Playtime’s Favorite War (and Anti-War) Films
The United States celebrates its Memorial Day in honor of fallen servicemen and women on Monday. In remembrance for all fallen soldiers in countries around the world, we at Playtime have devised their favorites from war and anti-war cinema, all capturing the spirit of human struggle.
Apocalypse Now (d. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) – Apocalypse Now is, to many, a definitive war movie. The book on which it is based, however – Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – actually has nothing to do with war. The novella’s Kurtz instead goes native in the middle of darkest Africa, which for its Victorian author was the very archetype of inhuman, almost chthonic savagery. Coppola simply updates the setting to the most nightmarish savagery of his own era. And goddamn if he doesn’t deliver. If the helicopters raining death to “The Ride of the Valkyries” doesn’t scare the hell out of you (whether you’re a “slope” or otherwise), then, well, perhaps movies about the inhumanity of war aren’t for you.
Inglourious Basterds (d. Quentin Tarantino, 2009) – If Apocalypse Now is a story about something else that was turned into a war movie, the same might be said of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Basterds is a revenge flick, for the most part, with World War Two providing the context. But such a context it is; if there is one reason that WWII has been such a popular scene for heroic narrative over the last seventy years, it’s that the Nazis make such unambiguously evil villains. And none more so than Christoph Waltz’s turn as Basterds‘ SS Col. Hans Landa. An absolutely masterful performance, and the jewel of this movie, Landa is really a Heath Ledger Joker away from being the most charismatic villain in film of the last ten years. That is, indeed, a bingo.
Throne of Blood (d. Akira Kurosawa, 1957) – Kurosawa’s Kumonosu-jo (“spider web castle,” literally, but consistently known in English as “Throne of Blood”) isn’t really a war movie, though war features heavily in it, particularly at the end. In the final scenes, Washizu Taketori sees his castle advanced upon by an army made up of the forest itself, as he had heard improbably prophesied. It is his enemies disguised as trees, and, of course, this twins the ending of Macbeth, of which Kumonosu-jo is an interpretation. But there are changes, beyond the somewhat obvious “everyone is a samurai” one. The advancing forest, for example, is the home of the spirit which subs for the three witches – the speaker of Washizu’s prophecy. And so the forest’s attack is Washizu’s own destiny catching up with him, overcoming him. It’s a deepening and enriching of the original. The Shakespeare original.
The War of the Worlds (d. Byron Haskell, 1953) – The War of the Worlds is seldom thought of as a war movie, in spite of its title. But if it isn’t a war movie, it sure does seem to have a lot of bunkers and soldiers and analyses of enemy strategy in rooms with maps along which little markers are pushed. H. G. Wells’ original novel, written over fifty years previous, had been primarily about unmerciful disaster in general; Haskell and producer George Pal, in a move similar to Coppola’s, makes this military. World War Two, still a recent memory, had upped the ante, to put it mildly, and The War of the Worlds simply proposes that this could happen again. Nuclear weapons are deployed against the Martian craft to no effect, just as many all-too-recent forms of warfare now could not hold a candle to the Bomb. In the end, in fact, all human endeavor is futile against an enemy whom technology has made unstoppable.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1964) – War is futile in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, too, but in a different way. In this film, nuclear weapons work just fine, but they solve nothing. And their presence – their simple existence – is ultimately enough to make the world much, much worse. In a movie full of humor so black that neighboring bodies are pulled into it, perhaps the evilest joke is at the very beginning: a solemn title-card assures the viewer that the series of accidents about to be described could never, ever happen in real life, according to the U.S. Government. No, no. Every thing is going to be fine. Go back to sleep, now. Oh, and it should probably be mentioned: George C. Scott here does one of the most amazing, hilarious pratfalls ever committed to celluloid.
Come And See (d. Elem Klimov, 1985) – Come and See is by far the most haunting depiction of “war is hell” I have ever seen. With sparse dialogue, surreal imagery and a curiously detached tone throughout, Come and See follows a young Belarusian boy as he comes of age in the most brutal way. It’s the war movie everyone should see at least once.
The Dirty Dozen (d. Robert Aldirch, 1967) – The Dirty Dozen is the quintessential men on a mission movie, often imitated but never bettered. It is a testament to the strong cast that in a line-up of hard men, Charles Bronson isn’t even the hardest.
Cross of Iron (d. Sam Peckinpah, 1977) – A rare example of a war movie that has the Germans as the protagonists. Perhaps Sam Peckinpah’s finest hour, Cross Of Iron is a brutal, unflinching punch in the guts
Black Book (d. Paul Verhoeven, 2006) – After years of pandering to the Hollywood game-plan, Paul Verhoeven returns to his native Holland and makes what is easily his best film in twenty years. Centered on strong performances by Carice van Houten and Sebastian Koch, Verhoeven spins a Dutch resistance tale with his trademark gusto and delivers thrills in spades.
