!— Global site tag (gtag.js) - Google Analytics —>
This guide is part of a collection of material on film and history.
o help you find your way through my long list of war films, the following short saummaries might make it easier. They are listed by historical period:
In spite of the fact that Kubrick did not have complete control over the movie from the very beginning it still bears the unmistakable stamp of this great director. The film concerns a slave uprising in 73 BC led by the Libyan slave gladiator Spartacus who organises a slave army to march on Rome to liberate the slave population of Italy. They are resisted by the slave-owing patrician Senators and generals who dominate Roman society. The final battle scenes are spectacular depictions of Roman fighting methods. The film is based upon a novel written by Howard Fast in 1952 and a screenplay by the blacklisted left-wing writer Dalton Trumbo. The film thus picks up on 1950s Communist dreams of a proletarian uprising in the capitalist world and the Cold War attempts to purge Hollywood of left-wing sympathisers.
Interesting on three different historical levels. Firstly, it deals with the rise of a great military leader to the political leadership of Rome and the transformation of that leadership into an emperor (a "Caesar" - later Tsar and Kaiser). Secondly, it deals with the problems of restraining the power of "tyrants" of Shakespeare's own day (is tyrannicide morally justified and politically appropriate?). Thirdly, in the immediate post-war period when the film was made there are references to the power of (fascist or even communist) leaders who appeal to the "mob" in order to overthrow the established order. The sets of ancient Rome would not have looked inappropriate in Mussolini's New Italy.
Supports two contradictory readings. The "isolationist" reading is a warning to middle America of the dangers of their political leader getting involved in foreign wars (domestic tyranny is possible when the leader is away fighting other people's wars, i.e. European wars). The "anti-fascist" reading (the year 1938 saw the Anschluß with Austria and in early 1939 the invasion of part of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis) is a warning that tyrants can only be resisted when all people unite in opposition. The actions and beliefs of the "real" Robin Hood are of course shrouded in mystery. Seems based on Sir Walter Scott's view of Robin Hood in the novel Ivanhoe.
Multi-leveled like Julius Caesar. Was Henry morally and historically justified in invading France, is he a true Christian king as he claimed or an ambitious war-monger, why did Shakespeare write an apparently patriotic play when he did, why does he give all the great speeches to Henry yet constantly remind the audience (through the Chorus) of Henry's ultimate failure? The result is one of the greatest propaganda films ever made - dedicated to the British Commandos involved in the Normandy invasion to defeat Hitler. There is one problem, weren't the British fighting the Germans not the French in 1944? Or doesn't it matter?
A brave remake of a classic film by "the Olivier of our generation". Branagh claims he wanted to make a post-Somme, post-Vietnam, anti-war version of Henry V. Yet how can we doubt the motives of Branagh's baby-faced Hal who stirs us with his great speeches, who wins our sympathy with his grief for the "murdered" baggage boy in the triumphant "Non Nobis" scene, and who wins our hearts with the humour and wit of his wooing of Katharine (but did she have any real choice in the matter?).
An interesting piece to compare to Harlan's Nazi propaganda movie Kolberg (1945). Although set in the 13thC when Prince Alexander Nevsky successfully fought off the invading German Teutonic Knights, the film has considerable contemporary parallels. It was made in 1938 at a time when Nazi expansionism threatened Eastern Europe. Stalin felt it was appropriate to put the Red Army at Eisenstein's disposal for the spectacular battle sequences (Battle on the Ice). The film fell out of favour after Stalin signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler but came back into favour as a powerful propaganda film after the Nazi invasion of Russia began in 1941. Great cinema in spite of the censorship and propaganda (like Olivier's Henry V).
I have sprinkled the programme with as many comedies about war as I can find. This is one of them (along with Catch-22, M*A*S*H, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (unintentional comedy), Dr. Strangelove, Shoulder Arms, Duck Soup). It is a satire on the King Arthur legend of the search for the Holy Grail. In addition to the anarchic, bloody, and at times silly humour of Monty Python there is the more serious historical perspective provided by Terry Jones who has written a serious scholarly work on Chaucer's Knight and recently made a documentary series on the Crusades.
A silent film which, along with Gance's Napoleon, shows that you don't have to have sound to make one of the greatest films ever made. It shows the "other side" of the One Hundred Years War (which we also see in Henry V) in two ways: firstly, it shows the French side as opposed to the English and secondly, it shows an example of female heroism in contrast to the traditional male heroism of Henry. One critic opined that "Carl Dreyer's last silent film is one of the most famous films in the history of cinema... (It is) a true classical work of art (which) appeals to and moves the spectator with its beautiful simplicity. It is a pure tragedy of a young suffering woman fighting in a hostile world." It should be seen in conjuction with reading Marina Warner's book on the image of Joan.
Regarded by some critics as the best film adaptation of a Shakespeare play - in this case "Macbeth". As I note in the summary of Kurosawa's other Shakespearean samurai film Ran (1985), Shakespeare's tragedies translate very well to medieval Japan. The film is about the political ambitions of a samurai warrior at a time of civil war among rival warlords. What one man can achieve through treachery and violence other would-be warlords can achieve as well. The tensions caused by seizing and maintaining political power through force of arms are the undoing of Washizu/Macbeth (in spectalular fashion) and all who sit on "the Throne of Blood".
Following the pre-war Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein again turned to medieval Russian history for inspiration during WW2. Again there are contemporary parallels between Stalin and Ivan - the suggestion that a tyrant leader was necessary if Mother Russia was to survive both internal (the aristocratic Boyar class and the Church) and external threats (the German and Polish foreign allies of the above), the ruthless activities of the secret police in assisting the leader, the solitude of power holders, and the idea that the leader can bypass existing classes and institutions and appeal to the people directly. The film has its difficult artistic or aesthetic moments (reflecting Eisenstein's interest in Kabuki theatre, lighting and stylised shots) but is regarded as one of the greats of world cinema.
