Being one of mankind’s oldest professions, it is inevitable that the war film has become one of the staple genres of cinema, incorporating nearly all sorts of sub-genres in with it in some cases (for example, the spy, action, drama, science fiction, and even horror genres). It is, however, a wholly functioning film genre all in itself, one that dominates nearly all periods of Hollywood history – after all, war never goes away, does it? So without further ado, here are my top 10 war films, subject to my own opinion of course. Beware: spoilers ahead.
- Starship Troopers (1997)
Set in the future against the backdrop of an intergalactic war with an alien insect race known as the Arachnids (or simply, ‘the bugs’) and based upon Robert A. Heinlein’s well-loved and controversial 1959 novel, Starship Troopers tells the story of Johnnie Rico (Casper Van Dien), a young private in the Mobile Infantry, a futuristic, fascist version of the US army, as he moves from high school to enlistment to full-scale war with the Arachnids, his rise in the MI, and his relationship with his childhood friends as the war changes them.
I often hear an accusation leveled at Starship Troopers that it appears too ‘cheesy’, or contains too much black humour to be considered a true war film, but on reflection it is quite clear that the intention of the film is to show that war can be absurd at times, and also that sometimes it can be funny and humorous despite its obviously depressing nature. Directed expertly by one of my favourite filmmakers, Paul Verhoeven, Starship Troopers is crafted perfectly as a simultaneous attack upon, and glorification of, war itself; not only do we see the gruesome and disgusting gore and grime that war inflicts upon us, but we also see the absurdity of its presentation: propaganda pieces are often shown to us throughout the film, depicting the biased nature of the fascist Federal Network system it occupies. In one particular segment, we see children being handed assault rifle magazines, and being shown how to aim and fire them, while in another we see children stomping violently and pleasurably on a horde of cockroaches while their mother claps and laughs maniacally with the final message from the narrator stating, “Everyone’s doing their part, are you?” One can’t help but think of the belittling and grossly inaccurate comparison of the ‘enemy’ in this segment without thinking of Fritz Hippler’s 1940 film Das Erwige Jude (The Eternal Jew), in which the Jews are compared with rats, and described as vermin and parasites.
If anyone knows how to handle the concepts of war and its inherent vice of propaganda and nauseating violence, it’s Verhoeven, having lived through Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II as a child. Indeed, if one looks at Verhoeven’s two brilliant previous science fiction entries, Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), one can see a marked use of propaganda and extreme violence in those films too; specifically Robocop’s Media Break segments, and Total Recall’s adverts for the perfect trip to Mars and the rest of the solar system from the shady and clearly corrupt company Rekall. One need not look far in Starship Troopers either to see the influence of young Verhoeven’s experience of fascism on its costume and set design; the MI officer uniform almost identically resembles the dreaded black uniform of the SS, and the symbol of the MI is the eagle, as it was with the Third Reich. It’s almost impossible to view any scene in which the military is gathered together in Starship Troopers without thinking of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), which covered the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, the largest gathering the Nazis ever had. Its eerily iconic columns of soldiers and standards, and its deifying of Hitler served many filmmakers as the perfect way of lining up and presenting soldiers and their leaders on film; indeed, even George Lucas used it in 1977 for the ending scene of A New Hope.
Interestingly, despite the fact that Verhoeven reportedly couldn’t finish Heinlein’s novel (he declared that it was boring and depressing), he captures the tone of it in the same strange way Ridley Scott did with Philip K. Dick’s source novel in Blade Runner (1982). So hauntingly familiar is the film adaptation to its original novel that many fans will feel that the tone and atmosphere has been captured quite brilliantly.
Throughout his life Heinlein received negative feedback about the novel’s advocacy of militarism and might through conquest, including from the science fiction community itself. Indeed, SF author Dean McGlaughlin called the book “a novel-length recruiting poster”, and if you have read the novel you will come to agree with this outlook. Verhoeven achieves an identical mood with the film version, leading many to believe that he too held these same ideals. It makes all the difference, however, when you know that he was a spectator and witness to the awful things war can bestow upon its populations; the humour becomes darker, the propaganda becomes far more sinister, the young characters thrown head-first into a conflict they neither want nor understand become far more likable and tragic, and the cartoonish violence that is the defining mark of his films becomes clear: it is cartoonish because it must be, because compared to real violence, any artistic or fictional facsimile thereof is cartoonish, fake and utterly unmoving.
Starship Troopers serves to remind us that the old people declare war, while the young fight and die in it, and that while it may be set in the future, the wars of the future are exactly the same as the wars of today; wasteful, unnecessary, and tragic. One scene sums up perfectly the film’s image of war: Rico, upon graduating with his friends, goes to enlist with them. They each choose different parts of the military: his on-off girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) chooses the Navy while his other friend Carl (played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris) chooses Intelligence. Rico chooses the Infantry, upon which the recruiter pulls back his chair to shake his hand, thereby revealing that his hand is all that remains of his limbs – the others being all stumps and his other hand robotic. This will be Rico’s potential future in the Mobile Infantry.
- Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
In 2006, the great Clint Eastwood directed a duology of war films dealing with the Allied campaign to invade and capture the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima in February and March of 1945, one of the last big pushes of the Pacific War and of World War II in general. The first instalment, Flags of Our Fathers came out in October, and dealt with the invasion from the perspective of the Americans, specifically a group of young soldiers who had been friends since school, and the effects that the eventually successful battle had upon their lives. Although by no stretch of the imagination a bad film, Flags didn’t capture the spirit of war (and subsequently, the war film) all that greatly. Using flashbacks, told from the memories of the veterans by their sons and families, it has too jarring a structure, and there are moments and whole stretches in which not much happens to further the plot.
