Friday, July 1, 2016


This is my attempt at a statistical analysis of the greatest war movies.  Here is the methodology.  I found four 100 Greatest War Movies lists that I feel are knowledgeable on the subject.  Two of those lists (Military History magazine and Channel 4) rank the movies.  The others are Film Site and the book 101 War Movies You Must See Before You Die.   I also used three books that rate war movies:  Video Hound’s War Movies, Brassey’s Guide to War Films, and The Belle and Blade Guide to Classic War Videos.  The reason why the list is limited to only movies from the 20th Century is because the sources do not include 21st Century movies. 

 I won’t bore with the details, but basically the first number is a combination of the average rating from the ratings books and a rating based on the ranking from the two ranked lists (on a scale of 1-5).   I grouped the movies based on how many lists they made so only movies that were in both Military History magazine and Channel 4 made the top 43. 

 I must emphasize that this list does not reflect my opinions.  In fact, I find some of the positions ridiculous.  I have seen and reviewed all of the movies on the list.  Some are not war movies, in my opinion.  Others are very overrated.  It is also apparent that foreign movies got short-changed.

Sorry about the columns.  I was not drunk when I made them. 

Either MH (Military History magazine) or C4 (Channel 4) plus one more list
100.  The Manchurian Candidate  (1962)                3.85        85MH 
99.    Bridge at Toko-Ri                                        3.85        73MH
98.    Mrs. Miniver                                               3.93        79C4   
97.    To Hell and Back                                          3.94        77MH
96.    Run Silent, Run Deep                                   3.95        79MH
95.    The Alamo  (1960)                                       4.02        61MH
94.    Sands of Iwo Jima                                        4.03        76C4
93.    Land and Freedom                                        4.05        80MH
92.    Ulzana’s Raid                                              4.05        54MH
91.    The Sea Hawk                                              4.05        48MH
90.    The Man Who Would Be King                      4.08        74MH
89.    Hail the Conquering Hero!                            4.08        70MH
88.    The Cruel Sea                                             4.08        41C4
87.    They Died with Their Boots On                    4.09        68MH
86.    Foreign Correspondent                                  4.1          86MH
85.    Ride with the Devil                                       4.1          73C4
84.    Casualties of War                                        4.12        55C4
83.    The Train                                                    4.16        62MH
82.    Empire of the Sun                                        4.16        43C4
81.    Life is Beautiful                                          4.19        56C4
80.    Twelve O’Clock High                                    4.2          72MH
79.    The Story of G.I. Joe                                    4.26        45MH
78.    She Wore a Yellow Ribbon                            4.28        55MH
77.    Catch-22                                                     4.28        42C4
76.    Oh!  What a Lovely War                              4.28        40C4
75.    The Tin Drum                                              4.3          60MH
74.    Scipio Africanus                                           4.3          56MH
73.    Ministry of Fear                                           4.3          53MH
72.    Colonel Redl                                                4.3          50MH
71.    The Third Man                                            4.33        80MH
70.    Battleground                                               4.34        36MH
69.    Beau Geste                                                 4.35        52MH
68.    Three Kings                                                 4.4          50C4
67.    Hell’s Angels                                               4.4          43MH
66.    Hope and Glory                                           4.43        52MH
65.    Pork Chop Hill                                            4.43        39MH
64.    Good Morning, Vietnam                               4.44        31C4
63.    Gettysburg                                                  4.46        46MH
62.    Battleship Potemkin                                     4.47        47MH
61.    Tora! Tora! Tora!                                        4.51        39C4
60.    Kagemashu                                                 4.53        34MH
59.    The African Queen                                      4.53        32MH
58.    Duck Soup                                                  4.53        27MH
57.    Notorious                                                   4.55        57MH
56.    The Searchers                                             4.55        49MH
55.    The Dawn Patrol  (1938)                             4.58        38MH
54.    Best Years of Our Lives                              4.61        40MH
53.    The Dam Busters                                        4.69        11C4
52.    The Killing Fields                                       4.75        15C4
Either MH or C4 plus two more lists                       
51.    Birth of a Nation                                          3.8          92C4
50.    Ballad of a Soldier                                        3.9          81MH
49.    The Big Parade                                            4.1          58MH
48.    In Which We Serve                                     4.12        57C4
47.    Gallipoli                                                     4.19        48C4
46.    Stalag 17                                                    4.19        18MH
45.    Sergeant York                                              4.4          19MH
44.    Wings                                                        4.7          11MH
Both MH and C4  (the highlighted movies appear on all four lists)
43.    The Last of the Mohicans  (1992)             3.75        65  (avg. of MH and C4)
42.    Battle of Britain                                         3.75        59.5
41.    Guns of Navarone                                      3.94        53.5
40.    The Deer Hunter                                        3.95        20.5
39.    A Bridge Too Far                                     4.02        50.5
38.    El Cid                                                      4.05        74.5
37.    Breaker Morant                                         4.07        84.5
36.    The Thin Red Line  (1998)                       4.12        58
35.    Cross of Iron                                            4.12        50.5
34.    Braveheart                                                 4.13        40
33.    Charge of the Light Brigade  (1936)          4.15        51.5
32.    The Dirty Dozen                                       4.19        24
31.    Rome, Open City                                      4.2          56
30.    From Here to Eternity                              4.29        56.5
29.    The Longest Day                                      4.3          17.5
28.    Spartacus                                                  4.35        33
27.    Alexander Nevsky                                     4.38        39.5
26.    The Big Red One                                       4.4          84.5
25.    The General                                             4.45        53.5
24.    Stalingrad  (1992)                                      4.45        40.5
23.    Platoon                                                    4.65        7.5
22.    Battle of Algiers                                        4.5          44
21.    MASH                                                     4.52        26.5
20.    The Great Escape                                    4.52        23.5
19.    The Life and Death of Col. Blimp               4.55        79.5
18.    Ran                                                          4.55        70
17.    Napoleon                                                 4.55        52
16.    Full Metal Jacket                                    4.55        10.5
15.    All Quiet on the Western Front  (1930)    4.65        17   *  #1 in MH
14.    Apocalypse Now                                      4.67        8
13.    Glory                                                      4.69        39
12.    Dr. Strangelove                                         4.7          51
11.    Casablanca                                               4.7          47.5
10.    Paths of Glory                                         4.74        12.5
9.      Bridge on the River Kwai                        4.75        11
8.      Das Boot                                                 4.84        10
7.       Saving Private Ryan                               4.84        4.5      *  #1 in C4
6.       Henry V  (1944)                                       4.85        55.5
5.       Grand Illusion                                        4.85        34
4.       Patton                                                    4.85        30.5
3.       Lawrence of Arabia                                4.85        23
2.       Schindler’s List                                       5.0          17.5
1.       Zulu                                                        5.0          15  *  #22 MH  /  #8  C4

