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The Best War Movies Ever Made — IndieWire Critics Survey

"Dunkirk" is excellent, but war movies have a long and complex legacy. Our panel of critics rifles through the past to pick the genre's best.

Dunkirk Christopher Nolan


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: In honor of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” what is the best war movie ever made?

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

Howard Hawks’ “The Dawn Patrol,” from 1930, shows soldiers and officers cracking up from the cruelty of their missions — and shows the ones who manage not to, singing and clowning with an exuberance that suggests the rictus of a death mask. There’s courage and heroism, virtue and honor — at a price that makes the words themselves seem foul. John Ford’s “The Lost Patrol,” from 1934, offers the madness without the exuberance, the terrifying blank randomness of death and the profound solitude of confronting and anticipating it; its spare and blazing clarity is of a modernism that the moderns have yet to match.

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

Can’t pass up the opportunity to hype for my beloved “Starship Troopers,” Paul Verhoeven’s most radical Hollywood gamble, and a movie I’d hold up to the more “serious” war films no doubt already named. The surface is slicked with gore and shouty newscasts, but the takeaway is profound: War makes happy idiots of us all. Verhoeven indicts the fascism hidden behind a lot of family-safe science fiction in the process.

Peter Debruge (@AskDebruge), Variety

Let me start by saying how glad I am that this week’s question didn’t begin, “In honor of ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’…” because for the life of me, I can’t figure out how that’s a war movie. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s post-Dunkirk address, “Wars are not won by avalanches and the Simian Flu.” Still, I’ll hand it to the folks in Fox’s marketing department: The word “WAR” sure grabs your attention, stenciled in giant red block letters on a billboard.

So, Truffaut famously said, “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film,” which is taken to mean that any film that depicts the spectacle and carnage of war inevitably glorifies it to some extent. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” certainly upholds that critique: It’s a truly awesome film, from its vertebrae-rattling sound design to those majestic IMAX images, although I’m not sure that awe is what’s called for with this particular subject. I suspect Steven Spielberg came closest to depicting the horror and confusion of the battlefield during the intense opening reel of “Saving Private Ryan,” though it’s widely agreed that the movie then veers into more conventional, Capra-esque territory.

For me, the greatest war movie of all time — and arguably the most effective anti-war film ever made — is Elem Klimov’s “Come and See,” which depicts the Soviet side of World War II through the eyes of a 12-year-old Belarus resistance fighter named Florya (Alexei Kravchenko): naïve, ignorant, overwhelmed. The 1985 Soviet movie is one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, a key influence on Terrence Malick and countless other filmmakers, frequently cited in pitch meetings yet seldom screened (I caught it in a devastating double bill with Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death,” after which you could be excused for never wanting to see another war film again).

“Come and See” is a master class in cinematic p.o.v., providing an impressionistic sense of the absurdity, carnage and overall senselessness of war by privileging what young Florya sees and hears (shell-shocked by explosions, he goes nearly deaf for a segment of the film, and so does the movie), while breaking from that subjectivity in other key moments to share details that the character himself doesn’t witness (as in one key scene, when Klimov reveals the corpses of his family stacked up behind him). I suspect that Nolan, too, has seen it, although “Dunkirk” feels like a propaganda film by comparison.

Vikram Murthi (@fauxbeatpoet), Freelance for RogerEbert.com, The A.V. Club, Vulture

Can’t speak honestly about what’s the “best war film,” if only because many war films have different aims and thus defining “best” would be privileging one aim over another, e.g. “All Quiet on the Western Front” isn’t in the same relative ballpark as, say, “Full Metal Jacket,” even though both are technically war films. I personally enjoy “Apocalypse Now” and “Thin Red Line,” because both have a vested interest in foregrounding the surreal psychology of wartime, albeit in two different ways.

