WWI Centennial: Allies Triumph In Italy, German Sailors Mutiny

Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi, Due Secoli di Guerre, Vol. 7, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5
Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi, Due Secoli di Guerre, Vol. 7, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 322nd installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

OCTOBER 24-NOVEMBER 3, 1918: ALLIES TRIUMPH IN ITALY, GERMAN SAILORS MUTINY

Italy’s defensive victory at the Second Battle of the Piave in June 1918 raised French and British hopes of an immediate Italian offensive against outnumbered and demoralized Habsburg forces, preventing them from reinforcing Austria Hungary’s ally Germany on the Western Front. However, the new Italian commander, Armando Diaz—determined not to repeat the dramatic failures of his disgraced predecessor, Luigi Cadorna—delayed until it became clear that the Allies were about to win the war on the Western Front, leaving Italy little time to stake its own claims. Ending the war with Habsburg troops still deep inside Italian borders would give Britain and France a perfect excuse to ignore Italian demands in the postwar settlement. To justify annexing formerly Austrian territory, Italy would have to conquer at least some of it.

In October 1918 Diaz was finally moved to action by an angry letter from Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. He was worried that the Allies indeed intended to sideline Italy, especially regarding its claims to lands around the Adriatic Sea (where the Allies had made conflicting promises to Italy and a new confederation of southern Slavs, called “Yugoslavia,” to be created after the war).

According to the plan finalized on October 12, a total of 33 divisions, including British and French units, would attack all along the Italian front. The main offensive would be conducted by the Italian Eighth, Tenth and Twelfth Armies along the Piave, with supporting attacks by the Fourth Army around Mount Grappa.

Map of the Vittoria Veneto battle of World War I
Erik Sass

While the Allies enjoyed major advantages in manpower, artillery, and air power, the offensive got off to a moderately disastrous start—all too typically for the Italian front—due to a combination of inclement weather and poor leadership. The natural obstacles included a seasonal downpour that raised the Piave River to dangerous levels, making crossing the river even more dangerous than usual, as during the Austrian attack at the Second Battle of Piave. Even worse, Diaz failed to implement new tactics, sending the attacking infantry over in regularly spaced lines regardless of terrain—a recipe for bloody defeats in many previous battles on the Italian front as well as in other theaters during the First World War.

Italian machine guns on Mount Grappa, World War I
Indro Montanelli and Mario Cervi, Due Secoli di Guerre, Vol. 7, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The first setback came when the rising level of the Piave led Diaz to revise the order of operations. Instead of launching simultaneous attacks, the Fourth Army would attack the Austrian positions on Mount Grappa on October 24, 1918, in advance of the main offensive across the Piave—hopefully outflanking defenders further east. But obsolete Italian infantry tactics couldn’t dislodge Habsburg troops from strong defensive positions on the mountain, and the Fourth Army failed to make significant progress, suffering 25,000 casualties in exchange for only minor gains by the end of the month (below, an Italian machine gun crew).

Battle of the Vittorio Veneto in Italy, World War I
Italian Army, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

After a two-day delay due to the swollen Piave, on October 26 Diaz finally launched the Eighth, Tenth, and Twelfth Army attacks—but once again the Allies struggled to make headway, as the raging river washed away the pontoon bridges built by engineering units, leaving a small number of friendly forces stranded on the other side of the river. However, after a punishing artillery bombardment, several British divisions in the Tenth Army finally managed to secure a bridgehead across the Piave as the river began to subside on the morning of October 27, forcing the battered Habsburg defenders to abandon their positions. This immediately triggered a general retreat by their neighboring units, now at risk of being outflanked.

Map of the Vittoria Veneto battle, World War I
Erik Sass

The retreat swiftly turned into a rout, followed by the total collapse of the remaining Habsburg forces. Tens of thousands of troops mutinied and demanded that they be allowed to return to their various homelands in the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire to protect their families and property in case of widespread civil disorder (top and below, Italian troops advancing).

Italian soldiers marching at the end of World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Michael Maximilian Reiter, a Habsburg storm platoon officer, wrote in his diary in October 1918:

“Rumor has it that thousands of soldiers who are heartily sick of the war are going to start demonstrating for their return home. We have now heard that the whole 39th Regiment refused point-blank to go out to training, and demanded to be returned home to Hungary. This mutinous mood is spreading fast, and the soldiers of the whole of one company, ordered to proceed to the Front, refused to obey.”

