By John Stiller
Films about war proliferate across the spectrum of cinematic history, so it’s only natural that many will be overlooked or just dropped off the edge of the world. With this in mind, I compiled this list to draw attention to films concerning war that were either barely noticed when they were released, or, in the intervening years, have been pretty much forgotten. None of these I would claim would be the greatest war movie ever made (I’d hold that place for the staggering but very well-known Apocalypse Now). But these films are much better than very similar films that received more attention and acclaim. I mention which ones in each entry.
What’s my expertise? None. I’ve read a lot about war, and seen untold hours of violent cinema, both for and against war (Here’s a short list of my favorite films growing up: Commando, Rambo, Red Dawn, Missing in Action) I have no military experience. My main contact with the military came when I turned eighteen, and an aggressive recruiter called me a couple of times to explain the benefits of enlisting. I told him politely several times that I wasn’t interested, and he became very rude when he realized I was serious. (This experience with an army recruiter is apparently not atypical. A friend of my told me a very similar story about when he turned eighteen.)
One final note: I do not include documentaries on this list. Therefore Hearts and Minds, Winter Soldier, Taxi to the Dark Side, etc, are not here. That is another list all together.
With that being said, so it goes. I mean, here we go.
Popular Film This Most Resembles But Is Better Than: Nearly every psychological thriller released in the last ten years in Hollywood.
Plot: The film opens very humbly. There is a farm house in New Jersey, but it could be anywhere in the United States. The year is around 1970 (which is when the film was made). A young couple struggles to wake up. They have a baby and they go through the motions of preparing for the day. Later in the morning, there is a knock at the door. It turns out to be two of the husband’s old friends from the army. They all served in Vietnam together, and the two friends are just here to “check up” on their old army buddy. It’s at this point that things begin to get weird. Why are they really here? Were they really just “buddies” who served together in a unit? Or is there something much darker going? You’ll have to see it to find out.
Why You Should See It: Of all the films on this list, if you’re going to seek one out to watch, I would pick this one first. It’s not on DVD, but if you look around online for a little bit you’ll find it. It’s directed by none other than Elia Kazan. Kazan is well-known as one of the greatest theater directors in all of history. He’s also well-known as being a “friendly” witness during the communist witch hunts that took place in Hollywood in the 1950’s. He’s still deeply resented by many people in the film industry (and beyond) because of that. But for his whole life, Kazan never apologized for what he did, claiming he was making a moral choice by standing up to the “communists.” When you watch The Visitors, one can’t help but wonder though if this played a part in his reason for making this film. Because there is a troubling subtext in this movie about what it really means to “stand up” for what you believe in. It’s never as simple as “good vs. evil.” Whether or not Kazan intended this, I don’t know. Probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Random tidbits of fluff: This is James Woods’ first film.
Popular Film This Most Resembles But Is Better Than: Little Big Man
Plot: The scene is the Old West. A wagon train is being led by a band of US Calvary soldiers. As a viewer, you might start this film thinking it’s going to be another typical Western that Hollywood made by the tractor trailer load up until the 1970’s, before audiences lost interest. But there is something different going on here. The soldiers are crude and almost downright stupid, a tonal change from the way that the military had been portrayed on film up to that time. In one of the wagons is woman (played by Candace Bergin) who seems flustered and out of place. And then, out of nowhere, the Calvary is attacked by a band of Cheyenne. It’s a violent and brutal scene, leaving only the strange woman and a naïve soldier alive. They begin making their way through the wilderness to try to find help. As they try and survive, they talk about a lot of different things, particularly about the army and the way it treats the “Indians.” Eventually they find safety with another army unit. But this unit wants revenge for what happened to their fellow soldiers. With this in mind, they plan on attacking a nearby village. This sets up the final “battle.”
Why You Should See It: This film is based on the Sand Creek massacre that took place in Colorado in the late 1800’s during the so-called “Indian Wars.” It was released in the early 1970’s, at the height of the Vietnam War, not long after the truth came out about the infamous My Lai massacre. When you watch this film initially, you might be a little confused. It devotes considerable time to the relationship between the woman and the naïve soldier. I think this is a deliberate choice by the writer and director. They want to lure you into a false sense of security, so that when the final “battle” takes place, you won’t believe your eyes. And trust me, you won’t. The end of this film is the most brutal, shocking sequence ever conceived for a mainstream American movie. Be warned. This film will get in your head, and will not go away.
Random Tidbits of Fluff: It you think this movie is way too graphic and over-the-top, then you should read some of the first-person accounts of what the US Calvary actually did at Sand Creek. You will then see that this film shows remarkable restraint.