Jude Dry (@jdry), IndieWire

“Life Is Beautiful” is so good, it should have been the last Holocaust film ever made. Roberto Benigni’s ebullient performance as a father who will stop at nothing to shield his son from the horrors of Nazi-occupied Italy is one of the finest star turns ever (capped off with an unforgettable Oscars acceptance speech). That he also directed and co-wrote the film makes this an indie worth doubly celebrating. For better or worse, Holocaust films have become a genre of their own, though still within the greater war film. Too often, it feels like each ensuing Holocaust film further cheapens the atrocities under the guise of “never forgetting.” By focusing on the small, human story of one father and son, “Life Is Beautiful” succeeds because Benigni doesn’t try to tell the whole story. (He knows that would be impossible.) The movie had critics who complained it sugar-coated life in the concentration camps, but Benigni knew that even the most earnestly drawn depiction would be trivializing. Instead, he chose to focus on Guido’s unwavering love for his son, and the inventive ways he would find to preserve one shred of innocence.

Runners up: “Forrest Gump,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

April Wolfe (@awolfeful), LA Weekly

I like war movies more than I probably should. I was pretty close to choosing the cliché answer of “The Dirty Dozen,” because Lee Marvin is my main squeeze. But I guess I have to go with another cliché of “The Great Escape.” I’m a sucker for movies where we whoop Nazis’ asses. But I’m also a glutton for bittersweet endings. And Donald Pleasence. (Side note: We don’t have nearly enough movies about women’s roles in wars. They may not have had guns, but they were still aiding the war effort in creative ways. The Innocents is one of the few in recent years that’s tackled what women were doing in WWII.)

Manuela Lazic (@manilazic), Freelance Critic for Little White Lies

Wars are more often than not stupid, cruel and shameful for all involved. The Vietnam War in particular was a catastrophe, driven as it was by racism, greed, insanity and good ol’ desperation. Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” managed to create a coherent and compelling narrative out of the mess of that situation by focussing on the journey of a man, Captain Willard (a tortured and touching Martin Sheen), sent to kill another, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando, more terrifying and out-there than ever). From Willard’s hazardous involvement in the mission to his ultimate confrontation with Kurtz, Coppola traces the confusion that this absurd conflict creates in the minds of all involved. Some are paralysed by fear, others invigorated by it to a deadly extent, many simply shut their brains down to better live, and die, through the horror. Kurtz, meanwhile, has become the personification of this war: in hiding but controlling a tribe of Cambodians, he is both thriving on and distancing himself from the American imperialism and death thirst that led him there. Like the degenerate child of this insane and endless battle, he only makes sense to himself and is doomed to die. Vittorio Storaro’s unforgettable visuals make this savaged land look like hell, and the men on it, like ants whose hill has been decimated by the trampling of a man who didn’t care, and who have nowhere to go but forward.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects

John Ford’s “The Battle of Midway.” This documentary has it all: expositional narration, a scripted framing device, and both real and staged footage of the Battle of Midway, the former consisting of firsthand shots from a clearly endangered position (Ford was in fact injured while covering the battle). Sometimes it’s funny, as when it becomes a jokey nature film about the “natives” of Midway Island. Sometimes it’s sad, as in in the end, when we’re shown the burial of the heroes lost during the battle. There’s also a mix of the quaint and the intense, never too corny because of how grim and genuine and personal it is. The Oscar-winning film is a perfect piece of propaganda in spite of showing the tragic reality of World War II. Scenes that would seem to be a deterrent in a dramatic war movie are part of a rousing call to duty in this doc, in part because it’s a film of a major victory. I think the film itself is a victory of sorts, too. Not bad for being just 18 minutes in length.

