AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the highly unlikely event this list fails to satisfy, I would encourage the reader to make up his own and try it out on friends. Once finished, the reader should ask what the films chosen had in common. If you come up with an answer like “really neat uniforms,” you should go immediately to the library and check out Frank Joseph Wetta and Stephen J. Curley’s Celluloid Wars: A Guide to Film and the American Experience of War , Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War , E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa , or the unforgettable Wound Ballistics , a volume in the Army’s World War II official history by the Surgeon General’s Office.
117 minutes. Black and white. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Sterling Holloway, George Tyne, John Ireland, Norman Lloyd, Herbert Rudley, Lloyd Bridges, Huntz Hall. Fox, 1945.
One morning with an infantry patrol in the Italian countryside, shortly after the Anzio invasion.
118 minutes. Black and white. Directed by William Wellman. Van Johnson, John Hodiak, James Whitmore, Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Marshall Thompson. MGM, 1949.
At the Battle of the Bulge with one squad of the 101st Airborne Division.
170 minutes. Black and white. Directed by William Wyler. Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Harold Russell, Gladys George, Steve Cochran. RKO, 1946.
Three veterans, trying to put themselves back together again after the Good War is over.
109 minutes. Black and white. Directed by Allan Dwan. John Wayne, John Agar, Adele Mara, Wally Cassell, Forrest Tucker, James Brown, Richard Webb, Arthur Franz, Julie Bishop, James Holden, Peter Coe, Richard Jaeckel, Bill Murphy. Republic, 1949.
The archetypal blood-and-guts war movie, notable more for its cultural influence than its realism.
132 minutes. Black and white. Directed by Henry King. Gregory Peck, Dean Jagger, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell. Fox, 1949.
The best American film about the war in the air, and the travails of combat commanders in it.
106 minutes. Color. Directed by Jesse Hibbs. Audie Murphy, Susan Kohner, Marshall Thompson, Jack Kelly, Charles Drake, Paul Picerni, Gregg Palmer. Universal, 1955.
Another icon of the genre, this one shipped out to Vietnam with Sands of Iwo Jima .
131 minutes. Color. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Aldo Ray, Cliff Robertson, Raymond Massey, Barbara Nichols, Lili St. Cyr. Warner Brothers, 1958.
The best film about the Pacific war, based on the best novel about the Pacific war.
90 minutes. Black and white. Directed by Don Siegel. Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, Harry Guardino, James Coburn, Nick Adams, Mike Kellin, Bob Newhart. Paramount, 1962.
Long forgotten, this film is a character study of a burned-out infantryman, burning out still more.
116 minutes. Color. Directed by John Guillermin. George Segal, Robert Vaughn, Ben Gazzara, Bradford Dillman, E. G. Marshall, Peter Van Eyck. United Artists, 1969.
An armored cavalry unit with an important war-winning mission, unimpressed nevertheless, and doing the fighting anyway.
113 minutes. Color. Directed by Samuel Fuller. Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby DiCicco, Stéphane Audran, Kelly Ward. United Artists, 1980.
Sam Fuller’s commemoration of his old division from North Africa through the ETO, told from the view of one incredibly lucky squad of infantrymen.