War Films

War films are the perfect reflec­tion of a culture’s base values; a distil­la­tion of the best and the worst in them. If conflict is the engine of drama, then a story which has at its subject the primal conflict of warfare; one that involves the politics, preju­dices, philo­sophy and values of a society; goes to the heart of drama itself.

The exper­i­ence of war is reputedly an altern­a­tion of extreme boredom and extreme terror and there is some­thing in the human soul that hungers for such cath­arsis. War is a product of the dark side of human nature and its self-destructive insanity often seems to be barely kept in abey­ance. Film, as a popular medium, gives us a taste of that exper­i­ence vicari­ously (which is why the genre will never go away) but it also lets us look at it with some objectivity.

Themes and Tropes

War, because it threatens all of us, is an important genre. The char­ac­ter­istics of the genre are as follows:

•    The central char­acter has one primary goal: survival. This may mean personal survival, national survival, or the survival of the personal or polit­ical values he believes in.

•    The character’s values are tested.

•   The polar­ities of human beha­vior—altruism and barbarism—coexist and are as much in combat as are the combatants.

•    Viol­ence plays a central role in this genre.

•    Rela­tion­ships, male-male and male-female, take on partic­ular importance.

•    Each film carries a partic­ular polit­ical perspective of war. Many films are crit­ical of war; others suggest that war brings out the best and the worst in the characters.

•    There is a primal quality and intensity to personal behaviour.

• The antag­onist is often never seen. Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket are good examples.

The point of view of the war genre ranges from romantic (Sergeant York) to cynical (Too Late the Hero). Whatever the perspective, the indi­vidual char­acter is the focal point of the war genre. War isn’t simply a test of char­acter in these films; more often, it is a plea to reflect upon the issues of war. As Jean Renoir said about his great 1937 antiwar film La Grande Illu­sion, “two years later they fought again, but this time a bigger, more violent war.”  It appears the genre will continue to appeal to audiences.”

Ken Dancyger & Jeff Rush, Altern­ative Screen­writing 2006


King and Country 1964

Adapted from the stage play, Hamp, this is an account of a private (Tom Courtney) who is court-martialled and condemned to be shot for cowardice despite the efforts of the officer (Dirk Bogarde) appointed to defend him.

With an eye for the grot­esque­ness and absurdity of military procedure and trench warfare, it’s a hard-hitting film; very much like other ‘anti-war’ films of the early sixties.

Journey’s End 1988

Based on R.C. Sherriff’s famous stage play this is a seminal war drama that is constantly being revived and remade. Its portrayal of First World War trench warfare is a strange blend of the schoolboy heroics of the time and a grim anti-war hindsight.

It’s a blend that seems to have retained its audi­ence appeal. (The story was even filmed with the soldiers recast as flying aces in Aces High 1975) In this clip from a tv version the tension of waiting to ‘go over the top’ is beau­ti­fully captured in the muted performances.

08/15 1954

This series of films, made for a German audi­ence, gives the lie to the idea that the young soldiers who died in Hitler’s war were all brain­washed Nazis. They were conscripts, many of them unwilling, caught up in the insanity around them and not that different from the eighteen-year-olds shipped off to Vietnam.

The ’08/15′ of the title is the name of an obsolete and unre­li­able machine gun dating from WW1 that German soldiers were forced to use in battle. The term is synonymous with a ‘foul up’ and similar to the phrase S.N.A.F.U. used by GIs.  This is not quite a German version of Catch 22 or MASH but it comes pretty close. The clip isn’t quite as repres­ent­ative as it could be but it does give a flavour of the tone of the films.

Fires On The Plain 1959

Kon Ichikawa’s devast­ating anti-war film is set in the Phil­ip­pines towards the end of WW2 where a broken and ragged Japanese army is in the process of being driven out by Allied forces. It is a companion piece to Ichikawa’s slightly less harsh film The Burmese Harp 1956.

Its prot­ag­onist is a gaunt, tuber­cular, little man – a private soldier – who wanders the battle­field trying to find his way back to his company. This is the stark absurdist land­scape of a Samuel Beckett drama; one in which the starving char­ac­ters contem­plate canni­balism or eat earth and pebbles.

Weekend At Dunkirk 1964

Weekend à Zuydcoote, directed by Henri Verneuil, is the French version of what happened at Dunkirk; an event that has always been shrouded in myth­o­logy in British culture.

Not surpris­ingly, although it’s not actively anti-British, the French perspective is much more jaundiced.

