Here we are, at the top of the mountain. We’ve had plenty from every war imaginable, some supportive of war efforts, some not. But the more interesting war films really focus on the people; the internal struggles those men and women have about what they are doing. Whether made in America, Germany, the United Kingdom, or anywhere else, war is not just a battle between good and evil. It’s a life and death struggle between opposing sides that may not be that different. The movies at the top of this list may be subtle or straightforward, but each of them is a clear snapshot that lets audiences see what it means to fight, so they don’t have to.
10. Paths of Glory (1957)
Directed by: Stanley Kurbick
Conflict: World War I
Before Stanley Kubrick grabbed the rights, the source material for Paths of Glory had a long history. The novel, written by Humphrey Cobb, was only a small success in 1935, an account of the true story of a group of French soldiers who decided to stop running a suicidal mission. The book had no title, forcing the publisher to hold a contest to name it. The winner came from the Thomas Gray poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” In the film, Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, a man who doesn’t want to see his soldiers die for nothing anymore and decides to defend them against charges of cowardice in a court-martial. Kubrick’s most talked about anti-war film was Full Metal Jacket, but Paths of Glory surpasses it in terms of true prowess and consistency throughout the running time. In the film, we see commanding officers using their power to deflect blame from themselves, while punishing men who exercise their right to choose not to fight for them, especially in a mission in which is impossible to have success. In true Kubrickian fashion, the results are less than a ray of sunlight, but they serve as a platform for one of Douglas’ finest performances in one of the most decidedly anti-war films on the list. But, unlike many others (Full Metal Jacket included), Paths of Glory never feels like a propaganda film. Its delivery is honest and heartbreaking.
Conflict: World War II
In many circles, it would be higher on the list. But, while Steven Spielberg’s brutal portrayal of Nazi Germany is gripping, its focus lies more on the survival of the Holocaust, rather than World War II itself. Schindler’s List is the fictional account of German businessman Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) work to rescue over a thousand Jewish refugees by employing them in his factories. Ben Kingsley stars as Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish accountant, and Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Goeth, in a horrifying brilliant performance. Shot in stark black-and-white cinematography, Schindler’s List is one of Spielberg’s darkest films – a parable of hope in a world of death, starvation, and execution. Spielberg originally tried to push the rights of the film onto other directors, feeling it was too weighty for him. He tried to give it Roman Polanski, who turned it down. He also offered it to Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese, but changed his mind and felt called to the project when Holocaust deniers were getting more press in the early 90’s. The stipulation: Spielberg would be required to make Jurassic Park first (the MCA president knew he wouldn’t be willing to make another film so quickly after completing Schindler’s List). In addition, Spielberg took no salary for the film. In the end, this haunting work is still one of Spielberg’s best, even if it seemed too big for him at first.
Conflict: World War I
The first foreign film is grab a Best Picture nomination is also one of quietest anti-war films of all time. La Grande Illusion is directed by the great Jean Renoir, co-writing the script with Charles Spaak, focusing on a small group of French prisoners of war during World War I, trying to figure out a way to escape. Being an aviator during World War I, Renoir actually used his uniform as a costume in the film, lead actor Jean Gabin wearing it for much of the running time. Much like the other prison escape films, the story centers on the differences between the men and the way they manage to find ways to relate to each other. While the world outside may install a pseudo-caste system, in a prison camp, everyone is the same stature. So, men like Maréchal (Babin), a man of modest background, can befriend men like Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a man of ancestry within the ruling class. La Grande Illusion takes its time to clearly develop the character relationships, even within a wartime environment. Major chunks of the film don’t feel like they take place in a war film, but rather, in a character study of how men develop friendships. It’s still widely recognized as one of the greatest foreign language films of all time and one of the great Orson Welles’ most important films; one he would save for eternity.
