Sunday, May 22, 2011

Movies I Watch When Writing – Part I: The War Flicks

I play a number of DVD’s in the background when I’m writing.  I will glance up from time-to-time, but for the most part these are just on to help me set the mood.  I figured it was worth sharing my list – just for grins.  This is the war movies that I play.  I have similar lists for science fiction and true crime.  Since I write a lot of military history, I figured that I would start here first. 

These movies are in no particular order…

Patton.  Having devoured numerous biographies about Patton, I know some of the historical errors in the movie.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love it. 

The Longest Day.  Lovat – bagpiper Billy Milligan – “hold until relieved.”  Robert Mitchum leading the men off the matter how you cut it, this flick is a classic.

Saving Private Ryan.  I put this here after The Longest Day purposefully.  There are parts of this movie that I love, some I cringe at.  I enjoyed the D-Day landing scene and the scene with General Marshall ordering the men to recover Ryan (mostly because this ties in well with my book, Lost Eagles.) 

The Lighthorsemen.  This is an Aussie film and a great one at that.  The Australian Lighthorse during the battles in the desert in WWI.  The charge scene at the end is, stunning. 

Zulu.  The battle of Rorke’s Drift and Michael Cain’s first big move, Zulu is stunning.  A handful of British troops take on thousands of Zulus.  The movie make you realize just how battles in the 18th century were fought. 

A Bridge Too Far.  “This is a day you will tell your grandchildren about; and mightily bored they will be…”  All of the big name stars from the late 1970’s are in the movie.  The Red Devils fighting it out in Arnhem make the movie for me. 

Cross of Iron.  Often overlooked, this Sam Peckinpah film is great.  Slow motion death scenes and a disturbing scene with the Russian Women’s Mortar Battalion make this neat to watch. 

Stalingrad.  I hate the dubbing but love the movie.  The battle of Stalingrad is one of my favorites to read about and this movie captures the essence of it. 

Gallipoli.  I probably should have moved this to the bottom of the list.  I like the movie, just not watching it.  It is good to have on in the background however.

World at War.  When I was a kid I used to watch this series every Friday night on the black and white set in my bedroom.  (I didn’t get out much, humor me.) 

The First World War - BBC’s documentary on WWI.  I know documentaries get a bad rap.  Trust me on this one, this series is worth watching. 

Flyboys.  Don’t lecture me on the inaccuracies of this movie about the Lafayette Escadrille – I am well aware of them.   I could almost  write an article on the mistakes.  Having said this, this is the Hollywood version of history and it does provide me with some entertainment, especially the dogfighting scenes.

The Blue Max.  WWI aviation movies are rare.  This is one that has a decent plot and some wonderful flying scenes.   If I am writing WWI aviation stuff, this movie is a requirement to have on.

Braveheart.   Hollywood screws up good history.  I love Braveheart despite the historical flaws.  The battle scenes are glory.  Mel Gibson’s dialogue rocks. 

Gods and Generals.  Having lived in Manassas this movie is why Hollywood changes historical movies.  I like Gods and Generals but it takes a special to sit through the whole thing thanks to the length and the fact that it is relatively historically accurate. 

Sergeant York.  Despite its age and corniness, this movie remains one that I enjoy having on while I am writing because it is about a real person and the depiction, from what I have read, is not too far off from reality. 

The Red Baron.  Trying to humanize the Red Baron in a movie is both hard and pointless.  Skip the plot, watch the dogfight scenes.  Those battle scenes are worth the price of this little gem. 

Gettysburg.  Fake beards aside – nothing is as cool as the charge of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. 

Fail Safe.   It doesn’t get any more real than this – an errant B-52 bombs Moscow.  This movie makes you squirm on a few levels and is great to have on when I am working on building plot and tension in a book.   

The Patriot.  Is this a war movie?  Well, there are some battles, and they are entertaining which is why it remains on my list.  The plot is over-worn and the thought of the Americans fighting a guerilla campaign that turns the tide of the war is the stuff of myth more than reality.   Get past those flaws the movie is pretty fun to have on.

Gladiator.  I love the opening battle scene of this movie, which is why it is on the list.  The rest of the story, well, is interesting. 

Paths of Glory.  A friend turned me onto this WWI gem.  Stanley Kubrick was the brains behind this movie and did a very good job of tell this story of French mismanagement and rotten leadership during the Great War.  I tend to watch this movie after the climax of a book, when you are trying to make the book make sense to the reader. 

Glory.  I’m sorry, Matthew Brorderick as a regimental commander in the Civil War?  What in the hell was casting thinking?  Thank God Morgan Freeman was there to offset Broderick’s interpretation of the role.  When I’m writing and this is on, I stop and watch the storming of Fort Fischer, half wondering each time if they might pull it off.  Silly me…

Master and Commander.  I would have flogged the good doctor in this movie.  All of that crap about gathering biological samples and the sob-story of the young officer killing himself almost drained the life out of a good war movie; almost. 

Dr. Strangelove.  “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here…this is the war room!”  The quotes in this movie are worthy of a book all on their own.  I have found myself chuckling when I am writing on this movie is on – just from the snippets I overhear in the background. 

Lawrence of Arabia.  This movie has to play in the background because it is hard to sit down for three hours and watch it.  I do enjoy it however.  If you want to understand the mess that the Middle East is today, watch this movie for a sampling as to why. 

Thirteen Days.  The Cuban Missile Crisis, now there is a study in decision making and crisis management.   I have this on when I am writing parts of the book where I need to concentrate and organize my facts and details. 

The Alamo.  I have both versions and play both when I write.   In all fairness, I like the newer version that came out a few years ago.  I know, it is sacrilegious to not favor John Wayne, but that’s how I see it.  When I am writing about desperate situations, this is the movie to have on. 

The Lost Battalion.  You have to move past the fact that Ricky Schroder is the star of this WWI movie.  I find this movie to be one of the better WWI films out there.  There’s some aviation, an enemy that is not some mindless foe, and Americans in a situation that is hard to comprehend. 

The Bridge Over The River Kwai.  Accurate?  No.  Tension-filled?  Duh!  Great character development in this movie, which is how I use it when I write. 

So, there’s the list…what have I overlooked? 


  1. Very nice list. You have a high percentage of great movies here and even the dogs (e.g. Flyboys, Braveheart, Gods and Generals) have logical justifications.

  2. Thanks. I've gotten some suggestions to add to the list too.

  3. Great list. Cross of Iron is a gem not too many know about,and I've always believed that Peckinpaugh's violence underscores the brutality and desperation on the Eastern Front. Real military vehicles plus Steiner's (James Coburn)statement to Stransky (Maximilian Schell): "I will show you where the Iron Crosses grow".

    I'd add "Der Untergang (Downfall)" for Bruno Ganz simply becoming Hitler with all his madness, "Mongol", a Russian film, also subtitled, for the stunningly epic battle scenes that hammer home Genghis Khan's (and the Mongols') mastery of cavalry tactics.

    "The Last Samurai" is also worthy (and notable in that it's the one historical film Tom Cruise didn't ruin). Ken Watanabe's Katsumoto, a true student of military history, remains true to the Samurai code even in the face of modern weaponry (that Gatling Gun was vicious), forfeiting his life rather than his ideals.