War... War is hell.
Except for war movies. Which are, consistently, one of the most successful genres in cinema and have been for the last sixty years. Talking about war movies is always a debatable topic because the inference is that any movie glorifies war by virtue of the fact that putting it on a camera makes it exciting.
It's true, some movies on this list - like 'Lawrence of Arabia', for example - are turning war into a romp. Others, like 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Apocalypse Now', highlight the insanity of it in graphic terms.
Whatever the case may be, the fact is that as long as there are wars, there'll be war movies. Here's ten of the best.
For Christopher Nolan, tackling something like 'Dunkirk' was never going to be a small gesture or one that would be done between his comic-book blockbusters. The level of realism that he brought to the screen - by using period-specific cruisers, for example - meant that it was going to something special. What 'Dunkirk' managed to capture more closely than any other war movie on this list was the sense of panic and terror.
Hans Zimmer's repetitive, oppressive score laid it on thick and even though you never once saw a Nazi officer on screen, the presence of the enemy was everywhere. 'Dunkirk' nailed that feeling of the walls closing in, and how that can not only damage someone in the aftermath but how people come out the other side of it.
9. 'THE HURT LOCKER' (2008)
Movies about the Iraq War have almost always been political in nature. 'The Hurt Locker', however, made an interesting decision in that it was completely apolitical. It's not about whether or not the US should have been involved in the Middle East but rather boils the entire conflict down to just three bomb technicians working their tour.
Jeremy Renner is William James, a reckless veteran who's placed in a bomb-tech squad. His freewheeling style and complete lack of fear is in stark contrast to his teammates and is a constant source of friction between them. What's interesting about 'The Hurt Locker' is that it's not glorified or even made to feel like it's something to be done so.
In fact, there's a scene where Renner's character is confronted by a senior officer who's enamoured with his abilities - and it's merely shrugged off. He's an out-and-out adrenaline junkie who can't get enough of it. Kathryn Bigelow's direction is understated but when it counts, it counts. The opening slow-motion explosion that kills the bomb technician Renner replaces - played by Guy Pearce, no less - is visually stunning.
8. 'THE DEER HUNTER' (1978)
Although it's been reduced to that roulette scene, 'The Deer Hunter' is by far the most emotionally taxing film ever made about the Vietnam War. Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken and John Cazale are three steelworkers who are drafted into military service at the onset of the Vietnam War.
Unlike other movies from the era, 'The Deer Hunter' shows their lives before, during and after the war. There's a full arc that really demonstrates what it can do to a small town and the effects it has, both physically and mentally. Unsurprisingly, it won five Oscars and garnered Walken his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and is lauded as director Michael Cimino's finest work.
7. 'LAWRENCE OF ARABIA' (1962)
'Lawrence of Arabia' is often lauded for its sweeping score, Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole's acting, and the gorgeous cinematography, but what it also has is scale. The sheer scale of 'Lawrence of Arabia' is breathtaking. Set during World War I and the Arab revolt, director David Lean played fast and loose with the history, but there's no denying just how exciting it was all made to feel.
Director David Lean used approximately a thousand extras for the assault on Aqaba, not to mention horses, camels and tanks. Beyond that, you had a full train derailed with explosives - all caught on camera in glorious Technicolor - and enough explosives to recreate World War I in the process. That its impact and influence is still felt to this day shouldn't surprise anyone.
6. 'FULL METAL JACKET' (1987)
Like 'The Deer Hunter', 'Full Metal Jacket' has been reduced in pop culture to Staff Sergeant Hartmann's withering abuse on his "pukes", or Marine recruits. Leaving that aside, 'Full Metal Jacket' is a real exploration of how people cope in war situations. Most oftentimes, it's through humour - pitch-black humour. And that's really what 'Full Metal Jacket' is on some levels - a pitch-black comedy. Matthew Modine is Joker, an unimpressed Marine-turned-journalist who is privy to all manners of unspeakable horror throughout the Vietnam War.
He remains indifferent to gang rape, massacres and a helicopter gunner casually gunning down innocents, only managing to make sense of it through a lens of cynicism and sarcasm. This, in turn, plays out in Kubrick's own screenplay and direction, especially during a scene where the soldiers of Lusthog Squad discuss a fallen soldier's plans to leave active duty by masturbating constantly.
