War movies can be exciting, shocking, stirring, and emotionally draining experiences… if they’re done right that is. Just because you have a camera and a few people in uniform, it doesn’t always guarantee a classic.
- Missing In Action (1984)
- The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988)
- Stealth (2005)
- The Green Berets (1968)
- Inchon (1981)
- Which Way to the Front? (1970)
- Havana (1990)
- Revolution (1985)
Here are some films deemed amongst the worst the genre has to offer…
And there were a lot to choose from!
Missing In Action (1984)
Chuck Norris is an action legend, and Missing In Action is regarded as one of his most memorable pictures. Memorable in a good way? Well, the film has its fans, and some reviews were positive.
However, Norris’s military exploits as Col James Braddock didn’t please everyone.
For example, Time Out Film Guide described it as: “Xenophobic, amateurish and extraordinarily dull”, but went on to note: “it nevertheless grossed $26m in the States.”
Norris made Missing In Action with Cannon Films, a producer with a reputation for releasing movies of highly variable quality.
The plot followed Braddock as he travelled back to his old stomping ground of Vietnam, in order to free fellow servicemen from captivity… with extreme prejudice!
A year later Sylvester Stallone starred in Rambo: First Blood Part II, the story of which shared similarities with Missing In Action. According to IMDB, he talked to Cannon about the project at one point, and so they “retooled” Stallone’s “basic premise” for Norris’s special talents.
Two sequels followed, though originally the first movie was supposed to be the second. Confused? A pair of interconnecting films were shot initially, and then swapped. Director Joseph Zito’s follow up was deemed to be better, so it wound up going first. The sequel then became a prequel.
The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission (1988)
Small screen sequels to The Dirty Dozen? Someone thought it was a good idea for a war movie! The Next Mission came in 1985, then The Deadly Mission landed in 1987. Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Telly Savalas were amongst the returning cast for these special TV movies.
Marvin didn’t come back for sequel no.2 – Savalas took the lead for that and The Fatal Mission, which we’re here to talk about.
For added bafflement, Savalas played a whole other character. Why? Spoiler alert… he didn’t make it out alive in the 1967 film. Also, The Fatal Mission is set the year before the Dirty Dozen got started. Sounds convoluted already doesn’t it?
The original classic focused on a team of maverick soldiers, out from behind bars and on a suicide mission to assassinate German top brass in a French chateau during World War II.
Fast forward to The Fatal Mission, the plot of which concerned the formation of a Fourth Reich in Istanbul by a special Nazi unit, with Savalas and company sent in to save the day.
Radio Times branded it a “tepid” affair, which “descends into a series of murders on the Orient Express as Borgnine and Savalas try to discover who in the team is a traitor.”
Other notable cast members included Erik Estrada of CHiPs fame, and Ghostbusters icon Ernie Hudson. Changing times were acknowledged by casting an actress, Heather Thomas (The Fall Guy), as one of the Dozen. Lee Marvin nearly returned but passed away before shooting. Telly Savalas had bladder cancer at the time, but thankfully lived on till 1994.
This high concept Hollywood actioner ran out of gas before taking a nosedive at the box office. Line up wise, it doesn’t sound bad. Cult screenwriter W.D. Richter (Big Trouble In Little China) was behind the script, and a top end cast featured Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel and Sam Shepard.
In a timely move, the sci-fi-themed story explored the high octane ramifications of using artificial intelligence in air combat.
It certainly provided food for thought, though audiences and critics were arguably too busy disliking the movie to take a bite. There was drama behind the scenes also, when the team had to relocate from the Blue Mountains Wilderness Area in Australia after environmentalists took legal action.
Famed movie critic Roger Ebert called Stealth “an offence against taste, intelligence and the noise pollution code”.
Maybe the fact that this was reportedly a reworked adaptation of the Star Fox video game had something to do with Stealth’s lack of agility in theatres. An animated woodland creature may well have been more entertaining.
The Green Berets (1968)
Vietnam war movies are typically associated with warts and all portrayals – releases such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) spring to mind.
John Wayne’s The Green Berets on the other hand was a different kettle of fish. As a proud patriot, there was no way that “The Duke” would present anything other than a simplified version of the controversial conflict.
Troops had been over there since the mid-1950s, and by the late 1960s protesters began making their voices heard. Wayne decided that an adaptation of Robin Moore’s novel would provide the ideal counter argument.
He was impressed by what was going on in South Vietnam, and wanted to give Communism a hammering. Working in conjunction with the Army, Wayne and co-director Ray Kellogg changed parts of the book and took audiences on an action-oriented journey.
The Duke played Col Mike Kirby, who threw down the gauntlet to reporter George Beckworth, a journalist who challenged the American war effort.
Beckworth travels to South Vietnam with Kirby, where his eyes are duly opened to Wayne’s vision. David Janssen of The Fugitive fame played Beckworth.
It was all a bit much for critics. Stanley Eichelbaum of the San Francisco Examiner wrote that the end product brings every side of the conflict together: “Nobody who sees it will find a single reason to disagree that it is the phoniest, most laughable war picture in many years”.
