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Moving images: War, dissent, empathy

Harry Kreisler, visiting scholar, Institute of International Studies | March 3, 2010

War movies fascinate because they reveal the dark side of our humanity.  The most powerful war movies are a tribute to the director’s focus on several important questions.  What is the nature of the war being fought?   Why do we fight? What are the consequences for the soldiers and the society they represent? In answering these questions, the greatest war movies transcend narrow patriotism and the visceral response to killing and slaughter. The directors are dissenters; they hold up a mirror to expose through the life of the combatant the folly of war.  The great war movies make us think and tell us who we are.

Here are 7 compelling examples and what their directors told us about war, dissent and empathy:

  • Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front: No movie captures the disastrous consequences of trench warfare in World War I better than All Quiet, baring  the cost to humanity, the failure of patriotism, and the consequences for the dead and the living.
  • Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory: the political machinations that lead to needless slaughter in a battle in World War I.
  • Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: the absurdity of a Cold War where technology wedded to arms races propels civilization toward apocalypse.
  • Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers: the moral consequences of a counterinsurgency that opposes national liberation in the name of a war against terrorism.
  • Oliver Stone’s Platoon:  the moral consequences of the Vietnam War and its meaningless struggles for a piece of jungle that makes no sense in the context of a war without strategic merit.
  • Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down: the heroism and bonding of soldiers caught in the unraveling of a ridiculous mission in Somalia.
  • Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker:  the focus is  on how we fight an asymmetric conflict in Iraq and the consequences for a  risk taking soldier who thrives in the conflict.

None of these movies offers a compelling rationale for the war being fought. In fact, all are justifications for dissent. All presuppose the stupidity of the strategic and tactical goals at play. All point to the human consequences of war.  All find these truths by revealing the humanity of and consequences of the conflict for the soldier.  In the older movies by Kubrick and Milestone, the focus is also on those political leaders who are mendacious, power hungry, oblivious and uncaring about the consequences of their policies.

Interestingly, in the most recent films the anti-war sentiments of the director are buried in the narrative.  The strategic stupidity of the leaders is only addressed indirectly, if at all. The situation of the soldier becomes the key to revealing what war does to us. Moreover, soldiers can watch Platoon, Blackhawk Down, and Hurt Locker to relive their pain and thereby contribute to their healing process. But none of these recent films can justify the sacrifices made; they ignore why we fight  because the American establishment has embraced the role of empire and global gendarmes. (Only in a war film with avatars can the issue of empire be satisfactorily addressed!)  So the newer movies  make an important contribution by focusing on the way we fight. No longer are films manifestos of outraged anti-war sentiment.  Instead, empowered by the director’s moving images, we  feel and see  what happens in  the new kind of war.  We are also left to wonder what happens to the soldier when with shattered body and mind he returns home.

Comments to “Moving images: War, dissent, empathy

  1. I would ad Malick’s The Thin Red Line to your list. I think that it’s one of the most cerebral and thought provoking war movies ever, as well as fitting the themes of dissent and empathy that you present here.

  2. None of these movies offers a compelling rationale for the war being fought. In fact, all are justifications for dissent. All presuppose the stupidity of the strategic and tactical goals at play. All point to the human consequences of war. All find these truths by revealing the humanity of and consequences of the conflict for the soldier. In the older movies by Kubrick and Milestone, the focus is also on those political leaders who are mendacious, power hungry, oblivious and uncaring about the consequences of their policies.

  3. I’ve always been a fan of WWII movies and probably because historically it is one of the few wars that I fully understand why we were fighting. And I don’t think war movies sell because ” society is more fascinated with the dark side of humanity than with morality “. As a matter of fact, I think they sell because it gives the viewer the opportunity to “reflect upon morality” and question the “morality” of the war.

  4. I have always been a fan of cold-war movies such as “Seven Days in May” and “Dr. Strangelove” because they show the lunacy of the hawks.

  5. I have always enjoyed war movies, not because i think its the right thing to do, but to fight for something, a cause with such honor is what attracts me to them so much, and also the fact that one can learn history from watching them

  6. A thoughtful post…..I do not fully agree with you. I prefer seeing war movies because they are thrilling, they do not always reveal the darker side.

  7. The list in Harry Kreisler’s article omitted three of my favorite war movies, the unrelentingly devastating Japanese movie “Fire on the Plain”, the poignant and tragic German movie “The Bridge” and the humorus and touching “MASH”.
    I have been thinking about anti-war films and wondering if a true anti-war film is possible. All such films that I have seen focus on the particular absurdities, tragedies or ironies of a specific event or situation. All of them imply that a different war that was well justified and executed would be a good war.
    Can movies which must necessarily focus on the personal experience of specific people make the argument that war itself is always or even usually a bad choice? Could a movie be made showing a well justified and well executed war inevitably resulting in tragedy?