In February 2007, Eastwood released the second installment, Letters From Iwo Jima, this time told from the defending Japanese perspective. This time round, Eastwood gets it totally right. Letters focuses on young Saigo (Kazumari Ninomiya) and his experiences fighting for the famed General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) on Iwo Jima, and the ordeals that the invading Americans inflict upon the island’s defenses. What’s excellent about Letters is its impartiality; Eastwood doesn’t just present us with the ultimately glorified version of the battle presented in Flags, he also presents the war from the other side too. Where the Americans have a strict yet fair military system, the Japanese are ruthless in their execution of discipline and martial justice: on two separate occasions, Saigo and his friend are beaten and almost beheaded for either ‘desertion’ or dereliction of duty. But this ruthlessness most often depicted in Pacific war films is partially turned on its head here: Kuribayashi is a patient and admirable general, compared with many other Japanese military leaders, and it is he who saves Saigo both times from his punishments.
In a sense Kuribayashi is the real hero of the film, not Saigo. Saigo is most certainly the audience’s entry point into the film’s depiction of war, but it is Kuribayashi who most accurately represents the film’s focal point and heroism. Even the real Kuribayashi was admired and respected for his brilliant strategy of defense of the island, and many reports actually coincide with the film’s depiction of him as a caring leader, thinking of his men first, and ultimately his doomed position: he knew, above everything else that the Americans would win, but was tasked nonetheless with victory by an uncaring and unfeeling Emperor who had already sent millions to their deaths.
Letters uses a flashback system similar to Flags but this time it works so much better because it acknowledges the soldiers themselves, not their sons’ interpretation of their stories. Saigo is shown as a loving, caring husband whose first child has just arrived before he is drafted into service; initially a figure of distrust but revealed to be just another normal soldier, Superior Private Shimizu was previously a Kempeitei (the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo) officer who was discharged for refusing to shoot a woman’s unruly dog; and finally Kuribayashi is shown before the war as a well-known and respected Japanese general, mingling happily yet warily with American generals (at that time America was allied with Japan) and receiving a gift of friendship from the US: a custom-built and hand-decorated Colt M1911 pistol. Here the flashbacks intermingle with the ironic outcomes they play out against: Saigo survives the war as a prisoner, presumably to return to his wife and child; Shimizu, despite proving he is nothing like his supposed Kempeitei masters, ends up shot by American GIs, despite the fact that he was surrendering; and Kuribayashi uses the very gift of friendship given to him by the US to commit suicide after the island has fallen, only to have it be snatched by a soldier of the very army whose generals years before had been told by him, “The United States is the last country in the world that Japan should fight.”
Ultimately, Letters From Iwo Jima presents us with a view of the Pacific War we rarely, if ever, see. We get to see that, although Japan committed some of the worst crimes during WWII, it also had young men who fought bravely and solidly, and who feared not only the impending defeat that America was soon to deliver, but their own army’s ruthlessness and barbarity. As any balanced account of war should show, there are heroes on both sides, as well as atrocities. No side is blameless, or should hold all the blame either.
- Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Of all the entries on this list, this is the only one that can lay claim to being a fun and enjoyable war film. War itself is never fun and enjoyable but there are films in which the war is turned into a cartoon, a pastiche of the horrible and sickening made adventurous, romantic, harmless even. Where Eagles Dare is definitely one of those war films.
With resolute yet charming performances by stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, a stellar screenplay by spy novelist Alistair MacLean, and great direction from Brian G. Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)), Where Eagles Dare tells the tale of Major Smith (Burton) and Lieutenant Schaffer (Eastwood) and their crack team of commandos who parachute in behind enemy lines to rescue an American General from the Schloss Adler (Eagle’s Castle), a highly fortified German installation in the Bavarian Alps.
That’s pretty much it… except it’s not; Where Eagles Dare eschews the typical fare of its brethren by entering into the murky world of espionage as well. Nothing is as it seems in the film: the General is not a General but a Corporal, his capture a complicated ruse by Smith and his superiors to draw out a German double agent they’ve been hunting for a while. Even the hapless Gestapo Major Von Happen (Derren Nesbitt) has no idea what is really going on, along with half the German High Command in the castle.
The fun comes in the idiosyncrasies too; anachronisms (helicopters weren’t even in circulation during WWII), impossibilities (Eastwood never gets hit and never runs out of ammunition) and errors (Von Happen wouldn’t wear the black uniform of the SS if he is Gestapo, he would wear civilian clothes) don’t detract at all from the experience. Indeed, it is what makes Where Eagles Dare so enjoyable. Switching off for an enjoyable action or adventure piece is essential in all film viewing; we all need to unwind and basically enjoy a film from time to time, without worrying if it is either accurate or ‘serious’. War films usually depict some semblance of reality and enact events we can both prove and see through the lens of history, so our sense of what is correct and what is not is always heightened. But with the less ‘serious’ war films, the action-driven, adventure-centric ones, we can learn to switch off and that is exactly what this film does for us.
Exciting, gripping, and brilliantly shot, Where Eagles Dare plays out an exciting mixing pot of 60s action films tropes as well as providing us with two great leads largely in their prime. It took me a while to place why the film felt so familiar in its execution, and I finally came to a conclusion: it’s a Bond film set in WWII. What more could you ask for?