Reiter later described events that encapsulated the complete breakdown of authority as officers no longer dared to enforce the military hierarchy:

“Events have begun to gather momentum. Tonight, one of the sergeants appeared in the Officers’ Mess dining room at 8 o’clock, while we were in the middle of dinner, and asked us most sincerely to take him and his colleagues home. He promised that all the men would maintain strict discipline, but that they would not go the front. We attempted all manner of persuasion, promising that if the war did not end within a week, we would ourselves go home with them. The sergeant left the room, but returned in half an hour, bearing a message from the soldiers’ spokesman to the effect that their patience was quite exhausted, and that they were not prepared to wait any longer. And indeed, the soldiers were as good as their word and duly mutinied.”

By October 29, 1918 the Italians had reached the town of Vittorio Veneto, which gave its name to the battle, where Habsburg artillery made a half-hearted attempt to cover the massive retreat. Jan Tříska, a Czech gunner still fighting loyally for the Habsburg Army, recalled:

“After a two-hour rest, the men moved to a fork in the road overlooking both the Vittorio Veneto and the Conegliano roads, assembled the guns, readied them, set up an observation post on top of a nearby hill, and fired a few rounds westward at the advancing Italian infantry, over the heads of the masses of Austrian troops retreating in four separate columns on the highway.”

But Tříska and his comrades soon heard news that swiftly undermined their determination to keep fighting:

“From the weary, hungry, and parched soldiers trudging down the road, the men of the battery gathered alarming pieces of information—were they rumors?—that in several areas the front-line Austrian infantry, sick and tired of the war, was giving up and surrendering en masse … The retreating men were cursing the ‘incompetent’ emperor, his ‘high-living’ court, and the ‘coterie of elite officers’ who had ‘betrayed’ those who fought in the front ranks of the war.”

By the following day it was clear that Austria-Hungary had suffered a decisive defeat, leaving Tříska and his comrades trying to figure out what would come next:

“The evening was cold and rainy, and the men built fires, outdoors as well as indoors. They gathered in groups to talk, to listen, to argue, to try to understand what was happening and, most important of all, to try to guess what would happen to them. What were the practical consequences of losing a war? What effect would it have on the combatants, on the people at home, on the Empire? The questions were many, the answers few.”

Tříska noted that Austrian and Hungarian officers took the highly unusual step of asking the men what they thought, with a bizarre vote to see what form of government they favored—a republic or the continuation of the monarchy—which they later ignored:

“The fact was that the men—including many of the German-speaking Austrians and the Hungarians—knew little about the actual social, economic, and political conditions in their respective national homelands, and what they knew was not good. Finally, the officers dismissed the men, who were now more confused than ever. What did the vote mean? Why was it taken? What was the motive of the officers taking it? The men talked far into the night.”

Austro-Hungarian POWs after the Vittorio Veneto battle, World War I
Italian Army, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Unfortunately for tens of thousands of ordinary Austro-Hungarian soldiers, the dying Habsburg dynasty would demonstrate its incompetence and neglect one last time: It managed to bungle the surrender. On November 3, 1918, Italian and Austro-Hungarian representatives agreed to an armistice whose conditions included the withdrawal of all Austro-Hungarian troops to an armistice line extending beyond the pre-war border in many places—putting Italian boots on the ground in Habsburg territory, as the Italian government had hoped. However, Austro-Hungarian officials neglected to tell their troops that the armistice would only take effect after 24 hours; as a result, the Italians continued advancing and capturing Habsburg troops who had already thrown down their weapons, thinking the fighting was over (above, Habsburg POWs). Altogether the Italians captured around 350,000 prisoners on the last day of “fighting,” which probably resulted in the needless deaths of many POWs from disease, starvation, or exposure in the months that followed. Tříska recorded the final indignity:

“Representatives of the two belligerents had apparently signed the armistice agreement on that very day, November 3. Why, then, did the Italians continue their offensive? Had no one told them that the war was over? Austrian ‘parliamentarians,’ non-coms mounted on horses and on motorcycles, rode toward the advancing Italian troops and waved white flags, but without much success.”

Meanwhile, to the east, an Italian naval expedition occupied the city of Trieste, one of the main goals of Italian nationalists who pressured the country into joining the Allies in 1915. (After the war the Italians were allowed to keep Trieste, but not the rest of the Adriatic coast, fueling the grievances of ultra-nationalists like Benito Mussolini, who felt that Italy had been robbed by its own allies.)

