As a very old guy, my choices could be very different from young people who can’t remember movies, wars or adventures that happened before the 1990s. I do include two fairly recent films in my top ten choices, but I know there were many great action films made even before my time, such as the 1928 silent “Wings” and 1931’s early talkies, “Public Enemy” and “All Quiet on the Western Front”. The following are in the order of my personal ranking, but if you ask me tomorrow, the list could flip-flop in any direction.
1. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) The remastered version of this magnificent Technicolor masterpiece appears on late TV once in awhile, and it is as entertaining and contemporary today as it was when I saw it as a kid 70 years ago. No one could swashbuckle like Errol Flynn, especially as the fabled Robin, nor sneer as evilly as Basil Rathbone as the Sheriff of Nottingham. This movie has the endless energy, noble speeches, sword fights and grand (not annoying rock garbage) music that are rarely seen in today’s over-cool, over-budgeted and overpriced movies.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a no-holds-barred World War II film that brings to the screen the seldom-seen movie reality of the GIs who must fight and die in combat. It begins with brilliantly-staged, but horrific scenes of the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, and the choreography of graphic violence leaves the audience in shock and awe.
A squad of GIs who survive the landings is chosen for a special assignment. Under a war-weary, ex-teacher captain, acted with great sensitivity by Tom Hanks, they roam all over Normandy to look for Private Ryan. They must take him out of combat before anything happens to him, because his two brothers have been killed. The Army rule was that the surviving brother of all families should be saved and sent home. It was put into practice after all five Sullivan brothers died when their ship was sunk in the Pacific.
In a way, this story is a throwback to the war films that were made during WWII and in the decade of WWII films that followed. Each squad of on-screen soldiers always seemed to be composed of one Italian tough guy, one intellectual Jew, one Nebraska hayseed, one clueless 17-year-old who’ll be killed in the first five minutes, and all the other cliche GIs. In this film, we follow the squad on its mission, and can relate sympathetically to each soldier as he reveals his own likes, gripes, fears, strengths and weaknesses. The last scene is heartbreaking as the captain dies and the images segue to the present as the surviving Private Ryan, now an old man, places flowers on the grave in Normandy.
3. Patton (1970) Like Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, George C. Scott’s General Patton is an exaggeration, fueled by legend, fantasy and Hollywood hype. Many historians question whether Robin Hood ever lived, but no one could dispute the reality of General George C. Patton, Jr., especially after Scott brings him to the screen.
The story is greatly enhanced by Scott’s acting. He portrays Patton as a strutting braggart, but also a brilliant strategist and, at times, a leader who’s sensitive to the struggles and heroism of his men. Even the North African scenes where Patton imagines he has fought and died as a soldier in ancient wars, are made believable by Scott’s creative interpretation.
The action scenes are well done, and one is full of humor and understanding of war. When Patton’s troops fight against German General Rommel’s army, they defeat the famed Desert Fox as Patton yells,”Rommel, you magnificent bastard. I read your book!”
My favorite scene is not of battle, but opens the movie on an empty stage backed by an enormous American flag. As Scott’s General Patton struts onto the theater stage, the audience doesn’t see, but hears shuffles as thousands of unseen GIs rise and snap to attention. After lots of close-ups and glares from Scott/Patton, his inspirational speech includes the famous lines any soldier would appreciate hearing from his commander. “I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”
4. They Died With Their Boots On (1941) Another great action film starring my favorite action hero of all time, Errol Flynn. Unfortunately it was filmed in black and white, when the sweeping war scenes would have been fantastic in Technicolor. It is another highly-laundered story of a heroic figure who still lives in our history books, and every American schoolchild knows about his heroic death. This film is Hollywood’s glorified and simplified version of the life of General George Armstrong Custer. However, the general’s real life was so full of truly spectacular action, as the old John Wayne movie quote goes, “When the truth conflicts with the legend, print the legend.”
Flynn gives this movie his usual fierce intensity and bravado, progressing from foppish West Point cadet to general by clerical error in the Civil War to his ultimate demise with his 7th Cavalry troops at Little Big Horn. Looking lovingly at him throughout, as she did in “Robin Hood” and other films they made together, is Olivia De Haviland. They made a great team in a dozen adventure movies.
5. The Wild Bunch (1969) could easily have been just a bloody mess, as directed by one of the great directors of bloody messes, Sam Peckinpaugh. It’s one of my favorite films because it was the first to show that bullets not only kill, often in tantalizing slow motion, but make shocking messes. Those of us who’ve been at war appreciated this honesty, brutal as it was, of how casually cruel the human animal can be against its own species.
