War is hell, for sure, but war can make for undeniably brilliant movie-making. Here, the Guardian and Observer's critics pick the ten best
10. Where Eagles Dare
As the second world war thriller became bogged down during the mid-60s in plodding epics like Operation Crossbow and The Heroes of Telemark, someone was needed to reintroduce a little sang-froid, some post-Le Carré espionage, and for heaven's sake, some proper macho thrills into the genre. Alistair Maclean stepped up, writing the screenplay and the novel of Where Eagles Dare simultaneously, and Brian G Hutton summoned up a better than usual cast headed by Richard Burton (Major Jonathan Smith), a still fresh-faced Clint Eastwood (Lieutenant Morris Schaffer), and the late Mary Ure (Mary Elison).
Parachuted into the German Alps, they have one day to rescue an American general held in an apparently impregnable mountaintop fortress. As it turns out, there are about 40 more twists before the story resolves itself, adding some clever spy mechanics to a story that is otherwise an ecstatic, guilt-free orgy of Kraut-killing (Schaffer just loves mowing them down in their dozens). Every chase and gun battle is a classic, and the climactic fight on top of the cable cars remains etched in the memory of a generation. And yes, that is Burton, having the time of his life for a change.
9. Rome, Open City
There is perhaps no film to rival the humanism and clarity of purpose of Roberto Rossellini's neorealist masterpiece, which documents the Nazi occupation of Rome and the bravery of the Italian resistance. It scarcely matters how many times you watch it, the image of a woman shot in the back as she runs through the street is astonishing in its barbarism.
Open City's great power is its immediacy. Rossellini started work as soon as allied tanks rolled into war-destroyed Rome in June 1944 (writing the script with Fellini), and by January he was shooting. Making a virtue of meagre resources, film was scavenged and Rossellini took his camera on to the streets (Rome's film studio Cinecittà was serving as a refugee camp). Parts look like newsreel footage: during filming of one scene involving Nazi officers (acted by grips) arresting a group of men, a passerby actually pulled out his revolver to stop them. But the story plays like a gripping thriller: a cat-and-mouse game between Gestapo and resistance cell.
Aldo Fabrizi stars as Don Pietro, a portly priest based on real-life underground hero Don Morosini. Anna Magnani is magnificent as the young widow protecting her lover, who is in hiding from the Germans. Fabrizi was known as a comic actor and Magnani had cut her teeth in cabaret; together they give the film tremendous warmth and heart. So while it is a great war film, Open City is filled with snapshots of daily life, family spats and love affairs, which become unbelievably moving in the context. Martin Scorsese said it is "the most precious moment of film history". Godard concurred, saying: "All roads lead to Rome, Open City."
8. La Grande Illusion
It takes some doing to make a first world war film that transcends the war itself, but that's what Jean Renoir achieved with this authoritative but compassionate movie – to the extent that it was still dangerous by the time of the second. In addition, it's the wellspring of so many war-movie cliches: the seditious singing of the Marseillaise by French prisoners of war (later borrowed by Casablanca); the mechanics of tunnel-digging (as aped by The Great Escape). And it provided an enduring archetype of German officer-class stiffness in the form of Erich Von Stroheim's monocled, neck-braced Von Rauffenstein.
The principal "Illusion" that Renoir's film tackles is that of European aristocracy, and their belief that their class position superseded (and would survive) the inconvenient conflict they presently found themselves in – whichever side they were on. That notion is still desperately clung to by Von Rauffenstein, who thinks nothing of inviting the captive French pilots he's just shot down to lunch "if they're officers", and indeed, turns out to have moved in similar social circles to Pierre Fresnay's upper-crust de Boeldieu.
But there's no concealing where Renoir's real sympathies lie: with heroic commoner Marechal (Jean Gabin) and Jewish merchant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). Stronger affinities than class will hold the future Europe together, the film suggests – though there will be those who don't accept it. The film's foreshadowing of rising anti-semitism was certainly unacceptable to the Nazis. They confiscated the movie when they invaded France three years later, as a matter of priority.
On top of Renoir's political and humanist perceptions, La Grande Illusion is equally modern in its execution. The fluid camera moves feel ahead of their time and despite some theatrical acting, the characters are drawn with great credibility and compassion, and the prisoner-of-war life feels utterly authentic. Renoir had experience in these matters. He was a pilot during the first world war. His passion and anger were borne of first-hand experience, not just intellectual conviction. No wonder this feels more like a text than something simply made up.
7. The Deer Hunter
He then plunges us directly – that is, in a single, brutal cut – into the flaming maelstrom of the war itself. Michael, Steven and Nick (Robert De Niro, John Savage and an epicene young Christopher Walken, respectively) find themselves trapped and captured after a vicious firefight, and forced by their Vietcong captors to play a nightmare version of Russian roulette. They manage to escape, though only Michael and Steven find their way back to the US. More or less destroyed inside, they find no place for themselves or their experiences at home and Michael returns to Saigon to rescue Nick. The Russian roulette aspect was widely criticised, and almost certainly never happened but, as a metaphor for America's suicidal intervention in south-east Asia, it cannot be beaten.
