The war movie, like the western or the film noir, had its heyday of popular appeal several decades ago. So it’s hardly surprising that, on Netflix, it’s a genre without a great deal of representation. Pickings are slim—classics and little-seen gems are nestled in amongst modern war movie fodder such as telefilm Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden and the Dolph Lundgren-led actioner War Pigs, along with two direct-to-video sequels to Jarhead—but make no mistake, there are some classics and gems to be found there. As well as a Netflix original that already looks like one of the great all-time war movies, there are classic studio flicks, recent hard-hitting documentaries and a couple of foreign-language hits in Netflix’s war movie roster. Here are ten of the best on offer.
10. The Desert Fox
Director: Henry Hathaway
In spite of the title, Henry Hathaway’s The Desert Fox gives little attention to the nickname-lending success Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (James Mason) had in North Africa. Instead the film begins with Rommel in defeat, retreating from the desert at the end of Germany’s Africa campaign, charting his fatal journey from celebrated battlefield commander and servant of Adolf Hitler to doomed opponent of the Fuhrer. The veracity of source author Desmond Young’s account has been a matter of debate—historians have questioned Young’s notion that Rommel was directly involved in the 1944 plot against Hitler’s life, something the entire film pivots around—but then this is a rare biopic which seeks to build a myth rather than deconstruct one. Mason, then, so good he played the part twice (in this and Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats), is suitably immense in the role, exuding intelligence and stubborn heroism. Though it’s not just his film: The Desert Fox is also a portrait of Hitler as military strategist, whose bullish confidence and reckless ambition begins to look like ineptitude and sheer madness once his luck turns, and which slowly opens the eyes of the officers serving under him—including the Desert Fox himself—to the fact that they’ve followed a charlatan into war. —Brogan Morris
9. Tell Spring Not to Come This Year
Director: Saeed Taji Farouky, Michael McEvoy
What comes after the war can rarely be accurately described as peace. In Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy’s documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, which spends a year in Afghanistan’s Helmand province with a company of the Afghan National Army as American troops prepare to withdraw, this seems especially true. Fighting continues between factions in a stunning ancient landscape dotted with the ruins of recent conflict, and the domestic soldiers now responsible for holding the fort harbor resentment, for their former American occupiers and their own politicians, convinced their country has been used for somebody’s personal gain. There’s a palpable melancholy to the film and its subjects, as though all are only too aware that the rest of the world has by the point of filming largely lost interest in their story and turned to focus on news elsewhere—even though these men, as we see in some fine battle photography of the ANA’s ongoing fight with the Taliban, remain in a hopeless position. —B.M.
Director: Bernhard Wicki
Greeted by lukewarm reviews from critics, the bafflingly titled Morituri bombed with audiences in 1965, and is today regarded—if at all—as a curiosity to be found lurking in the filmographies of two iconic stars. Yet it’s more than just a curio: twisty and morally knotty, Bernhard Wicki’s WWII espionage thriller is a rare studio film to reject the old Hollywood certainty of the loyal, unquestioning German enemy and dig into the complicated feelings Hitler’s subjects had about the Third Reich. The story presents two Germans on opposing sides—a pacifist masquerading as an SS officer, tasked with infiltrating a German cargo boat to hand over to the British, played by Marlon Brando, and the ship’s hard-drinking, Nazi-hating captain, played by Yul Brynner—and explores what reasons such men would find to fight a war they consider toxic, for sides they feel no loyalty towards. This complexity makes Morituri one of the smarter and less easygoing war films from the period, to the point where it feels almost too heavy to be always thrilling, but the clash of the always surprising Brando and the typically commanding Brynner makes for delicious viewing. —B.M.
7. The Way Back
Director: Peter Weir
Peter Weir’s WWII-era survival movie may be based on a disputed “true story,” but it holds indisputable truths about man’s perseverance in impossible odds. A prison break movie that soon morphs into an epic travelogue, The Way Back displays a bountiful variety of scenery, as a disparate group of POWs and political undesirables escapes from a Soviet gulag to trek 4,000 miles across Asia, from ice-blanketed Siberia through dusty Mongolia and on to lush India, the final destination getting always further away as the group discover how far the tyrannical communism they flee has spread. It’s one of Weir’s less remarkable films, but even Weir in a minor key is still compelling entertainment, and as usual he casts to a T: the top-drawer ensemble includes Ed Harris as a grizzly American engineer, Saoirse Ronan as a Polish stray who joins the escapees on their pilgrimage and, best of all, a wonderfully scuzzy Colin Farrell as a feral Russian gangster who’s spent so long imprisoned he hasn’t a clue what to do with freedom. —B.M.