A few thoughts:
1.  The two ranked lists (MH and C4) differ greatly in placement of the movies.  Only 43 movies made both lists.  The movie that was highest on both lists was “Saving Private Ryan”. 

2.  Because I could find only three appropriate rating sources, this meant that if one reviewer disliked a movie, it could skew the average rating.  For instance, “The Longest Day” got a 2.0 in Belle and Blade, which is ludicrous.  However, I had to stick with the system.

3.  “Patton” and “Dr. Strangelove” were the only movies to get a perfect rating in all three sources.  Several movies had 5s on two sources, but were not reviewed by the third source.  These were “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Zulu”, “Schindler’s List”, “Casablanca”, “Henry V”, “Ran”, and “Grand Illusion”.

4.  Only three movies made the top ten in both MH and C4:  “Das Boot” (3 & 10), “Saving Private Ryan” (8 & 1), and “Platoon” (9 & 6).  “Platoon” ended up at #23 because of lukewarm ratings.

5.  Movies that met the criteria, but did not make the top 100 included:  “Guadalcanal Diary”, “Castle Keep”, “The Desert Fox”, “A Walk in the Sun”, “Sahara”, “The Desert Rats”, “Dunkirk”, “Midway”,  “Ben Hur”, “Come and See”, “Regeneration”, and “Europa, Europa” .

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

NOW SHOWING: The Free State of Jones (2016)

                “The Free State of Jones” is the newest war movie to hit the silver screen.  And it’s a summer release, imagine that.  The movie was written and directed by Gary  Ross (“Seabiscuit”).  It was filmed in the film-friendly state of Louisiana because we have some nice swamps and tremendous tax breaks.  (Who needs educational funding?)  It is based on the true story of Newton Knight and the secession of Jones County from the Confederacy during the Civil War.