5. 'DOWNFALL' (2004)
Throughout Hollywood history, Nazis have always been described as moustache-twirling villains with strong accents and perfect hair. It's continued into well-dressed German terrorists in the '80s with 'Die Hard' and has never really been challenged. 'Downfall' is a movie that is not only questions how mainstream Hollywood has portrayed Nazi Germany, but also the effects it had on the nation as a whole.
Bruno Ganz, in one of his most effective performances, gives Hitler an unsettling amount of humanity - if you can call it that - and turns him into a pathetic creature. He's an out-and-out monster who should never have been allowed into power in the first place. It also delves into the dehumanisation at the core of fascism, and the brutalisation of Germany in a way that few movies have ever done.
4. 'PLATOON' (1986)
For Oliver Stone, 'Platoon' wasn't just another movie. It was an attempt at exorcism. It was his way of dealing with the Vietnam War and his own personal involvement in it. Charlie Sheen, a young, idealistic soldier who volunteers for service is sent straight into the jungles of Vietnam. Whilst there, his two superiors represent the two sides of humanity and the war within his own soul. Elias, played by Willem Dafoe, is easy-going and at peace with himself and what he does whereas Barnes, played by Tom Berenger, is the exact opposite.
The resulting conflict between them pulls at Sheen's headspace and drives the story forward. Stone admitted during the production that he intentionally wore everyone down to get that exhausted, pissed-off look that couldn't be trained or faked. Indeed, some scenes were taken straight from his own experiences. The authenticity and emotional core make it one of the harrowing and authentic movies about the Vietnam War ever made.
3. 'BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI' (1957)
A movie like 'Bridge On The River Kwai' might be passed over by younger audiences because it's seen as being stuffy and old-fashioned. However, what makes it resonate to this day is that it has everything we look for in a blockbuster. There are huge explosions - a real bridge was constructed and then (spoiler alert) destroyed in-camera - and a compelling story to tie it all together. Alec Guinness is the commander of a British regiment in World War II who are captured and sent to a Japanese POW camp.
There, they are ordered to work on the infamous bridge and so begins a battle of wills that takes up the first act of the movie itself. After concessions are made, Guinness' character believes that by keeping his troops motivated by working on the bridge, it will keep their spirits and morale up.
Slowly but surely, his officers begin to realise that he's become obsessed with completing the bridge and not destroying it as he should as an enemy officer. Whether it's explicitly anti-war or not can be argued, but it makes for a fascinating character study and Guinness' performance is second to none.
2. 'SAVING PRIVATE RYAN' (1998)
If films like 'Where Eagles Dare', 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'Bridge On The River Kwai' glorified World War II, 'Saving Private Ryan' brought it crashing down to reality. It's a movie that is both starkly realistic and, at the same time, beautifully cinematic.
Tom Hanks is the captain of a squad of American soldiers sent to find and return home Private Ryan, whose three brothers have died in battle. Their journey through occupied France leads them through numerous battles and infighting before they eventually reach Ryan himself, played by Matt Damon.
Realising he has nothing left at home, they join forces and help defend a town. From the Normandy landing to the horrific gravedigging scene, it's a constant barrage of emotions that is exhausting to watch and captures not just the futility of war, but also how dehumanising it is on the soul.
1. 'APOCALYPSE NOW' (1979)
Existentialist war movies are quite common nowadays. Movies like 'Jarhead' and 'The Hurt Locker' explore the morality of war and how it is on a personal level. 'Apocalypse Now', however, tells the story of one man going slowly insane in the jungle and the nature of human existence and cruelty. Martin Sheen - in a career-best performance - is Willard, a burnt-out soldier sent on a mission to assassinate a rogue officer (Marlon Brando) who is operating outside the law somewhere in the jungles of Cambodia.
As the young crew sent with him advance further up the river, the true scale and devastation that war wreaks on nature and people are revealed. There's a great line where Sheen's character talks about how charging someone for murder in Vietnam is like "handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500", and that's really what 'Apocalypse Now' is driving at - the senseless nature of judging someone for brutal tactics when they're no better themselves. If ever a movie could capture the insanity of war, 'Apocalypse Now' does it in a way that none have ever replicated.