You can read up on the basis for this series here, and also find links to other posts in the series.
Movies I’ve reviewed on this site have a link in the title which you can follow to read my full review.
10) The Hunt for Red October (1990), directed by John McTiernan
If Red October were a movie that had come out in the past few years as opposed to 1990, I can only imagine what the reviews on it would be. If Argo could win Best Picture in 2012, then certainly The Hunt for Red October would have had a puncher’s chance as well even without the “oooh, Hollywood!” angle. This is a strong Cold War story that has high stakes but which, interestingly, does not pretend that the fate of the world or either nation is at risk. Where Top Gun probably starts World War III, Red October actively avoids it; the threat of armed confrontation in the Reagan-Gorbachev era is something the film is worried about but never has to step on. Indeed, the film ends with collaboration between Americans and Soviets, even at some cost to the latter. Even though the Soviet Union and the United States are still very much in their Cold War mindsets, the film can see its way to a time when an American analyst and a Lithuanian mariner can chat without dissembling or coolness. The American dream, as expressed by Borodin, is simultaneously hilarious and moving. When he comes to America, he says, he will live in Montana and have a pickup truck, and then go to Arizona in the winter. (“Actually,” he says, “I think I will need two wives.”) One is inclined to say that he’s missed the point of living in America if he’s looking at those states, but all the same it’s his dream, a fantasy of independence and free time that he can’t have at home. And while the movie does tease him a little, it also respects the simple dignity of a man who wants to make his own way.
Some elements died on arrival (the special effects, the lack of synonyms in the English language for the word “defect,” and above all Sean Connery’s offensively bad Russian), but the vast majority of the movie still works at a high level. Knowing it has a language barrier to cross and no hope in the world of getting its many Soviet characters to speak Russian adequately, the movie pivots magnificently on “Armageddon,” a word which is the same in English and Russian. This is a technically sound thriller which is unafraid to use jargon or press its viewers into service remembering what the gadgets do onboard. Nor does it terrifically exceed the science of the day, although the “caterpillar drive” that Red October uses is a little far-fetched. The highest praise I have for it is that the movie’s most tense scene, in my opinion, comes when Ramius races through an underwater canyon chased by a torpedo. The engagements, whether within Red October or outside of it, tend to be less interesting than the actual action of the submarine and the reasons ultimately given by Ramius himself for what it does. He is a master of the calculated risk because he has more figures to base his calculations on than anybody else, or at least can access them quicker. He has the guts to throw his submarine in front of a torpedo because he knows that it won’t arm itself in time. Of course, he doesn’t tell anybody else about that reasoning, but what fun would that be? This is a war movie with relatively few casualties and, all things considered, a fairly happy ending. Then again, there isn’t much war either; this is not like Top Gun, where Tom Cruise probably begins World War III. Jack Ryan’s perspicacity, Marko Ramius’ boldness, and the quick tongue of Jeffrey Pelt avert a bloodier conflict.
9) They Were Expendable (1945), directed by John Ford
They Were Expendable, the first picture John Ford made after leaving active duty in the Navy, is also the last picture he would make about World War II for ten years. He did not revisit the topic until he made the comedy Mister Roberts, which, excepting its last scene, has virtually nothing to do with World War II. Few American filmmakers have been quite as interested in war as Ford was—in the interim between They Were Expendable and Mister Roberts, he made movies which referenced the Civil War, various Indian wars, World War I, and a documentary about the Korean War to boot—but the war which he saw firsthand and knew most personally seems to have particularly difficult for him. (The aggressive drinking binge he went on in the aftermath of D-Day has reached legendary proportions, and tellingly his stories about the war are about the Pacific, not Europe.) One can see in the story about a squadron of underappreciated PT boats the influence of his earlier documentary The Battle of Midway, which is less than twenty minutes long but gives a significant chunk of its time to the PT boats which bury casualties at sea. One can also see his pleasure in straight lines and a touch of pomp; his PT boats are frequently aligned in much the same single-file patterns as his cavalrymen in later movies.
All the same, the movie is willing to engage in some of the messiness of the early years of the war, when the United States was rapidly losing territory to Japanese advances. They Were Expendable places most of its combat scenes in the Philippines, where American troops suffered some of the most devastating setbacks of the war, and its ending is decidedly muted. After taking heavy casualties and losing the majority of the boats they came with, the main characters are airlifted to Australia to train future PT boat crews; they leave behind Ward Bond’s character so that he can fight (probably to the death) in the Filipino-American resistance to the Japanese. They Were Expendable is ready, too, to find the heroism in its principal characters, Brickley and Ryan, as they ask for increasingly more dangerous missions to their dual belief in their boats and their cause. Yet the heroism that they can have is relatively small. As Brickley has explained to him one night by a superior, their job isn’t to hit home runs but lay down sacrifice bunts. It is unglamorous (and, for this sabermetrics-friendly reviewer, usually bad strategy) but it is necessary. When Brickley and Ryan are ordered to Australia, they fight that decision too before being told, once again, that they must do what’s necessary even if it’s unsatisfying. It’s a little preachy, but it’s also one of the perpetually underreported facts of war—for every soldier dying at the front, there are cooks and quartermasters and nurses and secretaries doing the necessary grunt work to support them.
