Listomania!: The Ten Best Anti-War Films
“War! What is it good for?” asked Edwin Starr in 1969, before answering his own question with a highly conclusive exclamation of “Absolutely nothing!”
And while you really have to admit that the soul supremo was generally correct in his assertion, there is at least one thing that war is good for, and that’s war films. Yes, war films, perhaps the best by-product of war (apart from maybe the eventual restoration of peace and stuff like that), and there have been plenty of absolutely fantastic ones made over the years. Of course if you’re a lily-livered pacifist like me (or Edwin Starr!), then you’ll probably prefer anti-war films, but let’s face it we wouldn’t have those without war either.
So here is my list of the ten best anti-war films. I’ve decided to keep my choices largely combat-based and focused on the physical act of war itself (hence no Dr. Strangelove), and I’ve also ruled out one or two films that are a little too specific in their subject matter (you could argue that Downfall is an anti-war film, but it’s mainly a film about the last days of Adolf Hitler).
Let me know what you think I might have missed, but let’s not fight about it… War is hell, after all.
10. Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999)
Chiefly remembered for the on-set war which erupted after star George Clooney had to “straighten out” famously temperamental director Russell following the latter’s abuse of an extra, this is probably the best film yet made about a modern conflict (in this case, the first Gulf War). A riff on the “men on a mission” template a good ten years before Inglorious Basterds, here our central trio of opportunistic soldiers (out to smuggle gold from Kuwait) find themselves forced to confront the desperate plight the war has inflicted on the people they are supposed to be liberating. The highlight is a scene that focuses on the horrific damage a single bullet-wound can cause – rather than the blanket carnage wreaked by the usual spray – and which is as strikingly original as it is grimly effective.
9. How I Won the War (Richard Lester, 1967)
The Beatles’ director-in-residence famously recruited none other than John Lennon to put in a supporting turn in this bizarre avant garde comedy about a doomed British Army platoon and the bungling Lieutenant who leads them to their deaths. Future Frank Spencer Michael Crawford (guess who he plays!) heads a sterling cast which, moonlighting mop-tops aside, features esteemed Brit thesps like Roy Kinnear, Jack MacGowran, Michael Horden and even Ethel from Eastenders! Lester employs several typically off-the-wall stylistic devices (including having each deceased soldier return to the platoon as a primary coloured ghost) to highlight the absurdities of war and lampoon the sometimes destructive vanity of heroism.
8. The Bridge (Bernhard Wicki, 1959)
Made a mere 14 years after the fall of the Third Reich, this is an unforgettably unflinching look at the brutal final days of the Wehrmacht and the Second World War in Europe. With the Allied forces steadily encroaching on a small Bavarian town, seven schoolboys – each just 16 years old – are conscripted into the German army and assigned the task of defending a bridge into the area. What subsequently unfolds amounts to one of the greatest films ever made about the tragically inevitable loss of innocence during wartime, and easily the boldest German film of the immediate post-war era.
7. Play Dirty (Andre De Toth, 1969)
This unfairly overlooked “Brits on a mission” romp plays out like a surprisingly sour and pessimistic flipside to the more bombastic, US-made likes of The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes. Michael Caine – who always excels when playing slightly sinister characters – is on top form here as a cynical oil executive roped in to joining a dangerous mission to blow up a German fuel base during the British Army’s North African campaign of WWII. Play Dirty is an apt title indeed for a film which routinely depicts soldiers as being little more than terrorists and paid murderers, but while it is heavy on the anti-war rhetoric, it also delivers on the explosive, tension-packed set-pieces.
6. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, 1980)
Based on Fuller’s own war memoirs, the famously grizzled auteur had a remarkable war record which consisted of seeing action in North Africa and Sicily, before participating in both the D-day landings and the liberation of the concentration camps in Eastern Europe. A highly-decorated member of the US Army’s famous First Infantry Division (AKA the Big Red One), Fuller nevertheless reflects on his combat experiences with a mixture of anger and despair, peppered with the occasional burst of morbid humour. Lee Marvin stars as a war-weary Sergeant, unfortunate enough to be returning to the same battlefields he fought in during the First World War, while Robert Carradine plays his director’s onscreen alter-ego and poor old Mark Hamill gets to put in an impressive shift in at least one film that isn’t set in a galaxy far, far away.
5. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
We’re in the First World War now with a film about the court-martial and subsequent execution of three French soldiers charged with cowardice – this was so controversial it was actually banned in France until 1975. The greatest ever depiction of trench warfare, Stanley Kubrick’s typically breathtaking tracking shots bring the horrors of the frontline vividly to life. Kirk Douglas gives a career-best performance as the commanding officer who fights to save his charges, while Timothy Carey (surely the cult actor’s cult actor) is unforgettable as one of the doomed men.
4. Cross of Iron (Sam Peckinpah, 1977)
Not only is this notable as being the notoriously gun-crazy Sam Peckinpah’s sole war film, it is also unique for being that rare thing – an American film which deals with the Second World War from an exclusively German perspective. Two great James’ head an impressive cast – Coburn as a burnt out Corporal and Mason as a besieged Colonel trying to steer his company to safety, and ultimately coming up against a scheming Captain (played by rent-a-Nazi Maximilian Schell) whose desire to be awarded the famous Iron Cross could lead them all to certain death. Still a name commonly associated with gratuitous screen violence, Peckinpah makes no secret of how much he abhors the act of war here, and the end credit montage acts as a sobering testament to the futility of human conflict.
3. The Victors (Carl Foreman, 1963)
Released in the early 60s when triumphalism over the perceived Allied victory in WWII was still at a high-point, and revelatory documentaries like The World at War were a good few years away, The Victors was largely ignored on its release. This is hardly surprising as its downbeat tone still has the power to shock, especially as absolutely no punches are pulled when dealing with some of the more unsavoury activities Allied troops undertook during the war (viscous racism amongst US soldiers, brutal revenge killings enacted by the French, not to mention the general cruelty and exploitation inflicted upon “liberated” civilians by all). More a series of tenuously linked events used to depict the universal horrors of war than a conventional narrative film, the stand-out moment is a shocking scene in which a band of deserters are executed to the strains of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.
2. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
Perhaps the most disturbing film on our list, and this should come as no surprise when you consider the subject matter – the Wehrmacht’s barbaric “scorched earth” campaign across Belarus, in which entire villages were burnt to the ground and the inhabitants massacred. These truly nightmarish events unfold through the eyes of a young peasant boy who joins up with the Soviet partisans to fight against the invading Nazi forces, but quickly loses his grasp on reality as a result of the sheer horror he is forced to confront. This is often referred to as the “Russian Apocalypse Now”, but Klimov’s film has a powerful and deeply unsettling style all of its own.
1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Speaking of which, here is Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, horrific and psychedelic anti-war odyssey in all its sweaty, bewildering glory, sitting pretty at the top of our list. Seeing as the Vietnam War has always been controversial and is hard to paint as anything other than a catastrophic failure, the films made about that conflict belong to perhaps the most famous stable of anti-war films, and Apocalypse Now is the best of the bunch. The message contained at the dark heart of this film – that war can never truly be noble, and that it has the power to turn all those who partake in it to madness and savagery – could be applied to any conflict throughout human history, however – and probably a good few yet to come, sadly.