Hollywood Goes to War

The recent release of Steven Spielberg’s Cold War-era drama Bridge of Spies has evoked memories of other great conflicts and other terrific movies. We recommend these cinematic tales of war. Some are hallucinatory; some comedic; and some utterly heart-wrenching. But from a variety of star and directorial perspectives, they capture the valor, poignancy, and occasional absurdity of human conflict in the extreme.

Vietnam – Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director Francis Ford Coppola used the core narrative of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness to frame this engrossing meditation on American military involvement in Vietnam. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and an unbelievably young Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne) star in this strange, unpredictable film. Coppola’s intention was to not just depict the insanity of the Vietnam conflict but take the viewer right into the war experience. Flawed but brilliant.

Korea – M*A*S*H (1970)
Robert Altman tells the story of a mobile army hospital during the Korean War in this offbeat comedy starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould. Although the story became better known as one of the most popular and successful sitcoms in TV history, the film is enjoyable in its own shambling way. Hawkeye and Trapper cope with the horrors of wartime injury and death with a mixture of humor, hi-jinks, and homemade hooch. Also starring Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman, and Gary Burgoff.

World War II – Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The first 20 minutes of this Steven Spielberg masterpiece—the early moments of the Normandy invasion— is one of the most horrific, searing depictions of battle ever captured in a fictional film. What follows is a wrenching story of eight men sent behind enemy lines to recover a soldier whose brothers have all died in other fights. A cast that includes Barry Pepper, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi and Matt Damon is led by Oscar-nominated Tom Hanks. Spielberg won an Academy Award for his direction.

World War I – Paths of Glory (1957)
Kirk Douglas and Ralph Meeker are among the powerless infantry men stuck in the trenches of World War I Europe in this gripping drama by Stanley Kubrick. When a group of French soldiers refuse to conduct another futile mission to take the German line, they are hauled in front a court martial, and Colonel Dax (Douglas) volunteers to defend them. The ensuing sham trial reveals the sharp distinctions between the upper-class generals who plan strategies without personal consequence and the lower-class soldiers who carry out those orders.

American Civil War – The General (1926)
A genius of the genre, Buster Keaton stars in this silent comedy about a Southern railroad engineer who singlehandedly, if not altogether on purpose, defeats the Union Army in an accidental battle of wits. Filled with terrific physical comedy and a spectacular climactic bridge stunt, the film is, at its heart, a romantic triangle involving hapless Johnny Gray (Keaton), his girl Annabelle (Marion Mack), and his locomotive, The General.

Persian Wars – 300 (2006)
Sensationalist director Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Sucker Punch) is out of his league among these other master directors, but this frenetic telling of the Battle of Thermopylae best demonstrates Snyder’s amped-up talents. Drawn from the graphic novel by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight), the film deliberately amplifies the two-dimensional spectacle of the source’s comic-book sensibility. Glossy and relentlessly gory, 300 is a triumph of fanboy style over narrative substance.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.