5 Great War Movies (That are not Saving Private Ryan)

Having been inspired both by Quentin Tarantino’s career in a video store and another blog I read (chocolatepluscheese), I decided to create the first in (hopefully) a series of recommendations of things that have some sort of a recurring them to them. This time, it’s 5 war movies that everyone must see.

Of course, I wanted to assure you that Saving Private Ryan will not be on the list because….well….it pretty much is the best war movie ever made. Thus, I think it would be more fair to exclude it and let other movies have a chance.

5. Sergeant York (1941)
Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Gary Cooper

Sergeant York is a World War I piece released in 1941, prior to the United States’ entry into World War II. It is based on the true story of Alvin York, a drunken Tennessee hillbilly turned conscientious objector turned Medal of Honor winner. The real Alvin York only agreed to sell the rights to the movie if Gary Cooper played him in the movie, and I have to say that was a good decision as Cooper was perfect in the role. Of course, this movie absolutely screams, “Propaganda!” despite the US not officially fighting the Germans in World War II yet. While only the latter half of the movie was about the war, and the battle scene in which York single-handedly silenced German machine guns was in the last half hour of the movie, what was most interesting was seeing York’s evolution as a character, particularly after his religious awakening. Of course I also have to say considering the time the movie was made, the special effects in the battle scene were pretty darned good.

4. Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring: Bruno Ganz

Yes, it is the movie in which Hitler had a rant that has been parodied countless times on Youtube. Nonetheless, Der Untergang depicts life in Hitler’s bunker in the last few days of the war in Europe, and it is told from the point of view of a young secretary in the German dictator’s employ. What makes this one significant is the absolutely disturbing depiction both of Hitler’s total loss of his grip on reality (made more so by Bruno Ganz’s epic acting) and of the Nazi fanaticism that was still surprisingly strong in some people, regardless of the fact that Soviet forces were almost literally steamrolling right through Berlin. I have to warn you though, this movie is not for the faint of heart, but a must-see for those of you who can handle it. Also, it definitely is nice to see a modern German perspective of World War II.

3. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Ewan MacGregor, Jason Isaacs

Preceding the American invasion of Iraq by two years, Black Hawk Down is the story of a 1993 humanitarian mission gone horribly wrong, where US Army Rangers and Delta Force operatives find themselves outnumbered in the Battle of Mogadishu while arresting men who worked for Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the ruling dictator of Somalia responsible for mass starvation. While this operation is seen by many as a classic, Clintonian blunder, Ridley Scott did a nice job of keeping politics out of it. As far as the American soldiers were concerned, they were originally there to arrest war criminals, and then found themselves literally fighting for their lives as well as for their comrades. Black Hawk Down did a great job of balancing heroism with the brutality of fighting in the streets of the Somali capital. Ironically, it was because the engagement was nowhere near the scale of the invasion of Normandy that somehow made Black Hawk Down seem a much more savage movie than Saving Private Ryan. If you can stomach sickeningly realistic war violence, then Black Hawk Down is definitely one to pick up.

2. Ballad of a Soldier (1959)
Director: Grigori Chukhrai
Starring: Vladimir Ivashov

Red Army Private Alexei “Alyosha” Skvortsov turns down a medal for battlefield heroism in exchange for a leave to visit his mother. Ballad of a Soldier is a Soviet movie about World War II. In the opening scene, the narrator explains that Alyosha ultimately does not survive the war, and is killed in action as the Soviets make their push into Germany. Despite all that, Ballad of a Soldier remains one of my all time favorite feel-good movies. The only battle scene ate up maybe the first ten minutes of the movie, and the rest of it is about Alyosha’s journey home from the front line. A large part of the movie is about the various people Alyosha meets, including a crooked guard easily swayed by bribes, a beautiful young woman, and faithful and faithless lovers. Despite ostensibly having seen stuff that no man ever needs to, Alyosha maintains this childlike innocence that would be enough to melt anyone’s heart. Overall, Ballad of a Soldier wins because it proves it is possible to make a movie that is both about war and feel-good.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Lew Ayres

Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, All Quiet on the Western Front follows Paul Baumer as he naively joins the German army to fight in World War I, only to get gradually disillusioned by just about everything that surrounded him. This is what I define to be the benchmark of anti-war movies, it its angry portrayal of people (like Paul’s schoolteacher) stirring young German men to naively join the fight against British, French, and Russians and in how the soldiers themselves saw the war. One very powerful scene was the one time Paul kills someone up close. After fatally stabbing a French soldier, Paul realizes how when he joined the fight, he never intended to actually take the life of another human being, and that leads him to further question the utility of war. I have to recommend this movie not only because it had amazing battle scenes (even more amazing considering how the movie was made in 1930), but it is the only movie with an anti-war message that still feels relevant today.