- Apocalypse Now (1979)
Widely considered to be Francis Ford Coppola’s last great work, Apocalypse Now presents the image of not just a postmodern war film, but a postmodern horror film too, as critic Kim Newman has pointed out. Updating Joseph Conrad’s 1899 short novel Heart of Darkness to 1960s Vietnam at the height of the American involvement in the country, Coppola fuses the twisted, anti-colonial African journey narrative with the dark, destitute heart of Southeast Asian jungles and swamps, turning the novel’s antagonist – the ivory trader Kurtz – into a rogue American Colonel.
Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is tasked with bringing the renegade Kurtz (Marlon Brando) back to ‘civilisation’ to face trial for his actions, and sets out on a journey across Vietnam’s rivers, jungles, and villages to find him. Along the way he meets a various assortment of lunatics and madmen in the form of Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the murderous officer in command of the famous helicopter attack at the film’s start (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”) and a whacked-out, drugged-up photojournalist played expertly (and, I imagine, with some real-life lunacy) by Dennis Hopper, who has succumbed to, and indulges fully in, Kurtz’s new cult of celebrity.
And then there’s Kurtz himself. Brando admittedly steals the show, even with his minute screen time, portraying a man who has fully relieved himself of all former affiliation with his country, a man who, for all intents and purposes has become a shadow, a wraith, a ghost even. Willard’s task to find Kurtz is not just an order from his superiors; it is a fateful, indignant, twisted Campbellian hero’s journey turned on its head; not only does Willard fulfil his journey’s ultimate purpose and kill Kurtz, but he undergoes an apotheosis himself – he becomes Kurtz. The hero becomes the villain. He becomes the very thing the US posited that they were fighting in the first place: tyranny, repression and death.
Kurtz rightfully asserts brilliantly the ludicrous nature of the war and its ridiculous, pompous deification by those in charge, and their constant struggle to keep it controlled and regulated, in his comment to Willard at the end of the film: “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”. It’s an absurd and frankly terrifying truth: war is a game of opposites. Us against Them. Our might against Theirs. But at all costs, we are the true victors, the moral victors. Kurtz admits that Willard has every right to kill him; he’s done terrible things, as every soldier has, perhaps more because of his actions as the leader of his new cult. But, above all, Kurtz makes it abundantly clear that Willard cannot and must not judge him. His brilliant speech about the “little pile of arms” (I implore you to watch the scene itself; I can do it no justice here) and the utterly unstoppable nature of the Vietnamese soldiers present the reason why America was to lose: judgement. They judged, and hesitated fatally through this judgement, something the NVA did not do, regardless of its validity or morality. “Horror and moral terror are your friends,” Kurtz points out, “because it’s judgement that defeats us.”
Ultimately Apocalypse Now mirrors the narrative of its source novel quite identically, if contextually differently. Conrad’s novel is focussed on the evils of capitalism and colonialism, where Coppola’s film is reliant upon the destructive and horrifically skewed vison that war causes by its penetration into all life. So skewed is Willard’s vision and judgement (thanks to the amazingly harsh cinematography by Vittorio Storaro) that the whole film feels like a fever dream, a drug-fuelled binge of excess and horror. One point that both texts agree on, however, is the fundamental truth of human experience: that we have hearts of pure and utter darkness when we indulge in the basest desires. Conrad turns our hatred of slavery and colonialism inwards, as does Coppola with his examination of war. We have become Kurtz/Willard and they have become interchangeable, undecipherable, and ultimately inseparable. Perhaps this is why Kurtz’s final words are “The horror…the horror!” Because the true horror is what lies inside and corrupts us from the very organ with which we feel and emote: our heart.
Somewhat maligned and critically panned when it first saw release in 1979 after a long gestation period, Apocalypse Now was too late to effect a sentiment on the war in Vietnam (the war had been over since 1975) and was dead in the water financially after the acceptance of the new film formula set by Coppola’s friend and fellow director George Lucas in 1977 with Star Wars. However, something keeps it alive to this day where it is now rightfully accepted as one of the greatest films of all time, and I believe this something is the heart of darkness Conrad and Coppola so successfully portrayed and deciphered in their landmark texts. Controversially, I believe it is his best film, so much better than the usual choice of The Godfather (1972), and far more persuasive of the ills of mankind than the gangster epic could ever be.
- Das Boot (1981)
If one film exudes the absolute terror and claustrophobia of the U-Boat campaign in the Atlantic during WWII, then it is the self-explanatorily titled Das Boot (literally ‘The Boat’). Based on Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s 1973 novel of the same name, director Wolfgang Peterson’s expertly-crafted and movingly produced look at one captain’s struggle to maintain and protect his submarine crew’s lives made many marks upon both viewers and critics upon its release in 1981, mainly for its honest and, for the first time, sympathetic portrayal of soldiers that fought for the other side during the war.
The trials and tribulations of U-Boat Captain Heinrich Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow) unfold centre stage in Das Boot, and they are presented expertly as the only thing that matters in this three hour opus. Gone are the sprawling vistas of the European, Russian and Asian battlefields that occupy most war films – here, all we have is the crushing black of the sea, and the unbearable feelings of dread, disorientation and nausea that the claustrophobia of submarine warfare brings. As I have said, the focus is on the captain and his men, trapped in their potential steel coffin, and the film benefits so much from this position. Peterson presents a microcosm of the war for these men; they have nowhere and nothing to hide, no place they can go if all does not go according to plan, no medic or plane to carry them away from the battle. If they are compromised and sunk, they are dead and conveniently buried.
