The bigger the war, the more incomprehensible its depths. That dynamic may very well explain why the majority of war-epic directors tend to zero in on a specific regimen or event, using it as a microcosm for the more deplorable whole. When it comes to the all-time greats, crucial plot points tend to say as much about the blinding fog of war as they do about the directors themselves. What’s more, the same way it takes a certain je ne sais quoi to direct a gripping war epic, it also takes a certain caliber of actor to appear in one. To wit: Sean Penn and John C. Reilly appear in two separate movies on this list (both times as an army Sergeant and low-level infantry soldier, respectively), while Martin Sheen shot footage for two, despite only appearing in one.
The similarities don’t end there. Two of the films on this list were released in 1998 (both of them about World War II), another two were released during the mid-to-late 1980s (both of them about Vietnam), and two of the most critically-acclaimed were released in 1957.
Almost all of the films included on this list met with some level of controversy.
Finally, a word about selection. The phrase I kept coming back to throughout was “sweeping war epic.” I actually eliminated Black Hawk Down – among others – because it failed to qualify as a “sweeping” motion picture (Not to mention Ridley Scott was more than 20 years past his prime and Black Hawk‘s casting seemed unconscionable). I also did my best to avoid any overt form of satire, which meant disqualifying both Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H.
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds happened to be the only film I struggled with (before ultimately deciding to disqualify it). Basterds met just about every major requisite, save for the fact there really weren’t any traditional battle sequences. While Basterds does not appear on this list, I’d be remiss if I failed to point out it’s a much more effective motion picture than at least 2-3 others that did make the cut.
In the end I prioritized ensemble over character (no Patton); valor – or lack thereof – over dealing with past consequence (no A Few Good Men). And what it all whittled down to were these eight iconic war epics, helmed by their eight all-time directors:
Saving Private Ryan (Directed by Steven Spielberg, 1998): Most people remember Saving Private Ryan as a phenomenal war movie with an astonishing beginning, an unforgettable ending, and a whole shitload of walking in between. And that’s exactly what it was, to some extent. Regardless, Steven Spielberg needed all that down time to ensure the audience became invested in those characters. Meanwhile, the book-end sequences – including the raid on Omaha Beach and the campaign to occupy Ramelle – remain so unbelievably intense, viewers dare not turn their eyes. Decapitated arms, legs blown off at the knees, bullets zipping by like powder burns in either ear. This was – and is – the most searingly intense footage Steven Spielberg’s ever shot. Filmed using handheld cameras on Ireland’s Ballinesker Beach, Ryan‘s opening sequence is the closest any director’s ever come to capturing the fleeting, mortal urgency of battle. Said sequence – an 18-minute homage that featured a cast of more than 100 real-life amputees – has since been named the No. 1 Movie Moment of All-Time by TV Guide.
Most Iconic Moment: “Earn this. Earn it.”
Notable Members of The Ensemble: Ed Burns, Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore.
The Thin Red Line (Written & Directed by Terrence Malick, 1998): Back in 1999, Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying, “The way Stanley Kubrick told stories was sometimes antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.” The same can be said of long-time Kubrick acolyte Terrence Malick. Over the course of 40 years, Malick has slowly drifted from the confines of formulaic storytelling, at one point growing so frustrated with the system that he divorced himself entirely, fumbling into obscurity until The Thin Red Line subsequently emerged, a full 15 years later. Based on a fictionalized version of World War II’s Battle of Mount Austen, The Thin Red Line remains as notable for its enormous A-list ensemble (see below) as it does for the big-name performances that Malick decided to leave out – Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Jason Patric, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke were among the more notable actors whose work wound up on B-rolls. Thin Red Line would mark the beginning of not one, but several ultra-meticulous habits that eventually cost Malick a fair amount of staunch allegiance. As of the late 90s, Malick had yet to disappear completely down the rabbit hole, but it was clear he was moving toward a much more abstract form of storytelling. Regardless, The Thin Red Line‘s initial battle sequence, which occurs somewhere around the 45-minute mark, will haunt the living shit out of you. Malick’s immaculate attention to detail is both gruesome and inspiring. In certain respects, The Thin Red Line represents an elaborate pastiche to the moral code of Paths of Glory (i.e., hapless soldiers on a suicide mission, struggling their way up the ant hill, forced onward by a general whose only motive is self-gratis). In the end what it all adds up to is a 2-hour, 40-minute juggernaut that was nominated for seven Academy Awards (none of which it won), all before being named Martin Scorsese’s second favorite movie of the decade.