Christian Blauvelt (@Ctblauvelt), BBC Culture

It’s hard to argue with John Ford’s “They Were Expendable” as the greatest war film ever made – it’s haunting, elegiac, dripping with sadness about the US Armed Forces’ major early setbacks in World War Two, and so not what audiences wanted to see in 1945 when the film was released. But my pick for the greatest war film of all time is a movie that I’ve been absolutely obsessed with for the past couple years, and though more nakedly a piece of wartime propaganda, also lingers on war’s consequences: Lewis Milestone’s “Edge of Darkness,” from 1943. Milestone, of course, had directed maybe the best known anti-war film of all time, 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” But much like how Jean Renoir pivoted from the anti-war Grand Illusion to the pro-war (and almost equally excellent) French resistance drama “This Land is Mine,” Milestone celebrates the rain of Allied hellfire upon the Nazis who’d occupied Norway.

“Edge of Darkness” begins with a stunning opening sequence, as helmeted SS commandos step over the bodies – hundreds of them – left bled out and dead in a small Norwegian village’s main square. It’s a vision of unabashed carnage, of dead Nazis and partisans, the likes of which Hollywood, always inclined toward the bloodless, rarely indulged. The rest of the film then takes place in flashback to show how this town rose up as one in resistance to the Nazi invaders – Errol Flynn plays a fisherman who ends up leading the fight, and Ann Sheridan, toting a machine gun, is Katniss Everdeen seven decades before Katniss Everdeen. The rest of the cast is great too, including Walter Huston and ever sublime Judith Anderson as a villager who’s fallen in love with a Nazi soldier but is so committed to the cause of the resistance that she will not let her heart rule her head. What she has to do ultimately is extraordinary – this is as rousing as a war film can get, and yet it does linger on war’s toll: you see someone paraded before the entire town by the Nazis before being hauled off to a concentration camp, there’s major screentime given to violence against women during wartime, and there’s a serious consideration about what to do with treasonous collaborators. It’s like Melville’s “Army of Shadows” but made as the war is still going on.

“Edge of Darkness” is Exhibit A for why the Errol Flynn WWII canon deserves more recognition. Also excellent? His French resistance drama for Raoul Walsh, Uncertain Glory, where he plays a condemned French criminal who volunteers to let himself be killed not by the French police but by the Nazis instead so he can pose as a resistance mastermind they’ve been looking for. And check out everything else he did with Raoul Walsh too.

Miriam Bale (@mimbale), Freelance

The best war film ever made is “Objective, Burma!.”

“The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is also good for a long scene of talking in bed, like “Breathless.”

(There are so many other good PTSD war films, a different category and a favorite sub-genre.)

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail

For starters, let me just say that though I enjoyed parts of “Dunkirk,” I seem to be one of the very few film critics on the planet mystified by the widespread orgiastic acclaim it has so far received (I reviewed it for “Film Festival Today” rather than for “Hammer to Nail”). Bear that in mind, then, as you read what my choices are for “best war film ever made.” I have three personal favorites, with many others that I find strong. Those top three are “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (David Lean, 1957), “The Cranes Are Flying” (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) and “Forbidden Games” (René Clément, 1952).

“Kwai” focuses on the insanity of all armed conflict and features brilliant – and equally matched – performances from Alec Guinesss (who won a Best Actor Oscar) and Sessue Hayakawa (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and should have won). “Cranes” – made at the start of the post-Stalin cultural thaw in the Soviet Union – focuses on the deeply human cost of war, using innovative visuals to evoke the heightened emotional reality of the civilians struggling to make do as their loved ones fight far away, and features a heartbreaking performance from lead actress Tatyana Samoylova. Finally, “Games” focuses on the effect of war’s terrible death and destruction on children, the ultimate innocents. Some other war-based films I like a lot are “The Battle of Algiers” (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), “Gallipoli” (Peter Weir, 1981), “Grand Illusion” (Jean Renoir, 1937), “The Hurt Locker” (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008), “Ivan’s Childhood” (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962), “Paths of Glory” (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), “Saving Private Ryan” (Steven Spielberg, 1998), “Waltz with Bashir” (Ari Folman, 2008), and . . . “Dr. Strangelove” (Stanley Kubrick, 1964).

What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

Most Popular Answer: “Dunkirk”

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