From The Guns of Navarone to Fury: The 10 greatest ‘men on a mission’ movies ever made

The Guns of Navarone, 1961
The Guns of Navarone, 1961 - Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

It comes as a surprise that it has taken Guy Ritchie 25 years and 15 pictures to make his first proper men-on-a-mission film. After all, there are few filmmakers working today who is more comfortable with the kind of macho action cinema that the genre demands, and with previous projects called things like The Gentlemen, The Covenant and Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, he has established himself as one of Hollywood’s premier directors of male-centric bloodshed. Yet it’s only now with his new picture, The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, that he’s fully embraced one of the most beloved sub-genres in cinema.

Based on Damien Lewis’s non-fiction book Churchill’s Warriors, Ritchie’s film tells the story of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a clandestine outfit formed in 1940 at the behest of Winston Churchill with the intention of creating mayhem in Nazi-occupied Europe. This being a Ritchie film, naturally expect a starry cast (led by Henry Cavill and Cary Elwes, who is having a major career renaissance of late), bloodshed by the gallon and tough-guy one-liners by the score.

It remains to be seen whether it’s a box office smash or a flop (Ritchie’s films have gone in every direction over the past few years), but either way it has joined an elite band of pictures that, at their best, are some of the most endlessly entertaining ever made.

You know the score: a band of men, either fearless elite heroes, nothing-to-lose desperadoes or something in between, who are recruited on a highly dangerous mission by their superiors, where the chances of success are low, the odds of death high and the likelihood of a traitor or coward lurking in their midst almost definite.

Here are ten of the best that ever emerged from Hollywood, set everywhere from Europe in WWII, but also Alcatraz Island, Britain, southern Africa and even outer space. The only thing that unites them is that they’re all rightly regarded as classics; The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare will have its work cut out to join them.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Although there were plenty of stiff-upper-lip WWII adventure films made in the Forties and Fifties, it’s J Lee Thompson’s epic action picture that defined the men-on-a-mission genre as we know it today. Based on Alistair Maclean’s bestselling novel, it contains many of the ingredients that have become iconic over the decades, from the all-star cast (Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn and Richard Harris amongst them) to its straightforward but rousing plot, in which an elite gang of Allied commandoes are dispatched by British intelligence to destroy two imposing guns on the Aegean island of Navarone.

It comes on like a less morally complicated cousin of Bridge on the River Kwai (from the same screenwriter, Carl Foreman) and manages a hugely effective combination of explosive action and “who’s the turncoat” suspense, before building to an exciting and rousing climax. The sequel, Force Ten from Navarone (1978), has its charms (including an early appearance from Harrison Ford), but cannot hold a candle to the original.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Of course, the protagonists in a man-on-a-mission picture don’t have to be sympathetic. This was tested to its limits in Robert Aldrich’s hilariously gritty picture, in which a never-more-imposing Lee Marvin recruits some of the American military’s most nefarious convicts for a suicide mission that involves eliminating many of the Nazi high command in a French chateau and thus paving the way for D-Day. If they survive, they will be given pardons. They are not expected to survive, and the vast majority of them do not.

What makes The Dirty Dozen so endlessly entertaining is the contrast between Marvin’s laconic major and the gleeful overplaying from a rogue’s gallery supporting cast that includes Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalas, all of whom ham it up as if competing for Worst Supporting Actor. The explosions and shoot-outs are as exciting as any in the genre, but what sticks in the memory is the counter-culture cynicism, as WWII is won through the efforts of this particular group of inglorious bastards.

Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson in The Dirty Dozen
Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson in The Dirty Dozen

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Roger Lewis’s recent magisterial biography of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Erotic Vagrancy, has little time for Burton’s money-making WWII epic, which he scorns as “the popular and callous war film” that saved the actor’s box office reputation. Others disagree. Geoff Dyer even wrote an entire book about it, Broadsword Calling Danny Boy, and it’s fair to describe Brian G Hutton’s picture as probably the definitive man-on-a-mission war epic, containing as it does a ludicrous amount of double crosses, triple crosses and even a quadruple cross, Burton bellowing bad dialogue (scripted by Alistair Maclean, from his novel) as if he’s Henry V rousing his troops on St Crispin’s Day and Clint Eastwood looking understandably bemused while gunning down dozens of Nazis. Throw in cinema’s greatest cable car-based action scenes, stunning Austrian cinematography and Ron Goodwin’s iconic score, and you have an endlessly rewatchable classic.

Where Eagles Dare
Where Eagles Dare - Getty

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

There are countless men-on-a-mission pictures that focus on the exploits of British and American soldiers in Europe and Japan, but comparatively few that reverse the situation to concentrate on top-secret Axis missions. Great Escape director John Sturges’s film is one of the few that offers an alternate perspective, as a gang of elite German commandoes are sent to England in an attempt to assassinate Churchill, and must infiltrate a small Norfolk village before preparing for their task.

It might be argued that the film, based on Jack Higgins’s novel, hedges its bets with audience sympathies; the Germans, led by Michael Caine’s Colonel Steiner, are noble and decent, meaning that the audience half-wants them to succeed in their task, even as the Allied forces track them down. It all ends with an ingeniously unexpected conclusion that allows Caine’s character an unexpected moment of triumph, before historical accuracy is restored.

Michael Caine in The Eagle has Landed
Michael Caine in The Eagle has Landed - Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Wild Geese (1978)

A decade on from Where Eagles Dare, Burton’s career was sinking fast, but he was able to have a late-period hit with this iconic action picture. It amps up the bloodshed and profanity compared to earlier films in the genre, but nonetheless earns its place on this list thanks to fully committed performances from a starry cast that includes everyone from Roger Moore to Frank Finlay, to say nothing of its endless rewatchability.