“The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll, O it’s ‘Thin red line of ‘eroes’ when the drums begin to roll.” – Rudyard Kipling
Most Iconic Moment: “This Great Evil” monologue.
Notable Members of The Ensemble: Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Travolta.
Casualties of War (Directed by Brian De Palma, 1989): Casualties of War is not a good movie. As a matter of fact, it would be a lot more accurate to admit that Casualties of War is actually a rather bad movie. If Martin Sheen could be compared to an errand boy in Apocalypse Now, then Michael J. Fox might as well have been a goddamn paperboy throughout Casualties. Meanwhile, Sean Penn’s attempt at a tough-guy New York dialect borders on ridicule and Don Harvey’s portrayal of Corporal Clark is downright laughable. Casualties is based on a true story but it certainly does not have the ring of one. The screenplay, written by Vietnam Veteran David Rabe, makes war seem irretrievably earnest. Adding insult to injury, the opening battle sequence looks and feels as if it was filmed on some back lot. Casualties makes the cut for the simple reason that it represents one iconic director’s attempt at making an iconic war movie. Unfortunately, that attempt falls markedly short (On the upside, Brian De Palma’s motion picture does feature the premiere supporting turns of both John Leguizamo and John C. Reilly).
Most Iconic Moment: Death of the Vietnamese hostage.
Notable Members of The Ensemble: Stephen Baldwin, Michael J. Fox, John Leguizamo, Sean Penn, Wendell Pierce, John C. Reilly, Ving Rhames.
Platoon (Written & Directed by Oliver Stone, 1986): What makes Platoon incredibly unique, at least so far as modern war epics are concerned, is that Oliver Stone left Yale to teach high school in Vietnam during 1965, two long years before returning as an enlisted member of the Army. That experience proved invaluable to Stone’s understanding of the terrain (the ants, the scorching heat, the V-C tracers and so on). There are echoes of Apocalypse Now all over Stone’s film, from the fact that Charlie Sheen plays both the central character (and the narrator) to the fact that his platoon has run amok inside the jungles of Cambodia. Considered the first in a cinematic trilogy (with Born On The Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth soon to follow), Platoon signifies the directorial coronation of Oliver Stone, if not the absolute pinnacle of Tom Berenger’s career. Stone’s film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1986 and it currently resides at No. 86 on AFI‘s List of 100 Years … 100 Movies.
Most Iconic Moment: The tragic death of Sergeant Elias.
Notable Members of The Ensemble: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, Corey Glover, Mark Moses, Charlie Sheen, Oliver Stone, Forest Whitaker.
Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979): At the time of its release, Apocalypse Now became the third of Francis Ford Coppola’s seven feature films to have a fascinating mystique surrounding it. Coppola was in his late 30s at the time, and he wound up mortgaging his California home in a desperate attempt to finance the film. Largely shot in the monsoon jungles of the Philippines, Apocalypse remains the ultimate metaphor for man’s slow-grinding descent into psychosis. “The End“, “The Hollow Men“, the lens flares, the smell of napalm in the morning … Coppola is spinning mad throughout this film, forcing the audience to question whether it’s the man or the mechanism that’s truly gone insane. If Apocalypse has any obvious weak spot, it would have to be the casting of Martin Sheen as Captain Willard (Harvey Keitel was originally cast in the role before being replaced by Coppola). As an audience member, you never truly buy Sheen inhabiting the role of cold-blooded assassin. In what might be considered an unfortunate case of life reflecting art, Sheen actually experienced a mild heart attack on the set during production, one that subsequently forced him to abandon the Philippines for well over a month. Not exactly the type of physical breakdown one might expect from the killing machine chosen to take out Colonel Kurtz. Regardless, Apocalypse remains a modern masterpiece of cinema. It is currently ranked No. 14 on Sight and Sound‘s List of The 50 Greatest Films of All-Time and No. 28 on AFI‘s List of 100 Years ,,, 100 Movies.
