Thursday, April 22, 2010

the 10 greatest war films (in two parts)

My father asked me for my take on the ten greatest movies about war. I responded by asking him if he meant the traditional "men who fight" type of films, or would I be permitted to promote non-traditional "war" films, i.e. those that explored violent class wars, told the tale of resistance fighters put in unorthodox situations and forced to make hateful choices, or even works of essay cinema, that took up the subject of Hollywood mythmaking and star power as it pertained to real conflicts. The result, I made a list of ten for each category. Here they are, with a few words.


1) IN HARM’S WAY (Otto Preminger, 1965); glossy, all-star black & white epic, marketed as windswept romance and heroism, actually very disconcerting and violent, its true subjects are disappointment and sorrow. Still, the stars deliver megawatts in every scene. Who needs AVATAR in 3-D when you have Preminger in CinemaScope?
2) PLAY DIRTY (Andre de Toth, 1968); a bitter, but never humorless, team-of-renegades actioner that followed in the wake of THE DIRTY DOZEN. Where Aldrich’s better-known box office smash now seems diffuse and meandering, de Toth keeps everything in one clenched fist. (A chunk of jagged rock in the other.) Moreso than LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, a movie that leaves you with the feeling that you’ve got sand in your eyes, your nostrils, etc.
3) THE BIG PARADE (King Vidor, 1925); a more traditional picture of war from the silent era, but still gripping. Picture-frame depictions of the Great War dwarf the protagonists.
4) SEVEN SAMURAI (Akira Kurosawa, 1954); a true-blue classic, with a rich, satisfying dramatic arc, unmitigated by complex blocking and editing. Nary a dull minute, and there are 207 of them. Watch it for the story, watch it for the craft, watch it for the actors, or, better yet, watch it for everything.
5) MEN IN WAR (Anthony Mann, 1957); Mann was one of the few filmmakers (along with de Toth) to notice the potential of depicting troops being attacked by the very ground they walk on, the very film frame that encloses them. I’m speaking figuratively, of course – after all, this isn’t Chuck Jones’s DUCK AMUCK, but Mann establishes a claustrophobic chokehold by sewing danger into everything seen, heard, unseen, unheard. Brilliant opening sequence destabilizes the audience almost immediately by destroying a slow, quiet build-up with a deafening, panicked shout.
6) CASUALTIES OF WAR (Brian De Palma, 1989); although he has his detractors, and they are tireless, I’ve always been on his side, and from where I sit, one of the things De Palma always does well is to turn the screws by unnaturally slowing action and cutting between converging vectors (for example, a speeding car, a blissfully unaware pedestrian, a panicking bystander, too far away to be heard…) to generate suspense. He would normally apply this scenario at least once in his countless, Hithcockian thriller plots or crime sagas, but in CASUALTIES, the change of theme makes all the difference. The hero’s own squad represents a more terrifying threat to his life than the “enemy.”
7) ZULU (Cy Endfield, 1964); one of the very, very best films shot in 70mm during that large-format stock’s heyday. (It was the original IMAX.) Rather than take sides and make racial-political mincemeat out of a story that seems to ask for it (a tiny British supply depot is attacked by, and holds out against, an enormous Zulu uprising in 1879 – “holds out” because they were spared, presumably because they won the respect of their aggressors, who far, far outnumbered them), Endfield focuses as much as possible on the sheer excitement and tension of the conflict, and takes every opportunity to fill the frame with eye-popping compositions, colors, and costumes.
8) APOCALYPSE NOW (Francis Coppola, 1979); not much to be said about this landmark film: rich and strange, flawed, but unforgettable and one-of-a-kind.
9) ATTACK! (Robert Aldrich, 1956); like a few other titles here, there’s more animosity between the men who are supposed to be fighting side-by-side than there is between the designated “good guys” and “bad guys.” The murderous, insane hatred borne out by the two lead characters (one a grizzled, probably unstable, combat veteran, the other a natural coward and bureaucrat) lends more tension to the film than the actual combat sequences. Highly effective as a genre film, but also troubling.
10) FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) – Anti-Nazi propaganda done up into a terrifically exciting espionage adventure. Has one of my all-time favorite screen stunts (done by photographic effects, of course; George Sanders leaps from a fourth floor window, crashes through multiple awnings, and lands on his feet, makes sure his hair is in place, and trots off), and ends with a brutally depicted plane crash into the ocean. (Hitchcock spared little sentiment for extras.)

