Not long ago, I reviewed Fury (2014), which I thought was a very fine film that showed both the hideous damage of mechanised warfare as well as the camaraderie between soldiers. War is a continually interesting subject for filmmakers, indeed some of the first American films in the early 20th century depicted the Mexican-American War. War is often a subject of award films, because the portrayal of historical events like D-Day and the Holocaust, the American Civil War, the trenches of WWI etc., often leads to a type of reverential, “important” cinema that the Academy repeatedly rewards.
Lists of the “Greatest War Films” abound, so I thought I would call my personal top ten to attention. Some are obvious, others less so, but these are the war films that I have found particularly affecting, sometimes moving and always powerful. What actually counts as a war film is open to debate, as this can range from films like Fury that depict combat to films a long way from the front line, such as The Imitation Game (2014). For the purposes of this list, I have defined “war film” as “film that “depicts soldiers in combat”, as all of these films are interested in presenting the human experience of warfare. The technical and logistical challenges of presenting combat onscreen were met, in my view, with verve and vivacity in these films, each managing to convey the thrills and fear of the combat experience. That makes them my personal Top Ten War Films.
- The Thin Red Line (1998)
Not only is this my favourite war film, but it is one of my top ten films of all time. Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 is an enthralling meditation on war, peace, life, death, humanity, nature and everything in between. Rather than offering any definitive statements on these concepts, Malick fills his near-three hour movie with questions, sometimes delivered in dialogue and sometimes through multiple voiceovers from his extraordinary cast, including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Travolta, John C. Reilly and, in the key role of Private Witt, Jim Caviezel in his first high profile role. The constant voiceovers combined with the seemingly endless shots of grass, trees and water, juxtaposed with horrific sequences of flying bullets and exploding shells, may not be to everyone’s taste, but for me, The Thin Red Line remains a beautiful, mesmerising and deeply profound piece of work.
- The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
War may not seem the most obvious aspect of Michael Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, as the film was marketed and is largely consumed as an epic romance. But this romance is epic precisely because of its war background, as wildly passionate relationship between Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cora (Madeleine Stowe) occurs against the backdrop of the French-Indian War. Cora laments that “The whole world’s on fire”, and combat sequences as well as the cost of military action are evident throughout. The impact of war upon civilians is a key concern, as homesteads are attacked and women and children are victims as much as soldiers. Furthermore, the war between colonial powers adds to the decimation of Native Americans, the true victims of European colonisation of the Americas. While romance may be the central narrative of the film, The Last of the Mohicans remains a mournful lament for the passing of Native Americans, a passing hastened by the dehumanising effects of war.
- Apocalypse Now (1979)
OK, this is an obvious one. Apocalypse Now is a film I first encountered on a university module about 20th century novels and their film adaptations. I can therefore testify that writing about Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now can make you morbidly depressed, which is good to know. Much about Apocalypse Now is extraordinary, not least its tortuous production history as detailed in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary, Hearts of Darkness. But as a film in its own right, Apocalypse Now serves as a mesmerising and compelling journey into humanity’s heart of darkness. The Vietnam War serves as context not only for the inhumanity of combat, but also the depravity of the mind in which truly lurks “the horror, the horror”.
- Green Zone (2010)
A recent entry and a very fine one, as Paul Greengrass’ Baghdad-set thriller balances plot, action and politics superbly. The combination of Greengrass with star Matt Damon inevitably echoes the Jason Bourne franchise (a further collaboration was recently announced), but Green Zone is a more explicitly political piece of work, as well as being an intense thrill ride. The occupation of Iraq remains hugely controversial and Greengrass, along with screenwriter Brian Helgeland in his adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s memoir Life in the Emerald City, pull no punches in their exploration of US deceit in the justification for the invasion. Damon’s Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller is both a soldier committed to the army and an investigator committed to the truth, but the film really excels with its Iraqi characters, General Al Rawi (Iqal Naor) and Freddie (??). As representatives of both Saddam’s and post-Saddam Iraq, these characters are villain and victim, both of the previous regime and current US policy. With its detailed portrayal of a complex war, Green Zone succeeds as gripping action cinema and as an angry political statement.
- Henry V (1989)
Kenneth Branagh’s debut as a film director has held a special place in my heart for many years. I studied Henry V at school and eventually directed a production at university, and Branagh’s cinematisation of the play was a major influence on me. To a contemporary audience, Henry V can be attacked for its propagandist message (intrinsic to its original production) and for a glorification of war. That has never been my understanding of the play and it is not Branagh’s either, as his adaptation conveys the horror of combat, the isolation and responsibility of those in power as well as a wide view of those affected by war. Much of this material is in Shakespeare’s text, but Branagh uses his cinematic scope to create striking visuals, especially the climactic Battle of Agincourt and the scenes preceding it, with enough mud to rival the finest portrayals of Flanders and the Somme.
- The Hurt Locker (2009)
The most significant contribution of The Hurt Locker to cinema history is Kathryn Bigelow being the first woman to win the Oscar for Achievement in Directing, but that is no disparagement of the film itself. Whereas Green Zone is an active engagement with the politics of the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker is a largely depoliticised dramatization of contemporary warfare, creating an experience akin to that of an embedded journalist. The war-reporter experience of screenwriter Mark Boal is translated by Bigelow and DOP Barry Ackroyd into a harrowingly intimate approximation of the combat experience. Whatever one’s views on the Iraq War may be, it is hard to deny the white-knuckle tension of disarming explosive devices. The experience is shown in agonisingly intimate detail as Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) risks his life on a regular basis, dismantling detonators and disassembling death-dealing devices. Yet the film also generates ambivalence through James’ enjoyment of his work. Whereas the standard attitude of war films is that war is hell, The Hurt Locker takes the interesting step of suggesting that it may not be. This element makes it a fascinating as well as thrilling viewing experience.
