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The five greatest war movies you probably never heard of

April 2, 2011

I have relegated Saturdays to talking about stuff that interests me that do not also make me want to tear my eyes out (i.e politics, the environment, Islam), one could call it my new Not So Serious Saturday, or Can a Brother Get a Break? day.  So with that in mind, let’s look at what I feel are the five greatest war movies you probably never heard of, which means you should rent them immediately and watch them!

First, I must explain my criteria.  All these movies in some way have to actually show some war fighting action, hence no Diary of Anne Frank or Swing Shift (just kidding).  That truly is my only eliminating characteristic from this list, that and I have to make the assumption on some movies that they probably have been heard of, thus are not allowed inclusion – Patton, Midway, the Longest Day etc. are some of the greatest movies in general, but I am sure you have heard of them, get it? And lastly, War in this respect, means guns, so basically any movie depicting the Napoleonic Wars or later.   Okay, here we go.

5.  Pork Chop Hill – Of the movies on the list, this is the most likely to be known by you readers, but I couldn’t help it, it is an awesome movie.  It takes place at the conclusion of the Korean War, (errr, Conflict, Kinetic Military Action?) and stars Gregory Peck.  Basically it goes like this:  Everyone knows the war is coming to an end, the UN and North Korean negotiators have been talking for weeks about settling a cease-fire, but can’t seem to reach agreement.  To force the issue, the UN sends a division of troops to take a strategically insignificant hill as a show of force and resolve, Peck is a company commander of one of the division’s companies.  What ensues is some of the best War action ever filmed.  Not gory and explosive like Saving Private Ryan, but a down to the ground look of life as a soldier in the mud, the pains, the laughs and fear.  And that fear culminates in the finale of the flick as Peck and his surviving company await a Chinese human-wave attack – low on ammo and water, and no chance of resupply from his higher-ups who falsely assume everything is going great.  Peck is at his best, playing the role he was meant for, a fatherly figure who truly cares about his men, but will follow orders to get the job done, even if it means his life.

4.  The Bedford Incident – This Cold War era movie stars Richard Widmark as a destroyer commander patrolling international waters off of Europe.  To his chagrin, he was assigned the notably anti-war reporter Sidney Poitier who was writing a piece about the ship.  The enmity between the two “heavies” shows well the character of Widmark, a brash all business officer who gets the job done.  His opponent in this movie is a Russian submarine captain.  In the movie, the Russian submarine crosses territorial waters of an ally to the United States, provoking Widmark to pursue and harass the submarine with out refrain.  The tension builds as the submarine, forced to stay below because of Widmark’s actions, is soon to run out of air.  A caged animal, who knows what will happen.  Check it out to see what is “the Incident” of the movie’s title.

3.  When Trumpets Fade – This movie totally rocks.  It stars probably no one you ever heard of, but that don’t mean crap, I think most actors are overrated anyway.  When Trumpets Fade takes place in the latter half of World War II, after the Normandy Invasion, specifically during a battle called the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.  This is a little known battle for most people, but it was very bloody – the bloodiest battle for America during the war (33,000 casualties), and the longest battle in American history.  The movie focuses on a private who at the beginning of the film, is shown as the sole survivor from his platoon – that means out of 30 or so soldiers, he was the only one to live.  Understandably, some of his superiors think he probably ran and hid instead of fought, we will never know, but his later actions keep that thought forefront in our minds as we watch.  One of his commanders though, without any other recourse due to growing casualties, decides to make the private a Sergeant and promote him to squad leader against the protestations of the private, who only wants to get through the war and has no desire to look after others.  As the film progresses, we learn the newly minted Sergeant is actually a pretty good soldier, and ruthless, doing whatever it takes to stay alive in some pretty harrowing combat.  Obviously I am not throwing spoilers in, so check it out, it is an excellent movie and character study.

2.  Stalingrad – Okay, I will start out by saying this is a German movie, and it should be watched in that language, so you gotta read a little, get over it.  This is probably one of the best war movies of all time, regardless of any criteria.  It involves a squad of German elites, the stormtroopers, who after their successes in Italy, are sent to the Eastern Front for Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa.  Anyone who knows history, can predict some of the crap these fellows are gonna encounter.  No movie more accurately shows the hell of urban combat, the pain of trying to survive in the cold of winter without supplies, and the manic desire to escape when everything is crumbling around you.  As a historical study, this movie is very accurate, depicting rather gruesomely, the fighting over the Tractor Factory in Stalingrad that became such a meat grinder as the battle progressed, or the way the Russians used the massive sewers underneath the city to live and to move around unwatched by the Germans.  As only the best war movies can do, this movie transcends National lines and gets the viewer pulling for members of an Army most would agree deserve no praise – it wakes us to the fact that soldiers are soldiers, they don’t choose their fight, nor the politics that lead to that fight – they do their best to do their job and try to survive the horrors of war.  I can not recommend this movie more, it is a must see.

