Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The unpopularity of the Vietnam War turned American audiences off of big-screen, battlefield heroics for almost three decades.

Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List), reversed this trend by successfully combining post-Vietnam skepticism with an appreciation of our troops’ sacrifices during World War II. The action is divided into two stylistically different sections. The first is a documentary-style look at the high-casualty, DDay landings.

The second is a well-crafted yarn about a squad of rangers, who, after surviving Omaha Beach, are sent to retrieve an enlisted man (Matt Damon) whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Their commander is the youthful but wise Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks).

The movie dramatizes some challenging ideas.

Vengeance is depicted as a motive that can overwhelm compassion in the treatment of the enemy; and the soldiers are shown to be fighting mainly for their own and their buddies’ survival rather than any larger cause. There are disagreements over whether the violence is dramatically justified, but one thing is certain: It's not for weak stomachs. (Pay attention to the Register Ratings on this one.)

Dersu Uzala (1975)

In this age of environmental conc e r n s , Westerners often over-praise the wisdom of indigenous peoples in dealing with nature.

Celebrating more primitive lifestyles becomes a backhanded way of flailing industrially developed nations for their ecological sins. Dersu Uzala, directed by Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon), is an intelligent, reflective film that finds a proper balance between the natural wisdom of indigenous folk and the shortcomings of their animistic spirituality.

It's 1902, and Vladimir Arsenyev (Yuri Solomin) is leading a topo-graphical expedition into Russia's Ussurti region near the Chinese border. He hires as a guide a hunter from an ethnic Mongolian tribe, Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk), who saves his life.

Five years pass, and Arsenyev returns the favor when the tribesman is unable to survive in the wild because of his growing fear of forest spirits. But the Russian's city ways turn out to be equally disorienting. The movie, one of the Vatican's top 45 films, evokes a world of untouched nature that's as dangerous as it is beautiful.

Gunga Din (1939)

Back when Hollywood thought war could be fun, soldiers charged across the screen like high-spirited heroes, risking their lives for a cause, a comrade or just the excitement of battle. Gunga Din, based on Rudyard Kipling's celebrated poem, mixes action scenes with comedy and romance in an innocent, good-hearted way that no longer seems possible.

In a remote outpost of the British Empire in 19th-century India, three sergeants — Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) and Ballentine (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) — fight among themselves while their native-born waterboy, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), dreams of joining the imperial army as a uniformed soldier. When violent worshippers of the Hindu goddess Kali rise up against the ordered civilization established by the Raj, this dashing trio and their loyal sidekick are drafted to set things right. A politically incorrect celebration of hand-to-hand combat and the glories of empire, the movie keeps you on the edge of your seat until the final frame.

—John Prizer