The war film has been around since the earliest days of cinema. In America alone, films like All Quiet on the Western Front have chronicled the human experiences of battle for nearly a century now, attempting to capture something which can never be truly understood except by those who have lived it and lived to tell those stories after the fact. While some films favor the chronicling of battle, and others take a more human approach to the effects of war and its aftermath, the war film is a unique genre in that it has often come to inform the ways in which civilians and servicemen alike understand the purpose and functions of domestic and international conflict. For better and worse, they play a role in informing how history is understood and digested by people from all walks of life.
This week, Christopher Nolan’s military epic, Dunkirk, hits theaters, the story of a mass evacuation beset by Axis violence during World War II. One of the more interesting facets of its approach is that it’s one of the very few modern, big-budget war stories to frame WWII from a non-American perspective; the soldiers on that beach came from many nations, but not primarily the US. By contrast, the tradition of American war stories, pro- and anti-war alike, is a long one full of films both celebratory and nihilistic, hopeful and cynical.
While Dunkirk exists outside of those traditions, the presence of a major war story in multiplexes across the country this weekend has moved us to consider the domestic end of war filmmaking and the ways in which so many different international conflicts have been captured on film over the years. From savagely dark comedies to stirring testaments in favor of the indomitable American spirit, directors have captured the unimaginable in many unique ways. To that effect, we’d like you to join us on a journey through some of the most essential war films, classic and recent alike, about some of the most unfortunate conflicts of the last century and well beyond.
There’s no one right way to tell a war story, and in fact, we have 10 on hand.
The American Revolutionary War
John Adams (2008)
Surprisingly, there are very few films revolving around the American Revolutionary War — or rather, the American War of Independence, depending on your preferred nomenclature. But if you’re going to make one, there’s really no better author to draw upon than David McCullough, and that’s precisely why Tom Holland’s HBO miniseries adaptation of John Adams is a must-watch for any cinephiles looking to learn some good, ol’ American history. Like the Pulitzer-winning book it draws upon, the award-winning miniseries is exhaustively comprehensive, capturing not only the trials and triumphs of America’s founding father and second president but the country itself, all spread out over seven lush episodes that have the time to go into great detail.
Holland’s prestigious direction, which would go on to win him a Best Director Oscar two years later for The King’s Speech, adds an elegance to the proceedings. It’s like watching a moving painting, and it helps that the cast look exactly like their respective roles. (Who knew the great David Morse was a total stand-in for Washington? Ha.) But really, the whole shebang boils down to the dynamic chemistry between Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, who play John and Abigail Adams, respectively. Sure, the political mumbo jumbo with Adams is a pleasure to behold, but those intimate scenes between Giamatti and Linney are exceptional. And while, yes, the miniseries does admittedly deviate from the source material in each episode, it’s still a damn fine adaptation.
Purple Heart (Honorable Mentions): Look, nobody is ever going to say The Patriot is an accurate representation of the Revolutionary War in America. But very few will argue against it being an absolute blast. Hell, it’s probably Roland Emmerich’s best movie, even despite the fact that it suffers from a gluttonous spell of American nationalism. As Professor Mark Glancy, teacher of film history at Queen Mary, University of London argued: “It’s horrendously inaccurate and attributes crimes committed by the Nazis in the 1940s to the British in the 1770s.” True, but it also has one of the best crying scenes in film history, thanks to Mad Mel Gibson, and Jason Isaacs is a delightful scumbag as Tavington. Damn him. Damn that man!
American Indian Wars
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Filmmaker Michael Mann’s career in the ’80s was bathed in neon glitz and excess, starting with the just-plain-awesome Thief, detouring to TV with the Don Johnson-dominated Miami Vice, and ending back on the big screen with Hannibal Lecktor’s debut in Manhunter. It was obvious where Mann was headed as he entered into the next decade: the year 1757? Mann proved he was more than a one-trick pony with his adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a piece of historical fiction laden with action, romance, betrayal, romance, violence, and holy moly romance.