Whatever their feelings about the collapse of the empire they had been born in, the end of the war probably brought relief for most Habsburg soldiers who escaped captivity. They streamed back to their ethnic homelands—now in the process of becoming new nation-states, including independent republics in Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia—by the tens of thousands. However, the return journey remained perilous, as noted by Reiter, who had a surprisingly pleasant end of the war:

“It was a depressing sight for a professional soldier to observe the remnants of a fine Army clinging on to any and every vehicle, even riding of the roofs of trains, from which many were swept to their death when the train rushed through the tunnels of the Austrian Alps. I myself, in the company of one of my friends, rode happily on bicycles through the Alps for about 10 days, in glorious autumn weather, until we eventually came upon a train and were able to get seats to our home town.”

GERMAN SAILORS MUTINY

As Austria-Hungary was carried away by the tide of history, to the north the Second German Reich was entering its death throes, which would soon see the toppling of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the abdication and flight of Wilhelm II, the end of the German empire, and the founding of a republic. Most historians date the beginning of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 to October 27, 1918, with an uprising by sailors in the northern ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, who mutinied rather than carry out a suicidal, purely symbolic last-minute attack by the German High Seas Fleet against superior Allied navies.

The mutinies spread swiftly over the next few days, and by November 3 had assumed the character of a rebellion, as thousands of civilian residents of Kiel took to the streets in solidarity with the sailors, resulting in a number of deaths as police broke up the protests. On November 5 the national Social Democratic Party called for a general strike in support of the sailors. Soviet-style “councils” of workers and soldiers sprang up across Germany, while sailors and civilians took control of northern Germany, including the main ports of Bremen and Hamburg. On November 7 sailors occupied Cologne, while the socialist journalist Kurt Eisner declared a socialist “Free State” in the southern German province of Bavaria.

Germany faced a long period of political chaos, defined by internecine conflict approaching civil war between far-right and far-left paramilitaries. In the short term, however, the top priority was overthrowing the kaiser’s authoritarian regime, which had become a military dictatorship under the top generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Georges Connes, a French POW held captive in eastern Germany, described the sudden reversal of roles within the ranks of the German military at the prison camp:

“A second-class navy man from the Baltic Fleet presented himself at the gate with a revolver in each hand. When he appeared, as if it was an agreed upon signal; The entire station crew hurried out, throwing down the imperial insignia and saluting the republic … Still with revolvers in hand and followed by several men, the sailor went up to the command post, where officers appear to have shown no resistance. He soon came back out, dragging them along with no epaulettes … and marched them to the police station … If you haven’t witnessed, as I have, the insult inflicted upon German officers; If you haven’t seen them stripped of their insignia of rank and power and dragged behind the victors, you cannot comprehend the real depth of the German revolution.”

Unsurprisingly, rumors of mutiny and revolution at home proved fatal to the morale of German soldiers already retreating on the Western Front. Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, wrote in his diary on November 3, 1918:

“Any comment on these wholly crazy items of news is superfluous, for no words can express what is going on now in the heart of every soldier: despair, anger and indignation in the highest degree … The Austrians are supposed to have been attacking their own soldiers and officers and tearing the imperial and royal badge off their caps. They’re said to be flying the [republican] tricolor in Vienna, and what’s happening to us?”

Yet the desperate fighting still continued, with heavy casualties on both sides, up to the last moment. Richard Derby, an American division surgeon, described the renewed American attack in the Argonne:

“At 4 o’clock on the morning of November 1 a bombardment broke loose that must have carried terror to the heart of the Hun. Every ravine within seven kilometers of the Front belched fire. The noise was terrific, and the effect must have been deadly … And yet the pounding went relentlessly on, gaining and volume and magnitude as at 6 o’clock the infantry began its advance.”

On November 5, Sulzbach wrote of a harrowing retreat:

“The withdrawal proceeds the following night, starting at the delightful march-off time of 1 a.m. We ride through the pitch-black night; You can’t see your hand in front of your face! The roads are soft after 24 hours of rain. The French are firing into the area with the vilest low-trajectory guns you could imagine, and at quite irregular intervals they put down sweeping fire with these heavy-caliber guns on all roads in the rear area. With our columns and our guns, however, we can’t keep off the roads at all, and have to push on through this curtain fire; it was really dreadful, because our nerves were so bad … worse than they’ve been all these years.”

