15 Underrated Performances In War Movies

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Vote up the performances that deserve more love.

There is something enduringly appealing about the war film, even if the genre sometimes features underrated performances from its main cast. These are the types of films which immerse the viewer in the dark, sinister and terrifying world of combat. However, while war films are often praised for their cinematography and epic scope, it’s truly the acting that helps to elevate them into the realm of greatness.

The men and women who appear in these films help to ground the broader picture, anchoring the drama and giving audiences people they can cheer for and care about, often showing the very human, and devastating, impact it has on the individual. 

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  • Wes Studi has earned significant critical praise for various film appearances, most notably in such early 1990s projects as Dances with Wolves and, just as notably, The Last of the Mohicans. Though Daniel Day-Lewis tends to earn the lion’s share of the plaudits for the latter, Studi deserves just as much praise. He portrays the character of Magua, a Huorn warrior filled with righteous rage. 

    In lesser hands than Studi’s, such a character would have been little more than a stereotype. Instead, Studi allows the viewer to truly understand the rich complexity of this fascinating creation. Part of the power of his performance stems from his physical appearance - in particular, his eyes, which are gleaming and penetrating. However, he also has that tremendous and imposing charisma which are the marks of a truly great performer. 

  • Saving Private Ryan is often regarded, quite rightly, as one of the best war films of the 1990s. In it, Steven Spielberg showed once again why he is one of the most adept directors, providing viewers with a story rich in nostalgia, emotion, and the visceral experience of combat. Much praise has focused on the performance of Tom Hanks, but his supporting cast is just as talented. 

    Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, and Vin Diesel all show, in their own ways, extraordinary skill. They each bring something unique to the table, showing the various types of young men who went off to war, where they faced unspeakable violence but yet also managed to find a measure of camaraderie with one another. Hanks obviously deserves all of the credit he receives; his supporting cast helps to anchor his own performance. Credit is particularly due to Vin Diesel, who brings to his performance both a battle-hardened stoicism and a surprising vulnerability.

  • Every time he appears on-screen, Ken Watanabe manages to cast his own unique and magnetic spell. There is always a weightiness and gravitas to his performances, and there is also often a wounded nobility that makes him impossible to look away from. 

    This is very evident in Letters from Iwo Jima, one of a pair of films directed by Clint Eastwood which intend to show the complicated nature of World War II and its legacy among both the Americans and the Japanese. Watanabe’s General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is a man of honor, even as he also recognizes the inevitability of defeat in the Battle of Iwo Jima. It’s the type of performance Watanabe was born to play, and he makes the general into someone the viewer can’t help but admire, whether one is American or Japanese.

  • While some of the most noteworthy World War II films are those which are told from the American perspective, Das Boot is a notable exception. Focusing as it does on the crew of a German submarine as they patrol the Atlantic Ocean, it features a number of dynamic performances from its central cast, most notably from Jurgen Prochnow, who plays the character of Kapitänleutnant.

    Much of the film’s strength stems from its ability to capture the mundaneness of life aboard a submarine. However, it is also anchored by Prochnow’s performance. He allows the viewer to understand the complex nature of a German soldier who is loyal to his men and his country but has nothing but loathing, contempt, and dismissal for the Nazis who are in charge. Due to his riveting performance, the film provides a scathing indictment of war and the impact it has on the lives and minds of the men involved.

  • Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers is a companion piece to the director’s other film, Letters from Iwo Jima, demonstrating the different ways in which the same event - in this case, the Battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath - can take on radically different meanings depending on which side of the battle one happens to be on. The film is notable for its exploration of the iconic photograph associated with the battle and its impact on the soldiers who were involved.

    Adam Beach is particularly inspired in his performance as Ira Hayes, a Native American man who is haunted by his unwanted fame. Beach allows the viewer to feel compassion for him as he descends into alcoholism and despair, never quite able to reconcile the person he is with the one that is created by the photograph and its afterlife. In some ways, Beach’s is the most well-wrought performance in the entire film, elevating Ira into the most interesting, if also the most tragic, of all of the characters. 

  • For quite a long time, World War I was often overshadowed in film by World War II, which in many ways seemed much more morally clear. In recent years, however, the First World War has become increasingly present on the big screen, and perhaps no film makes this clearer than 1917. Under Sam Mendes's steady direction, the film immerses viewers in the truly horrifying world of the trenches.

    The true heart of the film, however, is George MacKay, who plays Will Schofield, one of a pair of soldiers who are sent on a suicide mission in order to prevent more bloodshed. There is a stoicism and reserve to MacKay’s performance that is quite effective, but there is also a quiet tragedy lurking behind his eyes, even though he always seems to be keeping something back from both the viewer and his fellow soldiers. At the same time, there is also a fundamental humanity to his performance which is undeniable, a reminder of the truly terrible cost of war.