Growing up, Sunday afternoons were reserved by my Dad for movies featuring John Wayne or Henry Fonda going off to fight some battle. Fine pieces of American cinema showing stories from our past. One week it might be The Longest Day, the next week might be The Green Berets. The era changed, but the faces remained the same. More recently movies like Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan have entered the rotation, adding some modern spice to the mix. But honestly, some of the greatest war movies of the last decade weren’t in English at all. As I sit here in my pajamas carrying on that tradition (watching My Darling Clementine this week, for those interested) I thought it might be fun to tell you about my four favorite foreign war films from the last decade.

We start not too far from familiar territory. The Korean war was one in which the United States not only armed our favored side but also actively participated. It was one of the first “proxy” wars with the Soviet Union, kicking off only a few years after the end of WWII. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (Wikipedia IMFDB) is a film produced in South Korea in 2004 that follows the story of two brothers who were pressed into service defending their country against the Soviet backed North Koreans. The vast majority of the firearms are familiar to American moviegoers — the South Korean Army uniforms and firearms are 100% Made in the U.S.A., so much so that it almost looks like a WWII movie. The special effects are amazing, with some of the scenes rivaling Saving Private Ryan for the level of detail, realism and size.

In my opinion the best part about this movie isn’t the amazing action sequences, it’s the storyline.The United States hasn’t seen an occupying force on our soil since 1865, and given how quickly war has changed since then even those experiences are no longer sufficient to understand what the South Korean people felt when their countries were invaded. And while some of us still remember what the draft was like the circumstances were so drastically different from the South Korean conscription. Seeing how families were torn apart during that period and how homes were destroyed is what makes this movie one of my favorites.

The next film on my list is from mainland China, 2007. The same team that produced The Brotherhood of War (but with a new director) produced a film called Assembly (WikipediaIMFDB) based on events within the Chinese Civil War. It was the first movie on that subject produced in a “realistic style” due to the censorship of the Communist Party of prior films. Produced in mainland China the film can arguably be called Chinese propaganda, but the message of the film is one of honor and duty and doesn’t seem to take sides about the cause or ideas behind the Chinese Civil War, and focuses only on the soldiers and their humanity. Part of the movie takes place during the Korean War, with the main character fighting for the North Korean Army. It’s a nice counterpoint to The Brotherhood of War, which was from the South Korean perspective.

I like this movie mainly for the special effects, but there’s one scene that always sticks out at me. When the main character is in Korea and about to be discovered by a U.S. Army patrol a more experienced soldier advises him to simply end words with “da” and the Americans won’t know the difference. Funny, but true.

Number 3 on my list is a more modern film about a more modern war, one which we’ve recently taken over from the original owners. The 9th Company (Wikipedia IMFDB) is a 2005 Russian film about a Soviet unit in Afghanistan. It follows them through training, the first days of deployment, and finally a famous battle on Hill 3234 where 39 soldiers defended their position against 200 heavily armed attackers. In the end almost every single soldier was either killed or wounded, but the hill was held.

This movie makes it into my favorites not only for the smokin’ hot Russian chick (she does help…) but for the sheer bad-assery of the Soviet soldiers. The photography in this movie is frankly amazing, in the same vein as Black Hawk Down with the warm colors and the high contrast.

The last film for today is easily my favorite. Released in 2010, The Brest Fortress (Wikipedia) is the story of how 7,000 Soviet soldiers held their ground against 17,000 well equipped Nazi troops longer than expected at a fortress in Poland starting on the opening day of Operation Barbarossa. The soldiers held out for eight days even as the Nazi army advanced beyond them, refusing to give up.

This is another movie that illustrates how insanely bad-ass Soviet soldiers are, but one set in a time period that I’m very, VERY familiar with. I know how those uniforms feel, how the tactics are supposed to work, and how much it sucks to reload a Mosin Nagant under pressure. Watching the movie I could feel and smell and taste every moment, and that’s what brought it alive for me and makes it my current favorite war film of all time.

Gotta go, Henry Fonda looks pissed. This is gunna get good…

24 Responses to Sunday Afternoon at the Movies: The Best Foreign War Films

  1. One of these days I’ll find a rare film from the late 1980s called Afghan Breakdown, a Russian film about the final Soviet days of their occupation. I saw a really good Korean war film called Joint Security Area. It’s a Rashomon-like deconstruction of a fictitious border incident between South and North Korean troops stationed along the DMZ.

