The best war movies aren’t about bullets or missiles or grenades, they’re about the men and women who risk death, find love, lose love, and face agonizing choices in times of great crisis. I’m not a big blood and guts guy. But I do adore a good moral dilemma. That’s what our new television series, Last Resort (shameless plug: premieres Thursday at 8/7 ET/CT on ABC), aims to deliver. Many of the movies on my list provided inspiration for our show about the crewmembers of the USS Colorado who find the courage to question a murky and suspicious order to fire nuclear weapons at Pakistan. As a result, they find themselves under attack and on the run from their own country. As for my list, which is in alphabetical order, you’ll recognize a lot of these titles below. I’m not going to try to impress you with obscure film history. Classics are classics for a reason.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
One of the scariest journeys ever committed to film. The behind the scenes stories of the making of the movie might be even more frightening (see the documentary Hearts of Darkness or, for a more comedic perspective of the insanity of it all, see or read the play Geniuses). I’ve probably seen this film five times and I still don’t think I fully understand it, making it an apt reflection of the Vietnam War. Steaming down the river with Martin Sheen and his companions, you find yourself naturally scanning the jungle, dreading the bullets you’re sure are to come, fearing for your own life, as well as theirs.
A true example of the kind of grand epic that we aspire to with Last Resort, Casablanca has it all—love, betrayal, friendship, sacrifice, laughs, music, and indelible characters. Amazing how well it holds up still. And good luck trying to find another Bogart today.
Das Boot (1981)
The best submarine movie ever made was actually a German television program, later combined and released as one movie. The claustrophobia is intense. The characters so vivid, the tension so high. Watching it, you could swear you were 200 feet under the ocean, stuck in this rusty tomato can. When I briefly found myself rooting for the German submariners to survive and sink an Allied boat, I was reminded of the power of great filmmaking.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Well, who wouldn’t travel through war-torn Russia and endure ice-frozen mansions in pursuit of Julie Christie? One of the most gorgeous films ever made, it defines the word “epic”.
The epitome of tension and dread. As an American nuclear bomber makes its way toward Moscow, ignoring White House pleas to turn around, due to protocol, Henry Fonda (as the president) and Larry Hagman (as his translator) give a master class on how to make a small, windowless room the most exciting location on earth. We studied these scenes closely while preparing to shoot Last Resort. Sometimes a lingering camera on a great actor’s face is the best special effect of all.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Should have won the Oscar that year. But then again, what I want to win never seems to (I’m looking at you, The Social Network, Fargo, and Capote). Tarantino revised and reimagined World War II, giving us the ending we all would have wanted while also delivering one of the greatest movie villains of all-time.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Cheating here a little bit, but I’m saying a Cold War movie qualifies for this list. Of all the films mentioned here, this is one you may not have seen yet. If so, go buy, rent, or stream it now. A brilliant look into the lives of the 1980s East German Stasi (Secret Police) and the civilians they spy and eavesdrop on. In such an unexpected way, it shows us one of the most heroic journeys in film history.
The football game goes on too long and it doesn’t really have an ending, but the way it pivots from hard drama to hysterical comedy is something the rest of us have been trying to duplicate ever since. The absurdity of war indeed.
On the Beach (1959)
Fair warning. One of the more depressing movies I’ve ever seen. But nuclear annihilation is a tough subject matter to get laughs out of if your name isn’t Stanley Kubrick. Gregory Peck is absolutely devastating as a submarine captain who leads his crew to Australia, the only place on earth not yet destroyed by nuclear war. But radioactive clouds are coming and the human race seemingly only has months left. Peck keeps his dignity even as he remembers friends and family back home, now dead. He even finds new love with Ava Gardner (right up there with Julie Christie), but for how long?
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Last year I got to visit Normandy Beach with my wife. The memorial is the most awe-inspiring, humbling place I’ve ever stepped foot on. So it’s understandable that Spielberg would want to highlight it in this movie. Unfortunately, the present-day Normandy Beach bookends of the film are overly-maudlin and deceptive to the audience. In between those two scenes, however, lies the best and most powerful pure war film ever made, in my opinion. The scene of the German soldier quieting Adam Goldberg before plunging the knife distills the horror of war in the most personal and harrowing of ways.