One of the best "Westerns" ever made. Kurosawa's tribute to the American Western spawned a number of imitators (such as the good but much inferior "The Magnificent Seven") and shows the similarities between the Japanese samurai tradition and western notions of chivalry. Samurais made redundant by the wars of unification of the late 16th century wander unemployed until poor peasants offer them a job defending their village from bandit samurais. To survive, the samurais are forced to serve the very people they so disdained (and even killed) when they were in the military service of their feudal lords. The film celebrates the strength of the ordinary working people who suffer so much from the destruction of war. Has considerable contemporary relevance in post-war Japan with the discrediting of militarism as a result of defeat in 1945 and the price paid by ordinary Japanese for that defeat.
The 75-year old Kurosawa turns his attention from the Western to Shakespeare (King Lear) in Ran (meaning "fury", "revolt", "madness"). The film is set in 16thC Japan where an aging feudal warlord, who has acquired extensive territory through violence and conquest, divides his territory and castles among his three sons. He plans to live out his retirement by traveling with his entourage of warriors and entertainers from castle to castle. The two sons who had shown the most outward display of affection towards their father quickly turn against him. The youngest son who had rebuked his father for foolishness and prophesied a war between the ambitious brothers for control of the state, thereby incurring his father's wrath, is really the one who loves him most. For some reason Shakespeare's tragedies translate very well to feudal Japan. Kurosawa's battle sequences are some of the best in the history of cinema and yet they do not detract from or act as a substitute for plot, characterisation and a deep message about loyalty, ambition and foolishness.
A fascinating wartime treatment of a popular Japanese story of feudal duty which has appeared in over 100 novels and films and which many Japanese celebrate every 14 December. In 1701 47 former retainers of Asano Naganori are pesuaded to avenge their dead lord. As a result of violated protocol and honour they are then ordered to commit ritual suicide or seppuku (the 47 Ronin Incident). Mizoguchi's film reflected the wartime militarists' desire to reaffirm the bushido warrior code for Japanese soldiers in WW2 and to provide a model of "righteous patriots" and loyal subjects. Compare with Harlan's Nazi propaganda film of sacrifice Kolberg (1945).
One of two politically committed historical "documentary reconstructions" I will be showing (the other is "The War Game" relevant for the topic "Future Wars" in Second Semester). Watkins' method is to send a TV documentary crew to interview participants (Scottish highlanders fighting the English and their lowland supporters in 1745 or survivors of a nuclear attack on Kent). It sounds corny but the result is powerful filmmaking in which "ordinary people" are allowed to express their views. Watkins' political perspective is anti-establishment - anti-English expansionism in one case and anti-nuclearism in the other. Details of the battle are taken from John Prebble's account.
If you never get around to reading the greatest war novel of all time then see the movie! One of the most expensive films ever made and one with most of the Soviet Red Army as extras. It is also one of the best adaptations of a novel to the screen. The battle sequences are amazing, yet Bondarchuk does not lose sight of the deeply philosophical aspects of Tolstoy's novel. His portrayal of the liberal, Francophile Pierre and the mental agonies of his aristocratic friend Prince Andrei capture not only the essence of the novel but also the major concerns of this subject.
A truly great and technically innovative silent film (the multi-tinted split screen at the end) with a wonderful musical score. Gance seems torn between his pacifism which was the result of WW1 ("J'Accuse" in both silent and talkie form) and his admiration for the great historical figure of Napoleon. On the one hand, Gance himself wanted to show the tensions between the peace-loving "great revolutionary" and the ambitious "man of war" (General Bonaparte); on the other hand, critics see the corrupt "tribal chief" who elevates his own family members into a new royalty, or "a Bonaparte for budding fascists". The jury is out because Gance was only able to make the first part of a planned 12 hour epic.
One of the most remade films in the history of cinema. Based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper, it is the story of the heroic individualist Hawkeye (compare with the character in M*A*S*H) who lives on the frontier between so-called "civilised" British settler society and the "savage" native American inhabitants of New York state at the time of the war against the French for control of North America. The subtleties of Cooper's novel (sympathy for the plight of the original inhabitants combined with resignation that they are doomed to extinction or defeat, and white fear of miscegenation) are sometimes lost in the film versions. Daniel Day Lewis is a very "Indian", even counter-cultural, Hawkeye.
I hope some of you will be inspired to write an essay on John Ford and war after seeing his movies. I have chosen examples from before, during and after WW2 to show how his personal experience of war influenced or reinforced his thinking on war, violence and American history. Drums was made on the eve of WW2 in Europe, after the Anschluß with Austria and as the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland were being planned by Hitler. Ford turns to American history, in this case newly-wed settlers in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York on the eve of the American War of Independence, who are forced to defend their homes from Indian attacks masterminded by the English as part of their struggle against colonial independence. In the context of events in 1939 the film could be read as a reassertion of American values which were being challenged by the rise of fascism and communism in Europe. Or it could be read as a reminder that Americans had to fight for their freedom and might be called upon to do the same again soon. Based on a novel by Walter D. Edmunds. The other Ford films are They Were Expendable (1945), and the cavalry trilogy beginning with Fort Apache (1948).
A costly costume drama (Goebbel's Gone With the Wind?) made when Nazi Germany was facing imminent defeat. The justification for making it was to bolster domestic morale with a story of selfless sacrifice by civilian defenders of a German town on the Baltic coast from invasion by Napoleon's troops. 187,000 extras were provided by the Wehrmacht who had to withdraw them from front-line duty. An excellent example of the use of historical war films in Nazi propaganda.
