Monday, January 8, 2007

The 10 Greatest War Pics And Westerns Flicks Of The Last 1,000 Years

Behold the greatest films of past entire millennium. Strangely, none of the classics of the 12th Century made it onto our list. That said, we didn’t forget to squeeze in some masterpieces from days gone by.

Now, we realize the intention of most “Best Of…” lists is to encourage debate, discourse and discussion. However, that’s not the case with our collections. There will be no argument. These are definitive.

In combining the War and Western movies, the number of choices for each genre has been limited by five. The films omitted as a result are no less important than those included. The Longest Day and Stagecoach would surely be in the top ten. However, rather than opt for films that defined or typified the genre, we selected movies that turned that particular genre on its ear.

The Great Escape (1963)
“One has to ask some very strange favors in the job I have.”

Based on the amazing true story of a motley team of Allied prisoners who defy all odds and mastermind an elaborate escape from a Nazi POW camp, The Great Escape is an action-packed epic adventure film. The formula of teaming by-the-book servicemen with misfits and outlaws was nothing new, but played by Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance and Charles Bronson, the ragtag-band-of-soldiers-brought-together-by-circumstance model for war pictures became the favorite flavor of filmgoers and filmmakers alike. The Great Escape’s influence can be seen in Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, and, of course, Von Ryan’s Express.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
“We're not here to do the decent thing; we're here to follow f*cking orders.”

The first twenty minutes alone may be the greatest war picture ever and, if you can stomach watching the gritty realistic depictions of Marines hitting the beaches at Normandy, you just might make it through the rest of the film. Steven Spielberg’s graphic paean to the D-Day invasion is brutal to watch, but thoroughly riveting. With his inspired casting, including Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi and Matt Damon, Spielberg was able to keep his sentimentalism at bay in presenting a raw and frank story of duty, honor and justice in the Second World War.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
“What do you call assassins who accuse assassins?”

Although set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory epic is not your traditional war pic. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart Of Darkness, the film focuses on the war’s psychological effect on two men, Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) and Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who descend into madness while the war rages around them. Along Willard’s journey up the river to find the AWOL colonel, he encounters other soldiers on the brink of insanity, including Lt. Col Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who loves Wagner and the smell of napalm in the morning, until finally discovering the ultimate madman, Kurtz himself. The horror. The horror.

Das Boot (1981)
“Hitler sent 40,000 men aboard U-Boats during World War 2. Less than 10, 000 returned.”

A gritty, bleak film from director Wolfgang Peterson that shows World War II from two unusual perspectives: from inside a submarine and from the POV of the Germans. While there is only the thinnest veneer of a plot, Das Boot remains engaging thanks to outstanding performances, particularly Jurgen Prochnow as The Captain, and the amazing cinematography of Jost Vocano, who captures the filthy, claustrophobic conditions of the U-boat while imbuing the scenes with life. Despite its cramped setting and seeming monotony, the film is incredibly suspenseful as we, along with the characters, wait in horror as depth charges are dropped all around the sub. As the tagline suggests, the hunters become the hunted.

The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
“Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!”

David Lean’s beautiful film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel, The Bridge On The River Kwai is another outstanding look at the madness permeating war. When British POW’s are ordered by a ruthless Japanese colonel to build a bridge that will transport Japanese munitions, colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness) refuses, even after enduring several tortures. Eventually, he relents, but only because building the bridge will boost the morale of his men by proving that the British are superior to the Japanese in every way. Nicholson becomes obsessed with building a great bridge even when he discovers British plans to blow it up. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography for Jack Hildyard’s stunning visuals.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)
“If you save your breath, I feel a man like you can manage it. And if you don't manage it, you'll die. Only slowly, very slowly, old friend.”

This film is the definitive spaghetti Western, the third and best installment in Sergio Leone’s trilogy (Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More) featuring Clint Eastwood as the great Western anti-hero, The Man With No Name, a loner shrouded in mystery and whose intentions are always gray. The Man With No Name, apparently “The Good” in this scenario, searches for stolen gold while his rivals, The Bad (Lee Van Cleef) and the Ugly (Eli Wallach) also vie for the two hundred thousand dollar booty-and-swag. Gorgeously photographed by Tonino Delli Colli, with some highly memorable and gruesome images, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is also remembered for Ennio Morricone’s plaintively minimalistic score.

The Searchers (1956)
“I figure a man's only good for one oath at a time.”

John Ford’s magnum opus inspired the morally-troubled (and morally-ambiguous) characters of the Westerns of the late ‘60s and ‘70s as well as inspiring filmmakers outside of the Western genre. Returning from the Civil War, albeit three years after Lee’s surrender, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) brings with him a cache of Yankee gold, his Confederate uniform and a hatred of Indians. When his brother and sister-in-law are massacred by Comanches and their teenage daughter (Natalie Wood) abducted, Ethan begins a tireless, five-year crusade to find the girl. However, his intentions remain an enigma. Does he want to rescue his niece? Or merely slay the Indians and the girl with them?

High Noon (1952)
“Quit pushin' me, Harv. I'm tired of being pushed.”

Hadleyville Marshall, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has resigned his post and plans to honeymoon with his new Quaker bride. But when he gets news that the Miller gang is due to arrive by train at 12:00, he knows he can’t walk away. Shot in real-time, the events of the film transpire as the clock ticks down to noon and inevitable showdown. Kane attempts to recruit deputies for his stand-off, but none of the townsfolk come to his aid, and eventually even his bride deserts him. Alone, Marshall Kane slowly walks to the center of town and waits for the gunfight in one of the most suspenseful sequences in Westerns.

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969)
“If he'd just pay me what he's paying them to stop me robbing him, I'd stop robbing him!”

Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid explores the Western mythos with a tongue-in-cheek approach that plays out more like a wisecracking buddy film than a saddle-up-and-ride adventure. Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford) lead the Hole in The Wall Gang in successfully robbing a train, non-lethally, of course. When they make a second attempt on the same train, they discover the railroad boss has hired mercenary trackers to protect his loot. They flee to Bolivia, where they live off their robberies, until they meet a tragic end as karma and a man in a white hat catches up with them. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid’s lighthearted revisionism appealed to The Establishment as well as ‘60s counterculture. No one could resist the chemistry between Redford and Newman, buoyed by screenwriter William Goldman’s witty dialogue.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
“We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all.”

Sam Peckinpah’s graphic depiction of violence in the Old West resonated with audiences in 1969 who had either been in Vietnam or were hearing horror stories and seeing war footage from Vietnam. After a botched robbery, the Gang (played by William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Jaime Sanchez, Warren Oates and Ben Johnson) head to Mexico, pursued by a gang of mercenary lawmen. With no escape, they opt for a final showdown. One of the bloodiest firefights in film, Peckinpah’s bullet ballet shows lead-ripping flesh in full Technicolor, slow-motion brutality.

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