                The movie opens with an ominous reference to the fact that the movie will cover the period from 1862-1876 - the Civil War and Reconstruction.  The movie begins with a short snippet of the Battle of Corinth, but it is combatus interruptus as we get the march to but not the payoff.  Newton Knight’s (Matthew McConaughey) job is to haul the wounded to the hospital.  A point is made that officers get preferential treatment.  This is part of the theme that “it’s a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight”.  Newt and his comrades are particularly incensed with the “Twenty Negro Law” that exempted slaveowners from conscription.  When his nephew arrives at the front, he decides they will escape by sneaking into no man’s land in broad daylight.  If this is not silly enough, their plot is foiled by three soldiers who want them to join in a bayonet charge!  The death of the nephew causes Newt to return home, easily.  Back at Jones County, Rebel soldiers are confiscating property and being dicks about it.  Lt. Barbour (Brad Carter) channels Bosie from “Cold Mountain”.  He’s a pretty lame opponent, unfortunately.
                When Newt’s son has a fever, he is cured by a slave woman named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Suddenly, it appears the projectionist has put on the wrong reel because we are in a court room 85 years later for a very brief taste of a descendant of Knight on trial for being black and married to a white woman.  After this brief, bizarre side trip, it’s back to the Civil War.  Because he stands up to the confiscators, Kinight has to take refuge in the swamps where he joins some runaway slaves and bonds with a Moses (Mahershala Ali).  Rachel keeps them supplied and there is some more bonding, naturally.  The fall of Vicksburg results in more deserters joining them.  Newt organizes them into a guerrilla band.  Another theme is that the poor farmers are in the same boat with the slaves.  There is a nifty skirmish at a church that leads up to a battle to take the town of Ellisville.  This results in the declaration of “The Free State of Jones”.  Article #4 – “every man is a man”.  When the war ends, Moses works to register blacks to vote and Newt supports his efforts.  The Ku Klux Klan makes an appearance. 
                I give “The Free State of Jones” credit for bringing an interesting, little known story to the masses.  It reminded me of “Defiance” (a superior movie) in several aspects.  I have read a lot on the Civil War, but I was not familiar with this story.  As I will point out, the movie is admirably accurate, if unrealistic.  The acting is average.  McConaughey sucked up most of the budget for salaries so the rest of the cast is unknowns except for the underused Keri Russell as his morose wife.  The movie is essentially a biopic (more than a war movie) and McConaughey is in virtually every scene.  He plays Newt as a grim saint.  (He rebuilds the church by himself.)  There is not a lot of emotional range on display.  When his son returns after five years, there’s nary a hug.  The dialogue is terse and occasionally pious.  For every nongraphic, brief action scene, we get a religious reference.  This criticism is diluted by the fact that Knight was very religious.

                The movie is competently made.  The soundtrack is not bombastic and actually is not noticeable.  There is some showy camerawork of the close-up, spin around the head to show confusion variety.  The sets are fine.  You can certainly find places in Louisiana that take you back to the 1860s.  The problem is with the screenplay.  I have absolutely no problem with long movies, but this movie is too long.  The movie builds to the declaration of statehood and then fizzles.  It tacks on the Reconstruction sequence which does bring some closure to the black rights arc, but is not satisfying enough to justify it.  The flash-forwards to the court case may have seemed like a creative way to show how things had not changed in 85 years, but they just don’t work and break the flow of the narrative.

                I have a soft spot for movies that bring light to interesting historical obscurities, so I cannot be too harsh on “The Free State of Jones”.   It flubbed an opportunity, but at least we now know the story.  And thankfully, the script did not have McConaughey saying “Our rights, our rights, our rights”.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Newton Knight is a controversial figure and some of his actions are legendary.  Obviously, Ross chose sources that were positive.  The negative sources could best be described as racist.   With that said, the script could have made Knight less saintly.  In fact, the movie is very light on conflict.  There are only cursory racial tensions among the deserters and runaways in the swamp.  And although Jones County was a likely anti-secession area (only 12% of its people were slaves and the county voted 374-24 against secession), the movie would have you believe no one felt that Knight and his band were traitors.

