Well, when they are done well that is. One fresh example is They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s recent, extraordinary and awe-inspiring documentary presenting World War I footage. Painstakingly restored with colour and realistic sounds added, this film is composed entirely of archival footage from the British National Museum and a soundtrack of old BBC interviews of WWI veterans. It is simple and effective. There is a deep connection between the viewer and the soldiers on-screen because these are real people and their hopes and fears emanate through. No narrative or re-enactment is necessary to enhance that.
A lot of war films have been made around the world throughout time, and a lot of different perspectives have been offered. War in itself is an act of brutal aggression and it is something that purposefully sets out to divide. War films, too, can be very divisive. Some are nationalistic, flag-waving and patriotic, or just straight-up propaganda for one side. Others are more thoughtful and reflective of the trauma on both sides, but can also be misleading and blind-sighted anti-war protestation. War films are generally based on real-life occurrences (unless you want to add fantasy adaptations such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the canon), and many are based on historical or biographical accounts. But that is not to say that they are always based on verified factual evidence. Artistic license is often taken to convey war situations, and for Hollywood directors, as an example, it is always important to mix emotion and action, and to adhere to the trusty and successful entertainment formula. Whether that conveniently conforms to an ideal of American or Western patriotism or is part of a broader criticism of killing and traumatising fellow human beings is a matter of interpretation. But one thing is for certain: war is a deeply affecting issue and the movies have always been there to showcase it. War kills, it tortures, it brings people together for good or for worse, it creates heroes and villains, and it leaves a massive imprint on humanity and the environment.
The list of war films is endless, and they are hard to contextualise as a whole because they vary across countries, across wars, and across themes. But I have listed a potted selection of five films that I believe captures that variety. These are all mainly critical of war, but in my eyes they all represent a side to war that is human and not so straight-out-of-Hollywood.
The Film: The Hill (1965 Sidney Lumet)
The War: World War II (1939–1945)
The Setting: A British military prison camp for offending soldiers located in the Libyan Desert
The Hill is a tough and uncompromising snapshot of ‘behind-the-frontline’ of war. Sidney Lumet was a consistently uncompromising director and he was a rarity in Hollywood in that he focused on gritty social realism. His first film was the glorious courtroom classic 12 Angry Men (1957) and he would go on to make several masterclasses in real-life drama – Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Lumet’s shtick was psycho dramas and social justice, and when he was approached to film an adaptation of a screenplay by British writer Ray Rigby about an abusive military prison, he knew it was right up his alley. Rigby himself had served time in a World War II field detention centre and this story was based on those experiences. The fact that these types of prisons existed was news to me before watching The Hill, and it certainly accounts for quite a shock.
Coming only two years after the release of The Great Escape (a ‘Boys’ Own’ action-adventure war classic), The Hill is remarkable from the time for its edginess and realism. It is an apt dissemination of the armed forces and the impact they can have on the human psyche. It follows a ‘camp prison’ for renegade or delinquent army soldiers who are to be put right before being returned to the front-line. These men are essentially ‘bad soldiers’, who do not take orders very well, but damned if the Queen or Churchill will let them go back to their homes! Some good, old-fashioned torturous training will get them into shape! The camp is a primitive, walled fortress with cells and a training ground, and as its centrepiece stands a massive sand hill where insubordinate prisoners are brutally forced to run up and down with sand bags on their shoulders in the simmering desert heat. Wills are broken down, suicides occur, mutinies are only another order ‘up the hill’ away, but still no respite is given by the staunch guards. This is an extremely tough watch but there are excellent performances from Sean Connery (who was taking up a more challenging role away from the comfort of Bond at the time), Harry Andrews (who plays the proud and unsympathetic Regimental Sergeant Major Wilson – a precursor to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket) and Ossie Davis (who went on to play Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing). Lumet is not afraid, even at this early stage in his momentous career, to deal with racial issues, barbarity among men and to criticise nationalism; in this case the British Army. Although it is not set on the battlefronts or shows any combat, it deals very much in the hypocrisy of the war machine.
