Everyone has seen Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down about twenty times each, both are outstanding films but no need to retread these one more time for the sake of redundancy.  Here are my top three favorite war movies that you’ve probably never heard of before:

9 Rota (9th Company)

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9 Rota

I just recently became aware of a Russian film about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and found it streaming on Netflix.  Although the movie begins with an ominous “From The Ministry of Culture and Art” this film was apparently fairly controversial in Russia and wasn’t merely a state-sponsored propaganda movie.  In fact, it didn’t at all shy away from the horrors of Russia’s war in Afghanistan.

“9 Rota” or “9th Company” in English has also warranted comparisons to “Full Metal Jacket”, about America’s Cold War quagmire in Vietnam.  Like Kubrick’s film, 9 Rota begins with the intake of young Russian conscripts and proceeds to follow them through their training is Uzbekistan before the recruits are shipped off to Afghanistan.  Like Arleigh Ermy’s character in Full Metal Jacket, the Drill Sergeant in 9 Rota puts the recruits through hell, taking them through one torture session after the next.  There are some funny moments as well, the recruits engaging in the usual hijinx that you would expect from young soldiers.

I’m sure that some people will feel that the makers of 9 Rota directly lifted the format from Full Metal Jacket, but I think its important to acknowledge to commonalities that soldiers share, often crossing over and between different nations and cultures.  Although this movie is about Russian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in 1988, I experienced much of the same as an American soldier fighting in Afghanistan in 2004.  The first arrival in Bagram Airfield was especially familiar as I recall my first glimpse of the mountains as the aircraft’s ramp lowered, much like in this film.

Although I really liked this movie, I felt that it got a little melodramatic at times.  The plight of the Russian people is deeply embedded in the psyche of Russians to this day (take a look at Russian literature) but it felt like they laid it on a little thick in some parts.  In one scene, the Drill Sergeant has his request to return to the front lines denied, causing him to have a breakdown.  I respect what the director is trying to portray, the fact that soldiers have a very difficult time reintegrating after returning from war, but this took it a little far:

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Peacetime becomes overwhelming in of itself

Arriving in Afghanistan, the soldiers are tasked to man a remote outpost in Khowst Province (also where I was stationed in ’04) to protect vital Russian supply routes.  This portion of the movie is based on a true story.  I’m going to have to do some more research on this topic to find out what really went down, but in the film the Russian outpost is overrun by the Mujahedin leaving a single soldier as the lone survivor.

My three favorite (but obscure) war movies

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The combat scenes were very well done in my opinion and give the viewer a decent idea of what the Russians were facing in Afghanistan.  CGI nonsense is kept to a minimum if used at all, that’s right, you get real explosions in this movie, not cartoon like computer graphics like in most American movies these days.  The war fighting is intense and brutal as the Muj attacks in wave after wave towards the end of the film.

There are some other scenes that are funny and point out the absurd nature of war.  The Russian soldiers are very familiar with the Afghan who comes to attack their outpost every so often with his tribal buddies.  They shout insults at each other from one mountain outcropping to the other before exchanging automatic gunfire.  There was also one fairly bizarre scene where the young recruits are running a train on the nurse’s daughter at their training base.  This scene seems to stretch on for 15 minutes and ends with the Russian soldiers worshiping this barracks whore as their “Venus” and prostrating themselves in front of her.  I guess this was some kind of metaphor for the death of innocence before the young men were shipped off to war.  Whatever…

Despite some of the melodrama mentioned above this was a pretty good movie and completely unique from other war films I’ve seen. I’m glad that someone finally took the time to make a flick about this very unpopular conflict.

The Black Book

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The Black Book

Cast aside terrible memories of Paul Verhoeven’s weak reinterpretation of Starship Troopers and check out “Black Book” as soon as you get the chance.  This movie is about the Nazi occupation of Holland and what civilians and resistance fighters had to do to survive.  The film was very unconventional for a WWII epic as it only has a few combat scenes and approaches the subject matter from an unusual, but enlightening, perspective.

The character central to the story is Rachel, a Dutch woman with a Jewish background that she must keep concealed for obvious reasons.  Her journey through the Nazi occupation showcases many different aspects of the war, from being a Jew in hiding, to a resistance fighter, and even more interesting, how everything seems to unravel after the war.

While most movies of these types are about epic battles between Allied Forces and the Nazis, this movie is about the unseemly actions that Rachel has to take in order to stay alive and all of the dirty deals that take place as the Nazis stand at the precipice of defeat.  As the Nazis are pushed out of Holland by the Allies, everyone begins looking for exit strategies as a power vacuum of sorts is left behind in the wake of the Nazi withdrawal.

This turns out to be a dangerous time for both the resistance and the collaborators as Holland is in that in between stage as it transitions out of Nazi occupation. As it turns out, it may not be possible for Rachel to ever escape from war.

The Winter War

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The Winter War

A Vietnam veteran turned me onto The Winter War and I’m glad he did.  This was one of those conflicts that I knew of but actually knew very little about.  This is one of those movies that people should be more aware of as it tells the story of Finnish soldiers in WWII.  The film opens with citizen soldiers being called up to prepare for war as tensions continue to escalate with the Soviet Union.

As open war breaks out, The Winter War takes you inside the experiences of the Finnish troops in their fox holes and trenches, fighting wave after wave of communist soldiers to surge their defensive lines.  The film includes both the heartbreaking and surreal moments that are encountered in war.  As I watched it, I could help but be struck by how much warfare has changed over the years.  I can’t imagine the kind of war of attrition that these guys faced.

Army veteran Henry Hughes’s Oscar-nominated film 'Day One'

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The Winter War goes a little deeper than the typical “go-to-war” movie by showing not just the shell shocked combat troops but the effect the war has on the entire civilian population.  Several scenes highlight the kind of societal level PTSD that the Finnish culture sinks into as sons and husbands are returned home in pieces.

The Finns were out numbered and outgunned, one scene shows how they didn’t even have boots that fit properly, but that didn’t stop them from putting up a fight like you wouldn’t believe.

What are some of your favorite war movies that no one knows about?