What a better way to relax after a weekend of eating, drinking, and fireworks than by watching some great war films?

I’ve compiled a list of the favorite films in our household. They’re listed in no particular order, and this list could easily have been tripled. I had no idea I had so many war films on DVD… although my wife would beg to differ.

Feel free to chime in with any of your favorites that may not have made the list.

Tears of the Sun (2003) 

It doesn’t get much better than having a bunch of Navy SEALs laying waste to terrorists in Nigeria while rescuing an American doctor and leading refugees to safety. Bruce Willis is the SEAL Lt. who leads the mission and goes against orders when he sees the refugees being raped and slaughtered by the terrorists.

Of course, having the beautiful Monica Bellucci as the doctor makes every scene she’s in a must-see. Eamonn Walker is outstanding as “Zee” Pettigrew the SEAL RTO and grenadier. Cole Hauser as the SEAL M-60 gunner “Red” Atkins is a total badass with a funky hairdo.

It’s an old-fashioned gung-ho film where the American guys are definitely wearing the white hats here and Willis, as the protagonist is shown quite often as the jaded combat vet opening his heart to the refugees. A bit over the top? Sure, but it was characterized as an Antoine Fuqua Navy SEAL shoot ‘em up and with Bellucci in the background…. Play it again, Sam.

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Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Classic John Wayne action film, using the backdrop of World War II. Wayne is a battle-hardened tough sergeant, Stryker who has been in the Marine Corps for a decade and he must mold a bunch of recruits into a tough, rifle squad of Marines.

The action takes place first at Tarawa, where Wayne’s best friend lies wounded, calling to him in front of the Marines’ positions in the dark. Stryker won’t go to him for fear of giving away the unit’s position to the Japanese. Some of the men, Agar and Tucker, hate Stryker for different reasons but grow to understand and appreciate the sergeant as the man who will lead them through the tough times.

The film climaxes on Iwo Jima. The famous flag-raising is recreated on film using three of the actual survivors of the Suribachi flag-raising. The Marine Corps totally bought in on the making of the film, including giving a drill sergeant to the cast to get them ready to play Marines. The movie was filmed at Camp Pendleton.

Battleground (1949) 

Made just after the war and the same year as Sands of Iwo Jima, Battleground takes place during the Battle of the Bulge where a group of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne are rushed from a rest camp in France to the frozen encircled bastion at Bastogne in Belgium. The Germans must capture the hub of a major road network and the 101st must hold it at any cost.

This was one of the grittiest war films made up to that point.  The airborne troops are dirty, tired, and scared. They’re slugging it out with a determined, well-trained enemy in snow-draped forests where the enemy can be extremely close before he can be seen.

James Whitmore, who saw action in the Pacific as a Marine, was outstanding as the troops’ Sergeant Kinnie. He’s a grizzled vet who looks like he’d been in combat for a decade. Van Johnson plays the scrounger and wise-cracking rifleman that every infantry platoon, since the days of the Roman Legions, seems to have. Ricardo Montalban also has a small role, and Douglas Fowley, as the griper and complainer with loose store-bought teeth, steals many of the scenes he’s in.

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Black Hawk Down (2001) 

The film directed by Ridley Scott was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two. It is based on the outstanding book, of the same title, by Mark Bowden. The film sticks very closely to the facts. It shows the brutal nature of the war in Somalia and the depths of courage that the Delta Force operators had, especially SFC Randy Shughart and SFC Gary Gordon who were both posthumously decorated with the Medal of Honor.

During the early days of October 1992, Task Force Ranger comprised of Delta operators and the Ranger Battalion along with Task Force 160 aviation elements, tried to capture Omar Salad Elmi and Abdi Hassan Awale Qeybdiid, two of Mohamad Farah Aidid’s top advisers. That’s when all hell broke loose. A Blackhawk helicopter is shot down and then another and the Rangers and Delta operators risk it all to get to the pilots and crew out.

The fast-roping scenes early in the film were done by members of the 3/75 Ranger Regiment. Scott didn’t spend much time on character development as the action goes fast and furious. But the battle scenes are top-notch and Eric Bana as “Hoot” Gibson is outstanding. The film’s score keeps the watcher on edge with a staccato, visceral sadness that permeates the film. Having lost a close friend from the Delta Force operators there, it was tough to watch at first, but it is a first-rate action film.

Gettysburg (1993) 

The film is based on the 1975 work of fiction “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara, which won a Pulitzer. Since this is the American Civil War, neither side is presented as the “bad guys.” The Southerners are roundly portrayed as men of honor who widely respect and, in some cases, love the men they’re fighting against. Five thousand reenactors were used as extras to recreate the famous battle where 50,000 men fell.

Sam Elliot has an excellent cameo as Union Cavalry Brigadier John Buford who slows the Confederate advance just long enough to allow the Army to reach the high ground. Jeff Daniels steals the show as Joshua Chamberlain, the 20th Maine’s commander. He basically saved the Union’s bacon at Little Round Top. That battle sequence alone is worth watching the film for.