Star Bill Holden (Pike), no longer the pretty-boy Hollywood dandy, looked every bit of his 50 years, his craggy face showing years of hard living and hard drinking. He’s the nails-tough leader of a gang of robbers who get faked out when they hit a town bank.
They escape with the money, but are betrayed by former gang member Robert Ryan (Thornton), who leads the posse against them. Then the shooting and bleeding begins. It’s a great movie that shuns the typical good guy vs bad guy tradition, and allows sympathy for the bad guys, at least until they all die in a hail of bullets. In slow motion, of course.
6. Air Force One (1997) “Get off my plane!”, President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) growls as he strangles murderous Russian hijacker, Ivan (Gary Oldman), and kicks him out of the cargo hold hatch of Air Force One at 10,000 feet. This up-in-the-air film is a nail-biter from the first scenes, when a gang of Russian political extremists take over the aircraft. Ford is the only passenger who escapes from them, and while hiding in the hold, he must figure how to retake Air Force One, all the time knowing his wife and daughter are prisoners in the hands of the hijackers.
He makes contact with Washington and directs U.S. Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) to find ways to foil the hijackers. Bennett is advised by a room full of high-ranking officers to shoot the plane down and sacrifice the President and his family, but she holds out, and is eventually proved right to follow the President’s orders. (Hmmm. Did John McCain see this film and get ideas about a strong, decisive Veep?)
Bennett and the President are faced with the dilemma created by the hijackers when they threaten to kill the passengers one by one until their leader is released from a Russian jail. They must endure the horror when several hostages are murdered during the ensuing drama.
It gets even more dangerous when the hijackers discover the President’s family is aboard, and threaten to kill them unless he surrenders. Of course, there’s a lot of violence and killings, but when was the last time Harrison Ford lost a fight?
7. Aliens (1986) The scene of Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) confronting the drooling monster from space is enough to make us cringe, and the anticipation of more horror keeps this excellent film going until its gory end. We cringe and suffer along with Ripley’s spaceship crew as the monster ravages through, eating and/or impregnating them one by one. This film was so well accepted by the audience, it (and the monster) spawned a whole series of sequels. But none were as surprising and enjoyable as the original.
8. Die Hard (1988) I’m not much of a Bruce Willis fan, because his acting is usually overly macho and cornball, but in this film he does an excellent job as tough Manhattan cop John McClane stuck in a Los Angeles high-rise office building.
While his feats of derring-do sometimes seem to belong in a comic book, his wise-guy attitude and dogged determination to get the bad guys is a pleasure to watch. You know Bruce will win in the end, but he makes you suffer along with him through all kinds of bloody shootings, hanging one bad guy and high-rise defenestration of the boss bad guy, Hans (Alan Rickman).
9. Star Wars (1977) Recently, I went to a one-woman show at UCLA starring the now mature Carrie Fisher, who was the teenage Princess Leia 30 years ago in this first and by far the best of what has become the never-ending Star Wars series. She had some very interesting and scandalous experiences to tell that even the supermarket magazines would never reveal.
By today’s more sophisticated digital imaging and other animation advances, the original Star Wars looks a bit dated. However, the great film still provide some soaring entertainment whenever I see reruns on TV. Of course, Mark Hamill, who starred as Luke Skywalker, quickly faded into Hollywood oblivion, while the relatively minor character of Han Solo propelled Harrison Ford into movie superstardom, where it seems every role he played thereafter was just another casually heroic Han, including my other favorite he’s in, “Air Force One”.
Alec Guinness added his Shakespearean voice and image in his role as the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi who recited the deathless line, “May the Force be with you”, which sounded profound coming from him, but never made much sense to me. I also admired the now late Sir Alec for his very wise decision to take some relatively small investment points in the movie instead of a salary, and pocketed millions.
10. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) This is an absolute masterpiece from Clint Eastwood, who concurrently directed “Flags of Our Fathers”. That film, which was released a year before “Letters”, was about the suddenly-famous Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during the invasion of Iwo Jima. The story follows the survivors as they are exploited back in the U.S. by the military and politicians, and their resentment as they’re paraded around selling war bonds. It was a great film, and looked sympathetically into the lives of the Marines who appeared in the immortal flag-raising picture. However, for this old World War II Navy guy, as difficult as it was to overcome memories and prejudice, I believe “Letters” is the better film.
It wasn’t that much better than the excellent “Flags”, because they were both superb films. But it was more intriguing because it portrayed the ordinary WWII Japanese soldier facing certain death as the Marines storm ashore with overwhelming force. This is a terrible, but believably honest war story told from the perspective and in the language of the Japanese defenders. Viewers must read English titles, except in one poignant scene when an English-speaking, sympathetic Japanese officer talks with a dying Marine captive.