There’s a crushing weight placed upon the viewer, a moral imploring that these men make it back alive because, despite the fact that they are technically the enemy, we all recognize that they are also simply the same as us. There’s no persecution here, and the presentation of Nazism is significantly downplayed, a conscious decision by Peterson to maximize the empathy that the audience will feel for these men. Indeed, our empathy comes more from the fact that most viewers (probably including ourselves) will be on the so-called ‘winning’ side of WWII, therefore we know how hard losing must have been to the German people. Obviously some portion of the German population (ie. the Nazi party) brought this loss about themselves, but it strikes a moral indignation in our hearts that these young men and their leader should have to engage in a war they both didn’t ask for or want at all.
One part of the film that helps this relation immensely is its running time. At over three hours, Das Boot keeps us focussed on the men and their day-to-day existence over the years of the Atlantic campaign, and never ceases to keep our eye on the close atmosphere of the submarine itself. Indeed, any parts not set in the boat, such as the beginning party scene and the scene in which the men come ashore for a few nights to get some well-earned sleep and food, seem out of place for both us and them. Their awkwardness and ill-ease with such situations hardens them and us for the inevitable plunge back into the deep that we all know is coming. Spending three hours with the crew of U-96 cements our relationship with them more concretely than perhaps any other war text (with the possible exception of Band of Brothers (2001)); we feel every depth charge, hear every metallic groan the sub makes, and ultimately we feel sorry for the men and utterly fortunate that it was they, and not us, that served in this war. In fact, we know now why soldiers are so well-respected: precisely because we avoided this fate where they did not. They fought on our behalf, so we would never have to experience the horror of potential drowning or being torpedoed.
Peterson proved with Das Boot that he could handle the still quite touchy subject of WWII in German cinema, indeed even in 1981 there were not many examples of war films set from the point of view of the Germans (I can think only of Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) previous to this). Doing so proved that not only could this be done effectively and fluidly, but also that, really, there couldn’t be any other way to show this without dissipating tension; indeed, had this been done as an Allied war film, we would know that we won from the outset and therefore our relationship with the men involved would be immediately tainted by history. Peterson proved again in 2004 that he could take an objective look at war, this time in the ancient world with his historical epic Troy, the tale of the famous Trojan war, in which he took no particular side, but showed the war as many historians believed it would have been fought. Accordingly, Das Boot presents a look at war from the loser’s side, and how this can elicit previously unheralded compassion and respect for one’s ‘enemies’. After all, like us, they are just men too.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
I remember when Saving Private Ryan first came out in 1998 and then subsequently later on VHS, and my friend had got a copy and told me of this horrifically gory and violent opening the likes of which he hadn’t seen before in a war film. I was really intrigued, imagining how it could possibly surpass any other war film that had gone before it; most war films, though hard to watch or even sometimes moderately violent, didn’t have the explicit or graphic imagery we now come to associate with the genre. Once I had seen it, I knew exactly what Saving Private Ryan was: a game-changer.
You will see what I mean by this if you are a first-time viewer, or even if you’ve seen the film a hundred times. After a frame narrative featuring the old, but unnamed titular Ryan and his family visiting the war graves in France, the film opens on the morning of the largest land invasion in the history of warfare, following Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad of US Rangers as they storm Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day. What stands out immediately, however, is the way in which the scene is presented and filmed: Spielberg uses shaky cam elements to simulate the real movements of a soldier on the battlefield and dims the background sound in favour of a constantly escalating ringing sound to show how shell shock might work whenever a loud explosion goes off near Miller.
Even before the scene unfolds, when all the men are in the landing crafts ready to disembark into who knows what kind of mayhem on the beach, there is a palpable feeling of dread and tension in the air. It is most similar to that felt while watching the previous entry on this list, Das Boot; that horrible realization that some of these men will not make it home, that they will be slaughtered before they can even reach the bunkers. And indeed, this is the most memorable, and terrifying, part of Saving Private Ryan: as soon as those landing craft doors open, I saw what my friend meant by how violent this was. Men are shot in the head as soon as the doors open by machine gun fire, blown up by artillery (in which Spielberg used real amputee stuntmen to maximise the reality factor), and gunned down as they lay wounded. In one particularly harrowing moment, a soldier is shown clutching his innards as they are falling out of his body, crying for his mother. No punches are pulled, and it shows through just how much respect Spielberg and the cast and crew had for their subject matter, for not only was the film hailed as a masterpiece and as one of the most realistic war films ever made, but it also affected veterans of the real campaign so much that some had to leave the theatre or felt nauseous upon seeing the opening sequence; indeed, there was a hotline number set up just for the film to help affected veterans through reliving their experiences. Even those who did not participate in the real thing were deeply affected: historian and author Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers (1992), the basis for the 2001 miniseries, had to leave the theatre to compose himself before he went back in for the rest of the film.
I have to admit, paradoxically, that the main issue with the film is in its main plot, which is a strange thing to point out. Captain Miller and his squad are tasked with finding Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose other brothers have all been killed in various places throughout the war, and taking him home. This was based upon a real military edict in which if all but one of the principle members of a family’s youths (ie.sons) were killed in action, the remaining son would be granted a ticket home, in order to preserve population numbers. This is the main problem – not a massive one, mind you – as Saving Private Ryan, with the exception of the last battle scene, can never quite surpass its opening sequence for either realism, breathtaking scope, or downright graphic representation of war. The main sequence in the film that sticks with most people is the beginning; ask anyone what their favourite sequence is and 90% will most likely say the opening. Not without basis either, as it is so well-made, but the rest of the film plods along until they actually do find Ryan, and even then the final fight seems more like a set piece than an actual battle (the village in which they fight is fictional also, which probably doesn’t help).