                Knight was religious, anti-slavery, anti-secession, and pro-Union.  However, he was not conscripted as the movie implies, but volunteered for the army.  One source claims he was enthusiastic about soldiering.  He became an orderly working with the wounded and was at the siege of Corinth.  He did desert, but there was no nephew involved.  His reason (and that of his right hand man, Jasper Collins) was the infamous “Twenty Negro Law” which exempted slaveowners from conscription.  The movie does a good job highlighting the resentment of some poor soldiers toward the dominant and privileged planter class.  However, soldiers from Jones County would not have been typical as most Rebel soldiers supported the slave system.  Upon returning home, Knight became acquainted with the depredations of the “tax in kind” policy.  The movie accurately depicts how farmers would be plundered of livestock and supplies.  Early in 1863, Knight was captured for desertion and probably tortured.  His farm was destroyed.  Deserters like Knight responded with looting and killing, presumably of pro-secessionists.  A Maj. McLemore (Col. Murphy in the film) arrived and started hunting down the deserters, capturing over one hundred.  McLemore was killed in bed, most likely by Knight.  Knight and his ilk encamped in the swamp at a place they called “Devil’s Den”.  Slaves like Rachel helped supply them.  Knight’s group became known as the Jones County Scouts and he was unanimously elected leader.  It is unclear how many of the unit were runaways, but it definitely was more of an anti-secession than anti-slavery group.  The movie probably overplays the poor whites are in the same boat as slaves theme, although Knight himself apparently believed this.

                There was a skirmish at a church.  It is highly unlikely that it started with a grieving widow shooting a Rebel soldier in the head.  There was a lot of Hollywood in that scene.  The Jones County Scouts conducted a guerrilla war that caught the attention of the Confederate government.  They gained control of the town of Ellisville, but there was no battle in the streets.  The Free State of Jones was proclaimed.  A Col. Lowry came with two regiments and quelled the rebellion by hanging ten and forcing the rest to take refuge in the swamps.  When Lowry withdrew, the guerrilla activities resumed.  The last recorded action was a skirmish at Sal’s Battery in Jan., 1865 won by Knight’s men.

                During Reconstruction, Knight supported the carpetbagger government.  This made him unpopular with many whites.  He did go on raids to free black kids still being held in slavery, but the Moses character is fictional.  Later, he was appointed head of a militia regiment of blacks to combat the Ku Klux Klan.  In his personal life, he had taken up with Rachel and had five kids with her as his common law wife.  Also living on the farm was his wife Serena who he had nine kids with.  They were never divorced.  He established a small, mixed race community that left him ostracized from white society and accounts partly for the negativity of some sources.  The subplot of his great-grandson’s trial for miscegenation is accurate.     

Sunday, June 26, 2016

FORGOTTEN GEM? A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)

                “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is based on Erich Remarque’s novel.  It is sometimes referred to as “All Quiet on the Eastern Front” although it is set in the second world war and bears little resemblance to the classic.  Remarque co-wrote the film and acts in it.  It was directed by Douglas Sirk (“Battle Hymn”).  It was filmed in West Germany.  Because of its sympathetic portrayal of German soldiers, the movie was banned in Israel and the Soviet Union.

                The film opens with a German unit retreating on the Eastern Front.  They billet in a vacant village where they uncover the frozen body of a comrade.  The men are exhausted and most are bitter and cynical.  The exception is a hard-core Nazi named Steinbrenner.  Every unit has one.  Some of the men are ordered to execute some civilians who have been determined to be “guerrillas”.  One of the men (a young Timothy Hutton) takes his own life because of this.
                Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) is given a furlough after two years at the front.  He returns home to find no home and no parents.  When he tells an old man that he has come from the front, the old man responds:  “This is the front.”  Graeber meets Elizabeth (Liselotte Pulver) and the relationship starts like every movie romance – rocky.  While searching for his parents, Graeber meets an old classmate who is now a Nazi official.  Binding (Thayer David) lives like prince in his mansion decorated with stolen art.  He is very chummy with Graeber, however.

                Ernst and Elizabeth dine in a fancy restaurant where the rich are unaffected by the war.  Until an air raid blows up the restaurant.  Air raids are a recurring theme of the movie.  If the actors did not speak German, you might think you wandered into a movie set in the Blitz.  Ernst and Elizabeth get married and even the bombing of her apartment can’t dampen their love.  What does put a damper on things is the fact that the Gestapo is searching for Elizabeth.  Her father had been shipped off to a concentration camp for criticizing the war.  Maybe Binding can help, plus this gives the plot the chance to introduce a loathsome Nazi (Klaus Kinski, probably not acting) who enjoys his work in the concentration camp.  These air raids are getting dangerous, lucky thing Graeber has to return to the front.  His respite from executing civilians is about to end.

