In honor of Memorial Day, PKM salutes our soldiers with a set of films that we feel capture the immense range of moral, physical and emotional difficulties of war. Whatever your politics may be, today we remember the bravery and sacrifices of American soldiers who have been lost in battle.
By PKM Editors
The great American poet Edwin Starr once sang, “War…Good God, ya’ll …what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Far be it for the unlettered crew here at PKM to dispute Mr. Starr, but we’d like to amend his statement with the coda: War is good for absolutely nothing…but war movies.
Think about it: If countries could fight wars on movie sets rather than on the hills and plains or in the skies or under the seas of our beautiful planet, we might even cure ourselves of the war disease.
So, in honor of Memorial Day—a holiday commemorating those in our armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country—we have selected a number of our own in-house favorite war movies. Everyone, no doubt, has their own personal best war movie list. Perhaps some of ours might have found their way on to yours?
Movies are placed in alphabetical order, not by how we rank them.
Apocalypse Now (1979) Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-fated epic, even in its truncated form—is a stunning achievement by any measure. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and his hero Orson Welles’ failure to finish his own film adaptation of it, Coppola created a dark heart of his own, updating Conrad to the Vietnam War, underscoring it with funereal music by the Doors and truly insane performances by Robert Duval, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando.
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning…”
The Big Red One (1980) directed by Samuel Fuller. If you thought Lee Marvin was a badass as Major John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen (1967), an excellent war film in its own right, you won’t believe the authenticity he brings to his role here, as “The Sergeant” who gruffly instructs his unit’s raw recruits (including Mark Hamill) on how to survive during World War II. Marvin brought his own World War II combat experience to both roles.
The trailer for The Big Red One:
Full Metal Jacket (1987): This is two movies in one. The first half is about boot camp for a group of wannabe U.S. Marines; the harrowing authenticity of this part is due entirely to R. Lee Ermey, as the most brutal drill instructor ever put on film, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, who utters the classic line, “What’s your major malfunction, Numbnuts?!” (Ermey died earlier this year). The second half features some unforgettably frightening combat scene said to depict events during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
A curtain call from Mr. Ermey:
Glory (1989): With a screenplay based on the letters of one of the Civil War participants, Col. Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick), Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all African-American unit. The black 54th, led by the white Col. Shaw, does not flinch from its duty in leading an attack on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, S.C., despite heavy casualties. Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman both signaled that they were headed for even more glory in their acting careers.
An intense scene between Denzel and Morgan:
Hamburger Hill (1987): Written by James Carabatsos and directed by John Irvin, Hamburger Hill is based on an actual event in 1969, after it was clear that a quick end to the Vietnam War was impossible. In this case, U.S. Army troops were told to overrun a North Vietnamese Army fortification near the border with Laos. The assault did not go smoothly. The added bonuses with this film are Don Cheadle as Private Washburn and the soundtrack by Philip Glass. “Six hundred men went up; less than a third came down. This is their story.”
The trailer to Hamburger Hill, to the tune of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”:
The Hurt Locker (2008): An edge-of-your-seat film about a three-man bomb disposal team during the Iraq War. A psychologically chilling film about men under the most stressful conditions imaginable made by a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow. The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director—the first time a woman has won that award.
The official trailer:
Patton (1970): With a script co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, and George C. Scott giving a seamless performance as General George S. Patton, this is the gold standard for biopics and is also a great war movie. A fearless soldier, Patton proved to be his own worst enemy, and Scott captures the essence of this brutal, conflicted man during the peak of his combat career in World War II. Scott won the Academy Award for Best Actor but refused to show up to the ceremony to accept it. The only other Best Actor winner to do so was Marlon Brando, for The Godfather, three years later. Brando did it for political reasons; Scott just didn’t want to go to the ceremony, which is a pretty punk thing to do, no?
Opening soliloquy by Gen. Patton:
Platoon (1986): Written and directed by Oliver Stone, Platoon was based on Stone’s own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. As with all of Stone’s films, he has a clear political agenda with Platoon—an antiwar film that was only exceeded on that theme by his later film Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Platoon won the Best Picture Award and Stone won an Oscar for Best Director. Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe and (yes) Charlie Sheen are all great in their soldierly roles.
An intense combat scene from Platoon:
Saving Private Ryan (1998): One of the highest-grossing war films ever made, Steven Spielberg’s epic depiction of the D-Day Invasion and its aftermath was a visual masterpiece that is also grounded in humanity via its meta-story of the search for Private James Ryan, whose three other brothers had been killed in action. The opening 27 minutes, a depiction of the Allied forces assault on Omaha Beach, are some of the most realistic combat scenes ever filmed. As Walter Cronkite might have said, that was the way it was. And it was not pretty.
Storming Omaha Beach:
Slaughterhouse-Five: “You can come out now, Billy, the war’s over,” Billy Pilgrim’s mother soothingly calls to her son, hidden under a blanket in a VA hospital, after his experiences in Dresden during World War II. No it’s not, this film (and novel, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.) seems to say. The war is never over for those who actually have to fight in one. George Roy Hill directed this heartbreaking and funny movie, driven along by the Bach piano music played by Glenn Gould. Classic scenes abound, particularly any in which Ron Liebman (as Paul Lazzaro) appears. “Nobody fucks around with Paul Lazzaro!”
Here’s Howard Campbell telling the imprisoned Americans that the Germans are their friends, that the Commies are the real enemies, just before Dresden is bombed to smithereens: