Friday, September 8, 2017

Great war movies, part I

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The Telegraph has a list of the "30 best war movies". It might surprise you that I don't agree with a lot of it. To show you why, I'll list the Telegraph's list and comment on it. This is the first half. If you think I missed any movie or disagree with my list, please share in the comments!  
1. Dunkirk
Absolutely. One of the best war movies ever and certainly the most tense experience I had.

2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
This story is an absolute must to include in any such list, but I have never understood the film-snob's instinct to prefer the black&white 1930s version over the 1979 remake, which I find superior in every respect.

3. In Which We Serve
Here we run into the first problems in the definition of what the greatest war movies are. This is a British propaganda movie, and while certainly interesting from a cineastic historian's perspective, I find it difficult to recommend this alongside such works as "All Quiet on the Western Front".

4. Twelve O'Clock High
Haven't seen this one, so I'll have to abstain.

5. The Dam Busters
Again one of the older movies that presents war more as a big adventure story of heroic people rather than give an appropriate picture of it.

6. The Bridge on the River Kwai
I abhor this one. It's absolutely not a good movie, in no respect. Its message is a complete mess, changing half-way through the movie, the characters are cardboard, the politics of it is reprehensible, its tone-deafness towards class-issues is reprehensible and the acting is wooden. This one might have pleased audience sentiments in the 1950s, but it should be consigned to the dustbin of history.

7. Ice Cold in Alex
 Haven't seen this one, so I'll have to abstain.

8. The Longest Day
Another one that should really be killed from this list. It portrays war either as a manly adventure, or as a clinical affair done by straight, serious and competent officers in map rooms. Add to that a grave lack of perspective, and you got another movie that should really be forgotten.

9. The Great Escape
While the humoristic elements of it are a bit jarring to modern audiences, this one is still watchable. It does, however, still gloss over a bit over the true conditions of war prisoners in favor of a more conventional heroic narrative for its movie star collection.

10. Zulu
While a traditional enough movie in camera-work and pacing for the 1960s (which means it's unwatchably slow for modern audiences), the problematic aspects here are, once again, the "war as a giant adventure" thing and of course the extremely problematic stereotypes, from the upstanding and stoic British heroes to the dutiful and virtuous women helping it in traditionally gendered roles and everyone's acceptance of their place in life, not to speak about the neglected role of the Zulus which are not that much better than orcs as an enemy.

11. Battle of Britain
Another one of the giant productions that were so popular back in the 1960s, it is notable mostly for the technical aspect of reproducing the dogfights and many, many airplanes needed to make this work. In story terms, it's a collection of clichees and, again, portraying the war more as a giant adventure rather than the dirty affair it was and is.

12. Tora! Tora! Tora!
Another one that doesn't belong on this list. It portrays the attack on Pearl Harbor as being succesful due to a comedy of errors and the Americans' out-sized belief in the rule of law, democracy and diplomacy, which is of course bullshit. Plus, the story is incredibly dull and lacks anything that produces good pacing or characters to identify with. The movie had a giant impact, however, because it was the major popular source about the attack on Pearl Harbor until "Pearl Harbor" rolled around in 2001. And don't get me started on that piece of crap...

13. The Iron Cross (Steiner - Das Eiserne Kreuz I)
This is the first German entry in this sequence, and god does it not belong here. The Steiner movies are relevant only from a historic perspective. Their excessive use of slow-motion made the action scenes into a great spectacle (from a 1977 point of view), but the movie also follows the long and infamous tradition of German war movies trying to depict soldiers in the East as regular guys who are just trying to survive, white-washing all aspects of the "War of Extermination". Movies like this need to be closed away. It's bad enough that these still make reruns on Free TV.

14. The Deer Hunter
I haven't seen this either, but I know of the controversy regarding the torture scenes of the American POVs. While the arguments of the film-makers and fans are true to a certain extent - that this is more a metaphor for war, and a well-functioning as well -, you also cannot shy away from the huge problems that arise in depicting the North Vietnamese as a barbarian, inhuman force that basically inhabits the evils of war, because then your metaphor becomes racist propaganda. It's a fine line to walk.

15. Apocalypse Now
Do I even need to say that this movie belongs on any such list? This is one of the greatest movies ever made, and it would deserve its own podcast, come to think of it.

16. Das Boot
The second German entry into the list is also an absolute classic, and if you've never seen it, you definitely should. There is no other movie that captures the essential horror of being in a submarine as this one does. You can even use the English version of it, because the actors synchronized it themselves, so you're not missing out on the German accents. The only criticism I have for this one is that it's a typical child of the 80s and still nurses the old clichee of most soldiers being a-political, just trying to survive and stay decent human beings, which is a bit white-washy and simplistic.

17. Gallipoli
I have tried to watch this twice, but never finished it, so I can't really comment on it. Maybe I'll pick it up again some later date.

18. Come and See
Oh my god does this movie belong on the list. One of the most horrendous and disturbing collections of imagery ever, this movie is not for the feint of heart, but it captures the realities of the war in the east a lot better than bullshit Easterns like Steiner do.

19. Platoon
I'm a bit on the fence with Platoon. While it manages to capture the horrendous circumstances of jungle warfare, it also falls into a very common trap of portraying American soldiers as the underdogs that are constantly outnumbered, which isn't historically accurate and only done to easily replicate the usual heroic narratives. The conflict between the lieutenants and Willem Dafoe's Jesus-pose while dying are also not exactly something that's laudable.

20. Full Metal Jacket
The first half of this movie belongs on any list. The second half is...weird. I'm still unsure as to whether or not I actually like it. I applaude the choice to use basically empty urban battlefields over the jungles, though, since that gives it a much more interesting message and feel than Platoon does, which is eclipsed by Apocalypse Now in any respect.

The rest follows in two weeks!

4 comments:

  1. My issues with these lists is they always ignore We Were Soliders. Whether you like Mel Gibson the human being or not, this movie and the book that it is based on was very well done and should be included in any top 25 list, especially once you remove the "rara look at us" 1950s/60s trash.

    Also Good Morning, Vietnam which is loosely based on a true story and Born on the Fourth of July which is a true story are honorable mentions.

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    1. I didn't like We Were Soldiers. I found to be still mired in Rara-ism. I'm also not a fan of Good Morning Vietnam, which isn't really a war movie in any case. Never seen Born on the Fourth of July.

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  2. You should really watch Gallipoli to the end, I know this could be said of any movie, but the whole movie is building up to the end, or rather the ending is what defines the movie.

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