War is, at its most basic level, the Dramatic Fiction formula: Two parties, unable to reach a compromise peacefully, resort to attempting to violently impose their will on the other. This struggle is as timeless as society and dramatic fiction itself. Wars between our tribes have always been a fertile source for stories, not only for the obvious propaganda or entertainment value but also to help the population who didn’t go and fight understand and appreciate the sacrifice of those who did.
After the release of Saving Private Ryan in 1998, war movies underwent a fundamental transformation in quality and accuracy. No longer filled with mindless schlock and action, the new wave of war flicks elevated the genre into genuine art.
As we mentioned in the November 2014 issue when we dubbed Ronin the Best Gun Movie Ever, in the interest of fairness we deliberately limited ourselves to modern crime dramas and avoided war movies and westerns. Well, after more than a little popular demand, here’s the War Movie bracket for everyone to argue about. As before, I graded each movie on a 1 to 10 scale in the categories of general film artistry, storyline, dialog and characterization. Also scored was how well the guns are used to help tell the story, or are they just there to go bang? And finally a bonus 10 point scale for re-watchability because in the final tally, despite a film’s critical appeal, it must be fun and entertaining for the audience to appreciate those qualities.
Starting with a list of a dozen candidates, and after a lot of arguing and research and a few marathon movie nights, we narrowed it down to five. Here we go!
#5: Enemy At The Gates
The Eastern Front of the Second World War has been a mere footnote to American audiences due to our lack of participation, but by any measure a whole lot of fighting went on between Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and the capture of the Reichstag in 1945. French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 2001 Enemy At The Gates captures not only the titanic, inhuman enormity of the battle for Stalingrad, where somewhere close to two million people perished, but also found a small, human-scale story to tell, the largely apocryphal tale of farmboy hunter turned headhunting sniper Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law). While Zaytsev was a real soldier in the battle, the details in the movie are generally fictional.
That said, despite the historical inaccuracies, the film portrays the truth of the awful plight of the ordinary soldier caught in the struggle between two terrible totalitarian regimes, and yet even in the cruel darkness, people can still find hope and joy and triumph. Annaud smoothly switches gears back and forth between the brutal chaos of large scale battle scenes and the slower paced but nerve wracking battle of wits between Zaytsev’s small sniper unit and the elite head of the Nazi sniper school, Major Erwin König (Ed Harris). However, the early Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is poor by modern standards and those effects stick out like a sore thumb.
Of course the Mosin-Nagant 91/30 with 3.5 power scope and its German counterpart, the scoped Mauser M98k take center stage, but all the common Eastern Front small arms show up and are portrayed well in both appearance and use. A nice touch is during several point of view, through the scope shots, the different Russian and German scope reticles are generally correct.
The love triangle side story feels awkwardly tacked on, but it’s hard to fault them for trying to add a little romance to what would otherwise be a uniformly gloomy movie. The performances are excellent, but in particular watching Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) as ruthless political officer Nikita Khrushchev is a delight. Ron Perlman as veteran sniper Kulikov is also a wonderful bit part. Another mark in its favor is a marvelous, soaring score by James Horner that manages to pastiche both the Red Army March and the Deutschlandlied.
For all of its faults, Enemy At The Gates remains in the running for being a thrilling and glorious reminder that even in an uncaring universe with colossal forces killing millions of men to accomplish their goals, one man with a rifle can make a difference.
#4: We Were Soldiers
Randall Wallace’s 2002 movie about the initial stages of the Battle of the la Drang valley has been criticized as clichéd, by-the-book filmmaking, but it’s superbly done by-the-book filmmaking, and the formula is a formula because it works, and clichés become clichés because of their inherent truth. We Were Soldiers commits the unforgivable critical sin of being too earnest and straightforward a Vietnam War movie, with a lack of nuance or moral ambiguity.
But if you’re into that, and I am too, it’s a finely crafted war flick with particular attention paid to the gun props. The movie opens with a French colonial army column ambushed by the nascent North Vietnamese Army, and the French soldiers are equipped with rarely seen on screen MAS-36 rifles and MAT-49 submachine guns.
When the U.S. Army Air Cavalry arrives on the scene, we’re treated to excellent reproductions of early Colt XM16E1s, M60 machine guns, and the evergreen M1911.
The acting is also above average. Mel Gibson turns in a pitch perfect, pre-meltdown performance as Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, Sam Elliott is clearly having a great time as Sergeant Major Plumley, and war movie veteran Barry Pepper shows up as combat photojournalist Joe Galloway. The movie frequently cuts back to the home front, and the methods with which the homebound Army wives handle their losses and themselves coalesce into a support unit is artfully handled and gives the movie more depth and heart than expected.
Unfortunately, Wallace has a lot of plates spinning at once, and the audience can have difficulty keeping track of the various detachments and what they’re doing in the homogeneous jungle. Still, the film delivers satisfying and yet emotionally draining thrills, and even manages to treat the opposing NVA and Viet Cong soldiers with humanity, respect and honor.
#3: Black Hawk Down
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s 2002 motion picture based on the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu had every potential to be as much of a costly disaster as the actual Operation Gothic Serpent — the ill-planned and poorly handled 1993 raid on Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s headquarters — but for two things: Relentless rewrite after rewrite by ace screenplay doctor Ken Nolan, and the masterful direction of famed director Ridley Scott.
Black Hawk Down presents a slightly slimmed down, streamlined version of events, but what’s remarkable is how Scott skillfully assembles the events of a confusing, nonlinear battle into an easily followed dramatic progression, despite rapidly jumping from location to location as the action ebbs and flows.