Pacing issues aside, the film is still excellently made and well-written, and perhaps I am simply viewing proceedings through the lens of maturity rather than seeing it as it is. Saving Private Ryan still encompasses all the great aspects that make a war film masterful: characters we can all sympathise with; a well-rounded development of said characters through the use of realistic dialogue and storytelling, excellent battles, and thought-provoking issues concerning war, such as the scene in which they take a German soldier (dubbed ‘Steamboat Willie’) prisoner and argue over whether he should be executed for the death of their medic, Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), or let go to re-join his comrades. Ultimately they do decide to let him go, with disastrous consequences later on.
Grievances aside, Saving Private Ryan revolutionized the war film, both through its honest depictions of the havoc and chaos of war, and its realistic special effects and camera work, and it is so easy to see the influences it has had over the years on subsequent war films, even those not set in WWII. It still holds up today as a sad monument of the wasteful nature of war and a proud document of the men who served and died to protect us in it.
- Black Book (2006)
Remember earlier when I was talking about Where Eagles Dare and I said that it was a cartoony version of an espionage war film? Well this is the perfect example of the serious and realistic incarnation. Another entry from Paul Verhoeven, this time returning to his native land of Holland for the first time since his fourth Dutch feature The Fourth Man in 1983, Black Book tells the story of Rachel Stein (played spectacularly by the always-pleasurable-to-watch Carice Van Houten), a Dutch-Jewish singer who witnesses the massacre of her family and a whole group of people by the Nazis during their attempted escape from the country. Someone has betrayed them, and Ellis sets out to find who it was by joining the local Dutch Resistance.
Black Book ramps up its tension almost immediately, and with great haste; indeed, this is a war film very much set behind the German lines, in the heart of occupied territory. There are no great battles depicted, but one gets the sense that every move is calculated, every man lost is a great wound to the pride of Holland, and every German killed brings the country a step closer to liberation. Like Das Boot, Verhoeven’s film is another microcosmic look at the war, at the little people who kept the effort to survive and persevere while the war was fought elsewhere. By turns quite tender and terrifying, the film shows that the line between enemy and lover is never simple; indeed, Rachel’s target is the SS officer Müntze, responsible for countless deaths prior to her employment. But she helplessly falls in love with him, and we to begin to feel sympathy for him as he also falls in love with her in turn, even defying his superiors so she or her comrades will not be killed.
Verhoeven’s direction once again pays off, presenting a startlingly authentic picture of the grey areas of war, the areas that the soldiers do not see as much as the civilians or resistance members do. Decisions that ask one to pretend to love another person just so they can get close and kill that person, or to be asked to lie and risk one’s life and possibly the lives of one’s family and friends are decisions that tended to affect the civilian populations of Nazi-occupied Europe far more than the military ones. The consequences of these decisions and actions are tensely wrapped up and dangled above the viewer throughout; what will happen to Rachel if her superiors find out she is in love with a Nazi? What will she do when she finds out who has actually betrayed her and her family? Most importantly, what happens if they lose? I was reminded of this film very much when I managed to see Anthropoid (2016). Sean Ellis’s film tells of the attempted assassination of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, and goes into fervid detail on the tactics, people, and resources afforded to resistance movements during the war, and also most importantly the consequences of the failure and success of the operations they were involved in. For this reason it bears more than a passing similarity to Verhoeven’s film.
Where the two films differ however is in their treatment of protagonists. Whereas Anthropoid deals with real historical figures and a real operation, Black Book is afforded more leniencies in its story by using fictional characters, including Rachel herself. Indeed, we feel more for her situation by knowing there are no (historical) strings attached to control the proceedings, and as a result are invested in her struggles. By putting her in the most dangerous and immoral position – that of an undercover resistance operative – the film asks us to concurrently delve into the same deep mires of human misery, fear, and trepidation. One scene stands out immensely as an example of this: Rachel is tasked with planting a microphone in the office of the SS commandant so the resistance can listen in and therefore act upon any intelligence they garner from said microphone. As she is planting it, we are aware that the commandant is approaching the room, his steps and voice getting louder and louder, interspersed with Verhoeven’s cuts to Rachel each time, frantically trying to plant the microphone before he gets there. She does eventually manage to plant it, but the tension before she does is unbearable; we feel each step, hear each voice getting louder, and sympathize with every frightened heartbeat of Rachel’s, and we ask ourselves: could we do this? Would we be able to handle the unbelievable pressure that these people did?
Ultimately, Black Book – and consequently, Verhoeven himself – asks us the simple question: do we have the courage to become something else in great and terrible times? If we do then we are Ellis’s resistance alter ego Ellis de Vries, the brave-sounding, confident singer and lover, willing to do what is necessary for our country; if not, then we are Rachel’s real persona, the one we see both at the start of the film in the frame narrative set in 1956, in which she is married with children, and filled with life and responsibility, and the one we see at the massacre itself, terrified, disgusted, and ultimately vengeful. Rachel is obviously the ‘normal’ woman we see, but Ellis is her subconscious braver and darker self, and both combine to produce an excellently well-rounded and believable protagonist, all delivered from one of the very best and knowledgeable directors in the last 30 years.