1.  Das Boot – Another German movie, so, like the one above, it should be watched in that language.  This submarine movie was made for German television, and is hands down the most accurate submarine movie ever made, World War II or any war.  It stars Jurgen Prochnow, most notable of Dune fame, as the veteran commander of a German U-boat during World War II.  He must take his charge of mere boys and lead them out in one of the more dangerous jobs during that war, a submarine patrol.  This movie is not so much about the combat, although there is a fair bit of that, but more about how man can overcome the stresses of war.  It shows the will to survive inherent in all humans.  Like Stalingrad, this movie quickly and effectively gets us on the side of the Germans, showing that they are just regular Joes like all of us, sympathetic characters all.  At times, the pacing of this movie is a little slow, due to the director’s desire to show all aspects of life on a U-boat, the highs and the lows, the excitement and the boredom.  That pacing not-withstanding, this movie is one of a kind.  No movie has shown the details of submarine life like Das Boot, nor the horrors and fears that can await men trapped in a metal tube underwater with only their wits and technical abilities as an escape.

That’s my list, did I miss any?  If you have already seen some of these, good on ya.  If not, please go rent them, they are not just good war movies, if you read my reviews, you can see a theme amongst them all.  They disregard the fluff and pomp of other war films, and whittle down to the essence of the soldier.  The pain, fears, joys, camaraderie – everything that encompasses life as a human whose time left on earth is measured in minutes and not years.

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. JustFacts permalink
    April 2, 2011 10:19 am

    Good list. Seen them all, and it’s hard to argue with your ranking. I still like 633 Squadron with Cliff Robertson and George Chakiris from 1964. I love the flying scenes with the old WWII “Wooden Wonder” DeHaviland Mosquito Bombers. Some of the technical stuff is a little howky using model planes, but for 1964, it was pretty good. I still get chills listening to that soundtrack music.

    • April 2, 2011 11:12 am

      That was a good movie, and I thought about putting it on the list, but I never liked Cliff Robertson’s character in it. He was the brooding, disrespectful American officer, and that always rubbed me the wrong way. But yes, the Mosquito is an amazing machine. The fastest “bomber” of WWII, amazing considering it was wooden. Might have to feature it in my Fleece’s Faves. =)

  2. April 2, 2011 1:13 pm

    I’ll have to catch those one day. They all sound good.

    • April 2, 2011 4:53 pm

      They are, you will enjoy them. =)

  3. April 2, 2011 8:49 pm

    I would add Enemy At The Gates:

    During the WWII battle of Stalingrad, two snipers, a Russian, and a German, are locked in a battle of wills and marksmanship, while the Russian is boosted to the status of hero by a political official.

    One of my all time favorites.

    • April 3, 2011 4:17 am

      That is a good quasi-biopic of Vasily Zaitsev, one of the best snipers in world history. I like that movie very much, and I would say it is on the cusp of movies people have or have not heard of, it definitely has quite a bit of star power with Jude Law, Ed Harris, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes.

    • April 3, 2011 9:36 am

      I wasn’t sure how many people knew of the movie. The few people I recommended the movie to had not heard of it.

      • April 4, 2011 7:06 am

        I highly recommend that movie, it is very good.

  4. April 3, 2011 1:37 am

    Das Boot is a good one. If you like creaking and “how deep can we go” it is a winner. I will have to check out Stalingrad. Hamburger Hill and When We Were Soldiers are also good.

    • April 3, 2011 4:20 am

      Hamburger Hill is a very good alternate Platoon.

      Stalingrad is very good, I had trouble deciding if it should be number two or one on the list, but I went with my old favorite Das Boot. I am confident you will enjoy it.

  5. April 3, 2011 6:14 am

    The only one I had heard of was Pork Chop Hill but I haven’t seen it. I am going to have to check them out, thanks for the ideas.

    • April 4, 2011 7:07 am

      My pleasure. =)

  6. April 3, 2011 1:29 pm

    Great list. Haven’t seen When Trumpets Fade or The Bedford Incident (though I believe years ago I read the book on which the latter was based). Stalingrad and Das Boot are in my DVD collection. One of my all time favorites is The Dirty Dozen.

    • April 4, 2011 7:09 am

      Ah yes, the Dirty Dozen, what a great movie. You gotta love ensemble cast movies, and the list of actors in the Dirty Dozen is very long.

  7. April 3, 2011 7:40 pm

    Hmm. I’m gonna hafta forward this list on to my hubs. I know that he seen and enjoyed #1 and #5, but I’m not sure about the middle three. I’m not a big war movie fan, myself, but I’m guessing he’d add Galipoli to the list.

    And dude. That leeway you’ve given to yourself on a Saturday? Yeah, that’s how I roll evree day.