Duck Soup (d. Leo McCarey, 1933) – Really, what’s not to love? Groucho takes his country into the misbegotten hell of total war because, well, he’s kind of a dick. His demented siblings are along for the ride, and the face of European warfare is transformed forever into a madcap farce with occasional musical interludes. Which is exactly how I imagine war to be in real life. Intolerably evil, but witty and laden with sight gags.
The Irresponsible Captain Tylor (d. Koichi Mashimo, 1993) – Deftly (if broadly) satirizing the juvenile power games of the military establishment, this winning anime series has the temerity to suggest that if only there were more good-natured people running things, maybe we could stop killing each other just long enough to get something real out of life. Lots of laughs, memorable supporting characters, and a leading man who is as shrewdly blithe (or blithely shrewd?) as a doe-eyed fox.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (d. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1943) – An idealistic, sentimental model of the patriotic soldier as a hands-across-the-water emissary, Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece (of several) may err a bit on the side of naivete and conservative mores, but its sincerity and understated revelation of the obsolescence of those “old-fashioned values” of decency, honor, chivalry, and empathy is all the more heartbreaking because it chooses to believe in the existence of good men and women of arms.
Red Cliff (d. John Woo, 2008) – Sprawling and perhaps a bit hoary with cliche, John Woo nevertheless summed up amazing reserves of his apparently not-dwindling mastery to dramatize the fateful intersection of military strategy, emotional drive, and pure chance. Rousing, kinetic, and thoughtful presentation of an epic military adventure.
A Farewell to Arms (d. Frank Borzage, 1932) – One of the few films to have me bawling like a baby, Borzage’s alchemical craftsmanship manages to loop together themes of love, sacrifice, redemption, duty, and spiritual transcendence against the backdrop of a hearty historical spectacle and the utter horror of war. The fact that there’s a place for love (star-crossed thought it may be) amidst such awfulness; that a man dedicated to his own desires and blind duty may find a higher calling… Well, whatever this may all mean, it rings loud, clear, and true. This is a movie lensed through the tears of weeping angels.
Paths of Glory (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1957) – Not only the greatest war film that I’ve ever seen, but also one of the best movies ever made. Kubrick’s use of space is phenomenal in showing the differences in the way the grunts and the generals live and are treated. A sense of injustice flows through the film as we see the cramped, claustrophobic trenches where the soldiers are basically sleeping on top of each other to the spacious rooms where the generals determine the grunts’ fate.
Glory (d. Edward Zwick, 1989) – Filled with some great performances from Broderick, Washington and Freeman, Glory shows the nearly unbelievable story of the first African-American regiment of the army during the Civil War. Even though it does glorify war at some points, it’s still a great film.
Black Hawk Down (d. Ridley Scott, 2001) – I’ve heard it called a video game come to life, but it’s one of the most unrelenting films I’ve ever seen. Really just an amazing story of modern warfare.
Patton (d. Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970) – George C. Scott is amazing as the title character. Patton is film everyone should see.
Apocalypse Now (d. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) – Apocalypse Now is really just a descent into madness. One of the lushest, most beautiful and haunting movies ever made.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (d. Peter Jackson, 2003) – Yes, it’s a fantasy film. Yes, it’s got magical elements (wizards, rings, enchanted swords). Yes, it’s got armies of strange creatures. But it’s still a film (and more importantly, a novel) about war. While it is the final part of a trilogy (or hexology, depending on how you define “The Lord of the Rings”) whose primary focus is the Hobbits’ quest to destroy the ring, a large part of this film dealt with war and its costs. Both heroes and villains were slain in the course of the narrative, but the loss of life had profound effects on everyone in the film, from the four Hobbits to the entirety of the Human nations. Even the Elven race was affected by the war and its fallout. And I love how director Peter Jackson and his fellow screenwriters (as well as the cast and crew) helped convey both the positive (Eowyn & Faramir finding love, for example) and negative (such as Frodo’s wounds and psychological trauma) aspects of living through a horrific war.
First Blood (d. Ted Kotcheff, 1982) – This film just breaks your heart. It may not be a “war film” per se, but it revealed an element of the aftermath of war that needed to be shown. That element was the poor treatment of Vietnam veterans by the nation they fought for. You have got John Rambo, a Vietnam vet, just strolling through a small town, looking to grab a bite to eat when the sheriff, who thinks he is God’s gift to law and order, pulls up and tells him, “keep walking, there’s nothing for you here”. And after getting bullied, mocked and humiliated by the power-mad police, Rambo snaps and takes them down using his military training and the survival skills he picked up in the war to defend himself. While it has several great action sequences, they do not detract from the point of the film: this man willingly put himself in harm’s way to fight for his country only to have his country spit on him and treat him like a leper upon his return. (Granted, it was in an “unpopular” war, but he was just following orders, not giving them.) Rambo’s speech at the end is just heartbreaking. After all he had been through, he comes back to this kind of treatment? It just isn’t right. Unfortunately, veterans of the Vietnam War received this kind of treatment too often.
