At their heart, war films are forever straining against contradictions: should one represent every single action of conflict, no matter how gory they are, or does one draw a veil over the scenes of worst depravity?
Analysing the cultural impact of the war movie genre
How do you like your war film? Do you prefer a varnished version of the truth that presents the soldiers of your country/ cause fighting a just, righteous battle against the forces of evil?
Perhaps you’re a fan instead of a more revisionist strand that seeks to show how your country sacrificed hundreds of thousands of innocent men to prop up outdated, offensive ideals? Or you may cleave towards the more meditative, where armies are broken down to the individual actions of servicemen to show how every single man is affected by the hell of war.
With the release of Dunkirk, war films are very much back in vogue. Its warts-and-all approach to the evacuation of more than 300,000 British and French soldiers from the beaches of northern France in 1940 is being lauded for its accuracy (although some in the Gallic press have claimed it downplays the French role in the whole event).
The movie portrays the utter chaos of war as it is experienced at the sharp end: men drowning in burning seas; pilots being shot out of the skies by unseen predators; hospital ships being torpedoed and dive bombed. There’s no plot or poetic resolution for many of the young men who are gunned down without any great memorial to their sacrifice.
It’s a film that inspires shock and awe, and brings across to a modern audience in stunning colour the stark realities of a conflict that is most often viewed in black-and-white films or photography. Director Christopher Nolan manages to distil the horrors of the 10 days that men were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk into 110 minutes.
But at their heart, war films are forever straining against contradictions: should one represent every single action of conflict, no matter how gory they are, or does one draw a veil over the scenes of worst depravity? What does the audience gain from this?
Does historical accuracy come before creating a compelling narrative? With movies now being made for global audiences, is it still acceptable to have “goodies” and “baddies” in films? And is it OK to seek out the humour in war, or must we reverently maintain a po-faced attitude to the glorious dead?
To get an idea of what makes a great war film and whether they serve a higher purpose beyond mere entertainment, it’s instructive to consider the opinions of those who have been involved in conflicts – the soldiers and war reporters themselves.
A recent poll in the United States of veterans of the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Afghanistan threw up some fascinating results – there isn’t a classic tub-thumper of the ilk of The Longest Day or John Wayne’s The Green Berets in the top 10.
Instead, the military men almost exclusively chose pieces that represented the darker side of conflict: Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s druggy resetting of Heart of Darkness in Vietnam; The Hurt Locker, which focuses away from direct combat, and explores the world of ordinance and disposal experts; Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which examines the hell of marine boot camp and then war; and topping the list was American Sniper, a biopic which appealed to military viewers as much for its veneration of a modern hero as it was for retelling the hero’s painful reintegration into normal society.
Interestingly, Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s 1998 epic, which came second in the veterans’ poll, shows one of the issues that war films can come up against. It famously featured a 28-minute opening scene which captured in extraordinary detail the horrors faced by US troops as they went ashore at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day in 1944.
After the film came out, soldiers who had experienced the real-life event were reported to have walked out of screenings because the reality of the film had evoked many unwanted emotions and recollections of the day.
A focus on too much action, however, is a misrepresentation of what combat is really like. Philip Jacobson, a veteran foreign correspondent who has reported on dozens of wars around the world, says that most films fail to capture the realities of modern warfare: “There’s rarely any depiction of how brief, adrenaline-charged moments on the front line are interspersed by long periods of boredom.”
The fact is that dramatic action sequences are what the public most wants, Jacobson says, especially with the remarkable advances in CGI, “which means there’s no real appetite for thoughtful films about the true nature of war. That’s what sets apart Stanley Kubricks’ masterly 1957 work Paths of Glory, which focuses on the human consequences of a World War One mutiny by French soldiers who are condemned to death for refusing to take part in a suicidal attack on heavily defended the German lines”.
The Sunday Times film critic Camilla Long feels that “each era gets the war films it deserves. So we go from unbridled positivity and light heartedness of The Great Escape – a film perfect for the 1960s when people were too busy making love not war – to the anger and deep paranoia of the 1970s (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter), to the confusion and exhaustion now ... a time of small, sad, less than epic wars that look terrible on paper and even worse on celluloid”.
Long feels that far from being in a golden age of war movies, we’re currently going through a nadir: “There have been some genuinely awful war films. American Sniper [is] a closed, claustrophobic, snide, sly film designed to promote a specific – commercial – view of America rather than tell any remote version of the truth.
“Films about World War Two, our great tragedy and our great song, scratch desperately for new material, new angles, new stars, with little to zero success. From films like Fury (Brad Pitt sits in a tank) to Their Finest (Sam Claflin limply dishes out sexist insults on the home front) you can tell that, as a culture, we don’t actually know how to make war films any more.”
There is a sinister side to the business of making such movies; totalitarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany or Russia under Joseph Stalin understood full well the role that popular culture representations of great military victories – and, importantly, defeats at the hands of foreign invaders – had as propaganda.
Incredibly, the German film Kolberg, about a phase of the 19th-century Napoleonic Wars, was filmed in 1944 during the last days of the Reich, and used 50,000 troops as extras, while their counterparts were being slaughtered on the Eastern and Western fronts.
And finally, to the need to view war through a satirical filter. Some of the greatest novels and other forms of culture have been born from conflict. Joseph Heller’s
Catch-22, which was actually fairly well adapted by Mike Nichols in 1970, takes a machine gun to the insanity of military regulations and rules. The TV series Blackadder Goes Forth, focuses on insane generals and fatalistic Tommies in the trenches is most people’s go-to record of the First World War.
Cinema in recent years has seen Tropic Thunder, which managed to both cast side eye at war and the business of making war films. The closeness of the two industries was also addressed in Wag the Dog, where Hollywood big shots are brought in to executive produce a war on the White House’s behalf.
While governments continue to send swaths of their young men and women into battle to fight for often spurious reasons, it is important that the movie industry recognises the important way it can speak truth to power.