"Men live in a fantasy world. I know this because I am one, and I actually receive my mail there." (Scott Adams)
From the beginning movies have been somewhat sexualised. Even in the Silent Era, there were those movies that would appeal more to women and those that would appeal more to men. While women would swoon over Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, men would thrill to Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro. And it seems to me that as time has passed, the divide between chick flicks and men's movies have become even greater. After all, just look at the differences between the perennial chick flick Steel Magnolias and that quintessential men's movie The Dirty Dozen.
As a somewhat stereotypical male, I have no love for chick flicks (I have been fortunate in that most of my girlfriends had no taste for them either), but I absolutely love a good men's movie. As to what constitutes a good men's movie, I would say that is the same as what makes movie good: well developed characters, plenty of conflict, an engrossing plot, good direction, and skillful cinematography. Beyond this, a good men's movie requires some other things as well. There must be strong male characters with which the viewer can identify. There should be plenty of thrilling action scenes. And, of course, it helps if there is a healthy dose of ultraviolence.
Given my love for men's movies, I thought it might be a good idea to make up a list of my top ten favourite men's movies of all time. I made the list in alphanumberic order because, with the exception of Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai--my favourite movie of all time), I have difficulty choosing a favourite. Anyhow, here it is, my list of the top ten men's movies of all time.
300: Tales of heroism often make the best men's movies. And one cannot get more heroic than the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae. It was at Thermopylae in 480 BCE that King Leonidas and a force of 300 Spartans faced a an army of literally thousands belonging to the Persian Empire (then ruled by Xerxes I). Knowing that they would ultimately die, King Leonidas and his men hoped that their sacrifice would buy Greece time to gather its forces to fight off the Persian hordes. In doing so, Leonidas and his men changed history.
300 does not stay true to the letter of that historical event, but it captures the spirit of the Battle of Thermopylae perfectly. Shot on a digital backlot, the movie's visuals are astounding. But more importantly, 300 is a nonstop thrill ride of extreme heroism and ultraviolence in the name of freedom. Much of the film is carried by Gerhard Butler as King Leonidas, who delivers lines that might sound over the top in any other film with honesty and conviction. Although just released this year, I suspect 300 will be a favourite of men for years to come.
Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai): I have to be frank. I don't think this is the greatest men's movie of all time, it is simply the greatest movie of all time, period. Legendary director Akira Kurosawa was in peak form on this movie, delivering a tale of heroism that has never been matched since. In Shichinin no samurai, a village plagued by bandits hires seven samurai to defend them. If the plot sounds familiar, it is because it has been reused in movies ranging from another quintessential men's movie, The Magnificent Seven, to the Pixar feature A Bug's Life. But The Seven Samurai was the first.
Although it does not lack for action, the strong point of Shichinin no samurai is its character development. Indeed, for the first time in Japanese cinema the samurai were not portrayed as warriors lacking personality who must die in battle or commit oibara seppuku when faced with defeat. Instead, they are presented as realistic characters who even joke about hiding during battle and even running away. Perhaps because Kurosawa makes his samurai all too human, they seem even more heroic. The village is paying the samurai a pittance, yet they willingly enter a situation in which they are greatly outnumbered and in which they know some, perhaps all of them, will die. This is the sort of honour and heroism which transcends cultures. The typical 21st century American male can understand it as readily as a 16th century Japanese samurai.
A Clockwork Orange: Not every men's movie centres on heroes. Some men's movies actually centre on the bad guys. And this is perhaps no truer of any men's movie than Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. Alex, wonderfully played by Malcolm McDowell, is no one's idea of a hero. He and his droogs gleefully commit assault, theft, rape, and a number of other crimes. Quite simply, Alex is a sociopath of the worst type. Why, then, would anyone enjoy this movie? It is perhaps because of Kubrick's superb direction and McDowell's masterful portrayal of Alex. McDowell plays Alex not so much as a menace to society bent on the destruction of society, so much as an overgrown boy whose pranks and stunts have given away to, well, ultraviolence. In many respects, Alex is as much a victim of society as those he victimises. Indeed, later in the movie there can be no bones about it--he is a victim of society. For a time he is even denied the pleasure of his beloved Ludwig Van (Beethoven, for those who have never seen the movie). I very seriously doubt the average male identifies with Alex as he commits his various atrocities (at least I would hope not), I rather suspect that the average male can sympathise with Alex as he falls victim to the very society that created him. Quite simply, the plight of Alex appeals to the powerlessness often felt by the modern, Western male.