Ridley Scott's first feature film is visually stunning with each shot composed like a postcard. It is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad and concerns the personal rivalry between two officers (one aristocratic - played by Keith Carradine, the other self-made like Napoleon - played by Harvey Keitel) in Napoleon's army. As war rages across Europe and the paths of the two men occasionally cross, they fight an ongoing duel for honour. The "war within a war" tells us much about why men fight. Note the importance of Conrad to many filmmakers concerned with war - "Heart of Darkness" inspired Coppola's Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now" and "Nostromo" is the name given to one of the space ships in "Alien".
Like Watkins, Pontecorvo makes brilliant, politically-committed films (See also "The Battle of Algiers"). The film concerns a British agent who is employed by land owners on a Spanish Caribbean sugar island to crush black slaves and ex-slaves who are rising up in rebellion. The events are based on an historical uprising in the 16thC but are changed to take place in the 19thC (1840s and 1850s) after the French Revolution had abolished slavery, after Napoleon had reintroduced it, and after the bloody slave uprising in Haiti (Santo Domingo), and after the 1848 Revolution finally liberated slaves in the French colonies. The contemporary references are to the wars for independence being waged by many European colonies in Africa and elsewhere during the 1960s and the attempts by the colonial powers to prevent this from happening (especially Algeria and Vietnam). Has some key insights into the nature of guerrilla and counterinsurgency warfare.
Based on the short story by Steven Crane (the classic story of the American Civil War written by someone born after it took place!). Stars Audie Murphy who was the most decorated US soldier of WW2 and who plays a young Northern (Union) soldier. The film explores the nature of cowardice, courage and the process of a "boy" becoming a "man" through battle. Many of the anti-war aspects of the story were removed by the studio for the film's release. Nevertheless, a classic.
An attempt to show the black experience of the Civil War (ex-slaves in the film but free blacks in reality) but through the eyes of a white Northern officer (admittedly an abolitionist). Shows the racial discrimination the black soldiers had to endure in the Union Army in the fight for "liberty". Re-enacts the siege of Fort Wagner (historically inaccurate) in which extremely high casualties were suffered in a failed attempt to seize the fortress. The men died "gloriously" but for what? It took another hundred years and the Civil Rights movement to achieve the beginnings of civic freedom for blacks.
Ford is one of the Hollywood greats best known for his elegiac Westerns which celebrate the values and sense of community of the ordinary person (often Irish!). After serving in the US Navy during WW2 filming documentaries and a feature war film ("They Were Expendable") Ford made a trilogy of classic cavalry pictures. The question to keep in mind is the connection between war films and westerns, and between Indians and "Japs". Ford shows us the great community spirit of the "civilised" whites who conquered the west, the often troubled officers who led the military on the frontier after the end of the Civil War had closed off opportunities for advancement, and the faceless and cultureless Indians who mysteriously resisted them. There is a clear reference to the "myth of Custer" and its significance in American folklore and history. Based on the short stories by James W. Bellah.
One of the better films to show the Indian side of the Indian Wars which followed the Civil War. A number had been made in the late 1960s (the Vietnam War forced a re-evaluation of the way in which white Americans had treated "savages") but they often used "white" actors with bad makeup playing "Indians". All that changed with Kevin Kostner's "Dances With Wolves" (a fluke?) in which the Indians even spoke their own language. Was Geronimo's resistance to white Americans "heroic" or "perverse" (by challenging divinely ordained Manifest Destiny to populate the North American continent)? Were the men who pursued Geronimo the bearers of "civilisation'? As in "Glory", why do we still have the "other side's" story told by white Americans?
The second in the cavalry trilogy deals with the life of a soon-to-retire career Cavalry officer (John Wayne) who sees out his service during the turmoil on the frontier following the death (massacre) of Custer at Little Big Horn. Ford filmed the West as Remington painted it.
John Wayne again, this time as the father who commands a remote cavalry outpost on the frontier. His son drops out of Westpoint military academy to join his father in a serving unit in order to prove his mettle as a true son of a warrior. The film stresses the traditions of the cavalry and the "heroism" of day-to-day life on the frontier.
A film about the high tide of Victorian British Imperialism (Crimean War 1854) made at the time of the low water mark when Britain had divested itself of most of its colonies and had refused to contribute to the American war effort in Vietnam (unlike Australia). The film has wonderful animations based upon contemporary "Punch" magazine cartoons and the depiction of the foolishness of the British upper class officers continues in this cartoon-like satire. The sad thing is, it seems quite historically accurate.
A pro-Free French propaganda film which is based upon two short stories by Guy de Maupassant. On the one hand, it shows the spirit of resistance of "the French people" to foreign (i.e. Prussian) invasion (1870-71) at a time when France was occupied again by Germans (this time Nazis). On the other hand, it also shows that many French people willingly accepted or collaborated with the invading Germans and that "resistance" was openly displayed by a lower class women (prostitute in the story, laundress in the film) who inspired others to resist (hence the Joan of Arc reference).
Made at a time when Britain's colonies in Africa were seeking independence (Nigeria, Rhodesia, South Africa, Kenya), the films shows an episode in the war against the Zulus who had just inflicted a crushing defeat upon the British at Isandhlwana in 1879. A small outpost of British soldiers is besieged by a very much larger force of well-organised and battle-hardened Zulu warriors. The film's greatness lies in the even-handed way in which it shows the courage and determination of the British (in spite of class differences) and the heroism, professionalism and exuberance of the Zulu warriors defending their homeland. Note the advisory role of Zulu Chief Buthulezi who is now pushing for greater autonomy (even independence) of Kwa-Zulu in post-apartheid South Africa.
