5. Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Clint Eastwood’s movie stardom is more directly associated with the western, for obvious reasons, but his power in the ‘60s and ‘70s was such that he collected multiple classics under his belt (or holster) in a few other genres as well, not the least of which was the men-on-a-mission.
There are two films, specifically, that rank among the very best the genre has to offer; the first of which we’ll talk about being “Kelly’s Heroes.” Only slightly less cynical than “Play Dirty” but much less of an over-critique, the film is satisfied to be a rollicking caper, something it does wonderfully. Adventure, camaraderie, banter, action, dead Nazis – this movie’s got it all.
And that’s just the thing about “Kelly’s Heroes” – there’s that element that distinguishes it particularly from the men-on-a-mission formula, precisely because it’s the perfect distillation of said formula. It turns every element one expects out of these movies into a finely dilapidated diamond, down to the presence of a fantastic cast of character actors letting loose – the standout, in this movie, being Donald Sutherland, in a memorable turn as an amoral stoner.
4. Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Good as “Kelly’s Heroes” is, however, there’s no dethroning the other men-on-a-mission film starring Clint Eastwood: “Where Eagles Dare.”
As far as the classics of the genre are concerned (meaning the original films from the ‘60s and ‘70s), there’s only one other title more iconic than this – the untouchable cornerstone you’ll find in the number one spot of this list. Bar that, this film reigns supreme: gorgeous Panavision cinematography, a majestic score, magnificent stunts, ridiculously convoluted plotting filled to the point of bursting with double-crosses and set pieces – this is two and a half hours of pure cinematic bliss.
“Where Eagles Dare” is the ideal of an espionage adventure movie, the best of its kind not starring a certain English gentleman named Bond; a movie that, 53 years on, hasn’t lost its power to thrill.
3. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
After those triumphs in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the men-on-a-mission genre largely disappeared, in the wake of new modes of action cinema and new movie stars. These group-based stories went extinct to give way either to the lone badass such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger, or the buddy cop fare.
Leave it, then, to an inveterate cinephile to not only bring back a basically dead genre, but also create one of the very best movies in said genre – Quentin Tarantino, the movie-obsessed maniac who achieved with “Inglourious Basterds” the kind of simultaneous homage and deconstruction that so many lesser filmmakers aspire to yet rarely conquer.
Ever a smarter, more insightful, and thoughtful director than he’s given credit for, Tarantino makes in “Basterds” what is probably his most complete manifesto to date on cinema, a commentary on the power of the art form to weaponize ideologies, and also a meta deconstruction of the narrative and formal tropes of the war genre. Only Tarantino would introduce the title team of men only to foreground their mission to focus on a completely different subplot (and then, of course, bring it all together in the climax). It’s a film full of hefty thematic ideas, a definitive counterpoint to the common idea that Tarantino is merely an empty stylist.
It helps too, naturally, that he *is* indeed a magnificent stylist: “Inglourious Basterds,” even if it wasn’t such a layered treatise on the nature of cinema, would still have its place on this list guaranteed simply because of its immense surface pleasures: the melodic dialogue, the unbelievably tense sequences, the gorgeous color scheme. Simply a masterpiece.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The ultimate men-on-a-mission as a serious war movie, Steven Spielberg’s phenomenal “Saving Private Ryan” continues to be a staggering achievement of filmmaking, a still to-this-day unequaled tour-de-force of craft.
Even by Spielberg’s standards, who is one of cinema’s greatest ever craftsmen, “Ryan” is something to behold. As far as battles scenes are concerned, nothing has even come close to capturing the raw, visceral power of the opening Omaha Beach sequence, let alone the supernatural perfection of editing, staging and cinematography that give the scene its magic – Spielberg and Januz Kaminski’s angles and lighting choices could be studied and dissected infinitely.
In fact, it’s such an iconic 30 minutes that they’ve come to overshadow the other two hours that make up the rest of the film – an understandable but still unfair predicament that erases the brilliance of everything else. “Saving Private Ryan” is one of Spielberg’s most Fordian efforts; visually sweeping, elegiac and unabashedly sentimental, but also incredibly brutal and unsparing in its depiction of the realities of war.
Of course, the film is also shameless propaganda of Americanism, a borderline recruitment ad, but that’s almost irrelevant in the face of its sheer cinematic brilliance.
1. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
There’s no way around it: this is to the “men-on-a-mission” what “2001” is to science fiction. No matter how many films are made after it, regardless of technological advances, even if it isn’t your personal favorite, it will always be the definitive entry of the genre. It’s the thing every single other movie of its kind will be forever chasing.
To some extent, all other “men-on-a-mission,” even the very good ones (including the ones cited on this list) is simply a knock-off of Robert Aldrich’s game changer, recycling all its essential elements in hopes of recapturing the same dynamite effect. The wry cynicism, the rugged cast of character actors, even the basic narrative structure are all cribbed from here.
But at the risk of relying on a cliche, it’s as the expression goes: “The Dirty Dozen” is often imitated but never duplicated. There are other “men-on-a-mission” that do one of these elements better than this, but none have ever been able to make each, from the humour to the violence, work together so seamlessly.