Sometimes the genre is used as patriotic propaganda, sometimes to the opposite effect. Conflict drives all drama and nothing compares to the giant canvas provided when multiple characters, countries and ideals reach a boiling point and clash on a grand scale.
Criteria for this genre are simple: all you need is a war, preferably historical, an unflinching point of view ready to be challenged, and a strong moral compass. Compassion is the secret ingredient that makes it all work.
Five of my top war films follow, of course, in no particular order.
All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone), 1930
This 87-year-old chestnut not only holds its own against all successors, it remains one of the greatest films ever made. Told from the German side of WWI, its honesty is uncanny in the way it depicts life both on and off the battlefield, often with awe-inspiring deep focus shots and superimposed imagery.
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick), 1998
Malick’s WWII Guadalcanal tale contrasts the violent action with the paradise in which it takes place. Aided by the brilliance of cinematographer John Toll and composer Hans Zimmer, the result is a contemplative meditation on the “civilized” human condition and its obliviousness to the blissful natural order.
Gallipoli (Peter Weir), 1981
Peter Weir’s plucks two carefree runners, Frank and Archie (a very young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee), from the Outback and drops them into one of the biggest debacles of WWI, that being the Gallipoli Campaign. Camaraderie is key as the film follows the boys obediently making their way through enlistment, training, on the path to the gut-wrenching final act that will tear your heart out.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean), 1957
Construction of the Burmese Railway by the Japanese during WWII using captured British and ANZAC prisoners is the setting for Lean’s epic about honor and responsibility under incredibly adverse circumstances. It’s interesting to note that the two screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, were blacklisted by Hollywood at the time and never received credit due until 1984 – posthumously.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola), 1979
Coppola’s obsession with making his Vietnam epic loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness damn near killed him and his leading man, Martin Sheen, but the result is a modern classic. Scene after scene, line after famous line, the film excites, dazzles and terrifies. “Don’t get out of the boat!” / “I love the smell of napalm on the morning.” / “the horror… the horror.”
This is one of my favorite genres. It’s rich with all types of work and I could easily substitute other films for these five at least three times over. Come to my rescue here – what would you add?