Parties and barbecues aside, what better way to spend Memorial Day than to fire up the home entertainment system and hunker down with some war videos?
For what it’s worth (and not that you asked), here is my Top 10 – ranging from the solemn to the satirical. I’ll count down to my all-time favorite.
10. The Big Red One. An Army unit marches through World War II. Some corny dialogue, but courage, tragedy, pity, and fury are etched in Lee Marvin’s face. And what a face he had.
9. M*A*S*H. Wiseass medic hijinks during the Korean War. Caused a furor at the time (1970) because of the blood in the operating tents. Robert Altman’s first big hit, with his trademark overlapping dialogue and quirky insouscient characters.
8. The Hurt Locker. Portrait of a bomb-defuser in Iraq. Steers clear of politics – there’s no debate about whether the war is right or wrong – and focuses instead on how war can be catnip for action junkies. Excrutiating tension. Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director, the first (and, thus far, only) woman to win that award.
7. Glory. Matthew Broderick seems miscast as the Civil War officer in charge of the first African-American unit in the Union army, but this is a great take on a long-ignored historical chapter. With a young Denzel, braving the lash and making an indelible impression.
6. The Bridge on the River Kwai. One of David Lean’s great epics. Duty and honor and morals get all mixed up as British POWs proudly build a bridge in Burma for their Japanese captors. Alec Guinness and William Holden with dueling sensibilities.
5. Apocalypse Now. The ending doesn’t quite work – actually there were different endings, depending on what edition you rent – but Francis Coppola’s psychedelic Vietnam nightmare is downright visceral. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
4. Paths of Glory. Stanley Kubrick was a young pup when he directed what is arguably the best antiwar flick ever. Based on a true World War I story about how French generals court-martialed three infantrymen to cover up their own monumental follies. A smoldering Kirk Douglas, and a classic Kubrickian tracking shot in the trenches that alone is worth several viewings.
3. Das Boot. OK, the protagonists are World War II Germans. But they’re basically just grunts trying to stay alive in a U-Boat that’s so claustrophobic, you’ll smell the sweat and gasp for air. Track down the director’s cut. It’s an hour longer than the theatrical release, but an hour better.
2. Saving Private Ryan. What’s the worth of a man, compared to a mission? As for those opening and closing battle scenes…I don’t need to tell you. You’ve seen them already.
1. Band Of Brothers. Forever available on HBOGO. Gets better every time, because all the characters (based on real Easy Company fighters) become more distinct and indelible. The battles in Caratan and the Bastogne, the flawless American accent of the heretofore unknown Damien Lewis, the long circling opening shot in the episode “Why We Fight”…this series is the best salute ever to the Greatest Generation.
But if you’re looking for real life, as opposed to reel life, this is the article to read. The reverse-chronological structure heightens its empathetic power.