    Best to you and yours my friend.

    • April 4, 2011 7:17 am

      LMAO about Saturday. =)

      Gallipoli was definitely on my short list. It is another good character study, but of a different nature than the 5 I listed. It speaks more to the death of youth and innocence that war inevitably can bring about. Mel Gibson is the brash young Aussie who enlists for Queen and Country (or just to be with his friends) and finds the horrors of war against the Turks. There is one aspect of this movie that only one other movie portrays accurately, the complete lack of compunction from the ‘leaders’ of the Allies in high loss of life, and their inability (or desire)to change their tactics, regardless of what the enemy is doing. The ending of this movie emphatically shows the intractability of the “old school” thinking in regards to ground combat, and the subsequent unnecessary loss of life. Oh, the other movie that portrays this would be Stanley Kubrik’s classic, Paths of Glory, also about World War I.

      • April 4, 2011 11:51 am

        You sure know your war films. Hubs has not heard of #3 or 4, but he is very keen to see Stalingrad. We’ll have to make sure and get it when he comes home. As far as great war movies many have never heard of, he adds: Breaker Morant. His description:

        “It takes place during the Boer War in South Africa. Edward Woodward (yes, the Equalizer) and Bryan Brown are professional soldiers accused of murder. Great job of court-room scenes and combat flashbacks. were they following orders, or acting rashly? You get to decide.”

      • April 4, 2011 12:44 pm

        Breaker Morant was another on my shortlist, lol. It is much like Paths of Glory, a kangaroo court that was only formed for a political purpose, good movie but it will piss you off.

  8. April 4, 2011 8:37 am

    I enjoyed your snarky comments!– so true about the weekends, I need to give it a break as well. Das Boot for me.. I watched it in both German and English, and one of the most gripping for me. The ending? Well,… won’t give it away, but a surprise.

    • April 4, 2011 9:25 am

      Yeah, the ending is, well, very German, lol.

  9. Keith permalink
    May 10, 2011 1:29 pm

    84 Charlie Mopic is a fantastic war movie!

    • May 21, 2011 5:06 am

      Yes it is, saw it a while ago but remember it being very good. Thanks for visiting and commenting. =)

  10. mike permalink
    May 30, 2011 9:19 am

    hell is for heroes .1962. b/w with steve mcqueen ,battle cry 1955 color and the steel helmet 1951 b/w, are all really good, but the greatest not well known war movie is ,come and see 1985 from russia,watch it and you will see what i mean,this movie must not be missed!!!!!

    • May 31, 2011 6:12 am

      Hell is for Heroes is very good, a lot like When Trumpets Fade. Not sure I have seen Battle Cry, but Steel Helmet seems to be ringing a bell. Will have to checkout Come and See, I like me a good Russian movie. =)

  11. mike permalink
    May 31, 2011 9:06 pm

    another” really ” good war film that i dont know how well its known or unknown is ” paths of glory” 1957, by stanley kubrick,this very well may be the best of them all, brutally realistic and heart wrenching , especially for back then, kirk douglas was never better,have you seen it? too bad its not in color,i prefer color over b/w because reality is in color,most films were made in b/w for finacial reasons, not artistic choices. it cost $ 500,000 extra dollars in 1939 for” gone with the wind” to be made in color!!!,why did they do that? because they knew it would be better in color!

  12. John Humphrey permalink
    July 9, 2011 10:07 pm

    I would save a vote for a long lost gem, “Attack” from 1956 starring Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, and Lee Marvin. Deals with bravery, humanity, and cowardice. How cowards are rewarded and heroes are passed over. The movie resounds in its grit and truthfulness. Jack Palance give the performance of his life (long before he received an Oscar) as a Lt. than genuinely cares for his men,. Find it and watch it, you won’t be disappointed.

    • July 10, 2011 12:41 am

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting. =)

      You offer a great suggestion! I believe that movie is on Netflix on Demand, so I will have to give it a view sometime. Thanks. =)

  13. JustFacts permalink
    July 10, 2011 7:28 am

    Just saw The Bedford Incident on late night cable for the umpteenth time since originally seeing it on the big screen when it was first released back in 1965. I had forgotten how impactful this production was. Richard Widmark has always been one of my favorite actors. Filmed in black-and-white to emphasize the Cold War, and the isolation and coldness of the mission of surveilance that the USS Bedford, this was a fantastic movie that delves into the psyche of man under stress. I personally prefer the ending in the 1963 novel of the same name by Mark Rascovich. The film just ends in blackness, while the ending in the book provides a certain irony. If you’ve seen the movie, you should also read the book to get a little different perspective.

    • July 10, 2011 2:24 pm

      Haha, I watched that last night as well. =)

      Good description of the movies dramatic impact. I will have to check the book out sometime.

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