I’m an uncommon date –a woman who likes war and action movies. I often have a cadre of favorites by the season of the year. After all, when rain is falling outside, it makes the muddy, shell-holed trenches of World War I seem all the more real, doesn’t it? The upcoming summer season typically makes me crave a good Vietnam or Pacific theater World War II epic, those being well in tune with the sweltering outdoors at this time of year. Without more ado, here is my list of favorites:
1. Full Metal Jacket (1986)-Kubrick’s addition to the war movie genre that pulls no punches and also doesn’t preach an anti-war sentiment. This is war with no excuses that celebrates those who survive to fight another day. Look for a young Vincent D’Onofrio as a beset bootcamp underachiever and you’ll never forget Lee Ermey as the quintessential drill sergeant, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman!
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)-Coppola’s timeless masterpiece, Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” interposed from the Congo to the war-torn Mekong River in Vietnam. Unforgettable performances by Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and the Brando. Conrad’s dark story of the Congo really translates well to the jungles of Vietnam; the darkness inside is matched by the firefights surrounding Sheen’s Capt. Willard and his crew as they pursue a secret mission down the river.
3. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949): A gritty John Wayne vehicle, but a tight story and excellent camaraderie. Follows Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker from the Battle of Tarawa, where he earns his men’s respect to the brutal island fighting on Iwo Jima, where he is put to the ultimate test. Made in 1949, not too long after WWII, the movie features the three surviving raisers of the flag at Mount Suribachi –Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John H. Bradley. One of my favorite John Wayne films, although as war films go, it is relatively sanitized but hard-hitting just the same.
4. Hell in the Pacific: Two military men during WWII, a Japanese and an American, stranded on an island, no way out. How to survive? That’s the film. But when your two guys are Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, there is never a dull moment. A wonderful character study with two different endings filmed. Get the DVD that allows you to choose between them. It changes everything. Early John Boorman directed film and one of Mifune’s finest roles, in my humble opinion.
5. Bridge On the River Kwai: Based (somewhat) on the true experiences of Lt. Colonel Philip Toosey and his adventures and misadventures with the building of a bridge for the Burma-Siam railway. It was a tour de force of acting by William Holden and Alec Guinness, along with a solid return for silent era star Sessue Hayakawa. Although the way the film distorted Toosey’s account of things, in my opinion and many others’ it is a powerful film in its own right. The Academy thought so too. It won 7 Oscars, including Leading Actor for Alec Guinness, who richly deserved it!
6. King Rat (1965): Another obligatory Japanese prison camp movie, with an important difference –rats and hustlers. This movie is based on the book by James Clavell and is drawn from his experiences in Changi prison during WWII. The rat metaphor is quite apt (yes, there are rats in the film but not exactly where you might expect them). The canny, resourceful “King” of the title always seems to be able to score goods in this isolated prison camp, no matter how hard it is for everyone else to just survive. George Segal is quite good in the role of Corporal King, as improbable as it might seem. An interesting undercurrent of subtext with the rats makes it resonate in a way that is inherent in the Pacific POW movie genre in general, but it is done well.
7. The Battle of Okinawa (Gekido no Showashi: Okinawa Kessen) (1971): This is the final big battle of the Pacific theater of WWII as seen from the Japanese side. It is a nonstop, bloody, desperate film, with characters introduced and knocked off almost as fast as you can keep up. But the theme of ordinary people rising to an impossible challenge comes through. Based on a book by Hiromichi Yahara (portrayed here by the great Tatsuya Nakadai), one of the very few Japanese officers to survive the conflict. Rivals the beachhead scene in “Saving Private Ryan” for bloody violence, but there is little letup, and this really gives the feeling of being right there in the middle of the conflict. This one is in Japanese with English subtitles, but for those of you patient enough to get past that, it is worth it just to see the conflict from the Japanese side. An all-star cast from Japan includes Tetsuro Tamba (Tiger Tanaka from “You Only Live Twice”) and Keiju Kobayashi.
8. To End All Wars (2001): Based on a true account by Capt. Ernest Gordon, this film is yet another in a favorite subgenre of mine –WWII Japanese prison camp movies. In this one, the tale of 4 Allied POW’s is told as they survive (or not) the forced building of a railroad through the Burmese jungle. What makes this film stand out, though, is the warm and enduring friendship that forms between Gordon (Ciaran McMenamin) and Japanese camp interpreter Takashi Nagase (Yugo Saso).
9. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): A modern American take of the Japanese side of the World War II conflict. This one follows a soldier named Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a poor baker in civilian life, as he faces military life in the caves of Iwo Jima under the command of General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe). A moving look at the difference between the propaganda and the reality of war and the choices that must be made between honor and duty. The giri/ninjo (duty/humanity) conflict is a main theme in Japanese film, finding much of its expression through the popular samurai film genre. Kuribayashi embodies this conflict beautifully, as Saigo becomes his witness. A beautiful film. Watch in conjunction with its companion “Flags of Our Fathers” for both sides, but of the two, this one is the superior one.
10. Empire of the Sun (1987): What is it with Japanese POW films and summertime? Well, both are hot and sweaty. This gem of a film is based on the book by J.G. Ballard and stars a very young Christian Bale as Jim, a British schoolboy who is growing up with his family in Shanghai in 1941. After the Japanese invade, he is separated from his family and interned in Soo Chow confinement camp. There he grows up quickly and learns important lessons in survival and humanity. Bale is outstanding, even at his young age, and John Malkovich as his American “pal” Basie shows quite a similar character to Segal’s Cpl. King in “King Rat.” A must-see.