An Australian classic (filmed in Burra, South Australia) about the costs of serving the Empire, proto-Australian nationalism, the principles of military justice and martial law, and the technical and moral difficulties of fighting "a new type of war for a new century" (i.e. guerrilla warfare). Set in the Boer War 1899-1901 when the British attempted to prevent independent Boer (Afrikaner) republics from being established. Very moving execution scene. Echoes of Vietnam and the My Lai massacre. Based upon a play by Kenneth Ross (hence the stagy courtroom scenes) and the novel by Kit Denton.
An often overlooked contemporary of All Quiet on the Western Front. Where the latter views the war through German soldiers played by American actors (thus giving it a universal significance), the former is perhaps more "German" with its German soldiers played by Germans. As in many of Pabst films there is a simplistic left-wing message of international brotherhood, proletarian solidarity and pacifism, which captures aspects of the late Weimar Republic very nicely. The film has some of the best depiction of No Man's Land, trench warfare, and the horror of WW1. Based on a novel by Ernst Johannsen, Four Infantrymen.
In my opinion the greatest war and anti-war film ever made. Defined the genre of war movie in such a way that its impact is undiminished 65 years later. Based on the novel by Remarque, a young German who saw action briefly on the Western Front in WW1. Written 10 years later in an attempt to purge himself of his war-induced nightmares. The novel became a bestseller and was soon followed by the American film. The Nazis hated both. Hard to imagine American actors playing the "enemy" so sympathetically (so humanely?) today. The film says nearly everything there is to say about war. On a par with Tolstoy.
An important film in the renaissance of nationalistic Australian filmmaking which began during the 1970s under the Whitlam Labor government (which brought an end to the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War). Weir was inspired by the 60th anniversary of the ANZAC day landings to make this "homage" to the legendary heroism of the ANZACS. Stridently (and perhaps unfairly) anti-British, the film shows the journey of two young men from outback Australia to Egypt and then into battle at ANZAC Cove. Although the film sanitises the final battle scene it does ask why Australians were so keen to fight the Turks so far from home, it suggests a connection between sport and war and the role sport and war play in the self-image of Australians, and it is an important popular reinforcement to the ANZAC myth in modern Australian culture. Screenplay written by David Williamson and historical detail provided by Bill Gammage's The Broken Years.
Based on the play Hamp by defense lawyer John Wilson who failed to acquit a soldier at a court martial. A soldier breaks under the pressure and decides "to walk home to England". The British Army has other ideas. Deals with the issues of "battle fatigue" or "shell shock" after one of the battles of Passchendaele in 1917, how much the state can demand of its citizens in wartime, and the practicality, morality and legality of court martial and execution in the field. Compare with Kubrick's Paths of Glory.
Perhaps the second greatest war/anti-war film ever made. The twist is that we see nothing of combat, merely the attempts by French officer POWs to escape detention in German POW camps during WW1, yet nearly every important question concerning war and peace is touched upon in the course of the film. Based on stories told to war veteran Renoir by a recalcitrant escapee. Like many pacifists in inter-war Europe, Renoir was torn between his pacifism and the realisation that expansionist Nazism would bring on another European war with catastrophic consequences. The film is a plea for Frenchmen to overcome their class and ethnic (i.e. anti-Semitic) prejudices in order to confront the Nazi threat, a reminder that the moral and social bonds which tie men together should be stronger than the petty nationalisms which tear them apart, that war and the forces which drive men to fight are "illusions" which must be seen for what they really are, and that the wars of the 20thC will have revolutionary consequences (second only to the French Revolution) in destroying the social structure of pre-WW1 Europe's old regime.
Not your normal war film. Jarman has made what is in effect a silent movie (perhaps you could describe it as a video clip) to accompany the British pacifist Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1962) in which Britten intersperses Wilfred Owen's WW1 war poems with the traditional Latin mass for the dead. Jarman has created a range of images to accompany the music, to give some narrative and symbolic form to the poems, and to make his own comments about 20thC warfare. Because so much is going on, to fully appreciate this film some preparation is needed beforehand: read Owen's poetry and the words to the Requiem mass so you can give your full attention to Jarman's "visual essay".
One of three Kubrick films dealing with war which I will be showing. Based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb inspired by newspaper reports of paltry compensation paid by the French government in the 1930s to the families of French soldiers unjustly executed during WW1. Like the films of Milestone and Renoir, Kubrick's film raises universal questions about the nature of human beings and what drives them to dominate, exploit, and kill their fellow human beings (all this in 90 minutes!). The issues raised include the nature of military justice, the class structure of the European armies in the early 20thC, the role of religion in justifying the actions of the state and the military, and the futility of the actions of humane individuals who oppose the uncaring and unjust "system". Some critics prefer to see the film as "anti-military" rather than anti-war because it exposes the incentives within the military hierarchy which encourage ambitious and ruthless individuals to use ordinary soldiers as pawns in their climb to the top. Kubrick's brilliance as an intellectual war filmmaker makes this distinction beside the point.
One of the comedies (along with the Marx Bros., Duck Soup) with which I end the subject. The question is whether or not it is a profound anti-war film because it refuses to take war seriously or a model for later patriotic war films which assert that the right man in the right place can make a difference to the outcome of a battle or war. A very funny film regardless of the interpretation you adopt - look for the scenes where Charlie wakes up in a flooded bunker, and where he camouflages himself as a tree in order to spy on the enemy (sausage-loving Bavarians) who want to chop him down for firewood.
