We’ve already told you that Rogue One is a war movie, but it’s more than that: It’s a road-trip war movie.
In other words, it’s the story of a specific mission, involving few enough people that you get to know and care about each one over the course of two and a half hours as they muse on the meaning of life and the futility of war, take a trip together, and stage at least one climactic battle scene in which someone from the company dies. They’re funny, intense, and — depending on the director — either gleefully or thought-provokingly amoral. Done well, a road-trip war movie combines the camaraderie of a heist movie, the adventure of a road-trip movie, and the adrenaline rush of a shoot-’em-up into a turducken of cinematic pleasure.
While the genre ranges in setting and tone from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Fury, road-trip war movies have to follow certain rules: a small group of soldiers travel some distance to complete a specific objective. Black Hawk Down has too many characters, and you can’t tell them apart. The Patriot doesn’t have a defined mission. Red Dawn isn’t strictly military. But Rogue One checks all the boxes.
So where does Rogue One rank among the best road-trip war movies? To find out, I’ve pitted it against three classics of the genre — Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds, and The Guns of Navarone — as well as the most recent attempt to drop a road-trip war movie into a billion-dollar sci-fi franchise: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, which certainly leads its competition in punctuation. Each film is judged on a scale from one to 10 in six categories essential to a good road-trip war movie.
Spoilers for Rogue One and four other movies that have come out since 1961 are below.
From a fictional standpoint, is the objective important?
• Inglourious Basterds: Collect Nazi scalps, kill Hitler 10/10
It’s literally killing Hitler. It could not be more important.
• Rogue One: Kill Galen Erso, steal Death Star plans 9.5/10
Destroying the Death Star is about as essential a mission as exists outside of literally killing Hitler, though the Rogue One crew loses half a point because they’re not actually blowing up the Death Star so much as paving the way for Luke Skywalker to do it later.
• Mockingjay: Shoot a bitchin’ propaganda film, kill President Snow 6/10
Snow’s probably the most evil person in the Hunger Games universe, but Mockingjay suffers from the lack of a concrete plan other than “do whatever Katniss says.” Which is fair enough, I guess, but they also don’t even come close to pulling it off.
• Guns of Navarone: Destroy the titular guns 4/10
Six Royal Navy destroyers and the lives of 2,000 men on the Greek island of Keros hang in the balance, as well as the possibility of Turkey entering the war on the Axis side. It’s no small potatoes compared to the objective of Saving Private Ryan, but it’s not as important as stealing the Death Star plans, let alone killing Hitler.
• Saving Private Ryan: Save Private Ryan, defend the bridge in Ramelle 1/10
It’s a bullshit mission. The whole point of the movie is this is a bullshit mission. Two of the best scenes in the movie are about what a bullshit mission this is. Everyone gripes about this bullshit mission except Bryan Cranston’s staff colonel, Ted Danson, and — because the Army chief of staff’s opinion is the only one that matters — George C. Marshall. Even Private Ryan himself thinks it’s a bullshit mission and tries desperately not to be saved.
Would you follow the leader on a suicide mission?
• Saving Private Ryan: Captain John Miller 10/10
In addition to revealing himself to be an extremely adept tactician, Captain Miller is played by Tom Hanks, who is America’s Dad. I’d follow Tom Hanks anywhere, military protocol or not.
• Mockingjay: Colonel Boggs 6/10
A daring and heroic soldier, Mahershala Ali’s Boggs doesn’t get the credit he deserves for providing a steady hand at the wheel in one of the most chaotic environments ever portrayed in a road-trip war movie. Perhaps even more than Captain Miller, I’d trust Boggs not to throw away my life cheaply.
• Rogue One: Captain Cassian Andor 4/10
Would I knock back a bottle of Whyren’s Reserve over a game of sabacc with the good captain? Absolutely. Do I find him a particularly inspiring military leader? No, I do not.
• Inglourious Basterds: Lieutenant Aldo Raine 2/10
Aldo the Apache must be a good commander because of how long he went without taking a casualty as a guerrilla fighter behind enemy lines. But Brad Pitt’s accent sounds like nobody on the set of Inglourious Basterds had ever been to Tennessee, nor spoken to anyone who had.