1) STRIKE (Sergei Eisenstein, 1924); riveting and unstable, one of the most exciting movies ever made, you don’t have to have Communist leanings to be stirred to action by this film.
2) LETTER TO JANE (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972) – A film essay on a single, still photo of Jane Fonda during the time she spent with the Viet Cong. Sounds simple, but turns out to be a provocative examination of the power of images, star power, and Western colonial expansion, and how these subjects intermingle.
3) THIS LAND IS MINE (Jean Renoir, 1943) – mild-mannered schoolteacher becomes a figure for the French resistance. Charles Laughton usually played sympathetic heroes, but rarely one who was quite as meek: his brilliance as an actor is complemented perfectly by Renoir’s sure hand as a director. An ideal companion piece for GRAND ILLUSION.
4) NONE SHALL ESCAPE (Andre de Toth, 1944) – the war was a year from its close, but the story is told from the perspective of Nuremberg-like trials taking place in a speculative future. Similar to the other de Toth film mentioned here, NONE moves at a fast clip, crowded with jutting, unfriendly angles and equally crisp blacks and whites. Still shocking, and it’s hard to believe Hollywood would subject even war-weary audiences to such a frank depiction of the birth of the Holocaust.
5) THE MORTAL STORM (Frank Borzage, 1940) – the rise of fascism in a little German hamlet, a tragic romance (Borzage’s specialty) and a pretty unusual movie from the early ‘40s that told a more “meta-” tale of the murder of the nicey-nice, jovially-scored Hollywood fluff piece at the bare, sandpapery hands of a new kind of Hollywood fiction that was suddenly – even if only dimly – aware of more deadly serious matters over the horizon, effectively placing a “will James Stewart get the girl” alongside “is humankind worth redeeming.”
6) ARMY OF SHADOWS (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) – One of the first color films by Melville, who remains almost exclusively known for his crime films, which featured chiseled-jawboned men in slouch hats and dames warbling sad tunes in dank cafes. ARMY OF SHADOWS, a portrait of the French resistance against the Nazi occupying force, shares with these films a sense of impending doom countered by the fierce, quiet independence and dignity of their protagonists.
7) THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani,1982); the rise of Italian fascism, and its brutal, homicidal, fratricidal tendencies, as seen by a child. Manages to keep us in touch with the fantastic perspective of events seen through young eyes, while never letting us loose from the terrifying events of unfiltered reality. A compelling drama that leaves you no comfortable ground upon which to steady yourself.
8) A MAN ESCAPED (Robert Bresson, 1956) – in which the structure of the prison becomes the protagonist’s key adversary, and one of its most potent characters. Human antagonists remain mostly unseen. Like all Bresson, vivid in texture, every second.
9) THE GREAT DICTATOR (Charles Chaplin, 1940) – a bit similar in narrative to THIS LAND IS MINE (meek ---> strong)…poking fun at Nazis could seem dated if not for the miraculous final speech. Chaplin sacrificing – figuratively, by shedding the image – the “little tramp” in order to battle Hitler is both mindblowing and heartbreaking.
10) CULLODEN (Peter Watkins, 1964); a harrowing pseudo-documentary, filmed as if by a live television news crew, of the Battle of Culloden (1745), the last pitched battle on British soil. Not a fun one, either – essentially a massacre of poor farmers by Scottish Highlanders and a detachment from Manchester. The actual battle was over in less than an hour, but the effects on Scotland’s relationship to the Kingdom were far-reaching and disastrous. Watkins declares the facts of this tragedy soberly, without ever overplaying his hand or overemphasizing an ironic point.

EDIT: A Facebook friend pointed out that I'd overlooked Sam Fuller's war films, the best of which (for my money: THE BIG RED ONE, THE STEEL HELMET, and FIXED BAYONETS!) convey and critique the excitement of war often in the same florid gestures. Either of his Korean War films from 1951 could switch out with the Aldrich film in List #1. On the other hand, I thought about them but decided to exclude them. THE BIG RED ONE, on the other hand, is a gross omission, and belongs firmly in List #1.

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