Director: Sebastian Junger
The follow-up to 2010’s Oscar-nominated Restrepo, Korengal builds on the psychological perspicacity of its predecessor, delving in a very simple and direct way into what war and its aftereffects feel like. Following the same soldiers fromRestrepo, the movie intercuts formal interviews after the men have cycled out of their year-long tour with more conversational material and other footage from the ground. If a large part of Restrepo was about capturing the low-level dread and anxiety that swirls around soldiers in war, Korengalrevisits that feeling but connects it in ethereal yet tangible fashion to an explanation of why soldiers not only have difficulty reintegrating into civilian life, but also actually miss combat, and pine for a return to this stressed-out environment. —Brent Simon
5. A War
Director: Tobias Lindholm
Tobias Lindholm and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck shoot A War in unadorned, exacting clarity, treating both the scenic mountains of Afghanistan and the urban outlines of Denmark with the same stark, practically clinical eye. The moral quandary at the center of the film may not be an original one—Danish commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) must go to court over a split-second decision made during a firefight in which his actions saved a comrade while unknowingly leading to a number of civilian casualties—but Lindholm takes seemingly ages to get to that point, allowing the audience to soak in the monotony and incessant-if-buried burden of Pedersen’s position: serving as ersatz father for his unit while knowing, intuitively, that his family desperately needs him back home. Nothing at home happens with action-packed aplomb (though the director sets up tense red herrings to lure the audience into a sense of unease), and yet the stakes are painfully real. Pedersen did the only thing he knew to do, yet in saving his unit he may have sacrificed his family’s well-being.—Dom Sinacola
4. The Longest Day
Directors: Ken Annakin, Darryl F. Zanuck, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald
The most impressive of the multinational, star-studded WWII recreation epics to come out of Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s, The Longest Day—a hulking product of collaboration between no less than five filmmakers, approaching D-Day from the British, French, German and American sides—takes a sweeping yet thorough cross-section look at what happened in Normandy on June 6th, 1944, across land, sea and air. As Operation Overlord was a massive display of military might, so The Longest Day is a spectacle of the wealth and power of the ’60s studio system, and the reserves Hollywood kept for the war movie genre back when it was at the peak of its popularity. For the French-speaking portion of the film, there is an espionage mini-thriller and a thunderous Commando assault on a seaside town. For the English-speaking portion, the biggest stars money could then buy, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum, and a large-scale storming of Normandy’s beaches unrivaled in scope even by Saving Private Ryan’s feted opening scene. And for the German-speaking segments, a surprisingly even-handed (and occasionally even lighthearted) portrayal of ill-prepared officers, out-of-their-depth Luftwaffe and the ordinary soldiers who from that point on would be forever in retreat. —B.M.
3. Beasts of No Nation
Director: Cary Fukunaga
A harrowing descent into a modern-day heart of darkness, Beasts of No Nation channels Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now for its tale of one child’s recruitment into an African rebel battalion. Adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s novel with fearsome intimacy, writer/director Cary Fukunaga depicts his unidentified African setting as a mixture of lushly green forests, bullet-shattered villages and mist-enshrouded horizons—the last of which is due, at least in part, to the fires that rage throughout the countryside. Those conflagrations are the result of a conflict between government and revolutionary forces, the specifics of which the film, like its precise locale, leaves more or less vague. Fukunaga’s film is thus mired in a hazy, nightmarish fugue of violence and degradation, the director presenting a landscape of hellish depravity and amorality through the eyes of one young boy unwittingly swept up in his nation’s insanity. A coming-of-age saga twisted into unholy form, Beasts of No Nation eschews undue melodramatic manipulations (and avoids romanticizing its perversions) in charting Agu’s maturation into a pitiless soldier. —Nick Schager
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
It’s a curiously human trait, our need to laugh in the face of evil—and that Downfall spawned a million parody videos perhaps speaks of how unsettling Oliver Hirschbiegel’s war-bio is. Here is a film that takes us into the heart of darkness in maybe the darkest time in human history, Hitler’s Berlin bunker at the end of WWII in Europe, and makes the mastermind of that horror our company for two-and-a-half hours. More uncomfortably, the film makes this murderous dictator something approaching sympathetic, his hands uncontrollably quivering (possibly as a result of the onset of Parkinson’s disease), his mind paranoid and deluded that victory is still within grasp, as all around the city explodes and his soldiers privately prepare for life after the Reich. Bruno Ganz’s is the definitive screen portrayal of Hitler, a portrayal that courted controversy on the film’s release because it dared suggest there was humanity to one of history’s great monsters. His Hitler is cruel, ruthlessly inhumane and, as seen in that YouTube-famous scene, given to apocalyptic rages, but he’s also affectionate towards loved ones and kindly to his most loyal servants. It’s a fascinatingly complex depiction of a pathetic tyrant, in an all-round riveting account of a regime’s last days. —B.M.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Watching Patton, Franklin J. Schaffner’s colossal biographical ode to one of World War II’s most renowned and most controversial military figures, you get the sense that George S. Patton would likely dig Schaffner’s work; the film doesn’t apologize for itself or for its subject’s actions and attitudes, much as Patton didn’t make a habit of apologizing for either unless directly ordered to by his superiors. There may be no more appropriate way to honor the man’s memory than that, such as Patton can be narrowly described as an “honor.” The film doesn’t exactly flatter the general, per se, but straddles a line between hero worship and sober representation, letting Patton, and by extension George C. Scott’s commanding and iconic portrait of him, speak for himself without fear of condemnation or reprisal. As Patton is about Patton, so, too, is it about Scott, which makes sense: If you make a movie and name it after its central character, you’re also making it about its central performance, and so it’s good that Scott was up to the task of reincarnating the late general in all his egotistical, violent, callous, and shockingly vulnerable glory. Patton is a war movie, make no mistake, but it uses the war movie blueprint for housing a character study of its protagonist. The results, almost half a century later, remain completely singular in the genre. —Andy Crump