War films have been one of the most prevalent genres throughout the history of film. So returning yet again is Alex Hayler (Best Picture Winners and Quentin Tarantino) as we pick out Top 5 War Films. Now the criteria for this list are that the films must be based in real life wars, so no fictional ones (Star Wars is right out). As you’ll see my list tends to be toward slightly less typical war film picks, because even though films such as Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket are great, I just don’t connect with them as much as the five I’ve picked here. Alex meanwhile has decided to focus only on war films depicting conflicts from the 19th century onwards. He did this because if he included prior centuries, this list would have become a ‘top five historical epics’ which, whilst fine in its own right, was not the brief.
- Shuggie: The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigalow’s film focusing on a Iraq War explosive disposal team is all about the character dynamics between the three principle characters of the film. It’s more about the psychological effects of dealing with these horrible situations, and how this has wildly different effects on the main characters. The ending where Jeremy Renner’s character William James cannot deal with civilian life back in the US and so leaves his family to go back on tour really contrasts with Anthony Mackie’s J. T. Sanborn who realises he can’t do it anymore and wants to start a family back home. Some incredibly tense sequences don’t hurt either. This is truly the definitive war film for the modern age.
- Alex: Downfall – A biopic of Hitler which focuses on the last few weeks of his life, ‘Downfall’ shows the final collapse of Nazi Germany through the eyes of one of the Fuhrer’s secretaries. Bruno Ganz puts in a show stopping performance as Hitler, underpinning the expected megalomaniacal rage with a surprisingly human element that almost has you sympathising with him. Also featured here is the scene that you saw parodied by way of re-captioning about a million times on YouTube (amazingly I still see a new one pop up now and again).
- Shuggie: Master and Commander: The Far Side Of the World – Master and Commander follows the HMS Surprise as it pursues the French ship the Acheron during the Napoleonic Wars. What really makes Master and Commander such a special film for me is the dynamic and interactions between the Surprise’s crew members, principally Russell Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany’s Dr Stephan Maturin. The director, Peter Weir, manages to balance the epic scale of navel battling with the more human and personal story of the crew on board. If it had come out in another year it may have garnered far more award recognition, but it was blown out of the water by The Return of the King, which sadly hasn’t helped be remembered as it should be.
- Alex: Zulu – The film debut of veteran acting legend Michael Caine sees him play an able second-fiddle to an imposing Stanley Baker, who takes on the role of an engineering officer reluctantly tasked with holding a small, undermanned British outpost against a horde of native warriors. Shot on location in Africa using real, modern-day tribesmen as extras, Zulu has a more authentic feel than many films of its age, and even the slightly dated battle scenes fail to detract from its overall impact. I watch this film once every couple of years, and the final scene where the two leads stand exhausted on the field and reflect upon the horror of what they just witnessed never fails to affect me.
- Shuggie: Braveheart – I’m not entirely sure how, as a proud Scot, I didn’t put Braveheart at the top of my list, but here it is at number 3. Whatever you think of Mel Gibson as a person, there is no questioning the talent he has on show as both a director and an actor. The battle scenes in the film are brutal and raw that I think they are comparable to any in war films for the impact, including that beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan. The messy politics of Scotland at the time make it more interesting that merely go fight the bad guys, I think Braveheart is a masterpiece, and whilst not always historically accurate, it’s one that will always bring a sense of national pride.
- Alex: Full Metal Jacket – If the second half of this film were as good as the first, it’d probably be number one on this list. The latter half of Kubrick’s Vietnam masterpiece was a capable war flick, but it’s the first half, depicting the training of the new recruits, which was true classic cinema. R. Lee Ermey plays to absolute perfection the role of drill master and tormentor of the recruits, although he was cheating somewhat since he wasn’t really acting; he was a former drill instructor in real life who was initially hired to advise on set. “I bet you’re the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around” is just one of his many memorable tear downs of the would-be soldiers. Vincent D’onofrio, who has recently found fame as Wilson Fisk in Netflix’s ‘Daredevil’, also gives a memorable performance as Private Gomer Pyle, the recruit pushed too far by the abuse of his fellows.
- Shuggie: Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino’s rewriting of the Second World War is actually my favourite Tarantino film to date. Brad Pitt is brilliant and hilarious as Aldo Raine and Christoph Waltz, in his first introduction to the English speaking audience, is so brilliantly menacing and charming in equal measure, making him one of the most memorable villains in film history. Sure there aren’t epic battles in Inglourious Basterds, but that bar scene is far tenser than anything you’ll see in any other war film. This is a filmmaking master at his pinnacle, and a great war film.
- Alex: Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – The second Kubrick film on my list, and arguably the greatest satire ever produced (no critic worth his salt would argue against it being on the shortlist at least). Dr. Strangelove began its life as a tense cold war thriller, until Kubrick looked at the screenplay he was writing and realised how absurd and ripe for comedy the whole situation was. The plot features a insane US general (named Jack D. Ripper, because of course he is) launching an unauthorised nuclear strike against Russian because he believes the fluoridation of water is a communist plot to ‘pollute sacred American bodily fluids’. Every actor chews the scenery magnificently, but the show stealer is Peter Sellars, who plays 3 major roles including the titular Nazi doctor, who is now an American citizen but can’t stop his arm from doing the Hitler salute, well-meaning-but-ineffectual Flight Lieutenant Lionel Mandrake, and perhaps the star of the show, President Merkin Muffley, the bumbling US Premier who has to negotiate with his drunken Soviet counterpart. Sellars improvised the majority of his hilarious dialogue, and with a genius like Kubrick there to capture the magic, how could this be anything but a classic?
- Shuggie: Pan’s Labyrinth – Is this a bit of a cheat? Probably. Am I going to completely ignore that fact because this is my list? Absolutely. Sure this is a dark and twisted fantasy film, but it’s set to the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The horrors of the fantasy world are mirrored by the human atrocities being committed by Captain Vidal, so that war film element is prevalent in Pan’s Labyrinth. Whilst the war parts probably play a smaller role than the fantasy story, without it the film just wouldn’t come together as the masterpiece it is, so it belongs on the list. And as one of my favourite films ever it belongs right at the top.
- Alex: Saving Private Ryan – The beach scene. Need I say more? Fine, but only because I haven’t hit the word count yet. ‘Saving Private Ryan’, for me, is Spielberg’s magnum opus, his masterpiece amongst masterpieces. It has everything a classic war film needs, and executes every element to perfection. Tom Hanks gives arguably a career best performance as Captain Miller, the PTSD-ridden leader of the expedition to bring home the last surviving Ryan brother, and he is surrounded by an equally-capable star-studded supporting cast. The action scenes, including but not limited to the beach scene, are amongst the best ever filmed, and yet the film never feels exploitative or anything but respectful. I know I said earlier in the list that the end of ‘Zulu’ is thought provoking, but is has nothing on the end of Saving Private Ryan, which never fails to make me cry like a baby. And I don’t often cry at films. If you even vaguely like war films you must have seen Saving Private Ryan, but if you somehow haven’t then make it a top priority. Absolutely a must watch.
So thats our picks for our favourite war films. What do you think of our choices? What war films would you include? And you can follow me @shuggiesays on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.