While many films follow the journey and trials of a single person, or a couple people, war films almost always seem to run the other direction, chronicling the lives of a group of men, no matter how disparate, who must all get through this thing together. Sometimes the story sticks to the action aspects, sometimes it focuses on the people or group, but individuals rarely go to war alone. So, in honor of Company of Heroes—and its own kickass crew, including Vinnie Jones, Neal McDonough and Tom Sizemore—dropping on Blu-ray™ and DVD on February 26th, we’ve compiled this list of the best war movie ensembles. Ten-hut!
There’s nothing not to like about the premise of The Dirty Dozen and its characters. A major is tasked with assembling a small group of felon-soldiers and having them infiltrate a stronghold chateau. These guys are underdogs, misfits, and patriots. It’s like a much bloodier version of the Bad News Bears. While the ensemble has Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, and Donald Sutherland, the real standout here is the gruff and no-nonsense Jim Brown, who was one of the first big names to make his way from the world of sports to the world of film. He’s tough enough that it never seems like acting, which I guess made his job very easy for him.
This one may not resonate in the same fashion as the American films, but just because these soldiers are largely English, Irish and South African doesn’t mean they kick any less ass. Bonus points to this film for shifting the venue away from the more familiar WWII settings and pitting them against forces of a military coup on the verge of executing the nation’s leader. As the heroes breach the facility, they silently take out the sentries with cyanide-tipped arrows and cyanide gas. Awesome? Awesome.
The characters in submarine films better be pretty damn compelling and likable, because the audience is going to be in close quarters with these guys for 90 minutes, so the irritation factor could be high. Fortunately, Wolfgang Petersen is able to ratchet up the drama fast and furiously. Further, the story is told through a military journalist, rather than through an omniscient or brutally unreliable soldier narrator. Oh yeah…all the guys on the boats are Nazis, which may not make them the most likable lot, but their plight is very relatable, and you’re able to forget that these are the bad guys, which is a testament to not only the story but the performances of the actors.
I held out as long as I could. The basterds are a group of largely Jewish soldiers who take their Nazi-hunting to a very personal level, using brutal tactics to not only weaken German manpower but also create bad PR that weakens the resolve of the German war machine. These tactics include baseball bat assaults from the Bear Jew, frequent scalpings, and… STIGLITZ. They don’t all find their way home, but their cause is a noble one. So let’s celebrate that.
The guys in Tropic Thunder don’t come out of the gate as hardened soldiers but rather mismatched, hilariously idiosyncratic actors. But by the time the story ends, adversity has been faced and the good guys win, it’s hard to view them as actors in retrospect, even with such hilarious intermittent fare as Simple Jack. Just like with real soldiers, the madness of war takes its toll, in a thinly veiled spoof of the true story of shooting Apocalypse Now. It’s silly and slapstick-y, but the action sequences are quite legit, and the audience walks away learning that not only is war hell, but movie shoots about war can be hell as well.
As mentioned above, war can be hell because of the brutality, but in the case of high-tech battles of recent memory, war can also be hellishly boring, like a high school chem class. Three Kings uses four everymen to document exactly how rote and boring even life on the front lines can be as we see Spike Jonze, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney wrestle with their consciences as they’re torn between doing the right thing and getting really, really rich. They don’t set out to be heroes. Quite the opposite, actually. But they find their way after finally seeing the ravages of war.
Men rarely go to war alone, unless you’re John Rambo. So it’s no surprise that we more often see the ravages of war on groups of men, rather than individuals. Sure, they all cope their own way, but to see a group deteriorate or overcome collectively is part of the mystique of men in battle. Saving Private Ryan frames the journey of a group of men as they search for one man. The metaphor is hardly subtle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. We see a medic, a schoolteacher, a translator, a hard-ass, another hard-ass and a regular Joe from Brooklyn all trek across Europe in the search for a lost soul in war. It’s beautifully done, and one of few films that’s really long because it needs to be, not because it wants to be.