The Film: The Battle of Algiers (1966 Gillo Pontecorvo)
The War: Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962)
The Setting: The streets and buildings of the Casbah (the citadel of Algiers)
The Battle of Algiers is another powerful and dramatic look at war, or the mechanics of guerrilla warfare specifically. It directly concerns itself with the ‘warzone’ in the citadel of Algiers, where the French Army are fighting the rebel National Liberation Front (NLF) to regain control of the city and more broadly, the country. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of an ugly war waged by both sides – France, in its arrogant insistence to maintain control of one its colonies by torturing and intimidating those suspected of nationalism; and the Algerian rebel armies, in their disregard for civilians through bombing public spaces and executing suspected French collaborators. Indeed, the subject matter is all too familiar from past and present wars e.g. Northern Ireland, Palestine, The War on Iraq and the annexation of Crimea.
The film is a success because it is not romantic in any way and it remains wholly neutral throughout (though this did not hinder the French authorities from banning it for five years). In the mid-60s, Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was approached by a NLF military commander with a novel he had written, and it was thus adapted into a screenplay. As Pontecorvo was a keen admirer of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, he shot the film in a transcendent, Italian neo-realist style. Thus, we get a fantastic blend of art and realism, essentially resulting in a cross between a feature film and a documentary. It offers an authentic style, almost like a news report but still maintaining a central narrative with characters from both sides. Pontecorvo and his crew were not afraid to go beyond the bounds of what the French government were letting the public know about Algeria. It has been a major influence not just on directors but on audiences, as well as insurgent rebel groups and state authorities, who have seen it as an accurate study on the effects of guerrilla warfare.
The Film: The Deer Hunter (1978 Michael Cimino)
The War: Vietnam War (1955–1975)
The Setting: A steel-working town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; a Vietnam POW camp; and Saigon, South Vietnam
Michael Cimino has become quite the enigma for movie critics. His credits before, after and including The Deer Hunter have come into question ever since his complete and utter failure with Heaven’s Gate in 1980. This was an expensive, overly long and extremely messy revisionist Western that flopped massively at the Box Office. Stories surrounding Cimino’s directorial style and his intelligence (or lack of) has prompted many to re-evaluate The Deer Hunter as one of the most overrated films in Hollywood history. Despite this, it remains for many others a masterpiece from a golden era of independent American film-making. It also won five Oscars by the way. Even though I agree that Heaven’s Gate is proper shite, I would still be in the latter camp about The Deer Hunter. No doubt it is flawed and it does have a troubling bias on the Vietnam War, I still maintain it to be a hugely important spectacle and moving drama about the effects of war on the human mind. Indeed it is overwrought in its theatrical presentation – the first hour is basically set in a ballroom at a Jewish wedding – but that is part of its appeal: over the top, but very affecting.
The Russian roulette scenes are part of the controversy because no factual evidence was properly offered by Cimino that this ever happened in Vietnam. But regardless, it still works as a loaded metaphor for the torture that war inflicts upon people. Those scenes are infamous for how gripping they are for audiences, and in that I think it is a justified cinematic highlight. I understand that the film is from an American’s perspective, and the Viet Cong are certainly presented in a very ugly manner at times, but the story is meant to be focused on a group of Americans, and the Vietnam War is an incidental but devastating side-track. The core of the story is not simply about war anyway. It is about the brutal tearing apart of friendships, of lives that were once quaintly tied together in a small Pennsylvanian town. In my eyes, it is actually very critical of the US’s decision to go to war on communism in the first place. In any case, the acting of leads Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken and a deeply brooding Robert de Niro, as well as minor roles by John Cazale and John Savage, are masterful and unforgettable. And in the end, I believe the overarching message is one that reverberates – war is hell, but home is heaven.
