving in to the madness of the world around him, a world that grows less explicable and crueler the closer he draws to Kurtz. Coppola’s film is disorienting and disturbing, using Vietnam to capture the insanity of all war and drawing on Conrad to suggest that war might just be an outgrowth of awfulness at the core of humanity itself.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’s 1962 novel based on his World War II experiences fighting in the Guadalcanal campaign changed shape significantly as it made its way to the screen. Malick’s first film in 20 years, The Thin Red Line attracted the attention of established and rising stars alike, some of whom saw their roles reduced, or even deleted, from the final cut. Somewhere there’s an alternate version of the film in which Bill Pullman, Mickey Rourke, and Lukas Haas appear and Adrien Brody plays a key role rather than popping up for a few minutes of screen time. Malick’s editors, in an interview included in the Criterion Collection’s editions of the film, offer the best explanation for his decision-making. Malick cut the film not to service the plot but to make room for the film’s voice-overs. Paired with stunning images of war in the Pacific, they provide lyrical reflections on the characters’ wartime experiences and the loss of innocence that comes with those experiences. Malick returned from his moviemaking absence in full command of his signature ability to capture the wonder, but in depicting a kind of hell on earth, he uses that ability to disorienting the effect. Here, war spoils all it touches, from those who partake in it to those swept up in it to the land itself. To Malick, it’s an act of awful defiance against creation.