Cinema was made to tell war stories. Theater dominated the artistic cultural landscape for three millennia, and stories of war and strife were among the most popular. Think of Shakespeare, who has an entire category of works called his “Histories,” no surprise though that nearly all of them are about war. That’s what history is, a record of conflict. The Greeks, inventors of theater, fancied war plays as well. The confounding Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ play about a woman who decides to refuse her husband sex until he stops his warring ways, has somehow found relevance today with Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, which applies the same premise to Chicago’s south side.
Theater though, could never fully capture the horrors of war, often choosing instead to focus on how war affects those who are left behind, or those who return from war broken and alone. The invention of cinema offered a chance to show war for what it really is, hell. D.W. Griffith was among the first to try this approach with his controversial masterpiece The Birth of a Nation. Though Griffith’s film suffers greatly from racist portrayals of black people, as well as idolizing the KKK, it does show the reality of war as it always deserved to be shown, as an ugly, dehumanizing nightmare.
The purpose of this list is not to posit five films as better than their war-themed counterparts, but rather to highlight films that show war honestly, and without undue glorification. Also this list is not necessarily even a list of great films; some are masterful, others simply average, but what each film says and shows about war are required viewing for discerning cinephiles.
Cold Mountain is a fine example of a decent film that contains several unmissable war scenes. The film follows a confederate soldier who abandons the war effort when victory seems all but lost. Of course this being Hollywood our hero owns no slaves, and fights only against what he sees as a conquering army approaching his quaint town of Cold Mountain. Anthony Minghella isn’t an average director though, and uses this romantic story to show some of the most horrific Civil War era scenes ever put on film. The “Turkey Shoot” scene shows how fickle war can be. Cannons bombard Southern troops, sending soldiers running for their lives. The Union Army soon gives chase, but crashes right into their own cannon-created hole, giving rightly pissed Confederate soldiers a chance to shoot them while they crush one another trying to climb the wall of mud. The scene is horrifying, and stands out for showing an honest portrayal of a conflict so often reduced to “good Union” bad “Confederates.”
Zulu, directed by Cy Endfield and released in 1964, is another film about a controversial war. Few today would argue that British Colonialism was justifiable or righteous, but to the men on the ground those distinctions matter little. In a classic example of “Us or Them,” Michael Caine and his men sing “Men of Harlech” in response to the war cries of the Zulu fighters who surround them. They stand in the face of a charging army, lose, retreat, hold their redoubt, and push the onslaught away. The soldiers know however, that the next assault will end them. When warriors begin to line the area around their tiny base they think the end is in sight. The Zulu men instead chant a song of bravery to the 140 men who so boldly stand before 4000. After their war call, the Zulu depart, confounding the ego-driven men of the British Army. Even in war, the most human moments are often those of unexpected mercy.
Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick’s oft overlooked rendition of the classic phrase “war is hell,” is centered around a scene that by now is the preeminent depiction of World War I. As Kirk Douglas walks though the trench, the viewer sees a muddy canal of broken men, huddled and flinching at the ceaseless explosions merely a few yards away. The most telling feature of this scene is that not all of the men flinch. Some are so used to the noise, to the shaking, that they have moved beyond caring. One can see that the men who would return home from this war would thrive in the “Roaring Twenties,” when hedonism was considered a virtue. They would live loudly and frivolously for the rest of their lives, as between the walls of the trenches they lost their humanity. By the time the men do climb over the walls, their bravery registers more as abandonment of personal worth than anything having to do with glory.
Akira Kurosawa specialized in films about warriors, whether they wear the armor of Samurai, or the black suits of a boardroom. The men in Kurosawa’s films fight their battles to the death. Ran is considered Kurosawa’s late in life masterpiece, and was one of his most popular films in the West. Much of this is due to the epic scope of the Samurai battles depicted. What’s more intriguing though than the wider scope is the what Kurosawa chooses to focus on. There is a shot in the middle of the famous battle scene where the viewer can only see smoke in front of a grassy hill as blurry horses flash across the screen. Soon a horse slowly moves across and a man falls to his death. Many shots in this scene are only a few tenths of a second long, just long enough to show each man’s death. In choosing not to linger Kurosawa shows the flippancy with which human lives are discarded in war.
Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo is known for its immense production, which saw almost 20,000 extras hired to act out the famous turning point of Napoleon Bonaparte’s final attempt at conquest. What this film does so well is show the scope of war. Each of the other films on the list do a wonderful job showing the personal toll war takes on people, or the way in which lives are willfully discarded. Waterloo does all that too, but what sets it apart is that it shows the insane logistics of thousands of people trapped in mortal conflict. War is personal, but as the saying goes “one death is a tragedy, one thousand is just a number.” To the coiner of that phrase, or to any who see war as Henry Kissinger famously did (a business), this scene stands in defiance. A thousand deaths is a thousand tragedies, and 20,000 men charging into one another is neither awesome nor glorious, it is a loss of the highest order. Imagine each of the dots onscreen as a person as complex and varied as oneself. War costs the world art, it costs the world love, and it costs men the only thing they truly own, their lives. War is hell, so here’s to those who have endured it.