Bob Tremblay: War, what is it good for?

Bob Tremblay

With Veterans Day approaching, it seems appropriate to devote this month's column to war movies, specifically the greatest war movies of all time.

So how does one determine the greatest war movies of all time? It's as easy as creating a hydrogen bomb from scratch, attacking Stalingrad in December and storming Iwo Jima armed with a peashooter.

For this column, yours truly polled the newsroom for suggestions. Their opinions will be printed at the end of this column. As always, the opinions of yours truly take precedent. To quote King Louis XVI via Mel Brooks, "it's good to be the king." We should note that Louis' severe haircut led to the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte who never met a battle he didn't like, with the possible exception of Waterloo.

Add to the criteria for greatness, quality, originality and influence all factor into the mix along with a caisson full of subjectivity. To keep the article from turning into a novel, we'll focus only on wars involving the United States - this is our Veterans Day, is it not?

Also, in the interest of fair play, we'll try to include films that deal with every major American conflict. For convenience's sake, we'll start with the American Revolution and work our way up to Iraq. Finally, to keep my editor happy - she likes brevity - and to spark outrage from readers over omitted films, we'll limit the list to a dirty dozen.

AMERICAN REVOLUTION

1. "The Patriot," (2000) starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger as father and son, the former doesn't want to enter the war, the latter does. Family feud with flintlocks. Jason Isaacs plays a British colonel with horns, tail, a pitchfork and the Union Jack. This isn't a great film but the pickings are slim for this war.

Other worthy contenders are "The Devil's Disciple," "Drums Along the Mohawk,"' "1776" and "Johnny Tremain," based on a novel by Westborough native Esther Forbes. Just stay far away from "Revolution." It deserves the fate of taxed tea.

CIVIL WAR

2. "Gone With the Wind" (1939) starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. Sure, it's more of a soap opera than a carnage-filled war movie, but when you think of the Civil War and movies, you think "Gone With the Wind." While you don't see soldiers fighting the war, you do see its disastrous effects. And you won't see a more heated battle of the sexes waged anywhere. Simply put, if the Confederate Army had appointed Scarlett O'Hara a general, we'd all be whistling Dixie right now.

3. "Glory" (1989) starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington. For war purists, this film delivers the goods. The movie focuses on the first unit of black soldiers who fought during the Civil War. Continuing our Bay State boosterism, we should note these soldiers served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry under the command of Boston-born Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Washington deservedly won his first Oscar here. "Glory" isn't just a great war movie, it's a great movie, period.

Other worthy contenders include "Gettysburg," "The Red Badge of Courage," "Shennandoah," "Friendly Persuasion" and "Cold Mountain."

"The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" (1966) starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach is set during the Civil War and deserves mention simply because it's so good at portraying bad people behaving in ugly ways. Great music, too.

War and comedy typically don't mix, but they do in "The General" (1927), Buster Keaton's silent movie masterpiece.

For another pre-sound classic, there's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) where director D.W. Griffith portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, and he's not joking.

WORLD WAR I

Before we list the best films about this war, we should note that we looked for great films about the Spanish-American War but couldn't find any. To be honest, we couldn't find any films.

4. "Sergeant York" (1941) starring Gary Cooper in an Oscar-winning performance as a pacifist who becomes a war hero.

5. "The African Queen" (1951) starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Again, this is more of an estrogen and testosterone tussle than a pure war movie, but when Bogart's Charlie Allnut and Hepburn's Rose Sayer square off, sparks fly. The two do take time out from their squabbling to fight the Germans. And fall in love. Bogart won his only Oscar here.

We should point out that some of the best World War I movies don't focus on Americans. These include "All Quiet on the Western Front," "The Dawn Patrol." "Paths of Glory," "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," "Lawrence of Arabia," "A Very Long Engagement" and "Gallipoli."

For our final nomination, we list "Hell's Angels" (1930) for one simple reason - it features Jean Harlow, a true bombshell.

WORLD WAR II

6. "Patton" (1970) One of the greatest screen biographies in the biz and one of the best war movies ever made. Battles, strategy, politics, leadership, bravery, tragedy and triumph, that's war in a nutshell. George C. Scott gives one of the best performances on celluloid as the title character and won an Oscar for his effort. We suspect the other nominees didn't bother writing acceptance speeches. Of course, Scott didn't write one either as he declined to accept the statuette.

7. "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) Again, not a war movie in the battlefield sense. Here the battles are fought in the aftermath of war as three veterans return home and try to readjust to civilian life. More Bay State bolstering - while Oscar-winner Harold Russell was born in Canada, he moved to Massachusetts in 1933 and died in Needham in 2002.