At its best, this is quite a gritty war film with some compel­ling photo­graphy and action sequences, though it suffers a little from the fash­ion­able nihilism asso­ci­ated with the 60’s French nouvelle vague for which Belmondo was the poster boy. For English and Amer­ican audi­ences, it does provide an inter­esting ‘altern­ative narrative’ to other films of the 6o’s like The Longest Day 1962 and The Great Escape 1963.

The Long Day’s Dying 1968

Unjustly neglected, The Long Day’s Dying, directed by Peter Collinson in 1968, is an unusual war film that tells the story of a crack team of British soldiers behind enemy lines during World War 2.

There is very little dialogue between the char­ac­ters; instead, through voice-over, we over­hear their inner thoughts. As a highly trained and close-knit unit, they also seem to be able to commu­nicate tele­path­ic­ally with each other.

In this clip, the inner mono­logue of the char­acter coun­ter­points the brutality of the scene, drawing a picture of someone who is completely at home with viol­ence but sickened by it at the same time.

Cross of Iron 1977

Sam Peckinpah’s war movie has a strange hybrid quality; a European sens­ib­ility combined with the gung-ho Amer­ican feel – except that these are Nazis on the Eastern front, not the usual Amer­ican war heroes.

This is compounded by the casting: James Coburn as the anti-establishment sergeant, a couple of stirling British actors (James Mason and David Warner) as louche officers and Maximilian Schell cast (again) as the ruth­less German aristo. Despite this, it has a certain bravura and flourish about it typical of Peck­inpah. A curi­osity rather than a great film.

The War Game 1965

Peter Watkins stark mock­u­mentary on the consequences of nuclear conflict in Britain is powerful today but it must have been truly shocking when it was made, in an era of cold war between super­powers armed with the missiles. No wonder it was never shown; deemed far too disturbing for a BBC audience.

War films that focus on the civilian popu­la­tion are less plen­tiful than ones about the military but the successful ones hit a nerve that’s rarely exposed in tales of action and derring-do. Ingmar Bergman’sShame” is another superb example, a genu­inely anti-war film.


King Rat 1965

Bryan Forbes adapt­a­tion of James Clavell’s novel is about the notorious Changi jail where the Japanese interned allied pris­oners in squalor and semi-starvation during WW2. It is also one of the best prisoner-of-war films ever made.

The anti­thesis of jingo­istic films like The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape, there are no heroes in King Rat. Instead, it is an unsen­ti­mental and unflinching look at a micro­cosmic society cut off from the world outside but still riddled with class preju­dice and corrup­tion, rather like an adult version of Lord of The Flies. Featuring a fine cast of British and Amer­ican actors, it contains scenes that really stick in the memory.

Chimes At Midnight 1965

The original talent of Orson Welles is evident in every frame in this version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV (aka Falstaff) which he directed and stars in. Shot in huge, smoke-blackened barns in Spain, it is the first Shakespeare adapt­a­tion to give you a genuine feel of what Eliza­bethan life might have been like.

That origin­ality is also very much on display in this battle scene. In contrast to the glit­tering pennants and shiny armour of Olivier’s Henry V, this is like the brutal, mud-spattered warfare of the Somme – shot in the impres­sion­istic style of Akira Kurosawa. Kenneth Branagh may have modelled himself on Olivier for his remake but his grit­tier battle scenes owe their debt to Welles – as does many another inter­pret­a­tion of medi­eval battle on film since then.

Culloden 1964

Another mock­u­mentary by Peter Watkins but this time used to recreate a histor­ical event (he also used this tech­nique more recently to make a film about the Paris Commune, La Commune).

Using a largely amateur cast and impro­vised dialogue, Watkins draws direct paral­lels with the ‘paci­fying’ of the Viet­namese popu­la­tion: “We made and edited our film as though it was happening in front of news cameras, and delib­er­ately remin­is­cent of scenes from Vietnam which were appearing on TV at that time”.


How I Won The War 1967

Scripted by Charles Wood, who also wrote A Long Day’s Dying, this film is an oddity. It has a lot of Richard Lester’s trade­mark zani­ness; and a similar cast of British comedy stal­warts to The Bedsit­ting Room, which it resembles in inten­tion and tone; but it works more success­fully, its surreal humour often capturing the true absurdity of war in a way that is truly affecting.

A British troop, lead by Michael Craw­ford as a psycho­pathic version of his Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em persona, has been charged with setting up a cricket pitch in enemy territory in a black comedy version of WW2. John Lennon, in his only ‘proper’ acting role, has a bleakly proph­etic moment in this clip.

Saving Private Ryan 1998

Steven Spielberg’s film is conven­tional in many ways (it follows a single platoon through the allied inva­sion in the same way as Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, for example) but ground­breaking in its graphic and unflinching depic­tion of battle.