- Come and See (1985)
Of all the entries on this list, this is the film that disturbs the most. Let me explain why: there is a scene in Come and See in which young protagonist Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko) witnesses German soldiers herding villagers into a church and burning them alive after he has escaped it himself. Subsequently, Florya is gathered by an SS officer and other men for a staged photograph in which the officer points a gun to his head and asks for the photograph to be taken, after which the soldiers leave and Florya is left to the elements until his partisan comrades arrive. What disturbs so much in this scene, aside of course from the burning and raping, is the attitude of the officer and soldiers in question with regards to the photograph: war has become a frivolity. Something utterly shocking – the murder of a child – has become something mundane, something normal. The idea that this photograph would have been sent home almost as a novelty postcard (just as the harrowing photos of Jesse Washington were in the Waco Horror of 1916) is beyond shocking and unbearable. It is these little moments, the subtle, subconsciously destructive moments, that this film delivers so effectively and so sharply.
Written and directed by Elim Klimov and co-written by Soviet author Ales Adamovich (who actually fought with real Belorussian partisans during the war), Come and See shows the trials and sufferings of Florya as he is drafted into the ranks of the partisans during WWII in the Soviet Union, and the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Eastern campaigns. Utilising first-hand accounts both from Adamovich himself and from peasants who were present during the massacres, Klimov weaves a horrid tale of what war is really like, not a watered-down, ‘entertaining’ war film like The Great Escape (1963), or Where Eagles Dare. So bleak and foetid is the tone that we can’t help but know that this is what the war must have been like in the Soviet Union; we can wholeheartedly believe that this was the nation that bore the brunt of the casualties in the war (over 27 million soldiers and civilians died in the USSR between 1941 and 1945; that’s over 45% of the total casualties of the entire war, and over 30 times the combined casualties of the US and Britain), and why the Russians fought so hard and so viciously to destroy the Nazi war machine.
Maintained throughout the film is dream-like hovering and darting camerawork, flitting from one subject to the next with fluid dexterity. Klimov doesn’t interfere at all, letting his young lead carry the part through with believable terror; indeed, so terrified, blubbering, and close to mental breakdown does young Florya look throughout the film that again this must be the correct portrayal of what a young mind would have endured and been tainted by during war. Reportedly Klimov ordered the use of real ammunition on set during the battle scenes to enforce the terror and danger that such proceedings would have on real soldiers, leading to rumours that Kravchenko’s hair turned grey on set with the stress of the subject matter and acting. Whether this is true, I don’t know, but it goes to show that even behind the camera, Come and See was a melancholy affair.
Despite this, unbelievably, there are glimmers of hope in the film. In one, Florya meets a young girl named Glasha (Olga Mironova) while in the woods with the partisans, and although she kisses him thinking he is someone else, there seems to be an immediate connection between the two. Not love, but something simply taken for granted during peace time: human warmth. They stay together for a good while in the film before becoming separated, and support each other through the impossible strife ahead. In one scene, Florya believes wholeheartedly that his family must be alive, even after witnessing the village he grew up in smouldering and destroyed, and descends into the muddy bowels of a nearby marsh to find them. It is here that Klimov plays the worst twisted trick of all: as the camera pans with Florya and Glasha through his destroyed village, it turns to Glasha’s sudden crane to the right, revealing a massive pile of bloody bodies, piled one on another, resplendent of the first photographs of the atrocities committed at camps like Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. It is here that we realize how much Glasha cares for Florya, and that she could never divulge this image to her new friend because it would utterly destroy him. In a way, she is the strongest character in the film; her loyalty to Florya and her unwillingness to tell the untellable is the ultimate courage, and in the end, the cruellest part of the German atrocities in the war: that a young boy should never know the fate of his parents and friends, while another suffers with the guilt of not telling him.
The second moment of hope comes in the film’s finale, in which Florya rejoins his comrades and sees a portrait of Hitler on the ground. He immediately fires his rifle at the picture – the first time he has done so in the entire film – emptying all his rage and sadness at the man utterly and ultimately responsible for everything that has happened to him. It is hopeful because we know now that Florya has become an unstoppable force, a vengeful spirit ready to destroy the fascist and his country at all costs. Equally, it is also sobering because we can see here how the cycle of violence will simply continue; Florya will more than likely also slaughter those who had no contrivance in his suffering, just as the Nazis have, such is the nature of those angered in war.
Come and See presents the Eastern Front in the only light it can possibly be shown in to create a realistic portrait of the most brutal of fronts in the war: truthfully. There is sheer terror, there is bloodshed, there is the impossibly unfair notion that those who have no participation in the war are often murdered more than those who fight. But most of all there is the image that starkly and frighteningly brings us full circle: Florya’s mock execution on camera. No image of the potency of war to numb us to the concept of violence has ever been stronger, except maybe the imagery of the number one spot on this list, and it becomes even more prescient when we look at our modern society now even in peacetime. Do we feel a numbing towards violence? An absence of feeling towards suffering because of our obsession with execution videos, hyper-real news channels, video games, and violent and transgressive horror films? I think we should resoundingly and sadly answer yes. We hope we don’t see the reality of a war as destructive, costly, and wasteful as WWII again. But then again, humanity’s propensity towards violence at the cost of reason is overwhelmingly strong; perhaps this is why Come and See feels far more real, almost documentary, compared with any other war film.