                “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is largely forgotten today because it is forgettable.  Most people don’t know there is another war movie based on a Remarque novel.  I have not read the book, but I would hazard that the book is as inferior to All Quiet… as the movie is to the movie.  It was impossible for Remarque to replicate the brilliance of his earlier novel and it is commendable that he did not try.  The movie is more of a romance than a war movie.  There is no combat and little of the soldier interaction that the first is noted for.  In exchange, we get a lame romance with lame dialogue.  It does not help that there is no chemistry between the leads.  Pulver plays Elizabeth as a bubbly, Bohemian in spite of her father’s fate.  Gavin is just a bad actor.  He is his usual wooden self.  (He is better than Lew Ayres, I must admit.)  The rest of the cast is not bad and Remarque (who plays a dissenting German teacher) is surprisingly good.  Acting honors go to Keenan Wynn who brings some needed levity as one of Graeber’s friends.  The movie strangely lacks suspense.  It does set up potentially interesting scenarios like the search for the parents and the Gestapo wanting to locate Elizabeth, but then does not pay off.  It also has a perplexing case of villain interruptus.

                With all that said, the movie was better than I expected.  I had never seen it and had no desire to see it, so I assumed it was a dog.  While not being a gem, it’s worth a watch if you are determined to see every decent war movie or you want to know the basic plot of another Remarque novel.  Or see a famous novelist playing in a movie based on his novel.  Or you are a big John Gavin fan.  Ronald Reagan probably watched the movie several times.

GRADE  =  C+

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

SHOULD I READ IT? Max Manus: Man of War (2008)

                “Max Manus:  Man of War” is a Norwegian film about a famous national hero.  It is a biographical war movie that is based on Manus’ biographies and other historical research.  The film was a major production and used 1,800 extras and 2,000 people behind the cameras.  Parts of Oslo were adapted to represent the 1940s including flying Nazi Germany flags above public buildings.  The movie was a big hit in Norway and won numerous awards.  It was Norway’s submission for Best Foreign Film for the Oscars.

                The movie opens with Manus (Aksel Hennie) fighting in the Winter War in Finland.  He is in the middle of a battle.  The movie then jumps to him in a hospital bed.  The plot is nonlinear and will return to the Winter War battle as a framing device.  When he returns to Norway, Manus joins the Resistance.  He and his buddies form a group and put out a propaganda paper.  They are like frat boys enjoying the adrenaline rush.  Many of those friends will not survive the war.  After being captured by the Gestapo, Max escapes to Great Britain.  In Scotland, he is trained in sabotage.  In particular, the new unit targets German shipping in Oslo harbor.  Operation Mardonius involves sneaking around the harbor after dark to lay Limpet mines.  The mines are hand-placed below the waterlines.  Every superhero needs a supervillain.  Gestapo agent Fehmer plays this role.  He hounds Manus and his Oslo Gang.  The pressure wears on Max and he shows symptoms of PTSD.  He is still able to go for one last big score.  The target is a munitions ship called the Donau.  Even a Norwegian movie needs a huge explosion, right?

                Based on my research, the movie appears to be accurate.  Of course, much of this depends on the veracity of Manus’ recollections.  Some have called into question whether he actually fought in the Winter War, but the consensus is that he did.  This is fortunate because the scenes flashing back to the battle juice up the film and are a good framing device.  The rest of Manus’ acts are believable.  His superhero actions are balanced with some luck.  For instance, he is lucky that the Gestapo was incompetent.  At one point he is left virtually unguarded in a hospital and he is able to escape.  This in spite of his being one of the most wanted men in Norway.  The sabotage efforts in the harbor take advantage of laughable security.  These missions must have been accurate, otherwise the screenwriter would have added more suspense to the film.  His trips back and forth to England are not fraught with tension.  Most of the tension in the movie comes from Manus’ reaction to the loss of friends.  One theme of the movie is survivor’s guilt.  Hennie does a good job portraying this.  The acting overall is fine. 

                “Max Manus” is a middle of the road Resistance movie.  It is certainly inferior to its closest relative “Flame and Citron”.  This does not make it a bad movie.  There is some interesting cinematography.  The dialogue is fine, if unmemorable.  As a history fanatic, the accuracy is a big plus, but is also a weakness since the movie lacks suspense.  To tell the truth, after watching the movie, I wondered why Manus is such a national hero. 

GRADE  =  B-