Saturday, May 16, 2020
Why the 60s Was the Greatest Decade for War Films
This is my entry in the 6 from the 60's blogathon hosted by Classic Film and TV Cafe
"War is man's greatest adventure" - Ernest Hemingway
War movies have been around ever since the invention of movies. It may not have been among the first subjects. After all, a decent war flick does involve a bit more than some slapdash makeup to create a Frankenstein monster, or even to create the illusion of traveling to the moon. But take it as fact, once the concept of motion pictures took off, quite naturally the adventure of war became a target to transfer to the screen.
I can't actually tell you what the first war movie was. I gave up trying to find a website that would tell me. But as early as 1911, war was depicted on film. The Fall of Troy, a 1911 short film from the silent era seems to be one of the first, however.
Over the years, war became increasingly a good draw at the box office. Some of the classics would have to include (regardless of political messages they may have had): Birth of a Nation (1915), Battleship Potemkin (1925), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Sergeant York (1941), From Here to Eternity (1953), Patton (1970), Platoon (1986), Gettysburg (1993), Black Hawk Down (2001) and Fury (2014).
(Author's Note: For brevity, I only chose one movie from each decade. This is not necessarily the best movie, just my choice as a representative of the decade. If a movie you favor was not chosen, it does not mean I think it's less than the one I actually chose. Your opinion may differ.)
You will notice, of course, that the 60's are missing from the above list. That's because, in my opinion, the 60's were the best decade for war films. The primary subject for war films during this time period, of course, was for the then fairly recent conflict of WWII. The one we actually could hold our heads high and proudly state "We won!"
Of course, it didn't hurt that some of the biggest names in show business were associated with these films. I mean look at the cast listing of the six movies I am using as a representative: Stanley Baker, Ernesst Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, James Coburn, Sean Connery, Vince Edwards, Henry Fonda, James Garner, William Holden, Trevor Howard, Lee Marvin, Steve McQueen, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Quinn, Cliff Robertson, Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger and John Wayne, just to name a few. Plus you had such stalwart directors as Robert Aldrich, John Sturges and Daryl F. Zanuck behind the camera.
Of course, the following six are only a representative of the whole decade, not necessarily the unanimous best. They are some of my favorites, of course, but as you will see, I also chose these six because I have already reviewed them in depth in other posts on this blog. Some of the others not included, but well worth checking out from the 60's output of war films are: The Alamo (1960), The Battle of Britain (1969), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Green Berets (1968), Hell in the Pacific (1968), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Where Eagles Dare (1968), and Zulu (1964). (Still an incomplete list, but it will get you started.)
My favorite war movie of the 60's is not one that involves actual war action. I consider The Great Escape (1963) to be the best of the bunch, however. It is actually based on a true story about the planning of and escape from a Nazi P.O.W. camp near the end of WWII (based on an account written by one of the P.O.W.s who witnessed the events, Paul Brickhill). The all-star cast makes this an intriguing movie. The ending is somewhat of a downer, I warn you in advance. I won't spoil the ending more than that, but watching the likes of McQueen, Bronson, Garner, Coburn and the like as they plan the escape is rather riveting. As a side note, I used to call my folks every week when they were still alive, and I would play this movie without the sound in the background as I talked with them. (It helped me focus on the conversations, believe it or not...)
Another great escape movie is Von Ryan's Express (1965). In this film, Frank Sinatra plays a downed pilot named Ryan who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian P.O.W. camp during WWII. As such, he makes a general nuisance of himself, earning himself the rather disparaging nickname of "Von Ryan" (insinuating that he has Nazi sympathies). The ultimate goal at the end is the commandeering of a prisoner train that is transporting the Italian P.O.W.s to a German P.O.W. camp after the Italians have surrendered.
The Dirty Dozen (1967) is a different animal altogether. In this film Lee Marvin is an officer given the task of training a dozen malcontents into a crack force of soldiers destined to create havoc at a secret Nazi rest area for officers of the German army. And the all-star cast of this one has people who have memorable scenes which will stick with you long after you watch it. Don't miss the great performances of Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland just to name a few.
On the heels of that escapade comes another story about a cadre of men with a goal to disrupt the Nazi's and their nefarious deeds. The Guns of Navarone (1961) involves a group who must somehow disable a couple of devastating guns in a mountain stronghold that is creating havoc with troop movement of the Allies. Gregory Peck and David Niven are among the stars of this great adventure.
In The Devil's Brigade (1968) William Holden is the leader of a cadre of American and Canadian soldiers with a task to capture yet another Nazi stronghold. Like the Dirty Dozen, many of Holden's charges are malcontents who must be whipped into shape before proceeding on their mission.
Rounding out this sextet of great 60's war movies is another one that is actually based on fact. John Wayne heads yet another cast of familiar names staging the historical D-Day invasion of France, then under Nazi control. The Longest Day (1962) focuses on more than just Wayne, however. Most of the big names are listed above, but you will recognize quite a few more of them, depending on your movie watching history. And the fact that it's all pretty much true to the actual conflict is a history lesson that for once you might not mind enduring.
Looking back, the fact that all of these are representative of only one conflict, WWII in Nazi Germany, may seem a bit choosy. But the fact is there is not a dud in the bunch. And they were all made during one decade. For more in depth discussion on each entry, please click on the links to see my thoughts on each. Or better yet, devote a weekend to just watching the movies. I guarantee you won't be bored.
Drive home safely, folks.