The Dirty Dozen: With but few exceptions (Pearl Harbour being one), I think it is safe to say that nearly every movie made about World War II has been a men's movie. Beyond being the largest conflict known in the history of man, World War II offers plenty of tales of heroism and man's struggle against his fellow man. While it is not necessarily the greatest World War II movie of all time, The Dirty Dozen is certainly the ultimate expression of World War II as a men's movie. The movie is yet another take on the central idea of The Seven Samurai, only this time the protagonists are twelve American soldiers, all of them either serving lengthy sentences in prison or facing death row, who are to be trained to participate in what essentially a suicide mission: attack a chateau in Brittany being used as a base for Nazi operations. Assigned to train them is Major John Reisman (played by that quintessential men's movie star, Lee Marvin). The movie takes us through the training of the "Dirty Dozen" to the execution of their specified mission--the attack on the chateau.
The Dirty Dozen is perhaps best known for its extensive action scenes, of which there are no shortage. In fact, many today may not realise that when it was released in 1967 it was somewhat controversial for its plentiful ultraviolence. That having been said, The Dirty Dozen is much more than an overly violent action film. The Dozen themselves are not mere cardboard cutouts, but well developed characters--any one of them has more personality than the typical Steven Segal protagonist. What is more, through portraying the training and ultimately the assigned mission of a very special attack force, the movie examines such themes as the conflict between the individual and the collective, patriotism, racism, and the morality of war. Ultimately, The Dirty Dozen may not be so much about World War II as it was the then ongoing Vietnam Conflict. Of course, what makes the movie even better is that, in the end, the Dirty Dozen (with the exception of the psychopath Archer J. Maggott, played by Telly Savalas), who started out as criminals, turn out to be heroes. In the end they are willing to sacrifice themselves for innocents and each other. Just as The Seven Samurai presented all too human heroes, who ultimately seem more heroic for being human, so too does The Dirty Dozen.
Escape From New York: In A Clockwork Orange, Alex can be considered nothing but a base criminal, albeit one who is also a victim of society. In The Dirty Dozen, the Dozen (with the exception of Maggot, who never reformed) were criminals who became heroes. The hero of Escape From New York, Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell), is a bit more complex. A decorated United States Army Lieutenant, Plissken eventually turned to a life of crime. His reasons for doing so, however, are more complex than any desire for filthy lucre or even the simple thrill of it all. Plissken apparently felt betrayed by the government Regardless, when the President's plane crashes into New York City (now a maximum security prison), it is to Plissken that the governments turns for help. That they inject microscopic explosives into his neck that will blast a hole in his carotid arteries in 24 hours time demonstrates that the government thinks Plissken has the skill to succeed in his mission, but they don't trust him to be willing to do so. Ultimately, Snake Plissken is not a common criminal such as Alex, nor is he a criminal turned hero such as the various members of the Dirty Dozen. Instead, Snake Plissken has always been a hero, albeit one who is rebelling against a system which he feels has treated him (and others as well) unfairly.
Escape From New York is most definitely a violent action film. In fact, Carpenter had difficulty selling the film until his success with Halloween because Escape From New York was perceived by the studios as too violent and too negative. Like the other films on this list, however, Escape From New York is not a simple action film. Instead it is an examination of the importance of the individual as opposed to that of the collective, as well as the dishonesty sometimes engaged in by governments. Indeed, Escape From New York was largely Carpenter's reaction to the Watergate Scandal!
Fight Club: Set in World War II, The Dirty Dozen perhaps appealed mostly to the generation which that war spawned. Inspired by the Watergate Scandal, Escape From New York probably appealed to Baby Boomer's distrust of the government. At last, in 1999, there came a men's movie for Generation X: Fight Club. Indeed, the central theme of Fight Club would seem to be the emasculation of the men of Generation X in modern day society. As Tyler Durden (simultaneously a protagonist and the antagonist in the movie) puts it, Generation X is"...an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't...." Initially Tyler's solution to the malaise felt by the average Gen X male is Fight Club, an underground club in which men engage in hand to hand combat with each other, but in the end it seems that he has a much broader vision than two men wailing on each other...