• Guns of Navarone: Major Roy Franklin 1/10
Franklin drew a tough hand, because when your band of commandos includes Anthony Quinn and Gregory Peck, you’re probably not going to end up asserting all that much authority. And sure enough, Franklin breaks his leg almost immediately, and the mission only ends up being a success because Peck’s Mallory bets his life that Franklin would spill his guts to the Nazis under interrogation. Not a great showing.
Is there an implacable enemy?
• Inglourious Basterds: Colonel Hans Landa 10/10
Enemies don’t get more implacable and frightening than this. There’s a movie called Conspiracy, in which they essentially took the minutes from the Wannsee conference — basically the meeting at which the Nazis planned the later stages of the Holocaust — and turned it into a stage play. In it, Wilhelm Stuckart, the coauthor of the Nuremberg Laws (played in the film by Colin Firth), has a monologue that lasts several minutes, in which he lays out in a disturbingly passionate but matter-of-fact fashion why he believes Jews are so insidious.
It’s a transformative scene because it drives home that Nazis, fascists, anti-Semites, and mass murderers aren’t some bogeyman from ancient history. No, real people actually believed this (and many still do), and they killed tens of millions in service of those beliefs.
Landa is brutal and cynical in a nightmarishly whimsical fashion, but he’s as real as Firth’s Stuckart from Conspiracy, which makes him as disturbing a villain as you’ll find in film.
• Mockingjay: President Snow, Peacekeepers, mutts, and booby traps 5/10
I feel like the Hunger Games series didn’t get as much mileage out of Donald Sutherland playing a dictator as it should have, but the tools Snow’s army got to play with were scary as hell: Star Wars–style Stormtroopers, plus genetically modified zombies and brutal automated booby traps.
• Rogue One: Director Krennic and a ton of Stormtroopers 3/10
It’s been eight movies now, and the bad guys of Star Wars have produced three competent military commanders: Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, and General Veers, who led the ground assault on Hoth. And while Vader and Tarkin are in Rogue One, all they do is scold Krennic, who is as clumsy and stupid as Admiral Ozzel, only with cooler clothes and an inferiority complex.
• Saving Private Ryan: Hundreds of anonymous Nazis 2/10
• Guns of Navarone: Hundreds of anonymous Nazis 2/10
One thing I like about Inglourious Basterds as opposed to the other World War II movies on this list is that it doesn’t treat the Nazis like any other army. Not all wars have hard-and-fast good guys and/or bad guys, but this was the greatest military power in the world, mobilized explicitly for the purpose of world conquest and genocide. They’re not the British of the Revolutionary War, or even the Confederacy, and treating them like a normal opposing army doesn’t do the story justice.
Is there a great battle scene?
• Saving Private Ryan: Storming Omaha Beach 10/10
Saving Private Ryan is bookended by two great action scenes, but the D-Day sequence that opens the film is the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the movie, and for good reason.
• Rogue One: Battle of Scarif 10/10
Yes, it’s as good as the Omaha Beach scene. The Battle of Scarif is enormous in scale but doesn’t feel like it because there’s at least one character you care about in every corner of the battle. Since it’s so big, the final mission betrays the concept of a road-trip war movie, but the action snowballs organically from two people and a droid breaking into a data center to a sea-air-land engagement that involves the bulk of the Rebel fleet. It’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Not only that, but this scene shows that the Rebels, the obvious good guys in a fantasy story for children, are willing to sacrifice thousands of their own at the drop of a hat, just like the Imperials. In order for the foundation of the relatively sanitized story of Luke Skywalker to be laid, tens of thousands of people, with their own histories and demons that you’ll never know about, had to die. It’s refreshingly honest in its own way.
• Mockingjay: Escaping the mutts in the sewers 6/10
The gang is being chased in the dark by monsters; that’s everyone’s nightmare. At times, the action moves so quickly that it’s hard to see what’s going on, but from start to finish it’s unbelievably tense.
• Guns of Navarone: German patrol boards the fishing boat 4/10
Guns of Navarone isn’t big on action sequences as such, but the first one is the best — it quickly sets up that this group of commandos is a thoroughly competent team of trained killers.
• Inglourious Basterds: Montage of Stiglitz killing Nazis 2.5/10
For all the gore in Inglourious Basterds, there isn’t really a great battle scene as such. The shootout in the bar is over in seconds, and the final assault on the theater is less of a battle than it is a bunch of people trying to escape a fire.
Is there a great talking scene?