Two days later, to the west, the British soldier John Jackson described crossing a canal under heavy fire in Flanders:

“At dawn on [November 7] the attack on Droninghem commenced to the accompaniment of a hail of devastating artillery fire. Light guns, field guns, and heavy batteries poured their shells on Jerry’s concrete defenses and gun emplacements, while throughout the general pandemonium of noises could be distinguished the sharp persistent rattles of Maxims and Lewis guns, which belched forth death and destruction in a storm of bullets. First, and not the least of the obstacles confronting us, was the problem of crossing the intervening canal, not by any means a simple matter in the face of enemy machine-gun fire, and his general determined resistance to our advance. As soon as our object was perceived, the Germans opened a raking fire on us, and took a heavy toll, as rafts were swamped, and wounded men drowned in the canal… The price we paid was heavy, and dear, but we got over in the end.”

Another British soldier, Ivor Hanson, described now-familiar scenes of horror in his diary entry on November 5, 1918:

“This morning, seated with the gunners on the limbers, I saw the frightful havoc wrought by German machine guns. In the distance a particular expanse of land looked like a turnip field, but when we drew near we found the objects were not turnips. There the tragic, lifeless corpses lay, the price of our advance … The German dead were dragged unceremoniously from the road to the pavements for us to proceed. Their faces are lurid, amber-colored, and the bodies stiff like waxworks models. Disgusting, disturbing sights. How cheap human life can become.”

As always, many more men were wounded than killed, with grievous wounds bringing a horror all their own. Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, was shaken by an encounter with a badly wounded German, whose leg was amputated without anesthesia in a small cottage on October 31, 1918:

“While I was waiting outside I heard a terrible scream from within. I rushed inside but was too late to see the cause of the scream—an amputation without ether of a young Boche’s leg. Never in my life have I seen anything which could compare to the pain and anguish in the face and every muscle of the body of that German. As we lifted him into the ambulance his huddled body expressed far better than words his—I know not what—could I describe what I saw there I would be a writer—I only know that I saw something trajic [sic]—more than trajic something I cannot put into words.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

The 25 Greatest War Movies of All Time

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
© 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved.

It makes sense that master filmmakers keep returning to old wars to tell new stories, because war and cinema go hand-in-hand in many ways. War has everything you want to make a good story: Scope and spectacle, high stakes, dramatic tension, and emotional distress both at home and on the battlefield. It’s all right there, just waiting to be woven into an epic on the big screen.

What sets the best war movies apart, though, is their ability to never lose sight of the real human cost of war. The true masterpieces of the genre can deliver spectacle, yes, but they also tell us something more essential at the heart of every epic struggle in human history, something that unites us all no matter which side of the battle we may be on. With that in mind, here are 25 of the greatest war films ever made, from medieval epics to modern thrillers. To help narrow the list down, we mostly focused on movies that directly address the combat aspects of war versus dramas that are set during wartime.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lewis Milestone’s film about a group of German soldiers drawn in by nationalism and then picked apart by the ravages of war remains the film against which all other World War I epics are measured. It was released more than 80 years ago, and its depictions of the horrors of war—blood-streaked men screaming in foxholes, bare hands clinging to barbed wire—still hold up to modern eyes. It’s one of the great war epics as well as one of the great anti-war films.

2. La Grande Illusion (1937)

One of the greatest anti-war films ever made, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion succeeds in no small part because of the tremendous empathy running through every frame. No matter the side of the conflict each character falls on, they are treated as pawns within the greater illusion that war will do any of them any good. Renoir’s humanistic touch, coupled with his dazzling cast, make this film an all-time classic to such a degree that Orson Welles declared it one of his desert island movies.

3. Sergeant York (1941)

There are other "conscientious objector becomes war hero" films out there, but none has ever quite risen to the heights of Sergeant York for one simple reason: Gary Cooper. In the title role, Cooper delivers one of the finest performances of his storied career, and even as Howard Hawks infuses the film with a sense patriotic glory and duty, he trusts Cooper to imbue the story with an essential humanity. Sergeant York is a hero, yes, but Cooper never makes him into a superhero. The toll the war takes is right there in his eyes the entire time, and that makes this film a classic.

4. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Among Air Force-based war dramas, Twelve O’Clock High holds a particular place of reverence for a great many fans, and it ranks as perhaps among the best of the World War II dramas made while the war was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. Led by Gregory Peck’s tour-de-force performance as Brigadier General Frank Savage, the film builds in intensity right up to the climactic battle, and remains one of the most emotionally satisfying films of its genre.

