War! What Is It Good for? These military satires find the humor amidst the horror.
Enlightened movie makers have long realised the satirical value in the futility of war, the following 9 movies are definitely worthy of a 21 gun salute.
Yes we think Alan Alda is over rated too, but thankfully he was only in the long-running TV series and not the original movie. Robert Altman’s Vietnam-era take on the Korean conflict turned the war film on its ear and became a surprise hit. Corrosively funny and outrageously irreverent, this episodic look at army doctors’ unmilitary shenanigans set a standard for anti-establishment humor that has been imitated ever since.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Peter Sellers takes on three roles — a milquetoast U.S. president, a stiff-upper-lipped British officer, and the ex-Nazi of the title — in this defining comedy that wrings wickedly funny laughs from the buildup to nuclear apocalypse. Sterling Hayden as a mad general obsessed with bodily fluids and Keenan Wynn as a colonel on the hunt for “preverts” round out a flawless cast. Undoubtedly one of the funniest films ever made and quite possibly Kubrick’s best.
In the hands of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry, Joseph Heller’s classic novel became an ambitious misfire. The mammoth, eclectic cast (hey, any movie starring Orson Welles and Norman Fell can’t be all bad) does its best, but the movie lacks the brilliant blend of hilarity and horror that makes the book so unforgettable. Still, it remains an appropriately scathing attack on the insanity (and inanity) of war.
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
In this World War II action comedy, a group of GI’s led by Clint Eastwood plans a heist of German gold. Yes, it’s Three Kings minus the visual fireworks and political audacity — a sprawling, uneven, yet undeniably entertaining romp. While it’s not that insightful a satire, it does take a revisionist approach to WWII, filtering the conflict through an early-’70s sensibility that gives us Donald Sutherland as a stoned hippie aptly named Oddball.
How I Won the War (1967)
Known mainly for John Lennon’s performance (though his part is far smaller than his billing would indicate), this is one of those crazed ’60s comedies at which director Richard Lester excelled. Michael Crawford, 25 years before he became the Phantom of the Opera, plays the “I” of the title, an inept soldier who muddles his way through WWII. Surrealist touches abound as moments of outright hilarity contrast with grisly scenes of combat. Treated with disdain on its initial release, this is one of those films that is either a lost gem or an indulgent mess, depending on your taste.
The Mouse That Roared (1959)
What do you do when you’re a tiny nation on the edge of bankruptcy? Simple: Declare war on the United States, lose, and then reap the benefits of U.S. foreign aid. That’s the plot of this somewhat dated Peter Sellers comedy in which an invasion force from the Duchy of Grand Fenwick lands in New York … armed with bows and arrows! As in Dr. Strangelove, Sellers pulls a hat trick by tackling three roles. Make sure not to miss the very beginning — the opening is priceless.
Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
World War I is reinterpreted as a musical review in Richard Attenborough’s striking directorial debut. Filled with period songs, surreal humor, and that typical ’60s zaniness (see How I Won the War), this supremely weird film veers wildly between genius and tedium. It also features performances and cameos by, seemingly, every British actor of the day.
King of Hearts (1966)
A young Alan Bates plays a WWI soldier who finds himself in a French village occupied solely by residents of the local asylum. Yes, it’s one of those “Who are the real crazies?” films, but don’t worry: This gentle, charming comedy doesn’t hammer its theme to death. Also starring the stunning Genevieve Bujold, this quirky ’60s semi-classic has earned a substantial cult following.
Funny Dirty Little War (1983)
Critics raved over this Argentinian farce about a small town becoming the site of a violent siege between rabid right-wingers and allegedly Marxist guerrillas. Fast-paced, beautifully acted, and full of almost-painful insight into the murky nature of Argentina’s political history.