• Inglourious Basterds: Playing “Who Am I?” in the bar 10/10
There are at least four sitting-around-talking scenes in Inglourious Basterds that would beat anything in any of these other films: the showdown at the bar, the opening scene at chez LaPadite, the briefing of Lieutenant Hicox, and the interrogation of Sergeant Wilhelm that ends with the movie’s best line — “We got a German here who wants to die for country! Oblige him!” But it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie if it didn’t pause every so often for people to sit around a table and chat.
• Guns of Navarone: Miller discovers that Anna is a traitor 7/10
I know I made a big deal earlier about how Peck and Quinn drive this movie, but in the last half-hour they run a clearout for David Niven’s explosives expert and just let him talk. It’s great.
• Saving Private Ryan: Remembering Vecchio at the church 6/10
“This Ryan better be worth it. He’d better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb or something. ’Cause the truth is, I wouldn’t trade 10 Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.” That’s the essential question of the movie, and it’s a better line than the corny-as-hell “James … Earn this” at the end of the film.
For the record, the best line in Saving Private Ryan is “The Statue of Liberty is kaput. … That’s disconcerting.”
• Rogue One: Argument while leaving Eadu 3/10
You can tell which scenes the studio made them go back and reshoot to lighten up the movie. They’re the cheeseball-ass scenes in which Jyn steps out of character for long stretches of time and re-enacts the more painfully earnest parts of Friday Night Lights.
• Mockingjay: Johanna steals Katniss’s morphine 1/10
Jena Malone is awesome for all the four minutes she’s in this movie, but for as saturated as Mockingjay — Part 2 is with incredible actors and actresses, they didn’t have a lot of great dialogue to work with.
Does someone on the team die a horrifying death?
• Saving Private Ryan: Mellish gets stabbed to death while Upham cries on the stairs 10/10
The scene in which the Nazi soldier walks past Upham and slowly stabs Mellish to death while he begs for his life is the most intense thing I’ve ever seen on film. Then it gets you thinking about what you’d do in Upham’s place, which is an uncomfortable road to go down in its own right. Mellish’s death is more horrifying than any nameless bag of entrails on the beach in the first 20 minutes of the movie, and dwarfs two other character deaths — Wade and Jackson — that are awful in their own right. I think about this scene frequently, sometimes for no good reason, and I hope I never see anything like it again.
• Mockingjay: Finnick gets mauled to death by mutts 8/10
They kill Boggs early on to show you they mean business, but not only killing Finnick but having him get eaten is a whole different level of meaning business. When Finnick showed up in Catching Fire, I didn’t like him because: (1) As a rule, I don’t trust anyone who’s that pretty, and (2) I expected Katniss to have to kill him at some point in the future. But over the course of three movies, he’s revealed to be loyal and vulnerable, in addition to having been tormented just as much as Katniss and Peeta. So when he shows up to save the day, then ends up getting overrun and killed brutally, it’s a shock because it seems unfair to make him suffer any more than he already had. Then you start thinking about how he just got married, and you find out later he had a kid on the way, and … yeah, that one got me.
• Rogue One: Bodhi gets blown up 6/10
Everyone dies, and every death is painful in its own way. I would not blame anyone who was more touched by Jyn and Cassian kneeling and hugging, Deep Impact–style, as they waited to get nuked to death, or anyone who was chanting “The Force is with me, and I am one with The Force” along with the ill-fated Chirrut Îmwe. I picked Bodhi because when they took off for Scarif he’d only just stopped being scared of everything all the time. A guy making eye contact with the grenade that’s about to kill him is a particularly sad action-movie death.
• Inglourious Basterds: Hicox gets his nuts blown off 3/10
Even though you like most of the Basterds, and even though most of them die, they don’t feel like real people with lives and hopes and dreams outside of the war itself. Compared to Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds is as unsentimental about human life as you’d expect from a movie by the creator of Kill Bill and Death Proof about scalping Nazis.
• Guns of Navarone: Brown dies in a knife fight on the boat 2/10
Only two of the commandos die, and I guess Brown, with his sudden ambivalence about killing, is sadder than Vic Fontaine from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine buying the farm.
• Saving Private Ryan: 39
• Inglourious Basterds: 37.5
• Rogue One: 35.5
• Mockingjay: 32
• Guns of Navarone: 20
Not a bad showing. Rogue One isn’t the best road-trip war movie ever made, but it’s pretty damn good