Most Iconic Moment: Kilgore’s napalm airstrike.
Notable Members of The Ensemble: Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Bill Graham, Dennis Hopper, Martin Sheen.
Paths of Glory (Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1957): Stanley Kubrick’s first sweeping war epic (Full Metal Jacket being his second) signified an irreversible shift in the way war movies were made. Prior to Kubrick most modern war pictures had a jingoistic sheen to them – the protagonists were the good ole’ boys, the white hats, and all their hypocritical bullshit was neatly tucked under the carpet. All of that changed when Paths of Glory came along. The screenplay was brimming with irony, if not the very real implication that mortal bullshit trickles downward. Kubrick announced himself on the scene with trademark eloquence, sneaking in scathing dialogue like, “The men died wonderfully,” and “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.” The director played Metro-Goldwyn like a fiddle, tabling most of his arguments against the fact that Paths of Glory was a film about the French – French people and French assholes creating wholly French atrocities. And yet, the global implication was apparent. According to various reports, Humphrey Cobb’s original 1935 source material was based on the firing-squad deaths of four very real French soldiers. Two of those soldiers’ families were compensated with a lone franc by the military. The other two families were compensated with nothing. David Simon has consistently credited Paths of Glory with influencing every critical element regarding chain of command that he included on The Wire. Kubrick’s film has also been included on Roger Ebert’s definitive List of Great Movies.
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” – Thomas Gray
Most Iconic Moment: “Hello there, Soldier. Ready to kill more Germans?”
Notable Members of The Ensemble: Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Joe Turkel, Christiane Kubrick.
The Bridge on The River Kwai (Directed by David Lean, 1957): Bridge on The River Kwai, based on a French novel by Pierre Boulle, explores every major corporate theme from effective leadership to union rule. Filmed on location in what is now known as Sri Lanka, the film’s post-1957 run was so successful that it went on to gross more than any other film during the following year (a feat that remains unparalleled to this day). Kwai won seven Academy Awards, including Best Film Editing (which is ironic, given all the continuity issues) and numerous directors have paid homage to it in their own work, most notably Steven Spielberg, who used certain aspects of Kwai during the climactic sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Bridge on The River Kwai is currently ranked #11 BFI’s List of the Greatest British Films of All-Time.
Most Iconic Moment: “Madness … Madness!“
Notable Members of The Ensemble: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Percy Herbert.
The Birth of A Nation (Directed by D.W. Griffith, 1915): D.W. Griffith’s 3-hour Civil War epic is recognized for being the first true American blockbuster, for running nearly two hours longer than the average films of its day, as well as for its overall scope and cinematic ambition. But Birth of a Nation is also remembered as a pro-racist, pro-Confederate slice of Americana served up by an unrepentant son of north Kentucky. Boycotted by the NAACP, Birth features several white actors in black face, Clansmen as heroes, and the ongoing insinuation that emancipation was a ruse. The movie broke box-office records, it incited race riots, and it rendered D.W. Griffith an early industry magnate. In the decades since, five of Griffith’s films (including Birth of a Nation) have been preserved by the U.S. National Film Registry, and several directors – including Quentin Tarantino – have referenced Birth of a Nation in their own movies.
Most Iconic Moment: The “negro regiments” raiding Piedmont.
Notable Members of The Ensemble: Lillian Gish, Wallace Reid, John Ford, Erich von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith.