War is Hell. War is a racket. War is a problem that humans could get rid of and maybe will one day. Here are some films I think captures the darkness of war and the impact it has on human beings. If you have other movies you think are great anti-war pictures, leave them in the comments below. I might give them a watch.
Paths of Glory (1957, directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick made no bones about his stance on war in this film, Dr. Strangelove, and one more we’ll talk about down the list. Paths of Glory takes place in France during World War I. Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a military leader trying to keep his men from getting killed needlessly. The Generals decide to send a division on a suicide mission to slightly push back German forces. Everything descends into chaos, and in the aftermath, one general decides to court-martial 100 men for cowardice to cover his own ass. Dax explodes against his superiors and fights for his men, knowing it will fail. The final scene of this film is a powerful moment, a solemn quietness that belies the heavy cloud over young men unaware they are about to be sent to die.
Johnny Got His Gun (1971, directed by Dalton Trumbo)
Writer-director Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel in 1938 and became the person to bring it to the screen in the 1970s. In between, Trumbo was blacklisted during the McCarthy Hearings for being aligned with the Communist Party and his outspoken isolationist beliefs. The film and novel begin with Joe Bonham lying in a hospital bed. He was hit with an artillery shell while fighting for the United States in World War I and is now going to spend the rest of his life as a quadruple amputee. Additionally, the explosion took his ears, nose, mouth, and eyes. Joe just exists now. As the drugs pump through his system, he drifts in and out of fantasy and reality, the present and past. We get to see Joe relive the days before he shipped out and begins to develop a connection with a nurse. He eventually figures out how to tap out morse code, which leads to the finale that will shred your heart if you have any decency.
Apocalypse Now (1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
This is war as a waking nightmare, tinged in psychedelic shades, loud and grotesque. Capt. Ben Willard is unable to get out of the mindscape of Vietnam and eagerly takes a mission to track down a rogue soldier. Colonel Walter Kurtz has gone insane and is waging his own war with both the North & South Vietnamese, leading the soldiers who have followed him. Willard begins an odyssey down the river to the black heart beating in the jungle. Along the way, he encounters military units coping with the mindlessness of the war. The further down the river he goes, the more unhinged things become until he reaches Kurtz. Coppola understood that the Vietnam War wasn’t merely a criminal war but a transcendent sin committed by the United States, it rent the psyche of the country in ways we hadn’t even realized at the time.
Come and See (1985, directed by Elem Klimov)
From my full review: Come and See tells the story of Flyora, a Belarusian teen who gets caught up in the partisan resistance against Nazi invaders during World War II. The film is dreamlike and doesn’t have a plot beyond the camera following this young man through very truthfully realized horrors of war. In fact, I would categorize this as not just a war film but a horror film. The way the Nazis’ presence is hinted at and then finally revealed feels like the unveiling of a terrible monster. The build-up is prolonged, and we get a sense of hope at the start. Flyora is eager to join the partisans despite his mother’s protestations against it. He arrives at the partisan camp in the woods and maintains that sense of wonder up to the point the woods are bombed, and he ends up alone except for a young girl named Glasha. The two eventually wander out of the woods, and this is where the film descends into utter horror.
Full Metal Jacket (1987, directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Much like most of the films Kubrick worked on in his later years, this one began almost a decade before it was finished. He wanted to make a film about the Vietnam War and stumbled upon the novel “The Short-Timers,” which he found to be poetic and have stark language. This became Full Metal Jacket, a movie in two parts. The first half follows JT “Joker” Davis as he makes his way through boot camp at Parris Island. Hartman, the drill instructor, is a heartless monster who works to imbue his recruits with the same hypermasculine violence that composes his core. It goes horrible. The second half finds Joker in Vietnam, where his unit begins to drag him further into darkness. It culminates in Joker being forced to engage in a rite of passage that will leave him scarred for the rest of his life.
The Thin Red Line (1998, directed by Terence Malick)
From my full review: While the setting and period are Guadacanal in the 1940s, Malick has a way of elevating the proceedings. These are both moments intimate and epic, magnifying tiny human sufferings into moments of transcendental understanding. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) is one of the more fascinating characters, who advises Witt to close himself off to his fellow man, harden his heart as a method to endure this terrible war. Witt is picked up from going AWOL, living on a remote island among native people whose way of life pulls him in. When he arrives on Guadacanal, he sees natives to that place transformed into ghosts, stumbling along and invisible to the soldiers occupying their home. Some natives are directly assisting the Americans, even wearing helmets and holding that thousand-yard stare of the shaken and traumatized.
Waltz With Bashir (2008, directed by Ari Folman)
From my full review: What sets Waltz With Bashir apart from a standard documentary or war film is that it is made from a combination of standard cel animation, 3D computer animation, flash animation, and rotoscoping (animating over live-action film). This allows director Folman a freedom that his small budget would not have allowed for a live-action movie. Complex battle scenes are recreated with ease but also without losing their weight and depth. The animation also aids in creating the nightmarish tone Folman wants to wash over us. If the roots of this war don’t come across in the film, that is intentional. We’re seeing the events from the eyes of a 19-year-old boy who doesn’t understand what is happening other than it is his legal duty as a citizen of Israel to serve in the military. The film is a definite descendant of Apocalypse Now, even paying homage to that masterwork with a scene of lounging soldiers on the beach, including one surfing as bombs fall.