Its tale of a group of mercenaries sent to Africa to rescue an imprisoned politician, only to be double-crossed by their employer and forced to battle countless heavily armed soldiers as they attempt to make their escape, is as exciting and stirring as can be imagined. It peaks in its iconic finale, as Burton is forced to kill his wounded comrade-in-arms Richard Harris as they make good their escape, to save him from agonising torture at the hands of the militia; one day, you think as you watch it for the umpteenth time, Harris will manage to escape, too.

Roger Moore in The Wild Geese
Roger Moore in The Wild Geese - Allstar/Cinetext/RANK

Aliens (1986)

An unorthodox but nonetheless vastly entertaining men-on-a-mission picture, James Cameron’s testosterone-heavy sci-fi war film bends the rules of the genre in all kinds of ways. Not least in the fact that it’s the only one on this list fronted by a woman, in the form of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, sole survivor of the events from the previous picture and happy to show a group of heavily armed Marines that she’s just as adept at killing xenomorphs as they are as they travel to the eponymous creatures’ home planet.

Combining all the character types of the finest war pictures (Paul Reiser’s slimy, treacherous Burke; Bill Paxton’s jumpy comic relief; Michael Biehn’s heroic corporal) with Weaver’s deservedly Oscar-nominated performance in the lead as a woman who has simply had enough of the acid-blooded extra-terrestrials, this remains one of the finest action films ever made. It makes one wish that Cameron hadn’t gone all vegan and Avatar-y when his red-meat pictures like this remain so gloriously thrilling.

The Rock (1996)

Michael Bay’s wonderfully OTT action film is, in its own way, as much a deconstruction of the genre as it is a celebration of it. For a start, the task that the men are faced with is to break into Alcatraz, America’s notoriously hardest-to-escape prison, rather than out of it, in order to stop Ed Harris’s noble but misguided general from holding San Francisco to ransom with chemical weapons. And for another, the heavily armed marines (led, in what must be a nod to Aliens, by Biehn) are massacred by Harris’s soldiers within moments of their arrival, leaving Nicolas Cage’s “chemical super-freak” and Sean Connery’s long-imprisoned MI6 agent to save the day by themselves.

Heavier on comedy and silliness than many of the pictures on this list, it nonetheless features deliriously overblown action sequences and an appropriately sober approach to all things militaristic; it is typical of the Bayhem that, at the explosive climax, the US President, of all people, has to deliver a sombre speech about how America has let down Harris’s character. And yet, for all that, it’s hilariously funny, thanks to the Cage-Connery double act. What a shame there was never a sequel.

Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock
Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock - Alamy

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Advance word on Steven Spielberg’s gritty WWII epic suggested that it was a return to lighter territory after the grimness of Schindler’s List and Amistad. Advance word was wrong. The opening D-Day sequence, a bleached symphony of random bloodshed and splatter-movie gore, has justly entered cinematic history as one of the most visceral scenes ever put on film. Once matters calm down, the film gets into a more conventional groove, as Tom Hanks leads a group of soldiers on a mission to find Matt Damon’s Ryan, sole survivor of the young servicemen from his family. Punctuated with brief, often horrific moments of violence, it can drag at times, but by the time that Hanks, Damon and the remaining soldiers are making a heroic and heavily outnumbered last stand in a French town against an implacable German assault, it’s as exciting a presentation of bravery against impossible odds as anything else here.

Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Inglourious Basterds (2008)

Trust Quentin Tarantino, a self-avowed fan of the man-on-a-mission genre, to come up with a picture that subverts the form utterly, offering a post-modern spin on war pictures. It may frustrate as much as it amuses but is rich in indelible performances, clever twists and an unforgettably subversive climax. Although the titular “basterds”, led by Brad Pitt’s hilbilly lieutenant, are the nominal focus of the film, their mission (much of which involves scalping Nazis) appear to interest Tarantino less than the rogue’s gallery of characters who he has created, including Michael Fassbender’s suave film critic-turned-commando, Mélanie Laurent’s Jewish cinema owner bent on revenge and, best of all, Christoph Waltz’s unforgettable SS officer Hans Landa.

He is the closest that cinema has ever come to offering a Nazi Sherlock Holmes and seems several steps ahead of the characters, and audience, right up until the end. Tarantino recently revealed what he saw Landa’s post-WWII fate as being acclaimed as a hero for his actions in the film and enjoyed a new life as an amateur detective on Nantucket Island.

Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt seems to enjoy appearing in WWII films. As well as Inglourious Basterds, Robert Zemeckis’s romantic thriller Allied and the Austrian mountaineer picture Seven Years in Tibet, he gave a memorable performance in David Ayer’s tank-based action picture as the taciturn but noble “Wardaddy”, a staff sergeant responsible for leading a group of men into the heart of Nazi Germany in the dying days of the war.

The dynamic between Pitt and his younger soldiers, whom he functions as a surrogate father for, in his gruff fashion, is well-drawn, but what makes the film viscerally exciting are the depictions of tank-based combat, which sees the titular Fury take on near-countless numbers of SS soldiers. As with many films on this list, it climaxes in a tense, thrilling final stand against impossible odds, and, like the rest, it is something of a given that not all of the actors – even the most famous – will make it out alive.

Brad Pitt in Fury
Brad Pitt in Fury - Giles Keyte