Conflict: Vietnam War
The 1978 Best Picture winner was hailed as the greatest American epic since The Godfather, despite some critical attacks on its overall theme and negative depiction of the Vietnamese people. The Deer Hunter starred Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage as three men from a Pennsylvania steelworking town who end up near Saigon during the Vietnam War. The film opens happily with a wedding (involving a young Meryl Streep), only to shift to the horrors of the Vietnam War, one of which is the men being forced to play Russian Roulette by their guards in a POW camp. The controversy about the game and its place within the war was substantial, painting the Vietcong as sadistic in a time when America’s involvement in the war was still heavily questioned, even almost ten years later. Cimino and the actors disagreed, pointing to the insanity of the game serving as a metaphor for war itself: we all have loaded guns and none of us are sure who is going to take one in the head. Beyond the physical pain of war, The Deer Hunter uses Nick (Walken) as a poster child for the psychological damages of war and the way a person’s involvement could severely change his/her outlook on life, regardless of what positives he has to look forward to. It was also the final film with John Cazale, who died not long after filming wrapped, having starred in five films, all five being Best Picture nominations. The Deer Hunter is a stark portrait of the differences (and striking similarities) between the environments of rural America and Vietnam, as well as the toll it takes on a man to risk his life for a lost cause.
Conflict: Vietnam War
Once, Charlie Sheen was an up and coming, talented actor. He was the set piece in Oliver Stone’s semi-autobiographical Platoon, based on his experiences as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. Chris Taylor (Sheen) drops out of college to volunteer for military service, astounded that the only men in the army seemed to be in worse financial shape than him. He’s assigned to Bravo Company, near the Cambodian border, and witnesses immediate mayhem and death when they are attacked by the North Vietnamese Army. From there, we watch as Taylor befriends other soldiers, but watches as the waning enthusiasm for the war and their mission begins to take a toll. His fellow soldiers are killing each other, killing innocent Vietnamese, and seem to have lost any sense or moral justice. Platoon was Stone’s answer to the the pro-war sentiment of films like The Green Berets, as a staunchly anti-war protest film, the first of three Vietnam-themed movies he would direct. Platoon boasts a strong cast, including Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker, and a young Johnny Depp, but still stands as one of the most aggressively anti-war films ever made, a showpiece for its outspoken director that raked in plenty of critical praise and awards, including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
Conflict: World War II
Based on Pierre Boulle’s 1952 French Novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a British production, a fictional account about the construction of a non-existent bridge inspired by the construction of the Burma Railway 1943. Starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, the film took home seven Oscars, including Best Picture. British prisoners are being kept in a Burmese prison camp held by the Japanese and senior officer Nicholson (Guinness). They are informed they must held build a bridge, but, thanks to Geneva Conventions, officers don’t have to do manual labor. When Nicholson learns his soldiers are doing sub-par work, he works hard to ensure that, despite working against their will, they will succeed to constructing a proper bridge. While The Bridge on the River Kwai is not pro-war by any means, it does have a sense of pride and honor when it comes to fulfilling your duty. Performances from Guinness and Holden drive the epic film and David Lean’s typical framing and large scale directing style expands this tale beyond just a bridge in Burma to a more top level view of the war as a whole. This bridge is the example of what the British Army can do when asked to complete a task. In the eyes of Nicholson, the completion of this bridge is a greater achievement than any war victory could be, regardless of its use or who it’s for.
Conflict: World War II
Long before his terrible remake Poseidon (and three years before The Neverending Story), Wolfgang Petersen delivered one of the most claustrophobic, mercilessly intense war films of all time, despite the fact that almost not hand-to-hand combat even takes place. Told through the eyes of Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), he is a war correspondent stationed on the German submarine U-96. He meets his commanders at a French nightclub and the next morning they are off. Werner learns the ins and outs of the boats and begins to identify who is a new soldier and who are the veteran soldiers, who tend to have more hatred of the war and have become disenchanted. New soldiers aren’t welcomed with open arms and, with nothing else to do, receive ridicule from the other soldiers. After a narrow escape from a British destroyer attack, they are met with three days of stormy weather. The harrowing experiences these men go through are graphic – men on fire jumping to safety, major damage to their own ship. We slowly watch as each member of the crew deteriorates, both mentally and physically. Men weren’t meant to be kept in something this small for so long. Unlike most other films on this list, this is a war film told from the eyes of what is typically the enemy. Not too often we see a sympathetic look at the men who fought for the German side of World War II. The men on this U-boat are put through the ringer, only to watch what they have built fall apart. While war films tend to rely on the horrors of war and murder to sustain them, Das Boot relies on the isolation of war, especially in such a setting. Petersen has become a relatively good action director, but nothing had approached the brilliance of this masterpiece.
