War movies, so readily adaptable as propaganda, have never enjoyed a particularly glowing reputation. Operation Enduring Freedom doesn’t promise to help their cause much: The aura of boosterism and sentiment surrounding the conflict is reminiscent of the most jingoistic examples of the genre. If the war on terrorism spawns its own brand of war film, HBO’s plodding button-pusher Band of Brothers and this month’s potboiler Behind Enemy Lines may be good indications of what’s to come.
Even in a gung ho climate, however, thoughtful war movies are possible. Such films use the numbing intensity of battle to explore the violent contradictions inherent in so-called civilized societies, and exploit the unique ability of orchestrated violence to expose the best and worst in human behavior. They’re driven not by a slavish fidelity to verisimilitude (as in Steven Spielberg’s uneven 1998 Saving Private Ryan) or an adolescent preoccupation with pyrotechnics, but a careful examination of the dynamics of physical peril and moral chaos.
Of course, there’s still the matter of all those bullets, bombs, and swaggering men in uniform. Consequently, works like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line confound a whole range of expectations. That 1998 film, adapted from James Jones’s novel of World War II Guadalcanal, employs a languid, shifting perspective and deliberate blurring of characters that flummoxed art-house crowds and blow-’em-up fans alike. Its suggestion that war is an intrinsic force to be reckoned with rather than surmounted, however, is undeniably profound.
Intellectual abstraction is typically more tolerated in non-U.S. war films. Kon Ichikawa’s panoramic Fires on the Plain (1959) takes place in the same Pacific setting as Malick’s film, and may have influenced its metaphysical bent. The movie follows a lone Japanese soldier as he attempts to escape the war and, with equivocal success, preserve his tattered decency under impossibly hostile circumstances. Elem Klimov’s 1985 Come and See, a dark picaresque that reveals the savagery of World War II Belorussia from the perspective of a teenage partisan (Aleksei Kravchenko), charts similar emotional territory. Its grueling final act—a protracted, unrelenting Nazi assault on a village—is hard to bear, but its climactic epiphany is wrenchingly compassionate.
No less stirring, Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and the White (1967) strips battle to its material essence. Everything in the film is transient. Few discernible strategies surface; the characters—Hungarian soldiers fighting czarists at the end of the Russian Revolution—are barely distinguishable, and Jancsó flatly refuses to let us take sides. It’s a frustrating ballet that’s as graceful as it is mechanizing. Amos Gitai’s Kippur (2000) also emphasizes the reductiveness of battle, but its depiction of the Yom Kippur War is even more elemental: The mud-drenched rescue of a wounded comrade by the film’s leads functions as an elegant and exhausting encapsulation of combat.
Domestic war films routinely obscure such sensitivity with bombast; Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), for instance, is a meticulously controlled work beneath its grandiose mise-en-scène. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s recent, much ballyhooed Redux re-release, in fact, is the application of yet another layer of distraction to Coppola’s scalding interrogation of the Vietnam War—this time in the form of reinserted scenes that do little besides facilitate Miramax’s cynical quest for redistribution profits.
American cinema’s arch cynic, Stanley Kubrick, created several provocative Hollywood war films. His 1957 Paths of Glory remains a poignant and scathing evocation of the bureaucratic chill at the heart of modern warfare, while Dr. Strangelove (1964) expands the form in a decidedly less serious but no less affecting direction. Only 1987’s flat Vietnam programmer Full Metal Jacket is a disappointment; skip it and read Gustav Hasford’s 1979 source novel, The Short-Timers, instead.
Other American war movies exhibit depth and artistic commitment, including some early ones: Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a tough yet pacifistic archetype, while the 1949 Gregory Peck vehicle Twelve O’Clock High offers an unflinching assessment of battle fatigue that’s jarring in light of how soon after World War II it was released. Postwar maladjustment figures prominently in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ivan Passer’s Vietnam-hangover noir Cutter’s Way (1981), a forgotten gem with a refreshing sense of outrage over the pointlessness of that war.
Finally, if you’ve got the nerve, Paul Verhoeven’s scathing 1997 satire Starship Troopers is a succinct, ambiguous, and bloody send-up of war movies that proves just how flexible the genre can be.