Seven war films acclaimed for their realism
War has returned to Europe. On February 24 Russia invaded Ukraine, which has so far put up fierce resistance.
The world has responded by supplying Ukraine with weapons and humanitarian support while also attempting to cripple Vladimir Putin’s regime with sanctions.
War can be seen as a ‘sexy’ subject for films — it’s easier to be dramatic when it’s life or death.
But too many films either glorify or sanitise war, rather than seeing it for the horror it is.
Here are seven films that, for different reasons, have been acclaimed for their depiction of war:
Come and See
Perhaps the quintessential anti-war movie, Come and See is a Soviet-era film about the Nazi occupation of Belarus during the Second World War.
Teenager named Flyora decides, against his mother’s wishes, to take up arms against the Third Reich.
He is soon witness to several unspeakable atrocities and his childish innocence is crushed in the face of the brutal machinations of war.
Work on Come and See initially began in 1977 but Soviet officials would not allow filming to begin, deeming the original screenplay by director Elem Klimov ‘too realistic’.
Filming finally took place in 1984 over nine months and the process was so gruelling it left teenage star Aleksei Kravchenko “not only thin, but grey-haired”, he later said.
During one of the after-the-film discussions upon the film’s initial release, an elderly German man is reported to have stood up and said:
“I was a soldier of the Wehrmacht; moreover, an officer of the Wehrmacht. I traveled through all of Poland and Belarus, finally reaching Ukraine. I will testify: everything that is told in this film is the truth. And the most frightening and shameful thing for me is that this film will be seen by my children and grandchildren.”
Elem Klimov never made another film. Asked to explain why he said: “I lost interest in making films … Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.”
The Battle of Algiers
Released in 1966, The Battle of Algiers is one of cinema’s best depictions of urban guerrilla warfare.
It is based on events undertaken by rebels during the Algerian War (1954–1962) against the French government in North Africa.
Director Gillo Pontecorvo decided to shoot on location in a newsreel style that is so realistic The Battle of Algiers is often mistaken for a documentary.
Pontecorvo used non-professional actors for many speaking parts, including veterans of the war itself who had, quite literally, been there and done it.
Stanley Kubrick praised the film saying:
“All films are, in a sense, false documentaries. One tries to approach reality as much as possible, only it’s not reality. There are people who do very clever things, which have completely fascinated and fooled me. For example, The Battle of Algiers. It’s very impressive”
In August 2003 there was even a screening of the film at the Pentagon. A flyer said:
“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”
Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 tragedy is anti-war insomuch as it is anti-bureaucracy and heavily critical of post-industrial warfare where men simply become expendable.
And with that, the First World War is a perfect lens through which to highlight the futility and cruelness of war, when tens of thousands of lives were lost for the sake of a few metres.
Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax, ordered to command a nearly-impossible charge to seize the ‘Anthill’, takes it upon himself to represent three men set for court-martial for ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’.
Plans for a ‘happier’ ending were scrapped and the film was banned in France until 1975 for its negative portrayal of the French army.
But although the film is inspired by a real tale from the French army, Kubrick’s larger point is that this could happen anywhere. And, sadly, it does.
No Man’s Land (2001)
The obvious choice for a surreal ‘comedy’ about war would be Dr Strangelove but No Man’s Land, about the Bosnian War, shouldn’t be ignored for a more modern look at the absurdity of some war situations — and how toothless the UN is.
Two wounded soldiers, a Bosniak and a Bosnian-Serb are stuck in no man’s land together, along with another Bosniak soldier who is lying on a land mine.
The three of them argue about the war, blaming each other while the UN, which is in the area on a strict humanitarian mission, tries its absolute best to not get involved, despite pressure from the watching media (Simon Callow as the aptly-named Colonel Soft is a particular highlight).
Despite its frequent humour, No Man’s Land tells a familiar story in war and ends on a suitable sombre note.
Amy Corbin, writing in Film Quarterly:
“(No Man’s Land becomes a)critique of global media and the representation of war. Global significance is bestowed upon a local conflict either by politicians of dominant countries (who are absent in this film) or the media. In this case the world begins to care because (a reporter) is able to seize on the human-interest potential and make a random accident into a “story.” The U.N. — without the power to narrativise itself — must play catch-up.”
Director Francis Ford Coppola’s quotes about the making of Apocalypse Now has entered film lore:
“We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane”, and “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam”.
A loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and influenced by Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, Apocalypse Now looks at the psychological trauma of war as our ‘hero’ Willard travels down the river to assassinate the deranged Colonel Kurtz (an ephemeral, pontificating Marlon Brando).
But as Willard gets closer to Kurtz and the insanity of the war becomes more apparent, he starts to lose his grip on reality too.
An absolute classic of the genre, it’s important to note the acclaim is not universal. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, said:
“Apocalypse Now is an important work of art, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to bow down before it. I’m going to fight with it because it fought with me.”
He added: “It was an antiwar movie about the war in Vietnam, but the movie was about Americans. The Vietnamese were silent and erased.”
NB: the original release is still this author’s favourite.
Army of Shadows
Along with The Battle of Algiers, Army of Shadows (French title: L’Armée des ombres) is one of the best films ever made about survival under occupation and the desperate attempts to fight back.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville knew what it was like. He had been an active member of the French Resistance during the Second World War.
Army of Shadows is about a small group of Resistance fighters moving between safe houses, avoiding detection and killing informers.
An entirely un-romantic look at the dangers of subterfuge, Army of Shadows, released in 1969, was under-appreciated at first but grew in stature over the years.
Upon its 2006 re-release in the USA it was put on several critics ‘best of the year’ lists.
Actor Pat Healy chose it for his Criterion ‘Top 10’ and said:
“It not only de-romanticizes the movement with its rigorous and austere account of the day-to-day operations in this gray world, it also indicts it. For all the good the Resistance did, its members were only human: prone to betrayal and petty revenge. The movie is so specific in its regard of the loneliness and fear of these operatives, whose everyday lives alternate between boredom and peril.”
Four Israeli soldiers trapped in a tank for 90 minutes during the 1982 Lebanon War. That’s it.
The only view we get is through the tank’s turret as the men argue, cry, shout and desperately try to survive.
Samuel Maoz, Israeli-born, was accused of making a ‘shooting and crying’ film by some critics. And other commentators in Israel worried that “the film will deter young men from volunteering for the army.” (Good?).
Maoz himself was was a gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the war so was directing from his own experience (one scene in Lebanon has the soldiers ordered to use phosphorus grenades that are forbidden by international treaty).
Upon receiving the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival Maoz said:
“I dedicate this award to the thousands of people all over the world who, like me, come back from war safe and sound. Apparently they are fine, they work, get married, have children. But inside the memory will remain stabbed in their soul.”
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