Battle of Haditha
Popular Film This Most Resembles But Is Better Than: The Hurt Locker
Plot: The film opens with several American soldiers talking about what combat is like in Iraq. After that, it follows three main storylines. There are the American marines, who are trying their best but are obviously near their breaking point. Their main priority is to protect their fellow soldiers. Then there are a couple of ordinary Iraqis who have casually made the decision to become insurgents. They work with elements of Al Qaeda in Iraq (who they are clearly frightened of, one of them warning the other to be careful around them, because they’re crazy and will kill anyone without the slightest provocation.) The last storyline concerns a family of ordinary Iraqis who are planning a party for one of their young children. All of these storylines come together in a violent confrontation in which no one wins, leaving all shattered and broken, not really comprehending how things have become so royally screwed up.
Why You Should See It: From the title of the film, you’re probably guessed this is about what happened during the war in Iraq in the city of Haditha. If you’ve never heard of it, a marine patrol was struck by a massive roadside bomb that killed one marine and brutally maimed several others. The marines then reacted to “control” the situation. When they were done, 24 Iraqi civilians were dead, including several women and young children. The incident was hidden at first, but after a disturbing video of dead Iraqis in their pajamas showed up, it was reported to be a massacre. In their own words, the marines claimed that they were following standard-operating-procedure for when they found themselves in an extremely hostile situation.
What makes this film unique is how believably human everyone is. The way it portrays the marines, the insurgents, and the Iraqi civilians is very realistic. They all have their faults, some of them glaringly obvious, but you understand each side as they make the decisions they do, even if you don’t agree with it. At the end, you instinctually feel that the ones who are responsible for what happened at Haditha are not the marines or the insurgents. The ones that need to be held accountable are the men and one woman who put these human beings in such an awful situation, in which trying to make the proper moral choice was impossible. Who are the people responsible for Haditha? Watch the film and draw your own conclusions.
Random Tidbits of Fluff: This film was released in the United States in 2008. It played in two theaters.
Cross of Iron
Popular Film This Most Resembles But Is Better Than: Saving Private Ryan
Plot: This film is set on the Russian front in 1943, when the seemingly invincible German war machine began to suffer defeat after defeat at the hands of the Red Army. A small squad of German soldiers are trying to understand what is going on around them. They are baffled and exhausted, wondering “How could we be possibly losing this war all of sudden?” Things begin to change when a new officer arrives to take charge and turn things around. His motivation gives the film its title: he specifically left a very comfortable position in occupied France to come to the hell on Earth that was the Russian Front. Why? Because he wants the Iron Cross, (in the German army, this was a medal for high bravery). This leads to a confrontation with many of his fellow German soldiers, who are so sick of the war by this point that they don’t care at all about medals or bravery, they just want to stay alive.
Why You Should See This: Released in 1976, it was made by the controversial director Sam Peckinpah, the architect behind the re-invention of violence on film that shocked everyone in the 60’s and 70’s. Peckinpah is best known for his ground breaking The Wild Bunch, a brilliant but frankly fascist depiction of the decline of the old West. His innovative use of editing created a new kind of cinematic experience, one in which the audience was naturally shocked by the violence, but (and this is most disturbing of all) exhilarated by it as well.
Orson Welles congratulated Peckinpah when Cross of Iron opened, saying it was the greatest anti-war film since 1930’s All Quiet On The Western Front. This didn’t help Cross of Iron’s box office (nor did it help Peckinpah’s volatile and erratic personality) The film was a financial disaster.
Random Bits of Fluff: The German soldiers’ accents are an embarrassment to any serious vocal coach. James Coburn speaks in pretty much his naturally gruff, hard American tone, despite the fact he’s playing a German. James Mason has a weird British, German conflagration that makes him hard to understand. The only actual German of the three main actors, Maxmillian Schell, speaks with his naturally perfect Deutschland accent. This is disconcerting upon first viewing, but the film more than makes up for it later on.
Popular Film This Most Resembles But Is Better Than: Deliverance
Plot: The year is 1973, and the setting is the Cajun southwest. A group of National Guard’s men prepare for what should be routine military exercises in the Louisiana swamps. A squad organizes and plans their route and destination. When they get deep into the swamp, they begin to see signs of someone living there, though it does seem to be rather primitive. They find a couple of crude boats, and argue for about five minutes about whether or not they should steal them to cross the river. They do. As they’re crossing the river, they see some shadow figures back on the shore that seem to be carrying guns. Before they know what is happening, they start being violently picked off one by one.
Why You Should See This: This was released in 1980. While many said it was an obvious metaphor for Vietnam, it’s actually much more complex than that. On one level, it works as a really intense, suspenseful action movie. It does seem to be very similar to Deliverance, but this film goes much farther in showing what happens to civilized men when placed in a raw state of nature. Here’s how the film becomes relevant to the discussion of Vietnam. Southern Comfort shows what happens when any indigenous people feel that their own homes and their lives are threatened. They will do anything to protect it. If this means living in caves or man-made tunnels with little light, water, or food and then coming from out of nowhere to set off a bombs that might accidently kill some of their own supporters, then they see nothing wrong with that. This was the situation we found ourselves in during the Vietnam War. And other current ongoing wars.
