Saturday, May 19, 2012


Although I never served in the military—and, like Samuel Johnson, think of myself meanly for it—I enjoy war movies of all kinds, from the jingoistic to the pacifistic, whether I agree with their politics or not. But for Memorial Day viewing next weekend, it seems appropriate to recommend some films that emphasize the terrible human toll of war. Here are a few suggestions:

Revolutionary War: 1776 (1972): For some reason there haven’t been too many movies made about the American Revolution, and fewer still are any good. 1776 isn’t a war movie, it’s a musical about the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence. I include it here because, about midpoint, a young soldier played by Stephen Nathan beautifully sings a heartbreaking ballad called “Momma Look Sharp” which reminds us of the cost, in young men, of what these old men were arguing about.

Civil War: Glory (1989): Directed by Edward Zwick, this story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a union regiment of freed slaves, has terrifying battle sequences, magnificent acting by Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick, among others, and a tragic ending that somehow doesn’t belie the title.

World War One: Johnny Got His Gun (1971): In this version of Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 novel, adapted and directed by the author, Timothy Bottoms plays an American casualty who has lost his arms, legs and face in battle, but who still has all his mental faculties. It’s a horrifying story, yet it’s leavened, in the soldier’s flashbacks and fantasies, by a lot of weird humor and some fine acting, especially by Jason Robards as the narrator’s father.

World War Two: Saving Private Ryan (1998): Taken in its entirety, Stephen Spielberg’s epic may have been slightly overrated at the time of its release; the script is bland and clichéd in stretches. Yet the first twenty minutes or so—the D-Day sequence—is as viscerally grueling a depiction of the hell of battle as any I can remember.

Korea: Battle Circus (1953): This too-little-known film doesn’t appear to have made it to DVD yet, but it’s worth seeking out on VHS. Humphrey Bogart plays a surgeon with a M*A*S*H unit who falls for nurse June Allyson. The romance plays out against a low-key depiction of the struggle to save young men from becoming memorial day honorees.

Vietnam: Go Tell the Spartans (1978): Burt Lancaster is in top form in this tight, unsentimental drama about the very early days of the conflict. Directed by Ted Post, the film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, but it deserves to be.

Grenada: Heartbreak Ridge (1986): OK, this one isn’t very convincing or solemn, but this corny ‘80s rouser has an amusing performance by Clint Eastwood (who also directed) as a tough Marine sergeant.

Gulf War: Three Kings (1991): David O. Russell’s excellent, jaundiced tale of a gang of American soldiers hoping to steal a cache of Saddam Hussein’s gold includes a superb scene in which George Clooney explains to a younger soldier what bullets actually do to human bodies. It should be required viewing, both for schoolboys and politicians.

Afghanistan: Restrepo (2010): You won’t soon forget this documentary, by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, made mostly while they were embedded with an infantry platoon in the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. It’s a powerful look inside this interminable—and for most of us in the US, invisible—war.

RIP to pop-music royalty: First, to Donna Summer, the beautiful Queen of Disco, passed on too young at 63…

…and also to jazzman Chuck Brown, departed at 75, who in addition to being the King of Go-Go also collaborated with my pal Dan Cassidy’s phenomenal sister Eva Cassidy…


  1. Don't forget The Hurt Locker.

  2. Quite right--I did leave out the Iraq War, didn't I? Potent flick.