Heller's novel about his experience as a bombardier in the US Army Air Force in the Mediterranean in WW2 became a best seller and a cult book on campuses in the US during the anti-Vietnam War campaigns during the 1960s. The film captures this cynical, anti-war spirit very well (as does its contemporary film M*A*S*H): all figures of authority are morally corrupt and incompetent, the insanity of war makes the only sane person seem insane, the only rational thing to do in wartime is to desert, black humour and satire is the best weapon of the powerless against the establishment. The film does well to capture a part of the complex, episodic and witty nature of the novel. Yet the final message of the novel and film (Snowden's secret) is bleak, namely that a dead man is nothing more than garbage.
A largely ignored but brilliant film about war. Based on the novel by William Wharton (who also wrote Birdy, another book about war and madness) the film is set in the Ardennes forest at the time of the last-ditch German offensive at the end of the war. An under-manned, battle-weary group of young men, selected for Intelligence gathering because they scored highly on the Army intelligence tests, are confronted by a German unit of old men and young boys who want to surrender before the war kills them all. The film deals with the issues of the sanity and insanity in wartime (like Catch-22), the consequences of the actions of well-meaning individuals in the chaos of war, and the importance of illusion and myth in our memories of war. All this is combined with the harsh beauty of winter warfare and moving references to Christian symbolism. It also has one of the great soundtracks (Mark Isham and Sam Philips).
Famous for his violent "Vietnam" Westerns (the slow motion ballet of death of "The Wild Bunch"), Peckinpah made only one straight war film (if you don't count westerns as de facto war films). It is unusual in that it is based on a German novel by Willi Heinrich (thus it is like Milestone's AQWF) about the Eastern Front which saw the most casualties (both military and civilian) and the largest concentration of military hardware (tanks and aircraft) of any front in WW2. In a sense, the conflict between Hitler's Nazism and Stalin's communism was the main game of WW2 with the defeat of the Germans in the east the precondition for the success of the African and Normandy fronts. In spite of James Coburn's persuasive portrayal of weary disillusionment with mechanised slaughter the film shows the problems many Germans still have coming to terms with the meaning of WW2. They prefer to see the conflict as one within the German Army between the traditional warriors who believe in patriotism and the laws of war and the fanatical Nazis who wish to exterminate the racial enemy at any and all costs. The Russian people are a mere backdrop to this "German" conflict.
Making films in occupied France was a tricky business, as this French film shows. The German title was "A Small French Town" with the obvious implication that all French towns were riven by suspicion and petty-mindedness, not to mention decadence. However, the letter writer with the poison pen who knows all the guilty secrets of the townspeople might also be a metaphor for the guilt of collaboration and informing which took place under German occupation.
A corrective to the flawed German attempts to understand what happened in Eastern Europe in WW2. Klimov shows in microcosm (through the eyes of one young man in Byelorussia) what happened behind the German lines when the SD carried out Hitler's orders to exterminate Bolsheviks and Jews (regarded in most cases as the same) with the help of many Eastern European collaborators who shared the Nazi's anti-Semitism and anti-communism. Village after village is ruthlessly exterminated and those few who escape flee to join the partisans in the forests and swamps. Although Klimov is very conservative in the way he depicts violence, the implication of what he is saying and the context in which it occurs make this film the most harrowing and "violent" of all the films I will show in this subject. You will be in tears at the end when the "Lacrimosa" movement from Mozart's Requiem is played as the partisans disappear back into the forest.
A controversial film when it appeared in America towards the end of the Vietnam War because of its portrayal of the ruthless and flamboyant American General Patton whose tanks contributed to the Allied victory in Italy and later in Germany. On the one hand, it shows him to be unstable, suffering from delusions of military grandeur, and willing to abuse physically troops under his command. On the other hand his colourful character makes him very likable in a war that has become increasingly bureaucratic and which is manned by gray team players. Even his disobedience to higher authority makes him appealing to the anti-war generation of the 1960s. George C. Scott's brilliant acting and the battle sequences make this a very superior war movie. Note that Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay before making his Godfather films and his Vietnam war movie "Apocalypse Now" (1979).
In the late 1950s the Polish director Andrzej Wajda made a trilogy of films about the German occupation of Warsaw and the resistance to that occupation by communists and others. Over 30 years later he returns to this topic, but this time he takes the perspective of the Jewish victims, in particular children. It concerns the efforts of the writer and educator Janusz Korczak who heads an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. He tries to protect the children under his care from hardship but comes to realise that their destruction is inevitable. What should one do in this impossible situation? How do you prepare children to go to their deaths? A very moving film with a magical ending.
A beautifully crafted film which made the Holocaust a mainstream issue when it was released. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally, Schindler's Ark. It has one of the best depictions of conditions inside the Jewish ghettoes of Polish cities and the extreme brutality of their liquidation. It also creates images of breathtaking beauty and power which linger well after the film has ended (the little girl in the red coat crossing the square, the sorting of piles of personal effects at the train station, the smoke of the Auschwitz crematoria against the night sky). Yet it has serious problems as an historical treatment of the Holocaust: the pre-war activities of Schindler with German military intelligence are not mentioned; the experience of the Schindler Jews was not typical of those Jews arrested by the Nazis, the part played by corruption among Jews themselves to get on "the List" is glossed over, the motives of Gerd the camp Kommandant are trivialised by making him a stock evil Nazi character.