    9th Company was excellent, but Brest Fortress looks amazing!

    And even though it was an American film, don’t miss The Beast!

  2. >Made in the U.S.A., so much so that it almost looks like a WWII movie.

    Reportedly, a WWII film called Halls of Montezuma used Korean War footage for large-scale battle scenes.

  3. When I was younger and more impressionable, I thrilled to the tales of the British Empire. Gunga Din, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Four Feathers (the 1939 version), King of the Khyber Rifles and later, Zulu, were just a few of the movies that I loved. It took a little time for me to realize that I had been rooting for the wrong side, that the British Empire was evil and that the British army had no business occupying nations all over to world.

    But Kipling is still my favorite author. Go figure.

  4. From Russia-My Name is Ivan

    I liked Gallipoli just for the scene where the commander takes the bullets away from the soldiers before they go over the wire so that they wouldn’t stop and shoot before they got to the Turkish trenches.

    I did not like either Stalingrad or Das Boot because I fucking hate Nazis I have zero sympathy for them no matter what their motivations, and I resent that Wolfgang Peterson attempted to paint a revisionist perspective of war crimes.

  5. One favorite classic British film is “The Cruel Sea”, starring Jack Hawkins. He’s the captain of a corvette, hunting u-boats. It’s not a non-stop action and suspense film, but it is very well filmed and directed and I think an excellent movie.

    “Das Boot” – if you’ve never seen it, well, you gotta!

  6. Wow!!Someone else who liked Tae Guk Gi-great film. Korean films have outstanding production values and to see some of the best you need a region free DVD plaler(you can get good ones on the Internet includng Amazon)-Shiri is available on a US compatible DVD and is a really intelligent,exciting,and beautifully produced espionage/adventure film. Das Boot(the longer Director’s Cut)is phenomenal. The Winter War is an excellent film about the little known war between Finland and the Soviet Union about a year prior to the German invasion of the USSR. The Lost Command is a really excellent film about the French Army airborne units in post WW2 colonial conflicts. Anyhow,thanks for the interesting article!!

    • I’ll never forget one scene during the training montage in ShiRi when the recruits are made to stand in pairs in front of tables with disassembled pistols. Their reassembly skills are timed in a very unconventional way – the first person in each pair to reassemble their weapon has to shoot the other person!

      John Woo’s Bullet in the Head is a really good movie, even as it slavishly imitates most of the Deer Hunter.

  7. All older but “Idi i smotri” , “Das Brucke” and Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron” are all time favorites.

  8. Thought of two more:

    French: A Man Escaped

    Algerian: The Battle of Algiers

    I saw Max Manus just last week. It was pretty fun but seemed a little breathless.

  9. I watched an impotted copy of Company 9 called ‘9 Rota’ with English subtitles. It had almost the same theme as Restrepo, just 10 years earlier. Outstanding films.

  10. “The Last Bullet” is a great Australian flick about dueling snipers in WWII.

    I saw it years ago on TV but can’t find it on DVD.

  11. Tae Guk Gi had some awesome battle scenes but man, that movie had a lot of fistfights. Seemed like the story stopped every 10 or 15 minutes so the characters could punch each others’ lights out for a while.

    Another great foreign war film is “A Very Long Engagement”, a French movie from a few years back about a young woman who loses her fiance during WWI. It’s also a period romance, a comedy, and a mystery story. But it totally delivers the goods as a war movie and has some of the most detailed and horrific scenes of trench fighting ever filmed. Great cast too.

  12. These are some great suggestions. I’ll second TTACer’s recommendation for “The Battle of Algiers”. I’ll throw in my own recommendations for two Israeli films:
    “Waltz with Bashir”- an animated film about events in the 1982 Lebanon war; I found it to be very disturbing.
    “Beaufort”- captures the feelings of isolation, fear and boredom among soldiers manning a remote outpost in Lebanon.

  13. Great suggestions. Another one is Intimate Enemies about the French Foreign Legion in Algiers.
    Death and Glory in Changde is also fairly good, except it has an irritating character who wants to play soldier in the first half. This one’s about Chinese vs Japs in China.
    Kokoda, about the fighting at Kokoda Track and Beneath Hill 60, a WW1 trench war film are good Australian ones.
    The Star, a Russian film about their forces doing sneaky beaky stuff behind German lines during Op Bagration.

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