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Genre Blast: War is Hell

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?




  1. Robin Write Robin Write March 28, 2017

    Now my initial thought was that this was a tough genre. And it is in terms of the slog of the on-screen suffering. But not all war films depict all out attack and conflict. That said, Stanley Kubrick has dabbled with war in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Paths of Glory (1957) to name two. Oliver Stone appears to be a standard go to with the likes of Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and the vastly under-rated Salvador (1986).

    Other war efforts that marched off with Oscars include acting triumphs Glory (1989), The Pianist (2002), The Killing Fields (1984), Inglourious Basterds (2009), as well as Best Picture victors Patton (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Hurt Locker (2008), The English Patient (1996).

    And that Steven Spielberg sure likes his war films, too many to name I think, but the best are Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993), with Empire of the Sun (1987) just about holding its own, whereas the beautiful-looking but over-saccharined War Horse (2011) hit many wrong notes. As did, in my book, films like American Sniper (2014), Allied (2016), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Cold Mountain (2003) – all for different reasons.

    Let’s quickly mention three classics: M.A.S.H. (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Great Escape (1963). Speaking of escapes, I guess you could class Escape to Victory (1981) as a war film, though you may indeed slot it into sports movies.

    I have my own personal non-frontier favorites too, the alternative war film if you like. How it can transform an evolving nation like Underground (1995), or play a sub-plot to an awe-inspiring narrative like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and even following the main-line of themes like romance, A Very Long Engagement (2004), alliance, Joyeux Noël (2005), and personal duty, Paradise Now (2005).

    I want to also add to the mix, before I get shot down myself for crashing the party here, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), Das Boot (1981), and two great Hungarian pictures, Mephisto (1981) and Son of Saul (2015).

  2. Lloyd Marken Lloyd Marken March 31, 2017

    I’m right there with you buddy, there is a long list of great war films let alone good ones. Our Top Five from me would have to include Gallilpoli not just because it is an Australian film but because for me it shows so clearly what is lost in war, what is the reality of war that so many war films don’t get. In these CGI times too it has scope without being self indulgent. It’s just a perfect movie. The opposite of this is Pearl Harbour, where a forced love triangle is supposed to make you care more about men who may die. Paths of Glory is a classic and has a riveting performance from Kirk Douglas and timeless ambitious cinematography. I remember seeing Saving Private Ryan at 17 and all us laughing teenagers went eerily quiet as the film started and didn’t speak again until it was over. Every time I see that mother go down on the porch my face cracks. Spielberg understands storytelling so deeply. Born on the Fourth of July has to be one of the best films about war veterans coming home. Platoon nailed I think a lot about combat but that wouldn’t be number 5. That would be Lawrence of Arabia one of my all time favourite films. I feel it conveys strongly PTSD in many subtle ways and it is a performance for the ages from O’Toole. I hope to one day soon see Best Years of Our Lives. I have recently seen Their Finest and enjoyed it immensely for meta winks and moving scenes. To say nothing of Memphis Belle, The Great Escape, Glory, MASH, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, Das Boot, The Dirty Dozen, Patton, The Longest Day, The Guns of Navaronne, Schlinder’s List, From Here to Eternity, Kelly’s Heroes, Downfall, Twelve O’clock High, Three Kings and The Battle of Algiers. Those last three in particular are just great films and all distinctly different. Oh well I could go on forever but I will leave you in peace.

  3. […] All Quiet on the Western Front, the 3rd winner of the Best Picture Academy Award, was also a distinct influence for Nolan. The early scene from Dunkirk when boots are taken from a dead soldier’s feet is a hat-tip to that movie. Writing the script, Nolan was also mindful of those silent film mechanics, the way a story was told when perhaps you cant hear the dialogue. Or there is little of it. And with the lack of attention for Nolan’s screenplay currently, I assure you it is integral, be it a blueprint, to the film’s appeal. […]

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