In many respects this film is like Renoir's The Great Illusion (1937). The war is a backdrop to a deeper philosophical exploration of, in this case, the rituals we have adopted to deal with death and how this is understood (or misunderstood) by innocent children. When their parents are killed by straffing German planes in the chaos of the fall of France in 1940, a boy and a girl are forced to seek shelter in the countryside. After having witnessed the way adults bury their dead, they do likewise with a number of farm and wild animals. The film shows how war and killing affect children and examines the adequacy and the meaning of the rituals which have evolved to make it possible for individuals to cope with death.
The first of two films by Ichikawa from the Japanese perspective of the war in the Pacific (the other is "Fires on the Plain") which were made at a time in the mid- and late 1950s when Japanese filmmakers were free to explore the causes, experience and consequences of the war in a more critical light (free of both Japanese and American censorship). As the war draws to an end in Burma some Japanese soldiers surrender to British forces while others hold out to the bitter end. One Japanese soldier offers to persuade some of the hold-outs to give themselves up. As he travels across Burma he comes across scores of unburied Japanese corpses. As an act of contrition he decides to assume the robes of a Buddhist monk and go about the country burying them single-handed. His comrades in a POW camp try to find out where he is as their repatriation becomes imminent. His note of explanation (and implied criticism of the entire Japanese war effort) why he cannot return to Japan until all the dead are buried is read by his commanding officer as the ship with the POWs sails for Japan. A beautiful, touching and deeply religious film.
A greater contrast between "Burmese Harp" and "Guadalcanal Diary" could not be imagined. This is hard-core racist propaganda made soon after the events depicted to inspire the "folks back home" (in America) that the tide was turning against the Japanese in the Pacific. The Japs are sneaky and don't play fair, they shoot "helpless" American soldiers trapped on the beach, they hide in trees like "turkeys" firing as snipers at the unaware Americans. Justice is achieved when the Japs are driven across the island into the surf and given a taste of their own medicine. Based on the eyewitness journalism of Tregaskis. A superior formula "combat movie" (see Basinger's book).
I plan to show a couple of short Warner Brother cartoons as examples of American wartime propaganda dealing with women working in munitions factories and the way in which the enemy was depicted.
Based on a novel by Masuji Ibuse which used diaries of young Japanese women who could not get husbands in post-war Japan because of the stigma attached to being an Hiroshima victim, i.e. exposed to the "black rain" (a mixture of radioactive ash and rain) which fell after the explosion (and thus they were suspected of being tainted for marriage and producing children). There is a brief part of the film which deals with the actual explosion, most concerns the aftermath for those who died a slow physical and social death.
This is the Japanese equivalent of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" based on the untranslated novel by Jumpei Gomikawa. It was made towards the end of the period of critical examination of the war and Japan's responsibility for causing it which took place in the mid- and late-1950s. It is the story of the young man Kaji who works in the Japanese slave labour factories and mines of Manchuria (occupied since 1931) as a manager of Chinese labour. His opposition to the harsh conditions (execution by decapitation of unruly labourers) results in his conscription into the Japanese army and his hounding by the military police (the Kempeitai). He survives the brutalisation of basic training by thinking of the wife he left behind. As the Japanese army disintegrates under the attacks of the Russians Kaji and hundreds of thousands of other Japanese soldiers are left to fend for themselves in China without food or shelter. Kaji is determined to walk home to his beloved in spite of the rugged northern Chinese winter. The possibility of sinking into sentimentality is avoided by the sheer beauty of the filmmaking and the great performance of the lead actor.
Regarded by some critics as the best film to come out of WW2. Ford made it soon after being injured whilst filming documentaries for the US Navy in the Pacific. In the attack Ford lost 13 men of his own unit so when he came to make this film about the early catastrophic loss of the Philippines to the Japanese he was in no frame of mind to glorify war. The result is a depiction of the courage and devotion to duty of a PT Boat force which assisted in the evacuation of senior officers to Australia. Those who were left behind were "expendable". Based on the memoirs of Lt. John Bulkeley.
One of the most influential films in the genre of combat films. Rabidly racist in its treatment of the "Japs" but important because of its development of icons like John Wayne (in one of the very few movies in which he gets killed) and the use of the original Marine Corps flag hoisted on top of the mountain on Iwo Jima when the island was taken. This is how the Marines wanted the events of WW2 to be remembered.
The companion to The Burmese Harp but much more pessimistic in its depiction of the carnage and brutality of war. Set in the closing weeks of the war in the Philippines, starving Japanese soldiers attempt to flee to an evacuation point. The film deals with the issue of cannibalism - a necessity for survival or the logical extension of Japanese militarism's disregard for human life? Based on the novel by Shohei Ooka. Movies like this one deeply concern me because it depicts the most horrible consequences of war and human depravity in the most beautiful and poetic fashion. Is this a contradiction?
Some critics say it was downhill all the way for Milestone after his early success with "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930). After some mildly propagandistic films during WW2 he returned to epic filmmaking with this dour examination of the futility of the Korean War in particular and perhaps of all wars in general. Gregory Peck is outstanding as the WW2 veteran who obeys orders he knows are impossible to carry out because they are militarily meaningless. They are designed for political purposes - to show the Chinese communists at the peace talks that America has the determination to fight on if necessary. (Compare with the similar theme of the Vietnam War movie "Hamburger Hill"). Peck's unit is divided by race (the Korean War was the first time integrated units fought), uncertainty about the reasons why Americans are fighting in Asia so soon after WW2, and the tensions of fighting a new kind of war in Asia during the Cold War. Based on the book by S.L.A. Marshall.