6. Three Kings
When he came to make his third film, David O Russell already had behind him an abrasive indie debut (Spanking the Monkey) and an accomplished modern screwball (Flirting with Disaster). But that could hardly prepare audiences for the ambition and reach of his black-comedy-with-a-conscience, Three Kings, about a gold heist that takes place at the end of the 1991 Gulf war. The movie came to be known briefly for starting a war of its own — between Russell and his star,George Clooney, who had dust-ups on set over the director's apparent volatility (the pair have only recently enjoyed a rapprochement). The film endures, though, as one of the great modern examples not only of the rhetorical weight of the best war movies but of the miracles that can occur when mavericks work in Hollywood.
It begins in the Iraqi desert. In a moment of confusion, Sgt Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) shoots a surrendering enemy officer. It hardly matters since no one knows what's going on anyway. "This war is over and I don't even know what it was about," complains a reporter. Sometimes, chaos and misconception can be an advantage. Storming into an Iraqi bunker to steal gold bullion that had itself been stolen by Saddam Hussein, Troy and his colleagues Sgt Major Archie Gates (Clooney) and Sgt Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) are assumed by terrified villagers to have arrived hotfoot from the latest massacre. But those army fatigues are not decorated with human flesh – the soldiers just happen to have been standing too close to a cow when it stepped on a cluster-bomb.
Although it has its roots in fact, the gold bullion is really just a plot device stolen from Kelly's Heroes long before Saddam Hussein seized it from Kuwait. What Three Kings is really concerned with is challenging some of the bogus US triumphalism that clung to the war at the time. Even more so than MASH or Catch-22, this is a war film in which comedy and visceral horror intensify one another. In one of the most striking moments, a bullet is traced as it carves into a man's chest in a lurid cross-section shot that will thrill anyone who owns a Visible Man model. In this movie more than any other since The Battle of Algiers, every bullet — and every human life — counts.
5. Come and See
The film stars the then-unknown Aleksei Kravchenko as Flyora, who joins the resistance and is left behind by movement's concerned commander, Kosach (Liubomiras Lauciavicius). Although Kosach means to protect the boy, the opposite happens. Along with with local girl Glasha (Olga Mironova), Flyora faces the traumas of conflict alone, which Klimov underscores with frequent close-ups of the boy's horrified face, a deliberate homage to the silent epics of Russian master Sergei Eisenstein.
This is a film that shows the second world war in rural microcosm and is shocking in its artless savagery. Key is a sequence that shows the burning of civilians in a village church, the use of non-professionals as Nazis and victims only adding to its grotesque matter-of-factness. That it ends with a nod to Dziga Vertov's surreal Soviet classic Man With a Movie Camera, by running actual war footage back to the birth of Hitler, shows Klimov's poetic intent; though its people and landscapes are Russian, Come and See is not bound or defined by those things, rather it is a profound, universal and deeply subjective film whose only purpose is to bear witness to war as a form of collective insanity.
Kurosawa's last great film was made after many years in the wilderness. His star had fallen in Japan after a period of extraordinary artistic fertility ended in the mid-60s. His eyesight was failing; he'd attempted suicide. In 1980, he returned to favour with Kagemusha, which was seen as a rehearsal for his long-planned adaptation of King Lear. Ran finally appeared in 1985, and in its portrait of a great man who has lost control of his offices of power, critics were quick to read the experiences of the director himself.
Appropriating Lear gave Kurosawa scope to meditate on man's diminishing through age, but, in so doing, he produced, at 75, a film of breathtaking power and scale, and one of the most visually arresting war films ever made. The title translates as "chaos", and this is what erupts when Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), the patriarch of the Ichimonji clan, attempts to divide his kingdom between his three sons. The youngest son, like Cordelia, alerts the father to his folly and is banished. Accompanied by his fool Kyoami (played by the Japanese pop star Pita), Hidetora stumbles from one catastrophe to the next, watching powerlessly as his realm burns around him. The silent battle scene at the centre of the film, set to Toru Takemitsu's funereal score, has to be seen to be believed.
3. The Thin Red Line
There were always some critics who found this approach arty, and the film vacant of conventional excitement. It is a marvel that it ever got made as an expensive American picture, with a star-studded cast. But unlike Fred Zinnemann's 1953 epic From Here to Eternity, which starred Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed, there are no women as characters – even if we glimpse them as dream figures in the minds of the soldiers. It's a deeply mysterious movie, interested in so many things above and beyond war, and so beautiful that the sudden sight of bodies and damage come as a surprise. Malick wrote the film himself and he shot and edited it according to his own timetable. It's a measure of his reputation that so many big names were willing to be in this half-abstract picture – if only for a few scenes: John Travolta, George Clooney, Sean Penn, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Elias Koteas, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson. But the standout performance comes from Nick Nolte as a ranting colonel whose authority has been questioned, and who is the clearest proof of the army that James Jones loved and hated.
