A film veteran remembers: my top five war films

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

It would probably be more apropos if this editorial focused on “films that explore the veteran experience” or some such category more specific to yesterday’s importance.  But I haven’t seen a wide enough selection of films which cover that topic, so my list would hardly be anything close to a qualified or considered opinion.  So here’s what I’m going to do – part of Veterans Day is, to my mind, not just about honoring the human beings who participated in combat.  It is also about remembering, for both good and ill, the effect and/or cost of war.  It is about the power of the thing, the transformation it enacts on anyone who is impacted by it.  And we are all impacted by it. 

So here are my top five war films, from the perspective not of a one-time member of the armed forces but someone who has seen a lot of films.  These are not necessarily my favorites, but rather the most powerful out of those that I have seen.  And I’d be curious to know what films would make up your own version of such a list.  So after checking out what I have to say, go ahead and strike back below and let me know your top five!

PLATOON.  I caught PLATOON for the first time on TV about six years ago, during the village burning scene.  I then had this very trippy experience where I started crying and rocking back and forth and saying “I didn’t mean to do it” over and over and over again.  Still don’t know what that was about.

Platoon 250

ENEMY AT THE GATES.  Loving this film flies in the face of my semi-complaints about Bigelow and Boal taking liberties with the truth about military life in THE HURT LOCKER , but I guess it’s just one of those things where I somehow first saw it when I was ten years old and it irrevocably stuck with me.  The heartbreak, the casualty of innocence (there we go with PLATOON again), the sacrifice, the sorrow and the barbarity, and three sides of war not often seen on film (at least as of GATES’ release in 2001): the human face (and heart) of the propaganda machine, the Russian side of WWII, and the life of a sniper.  Great score as well, one that still ends up on my iPod to this very day.

Enemy At the Gates 250

STALINGRAD.  Going along with the setting of the last film on this list, this is one tough motherf**ker of an experience.  A German film that uses the microcosm of a single platoon of German soldiers to illustrate the greater suffering and dismay experienced by an unprepared German army as it invaded Russia.  Because you just don’t invade Russia.  I’m guessing things will turn out a bit better for John McClane than it has for folks like Hitler and Napolean, but he’s also John McClane and after the borderline superheroic events of the last DIE HARD movie there’s little room for argument really.

Stalingrad movie still

MUNICH.  Now I know this far from a “war film” in the traditional sense.  But it IS about a certain kind of war, and you can bet your white and blue britches that the Jewish operatives portrayed in the film dealt with the results and heavy cost of their violent actions.  While not my favorite Spielberg film (that honor belongs to HOOK or RAIDERS), I firmly believe that it’s his finest.  Deeper than many critical accusations would have you believe, and both more AND less forgiving (paradoxical, I know) than expected, MUNICH is a triumph of filmmaking and a fascinating exploration of the wide-reaching ramifications of every act done in the name of proactive defense.  And in the name of offense.  Like I said – the film doesn’t take sides, and is significantly better for it.

Munich 250

THE GREAT ESCAPE.  It’s important to remember that there are survivors.  That there are are all kinds of definition for the word “victory.”  That there are all kinds of wars, great and small and in between.  And that the most dire of situations can spark the most inventive, passionate, and life-affirming responses.  The men portrayed in THE GREAT ESCAPE serve as heroes in the best sense of the word, soldiers who inspire through the unrelenting pursuit life rather than by the dealing out of death.  As for the movie itself… well, I think it’s fair to say that it ain’t too shabby.  The textbook definition of “stellar cast,” for one.  Nigh-on perfect filmmaking for another.  I watched it once specifically with a eye towards how I might remake it should I ever be given the chance.  And I couldn’t find a single thing I would change.  Maybe I was biased by nostalgia, or maybe this is just an example of superb filmmaking.  I’m going with the latter choice.

The Great Escape old school poster

Source: JoBlo.com

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