Plus, time hasn’t been any kinder to The Green Berets. In her 2014 look back for The Guardian, historian Alex von Tunzelmann wrote that US forces “spend all their time in Vietnam doing nice things, like offering medical assistance to needy peasants and hugging adorable children”, whilst the Viet Cong are a “massive, faceless force of evil”.
Despite Wayne wearing his heart on his sleeve, he did hire some cast members who were anti-war. Star Trek icon George Takei and future Ellery Queen star Jim Hutton appeared, with the main man fully aware of their views.
It’s not often you hear about a movie that’s bankrolled by a religious movement, let alone a war picture. However, Inchon – set during the Korean War – arrived on the big screen thanks to the Unification Church.
That organization had been established in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon. His name famously inspired the Church’s followers, who are referred to as Moonies.
Joining this epic production with a Christian flavour was no less a talent than Sir Laurence Olivier, playing General Douglas MacArthur. It was MacArthur who allegedly gave producers the green light.
Of course he was deceased at the time, so this proved a challenge. Luckily he managed to give Inchon the thumbs up from beyond the grave, communicating with psychic Jeanna Dixon. “She also reportedly chose James Bond film director Terence Young… as Inchon’s helmer,” wrote Deadline in 2012.
With the 1950’s decisive Battle of Inchon holding potential for a powerful story, it was hoped audiences would flock to cinemas. They failed to do so, and the film made only a fraction of its budget back.
Olivier openly admitted he did Inchon for the money. Co-star Ben Gazzara met his third wife Elke Krivat on the movie, so at least he was happy.
In their review, the New York Times wrote that Inchon “is a hysterical historical epic, somewhat less offensive than ‘The Green Berets’ and far funnier.”
Robin Moore, author of the source novel for The Green Berets, co-wrote the screenplay for Inchon. It also features Wayne’s co-star, David Janssen, in his last ever movie.
He reportedly joined the production because of Olivier, though sadly never appeared onscreen. A disastrous audience response to the premiere led to changes being made, and he was edited out.
Which Way to the Front? (1970)
One of Jerry Lewis’s pivotal roles was in the Martin & Lewis classic At War With The Army (1950). Two decades later, the versatile comedian, actor and director returned to World War II with this slapstick caper.
Lewis took the lead as Brendan Byers III, a wealthy type who wound up creating his own private army to fight Hitler after the military rejected him.
In true comic tradition, it just so happened that Byers was a dead ringer for a Nazi Field Marshal. Cue the hilarious impersonation! After his spell with John Wayne shooting The Green Berets, George Takei played a small role here.
Critics in the US hadn’t given Lewis the warmest reception during his movie career to date, and they weren’t going to change their minds now. Film Museum offered their opinion during an overview of Lewis’s career, linking the movie with a general decline in quality: “the films grow messier, the jokes colder and cruder.” Which Way to the Front is described as the “appropriate highlight of this period” and a “monstrously grotesque war movie”.
Our next regrettable war movie is unusual, in that the main character isn’t a soldier but a gambler. Sydney Pollack’s sweeping 1950s drama delivered intrigue and romance, against the turbulent backdrop of the Cuban Revolution.
The lavish production wasn’t well-received, and to make matters worse it has been compared to Casablanca. Having the shadow of a stone cold classic hanging over you doesn’t help with a movie’s reputation.
Robert Redford’s Jack Weil was playing cards and helping Castro’s revolutionaries, while Lena Olin played his partner in smuggling and a whole lot else, Bobby Duran.
The quality supporting cast included Raul Julia and Alan Arkin. So what went wrong?
The central relationship between Redford and Olin didn’t ring true for some. “As directed by Sydney Pollack, their love scenes play like empty maracas, shaky and hollow,” wrote Rita Kempley for The Washington Post.
A sprawling historical epic about the American Revolutionary War starring Al Pacino? This was surely a recipe for success and adulation come awards season.
Unfortunately, the final film was so poorly-received that it put Pacino off filmmaking for several years. It only made a few crumbs back from its $28 million budget and is often held up as a major example of a box office bomb.
The legendary actor played Tom Dobb, a fur trapper who was drawn into the conflict when his son signed up for duty on the battlefield. Donald Sutherland, Nastassja Kinski and Joan Plowright were among the notable names involved.
Playing the older version of Pacino’s son was Dexter Fletcher, the child star turned major Hollywood director. Singer Annie Lennox took part, though according to IMDB she was dubbed!
As well as disheartening Pacino, Revolution left a sizable dent in the British film industry. Director Hugh Hudson used English county locations in places such as Norfolk and Devon to represent American territory.
Norway also came into play, thanks to investment from some dentists from over there. Conditions during the shoot were reportedly bad.
Pacino developed pneumonia, and at one point the extras left and had to be replaced, as described by The Independent in 2020.
Writing for Empire in 2012, William Thomas said that Revolution “simply fails to deliver on the screen-filling action scenes promised by the subject matter” and that it “consistently falls flat”.
While Pacino returned to the screen and the British industry picked itself up again, the consensus is that Revolution was misconceived, and a self-inflicted wound for producers Goldcrest.