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Many, many words have been used to describe Lawrence of Arabia: dazzling, beautiful, astounding, game-changing. The one simple word that occurs to me is epic. In my humble opinion, David Lean’s 1962 magnum opus is the last truly great historical epic, in the traditional sense of the word, to come out of Hollywood; while Sergey Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970) comes extremely close to that contender, Lean’s film just beats it out.
1962 was a golden year for cinema. Not only did James Bond’s first outing Dr. No materialize, giving cinema a soon-to-be-redefined action/spy genre, but Robert Mulligan delivered the unbeatable adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, J. Lee Thompson directed horror/thriller Cape Fear, and Kubrick changed the romance game with the paedophilic sympathy piece Lolita. The war film also received an epic makeover, with the all-star vehicle The Longest Day. But this is not the war film I’m here to talk about.
With the utterly perfect casting of Peter O’Toole, the role of British officer-turned-Arab T.E. Lawrence, the film achieves a sheen of immortality, a vision of mythic romance that few others manage to match, and in this instance, deserve. O’Toole was almost not cast; indeed, the then-unknown Albert Finney was originally cast but was fired after principal photography began. Upon seeing O’Toole in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960), Lean decided (rightfully) to cast him. Lean has one of the best eyes for casting of a lot of the older generation of Hollywood directors, often re-using faces for a good lot of his films: Alec Guiness, who plays Prince Feisal in Lawrence, played the tyrannical yet sympathetic Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Omar Sharif, playing Sherif Ali here, would go on to give breath-taking and sensual life to Yuri in Doctor Zhivago (1965).
In short, Lean knew what he was doing, and it shows through in spades in Lawrence of Arabia. Where Bridge on the River Kwai was Lean’s attempt to make sense of how even the most devoted of British officers could be tamed and therefore turned against his own men over something as trivial as a bridge, Lawrence of Arabia represents nothing less than Lean’s attempt to make sense of the attempt to tame something much, much bigger: the desert itself. So many shots indicate the reverence Lean had for the expanse of endless golden sands, mirages, and sun-drenched Bedouins trudging across the desert, surviving day-to-day.
Take the shot at the start of the film in which Lawrence begins his trek across the desert to meet Prince Feisal: as he and his companion stop to drink at a well, they spot a figure in the distance. It turns out to be Sharif’s character Ali, who then kills Lawrence’s friend for attempting to ‘steal’ his water. What stands out in this scene, however, is the approach of Ali itself. At first there is nothing, nothing but the wavy distorted heat waves given off by the sun’s immense heat. Then, something finally appears. A dot, then a bigger dot, on and on until Ali emerges from the desert fully formed like some sort of genie. The shot is representative of one of Lawrence of Arabia’s most important lessons: the small and its relation to the immense.
And then there is Mauric Jarre’s immortal score. Along with the best themes in film history, this one is hands-down iconic, and is synonymous with Lawrence himself now. I can’t see O’Toole in any other role without humming or imagining this theme playing; indeed, it is funny that we should mention Bond in this entry, as the 1977 Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me even samples it in a scene in which Roger Moore and Barbara Bach traipse across the desert after their transportation breaks down.
Despite telling the tale of Lawrence’s miraculous crossing of the Nefub Desert subsequent to the now-famous capture of Aquaba from the Turks during the First World War, Lawrence of Arabia only contains two battle scenes (the aforementioned one, and the later capture of Damascus, towards the end of the film), but this doesn’t detract in any way from its status as one of the very best war films. Lean’s direction coupled with O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence combine to create an amazing tapestry of the life of a truly great, gifted, yet disturbed and alienated man; indeed, Lawrence was not well-liked by his fellow British officers, who often thought him eccentric, unorthodox, and ultimately jumped-up. It is with the supposedly barbaric and ‘primitive’ Arabs that Lawrence finds companionship and understanding, taking the name El Aurens and becoming a guerrilla fighter with them against the Turks. This is what serves the film so well: its attention to detail in characterization and plotting, and its readiness to explore character at the expense of action, as many of its forebears, contemporaries, and future descendants would do.
This sums up my opinion on Lawrence of Arabia as the last great historical epic: its willingness to portray such a strange, yet romantically historicised figure; to contend with the immensity of the sandy ocean of the Arabian desert and relate that immensity to the audience; and finally to juxtapose all this size together, synthesised into the great axiom Lean hands out to us all: “Big things have small beginnings.”
- Schindler’s List (1993)
I promised myself that when I compiled this list that I would not only consider the war film as its description denotes – namely a film that portrays war, either to educate, entertain, or to shock – but also a film about war, about the nature of the beast itself, about the consequences of war and how and why the catastrophic events of Steven Spielberg’s greatest work to date were able to happen. Schindler’s List is that film.
Chronicling the journey of the famed Schindler Jews in Poland during the world’s most horrific slaughter, Schindler’s List redefined the very way in which we receive, talk about, and ultimately confront WWII and mankind’s darkest chapter: the Holocaust. Before this, the Holocaust was kept to a documentary medium, appearing only in the realm of fact, a place some still maintain it should remain; indeed, it would be no understatement to say that none would even dare tackle a subject of this magnitude so soon after the end of the war, and it is a testament to how painful and utterly impossible it is to relate to the Holocaust that Spielberg’s film did not happen until 1993, over fifty years since the start of WWII. Although late, the project was proposed in 1963 by one of the real-life Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jew) Poldek Pfefferberg, it was impossible to convince studio heads this early that the world was ready for a film about the Holocaust.