Based on the novel by a doctor who served in Korea (Richard Hooker). One of the comedies about war. This is a good example of a movie where the context in which it was made is very important for understanding what the film is about. Although it is set in the Korean War it is "really" about attitudes towards the Vietnam War which were current in 1970 - all authority is incompetent or corrupt (see its contemporary Catch-22), America is involved in the war because of religious and anti-communist intolerance, the best way to survive an intolerable situation is to play practical jokes, get drunk and chase nurses, competitive sport is both a metaphor for war and cause of violent behaviour among men. The movie had a very successful TV spin-off which had its anti-war moments but remained for the most part sentimental and "soapish". See the movie for a much more hard-hitting anti-army and anti-Christian perspective.
A compilation of cleverly edited documentaries and training films from the height of the Cold War in America used to potent political effect (i.e. anti-nuclear). It is interesting to see the cavalier way the public was treated by the guardians of nuclear weapons, the near-hysteria caused by fear of invasion and/or nuclear attack, the behaviour of the children brought up to expect an atomic attack at any time, the touching faith people had in their leaders, and (most chillingly) the way those who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan publicly justified their actions. The documentary was put together during the Reagan administration's expansion of the arms race during the Second Cold War of the early 1980s.
One of my favourites. If you are getting depressed at this stage of the subject then this is one to raise your spirits. The film was made in Cold War America when fear of communist infiltration and invasion and nuclear catastrophe was high. This fear was transferred to horror films and space invasion films which were very popular at the time. A small town in California is transformed by the arrival of mysterious pods which hatch out duplicates of any individual who happens to live nearby. Gradually the pod duplicates take over the minds of the duplicated person until the moment is reached when the duplicate assumes the life of the "real" person (the person falls asleep and never wakes up). Only a handful of people are aware of the danger but their warnings are not heeded (a common theme in these movies). The characteristics of the pod people are remarkably like the caricature Americans had of communists: they do not believe in the family, they abandon their businesses, they do not believe in private property, they are not capable of love, they sacrifice all for the sake of the collective. Look for the contradiction in the plot at the end of the film.
Spy films are very much a product of the Cold War between the superpowers. They can be light-hearted depictions of suave super-heroes who battle the forces of evil (like the 007 James Bond movies) or cynical, bitter, and critical like this one. It is based upon the novel by John Le Carré and shows the last days of a disillusioned British spy engaged in a sordid action across the Berlin Wall which divided "capitalist" West Germany from "communist" East Germany. The film begins on one side of the wall and ends on the other - a clever use of the main symbol of the Cold War. The question raised by the film is the following: if the actions and values of agents on both sides are identical, how can one side claim to be fighting exclusively for freedom and democracy? In other words, do the ends justify the means?
It is often forgotten that before the Americans became involved in Vietnam the French fought their own "Vietnam War" (or did the Americans fight their own "Indochina War"?). This is one of the few French films set in Vietnam in 1954, made by a veteran combat photographer, at the time of the great French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. A film about the tragedy of the French involvement, with a touch of nostalgia for colonialism and the "civilising mission" of the Europeans in Asia.
Set in the late 1950s in Algeria when the National Liberation Front is organising guerrilla/terrorist cells in the Casbah of Algiers. The French army is brought in to destroy the resistance using whatever means are expedient. They win the battle but not the war. One of the greatest "political" movies ever made, with untrained actors for the most part, filmed in a documentary style. Even the torture scenes look real.
Regarded when it was being made as the definitive Vietnam War movie, Coppola's vision of the transformation of Americans from liberators into perpetrators of evil as they traveled upriver into the Vietnamese or Cambodian "heart of darkness" got bogged down by the weight of production difficulties and intellectual confusion as to how the film would end. Coppola saw clearly how power corrupted individuals in his "Godfather" trilogy. What he didn't realise was that he too could be corrupted by power, money and intellectual hubris. His wife's documentary of the making of the film "Hearts of Darkness" shows how closely the making of "Apocalypse Now" paralleled America's involvement in Vietnam. There are brilliant vignettes as the military assassin travels upriver in pursuit of the renegade Kurtz (the atrocity on the sampan, the Playgirls entertaining the troops, Col. Kilgore's helicopter ride of the Valkyries, and the bridge at the border) but Coppola does not know how to end the film. Neither of the two endings he has used are satisfying ends to what has gone before. Loosely based on the story "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad.
The Vietnam veteran Stone's autobiographical movie has assumed the status of the canonical account of the ordinary soldier's experience of the Vietnam War. In the special edition on Laser Disc photos taken by Stone as a soldier in Vietnam are mixed with photos from the shooting of the film in a facsimile veteran's photo album. Stone no longer is able (or perhaps cares) to separate fact from fiction. Stone's experience was not typical because he came from a wealthy family, he worked in Vietnam as a teacher before he fought there, and he volunteered. Nevertheless, he (with the assistance of his military advisor Dale Dye) has captured aspects of the Vietnam War experience which others have missed (jungle warfare, insects, night ambushes, the social division between the "juicers" (Southern white alcohol drinkers) and the "pot-heads" (mainly black and northern and western whites)). The anti-war thrust of the film is dissipated by cuts in the screenplay (written in anger during the American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976) and the claim by Taylor that the war experience has made a man of him.
Kubrick always digs deeper than most filmmakers in his investigations into the human condition. The results are usually profoundly pessimistic and often misanthropic. In his Vietnam War movie he explores the steps which must be taken to turn young men into killers (i.e. basic training) before turning to the consequences this has on them. The first part of the film deals with Marine basic training at Parris Island during which the recruits are subjected to the most fluent and brutal verbal abuse imaginable by their drill instructor. The connection between weapons and sexual prowess and manhood is clearly made. When the young men go into combat at the time of the 1968 Tet offensive their military training and cultural baggage (images of John Wayne heroism during WW2 and Korea) leave them poorly prepared for civil war (many Vietnamese resent their presence) and guerrilla warfare (women serve as snipers) in Vietnam. The film ends with the soldiers apparently reverting to the certainties of their TV-dominated childhood by singing the "Mickey Mouse" song. The screenplay was written by Gustav Hasford, a combat reporter who served in Vietnam and who wrote a novel The Short Timers, and Michael Herr another journalist who wrote Dispatches.
