From stand-up, rag-tag ensemble tales like 'The Dirty Dozen' and Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' to historical combat re-creations like 'The Longest Day' and 'Battle of the Bulge,' the war genre is a sizeable beast, with literally hundreds of movies about World War II made since the '40s. Here are refresher rations featuring 10 men-on-a-mission movies.
By Gerry Gallo
The Inglorious Bastards (1978)
The film's tagline said it all: "Whatever the Dirty Dozen did they do it dirtier!" Italian director Enzo Castellari's film didn't make it to the U.S. until 1981, and by that time a young Quentin Tarantino most likely fell in love with the 'Dirty' knockoff in the darkness of one of his beloved grindhouse theaters, vowing to one day make his own version of the film. Bo Svenson takes on the commanding chores of a group of brig-bound soldiers who make a break for Switzerland, only to ally with the French resistance to steal valuable German hardware.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Twelve men facing time behind bars, including tough guys Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson and Jim Brown, must be whipped into shape quicker than quick by the indomitable Lee Marvin for a suicide mission behind enemy lines. Many war movies pulled their formula from the tried-and-true western genre, and this spaghetti western on the battlefield is the obvious template for 'Bastards,' 'Basterds' and dozens of other action movies.
The Great Escape (1963)
This all-time classic moves the action from the battlefield to behind barbed wire as an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn and Donald Pleasence tries to tunnel, forge and finagle their way out of a German prison camp. The mixture of the characters' charm and perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds – underlined by the fact that the film was based on a true story – make this one of the best war films ever. McQueen's cool, daring motorcycle chase is the cherry on top.
Kelly's Heroes (1970)
Looking to capitalize on the popularity of 'The Dirty Dozen' with a sense of humor and irony, Heroes is really a heist caper with spaghetti western flair in war genre guise. Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland decide to help themselves to 14,000 gold bars held in a bank behind enemy lines, but the greed of those around them may be more deadly than the Germans trying to cut them down at every turn.
Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton are a U.S. Army Ranger and Brit commando who lead a team to rescue an American officer held captive in an Alpine mountaintop German castle, reachable only by cable car. The mission is simple: Get in. Get out. From Alistair MacLean, who wrote 'The Guns of Navarone,' this action-packed spy film is full of crosses and double-crosses and never lets up until the final frames.
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn are the crack cast of pros who team up to take out a strategically placed German artillery unit in an impenetrable Aegean Sea fortress – if they don't kill each other first. With a traitor in their midst, Peck's best quote concerns leery partner Quinn's vow to kill him if they survive the mission: "He's from Crete. Those people don't make idle threats."
Alistair MacLean, The Guns of Navarone, Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn
Force 10 from Navarone (1978)
Worth it just to see a 'Star Wars'-era Harrison Ford in a WWII period uniform, 'Force 10' is a weak, too-little-too-late follow-up to the far superior 'Guns of Navarone,' but still has its virtues as a rogues gallery men-on-a-mission-to-blow-up-a-bridge movie. Robert Shaw, Edward Fox and Carl Weathers round out the cast, with 'The Spy Who Loved Me' stars Barbara Bach and Richard "Jaws" Kiel reunited just for fun.
The Big Red One (1980)
Also on a break between 'Star Wars' flicks, Mark Hamill took a cue from Harrison Ford's 'Force 10' anti-typecasting by trying his own hand at the combat genre. It's a long way from 'Corvette Summer.' Written and directed by the late Sam Fuller, who based the story on the action he saw during the war, 'The Big Red One' is a movie with a more straightforward platoon diary narrative. Once again, Lee Marvin is the crusty sarge, this time leading a band of First Infantry Division soldiers through the horrors of war-torn Europe.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The gung-ho sergeant. The sniper with the crucifix. The captain with the shaky hands and a heart of gold. Even though Steven Spielberg wholly succeeded in accurately portraying the horrors of war down to the very last detail, he couldn't resist a few subtle nods to the "men-on-a-mission," patriotic John Wayne war movies of his youth. 'Saving Private Ryan' has it in spades. There is also a lot of soul to be found in this gritty war film, which redefined the genre with its jarring, hand-held combat footage that puts the viewer right in the middle of hell itself.
Cross of Iron (1977)
Not a "men-on-a-mission" premise, but worthy nonetheless for its complicated class-conflict relationships between competing soldiers with undaunted motivations. Slow-motion violence maestro Sam Peckinpah's only war film, 'Cross' stars James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason and David Warner in a story told from the German army's point of view as they battled for the Russian front in 1943.