Conflict: Potemkin Uprising
While it is clearly not a “war,” the conflict portrayed in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is clearly a small part of a much bigger battle against fascism and a regime that did not meet the standards the Russian people deserved. Broken into five acts, this silent films delivers a fictionalized portrayal of the 1905 mutiny that watched the crew of the title battleship rebel against their officers serving the Tsarist regime. We watch as the men are mistreated and begin to fight back. Mn are lined up for insubordination, expecting to be shot, only to see the firing range lower their guns and begin the revolution. They take the ship and sail on to Odessa, where they are met with Tsarist police during one of the most infamous moments in film history on the Odessa steps. Battleship Potemkin may be a propaganda film, but its imagery and power still stands to this day. In the decades since, films have borrowed shots, themes, and moments from the film as a way to demonstrate the lengths men will go to for fair treatment, the role of bystanders in times of war, and the honor men show when they finally decide to do what’s right. It’s Eisenstein at his best – 91 years later, it still strikes a chord.
Conflict: Vietnam War
On most lists about this topic, it’s a foregone conclusion that this film would be at #1. It’s just short here, but no less defintive and remarkable, even 35 years after its release. Francis Ford Coppola’s uncredited adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s iconic novel Heart of Darkness was co-written by John Milius and Michael Herr, but set it during the Vietnam War. Army captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent down the Nung River in the remote jungles of Cambodia to find Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) to kill him. He has reportedly gone insane and is now commanding a group of indigenous Vietnamese people. He joins a Navy patrol boat team with various other military men, paramount of them being Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who commands an attack helicopter squadron. Eventually, they head down the river, where they are met by a freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper) who is supremely dedicated to Kurtz, whom he believes is a genius. It’s a work of surrealist cinema, based against a very real threat. Somewhere in between the drugs and fighting and surfing, there’s a sense of impending paranoia and isolation, both from Willard and the man he plans to kill. A notoriously difficult film to make, the work was chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which approaches its subject in terms of quality, a clear picture of how insane it may be to create a film about insanity. War is Hell; Apocalypse Now is a glimpse into that inferno.
Conflict: World War I
The first film to win both Best Picture and Director was this classic story of young men forced into battle, based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a fiery speech about how important and honorable it is to serve your country during war. The instructor’s class is inspired and, all of them on the verge of manhood, decide to enlist and fight for “the Fatherland,” Germany. The recruits take a train to the warzone, just in time to see absolute chaos and death, one of them being killed before reaching their home base. They are stationed with older soldiers who are not welcoming. They have no food. They are taught how to fight basically on the job. They start having nightmares. Through it all, there is no hope. This defense of “the Fatherland” feels less and less like an honorable act and more like a death sentence. Paul (Lew Ayres) eventually earns a furlough to return home briefly and confronts the man who urged him into battle in the first place. The professor asks him to tell the class what glory it is to fight and die for your country. Paul rejects the request. As Paul says, “It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?” Those words – this movie – began it all. We have pro-war movies. We have anti-war movies. But, most importantly, we have movies about people who are still people, even without a war as the setting. The men and women who go to war are heroes, whether they want to accept it or not, even if they are fighting for something they don’t believe in. All Quiet on the Western Front – an American movie told from a German perspective – was the first attempt to characterize these soldiers as more than gun-toting fighters. They were young men (and women). Some of them may want to serve; some not. That doesn’t make fighting a war for your country any easier.