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is the only director with two films on this list, because … well, he’s David Lean. The Bridge on the River Kwai is Lean’s seminal World War II epic about a group of prisoners, the bridge they build and then attempt to destroy, and the shifting allegiances that come with the emotional upheavals of war. Lean’s tremendous attention to detail, combining sweeping tracking shots with smaller moments like close-ups of ruined shoes on soldiers’ feet, and the Alec Guinness-led cast combine for a thrilling, often surprisingly funny, masterpiece.

6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Steven Spielberg once said that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is one of the few films he re-watches before every new project, and it’s easy to see why. The World War I drama is synonymous with epic filmmaking even now, nearly six decades after its release. Lean’s film, led by Peter O’Toole’s splendid work in the title role, retains a sense of wonder even after all these years thanks to jaw-dropping visuals, flawless editing, and a sense of scope to rival anything on the big screen today.

7. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Few films have ever been able to depict both sides of an escalating conflict with as much unflinching intensity as The Battle of Algiers. Based on the events of the Algerian War and focusing specifically on the guerilla warfare that erupted during the conflict, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film is shot like a searing, unflinching docudrama, and the sense of verisimilitude is palpable and deeply affecting.

8. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Some war films are reverent, measured, and delicate with their depiction of the particular horrors of conflict and what it does to the people on the front lines. Then there are films like The Dirty Dozen, a film without which we might never have gotten things like Inglourious Basterds or the modern version of DC Comics’s Suicide Squad, which appeared in the 1980s. Robert Aldrich’s film takes a murderer’s row of acting talent and a tremendous sense of adventure and infuses it all with the kind of chaotic energy that only soldiers with nothing to lose could muster. The result is the kind of film those who love it want to watch over and over again.

9. M*A*S*H (1970)

One of the greatest anti-war films of all time, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H combines an irreverent, sometimes surreal sense of humor with realistic dialogue and some truly absurd situations to create a tapestry of comedy and tragedy. The film places its characters right on the edge of the action, just close enough that the blood is often quite literally on their hands as they work, then examines what that kind of precarious placement can do to a group of people whose job is to heal. It’s an essential film, and not just because of its afterlife as a legendary TV series.

10. Patton (1970)

Even if Patton had nothing else going for it, the film would likely still succeed thanks to the sheer force of will of George C. Scott. The actor’s legendary, knockout performance as the title character carries the movie, but it’s not all that makes Patton great. Director Franklin J. Schaffner uses Scott’s performance as a linchpin, framing the narrative of war through Patton’s bombastic eyes and tireless spirit. The result is a war film unlike any other, one driven by a single unstoppable personality.

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

To say that Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is one of the more “problematic” Vietnam War films ever made might be a bit of an understatement to some, but more than 40 years after its release it’s hard to deny the visceral power at the heart of the film. Some aspects of the storytelling—most famously, the Russian roulette sequences at the heart of the movie—function as rather blunt instruments that hammer the point home, but they strike so hard and ring so true that the film is impossible to ignore.

12. Apocalypse Now (1979)

The New Hollywood era of the 1970s gave rise to several prominent filmmakers who would eventually turn their attention to the Vietnam War in critical, satirical, and often incisive ways, but none of them ever did it better than Francis Ford Coppola. After crafting two masterpieces with the first two Godfather films, Coppola went through hell to craft his hellish journey into the heart of darkness of a generation-defining war, and the result is the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made.

13. Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is a film that succeeds in part thanks to its sense of contrast. It’s a war epic and it delivers the goods of a war epic, but much of it takes place within the tiny confines of a German U-Boat. It’s packed with tense, explosive action, but it counterbalances that action with stretches of quiet, contemplative boredom. The result is one of the most gripping portrayals of the mundane horror of war ever, told in an environment few other films in the subgenre have ventured into.

14. Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa was a master of many aspects of cinematic storytelling, but one of his greatest strengths was easily his ability to make violence explode out at his audience with unpredictable ferocity. Ran, Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, is perhaps the best example in the director’s entire filmography of his knack for creating epic conflict. The film’s gorgeous sets and detailed costumes are all set up beautifully only to be swept up in the chaos of the story in some of the most realistically kinetic war sequences ever shot.

15. Platoon (1986)

Based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam, Platoon steers clear of the most bombastic, epic level depictions of the war and instead focuses on the titular unit of men and the transformative effects the crucible of war has on them. Led by powerhouse performances from Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Tom Berenger, Platoon remains one of the most relentlessly intense war movie experiences of all time.

16. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick made a habit out of directing war films thanks to Spartacus and Paths of Glory. Full Metal Jacket was his last experience with the genre, and it feels like he poured everything he had learned into it. The film’s genius lies largely in its structure, as it shows us just how far these soldiers are pushed by basic training before they’re actually thrown out into the war. The training sequences, led by R. Lee Ermey’s amazing drill sergeant performances, are the best-remembered of the film, but the Vietnam sequences near the end are truly stunning.

17. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s epic about the life of William Wallace and his rise as leader of a Scottish revolution in the late 13th century is one of those films that just compels you to watch until the end every time you see it on cable. Gibson’s magnetic, charismatic central performance is key to this, but somehow his directing is even more powerful. From the sweeping scenic beauty of Scotland itself to the rapid-fire brutality of the battle sequences to James Horner’s goosebump-inducing score, Braveheart is medieval epic filmmaking at its best.

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg’s harrowing World War II film is perhaps best remembered for its relentless, breathless opening sequence that depicts the brutal D-Day landing of Allied Forces at Omaha Beach. It’s an all-time great war movie sequence, but that’s not the only reason Saving Private Ryan endures. Its stacked ensemble cast, powerful yet simple central story, and overwhelming emotional resolution combine to make it a modern classic.

19. The Thin Red Line (1998)

No one else could make a World War II film quite like Terrence Malick, and as proof we have The Thin Red Line. The film defies easy description, despite the relatively straightforward backdrop of its emotional journey. What is ostensibly the story of a company of men fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942 becomes a deeply philosophical film that documents the overwhelming intellectual and emotional gauntlet of war. And while war is by its very nature not a beautiful thing, this just might be the most visually stunning war film made since Lawrence of Arabia.

20. Downfall (2004)

Few films have ever wished or dared to interact with Adolf Hitler on a personal, intimate level, for obvious reasons. In the realm of war cinema, the leader of Nazi Germany often exists as some kind of near-supernatural embodiment of ultimate evil, but Downfall sought to change that. The film does not sympathize with Hitler’s madness, but through Bruno Ganz’s unforgettable performance, it does allow us an opportunity to see the man’s unraveling in a compelling, perhaps even cathartic, way.

21. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Ridley Scott’s modern war epic Black Hawk Down narrowly missed inclusion on this list, because while it’s a masterpiece, his Kingdom of Heaven is a brilliant piece of work that remains underseen. Scott’s attempt to turn a modern lens on the Crusades—specifically Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187—combines a spectacular cast with some of the best epic visuals of the esteemed director’s career. Look for the Director’s Cut of the film for an even more robust experience.

22. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a World War II film that feels like it came from both an alternate universe and straight out of our own warped rage fantasies. Inglourious Basterds combines Tarantino’s legendary knack for dialogue with a truly brilliant cast and a brutal sense of humor to tell the story of a unit of Nazi hunters and their efforts to bring down Hitler himself in the midst of a German movie premiere. Taut, violent, and hilarious, Inglourious Basterds walks a line few other war films ever could.

23. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Kathryn Bigelow’s film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and what their high-pressure job does to them works because it attacks your psyche on two fronts. On one front, there’s the human side of these soldiers, which we see through the film’s dark sense of humor and compelling ensemble cast. On the other, there’s the kind of virtuoso directing that won Bigelow the Oscar for Best Director (making her the first—and still the only—woman to take home that particular award). A lot of directors could have made The Hurt Locker suspenseful, but only Bigelow could have made it this suspenseful.

24. Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk turns the filmmaker’s masterful eye for pacing, visual elegance, and structural intrigue to the events of World War II, and the result is one of the most pulse-pounding movies of the 2010s. Anchored by a tremendous cast, the film tells the story not of one of the war’s great attacks, but one of its most essential retreats. Nolan’s brilliant sense of tension, coupled with Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock score, combine to keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you know how it ends.

25. 1917 (2019)

Sam Mendes’s Golden Globe-winning World War I epic, based on stories told to him by his veteran grandfather, has gained a lot of press because of its “one-take” style, which might lead you to believe that it’s a gimmick film. Instead, 1917 rises beyond the structural hook of its filming style to become a meditation on the relentless nature of life in battle, and the way even the quietest moments can pivot into horror at any moment. Roger Deakins deserves another Oscar for his stunning cinematography, and George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry the emotional heft of the film like true champions, even when surrounded by A-list names like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

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