In honor of this Memorial Day I'm taking a look at a few of my favorite war movies -- though to be perfectly frank with you at the outset, I've really never been a big fan of the War & Military genre of film, generally speaking. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love nothing more than watching stuff blow up... provided it's a Romulan spacecraft or a Transformer or some other creature similarly othered into something inhuman. I like to keep my enjoyment of stuff blowing up far, far away from this tender and easily triggered little thing I have permanently installed in my skullcase called human empathy, which I find nearly impossible to turn off. And let's face it: however grand the pyrotechnics, recognizing one's own humanity in something blowing up is, well, kind of a killjoy. How can I ENJOY the explosions and blossoming fireballs if I have to FEEL things? BAH! Stupid feelings!
I should also add that I am also, as you shall see momentarily, clearly a child of the Vietnam era, born five years before the U.S. officially ended operations with the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Thus, my taste runs toward the hard and bloody realism common to war films since -- movies that recognize, and document, the incalculable human costs of modern warfare and why it must always be something only resorted to at the last, after all other possible diplomatic options have been exhausted.
War may indeed be hell, but the following five films make of the grisly and terrifying experience of war something sublime, capturing as they do great and terrible human truths played out in the extremity of a military theater. [WARNING: The videos below contain a fair amount of violence and bloodshed. Proceed with caution.]
Apocalypse Now (1979) Though parts of this film in retrospect appear bloated as Brando's Kurtz, thirty years later Apocalypse Now still channels, in a way that seems timeless, the cold mechanics of war and how its unrelenting brutality has the capacity to degrade those who operate within it both morally and psychologically. The epic helicopter attack scene below outlines the growing disconnect between these men and the atrocities they're enacting as they, from a sterile distance, bombard a village of Vietnamese men, women, and children to the sweeping soundtrack of Ride Of The Valkyries, a contrivance intended to lend a heroic flourish to their barbarism. The cinematography here is stunning -- its odd to not be able to help but find beauty in a scene so packed with horror (that tension being precisely the point, I imagine).
Platoon (1986) Noted egotist Oliver Stone somehow managed to keep himself in check just long enough to produce a film that feels like a 120 minute meditation on the 'heart of darkness' Coppola really only scraped the surface of in the late 70s. In Platoon, Stone digs into the guts -- literally and figuratively -- of modern soldiering, conjuring a visceral, ground-level vision of the internal and interpersonal conflicts and soul-rending moral ambiguities of Vietnam's guerilla warfare. In the film combat becomes suffocatingly immediate, and its chronicle of both mental and physical human anguish is steeped in ever-escalating emotional intensity. In the scene below -- perhaps the film's most iconic -- music is used to an end different from its deployment in Apocalypse Now, brought to the fore not to gloss savagery but to throw it into the starkest possible relief (get out your hankies, folks).
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Spare and beautiful in its ugliness, Stanley Kubrick's vision here owes much to Stone's Platoon, which he is said to have greatly admired. Raw, but emotionally minimalist compared to its predecessor, Full Metal Jacket to my mind resonates most when it lingers, as it does in the scene below, on the tangible nightmarescape of war's reality. Here the tension between the scene's imagery of physical devastation (summoning a distinct Hell-On-Earth vibe), the soldiers' song, and its accompanying narration obliquely map the numbing, dehumanizing impact that existing in such a world has on the human psyche. It is, simply put, classic Kubrick, his great and terrible genius manifest.
Richard III (1995) Yes, yes, it's Shakespeare. But Shakespeare brought into the modern era of 1930s Fascist England, with the almost impossibly brilliant Sir Ian McKellen in the title role. A killer with his eyes on ascending the throne, McKellen's Duke of Glouchester is the embodiment of moral corruption and unbridled ambition, a man to whom the lives of others are irrelevant and disposable if not instrumentally useful to him. As a leader he is alternately indifferent and abusive, exemplifying in deed and word that power does not necessarily confer nobility or wisdom, that might and right are often far separated, and that it is ill-advised to blindly follow any ruler whose version of statesmanship requires firearms. After all, if war is hell, it's fair to suspect that the one who directs its armies may in fact be the devil. In this culminating scene, McKellen's King Richard shows his horns, bears his teeth, and is electrifyingly demonic.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) I haven't always been a big fan of Spielberg's "serious" films, being of the opinion that the director's best work and where his genius lies is in films of the action/adventure genre both whimsical and fantastic -- E.T., Close Encounters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the like. I've gone so far as to openly admit my disdain for Schindler's List, which despite a great story floundered in schmaltz and was stylistically undone by its art school pretensions. All of that said, in Saving Private Ryan Spielberg's innovative and daring choices in cinematography and sound design spectacularly elevate the film and make it something unique to the genre. Visually, the opening scene of the film expresses more through its imagery alone than any document about what happened that day on Omaha Beach could accomplish in thousands of words. Spielberg harnesses the visceral power of the medium and forces viewers into the frame, so that our bodies become conductors of the expectation, panic, and raw terror those men must have felt. It's an extraordinary, if harrowing and emotionally exhausting, filmic achievement.
What about you, dear reader? What do you consider to be the best films of the genre?
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Tracey, aka Sweetney, writes about Pop Culture & Entertainment at MamaPop, and feels that in the wake of all she's had to visually absorb in doing research for this post it might be time for a nice romantic comedy or something.
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