By Brig. Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, Jr., USA-Ret., Executive Director, The Army Historical Foundation
Rick Atkinson, the brilliant Pulitzer-winning author of The Liberation Trilogy on the U.S. Army in World War II, says that war reveals character. And revealing character is what most movies are all about, so it should come as no surprise that there have been a lot of war movies made over the years.
What astounds me, however, is finding out that 23 movies about war or which use war as an important backdrop have won the best picture Oscar, and that doesn’t count all the other very good war movies that were nominated or won the Oscar for best director, actor, cinematography, writing, etc. Here are those 23:
Saving Private Ryan (WWII), Patton (WWII), The Deer Hunter (Vietnam), Platoon (Vietnam), Mrs. Miniver (British family survives bombings and other exigencies), Lawrence of Arabia (WWI), Casablanca (1942—WWII is backdrop), The Best Years of Our Lives (WWII returning veterans), All Quiet On the Western Front (WWI), Wings (WW I), Gone With the Wind (Civil War), From Here to Eternity (WWII), The Bridge On the River Kwai (WWII), Ben-Hur (sea battle is key plot element; primary antagonist, Messala, is a Roman Tribune/Commander), Dances With Wolves (Civil War and Indian Wars), Schindler’s List (WWII as backdrop to the Holocaust—Schindler is war profiteer who has a conscience), Forest Gump (Vietnam), The Last Emperor (WWII, Chinese Civil War), Braveheart (Scottish War of Independence), The English Patient (WWII), Gladiator (opens with huge battle scene, the gladiator is also a Roman General), The Hurt Locker (Iraq, an explosive ordnance disposal unit) and The King’s Speech (World War II is key plot element).
Despite the greatness of those 23 winners, my Top Ten list includes some others as well as a few of the above, so here goes (in no particular order):
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). Yep, it’s about the President and the Civil War is only a backdrop. But it is a truly great movie centered on probably the best single movie performance I have ever seen: Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. No movie has ever captured Lincoln—or any president, for that matter—the way this one does, and, most importantly, his thoughts about why they are fighting the war and what he is hoping to accomplish near the end of it.
Fred Zinnemann’s The Men (1950). This is me showing off because most people have never heard of this one. Marlon Brando makes his film debut playing a WW II vet paralyzed below the waist who is parked in a veterans’ hospital for rehab. Zinnemann was always a stickler for getting the details right, and the feel of the veterans’ hospital, especially the dialogue between the head shrink/doctor and his patients and their families, sounds pretty realistic. Jack Webb is very good as one of the leaders, also paralyzed, in the ward. Brando, who spent weeks in a veterans’ hospital to prepare for the role, is excellent.
Henry V (Hank cinq). Take your pick: the original play by Shakespeare, the movie with Laurence Olivier, or the movie directed by Kenneth Branagh. Just one line from the original play, “we band of brothers,” was great enough to spawn endless repeats. I include Henry V mostly to demonstrate that war films, and even plays, go back a long way. Heck, Euripides wrote one circa 325 BC entitled “The Trojan Women.” War does indeed reveal character.
Patton (1970). This shows my weakness for theatricality because the greatness of the movie Patton is largely contained in that incredible opening scene when George C. Scott, now everyone’s favorite World War II general, inspires the troops as only his voice and George S. Patton’s words could. Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame wrote the screenplay for the movie, and I would almost bet a month’s pay that he stole the idea for the opening scene from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV, Scene III, the Saint Crispin’s Day speech. Coppola takes a different slant of course—Shakespeare would never have Henry V say, “no poor dumb bastard ever won a war by giving up his life for his country. No, he won it by making that other poor dumb bastard give up his life for his country.” But the idea is the same.
We Were Soldiers (2002). Platoon and The Deer Hunter both won best picture Oscars, but I don’t like the messages in either because they are so unrelentingly negative. The Deer Hunter director Cimino’s metaphor for the Vietnam War is playing Russian roulette. And Oliver Stone wants us to believe war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam were commonplace. We Were Soldiers is well done in terms of depicting getting ready to go to war and fighting against a determined enemy. Very good combat scenes. And the movie is based on fact, not fiction. The Ia Drang valley fight really happened in 1965, and Hal Moore, the battalion commander who led the 1-7 Cav in that battle, later went back to the actual ground, now of course owned by the former North Vietnamese, and walked it with the guys who fought against him. So the depictions are balanced on both sides, including the families of both sides. Wild applause for Hal Moore and Joe Galloway for writing the book on which the movie was based.
