“The Story of G.I. Joe” is a tribute to journalist Ernie Pyle who won a Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking reporting of WWII from the eyes of an ordinary soldier. This William Wellman film has Burgess Meredith playing Pyle. War takes on nuanced meaning for Pyle when the journalist joins the army and befriends soldiers fighting on the front line.
Instead of inserting an outside point of view, the film honors the men by giving them the chance to speak in their own voices. Their stories are as real as they get — of war, not from the perspective of analysts and decision makers, but from people on the ground. This no-nonsense and excruciatingly real film was released a few months after Pyle tragically died in the Battle of Okinawa.
Breaker Morant (1980)
“Breaker Morant” reminds the world of lesser-known, often forgotten chapters in war history. This Australian drama takes place during the Second Boer War in South Africa. Viewers meet a group of three Aussies in the British Army, facing trial and prosecution for heinous war crimes. At the film's heart is a debate about ethical philosophy, which works exceptionally well given its many loopholes in historical inaccuracy, but one can probably forgive that.
The Bruce Beresford-directed film is more of a courtroom drama. Civility in battle (whatever that might mean) is dead. Just like “The Grand Illusion,” this film centers on “wars of gentlemen” — an idea which in itself is highly problematic and morally ambiguous. For those who like breaking their heads around philosophy and ethics (yes, even in war), "Breaker Morant" is a must-watch.
Force 10 From Navarone (1978)
Most people know about the 1961 cult film “The Guns of Navarone,” but only the most ardent war film fans remember that the film has a sequel. It’s a shame since “Force 10 From Navarone” is one of the most brilliant and underrated war films to have come out during the 1970s. Unlike its predecessor, the film’s scale is much smaller.
What it seemingly lacks in scope it more than makes up for with impeccable performances and exhilarating battle scenes. The story follows an American special unit during WWII that infiltrates enemy lines in pursuit of an escaped Nazi prisoner. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the action progresses rapidly (much like his James Bond films) and features stellar performances by the likes of Harrison Ford, Robert Shaw, and Barbara Bach.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” has long been regarded as one of the greatest war films ever made. Based on true events around the infamous Burma Railway, the movie shines a light on how British prisoners of war endured terrible conditions at the hands of the Japanese. The prisoners are tasked with constructing a bridge. In the process, they develop grudging respect (even friendship) with one another.
When intelligence officers destroy the bridge, it renders the Japanese war effort into literal dust. Based on the 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle and directed by David Leab, the film bluntly addresses the futility and trauma of war. The movie addresses lesser-known stories about WWII and although memorable, the true events behind the Burma Railway construction were far more horrific.
Three Kings (1999)
“Three Kings” begins on a light enough note. Three soldiers (George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Mark Wahlberg) try and make the most of their days in the Middle East. The Persian Gulf War has ended and the group attempts to make an easy score. Before you can blink, their story takes a darker turn. They become immersed in the plight of the refugees while trying to avoid the attention and wrath of the infamous Iraqi Republican Guard.
The victory in the Gulf might have been decisive but it’s clear there’s unfinished business still. All the soldiers want is to not get involved, but they find it impossible (and thoughtless) to just get in and out. What a preview of the years to come, where the disconnect and mistrust between the U.S. and the Middle East would only continue to grow.