The Sound of Music (d. Robert Wise, 1965) – I grew up seeing The Sound of Music on television every year. Usually one of the local networks would air it around Thanksgiving or Memorial Day and I would watch it until it was time for me to go to bed. It wasn’t until about the sixth or seventh time I saw it that I was finally allowed to stay up to the very end of the film. Yeah, as a kid I liked the songs and the beautiful scenery. But as I have grown older, I’ve noticed more thematic elements of the film, specifically the Nazis and how the Von Trapp family had to give up everything they had in order to get away from them. It is a wonderfully positive film about an often tragic and terrifying subject. And it accomplishes that without glorifying the brutality of war.
Letters From Iwo Jima (d. Clint Eastwood, 2006) – Clint Eastwood is a great filmmaker, both in front of and behind the camera. I both love and hate what he did with this film, the second part of his World War Two dualogy. He portrays the horrors of war from the Japanese side of the Battle of Iwo Jima. The first part of the film uses letter writing and flashbacks to illustrate how a handful of the soldiers stationed on Iwo Jima felt about the war and how their lives had changed since they were assigned there. And then the battle began, and it was brutal. Eastwood shows how horrific war is. From the gruesome deaths to the cruelty used to spur on troops to the pure terror of watching your friends die, it was difficult to watch (to put it mildly). I can only imagine how much more difficult it must have been to be there.
Paths of Glory (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1957) – Few films capture the class struggle better than Kubrick’s scholarly Paths of Glory. The film is not so much war or anti-war, but rather far more economical: its ruling class and the people they govern. In this case, war is waged by the generals of privilege against their own soldiers in attempts to solidify their own power. To call Paths of Glory “anti-war” is far too easy, its themes going beyond war, of oligarchy and rule of the few and politics unconfined. Let’s say the soldiers win the war within this film, what is disturbing is they would only return home and again all face more of the same.
Platoon (d. Oliver Stone, 1986) – With Platoon, Oliver Stone has told the story of how ordinary Americans from lower rungs of society have come together as a unit in order to solve the international crisis as trigger-happy infantrymen. Not only do these men battle the unseen enemy and spend each new day fending off death, they also have their fellows to deal with. It becomes a story of chaos. I consider Platoon one of the masterworks of its time, one where a young idealist obligated to serve his country drops college (Charlie Sheen, in a role observed to be similar to Stone himself) and finds himself half a world away fighting in Vietnam while engaged deep in a conflict of interests between his platoon leaders, the hardened Southern brute Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more noble Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Both men have opposing views of their roles as soldiers, which divides the platoon itself between Barnes’ barbarism and Elias’ humanity – essentially a rift dividing good and evil.
Letters from Iwo Jima (d. Clint Eastwood, 2006) – In its solemn reflection of the real-life struggle between individual and group morality, one where thousands of men died barricaded in a small island off the south Pacific with thoughts of home a hopeless memory, Clint Eastwood focuses in at the heart of the human condition itself. Of society and its people. Of generals who fight for their country and their country’s ideals and freedoms, of soldiers who feel bound by an ingrained honor-based culture and of privates who would rather not fight at all, and other man in between. Letters is their story. With their social group pressing them to fight whether they wanted to or not, and children singing songs of their heroic actions in schools, in the end few Japanese defending Iwo Jima returned home at all. It’s horrifying, just the thought, as if men were being drowned by their country whilst trying not to get the flags wet. Eastwood captures it all here.
The Best Years of Our Lives (d. William Wyler, 1946) – I am not sure if I have ever been more affected by cinema, as though a film was speaking directly to me, as I had first watching The Best Years of Our Lives. The three soldiers of the film return home to their families forever changed, in a changing world, all three having to move on with their lives. See, watching this was during my brief transition from military back into civil life, as well as returning to my home country after a year’s absence and into a region of the country I had never lived before. There were feelings of alienation and extreme loneliness, and longing, of seeking normality again, all of which has never been done better than a film released a year after the second World War ended, The Best Years of Our Lives. Absolutely brilliant piece!
The Thin Red Line (d. Terrence Malick, 1998) – Of my five picks, I like Malick’s The Thin Red Line best. It is one I find myself often re-playing, deeply invested in several of the character stories from the eclectic ensemble. Amongst the soldiers is the peculiar loner, Private Witt (James Caviezel), one who sees the good in people and imagines another world of harmony, away from his present. And there is Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), a conscientious commander who puts his troops over the mission and pays for it. Despite the good we see, Witt and Koteas do not escape Malick’s conclusion that inherent to mankind is their warring nature, their roots which bind them and cause, say, the peaceful pantheist to take aim against an enemy soldier pleading for his surrender.
Edited by Rob Prentes.