On the romance and war front, we would be remiss not to mention "Casablanca" (1942) starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. This is the "Gone With the Wind" of World War II films. It's also one of my favorite films of all time, even better than "Gigli."

Returning to reality, there are more great World War II films than you can shake a bazooka at. We won't even bother worrying whether Americans played a prominent role. Here's a partial list:

"Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List," "Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Americanization of Emily," "Stalag 17," "Das Boot," "Run Silent Run Deep," "The Longest Day," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Tora! Tora, Tora!" "The English Patient," "Judgment at Nuremberg," "Thin Red Line," "Mrs. Miniver," "Life is Beautiful," "The Great Escape," "The Dirty Dozen," "The Guns of Navarone," "Mister Roberts," "Cross of Iron," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Big Red One," "Twelve O'Clock High" and "From Here to Eternity."

In the documentary category, "Triumph of the Will" (1935) deserves mention. Leni Riefenstahl's portrait of Hitler's Nuremberg rallies ranks as perhaps the greatest piece of propaganda on film. Chilling stuff.

Anyone contemplating "Pearl Harbor" (2001) for inclusion on this list will be immediately assigned KP duty in Murmansk.

KOREAN WAR

8. "MASH" (1970) starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. Arguably the greatest war comedy ever made. Field hospital high jinks combine with the horrors of the war to create a cocktail of the Molotov variety. Hold the maraschino cherry. A masterpiece from director Robert Altman.

9. "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) starring Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey. The latter portrays a Korean War hero who returns home only to become a puppet of a scheming mother played brilliantly by Angela Lansbury, even if in reality she was only three years older than Harvey.

Other worthy contenders include "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," "Retreat, Hell!" and "Pork Chop Hill."

The less said about "Inchon!" the better.

VIETNAM WAR

10. "Apocalypse Now" (1979) starring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. Sure, it's "Heart of Darkness" with napalm in the morning. It's still one of the most amazing, surreal and terrifying war movies ever made. A Francis Ford Coppola classic. No one can hear Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" and not think of this film.

11. "The Deer Hunter" (1978) starring Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep. A searing portrait of a group of friends before, during and after their service in Vietnam. Brilliant in every way.

As with World War II, the Vietnam War served as the inspiration for many great films. Once again, here's a partial list:

"Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Full Metal Jacket," "Coming Home," "Go Tell the Spartans," "Good Morning, Vietnam" and the great documentary by Cambridge-based filmmaker Errol Morris, "The Fog of War."

We should note that no list of war movies would be complete without at least one film featuring America's favorite warrior, John Wayne. Hence, "The Longest Day." We'll also add "The Alamo." "The Green Berets" is more worthy of a court-martial.

For the 12th film, we'll focus on the Cold War and choose one of the greatest black comedies in the history of motion pictures - "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Here, the hyperbole fits. Peter Sellers could have won three Oscars for the three roles he plays in this Stanley Kubrick gem.

In more recent wars and conflicts, Grenada gets represented by "Heartbreak Ridge," Somalia with "Black Hawk Down," Afghanistan with "Lions for Lambs," the Gulf War with by "Courage Under Fire," "Jarhead" and "Three Kings" and the Iraq War with "In the Valley of Elah" and such documentaries as "Gunner Palace" (2005) and "No End in Sight" (2007). Expect more.

In our newsroom poll, the top vote-getter for best war movie was....Wait, it's a tie between "Saving Private Ryan" and "Full Metal Jacket." Other films receiving votes were "Bridge on the River Kwai," "Casablanca," "Life is Beautiful," "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Great Escape," "Gone With the Wind," "The Longest Day," "The Alamo," "Go Tell the Spartans," "War Hunt" and "The Thin Red Line."

Poetry in motion

It's now time for TRIVIA.

Last month's tester: What recent film is a fictionalized version of a holy book legend? Clue: One of the actresses in the movie would later win an Oscar. Name the film, the holy book and the actress.

Answer: "The Legend of Bagger Vance." The holy book was the Bhagavad Gita. The actress was Charlize Theron.

This month's tester: In what recent movie does the lead actor quote a poem penned by D.H. Lawrence? Clue: The last name of the film's two stars begins with the letter "M." Name the film, the poem and the film's two stars.

The first person to answer the trivia question correctly will receive a $10 gift certificate for The Vin Bin, 27 South Bolton St. (Rte. 85 near Rte. 20) in Marlborough.

Trivia enthusiasts can call me at 508-626-4409 or e-mail me at btremblay@cnc.com.

Make sure you leave your name, address and number on my message machine or e-mail so I can contact you if you answered the question correctly. The address is needed so winners can be mailed their prize. Callers should spell out their names slowly and clearly so their names will be spelled correctly in the column. Only one guess per household, please.

Answers will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13. Good luck!