Lex’s Favorite War Movies

A friend asked me for a list of my favorite war movies a while ago, and I decided to make it into a blog post. I may put up a sequel to this list for various specific historical periods, but for now, here is what I consider to be “the Best of the Best.” The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (and here) (and here). (1943). My favorite movie of all time, period. I had the good fortune to see the remastered, uncut version on the big screen at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1988, in gloriously restored Technicolor. The story begins with a fat, washed up, outdated, walrus-moustached English Home Guard Colonel being humiliated by a modern young officer, who ambushes him by preempting the starting time for a military exercise. Not sporting at all, old boy. The entire movie is a flashback covering 40 years of the life of Col. Clive Candy (as he turns out to) up to that moment. An epic of the demise of old-fashioned ideals of patriotism, decency and fair-play in the modern world of “total” war. The always reliable Deborah Kerr (in her first starring role) does triple duty playing Col. Candy’s love interest(s) – – three different women over the course of his life, a brilliant performance which captures the “modern girl” circa 1900, 1920 and 1940. Col. Blimp is not really a war movie, since it has no battle scenes, other than one excellent serio-comic sword fight. Rather it is a portrait of a particular kind of warrior and gentleman whose day was (apparently) coming to an end. Badly butchered versions of this movie are out there, so be sure to settle for nothing less than the restored, full-length 163 min. version. (recently reissued on DVD.) (I received a copy of this as a Christmas present and am well-pleased with it.) The Battle for Algiers (1965) (and here). In my darker moods, I’d say this is my favorite movie. A semi-documentary about the Algerian revolution against French rule, and the harsh but (initially) effective measures employed by the French to crush the resistance. While the director, Gillo Pontecorvo was a Marxist and sympathetic to the Algerians, he shows the cruelty of their terrorism without blinking, and he shows the hard-handed French as professional soldiers, without rancor or caricature. Unfortunately, the movie is something of a darling of leftists, who talk about how horrible it is that the captured terrorists are being tortured, while never mentioning that they and their comrades are sneaking bombs into public places to murder women and children. The one-sided critical response to this film shows the moral vacancy at the heart of western liberalism, especially of the academic/intellectual variety. Without regard to all that, this is the best movie about terrorism and guerilla warfare that I know of and truly brilliant movie, period. (Oddly, there are very few still images from the movie available on the net. There is however an excellent book, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers by Franco Solinas, which contains many stills and the full script.) That Hamilton Woman (1941). A sentimental favorite. Reputedly Winston Churchill’s favorite movie. (Incidentally, Churchill hated Col. Blimp.) Legend has it that Alexander Korda got funding for the film by letting Churchill write some of Nelson’s lines: “You can’t negotiate with dictators! You’ve got to stamp them out!”– That has a Churchillian ring. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh play Lord Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval hero, and Emma Hamilton, the wife of England’s ambassador to Naples, and Nelson’s mistress. The historical facts are roughly accurate. Olivier and Leigh were married at the time, but that didn’t prevent these two monumental egos from trying to outdo, and even upstage, each other at every turn. (Vivien Leigh wins this struggle hands down.) The stars and the character actors all show just how technically good the old-school theatre-trained British actors could be. The scene where Mrs. Nelson confronts Emma is superbly acted out with very little dialogue between the two women, but primarily with body English and facial expressions. Made during Britain’s darkest days during WWII, it had a low budget and it shows, though the black and white is a positive in my opinion. Anyway, actors like these didn’t need special effects. And Vivien Liegh was never more beautiful than in this movie, which is saying something. The Cranes are Flying (and here) is the tale of young lovers Boris and Veronica, whose happiness is destroyed by the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the travails suffered by Veronica, and how she overcomes them. These various links describe the film better than I can. The movie starred the extraordinary Tatiana Samoilova (some stills here; scroll down). I saw this at the Art Institute in Chicago, and even that hyper-sophisticated crowd was mesmerized by this film. It is the only time I have ever walked out of a movie where the crowd was totally silent, with tears streaming down their faces. Black Hawk Down (2001). With Saving Private Ryan, war movies have recently gotten bloody and “realistic”. Black Hawk Down is the best war movie so far of this new era. Too late to see it on the big screen. A pity for you if you didn’t for this is true big-screen film. It also does justice to the book, which is an achievement. The movie is harsh stuff. One friend of mine walked out. Too much blood. The skill, competence and coolness of the American troops under absolutely horrendous conditions is the subtext throughout the movie. Very impressive, and based closely on the actual facts. The episode where two Delta Force guys are helicoptered into the middle of a howling armed mob (and, knowingly, to their doom) to try to protect a downed helicopter crew is incredibly moving – – pure, selfless heroism, with nothing glamorous about it, just stone cold professionalism. Only two posthumous medals of honor since Vietnam, I read somewhere. (Read the book too, as well as the author, Mark Bowden’s, article about Saddam Hussein, and his interview about how he researched it.) The Wild Bunch . (1969). Why is this on a war movie list? Sam Peckinpah’s notorious “ballet of death” came out at the height of the Vietnam war. The death of a bunch of Americans getting mixed up in a foreign civil war they don’t understand, and dying pointlessly while killing lots of the locals, is a pretty heavy-handed metaphor. Also despite the horses and cowboy hats, it has uniformed men running around with Springfield rifles, a mass attack on a water-cooled machine gun, .45 cal. automatic pistols, hand-grenades, a German advisor, etc. It looks like a war movie. So, you can make a case it’s a war movie. It is also, of course, a Western, but it is a Western about the death of the Old West, the death of personalized honor codes and of personalized violence, the end of horses and six guns, the rise of organized and large-scale violence, internal combustion and automatic weapons. The film recounts the final days of a band of hard-bitten desperados, led by Pike, played by William Holden in his greatest role: “…we’re gonna stick together like it used to be. When you side with a man, you stick with him, and if you don’t, you’re like some animal… then you’re finished… we’re finished … all of us.” The fact emerges that Pike has failed this code more often than he has kept it. As one of the friends he once betrayed closes in on him, he and the bunch strap on their guns one last time and go off to certain death. To live up to their code? Or because they are already ghosts in this new world? Or because all that cornered rats know how to do is turn and bite? Make sure you see the uncut, long version, which clocks in at 144 minutes. The butchered shorter version omits key scenes without which the motivation of the main characters is barely comprehensible. (This short article about the film is insightful.)