Saving Private Ryan (1998). Best battle scenes I can remember seeing in any movie, but especially the opening scenes. Spielberg is at his painstaking and brilliant best (as he is in Lincoln and Schindler’s List). I thought Hanks did a solid job as the company commander, finding a balance between being assertive and in charge, on one hand, and wrestling with his own demons on the other. Spielberg has said the somewhat cowardly translator/interpreter is his own personal reference point. Had he been there, he too would have been scared spitless.
Gettysburg (1993). Not a great movie. I think Martin Sheen was miscast as Robert E. Lee. But I love the scope and the intent of the producers and director—to reproduce one of the defining battles in American history. They used a zillion reenactors to do the battle scenes, and I think they all work. The desperate fight by the 20th Maine, second day, on Little Round Top is especially convincing. Because Ted Turner fronted the money, the movie is based on a novel he really likes, The Killer Angels, which some historians—notably, my son Abe—have challenged for its depiction of the miscreant Confederate Cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, who was missing when the two armies initially clashed on the first day at Gettysburg. Jeff Daniels isn’t my idea of a regimental commander, but he is very good as the inspirational Joshua Chamberlain, the one true hero of The Killer Angels and the movie. By the way, I believe I am still the only person on the planet who knows where the title comes from. Hint: I’ve already used his name.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962). I think this is one of the ten best movies, period, and David Lean’s best (he also directed the superb The Bridge on the River Kwai). Lawrence himself was short and Peter O’Toole was tall, but he is terrific as Lawrence. Incredible cinematography. Great battle scenes. Marvelous acting. Like Patton, this movie shows how one man can make a difference in time of war.
Zulu (1964). A riveting and true story of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift between 4000 Zulu warriors and 150 British soldiers who hold the fort without benefit of cavalry coming to the rescue. As is the case with We Were Soldiers, the enemy, the Zulus, are not the bad guys in this movie. They are great warriors who do their darndest, but can’t overcome the British repeating rifle. Again, great battle scenes, done so well you don’t see how they are going to hold the fort. Singing contest—I’m serious, the singing is terrific, especially by the Zulus—right before the final battles. Historians say the singing didn’t happen, but it works dramatically.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Not a war movie, but a great movie about three men coming home and bringing the war home with them. One has prosthetics for both hands—the actor as well as the person he plays, which really makes a difference—one (Frederic March, won the best actor Oscar) is an NCO who is returning to his job as a bank VP, and one is a captain bombardier who can only get his old job—soda jerk. Families are big part of the story as well. The director, William Wyler, was a major in the Army Air Corps and made three WWII documentaries which involved going out on actual missions. So this movie was an affair of the heart because he really connected with those veterans.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: One of our commenters pointed out that "Saving Private Ryan" didn't actually win Best Picture. But, face it: how did one of the greatest movies of all time lose to "Shakespeare in Love," one of the least memorable films ever to be *nominated* for an Oscar? It's hard to type those words, much less believe they're true.]
Brigadier General Creighton W. Abrams, Jr. USA (Ret.), is the Executive Director of The Army Historical Foundation, the nonprofit designated by the U.S. Army to lead the campaign to build the National Museum of the United States Army. BG Abrams served 31 years in the U.S. Army. Commissioned in the field artillery, he commanded two batteries, a battalion, a division artillery, and a corps artillery—and served in Korea, Vietnam, Germany, SW Asia, and Italy. He taught gunnery at Fort Sill, OK, English at West Point, NY, corresponding studies at the Army War College, and a staff group in the Combined Arms and Services Staff School (CAS3), Fort Leavenworth, KS, where he was the Director for 3 years. He served on the Army staff at the Pentagon and on the NATO staff at Allied Forces, Southern Europe.