Tom Berenger as Longstreet and Richard Jordan are both outstanding as well. Sheen as Robert E. Lee is however awfully wooden. George Lazenby, the former James Bond for one film, (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) also has a cameo as NC Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew

We Were Soldiers (2002) 

This is an intense film that graphically shows the nature of the close combat that the troops fought in Vietnam. Gibson portrays LTC Hal Moore the commander of the 7th Cavalry at LZ X-Ray in Ia Drang Valley early in 1965. It was based on the book of the same name by Hal Moore.

Sam Elliot steals every scene he’s in as CSM Plumley, a decorated WWII vet who has no tolerance for the typical Army BS. Plumley is a total badass whose men are more afraid of him than the enemy. Greg Kinnear is superb as the chopper pilot “Snake” Crandall. The clichés get a bit thick at times, as with many war films, but the filmmakers at least put a human face on the enemy. They’re not the mindless, savages from Tears of the Sun or Blackhawk Down.

This was the first major battle of the Vietnam war. It showed the suffering and carnage that both sides would suffer for pieces of earth that mean nothing in the large-scale of things.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) 

A breathtaking, sweeping film with an all-star cast. It protracts at times but its jump sequences and action scenes top-notch. It covers the Allied High Command’s blunder to allocate all of its airborne forces to lay an “Airborne Carpet” along a single highway seizing the key bridges from Holland into Germany — even after they learned that the area is filled with German SS Panzer divisions.

Sean Connery and Robert Redford stand out as usual with their performances. Anthony Hopkins is outstanding as Operation Market Garden’s final puzzle piece, LTC John Frost. He’s the man tasked to take the final bridge at Arnhem.

Although the film’s soundtrack is a bit hokey, it is a classic war film with several great cameos especially by James Caan, Elliot Gould, and Liv Ullmann.

Interestingly enough, the film was panned in the U.S. for the audacity to show the blunder of the high command. Gene Hackman’s Polish accent was atrocious but the rest of the movie was a classic war film.

The Great Escape (1963) 

Another All-Star cast and another must-see film. Based on a true story, this is s fictionalized account of the massive British escape from Luft Stalag III in Lower Silesia, Germany — now Zagan, Poland. The characters are based on real men and in a few cases, composites of several POWs. However, no Americans were present at the camp, that is a fabrication and an excuse to land McQueen on the cast.

The film, for some odd reason, omits the Canadians who in reality played a big part in the escape. In fact, it was the Canadians who were the “Tunnel King” characters played by Charles Bronson and John Leyton. The POWs are moved to an “escape-proof camp” where they quickly adapt to digging several tunnels through which they hope to free 250 of their own men.

McQueen steals the show in every scene he’s in. The 4th of July moonshine scene was excellent but his motorcycle stunt riding scene, where he’s being chased by the German military on bikes, cemented him as an international film star.

The Longest Day (1962)

The film was an epic undertaking being almost a docudrama. It portrays the events, from both sides, leading up to D-Day on June 6, 1944, and also shows that first, very long day of the invasion. The film was shot in black and white so as to have a look resembling the newsreels of WWII.

The cast is all top-notch. British actor Richard Todd playing Major John Howard the man responsible for seizing “Pegasus Bridge.” Todd was actually on the assault during the war and lends a tremendous amount of realism to the production. The producers had military consultants from all of the countries involved; several of the consultants were officers who took part in the battle.

This would be the ideal WWII film if it had had a scene similar in intensity to the opening beach scene from Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Instead, the Rangers scene at Pointe du Hoc was well done but could have been better.

The Green Berets (1968) 

John Wayne was concerned by the anti-war/anti-military movement in the United States and decided to portray the American involvement in a very positive light with this movie based loosely on the book by Robin Moore.

The clichés are thick, as with most John Wayne war flicks, but the Camp A-107 scene, filmed at Ft. Benning was based on the real battle of Nam Dong where Roger Donlon was awarded the Medal of Honor. Critics excoriated the film which they saw as a flag-waving pro-war film. It nevertheless was a box-office success.

The film was Wayne’s ode to the Special Forces troops, not to the war. This distinction was lost at the time because of the virulent anti-war sentiment. Wayne was quoted as saying, “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing. I wasn’t trying to send a message out to anybody or deba[te] whether it is right or wrong for the United States to be in this war.”

The film has a line that has become a classic, John Wayne’s character Col. Kirby tells David Janssen, “Out here, due process is a bullet.”

Honorable Mentions:

Some other favorites that didn’t make the cut but are very worthwhile, nevertheless, include:

  • Stalag 17
  • Twelve O’clock High
  • Downfall
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Defiance
  • The Battle of Britain
  • Tora, Tora, Tora
  • Kelly’s Heroes

Let’s turn on the DVD player…. Which one goes on first?