8) The Big Red One (1980), directed by Samuel Fuller
World War I on American film is almost universally reviled, and that our filmic recollections of the war inevitably wonder about the fruitlessness of fighting. With the exception of Sergeant York, a warmongering movie for the eve of American involvement in World War II, movies which followed the Great War by fifteen years or fewer frequently found the major theme of that conflict to be “pointlessness.” World War II, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly built up even today as a heroic and necessary struggle. The Big Red One, a World War II picture made after the last word on Vietnam movies was released, does not fall into that trope. The restored version from 2004 (also known as “the actual version of the movie”) has just one sequence which makes the fighting and killing seem like it’s worth anything. At a concentration camp, the rearguard of the Nazi garrison gets into a firefight with men of the First Division. One of the soldiers, Griff, has been reluctant to kill despite his obvious skill with a rifle. At the camp, he finds a reason to open fire. What World War I movies teach us is that in the same foxhole, men who were enemies across the field are frequently loath to kill each other, or do their best to save a man they’ve wounded. Griff stares Germans in the eye and kills them with slow relish. During the D-Day sequence, Griff’s number was called to complete a suicide mission, which he successfully completed with some frustration and eye-rolling. There is nothing madcap or sarcastic about the way he kills death camp guards, nor should there be. The Big Red One is frank about what the fighting in World War II should have been about and what it actually entailed, and the frankness is in its specificity and the way it shuns abstractions (the flag, “freedom,” etc.).
Lee Marvin, at this point over fifty and a veteran of World War II and World War II movies alike, is an inspired choice to play the sergeant in command of a squad which sees action in North Africa, Sicily, and France. Marvin’s action credentials were not merely well-established but practically past by 1980; he plays a soldier who killed a German after the Armistice was put into effect in 1918, and who bears the mental scars of a murderer. The sergeant has always been able to put his killing into the clear mental category of “work,” although that work is full-time during war and leaves him practically unemployed during the peacetime we rarely see. During peacetime, killing the German he might have shot at hours before during wartime is nothing short of murder. Ironically, he manages to lose track of time at the end of both world wars. At the end of World War I, in a stylish black and white sequence underneath an enormous crucifix, he stabs a German soldier to death. At the end of World War II, he badly wounds another German after the German surrender comes through, and the movie ends with him and his small group of immortals looking desperately for a medic. The sergeant and three privates—Griff, Vinci, and Zab—are placed in what must be an uncomfortable position because throughout the war they had killed so effectively and so bloodlessly. The men of their squad are totally replaceable, blown up or shot or mutilated in horrific ways, but those four seem like Cain, marked yet safer for it. Watching the war end with blood on their hands, as the three privates follow in the footsteps of their haunted commanding officer, is a powerful finish. Fuller isn’t predicting nuclear armageddon or some Teutonic reprisal, but he sees the pointlessness. After all, if they’re trying to save this guy’s life now, the obvious question is why would they try to kill him an hour ago?
7) The Big Parade (1925), directed by King Vidor
The Big Parade is incredibly long for a movie from the ’20s, better than two and a half hours in total. For ninety minutes, the movie is essentially a comedy. First it contains John Gilbert’s newfound patriotism on the verge of the Great War, one which is more inclined to toe-tapping and peer pressure than it is any real love of country or sense of duty. The pressure which finally wins Jim over comes not from his intended, who daydreams about how handsome he’ll be in a uniform, but from his buddies, who are all joining up in a bunch. Jim’s mother, to whom he has already promised his disinterest in the war, is crestfallen. Jim’s father, who is in the middle of kicking Jim out of the house for his martial indifference, changes his tune when he finds out his boy has enlisted, shaking his hand vigorously. From there, patrician Jim falls in with riveter Slim and bartender Bull. The former has an approach to chewing tobacco which would have turned Lenny Dykstra’s stomach—Karl Dane appears to be chewing on whatever industrial black paint they had available on the MGM lot—while the latter is the picture of yappy New Yawker. What follows is an hour’s worth of capers and hijinks in the French countryside, where Jim falls in love with a French girl over chewing gum and his buddies make a point of scoring as much wine and leisure as they can fit in. In one scene which is both touching and sly, Jim receives a package from Justyn, his far-off fiancee, with a note enclosed. He reads the note a little sadly and sees that she’s sent a homemade cake along. By now Slim and Bull have both laid eyes on the cake, and Jim decides to share. It takes some work; the cake, as one may have guessed, is so stale that even Jim’s bayonet fails to adequately cut it into pieces. Some war this is! the complaint rises up. The men do more shoveling of manure in the barn they’ve taken as barracks than digging of trenches, and no one even thinks about picking up a gun.
