In the canon of dead genres, one of the most sorely missed in the current landscape of cinema is the “men-on-a-mission” war film.
The mid-budget, aimed at adult action adventure movie is all but extinct, but there was a time in which they were a regularity; big studios would release these sturdy, terrifically fun pictures at the same speed that today we’ve come to expect a new superhero tentpole.
The “men-on-a-mission” specifically is one the most reliable sources of such fun. If you’re looking to have a good time with action cinema, one needs nothing more than a ragtag group of soldiers banding together to accomplish an insurmountable task against all odds.
10. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Though men-on-a-mission is already a subgenre of war movies. It can itself also be divided into two categories: the more facetious adventure films that use the war background as a setting for thrills rather than horror; and the more serious offerings that seek to painstakingly recreate the weight of the real conflict.
Richard Attenborough’s “A Bridge Too Far” falls firmly in the second category, as quintessential a prestige picture as there ever was. After all, it’s an almost three-hour war epic, penned by one of the industry’s most renowned screenwriters and featuring a murderer’s row of famous actors (this is one of the most impressive call sheets in cinema history); a perfect salad of ingredients made to cater to the Academy’s particularly obvious sensibilities (no surprise, then, that this movie was a hit with the Oscars).
But the good news is that, despite this seemingly tedious combination of glossy prestige, “A Bridge Too Far” manages to be genuinely engrossing; expansive and massive in scale without ever succumbing to numbness, a consistently impressive spectacle that, if a little too self-serious, is nevertheless always entertaining.
9. The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Of course, for every earnest war epic, we have a caper counterpart, of which “The Guns of Navarone” was a pioneer. It may very well be the first big-budget, epic men-on-a-mission adventure classic; not necessarily the first of its kind, but the original triumph that set the blueprint for what was to come.
It helped to establish everything that would go on to become a staple of this particular subgenre, from the tone (fun, light, suspenseful, thrilling) to the practice of assembling a phenomenal group of actors to lend gravitas and substance to what otherwise could be fairly thin characterization on the page. The latter is one of this film’s great pleasures: the dynamic of the cast, and the way each character comes to play a crucial part in the execution of the mission is a joy to see unfold. In fact, “The Guns of Navarone” can be read as a proto-heist movie as well, with its elements of each crew member having a specialized skill.
And speaking of skill, it must be mentioned that director J. Lee Thompson, while not a particularly brilliant filmmaker, was a great artisan, an expert in the kind of sturdy, unpretentious entertainment for adults that has all but disappeared. At least we can always rewatch classics such as this.
8. The Big Red One (1980)
Despite being an unfortunate victim of studio mutilation, Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One” has still managed to maintain a reputation as one of the meanest, most stripped down and downright bleak war movies ever made.
In the canon of men-on-a-mission films, it’s an outlier, containing some key differences both in story and tone from the rest of the pictures listed here. Most apparent is the fact that the narrative is structured as a series of different missions, rather than one overlying objective; the characters have no special ability, they’re just regular soldiers, and so on. Most striking, however, is how “The Big Red One” is notably bereft of any semblance of heroism, a sense of purpose or satisfying catharsis – there’s no neat sentiment of “mission accomplished” by the end.
But that’s all natural when one realizes that Fuller constructed the film from his memories from serving in World War II; all the battles and characters are directly taken from his real experiences. So, naturally, the kind of self-aggrandising patriotism and sentimentality usually reserved for the common war movie have no place here – reality doesn’t allow for such simplicity.
7. Eastern Condors (1987)
As with most other genres, lists of war films are almost exclusively focused on Western movies – more specifically, European and American. Whether racism or lack of film knowledge is to blame for that is irrelevant, for the result is the same – an eraser of terrific works from the other side of the world.
Case in point: “Eastern Condors,” one of the most dazzling and entertaining men-on-a-mission films ever made, is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath as the other classics listed here, even though it’s every bit as accomplished as any of them. Sammo Hung’s movie is both a Rambo-esque Vietnam shoot-em-up, and a terrific martial arts flick; two potentially different tones that are made whole by the actor/director’s sharp slapstick sense of humour and his sublime sense of action staging.
In fact, in terms of pure set pieces; there is no other men-on-a-mission film ever made that can touch “Eastern Condors”: the movie is nearly all action, with each sequence more spectacularly imaginative and well-crafted than the last. Just a damn good time at the movies.
6. Play Dirty (1969)
As said before, the “men-on-a-mission” subgenre is generally made up of two different types of movies: the fun caper, big on thrills and low in commentary; and the serious war movie with a lot to say about the war, but little interest in providing the audience with entertainment.
“Play Dirty” splits the difference between these two types: it’s both deliciously enjoyable as well as an acerbic, acidic satire of the war effort. On a surface level, the film is a blast; stylish, terrifically shot, and frequently hilarious (not to mention the sturdily impressive action scenes).
But no so hidden beneath that gloss is one of the most subversive takes ever on the war movie, portraying the mission itself as a hopelessly futile endeavor, and the entire war as a tragically farcical undertaking that is more the game of powerful men than the a righteous quest for justice. “Play Dirty” is a deceptively complex film: cynical, bitter and nasty, but incredibly funny as well. Fun and bleakness have rarely worked so well together as they do here.