Tuesday, May 7, 2013

10 War Movies to Watch on Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day is right around the bend, which means it's almost time for Turner Classic Movies' war movie marathon. TCM always puts up an interesting program, but this year I notice that none of my favorites will be shown.  Most of the war movies that I admire aren't gory, patriotically simplistic, or straightforward - I prefer films that grapple with the moral turmoil and ambiguity of war, films that reflect on the meaning of the violence rather than the violence itself. A lot of war films commonly recognized on best-of lists, like Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket, are missing from this list, for the simple reason that they are too gory for me to have any reaction to them but nausea. Here is a list of my 10 favorite war movies.

10. The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) 
This fascinating film stars Fredric March and a very young Cary Grant as World War I pilots. March's character becomes increasingly distraught over the carnage he witnesses, while Grant's character's callous behavior makes him unpopular with his fellow pilots. This isn't strictly a pacifist film, but the complex reflection on what makes a war hero - dying or living, killing or being merciful - gives no easy answers. The film is particularly eye-opening, given that it was produced in between the World Wars, just as Hitler was coming to power in Germany.

9. The General (1926)
Buster Keaton's masterpiece about a lowly railway engineer who becomes a Confederate hero when his beloved locomotive is hijacked by Yankee soldiers has some of his most impressive stuntwork and undoubtedly qualifies as the best movie ever set on a train. Simultaneously hilarious and suspenseful, this film is a textbook on how to make a genuine tragicomedy.

8. Europa Europa (1990)
 Agnieszka Holland's World War II film is one of the most interesting survival stories of all time. Solly Perel, a character based on a real-life Jewish survivor, narrates his chameleonic transformations as he struggles to survive Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, at one point posing as the perfect Aryan in a school for Hitler Youth. The film resists easy judgments and no character is either entirely good or entirely bad. Betrayals and mercies are portrayed as arbitrary or a simple matter of being in the wrong (or right) place at the right time. Europa Europa is one of the most powerful stories of Jewish survival ever put on screen.

7. Decision Before Dawn (1951)
 This World War II drama is also based on a true story. Oskar Werner, who in real life was a pacifist and deserted the German Wehrmacht, plays a German prisoner of war who volunteers to spy for American intelligence. One of the first post-WWII films to resist portraying Germans as monsters, this powerful movie focuses on the human costs of war. Werner's character is constantly torn by wanting mercy for the victims - a soldier executed for desertion, a boy informer, a dancehall singer who has lost a leg - and his moral purpose of bringing the war to a close. This is also worth watching for the locations of bombed out German cities that had not yet been rebuilt.

6. The Mortal Storm (1940)
The Mortal Storm was one of the first American films to honestly face the horrific realities of Hitler's regime, in particular the extermination of Jews in concentration camps. The film was not terribly successful when it came out, at least partly because Americans resisted facing the truth. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play two young people who stand up against their families and friends who have embraced Nazism. This portrait of resistance is uncompromising in its humanitarianism. Long unavailable, this important film has finally been released on dvd as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

5. A Very Long Engagement (2004)
 This immensely complex mystery set during the aftermath of World War I in France is stunningly beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking. Audrey Tautou plays Matilde, whose lover Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) has been reported dead. Matilde refuses to believe this and plunges into a search for him that leads her into a maze of army corruption and fiercely guarded secrets. Jean Pierre Jeunet gives this film many of his signature quirky touches, but they never overwhelm the seriousness of the subject matter.

4. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Ernst Lubitsch's hysterical comedy was another courageous effort to bring attention to the horrors Hitler was wreaking across Europe. The movie is set in Poland just before and after Hitler's annexation. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play husband and wife actors, called upon to join the Polish resistance and thwart the evil intentions a Nazi spy who has infiltrated. There are at least three Hitler impersonations and the movie is truly funny, but it is easy to miss how subversive this movie was until you remember that it was made when Hitler was winning in Europe and the United States was only just accepting that it would enter the war.

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
 Powell and Pressburger's meditation on the changing morality of war was loathed when it was released, in large part because it rejects the simplistic patriotism of popular British movies of the time. Today, it is recognized as the masterpiece that it is. Roger Livesey plays the colonel who strives to behave like a gentleman through three wars and Anton Walbrook plays his German friend, also a soldier. There is a healthy dose of British humor, but the film's real power lies in its prescient recognition of how World War II would change warfare and the British national identity.

2. Paths of Glory (1957)
Personally, I think this is Kubrick's best and most powerful film, as well as his best collaboration with the magnificent Kirk Douglas. Set in the trenches of World War I, Paths of Glory is about the court-martial of three "representative" soldiers from a regiment that refused to follow orders that were tantamount to suicide. Douglas plays their colonel, who struggles to negotiate a merciful outcome for them. This film feels painfully real and, unlike so many acclaimed war films, doesn't buy into any comforting myths.

1. Grand Illusion (1937)
Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is one of the greatest films of all time, with a cast that includes Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim. A group of French prisoners of war plot their escape from Germany during World War I. The film examines both the rifts and the bonds between the soldiers of different backgrounds, emphasizing the huge class divisions that made friendship an almost tortuous enterprise. The film got Renoir into hot water at the beginning of the second World War because of its subtle condemnation of antisemitism. If you watch just one war movie, this is the one it should be.


  1. I completely agree with you about the Kubrick movie. In fact, this (and maybe "2001") is the only movie of his I've ever truly enjoyed. Kirk Douglas and Adolphe Menjou give memorable and powerful performances, and, sadly, the cynicism and political wheeling & dealing feel all too contemporary. It's a movie that hasn't aged at all.

    1. I also liked Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - it's a rare period movie that reflects the time in which it's set rather than the time in which it was made. But without a doubt, Paths of Glory is his best film.