The Film: Das Boot (1981 Wolfgang Petersen)
The War: World War II (1939-1945)
The Setting: The bowels of a German U-boat patrolling the Atlantic Ocean
The exasperation felt after watching The Deer Hunter is quite an experience, but the breathlessness felt after watching Das Boot is equally memorable. Wolfgang Petersen adapted the screenplay from a novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, who was a German Lieutenant of U-boat U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic (‘Das boot’ simply means ‘the boat’ in German). He was not a fan of the film himself due to its unrealistic depictions, but I am sure it was pointed out to him that his novel too took liberties with reality even though it is meant to be based on his experiences. Regardless, Das Boot is an absolutely incredible film – the original submarine movie – and is possibly one of the greatest feats of film production ever, having been filmed at such a high quality in the confined spaces of a mock-up submarine (incidentally, the mock-up was borrowed without permission by Steven Spielberg for Raiders of the Lost Ark during the filming!). I still cannot fathom (ahem!) how Petersen managed to do it. To have a camera crew and all those actors move around in such claustrophobic conditions while pumps and levers need to be pushed or pulled, is quite impressive. Apparently much of those scenes were captured on a hand-held camera, which was an innovation for the time. It is pulled off to great effect and you truly get involved in the micro-world of the German soldiers who attempt to survive in such dangerous and abject conditions, while at the same time fighting a war for Hitler.
Although combat is kept to a minimum, there is a unique sense of action and adventure to Das Boot, which is appropriately complimented by human spirit and emotion. The battles happen outside of the vessel but the camera maintains a focus on the reactions of, and impact on, the crew within it. The sweat, grease, blood and tears are basically dripping out of the screen, and it is impossible not to become part of the crew yourself. The charisma of the captain (Jürgen Prochnow) and the interplay between him and his chief engineer (Klaus Wennemann) and Werner, a wholehearted war correspondent (Herbert Grönemeyer), is genuinely engaging and moving. The camaraderie and closeness of the crew becomes the central heart of proceedings. And you tend to forget that this is a vessel instructed by the Nazis to torpedo and kill Allied forces. But the men are not portrayed as mindless, Jew-hating monsters. They are soldiers carrying out orders just like the Allied side. They just want to get out alive and return to normal lives at the end of their mission. As Petersen said of his objective with this film, he wanted to take the audiences on a journey to the edge of the mind.
The Film: Kippur (2000 Amos Gitai)
The War: Yom Kippur War (1973)
The Setting: The frontline of battle around the Golan Heights, an area of the Levant occupied by Israel but located in Syrian territory.
Kippur is a strange film with a very provocative tone that clearly comes from an anti-war disposition. It concerns itself with the unexpected attack by Syrian and Egyptian forces on Israel in 1973, and how a few soldiers who are caught up in it react to the situation in real-time. It is based on director Gitai’s actual experiences as a member of an Israeli rescue crew during the Yom-Kippur War, where some of his comrades were killed. His intention is clear: he wants to capture the images that haunt his mind about those events and manifest them in a visual presentation. No doubt this is a personal journey for Gitai as he is effectively trying to find a way of coping with his demons (not unlike Ari Folman’s animated film about the 1982 Lebanon War, Waltz with Bashir). What he achieves is something very eerie and surreal, and does not make any specific political statement. The arty beginning where the main character, Weinraub (Liron Levo), rolls around in paint with his girlfriend is slightly offbeat, but what materialises afterwards – an abrupt catapult into an active warzone – is very affecting.
The events in the warzone are portrayed with a deliberate detachment – there is no Saving Private Ryan D-Day theatrics here. The set-up is raw and visceral. We watch from afar as Weinraub and his fellow soldiers struggle in the mud and dirt on what appears to be a battlefield. The scenes are quietly chaotic. Soldiers do not know where to go or what to do amidst the carnage of dropping bombs and grenade fire. They grow fatigued in their efforts to carry fallen soldiers to safety. The battlelines are obscured, and we as the viewer are unsure if the threatening and soulless-looking tanks moving in the background are those of the enemies or not. The enemy is never exposed to us. We only assume that the men in the eye of the camera are Israeli soldiers and the weapon-fire all around is coming from Syrian/Egyptian forces. These scenes are very overwhelming and sometimes slow-moving but it is effective, and acts as a numbing experience. The film really has no central resolution, just confusion and a short question mark at the end – what was all that about? Overall, it is stark and disturbing. There is no heroism or appraisal of Israeli patriotism here. This treatise is about the experiences of actual human beings being forced to defend their lives without any warning and without any reason why. War, what is it good for?