In my view Stone's best film (certainly the best of his three Vietnam movies). Based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic who was disabled in Vietnam. Kovic comes from a patriotic Long Island family whose members dutifully served in WW2 and Korea. Vietnam is Kovic's war and he feels duty-bound to volunteer. His injury begins the process of disillusioning him of his unthinking patriotism and his idea of manly heroism (whilst recovering he reads among other things Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" and Trumbo's "Johnny Got his Gun"). The best part of the film is the confrontation between him and his religious and anti-communist mother over the meaning of the war and the sacrifice he has made (literally giving up his manhood). Kovic gives the war meaning by becoming active in the anti-war movement among veterans and within the Democratic Party.
What has Groucho Marx to say about war and peace you might ask? Behind the great gags and one-liners are some serious observations and warnings (1933 is the year Hitler came to power in Germany, the Marx Bros. were Jewish). Rufus T. Firefly is appointed dictator of a small bankrupt (eastern) European country called Freedonia. Rufus hopes to marry the rich matron and separate her from her fortune - perhaps to solve the state budget deficit, perhaps to pocket it for himself. Note the "battle" between the street vendors selling peanuts and lemonade on the same street corner, the incompetent spies, the mocking songs like "All God's Chillun Got Guns", the diplomatic incident which leads to war between Freedonia and Sylvania, and the final battle sequence in which Groucho/Rufus appears in a different plumed and braided uniform in every shot. A comedic masterpiece which infuriated Mussolini, who promptly banned it in Italy. Compare with Chaplin's The Great Dictator.
Based upon a science fiction novel ("The Shape of Things to Come") and later screenplay by H.G. Wells. At his best, Wells had the knack of predicting the future, especially concerning military matters. He predicted the use of tanks, aerial bombardment of cities by planes, the invention of the atomic bomb, and the start of WW2 (1940 or thereabouts). Wells viewed war in a positive light, as a catalyst for bringing about much needed social and economic reforms by destroying the old order and paving the way for more enlightened rule by a scientific and technical elite of managers (he was a Fabian socialist who believed in world government). These themes come out in this path-breaking science fiction film in which war leads to a new dark age (including pestilence which wipes out most of mankind), before a new order of "aviators" create a world government in which war is abolished, thus opening up undreamed of material riches for ordinary people. The use of models seems dated now but they were much admired in their day.
The third Kubrick film. Below the black humour and satire (thanks largely to Peter Sellers who plays three roles - the British RAF officer, the American President and the mad German scientist "Dr. Strangelove") there is a serious argument about the motivation of those who design, operate and are prepared to use nuclear weapons. Sexual references abound and one is drawn to the conclusion that concerns over impotence and/or sexual prowess are closely connected to the desire to kill or conquer the enemy. The serious question Kubrick raises in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis concerns the unintended or accidental triggering of a nuclear war between the superpowers - in this case a renegade Air Force Commander launches his flight of bombers because he is convinced the commies are using fluoridation of the water supply to destroy America. All the "fail safe" mechanisms designed to stop accidental nuclear war fail. The film ends on the unhappy note of nuclear destruction as the political, scientific and military elites plan their survival in deep mine shafts where they intend to breed and begin the arms race all over again (Hence the use of Vera Lynn's song "We'll Meet Again"). Based on a novel by Peter George, Red Alert.
Shown in First Semester along with his other historical "documentary reconstruction" "Culloden" but relevant to this topic. Watkins was commissioned by the BBC to make a film about the consequences on a British community of a nuclear attack. The result was a film so critical of the official policy of civil defence that it was not shown on TV until the late 1980s. In Watkins' view the dropping of an atomic bomb on Britain would lead to social and political breakdown, looting, pestilence, starvation, the breakdown of medical facilities, not to mention agonising death from burns, radiation and blast of tens of thousands of people.
A popular and trend-setting film which mixed 1930s pulp science fiction, comic books, Arthurian chivalry, eastern mysticism, westerns, Cold War fears of the evil empire, and air force action movies. It also gave its name to President Reagan's anti-missile program in the early 1980s. Some critics see it as a premonition of the Reagan Second Cold War and arms build-up in the 1980s. Others see it as an attempt to meet popular demand for heroic figures in literature and film who can overcome great personal difficulties in their struggle against the forces of evil. A question to keep in mind is the extent to which Luke Skywalker fills the traditional role of "the hero". The film was inspired by Kurosawa's samurai film The Hidden Fortress (1958) and the bombing sequence is based upon the use of miniatures in the Korean War film The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954).
The second film in the "Alien" trilogy deals with a number of military-related themes: the colonisation of outer space and the use of "Colonial Marines" to protect the colonists and/or the corporations which mine and transform the colonies; the role of women in the Marines as pilots, medics, and combat soldiers (reflecting contemporary concerns about the role of women in the American armed forces in the conflicts of the 1980s and the Gulf War); war of the future is directed against other species ("bug hunts") who fight much like guerrilla fighters in Vietnam (the Vietnam references are numerous). The main theme are the reasons the heroine Ripley decides to return to help fight the aliens after her first encounter (why did soldiers re-enlist to serve a second tour of duty in Vietnam - the fatal attraction of combat) and why she takes up arms against the Queen alien in "the mother of all battles" (females fight to protect their young).