The final hour of the movie is devoted to a single battle, Jim’s homecoming, and his return to Melisande. The final couple minutes of the movie are fairly moving—in a world without men, Frenchwomen like Melisande do the plowing and wait for their wartime lovers to cross over the sunlit hills with amputee swagger—but they don’t fit neatly with what’s been presented in the film’s second act. They feel like a transparent epilogue for an audience all too willing to embrace a happy ending, and a much stronger one might have been found in Jim laying in his mother’s arms as she weeps over him. Both are maudlin, but there’s something much more honest about a man who left home whole and jolly and returned to it chopped up and embittered. The battle also feels strange, as if Vidor had the Civil War in mind when he was filming World War I. For some time, men walk in straight lines without even crawling to evade the bullets of German machine gun nests. They are basically helpless when fallen upon by a lone German pilot with a willingness to strafe the new men coming up to the front. Vidor shoots the nighttime engagement in the same blue in which he’d previously shot a love scene with Jim and Melisande and a brawl with MPs. Jim, Slim, and Bull have taken cover, under withering fire, in the depressions made by fallen shells. Ordered to stay down, all three lose their patience. Slim, who seems to have an instinctual understanding of combat, crawls across no man’s land and kills a pair of Germans manning a machine gun; despite his best efforts, he fails to return to his comrades, who do their best to avenge him. Bull is killed, too; Jim does well but is wounded, ultimately losing a leg. Before ever setting out on his revenge tour, Jim decries what the war was ever about in a jarringly long monologue, but it suits the film’s politics. What the war is ultimately for, he argues, is each other. It is not for orders or the brass or for nations. Other war films have sentimentalized this sort of homosocial bonding as an important element of war, the mortar which makes it possible for men to
save Private Ryan do great things; The Big Parade would counter that the only reason to fight at all is for the bonds between men, a point of view which would have shuttered the Great War before it could ever get in business.
6) All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone
There aren’t many scenes in All Quiet that I think of as laconic, precisely, but there are certainly some which seem surprisingly calm. In one, the men have just managed to apply adequate pressure to a cook behind the lines to give them enough food, for once. (He has cooked for double the number of men in front of him, and he is loath to give the survivors the portions that were supposed to have gone to the dead.) Perhaps it’s the sheer number of beans they’ve taken in, or the sunny day, or their pleasant position near a lake, but the men seem especially able to crack wise about the war and its causes; it is in this scene that Kat famously hypothesizes that the bigwigs of the sparring countries should be sent out to fight in order to leave the peaceful men at home. When Paul gets a leave, he returns home to his family and has some quiet moments with them as well, if a little sadder. Even in these slower moments, there is no time when the war is not front and center. Paul’s leave is crammed to the brim with his mother’s fear for him and Paul’s blistering remarks to the teacher who encouraged him to enlist. (The new students who are full of war fever themselves, thanks to that myopic professor, taunt Paul: “Coward!”) The brief respite the men get while they’re eating is consumed with talk of the war, and it breaks up when some of them decide to visit a comrade in the hospital who’s just had his leg taken off. These are the scenes which are ironic or sympathetic. Milestone manages to save the truly harrowing for the battlefield in scenes which retain their shock value almost nine decades later.
A rapidly moving camera pans right (or, later, left) as the thunderously loud sounds of machine guns crackle and men fall. It’s a scene that makes The Big Parade, only five years older, look hopelessly outdated in its depiction of battle. They are clearly men, but they don’t clearly have features; most of them are hidden by the giant helmets the men wear which seem unable to save them from their violent deaths. Sometimes the fighting is forced to come to hand-to-hand blows, which is somehow less appalling. The loneliness of death in No Man’s Land, charging a position that might be taken or retaken or held fruitlessly, is the height of nothingness. At least there is something personal about hand-to-hand fighting, like the kind that Paul feels forced to do to save himself in a foxhole. He mortally wounds a Frenchman and comes instantly to regret it; he tries to help the man, which he is powerless to do, and desperately asks the man for forgiveness, which the man is powerless to dispense. Paul’s own death at the end of the film feels meaningless, just as Kat’s death before his felt meaningless. There’s something of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” in both of their deaths, which do not come during serious combat, and which come to pass because each man has his attention focused elsewhere. Kat, a great scrounger, is too slow to get to the ground when the shell strikes, or otherwise too unfortunately near. Paul is admiring for a butterfly when the sniper finds him, exposed, reaching for the little fellow. Banality is the order of the day, as it was when Auden wrote his poem or when Brueghel painted his canvas. It isn’t merely that what happens is mostly ignored, but that nothing as astounding or wonderful as a flying boy happened in the first place.