Veterans’ Day is coming up, and that’s a great chance to hang out with your grandpa and watch some old war movies. At least that’s something I should do. Here are three excellent war movies that don’t get enough love from current audiences. Also, none of these movies are exclusively about American characters, so it’ll be a new perspective for many viewers. They’re arranged in no particular order.
Cross of Iron
This is an extremely cool movie. It’s a psychedelic war film about German soldiers on the eastern front in WWII, trying to survive both the combat and the political machinations of an aristocrat who’s willing to throw their lives in a trash can to get Germany’s highest military honor. It’s also directed by Sam Peckinpah, who’s best-known for The Wild Bunch. It’s as interesting as it sounds. It’s also as good as it sounds. It’s one of those older films that stands the test of time extremely well, even when it comes to pacing. Very little could be cut from this movie without severely hurting it, and the plot moves along quickly, never using your time for something that isn’t justified. It also stars James Coburn, who’s most famous for his work in Westerns, as a cranky and cynical Wehrmacht war hero.
The best thing on offer though, is Sam Peckinpah’s pragmatic directing. The camera work and editing are stylized, but elegantly simple and clear. It’s difficult to explain, but the way he portrays chaotic events, especially shootouts, is brilliant. Real-life shootouts are over in a few seconds, but Peckinpah wants his shootouts to be somewhat realistic. How does he do it? Simple. He switches to slow motion. How does he show several different events simultaneously? That’s also simple. Just cut between them and it won’t be overwhelming, because the slow-motion makes the ridiculously fast shootout play out like any normal scene.
Filmmakers have complete and total control over everything the audience sees, at every moment, in every frame, and Peckinpah understood that on a deep level. He milks that revelation for everything its worth, and he simply shows you what he wants you to see. All you have to do as the viewer is sit back and trust the director to put sadness in your heart and a mess in your pants. It’s great entertainment that also gets its message across. He never tries to show off and he simply relies on the raw facts of his story to get the response that he wants. Finally, this film has one of the most badass lines in movie history: “I’ll show you where the Iron Crosses grow.” Whosever voice you read that with, it’s better when James Coburn says it.
The Guns of Navarone
Have you ever wanted to watch Gregory Peck play an edgy antihero? This is a commando film where he’s essentially the opposite of Atticus Finch. This movie is fun to watch for that alone, but there are other things on offer for anyone who enjoys movies like Where Eagles Dare or The Dirty Dozen. It’s about a group of Allied commandos trying to sabotage a battery of German coastal artillery so that an evacuation can happen. As things go from bad to worse and the mission falls apart, the men are forced to reconcile their differences and use their skills to improvise. It’s an entertaining film, with a decent amount of action, and it has real conflict between its characters. The Guns of Navarone has explosions, violence, intrigue and also real drama to drive its plot. That last bit alone would be enough to recommend it.
Dark of the Sun
Dark of the Sun is part of a subgenre of a subgenre of movies: it’s a mercenary movie, which is a certain type of commando movie, which is also known as a “men on a mission” movie. Whatever that all means, Dark of the Sun is entertaining, interesting, and obscure. It stars Rod Taylor, whose best known for a movie adaptation of The Time Machine, and he’s probably the most famous person involved with the project. Dark of the Sun is about mercenaries in the Congo Basin, during one of their many brutal civil wars, trying to escort refugees and diamonds away from the warzone. They also have to use a train, because trains are amazingly helpful to screenwriters.
The characters can literally only move on the rails, forcing them to confront every obstacle head-on. It’s simple, and it works. The protagonists have to deal with static from the UN, drama with an ex-Nazi psychopath that they’re forced to work with, disagreements with the refugees, the threat of hostile militias, and the fact that they’re stuck on a train during one of the most brutal wars in recent memory. The setting is a time and place that doesn’t get nearly enough love from Tinsel town, and you might recognize it if you’ve seen Hotel Rwanda. Dark of the Sun was made in 1968 though, decades before Hotel Rwanda. This movie pulls no punches when it comes to violence and brutality, and it shows it all in a matter-of-fact way that’s frankly uncharacteristic of a Hollywood studio movie. It shows that there are exceptions to the general ideas we hold of different time periods in cinema. Check this one out, and you won’t be disappointed. It’s one of those rare films that almost lives up to its insane cover art.
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