Come and See
Popular Film This Most Resembles But Is Better Than: Schindler’s List
Plot: Trying to describe the plot of this film is difficult, because there isn’t much of one. It’s set on the Eastern Front during World War II. A Russian teenager is recruited to fight against the German invasion. He then goes through a series of surreal encounters that lead up to the film’s climax, when the German army destroys an entire village by locking its inhabitants in a wooden barn and burning it to the ground. And yet the film doesn’t end there. Want to know more? Come and See.
Why You Should See This: I choose this one mainly because it shows just how horribly ordinary Russians suffered during the German invasion. While the actual number can never be known, it’s estimated that nearly 20 million Russian civilians and soldiers died during the war.
This is not a film that goes for the documentary realism of say, Battle for Haditha. Surrealism is the dominant mood here. If you’re going to watch this, then it’s best not to learn anything more about it.
But now I will contradict my previous statement to make a comment. There is a particular stylistic motif used in this film: characters often turn and stare at the camera. This is not done in a knowingly cute way, where a film’s protagonist breaks the fourth wall (see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) When it happens here, it’s subtle at first, but becomes eventually overwhelming. What does it mean exactly? I don’t know. But if I could offer up an interpretation, it is a direct assault on the audience’s sensibilities about war, voyeurism, and violence. The viewer is frequently being held accountable by what they’re seeing on the screen, as if almost to say, “This is your fault as much as the Nazis. You should have done more to stop this.” It chillingly reminded me of one of the best moments in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Malory Knox (one of the film’s main protagonists, a sociopathic serial killer) looks directly in the camera and screams in nihilistic anguish “Why?” Take from that what you will.
Random Bits of Fluff: Soviet officials required one change to this film before it was released. They didn’t approve of the title, leading the filmmakers to choose Come and See. What was the original title? Kill Hitler.
All Quiet On The Western Front (the original)
Popular Film This Most Resembles But Is Better Than: None. This is the axiomatic anti-war film, made in 1930, only twelve years after World War I. All cinematic depictions of carnage made since owe this film an immense debt.
The Plot: German students are convinced by their zealous, patriotic teacher that it is their duty to join the Kaiser’s army and fight the British and French in World War I, a.k.a. the War to End all Wars. He assures them that it won’t last long. They sign up and a quickly realize after a few days of constant artillery fire, rapid-fire machine guns ricocheting over No Man’s Land, sitting for days on end in a muddy hole in the ground called a trench, that they have probably misled. The film then continues for another hour and half to show just how misled they have been.
Why You Should See It: Odds are you’ve heard of this movie. But I’m willing to bet my entire life savings (which is albeit rather meager) that you’ve never seen it. I hadn’t before I started writing this article (In high school, they showed us the 1970’s remake of this film, about which the less said the better.)
This film is an iceberg in terms of cinematic value (or, to allude to Billy Pilgrim, a glacier). There is a great conversation midway through the narrative that I would like to point out. The German soldiers are talking about whose responsible for the war, and one of them makes a good suggestion on how future ones should be fought. Basically, all of the heads of state and their cabinets should be taken to an open field, stripped to their underwear, and forced to fight it out. Whoever is left standing is the winner. I couldn’t help but picture George W. Bush bashing heads against Saddam. Or Dick Cheney fighting Bashir Assad. Reagan sucker punching Gorbachev. Or one that is becoming increasingly more relevant these days: Barack Obama against Vladimir Putin.
Who would win in any of these fights? Ever seen Rashomon? In the climax of that film, the two brave warriors are finally forced into an actual fight. And they chicken out. Both of them start running around wildly in a panic, tripping and falling, throwing leaves at each other, missing laughably stupid punches, etc, etc, etc. Before the next war (The Ukraine? Korea? Iran?) they should put two world leaders on a grassy knoll in their boxers to fight it out. It should be filmed, because I would break down and order pay-per-view to see that, all the while hungrily munching down Cracker Jacks and Mountain Dew (diet, of course.)
Random Tidbits of Fluff: This film was released in 1930. It won Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Picture. Since its release, there have been over a hundred armed conflicts of some sort all over the world.
As I wrote and researched this article, I came across countless films I wanted to include. But I had to draw the line somewhere. This list is a grain of sand in a vast, unending desert of overlooked anti-war films. Here’s just a handful:
Who’ll Stop the Rain?
Valley of the Wolves: Iraq
Le Dernier Combat
Would you like to know more? Come and See.
One final Tidbit of Fluff. I started writing this piece on April 28. This is National Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s also the day that the first photos from what was going on at Abu Ghraib were made public in the United States.