Is it historically accurate? Let me check my AP History notes…who cares? The fiction-based Mohicans is set in New York during the French & Indian War. After a betrayal by their guide Magua (Wes Studi), British troops are ambushed and slaughtered, leaving only the daughters of a Colonel (Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May) and one British soldier alive. The reason for their survival? The badass Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his family. A romance ensues amidst the backdrop of war, and with it comes the inevitable nightmares of loss on repeat.
Mann’s film doesn’t shy away from romanticism, even as it deals with death. This wouldn’t work if the chemistry between Day-Lewis and Stowe wasn’t smoldering as all get-out. The connection resonates immediately, as does the passion later on. Add that to the beautiful scenery (filmed in North Carolina), exciting action set-pieces, a classic score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, and a 10-minute climax with no dialogue, and it’s clear that Mohicans is the best film of its historical period, and one of the best of Mann’s career.
Purple Heart: Were you expecting Dances with Wolves to at the very least receive this? Sorry to disappoint, but the runner-up goes to Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. His 1970 western blends together comedy and unbearable tragedy as a 120-year-old Jack Crabb (played by an unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman) tells the story of his life as a young man (played by a recognizable Dustin Hoffman) with the Cheyenne and his many adventures. Penn’s movie tends to go unmentioned when talk of great ’70s films comes up, but that’s more a credit to the time period than it is to unforgivable or deliberate omission. It’s an all-timer from Hoffman and that is certainly saying something.
The Civil War
As Americans, we often try to tidy up the many bloody messes present throughout our checkered history. For instance, the modern view of the American Civil War tends to draw little dispute. To have fought on the side of the North in the effort to preserve the union and wipe the scourge of slavery from our lands is correctly seen, almost unanimously, as having been on the right side of history. However, no war, especially one that pitted countrymen, neighbors, and even kin against each other, can truly be rehashed that neatly, and one of the great achievements of director Edward Zwick’s Glory is that his film sheds light on a little-known moment in Civil War history in all its, yes, glory, but also in all its troubling and soul-searching complexities.
Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all African-American military units. As told through the eyes of white commanding officer Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), Zwick shows us the unit’s struggles not only to earn the respect of their own Union forces – they are denied equipment, equal pay, and the opportunity to fight in battle – but to find solidarity and brotherhood among themselves. While Shaw’s role and significance can’t be removed from the story, the true drama plays out between young former slave Private Silas Tripp (Denzel Washington), older escaped slave and gravedigger Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), and educated freeman Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), who grew up comfortably as Shaw’s friend. It’s not until they face their common enemy in battle that the three black soldiers, Tripp in particular, truly understand that their differences don’t change the fact that the same duty now calls all three of them, as well as Shaw.
Glory was nominated for five Oscars and won for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and, most notably, for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, the award going to a young Washington for a performance that launched him into the Hollywood stratosphere. While some have criticized the film – most notably the still-boyish appearance of Matthew Broderick, though the real-life Shaw looked similar (call it the Ferris Effect) – most choose to remember Glory for scenes like the rousing sendoff the 54th receive from white Union soldiers and the majestically shot nighttime beach storming of Fort Wagner; for the tense and tender moments shared between Washington and Freeman; and for shining a light on a number of largely forgotten heroes of American history.
Purple Heart: There’s no shortage of ways to tackle the Civil War as a filmmaker. Director Ronald F. Maxwell twice took to the battlefields with the sprawling epics Gettysburg (1993) and its prequel, Gods and Generals, a decade later. Spielberg’s Lincoln focused more on the political maneuvering behind the Emancipation Proclamation. But we’d be most remiss if we didn’t mention Ken Burns’ 1990 award-winning, nine-volume treatment of the Civil War. For multiple generations, Burns has laid out the definitive telling of our nation’s deepest divide.
