6. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

I once heard someone say, “Full Metal Jacket was good, but it was all downhill after the fat guy killed himself.” That’s reductive and not especially eloquent but for all I know, it may mirror the sentiment of John Q. Moviegoer. Vincent D’Onofrio gained seventy pounds to play the role of the overweight Marine private in question—nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” after the naive sitcom character. Pyle’s sweet tooth for contraband doughnuts earns him the ire of his bunkmates in boot camp after his punishment blows back on the whole group of them. They decide to haze him in his bunk with toweled soap bars and before you know it, he’s forming a talky relationship with his rifle and giving the camera the trademark Kubrick Stare.

The piquant drama building up to Pyle’s eventual latrine breakdown is exacerbated by the abuse he endures from his drill instructor, whose creative cussing and cadence calls (“Ho Chi Minh is a son of a bitch / Got the blueballs, crabs, and the seven-year itch!”) inject a shot of life and black comic relief into the first half of Full Metal Jacket. Movie drill instructors begin and end with the late R. Lee Ermey and I’m still waiting for someone to deepfake him into a shout-off with the J.K. Simmons character from Whiplash.

The second half of the movie belongs to Matthew Modine’s “Joker,” who is set adrift as a military journalist in Da Nang, where streetwalkers step to Nancy Sinatra and solicit soldiers with the oft-quoted, “Me so horny, me love you long time.” Pyle killed himself and his drill instructor; Joker earns the dubious writing on his helmet, “Born to Kill,” by gunning down a teenage Vietnamese girl who has been sniping the men in his unit. Full Metal Jacket isn’t necessarily Stanley Kubrick’s best all-around film, but even a lesser Kubrick film is better than ninety percent of other movies.

7. Glory (1989)

Back in December, I wrote a separate /Film article about Glory, which I’ll link to at the end of this section. My eighth-grade history teacher showed us the movie in class and there’s one important scene in it that I neglected to discuss in that article. In many ways, it’s a scene that serves as a linchpin for the film and what it is about.

The night before their charge on Fort Wagner, the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment are gathered around the fire in their camp. For some of these men, it will be their last night on earth. The men are humming and clapping in unison, taking turns speaking before lapsing back into a chorus of, “Oh, my, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord.”

I’ve had their singing stuck in my head for a good twenty-five years or so, ever since that day I was first exposed to the movie in history class. There’s not a single non-black face to be found in that scene, which immediately distinguishes Glory as something different from your standard Civil War depiction (like, say, Gettysburg, which we’ll get into next).

An impertinent college buddy of mine once dismissed Morgan Freeman as a one-trick actor who always plays the same kind of roles. Some of that may result from typecasting. If memory serves correct, on Inside the Actor’s StudioFreeman himself once acknowledged that he was the go-to “gravitas” guy. During this scene in Glory, however, Freeman slips into a different voice, like he’s channeling the ghost of some old Southern preacher. Denzel Washington, the son of an actual Pentecostal minister, steps up after him, reminding us why he won an Oscar for this movie and why Glory is the best Civil War film ever made.

8. Gettysburg (1993)

With its emphasis on the glory and valor of old Virginia and de-emphasis on the role of slavery in the war (“We should have freed the slaves, then fired on Fort Sumter”), Gettysburg veers uncomfortably close, at times, to being a pro-Confederate Lost Cause film. Watching it almost feels like observing a Civil War reenactment, where you’ve got a bunch of modern men playing dress-up in bushy beards and blue and gray uniforms. The movie did, in fact, utilize Civil War reenactors as extras. In this case, the human figurines — media mogul Ted Turner’s toy soldiers, as it were — just so happened to include war movie hall-of-famers Martin Sheen and Tom Berenger, who play Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet.

On the Northern side, Jeff Daniels is particularly good as Joshua Chamberlain, a colonel tasked with defending a hill on the Union Army’s left flank during the battle that marked the Civil War’s turning point. No sooner are he and his unit relieved and sent to the middle than they find themselves facing the onslaught of Pickett’s Charge. This is where the movie redeems itself with an engrossing depiction of the conception and execution of battlefield strategies. It may seem like a relic of a pre-Glory mindset, but its treatment of the Battle of Gettysburg will come as catnip for history nerds.

It should be said that Gettysburg isn’t a film for viewers with short attention spans. Then again, its butt-numbing length may be perfectly suited to current binge-watching standards and the unique predicament of being cooped up at home during a pandemic. Owing to its small-screen roots as a TNT miniseries, the 4-hour film (which received a limited theatrical release long before that became de rigueur with Netflix’s award movies) leans more into saluting and speechifying than blood and grime. Familiar faces like Sam Eliott come and go from the narrative as the film offers a diffuse, time-traveler’s view of the war, showing how friends who fought together in previous wars found themselves on opposite sides of the North-South conflict.

9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

For some viewers, the most memorable aspect of Saving Private Ryan may be its depiction of D-Day. Steven Spielberg had been making World War II films since he was a kid and he opened this one with an extended sequence set during the pivotal amphibious invasion of Normandy. The film spends over twenty minutes on the beach with American soldiers as they disembark landing crafts and are chewed up in a swift and merciless fashion by German machine gunfire. Bullets tear through hapless swimmers, unzipping red blood clouds from their bodies underwater, while on the beach, radiomen get their faces blown off and heads without helmets lose their luck equally fast.

This carnage has a spectacle to it but it means more, later, when characters we care about face their own unique, personalized deaths. The medic leaking blood from holes in his chest. The sniper whose crackshot aim finally fails him. The Jewish soldier with a knife driven through his heart. The captain firing his handgun at an approaching Tiger tank.

These deaths might not mean as much, either, were it not for the time we’ve spent getting to know these characters. Quiet moments in candlelit churches and on the steps of buildings put us in touch with the film’s aching human core. Edith Piaf plays on the phonograph as the men recount stories from back home of women they once knew and brothers they lost. When Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) says, “Earn this. Earn it,” he’s not only speaking to Private Ryan (Matt Damon), the man he’s sacrificed himself to save. He’s speaking to the audience and all the living.

10. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Back in the 1990s, when Martin Scorsese still watched new movies, he appeared on an episode of Roger Ebert & The Movies, where he spotlighted The Thin Red Line as his second favorite film of the decade. Here is what he had to say about it:

“There’s no star. The film has a deliberately loose structure and the story is told through multiple voiceovers and points-of-view. The Thin Red Line is actually the story of every soldier who took part in the endless battle to secure Guadalcanal. The Thin Red Line works very differently from most films. As you watch it, you wonder, what is narrative in movies? Is it everything, and if so, is there only one way to handle it?”

The Thin Red Line definitely brings a more arthouse sensibility to the war room than Saving Private Ryan. The film’s perspective, such as it is, is more like that of a spirit, setting itself down in men’s minds, observing them from the inside and outside as they search their souls and come into conflict with each other. Interweaving its various subplots into an all-knowing Malickian mosaic, the film essentially offers a God’s-eye view of the war.

As abstract as that might sound, The Thin Red Line is still more straightforward than some of Terrence Malick’s later films, insofar as it lets real scenes solidify and play out between characters, be it Witt and Welsh (Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn) or Tall and Staros (Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas). As his plane takes off, Staros speaks of his men as sons, saying, “You live inside me now. I’ll carry you wherever I go.” Maybe, the film gently suggests, the reverse holds true and there’s some divine omnipresence out there, checking in on its children even as they go about waging war.

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