The closest thing to films about the Holocaust before Schindler’s List came, as mentioned previously, in the form of the two greatest documentaries on the subject ever filmed: Alain Resnais’ 1956 short Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) and Claude Lanzmann’s epic 9 hour account, Shoah (1985), a work that still has the power to stumble even the most hardy of filmgoers. But these were documentaries; they were, for the most part, real. Obviously editing, music, and dubbing were utilised, as even in the documentary world of film, the word ‘film’ still applies, but these works still conveyed some sense, edited or not, of reality, of exactitude. Whether it is Michel Boucquet’s subdued, calm, yet accusing narration in Resnais, or the seemingly merciless questions asked of his subjects of Lanzmann, the Holocaust was a historical event, not fit for the realm of entertainment.
I shall tell you exactly where Spielberg challenges this in Schindler’s List; the point in which he decides to argue that, yes, the film medium can explain and relate the impossibility of feeling and sadness that the Holocaust carries with it. That yes, we can understand, even in a fictionalized account. There is a scene right before the end in which the alcoholic, adulterating, yet ultimately heroic and saintly industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) must vacate his factory that has served as a safe haven for so many Jews. The war has just been declared lost for Germany and Schindler decides to leave rather than face the merciless judgement of the approaching Red Army. Before he does, all 1,100 Jews he has saved through his various bribes, deceptions, and workarounds gather while their unofficial leader, Schindler’s bespectacled accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), presents him with a ring, engraved with an excerpt from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” Overwhelmed with grief and guilt Schindler finally breaks down and weeps, looking this way and that, at his car, then his Nazi party badge, then his wife’s jewellery, saying that if he had sold them, “I could have got one more…” But Stern simply shrugs it off, stating, “There will be generations because of what you did.” And at that point, synchronised with Schindler’s utterly destroyed spirit, our own grief pours out, unbridled, unhindered, and pure.
Because deep down we know that Stern is right, and that Schindler has not only saved 1,100 people, but he has utterly delivered them into salvation in such a manner that those 1,100 would go on to have children, whose children would have children, and so we realize just what a man can do in the face of adversity so immense that his life was literally on the line. We realize that Schindler is nothing short of the heroic flame we all carry within ourselves; the kindled hope that even in an atmosphere of so much arbitrary and unwarranted suffering, there remains a vestige of what makes us a good person. Schindler is everything his analogue, the SS commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is not. Where Goeth is beyond cruel and sadistic, Schindler is kind, sympathetic, and hides his shining soul beneath. Neeson and Fiennes play such demanding emotions and attitudes as have never been bettered in any war film since, and it is an absolute mystery how neither of them won the Oscar for their respective roles.
But win Oscars, Schindler’s List did; seven of them in fact, scooping Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography. It is through Spielberg’s success as an immovable force during his direction of the film that these achievements shine through, including the scene mentioned previously. For what Spielberg does is something unheard of before, or at least if not unheard of, extremely uncommon: he asks us not to judge, not to open our mouths on the subject, not to praise or even criticize. Not until that final scene where Schindler breaks down. When that happens, the floodgates open. It’s an unbearably heart-breaking scene because of its catharsis; because Neeson’s tears are our own, his cries of woe and lament are our internal wails. Up until now we had been holding all of this emotion in, pent-up rage, disillusionment, disgust, fear, hatred, and ultimately, utter sadness. Sadness that so-called ‘human beings’ could do this to one another; sadness at the loss that so many families cannot ever be again, cannot ever carry on or exist because of one man’s twisted fantasy; sadness because in the end it was for nothing. It is clear from this point that all Spielberg was asking of us was our time, our simple, uninterrupted attention, so that we could simply do what so many did during the Holocaust, either through inactivity, fear, or some other impossible-to-understand notion: watch. Just watch. The passive observer sees, he hears, he feels, and he relates. His understanding becomes ours.
Ultimately, Schindler’s List opened the floodgates for the Holocaust film to find a flourishing audience, to show more and more members of the cinema-going audience how important it is that this event never fades from memory. Films like Roman Polanski’s (himself a child during the Nazi occupation of Poland) The Pianist (2002), Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), and 2015’s spellbinding addition from Hungarian first-time director László Nemes, Son of Saul, show that there is still burgeoning interest in, and the need for memory of, the Holocaust. It is a subject that keeps on, and must keep on, living in our cultural consciousness for all time; to relegate it to simply ‘World War II’ or the ‘1940s’ is to fatally destroy the impact and necessity its weight brings with it.
As John Williams’ hauntingly beautiful score washes over us, amid cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s florid, yet fiendishly simple black and white photography and Neeson and Fiennes’s marvellous acting, Spielberg weaves the tapestry of the ages, the story of all stories, more important than the birth of Christ, more tragic than the war itself, and ultimately more important than even film itself. Writing of his friend Shakespeare years after his passing, in 1623, poet and playwright Ben Jonson conveyed the image that his friend was not “of an age, but for all time”. Schindler’s List is that sentiment if it was conveyed upon a film; not only is it the greatest war film of all time, but it is the greatest film about war of all time. It is the image of the darkness in men’s hearts, of the untameable bloodlust that war bestows upon irrational and unreasonable minds, but it is also the image of the goodness, the heroic, the understanding, and the saviour in men’s hearts. It is the angel that heralds the message that despite the unending evil and darkness in times of conflict, there will always be those who act, who save, and who deliver. Thank goodness for them.
It is perhaps fitting that we should end with a quote from the Shoah director himself: “Making a history was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to construct something more powerful than that.” It is almost impossible to surmise that Spielberg did not just act upon this quote – he embodied it in 1993.