The gun props are great, especially to students of military small arms, for bridging the gap between iron-sighted issue rifles and today’s ubiquitous flat-top M4s with Aimpoint red-dot sights and Surefire flashlights. A particularly nice touch is superb audio work that contrasts the slow, plodding cadence of the 7.62 NATO M60 with the 800rpm bark of the 5.56 NATO M249 SAW. The opposition shows up with the usual Russian AK variants, RPGs and other Eastern Bloc small arms, but the entire detritus of the seedy underground African arms trade is there is you look for it, from bolt action WWII surplus to H&K G3s to heavy machine guns.
Two drawbacks to the film: Despite the inauthentic detail of writing the soldier’s names on their helmet covers, it’s sometimes hard to tell the players apart. Similarly, the Somali militiamen quickly become a faceless and interchangeable foe devoid of individuality.
For me, the emotional and moral heart of the movie will always be Delta Force operators SFC Randy Shughart and MSG Gary Gordon demanding to be put down in the middle of a furious mob of Somali militia to defend downed pilot Michael Durant. Fully aware of the overwhelming odds and with every expectation that they would not survive, they unhesitatingly fast roped into the maelstrom for no other reason than because their honor demanded it. For all of the errors, mistakes, hubris and arrogance, what saved lives that day was an unflinching devotion to duty and comrades and an unconquerable spirit even when mortal bodies have failed. Black Hawk Down represents all that is good, and all that is bad, about the American fighting man, and I will always appreciate that.
#2: Lone Survivor
We covered Peter Berg’s 2013 film in detail in the July 2014 issue, and even on multiple rewatchings continues to hold up well. A faithful adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name, Lone Survivor is an intimate, wonderfully crafted tale of brotherhood, tragedy, perseverance and above all, faith.
Lone Survivor begins with a seemingly simple mission to track and locate a vicious terrorist leader and his band of fighters in the unforgiving Hindu Kush, but as errors and mishaps multiply, the four man SEAL team is cut off, surrounded, outnumbered and eventually and brutally whittled down to a single survivor, Luttrell, who owes his life to the kindness and honor of the Afghan villagers who find him and protect him from the Taliban.
The writing is tight and flawless and characters and their relationships are built up with a bare minimum of war movie tropes. The small size of the team means we’re able to get to know them better than in other larger unit movies. The performances are all superb, when Boston boy Wahlberg can convince me he’s a Texan, there’s magic going on. The deaths in battle of the SEALs and the helicopter rescue team hit the audience like sledgehammers, but it never feels cheap or emotionally manipulative. It’s just wonderful filmmaking that happens to also be a fantastic shooter’s movie.
There isn’t a tremendous variety of firepower on display, but the props are true to life and well researched. Even the optics and sling setups are correct, and it’s obvious the actors put a ton of work into rehearsing their weapons handling and tactics. The SEALs are armed with faithful reproductions of Mk11 Mod0 SPR marksman’s rifles, and M4A1 carbines with underslung 40mm grenade launchers, with authentic looking field camouflage jobs and that well worn-in look from weapons that have been in the field as long as the men carrying them.
Cinema hasn’t exactly been overwhelmed with great movies exploring the men and missions of the Global War On Terror, but if future efforts are as good as Lone Survivor, then we’re in for a second golden age in war movies.
#1: Band of Brothers
Now, hold on with the outraged emails and comments. Let me explain first! I’m perfectly aware that HBO’s Band of Brothers is in fact a ten part miniseries and not a movie. I also acknowledge that it’s totally unfair to compare a near twelve hour historical documentary to cinema movies. But there’s also no question that Band of Brothers is absolutely, hands down the finest dramatic examination of a small infantry unit that has ever been committed to film.
While some liberties were taken with events and characters to tidy things up for the audience, the experience, battles, and character relationships all remain authentic. The series follows Easy Company from inception in the hills of Georgia through the D-Day invasion jumps and subsequent battles all the way to German soil.
With a literal team of directors and writers working on the series in turn, the writing and dialog moves smoothly along, feeling genuine while deftly avoiding war movie cliché. The producers put a lot of effort into casting lesser known actors, favoring men who closely resembled their namesakes instead of selecting headlining stars.
Similarly, the gun propwork is flawless, and even more important, the attention to detail in handling and tactics is outstanding. If you’re still on the fence and only have time for one episode, watch the second episode and fast forward to the assault on the Brecourt Manor Nazi artillery position. Outnumbered and deep behind enemy lines, the attack is a textbook piece of small unit tactics that continues to be taught in the US Army infantry school. The filmmakers make the complicated maneuvers, flanking and coordinated attacks easy to understand and follow, maintaining that ever so tricky spatial positioning for the audience.
The entire WWII arsenal is on parade here: M1 Garands, BARs, M1911 pistols, M1A1 Carbines with folding stocks, M1919 Browning machine guns deployed with and without tripods. The German armory is similarly authentic and well-stocked, although naturally we don’t get as good a look at the Mausers, MG34s and MG42s and submachine guns as we do the American pieces.
Almost 15 years after it was made, Band of Brothers holds up under scrutiny both on technical filmmaking and entertainment value. Even though I’ve seen it from start to finish a dozen times in the last decade, I can still pop in any episode and re-watch it in complete riveted attention. If that’s not qualification for the Best War Movie Ever, I don’t know what is.
By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the April 2015 issue of GunUp the Magazine, Published Jan 11, 2016.