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.