As might be expected from its title, Fight Club has its share of violence. And it also has its share of sex (in the form of Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, no less). But the appeal of the film goes beyond mere sex and violence, or even an exploration of the plight of the Generation X male. What makes Fight Club particularly interesting is that it presents us with two different sorts of men. Tyler Durden is flamboyant, magnetic, nihilist, and, ultimately, revolutionary. While the unnamed Narrator shares Tyler's distaste of what has become of modern man, he also has a desire to do the right thing and sensitivity to others, not to mention a touch of the romantic (although for much of the film he is obviously in denial about this). While Tyler is the much more picturesque of the two, it is ultimately the Narrator who is the movie's hero. It is perhaps for this reason that Fight Club has developed such a following. The average man can watch the film and realise that he might well be a more heroic figure than some of those whom he envies.
The Great Escape: As I said earlier, almost all movies about World War II are men's movies. And alongside The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape is one of the best expressions of World War II as a men's movie. Indeed, as far as men's movies go, it might well have the best cast of all time, including James Garner (who had been playing Brett Maverick only a few years before), James Coburn (soon to be playing superspy Derek Flint), David McCallum (who a year later would be playing one of the men from U.N.C.L.E., Illya Kuryakin), Charles Bronson (of Death Wish fame), and actor/director/renaissance man Richard Attenborough. Those stars would be enough for any film, but The Great Escape include the ultimate men's movie star, Steve McQueen. As the "Cooler King" and experienced escapist Captain Hilts, McQueen has one of his best moments in film history.
Even without its great cast, however, The Great Escape would have been a great film. After all, it features one of the best plots in the history of men's movies, one drawn straight from the pages of history. Several Allied prisoners of war plot a massive breakout from a supposedly "escape proof" Nazi stalag, all in the name of disrupting Nazi operations. In this respect The Great Escape falls firmly in the Shichinin no samurai school of filmmaking--take a relatively small group of men (okay, a few hundred in this case) and pit them against a force that greatly outnumbers them (the armed forces of Nazi Germany). Indeed, the POWs know that many of them will simply be recaptured in the attempt to escape, and many of them will died attempting to evade their captors. It is one of the finest expressions of heroism ever portrayed on film.
The Long Riders: If ever there was the quintessential men's movie director, it would be Walter Hill. He broke into directing with the ultraviolent Charles Bronson movie Hard Times. He made a name for himself with a comic book on film called The Warriors, a movie which on its release was controversial for its over the top violence. He would go onto make Southern Comfort, a movie inspired by Deliverance which nonetheless became something more. While The Warriors and Southern Comfort both warrant honourable mentions on this list, it is The Long Riders on which Hill was at his finest.
Okay, I know what many of you are thinking--another movie about criminals. Here I am to tell you that you are dead wrong. Here in my home state of Missouri, the James-Younger Gang were not regarded as outlaws, much less criminals. Instead they were regarded as champions of the people against the oppression of the Radical Republicans. And there is every indication that this was the motivation behind their various escapades. Quite simply, Jesse James and Cole Younger weren't so much John Dillingers as they were modern day Robin Hoods. The Long Riders gets this point across quite well. Ed Miller is kicked out of the gang when, during a robbery, he shoots innocent people. Cole Younger and his brothers spare an old man on a stagecoach who rode with General Shelby, while happily taking a carpetbagger for everything he has. And while the Pinkerton Agency (still not too well liked here in Missouri....) wants to paint the James-Younger Gang as criminals, they find themselves frustrated as the state of Missouri embraces Jesse James and Cole Younger as heroes while viewing the Pinkertons as the basest of villains. The Long Riders does depart a good deal from history (while Belle Starr--a distant cousin of mine--and Cole Younger most certainly knew each other, there is no indication they were ever romantically involved). it is loyal to the spirit of that history. Indeed, beyond capturing the heroism of the James-Younger Gang, the movie captures the importance of family and the closeness of the brothers perfectly. This makes it one of the all time best men's movies in my opinion.