- Glory (1989)
Another obvious one but a very fine example of hope and despair amid the horrors of war (cheerful, I know). Ed Zwick has fashioned a cinematic oeuvre of VERY IMPORTANT SUBJECTS, ranging from the epic corn of Legends of the Fall (1995) and the dissection of propaganda in Courage Under Fire (1996) to the didactic chin-stroking of Blood Diamond (2006) and the critique of US health care in Love and Other Drugs (2010). But with this Civil War drama he may have got the balance just right, as Glory spends more time focusing on its characters and the historical events they are involved in than pontificating about human rights. Serious topics are absolutely appropriate material for film in general and war films in particular, but they are best expressed as dramatic content rather than lectures. Glory features the visceral horror of 19th century war as men are blown apart and left with hideous injuries, as well as the institutionalised racism of the Union Army, which may be fighting to end slavery but still treats black people as lesser beings. Its ending is also one of the most… Well, that would be telling. Glory may be 25 years old, but if you haven’t seen it, go check it out.
- Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Clint Eastwood made a film in Japanese. Is this a publicity stunt? No, it’s very true. Eastwood’s two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 show the two sides of the conflict, but whereas Flags of Our Fathers is a tiresome dirge of flashback foolery and voiceover-drive, Letters from Iwo Jima is a subtle and melancholic tale of haunting combat experiences. The film focuses on three soldiers within the Japanese army fortifying Iwo Jima: General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe, familiar to Western audiences after his roles in The Last Samurai, Batman Begins and Memoirs of a Geisha); Ito (Shidô Nakamura), a lieutenant who has spent some time in America; Private Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), who understands from an early stage that he and his comrades are way out of their depth. Through the experiences of these three men, as well as the others around them, the film provides some unusual perspectives. For a mainstream Hollywood film from one of the world’s most recognisable directors be almost entirely subtitled is extraordinary, and the strangeness helps to convey an alternative perspective. Seeing the American forces hit the island and feeling the impact of their attack places the viewer in the position of sympathising with who is normally the enemy. The different military strategy of the Japanese, largely ensconced in caves and burrows rather than bunkers and frequently with inferior technology, creates a palatable sense of fear and foreboding. This is reinforced with the knowledge that they will lose, lending a tragic air of futility to the narrative that is strengthened by Kuribayashi’s belief that his troops are fighting a hopeless battle. Eastwood and DOP Tom Stern also use a washed out visual palette, adding to the grimness of the spectacle and removing any sense of victory or even a noble death. Death in this battle is as futile as any other military engagement, but rarely has this futility been expressed with such powerful melancholia.
- Platoon (1986)
Oliver Stone has made no secret about Platoon being inspired by his own experiences in the Vietnam War, the film portraying combat both against the Viet-Cong and within a US platoon. The visceral horror of mechanised combat is on display as well as the inhumanity of soldiers towards the enemy and to each other. It can be argued that the impact of the conflict is reduced solely to the experience of an individual soldier, Chris (Charlie Sheen) going through the tagline’s claim: the first casualty of war is innocence. But Platoon is among the finest of (American) Vietnam War films in that it convincingly portrays the senselessness of the conflict. War ultimately serves a political agenda, and while the politics of the Vietnam War seem clear today – it was to stem the tide of communism – Platoon presents the irrelevance of such a concept to a soldier on the ground. All Chris encounters is pain, death, violence and misery, the tool as well as the victim of US foreign policy. Less psychological than Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or The Deer Hunter, Platoon remains a seminal film in depicting the physical horrors of war in the jungle.
- Enemy at the Gates (2001)
I know, most of my choices are American, but here’s one a European production that delivers a very interesting view of the war experience. Set during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, Enemy at the Gates concentrates on the interpersonal battle between peasant Russian sniper Vassili (Jude Law) and aristocratic German sniper Major Konig (Ed Harris). Soviet political officer Commisar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) recognises the skill of Vassili and turns him into a hero for the demoralised troops. Fellow Russian soldier Tanya (Rachel Weisz) becomes involved with both Vassili and Danilov, and these intimate dramas are played out against the backdrop of urban warfare that includes precise sniper shots as well as major battles. What is especially effective about this film is the tension of duelling snipers. Victory and life are not determined here by superior numbers or firepower, but by skill and patience, not to mention courage. Courage in this case, however, is presented in its true form – dealing with fear and carrying on despite being, at times, terrified. There are some nail-biting set pieces on both a large and intimate scale, and the film does not shy away from the implacable cruelty of combat nor the tensions within the political ideologies followed by the central characters. Enemy at the Gates is a much underrated war film that is worthy of greater attention.
Honourable mention – Black Hawk Down (2001)
This is another tale of urban warfare, but a more nihilistic and downright horrifying film than Enemy at the Gates or indeed Full Metal Jacket. Black Hawk Down shows the appalling damage and indifference of mechanised warfare (which has been something of a pattern on this list). Intimacy is again an important feature, as director Ridley Scott and DOP Sławomir Idziak bring the viewer from the eponymous helicopter down to street level, amid the ghastly (and Oscar-winning) noise and visually disorientating barrage of enemy fire. Despite the big name cast, including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Eric Bana, the soldiers are largely anonymous, blurring together amidst the carnage. This is an interesting depiction of military combat because, on the one hand, it reduces everyone to cannon fodder. On the other hand, it places the viewer in that position as well, giving the viewer an appreciation of this combat experience. This anonymising effect creates the nihilism of the film. Who you are means nothing in combat, echoing a sentiment expressed in the film that tops my list: “It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.” Black Hawk Down, much like the other films I have discussed, emphasises this point, showing no glory in war and the indifference with which life can be extinguished.