World War I
Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
In Slaughterhouse-Five, an acquaintance calls Kurt Vonnegut’s prospective anti-war book on Dresden as pointless as an “anti-glacier book.” His meaning, of course, is that preventing human beings from blowing each other to bits in wars is about as easy as stopping a glacier. Well, Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun is every bit an anti-war book, and the author’s 1971 film adaptation only amplifies that message. The film even ends with death tolls and the number of missing and mutilated in battle since WWI stamped on the screen along with the words Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori (“It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”), a Latin phrase from Horace made famous in modern times by British soldier and poet Wilfred Owen. In Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, readers find themselves in the trenches of WWI during a poison gas attack. It’s a sight so haunting and ghastly that Owen insists nobody who’s experienced such horror would ever glorify war in the minds of young people.
Which brings us to Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), who lays in a hospital bed as a quadruple amputee, the result of an artillery shell hitting his trench. In addition to having no limbs, Joe no longer has eyes, ears, nose, or mouth, his sense of touch (via his head and torso) the only way through which he experiences the world. For much of the film, Joe struggles merely to distinguish between reality, dreams, and memories, as doctors and nurses shuffle around his bed. War films almost always address loss, and the cost here is palpable as Joe internally cries out when he realizes he no longer has limbs, a face, or a way to communicate. Trumbo cycles us through Joe’s memories – in bright color to contrast the drab gray of the hospital – and we see the casualties pile up for Joe: love, innocence, and youth. In one memory, we see Joe’s father, a failure of a man, encourage Joe to grow up and join the military to distinguish himself. It’s the same father who later wonders in Joe’s dreams, “Where did all the young men go?” Once Joe learns to communicate through Morse code, thanks to a caring nurse, he discovers that the military doctors will neither let him warn others nor kill him. He’s left sedated to wither away, trapped in his own mind until he dies. The last scene we see is Joe’s voiceover calling out “S.O.S.” in a dark hospital room.
It’s not surprising that Trumbo’s grim film didn’t enchant audiences when it initially came out. However, since heavy Metal legends Metallica used footage from the film in their iconic “One” music video, the movie has developed a cult following and received much of the attention its creativity and message deserve.
Purple Heart: Many of our favorite films depicting WWI come from a non-American perspective. No war film library would be complete without Lewis Milestone’s Academy Award-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), the first focusing on the physical and mental stress of German soldiers during wartime and the second an anti-war film about French soldiers who refuse to follow through on a suicide mission.
World War II
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Arriving 20 years after his previous film, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line began a second portion of his directorial career that now has become prolific. People will always remember that The Thin Red Line followed Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and that the films were strikingly different. Saving Private Ryan largely attempted to tell a story within the backdrop of war that illuminated truths about the men that fought. But The Thin Red Line is rarely concerned with plot in the traditional sense. And while it often plays with the characters’ emotional centers, its greater task is to shine a light on the nature of life that requires war as a bi-product.
Long, luscious shots of the landscape in the South Pacific set to spare, poetic narration show an environment also at war, that the history of the act of living involves fighting for survival. Sometimes it might be explicit and with purpose, like Pvt. Witt’s (Jim Caviezel) drawing of the Japanese enemies away from his unit and sacrificing his own life. Other times, it can involve scared boys shaking on a beach or failing to pull a grenade properly and blowing off their own butt.
It’s through Malick’s eye that we see both the beauty and violence of the natural world and how they are inextricably intertwined. As such, The Thin Red Line can often feel circular and Taoist, a film you could begin at any point and watch straight through until you’re back where you started. Where there are many great war films that tell stories of heroism, The Thin Red Line is a special film that dares to be more sprawling and pushes the boundaries of what a war film can be.
Purple Heart: There might not be a better technical achievement than Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and its chaotic and brutal landing on Omaha Beach. On the opposite end of the spectrum, WWII in the hands of Quentin Tarantino proved to be brutal in a very different way, taking a largely fictitious approach and turning the war into something much more crowd-pleasing in Inglourious Basterds. If you are looking further back, films like The Longest Day, Patton, A Bridge Too Far, and Tora! Tora! Tora! are all heralded as peaks of the genre. And, though technically not a film, it’s hard not to mention Band of Brothers, the HBO miniseries, when talking about great achievements within WWII storytelling.
