The Top 10 Greatest War Comedies
10. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)
If John Wayne demonstrated anything during the Cold War it’s that the only way to deal with a no-good dirty Commie is to wrap an American flag around your size-nine combat boot and shove it straight up Ivan’s ass. Of course, the alternative is Norman Jewison’s Academy-Award nominated flick The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; a comedic look at Cold War era Soviet-American relations. Starring comedy legends Carl Reiner and Jonathan Winters along with a show-stealing performance from Oscar-Winner Alan Arkin, the film follows a group of bungling Russian sailors who find themselves in a world of trouble after their nuclear submarine runs aground near a sleepy New England town. With misunderstandings, machine guns and plenty of mutually assured laughs, The Russians Are Coming remains a classic of the genre; proof that despite their oppressive vodka-fuelled policies and soul-crushing Siberian gulags, those wacky Soviets weren’t really so bad after all.
9. Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
For most Americans, Vietnam is remembered as a senseless war marked by perpetual bloodshed and suffering. Conversely, Robin Williams is remembered as a senseless comedian whose perpetual hairiness could give Chewbacca a run for his money. Okay, so the two hardly seem like an ideal match, yet like the very best war comedies Good Morning Vietnam somehow manages to combine frenetic humour with the historical realities of war. Williams stars as a shock jock radio DJ who is sent to Vietnam to spin records for U.S. Army Radio in Saigon. Along the way he faces censorship, landmines and Vietcong sympathizers, overcoming adversity and boosting troop morale with a combination of his acerbic wit and good old fashioned American rock n’ roll. Of course, after being subjected to Robin Williams spastic performance in RV, even Charlie would probably end up swallowing a live grenade.
8. No Man’s Land (2001)
Yes, nothing screams “hilarious” quite like a little ethnic cleansing. Okay, so the subject matter dark is a little on the dark side, but this clever and underrated foreign film does deliver a few laughs – along with a biting polemic against war in general. Written and directed by Academy Award-winning Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanović, No Man’s Land follows a Bosnian and a Serb who are caught in the trenches between enemy lines during the height of the Balkan conflict. Natural enemies, the two are soon being shot at by their own troops, confronted by a bevy of dimwitted and useless UN peacekeepers and soon become the star attraction in a media feeding frenzy. As the two men struggle to survive the situation, the story moves from the absurd to the tragic and back again. While leaning more heavily on drama than humour, No Man’s Land still has a few chuckles along the way, pointing out the sheer absurdity of war and why Bosnia had the dubious distinction of being the Club Med of genocidal combat zones during the 90s.
7. Wag the Dog (1997)
When it comes to an inept bureaucracy, sex scandals and cadres of rich and powerful jackasses it’s hard to say which is more fucked up: Hollywood or the U.S. Government. In director Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog however, the two institutions are crammed together into one single hilarious war comedy that brings to light the sheer insanity of both Los Angeles and Washington. Based on Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero, the film stars Robert De Niro as a spin doctor who enlists the aid of a Hollywood producer (played by Dustin Hoffman) after a Presidential sex scandal comes to light. The plan: distract the American public by creating a fake MTV-style war with the unassuming nation of Albania. Also starring Anne Heche, Denis Leary, William H. Macy, Woody Harrelson and Willie “I Ain’t Gonna Pay My Taxes No More” Nelson, the film points out the senselessness of war, the shallow nature of Hollywood and of course, the U.S. government’s manipulation of the mass media. With a script written by screenwriting legends David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, Wag the Dog is a spot-on send up of American culture; a film that makes war seem almost rational next to the idea of Big Willy getting the world’s sloppiest and most publicized Presidential hummer.
6. Life is Beautiful (1997)
Okay, so the last time Hollywood decided to combine Nazi prison camps and slapstick comedy audiences were subjected to the television hit known as Hogan’s Heroes. And while Life is Beautiful has plenty of Nazis, concentration camps and a slew of comic gags, don’t expect any cameos from Colonel Klink. Instead this tear-jerker of an Academy Award-winning film follows a bumbling Italian Jew who uses his sense of humour to spare his son from the atrocities of the Holocaust. Written by and staring Italian national treasure Roberto Benigni (who won an Oscar for his performance in the film), Life is Beautiful remains an inspirational masterpiece and an emotionally evocative exploration of the horrors inflicted on the Jewish people during the Second World War. The film also proves that, Colonel Klink aside, there is absolutely NOTHING funny about Nazis.
5. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Sure, some may argue that it’s not a true war comedy per se, but that’s just because those people are giant, smelly vaginas who can’t appreciate the genius of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron “West Wing” Sorkin. Yes, Charlie Wilson’s War is the quintessential war comedy delivering a heartfelt political message with a Cold War historical reality that is so ridiculous you can’t help but laugh. Fresh off his role in The Da Vinci Code, the film stars a thankfully mulletless Tom Hanks as drunken, womanizing Texas congressman Charlie Wilson. With the help of a right-wing Republican heiress (played by Julia Roberts) and a sarcastic CIA operative (the always amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman) Charlie decides to wage a one-man covert war, funneling weapons and aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the tumultuous Soviet invasion of the late 70s. Interestingly enough, the film isn’t Nichols first foray into the war comedy as he originally directed the big screen adaptation of Catch-22 (a movie which sadly, did not make our top 10 list). Combine Nichols eye with Aaron Sorkin’s skill at blending tragedy and humour and Charlie Wilson’s War delivers a political message with plenty of laughs – a timely film considering that most American’s knowledge of Afghan-U.S. comes from Rambo 3 (which despite what George W. Bush would have us believe, is not an action docudrama).
4. Tropic Thunder (2008)
Like a cruise missile of pure, laser-guided satire, Tropic Thunder has almost single-handedly revitalized the war comedy with an explosive blend of action and low-brow potty humour. With a solid script from Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, the film delivers plenty of laughs, blasting everything from greedy Hollywood executives to blow hard celebrities. The plot follows a group of pampered A-list celebrities who are cast in the most expensive Vietnam war movie ever made. Unfortunately, when the stars egos begin to interfere with production, the director drops the helpless actors into the jungle where the oblivious celebrities soon run afoul of a drug dealing army. Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black, the film also features a show stealing performance from Tom Cruise that almost redeems him after years of couch jumping and Scientologistical rants. What’s more, considering Ben Stiller’s last film was the cinematic war crime known as The Heartbreak Kid, Tropic Thunder delivers a one-two punch that’ll have you once again loving both Stiller AND the smell of napalm in the morning.
3. M.A.S.H. (1970)
Long before M.A.S.H. cemented its place in the annals of American television history, legendary director Robert Altman brought M.A.S.H. to the big screen and to this day the film remains one of the greatest war comedies of all-time. Based on a novel of the same name, the film stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as Captains Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Trapper” John McIntyre respectively; a pair of hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Army surgeons who find themselves enlisted during the height of the Korean War. Like the television show it spawned, Altman’s film blends humour with the tragedies and senseless of war as we follow Hawkeye and Trapper John’s exploits in both the surgery room and the nurses tent. Brilliantly directed, and with an Academy-Award winning script from legendary screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., M.A.S.H is a masterpiece of American cinema — a movie that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you’ll want to roll around in your skivvies with Hotlips Hoolahan.
2. Three Kings (1999)
Written and directed by ill-tempered filmmaker David O. Russell, Three Kings remains a classic of the war comedy genre. The film stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze as a group of down on their luck U.S. soldiers who decide to steal a secret stash of Saddam’s gold during the first Gulf War. Of course, the plan runs into a few snags, including roadside bombs, angry U.S. officials and trigger-happy members of Saddam’s elite Republic Guard. With a potent blend of action, comedy and a surprisingly poignant anti-war message, Three Kings hits all the right marks. Sadly, if George W. Bush and Saddam had only watched Three Kings together — and perhaps shared a box of juji fruits — things in Iraq today might be radically different.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
To some it’s considered Stanley Kubrick’s most ambitious film, to others its best known as Peter Sellers’ most brilliant performance. Regardless of your take on it, there’s little doubt that Dr. Strangelove is hands down the greatest war comedy of all time. Loosely based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, the script was adapted by screenwriting master Terry Southern and Kubrick himself, both of whom decided to ditch the serious tone of the original novel for over the top black comedy. Starring Peter Sellers (who plays three roles in the film including the titular, phantom-limb-afflicted Dr. Strangelove) and George C. Scott, the plot centers around escalating Cold War tensions after a mentally unstable U.S. General launches a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union. Of course, events spiral out of control on both sides culminating in the legendary ending in which country singer Slim Pickens gleefully rides an armed A-Bomb into mushroom cloud oblivion. Hilariously satirical, brilliantly written and directed, and featuring one of the greatest comedic performances of all time, Dr. Strangelove remains relevant even in today’s post Cold War climate. Yes, Kubrick’s masterpiece — like all the war comedies on our list — is a film which has the balls to suggest that all of the endless death, destruction and horror of war can be overcome with nothing more than a good old fashioned fart joke. [filmjunk]
Now there’s only 3 movies I havn’t seen on FilmJunk’s list, so I can’t comment on those. It’s a no brainer to have Tropic Thunder seeing as it’s probably the main motivating factor behind doing a list like this, and the likes of MASH and Good Morning Vietnam should appear on any list of this kind. It was nice to see Life is Beautiful as this would probably be overlooked on most peoples lists, but for me personally I would have put it in the number 2 spot, purely because it is more than just a comedy. It’s a well crafted story of love and sacrifice that looks at some serious topics with an air of lighthearted humour that keeps it from getting to dark.