by David Fear
Special to MSN Movies
Stories of armies going once more unto the breach predate cinema by several thousand years, but it is surprising how the gung-ho imagery of war films (think of that iconic Joe Rosenthal photograph of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima and it's hard not picture "The Sands of Iwo Jima's" John Wayne amongst the soldiers) have affected how we think of combat, for better or for worse.
War films have been around since the beginning (D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of A Nation") and as the latest Civil War-meets-"Dr. Zhivago" epic "Cold Mountain" proves, the guts-and-glory genre shows no signs of going away. Sometimes thrilling and heroic, sometimes unbearably tragic, the war film thrives primarily because it takes viewers into the heat of battle from the safety of a comfy cineplex chair.
From spectacles of victory and the agony of defeat to the anti-war fixin'-to-die rags, these movies attempt to recreate, review and reflect on history's conflicts. Whether it's nation vs. nation, brother against brother or simply "the horror, the horror," the following 10 films dare to explain "why we fight" and, occasionally, ask "what are we fighting for?"
10. "The Red Badge of Courage" (1951)
Director John Huston's adaptation of the classic Civil War novel is like a Matthew Brady photograph come to life, all sepia-toned visuals and gritty visages of boys plagued by the anxiety and fear as they march toward death. Examining the fine line between bravery and cowardice, the film scored a casting coup by enlisting Audie Murphy, the decorated WWII hero, to play Stephen Crane's conflicted hero Henry Fleming (he'd later play up his own wartime exploits in the 1955 auto-biopic "To Hell And Back"). Huston's insistence on emphasizing the book's anti-war sentiments didn't sit well with the Cold War-era studio heads, and the film was severely cut while the director was off filming "The African Queen." Compromised or not, it's an amazingly sensitive look at the conflict that tore our nation apart.
9. "Gettysburg" (1993)
You'd almost swear you were watching actual footage of that decisive Civil War battle in 1863, when General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and over 150,000 troops clashed over a disastrous attempt to penetrate the Union defense lines that would have led the Confederates to overtake Washington. Thanks to the fanatic attention to detail that writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell gives to every aspect of the event, from weaponry and military strategy talk to the brass buttons on the officers' uniforms, this epic four-hour film brims with an aura of authority on the subject. And the massive recreation of "Pickett's Charge" (filmed on the actual spot where the battle took place!) is not only one hell of a jaw-dropping spectacle, but can boast the single most impressive collection of prosthetic facial hair ever assembled for the screen.
8. "M*A*S*H" (1970)
Long before that legacy TV show turned Alan Alda into the thinking woman's sex symbol and made the members of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital corps household names, this biting satire from filmmaker/American treasure Robert Altman applied the dark irreverence of "Catch-22" (whose own movie adaptation would be released later the same year) to the war film and forever warped the genre. The setting might have been Korea, but it didn't take a brain surgeon to find contemporary parallels in the conflict Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) were diffusing with gallows humor and a merry prankster-ing that fit right in with America's counter-cultural zeitgeist. Even amid the laughter and feel-good football game ending, the reminder of war's price casts a shadow over the proceedings, crowding the frame with bloodied operating tables and full body bags.
7. "Full Metal Jacket" (1987)
Stanley Kubrick's satire of the Marine Corps mentality wasn't the first film to center on Vietnam, but thanks to a razor-sharp wit and philosophical take on the morality of America's homegrown killing machines, it's certainly one of the best. The tale of Pvt. "Joker's" misadventures through boot camp and the Tet Offensive plays like "Candide" on a bad batch of orange sunshine, and former drill instructor R. Lee Ermey's foul-mouthed sergeant-from-hell is one of the funniest, scariest caricatures of a military man ever committed to celluloid. Critics have argued that the tragicomic first half featuring Vincent D'Onofrio's pathetic Pvt. Gomer Pyle plays better than the sniper-hunt second half, but the final shot of numbed troops chanting a familiar tune -- "M-I-C-K-E-Y" -- never fails to send chills up the spine.
6. "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)
Steven Spielberg's World War II opus isn't just another men-on-a-mission action film or your run-of-the-mill foxhole melodrama, although its later scenes do ladle on the Spielberg syrup ("Earn this, Ryan!" says the kindhearted platoon captain ... cue stock John Williams string score). What redeems the movie's faults is that opening 20-minute sequence: Boatloads of soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy, graphically cut down by the dozens. The sped-up cinematography and handheld camerawork emphasized the battle's chaos and confusion, adding a level of realism to modern war films that hasn't been equaled. The moment where an infantryman examines the helmet that saved his head from a bullet, only to have his luck run out two seconds later, sums up the cruel irony of combat to a T.