The Cold War
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The uniquely unsettling fear presented by the Cold War largely tied into the unknowability of it all. In a time of declared war, it is painfully inevitable that battles will be fought and lives will be lost until such time as a “victor” emerges. By contrast, the Cold War left the world in a state of suspended fear, not only of the omnipresent threat of nuclear war, but the fear of quieter conflicts being used to engage in shadow warfare across the globe.
It forever changed the way in which people understand politics, and even warfare, and the masterstroke of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is how it captures that closed-door phobia and never diminishes its lingering horror even as it turns it into one of the greatest comic farces ever written. Kubrick turns the kind of back-door dealing chronicled more seriously in fare like Thirteen Days into one long, apocalyptic piss-take, dragging the dick-swinging hypermasculinity of mid-20th century politics through the mud all the while.
We might not be able to fight in the war room, but we can most certainly destroy the future of mankind while we’re there.
Purple Heart: While we could probably make a straighter-faced case for the merits of Rocky IV or Red Dawn than we should be able to, particularly in the ways both films captured the rampant American xenophobia of the time, the secondary honors here belong to The Manchurian Candidate. While George Axelrod’s film may not expressly touch on the anxieties of nuclear holocaust that were central to the era, it taps into one that’s only grown stronger over time: the reasonable fear that the political process has been irreparably hijacked by people whose names you’ll never know, and that submission and brainwashing are the new currencies of the world.
The Korean War
With the exception of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Robert Altman’s MASH may be the most subversive war film on this list. For starters, it’s a straight-up satirical black comedy, whose brand of smarmy, tongue-in-cheek humor predates a number of similar screwball comedies, ranging from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles to John Landis’ Animal House. Based on Richard Hooker’s novel of the same name, the film’s extraneous narrative follows the asinine exploits of three drafted medics named Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Duke (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John (Elliott Gould), who spend most of their time womanizing and breaking rules among the backdrop of the Korean War. But they’re also incredible doctors, and when they’re not dangling out of a bottle or destroying camp showers, they’re saving lives and doing what they do best.
That’s an essential distinction, because in lesser hands, MASH could have easily been a sugary box of Cracker Jack. But this is Altman we’re talking about, and there’s more than just a bunch of yucks. Released in 1970, the film essentially served as a smart commentary on the then-ensuing Vietnam War, and the fact that Hawkeye, Duke, and Trapper John were drafted and didn’t enlist afforded Altman and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. all the right means to chew on both the stupidity and severity of war. Of course, the film never gets as deep as, say, the landmark television series it inspired, but c’mon, you can’t compare 116 minutes to 11 seasons and 251 episodes. For Christ’s sake, the series lasted longer than the goddamn Korean War itself, which went from 1950 to 1953 as opposed to the series’ staggering run from 1972 to 1983. It’s crazy.
Our advice? Enjoy the film now and work your way through the series over the years.
Purple Heart: Despite its brevity, there’s quite a handful of films surrounding the Korean War, most of which were actually released during the war itself, though mostly to exploitative effect and to rally distrust against the communist regime. One of the better films out of that wild bunch happens to be the first film to comment on the war: Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet. Released in February 1951, the film stars Gene Evans as a tough-as-nails American sergeant whose World War II resume helps to forge an alliance between a wildly diverse crew of soldiers as they survive the warring Korean landscape. The film has its share of issues, leaning far too heavily on stereotypes, but actually manages to offer some prescient commentary on the rampant racism across America that would come to a boil in the years following. It’s worth a look.