  8. As far as Hurt Locker Vs. Avatar, I think there will always be people/critics that dont take anything science fiction seriously. To them Avatar may be just a silly movie about blue men.

  9. The war movie to me is to symbolize the costs of freedom and glamorize the battles. I dont think it sends the right message but it definitely sends a message. The only thing I ever get out of them is heroism and how can you do what you do in those situations.

  10. First of all, great article. I must admit though, I guess I am unusual, that I never enjoyed war movies that much and I guess the attraction doesnt apply to me. In fact the war movies I liked best were void of most of the emotional elements. I enjoyed the more “fun” war movies like Kellys Heroes and light fare of that type.

    Another genre that seems to have escaped me is the love of crime/syndicate films. It seems everyone I know loves these godfather type films and for the life of me, I cant figure out why. Perhaps another article? But again, I am not a typical audience. In this genre I couldnt even pick a favorite as I find them all tedious. In both of these cases though, like most movies, the acting can make or break the film.

  11. According to me, Blackhawk Down, Saving Private Ryan and Platoon are the top three war movies ever made. But in past five years or so, no real good movies were made on topic of war. Recently released movie Hurt Locker did some justice to war genre movie by winning 6 Oscars.

    From the above list, I have not watched Battle of Algiers till now. Hope to rent a VCD soon and check how entertaining this movie is.

  12. Wow, interesting take on how the rendering of wars in films has evolved over the decades. I kind of wish that they would be portrayed like they used to be. With the stupidity that they really envelope. I hate nation-building, and wish we would get back to conservatism and a more realistic foreign policy of not stretching our military so thin and basically minding our own business wherever possible.

  13. Interesting that if one searches for “Morals” or “Morality” on this website the search engine responds with “Not Found.”

    That about sums up the root cause of the failures of so many civilizations, nations prefer wars over morals to solve humanity’s never-ending problems with failed diplomacy. Humanity never learns from the lessons of history.

    Obviously our prefrontal cortex is just not designed give a high enough priority to the Golden Rule when nations, and even religions, have serious problems with each other. The lessons of history prove wars, holocausts, torture, poverty, disease, starvation, marginalization, segregation, greed, lust for power and domination triumph every time over the Golden Rule.

    With this fact of life facing us as the ultimate reality, without paramount respect for morality we are doomed to extinction.

    So war movies will still sell most successfully because far too many of us are more fascinated with the dark side of our humanity than morality.

  14. Watching Free Movies, an online I was able to stop and pause and compare the various films. My conclusion is ‘The Hurt Locker,’ deserved to win much more than the Avatar. Avatar is a movie very well done, great for viewing in 3D, but rather unique history and a cockroach. this movie shows us the reality experienced by many American soldiers. and served to prove that the “most expensive movies ever” are not always those who win Oscars. The Avatar had too much propaganda around it. Heard of this movie before he wins? many of you don’t. and I have to add that the main actor is excellent. The Hurt Locker, isn’t about how great America is or how great Iraq is. It’s about the soldiers as human beings who undergo so much stress and hardship, and about how it affects them for the rest of their lives, long after the war.

    And so what if it beat Avatar? The whole, single dude single handedly saves an entire civilization, while getting their hottest chick has been seen, heard and read one time too many, thank you very much. Avatar was a fun, mindless spectacle(like the Spiderman movies). It lack depth and had zero great acting or writing, it was all about the CGI and special effects and action scenes…. it was made for the masses to enjoy. It was not an Oscar caliber film, Oscar caliber films need story depth and real acting and directing and writing…. they can’t be one CGI scene after another. Yet, Avatar does in fact relate to the real world. It shows how destructive and corrupt the human mind can be.

    Avatar is a good entertaining movie, but it bears no real meaning on…anything. Lol. Its just another bedtime story type thing. ‘The Hurt Locker’ was a GREAT film with great actors and directing, hence why it got the win.

  15. I would ad Malick’s The Thin Red Line to your list. I think that it’s one of the most cerebral and thought provoking war movies ever, as well as fitting the themes of dissent and empathy that you present here.

  16. Yes the director of the war movies had imagine of what happen in the last 100 of years, and they shared it so that everyone knows and it’s very helpful to us. So that we had an idea if the time comes again..

  17. You know what – Avatar and Hurt Locker – totally over rated. However, I do also wonder what else there is out there to compare it to.

    Is it me or has there been no real great movies since the writers strike??? Any films that people have seen that really inspired/excited I’d like to hear about


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