For that reason alone, regard­less of its other qual­ities, it is a water­shed produc­tion that has had an effect on every war film that followed it. Tech­no­logy had made this kind of depic­tion possible long before the film but it was the first to use it signi­fic­antly in this way. The trib­utes from the veterans who were there attest that a new level of vera­city was reached, partic­u­larly in the shocking opening sequences of the film.

Over There 2005

A tv series belonging to the subgenre of films about Amer­ican soldiers in the Middle Eastern and Afghan wars. The tropes are familiar and many date back to Vietnam films like The Boys in Company C (1978) with the under­lying message that you can only rely on the men fighting beside you.

What is different is the music, the military culture and the atti­tude; which is less angry and more cynical than it was before.

The Russian perspective on modern warfare in Afgh­anistan shares many char­ac­ter­istics of its Amer­ican coun­ter­part. The two coun­tries have far more in common than is gener­ally recog­nised and this comes through most strongly when dealing with those peren­nial themes of patri­otism and sacri­fice.

Essen­tially an old-fashioned story of military blun­dering that results in a last-ditch stand; rather like Zulu, the 1964 account of British soldiers at Rorke’s Drift; this is meant to be soul-stirring propa­ganda for a culture where compulsory military service was a recent phenomenon, and it largely succeeds in that mission.

The Pacific 2010

A tv series that follows in the foot­steps of Band of Brothers but deals with the war in the Pacific. There are plenty of action sequences and, although it starts slowly, it accur­ately conveys the gruelling nature of the battle with the Japanese.

This sequence follows a partic­u­larly brutal fight scene in the second last episode and takes us by surprise with its extraordinary power. It also pres­ages the war in Vietnam where the civilian popu­la­tion were to become the prime victims of the war being fought.

Army of Shadows 1969

Directed by Jean Pierre MelvilleL’armée des Ombres is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Joseph Kessel about his exper­i­ence fighting in the French Resistance.

It’s a delib­er­ately muted affair, without the derring-do that was a feature of many post-war accounts of the Resist­ance, but that is what gives it power. The choices forced upon people: whether to betray a fellow coun­tryman or to suffer the consequences is really only some­thing under­stood by those who have lived through an occu­pa­tion. This film is a faithful account of those times and it was unpop­ular with French audi­ences when it came out in the wake of the Paris riots prob­ably because it deals not with heroes but with ordinary people cast in heroic roles.

Come and See 1985

Directed by Elen Klimov, this account of the Nazi inva­sion of Byel­or­ussia focuses on a peasant lad who joins the resist­ance but later returns to his village in time to witness a massacre by drunken soldiers.
This is a night­mare vision of war in which the trau­mat­ised hero stumbles through a Breughel like land­scape. In tone and feel it is very like Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, a world viewed by an inno­cent in which super­sti­tion and horror meld together to create a ‘hell on earth’.

Burnt By The Sun: The Citadel 2011

Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, this trilogy of films traces the fate of a Russian General during World War 2. The first, and best-known film, shows him living in rural splendour like some Chek­hovian pater­fa­milias until his arrest by the para­noid Stalin.

The second and third parts are more epic in their themes. Typical is this scene of soldiers deliv­ering a baby in the middle of a battle and remaining mira­cu­lously untouched by the slaughter around them – the kind of unlikeli­ness that testi­mony tells us often happened during wars.

Miasto 44 2014

This recent Polish film (aka Town 44 or Warsaw 44) is a fresh take on the Warsaw Uprising where a bunch of poorly armed and often pain­fully young insur­gents took on the might of the German army while the Russian army stood by and let them be virtu­ally wiped out.

The subject has already been covered by Andresz Wajda in his classic “Gener­a­tion” trilogy but this is the big screen, vivid colour version, with the ultra-graphic viol­ence we’ve come to expect post–Private Ryan.

It is a ‘romantic’ film in that East European way, with an epic sweep like The Citadel, and that also makes it markedly different from Wajda. If it ulti­mately glor­i­fies its doomed young prot­ag­on­ists, it also accur­ately and affect­ingly portrays their loss of inno­cence as their revolt changes from a thrilling escapade into a grim battle for survival.

Other case studies
shame_thmb SHAME 1968
Ingmar Bergman’s film looks at war from the view­point of two artists living on a small island who are unwit­tingly caught up in a conflict they don’t really under­stand. It’s an unusual and thought-provoking study of moral choices.
Addi­tional reading:

The Philo­sophy of War Films – David Larocca (PDF) – a collec­tion of essays on themes in War Films

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