The Vietnam War
Apocalypse Now (1979)
It’s oversimplification, sure, but some American wars are easier to explain than others: independence (The Revolutionary War), slavery (The Civil War), Pearl Harbor (World War II). However, when it comes to a war like Vietnam – a war that defined and shaped a large part of 1960s America — historians and civilians alike still debate America’s true role and purpose decades later. This ambiguity has enticed dozens of directors to send soldiers deep into the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia, often not merely in search of Charlie or the truth about the war but after unlocking or witnessing something more intricate to – perhaps even ugly about — the human makeup.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) finds Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) on a boat headed for Cambodia to assassinate the renegade Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a man seen as a God by local tribes. The idea is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, in which Marlowe, a company man, goes into the Congo in search of an ivory trader named Kurtz who has gone mad. However, both Conrad and Coppola leave matters frustratingly up to their audiences. For some, Apocalypse Now stands as a great anti-war, anti-intervention, or anti-lie (as in the lies we’re told about war) film. For others, it scrapes at the human psyche’s propensity for darkness. Why do men fall in line with the insane Kurtz? And can man, as he suggests, truly be both noble and savage at the same time? Apocalypse Now steers viewers deep into the chaos of a hellish war, but most of the true battles take place within.
Purple Heart: So many great films have been set during the Vietnam War. Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter shows the devastating effects of Nam on a group of small-town friends. And both Stanley Kubrick (1987’s Full Metal Jacket) and Oliver Stone (1986’s Platoon; 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July) chose to focus on young men facing the deep internal struggles brought about by wartime. If we could only pick one, we’ll take The Deer Hunter for showing the far-reaching devastation of war that we rarely see on film.
The Gulf War
Three Kings (1999)
As the 20th century came to a close, a familiar theme began to appear in war films: Why are we even fighting, and are Americans necessarily the good guys? This comes to a head in Three Kings, a film that is often comedic in its view of the Gulf War.
Directed by the notoriously difficult David O. Russell, Three Kings follows a team of four US soldiers (played by George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) still positioned in the Middle East after the war has officially ended. The movie starts as a heist film, with the principals finding a virtual treasure map and searching for Saddam’s spoils of war, but it winds up going someplace quite different as the characters witness first hand the people affected by the conflict.
Three Kings eventually winds up on a realization that perhaps shouldn’t feel so novel: that the Gulf War is hardly an American story at all. The transition from selfish motives to something more political is smooth and natural, with its characters coming to realizations at the same speed as the audience. Wars aren’t about fighting anonymous enemies. They are often complex with cultural differences shrinking by the day. With Three Kings, Russell was successful in giving the Gulf War the weight it deserved.
Purple Heart: Focusing on a complicated war that many are still trying to process, there isn’t a wealth of film about the Gulf War yet. Jarhead is notably strong, specifically tackling the way that soldiers are trained to be killing machines and the way that weighs on the psyche. On a completely different wavelength is Courage Under Fire, which is more like a Law & Order episode set in the Middle East. And of course there is Hot Shots: Part Deux, which takes its spoof to the Gulf for a hilarious take on defeating Saddam.
The Iraq War
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Many of the films surrounding the second Iraq War, in keeping with the modern standards of the anti-war film about wartime, have focused less on the battlefield than on the ethics and politics of conflict. Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 Best Picture winner (at least at the 2010 ceremony, anyway), The Hurt Locker, exists at a curious middle ground between the ground-zero traditions of war films and the political commentary that’s come to represent the genre in more recent years.
In following Jeremy Renner’s bomb disposal specialist, the film gets at something deeper about the military drive through the prism of a single man who’s become addicted to the life-and-death stakes and violence of a war zone. For a film inherently about politics, The Hurt Locker ultimately takes a more detached and human approach to war, chronicling how it ceases to be a theoretical concept for the enlisted; for them, it’s somewhere between a banal day job and a constant waking nightmare.
The opening titles suggest that “war is a drug,” and that truth extends well beyond a man who lives to stand within inches of death. It’s a political addiction and one with no seeming cure in sight.
Purple Heart: Similarly to The Hurt Locker, Oren Moverman’s wrenching drama The Messenger follows an injured Iraq vet (Ben Foster) who’s put on casualty notification detail back home, responsible for traveling to the homes of deceased soldiers’ loved ones to inform them of the tragic news. The war echoes over every minute of the film, in its ache and confusion about how so many were lost, why they were, and what a person is supposed to do about carrying that kind of emotional weight, whether an ex-soldier or one of the people left to survive them.