Rollerball (1975): Okay, I will admit that I have never cared much for sports movies. Most of them seems to be made with a cookie cutter. Take a down trodden team, an inspiring coach, and an important game in which they inevitably win, and you have your typical sports film. On the other hand, Rollerball is the kind of sports movie I can get behind. For one thing, it is set in a future where the world is ruled by corporations where the importance of any one individual is considered less than that of the collective. For another, it features what may possibly be the most violent sport ever committed to film (beyond Death Race 2000, anyhow)--rollerball. Rollerball is a sport in which competing teams race around a circular track, either on roller skates or motorcycles, with object of getting a steel ball into the goal (thus scoring a point). It is very much a full contact sport, in which any sort of violence is allowed, up to and including murder. Indeed, while the film was meant as an indictment of violence, Rollerball was controversial on its first release for its scenes of ultraviolence.
Of course, rollerball is not simply bread and circuses for the masses. Through rollerball the corporations hope to prove that cooperation within a team is more important than the contributions of any one, single individual. Unfortunately for the corporations, the game presents them with a bit of a problem in the form of Jonathan E., the reigning star of the Houston rollerball team. A cult following has developed behind Jonathan, something which goes firmly against the corporations' idea that the individual is unimportant. The movie is then largely a statement on the importance of individuals as opposed to the supremacy of the collective. In Rollerball, the individual ultimately matters more than the team, regardless of what the corporations believe. In this respect, Jonathan E. is very much a hero in the mould of The Prisoner (one of the ultimate men's TV shows). Indeed, the movie even contains references to that show (Jonathan E's number is six...).
The Wild Bunch: The Wild Bunch is often called a Western, although I am not so sure that this is quite accurate. The movie is set in 1913, during the Mexican Revolution, at a point when many of us would think the Old West long dead. And most of the action is set not in the West of the United States, but in Mexico itself. Instead, I think it might be more accurate to describe The Wild Bunch as a "Post-Western," a paen to a time long gone even by the period during the movie is set. Indeed, it must be pointed out that most of the Wild Bunch are not young men. The gang's leaders, Pike Bishop (played by William Holden) and Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), have definitely seen better days--they are old enough to remember the days when the Wild West was still very much alive. At one point in the film Bishop states, "We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closin' fast." Although the Wild Bunch are most definitely outlaws, they also portray an odd sort of heroism. Endowed with their own skewed code of honour and realising their day is at an end, they decide to make one impressive last stand. Like many men's films, part of the conflict of The Wild Bunch stems from the struggle of the individual to exist within the demands of society.
The Wild Bunch is most definitely a violent movie. Slow motion had been used in scenes since the advent of the French New Wave, but The Wild Bunch was among the first films to apply it to action scenes. What is more, it was also among the first major films to make extensive use of on screen blood. While the blood letting in The Wild Bunch might seem tame by today's standards, in 1969 it was very controversial. Some might still view the film as overly violent--upon its release in 1993 the MPAA ratings board initially rated the film NC-17! Regardless, the violence in The Wild Bunch is not gratuitous in that it serves a purpose. It not only serves as a reminder that the Wild Bunch are men out of time, but as an indictment of the violence with which they live their lives.
Honourable Mentions: I must admit that I had great difficulty in creating this list. In fact, I could have easily created a list of twenty five men's movies. It is for that reason I decided to include some "honourable mentions," films that surely rank among the best men's movies ever made. They are as follows: almost the entire oeuvre of Sergio Leone, Cool Hand Luke (another expression of the conflict between the individual and the system), Death Race 2000 (like Rollerball, a sports movie emphasising the importance of the individual), Deliverance (one of the best tales of survival ever committed to film) , Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood as a cop with attitude), Hang 'Em High (a marshall wreaks vengeance on the town that wronged him--many of Eastwood's films are among the best men's movies), The Longest Yard (the original not the remake--this is not one of those inspiring, cookie cutter, sports films), Mad Max (ultraviolence in futuristic Australia as a road cop takes vengeance on a particularly violent gang), The Magnificent Seven (The Seven Samurai as gunslingers), Slap Shot (aside from death racing and rollerball, there is no more manly sport than ice hockey....), Southern Comfort (see The Long Riders above), V For Vendetta (a lone revolutionary battles against the ultimate, Fascist state in Britian), The Warriors (see The Long Riders above), and Yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune as a badass samurai, enough said).
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