Nothing disarms like laughter, even when those arms are rocket launchers and nuclear missiles. A good film has the power to de-fang, if only briefly, such historical horrors as World War II, Vietnam and the Cold War. As these 10 wartime movies prove, a good joke can pierce through any armor.
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10. “Tropic Thunder” (2008)
“Tropic Thunder” is a movie that’s smart enough to know – and revel in – how dumb it is in its satirizing of Hollywood egos and excess. And it’s successful enough to make a gag as potentially offensive as Robert Downey Jr. playing a method actor in Black face hilarious at the expense of those egos. A film crew is deposited into the middle of a jungle to film a Vietnam War movie guerrilla-style – except the actors unwittingly become the characters they’re playing when they’re plunged into a drug war, and make what’s actually a decent war movie along the way. But by far the film’s greatest success is turning Tom Cruise into a fat, balding, profane studio exec. It’s the most likable he’s been since “Jerry Maguire.”
9. ‘Catch-22’ (1970)
Joseph Heller’s masterpiece has lost none of its satirical fire since its publication in 1961, and director Mike Nichols borrowed much of that fire for his darkly comedic adaptation. Capt. John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) is an Air Force B-52 bombardier stationed in the Mediterranean during WWII who desperately wants to stop flying missions and avoid death, but can’t be certified insane to do so. Absurdist in tone with a modern, non-linear structure, the convoluted logic and comedic confusion of “Catch-22” captures much of the spirit of warfare.
8. ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ (1987)
This Vietnam War comedy makes the most of Robin Williams’ broad talent spectrum. Playing Adrian Cronauer, a radio DJ assigned to the Armed Forces Radio Service, Williams is let loose to do what he does best, with manically funny and mostly improvised DJ sets steeped in irreverence and rock and roll. But the film also puts his dramatic skills on display, blending that humor with real poignancy. Williams was nominated for an Oscar for his performance (and won a Golden Globe).
7. ‘Three Kings’ (1999)
As is often the case, David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”) was a better director before he started trying to win Oscars, and this early black comedy is one of his best. The Gulf War is at its end and bored U.S. troops are partying hard in their barracks between mopping up the loose ends of another messy military intervention, when a map discovered in an enemy buttocks provides clues to a stash of stolen Kuwaiti gold. It’s a comedy turned war movie turned gold heist turned drama that seamlessly blends all those disparate elements into a riot that also occasionally breaks your heart.
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6. ‘MASH’ (1970)
Director Robert Altman has been quoted as saying of his anti-war classic, “The film wasn’t released, it escaped.” “MASH” does have the feeling of something accidentally let loose on the world, a dark comedy that uses humor to grapple with the insanity of war. Set in a Korean War field hospital, a site of inexplicable human suffering, the film sets its focus on profanity, nudity, sex and hijinks, a subversive approach to turning a critical eye on an institution as hallowed as the U.S. military. Such an approach is now de rigeur, but it was a bold one in 1970.
5. ‘Stalag 17’ (1953)
Writer and director Billy Wilder turned the dark twinkle in his eye and sterling wordplay on a German WWII prisoner of war camp. The American prisoners in Stalag 17 maintain their spirits as best they can with drunken revelry, Betty Grable and a spy glass trained on the Russian women’s barracks. But soon it becomes obvious there’s an informant in their midst, and all signs point to Sgt. Sefton (William Holden), a swaggering cynic who openly barters with the enemy for animal comforts. The blows hit hard when they land, but there’s little doubt a man as enterprising as Sefton will outsmart his foes.
4. ‘To Be or Not to Be’ (1942)
When you can’t kill the Nazis with guns and bombs, sometimes it’s best to kill them with comedy. A gutsy, controversial tactic, sure, but that’s what makes this Ernst Lubitsch comedy about a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Poland so good. A married pair of actors (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) bicker over an affair while engaged in a resistance plot that has Benny pretending to be a high-ranking Nazi officer. It’s a witty ride and gutsy enough to make a farce out of the ridiculous ideologies of a deadly serious enemy.
3. ‘The General’ (1926)
Time does correct some wrongs. On its release in 1926, the best film of silent-film star Buster Keaton’s career tanked at the box office and the hearts of critics. It has since been recognized as the masterpiece it is and Keaton lauded as a master of the craft. He performs some of his most dangerous on-screen stunts ever as Johnnie Gray, a train engineer who must take on Union spies during the Civil War to save his beloved, Annabelle Lee, and the true love of his life, his locomotive – named the General.
2. ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940)
There are many levels on which Charlie Chaplin’s anti-Nazi film is remarkable. Chaplin had long bucked against the technological progress that had rendered silent films obsolete, continuing to release silent-film masterpieces well into the ’30s, and “The Great Dictator” marked his first true foray into talking pictures. But what’s most astounding is its daring. Released before America had entered WWII, Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber and Hynkel, the Hitleresque, fascist ruler of fictional Tomania whom Chaplin devastates with humor and mockery. The two performances culminate in the silent-film star, looking for all the world like Hitler, delivering one of the most memorable cinematic speeches, a paean to lost humanity and plea for sanity that calls to task “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.”
1. ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)
Stanley Kubrick sidestepped the horror of mutually assured nuclear annihilation — that was covered by that same year’s similar film, “Fail-Safe” — in favor of focusing on its absurdity. A crazy general triggers World War III by ordering a first strike on the Soviet Union, leaving world leaders scrambling to prevent the inevitable. Slim Pickens yee-hawing on the back of a bomb into oblivion is a brilliant satire that only gets more relevant as the years pass.