Gallipoli (1981) Written by David Williamson & Peter Weir Directed by Peter Weir
Set around a decade after Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli continues his interest in looking at the so-called “wonder of civilized society.” He does it this time by making a war film that spends a large chunk of its time looking at the characters on their way to the war. His purpose is to examine ideas closely related to white Australian culture that might not be immediately familiar to people outside of the continent. One of these is the idea of ANZAC, the belief that Australians and their cousins in New Zealand possess unique traits that set them apart from their ancestral lands. In many ways, this is the myth of American exceptionalism Down Under. Weir also knows that you cannot talk about war in this era without addressing male friendship and how profound that love can be and how easily it is abused.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (2021) Written & Directed by Jasmila Žbanić
In July 1995, Bosnian forces took the city of Srebrenica. This was part of the Bosnian War, a three-year civil war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Ethnic and nationalist groups fell into conflict; proto-fascist forces targeted Muslim populations. The Bosnian War is a complicated subject to talk about, just purely from how complex the internals of these regions are. It was never a clear war with one side versus another, but lots of smaller players as well. Quo Vadis, Aida? tells a very personal story about one of many brutal events that saw the mass culling of people while the United Nations/NATO seemed powerless to do anything. Through this story, we’re forced to contemplate what it would be like to then live beside the very people responsible for such swaths of deaths.
The Card Counter (2021) Written & Directed by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s filmmaking career has been a strange series of peaks and valleys, with movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as standouts. Since then, he’s made an eclectic filmography but with one constant in almost every picture: a tight focus on an intense male protagonist. I come from the camp that doesn’t see Schrader’s focus on this subject as an endorsement. In many instances, they are self-examinations and critiques, and in others, they seek to present a type of person society tries to look away from out of discomfort. Travis Bickle, for instance, isn’t meant to be a person we admire, but we are certainly expected to find some empathy for him. Schrader seems sincerely interested in the plight of war veterans and looking at crucial issues of our time. The Card Counter brings those two elements together.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson Directed by David Lean
Of all David Lean’s films, this remains my absolute favorite and rewatching it many years since the last viewing, I saw so much more than I ever have before. I think The Bridge on the River Kwai actually serves as a perfect allegory for the incoming Biden presidency and the unity message of Liberals towards Leftists and Progressives in America. While the film is set during World War II, we aren’t in the middle of the action. Instead, the narrative has two prominent locations: a Japanese POW camp and the Club Med-like hospital and Allied base of operations in Ceylon. We never see massive battleships or armed soldiers moving en masse across hills and fields. These are people broken by war, yet some are still unable to see the madness in their actions and cling to the procedures.
Paths of Glory (1957) Written by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, & Jim Thompson Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. – “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray
When Paths of Glory was released in 1957, it was banned in France until 1975. Germany refused to allow it in the Berlin Film Festival lest the picture strain relations with France. Francisco Franco’s right-wing fascist government in Spain would not allow the movie to be shown, and it wasn’t until 1986, 11 years after Franco died. And lest we let the United States off the hook, Paths of Glory was banned from being shown in any military establishment. All this does is speak to the power of the themes of the picture, Kubrick’s first great anti-war film.
The Americanization of Emily (1964) Written by Paddy Chayefsky Directed by Arthur Hiller
You didn’t see a lot of films in the wake of World War II that called military action into question. You would see a slew of anti-war films twenty-odd years out from Vietnam. But on the twentieth anniversary of D-Day, it was a pretty bold move to put out a movie about the lead up to that event, which questioned the leadership of the U.S. military and spoke to how soldiers’ bodies are so often used as props for state-sanctioned propaganda. This material had to be couched inside a romantic comedy-drama, and the subversiveness is hidden deeper in the narrative after we’ve been given a seemingly light set-up.
The Deer Hunter (1978) Written by Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Louis Garfinkle, and Quinn K. Redeker Directed by Michael Cimino
While this was intended to kick off my Meryl Streep retrospective, I wouldn’t consider it a Streep movie. Oh, she’s definitely a crucial supporting character in the story, and I will talk about her performance, but this film is more a prologue to that series. This is more a Robert DeNiro/Christopher Walken movie, and it is a damn good one. It hasn’t necessarily aged perfectly, and it’s not my favorite film about the Vietnam War, but it is a well-acted, intense, and beautifully tragic movie.
Bashu, The Little Stranger (1986) Written & Directed by Bahram Beyzai
There is an emphasis on homogenizing foreign cultures into a monolith. This does a disservice to the broad diversity that exists inside these borders. We sometimes forget that national borders are artificial things, and people are often corraled inside sovereignties they have no direct connection with. Bashu, the Little Stranger, chooses to displace a Southern Iranian from the Khuzestan province due to the Iraq-Iran War. By moving this person into the Caspian north, we see how prejudices and cultural dissonance affect how we treat our fellow citizens.
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.
The Thin Red Line (1998) Written & Directed by Terence Malick
War movies should always be horror movies. Terence Malick seems to have had this in mind when he shot The Thin Red Line, a film made after a twenty-year absence. Malick’s journey adapting the novel by James Jones began in 1988, his producers agreed to help him bring the book to the screen. What followed was a decade of some of the most in-depth research a filmmaker could embark on. Malick consumed everything directly and tangentially related to the story. He read books on the reptiles and amphibians of the Pacific region, the Navajo code talkers, and immersed himself in traditional Japanese drum music. Malick’s ultimate vision of the Pacific theater of World War II was to portray the island of Guadacanal as “raped by the green poison,” a term he used to refer to war.