This is one of the darkest anti-war films ever made, in great part because its vision – that of the young director Stanley Kubrick (he was only 29, making his third full-length picture) – is as bleak as the story. The place is the western front of the first world war, in a section manned by the French army. An attack is decreed by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), and passed on to General Mireau (George Macready) to execute. Everyone knows the attack is doomed because infantry advancing over open ground torn apart by artillery barrages will be cut down by the machine guns in the secure German lines. But when the plan fails, Broulard determines that there must be scapegoats – alleged cowards or malingerers – who betrayed the national purpose. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who led the attack, is charged with picking three victims who will be subject to court martial and firing squad.
The Humphrey Cobb novel on which it is based had been published in 1935. At that time, Sidney Howard made a play out of it, but the play flopped. Kubrick loved the book and he got a script out of Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson (the famous pulp novelist who wrote The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me). The project became viable when Kirk Douglas agreed to play Dax and to produce the film for his own company, Bryna Productions. The trench and attack scenes were all shot for just under $1m. The photography is in glittering black and white, but the pattern of tracking shots is Kubrick's design – and he actually shot some of the attack scene himself with a hand-held camera.
For the rest, there is a stark, sardonic contrast between the splendid chateau where the officers live and the mean barracks for the enlisted men. Douglas is angry but repressed – this is one of his most controlled performances. Menjou and Macready are properly odious. The three scapegoats are Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel and Timothy Carey, abject or defiant but not sentimentalised. If you expect any kind of mercy or relief, then you are misjudging the misanthropic tone of this movie. But the conclusion is a strange, touching gesture to hope and the future, and it involves a young German actress – Susanne Christian – who would become Kubrick's wife.
1. Apocalyse Now
It was John Milius who first came up with the idea of transposing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to a Vietnam war setting. Milius wrote the first drafts of the screenplay; former war correspondent Michael Herr later added narration. George Lucas was down to direct, but it was Francis Ford Coppola who finally set out to make what was intended to be the ultimate statement about the madness of war. It turned out to be equally about the madness of movie-making. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) hitches a lift on a Navy patrol boat up the Mekong river to Cambodia on a mission to terminate "with extreme prejudice" a certain Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who is reported to have gone native in rather a nasty way. But it's a long journey, and before he confronts the renegade colonel, Willard must first face all manner of trippy imagery, including the American Air Cavalry strafing a Vietnamese village to the sound of amplified Wagner, Robert Duvall declaring that he loves "the smell of napalm in the morning", a riot triggered by frugging bunny-girls, a Californian surfer on LSD and Dennis Hopper as a madly babbling photojournalist.
After this build-up, it's hard to separate the film from the circumstances of its production. Brando's arrival on set unprepared and overweight, necessitating his being shot only from certain angles in dim lighting, has now been incorporated into film-making legend, described in George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr's documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Film-maker's Apocalypse. For the opening shot, set to Jim Morrison singing "This is the end", several acres of palm trees in the Philippines were doused with 1,200 gallons of gasoline.
"There aren't too many places in the world you could do it," said Coppola. "They'd never let you in the US; the environmentalists would kill you." Leading actor Martin Sheen (who replaced Harvey Keitel two weeks into the shoot) suffered a heart attack, and a typhoon destroyed the sets. The budget soared from $12m to $30m and shooting dragged on from the scheduled six weeks to 16 months. With the director struggling to edit millions of feet of footage (literally) and come up with an ending, industry wags dubbed the unseen film Apocalypse When? and predicted it would be a disaster.
In the event, though, the finished film was a qualified, critical success and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Reviews were mixed, but within a year or so it had established itself as a modern classic, with young adult audiences in particular revelling in the hallucinatory visuals and quotable one-liners such as "Saigon... shit!", "Charlie don't surf!" and "Never get out of the boat!" Hollywood had largely steered clear of the war in Vietnam while it was being fought, but Coppola's film spearheaded a small cluster of attempts during the 80s to revisit it, albeit almost exclusively from the navel-gazing perspective of the Americans. In 2001, Coppola released an extended version called Apocalypse Now Redux which restored 49 minutes of footage cut from the original film, most notably a long sequence featuring Christian Marquand and Aurore Clément representing the legacy of French colonialism. "We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and, little by little, we went insane," said the director. The experience certainly seemed to knock the stuffing out of Coppola, who has since failed to make anything even half as passionate or spectacular.