The Horror! The Horror! Must-See War Films
by John W. Whitehead
by John W. Whitehead: 2011:
America’s Longest Ongoing War: The ‘Race’ War on Drugs
cant show war as it really is on the screen, with all the
blood and gore. Perhaps it would be better if you could fire real
shots over the audiences head every night, you know, and have
actual casualties in the theater. ~ Sam Fuller, film director
War is a grisly
business, a horror of epic proportions. In terms of human carnage
alone, wars devastation is staggering. For example, it is
estimated that approximately 231 million people died worldwide during
the wars of the 20th century. However, this figure does not take
into account the walking wounded both physically and psychologically
who survive war.
war will be our undoing. As Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent
and author Chris Hedges observes:
War is like
a poison. And just as a cancer patient must at times ingest a
poison to fight off a disease, so there are times in a society
when we must ingest the poison of war to survive. But what we
must understand is that just as the disease can kill us, so can
the poison. If we don't understand what war is, how it perverts
us, how it corrupts us, how it dehumanizes us, how it ultimately
invites us to our own self-annihilation, then we can become the
victim of war itself.
War is one
of the most heady and intoxicating, addictive enterprises ever
created by humankind. It has an allure, a fascination, a draw
that sweeps across national lines, ethnicity, race, religion.
It has perverted, corrupted, and ultimately destroyed societies
and nations across the globe. The only way to guard against it
is finally to understand what it does and how pernicious it is
and the myths and lies that we use to cover up the fact that,
at its core, war is death.
As Hedges implies,
war is entertainment. Indeed, from books to television to the internet
to film, war has been a centerpiece of American entertainment culture.
Yet of all the artistic mediums, film may be the most suitable forum
for a discussion of war, because of its visual impact.
deal in the extremes of human behavior. The best films address not
only destruction on a vast scale but also plumb the depths of humanitys
response to the grotesque horror of war. They present human conflict
in its most bizarre conditions where men and women caught
in the perilous straits of death perform feats of noble sacrifice
or dig into the dark battalions of cowardice.
War films provide
viewers with a way to vicariously experience combat, but the great
ones are not merely vehicles for escapism. Instead, they provide
a source of inspiration, while touching upon the fundamental issues
at work in wartime scenarios.
Here are 12
war films which touch on modern warfare (from the First World War
onward) and run the gamut of conflicts and human emotions and center
on the core issues often at work in the nasty business of war.
Third Man (1949). Carol Reeds The Third Man,
which deals primarily with the after-effects of the ravages of war,
is a great film by anyones standards. Set in postwar Europe,
this bleak film (written by Graham Greene) sets forth the proposition
that the corruption inherent in humanity means that the ranks of
war are never closed. There are many fine performances in this film,
including Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli.
of Glory (1957). This Stanley Kubrick film is an antiwar
masterpiece. The setting is 1916, when two years of trench warfare
have arrived at a stalemate. And while nothing of importance is
occurring in the war, thousands of lives are being lost. But the
masters of war pull the puppet strings, and the blood continues
to flow. This film is packed with good performances, especially
from Kirk Douglas and George Macready.
Manchurian Candidate (1962). John Frankenheimers classic
focuses on the psychological effects of war and its transmutation
into mind control and political assassination. All the lines of
intrigue converge to form a prophetic vision of what occurred the
year after the films release with the assassination of John
F. Kennedy. This chilling film is well written (co-written by Frankenheimer
and George Axelrod) and acted. Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and
Angela Lansbury head a fine cast.
Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
(1964). One of the great films of all time, Stanley Kubricks
Dr. Strangelove burst onto the cinematic landscape and cast
a cynical eye on the entire business of war. Strange and surreal,
this film is packed full of amazing images and great performances.
Peter Sellers should have walked off with the Oscar for best actor
(but he didnt). Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott are excellent
(1970). This is one of Robert Altmans best and most influential
films as can be seen in the popular spin-off television series.
Everyone knows the story of this group of misfit American doctors
during the Korean War. Fine performances by Donald Sutherland and
Hunter (1978). Michael Ciminos Academy Award-winning film
is one of the most emotion-invoking films ever made. This story
of a group of Pennsylvania steel mill workers who endure excruciating
ordeals in the Vietnam War is one film that makes its point clear
war is the horror of all horrors. Robert DeNiro is fine,
and Christopher Walken, who won a best supporting actor Oscar, is
Now (1979). I consider this Francis Ford Coppolas
best film. Based on Joseph Conrads novella, The
Heart of Darkness, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) treks
to the Cambodian jungle to assassinate renegade, manic Colonel Kurtz
(Marlon Brando). This antiwar epic is a great visual experience
with fine performances from its ensemble cast.
(1986). This is not Oliver Stones best film, but it is one
helluva war movie. Set before and during the Tet Offensive of January
1968, this is a gritty view of the Vietnam War by one who served
there. Indeed, when Stone is not filling the screen with explosions,
he makes the jungle seem all too real a wet place for bugs,
leeches and snakes, but not for people. Fine performances by Willem
Dafoe and Tom Berenger.
Metal Jacket (1987). Stanley Kubricks take on Vietnam
is one of the most powerful and psychological dramas ever made.
Focusing on the schizophrenic nature of the human psyche
the duality of man Kubrick takes us through a hell-like Parris
Island boot camp and into the bowels of a surreal Vietnam through
the eyes of Joker (Matthew Modine). Every facet of this film, as
in all of Kubricks work, is top notch.
Ladder (1990). Adrian Lynes thriller hits the psyche
like a thunderbolt. A man (Tim Robbins) struggles with what he saw
while serving in Vietnam. Back home, he gradually becomes unable
to separate "reality" from the surreal, psychotic world
that intermittently intervenes in his existence. This bizarre film
touches on the sordid nature of war and the corruption of those
who manipulate and experiment on us while we fight on their behalf.
Good cast (especially Elizabeth Peña), an excellent screenplay
(Bruce Joel Rubin) and adept directing make this film one nice trip.
Private Ryan: The Invasion Sequence (1998). The long opening
sequence of this film is unlike anything in any other Hollywood
depiction of war. Its 25 minutes of barely comprehensible
chaos and mutilation. Many veterans have stated that it is the most
accurate re-creation of an amphibious assault. Credit for this sequence
goes mainly to director of photography Janusz Kaminski to
be shared with editor Michael Kahn, sound designer Gary Rydstrom,
writer Robert Rodat and director Steven Spielberg. Beyond this
i.e., the other 150 minutes of the film Saving Private Ryan
is a run-of-the-mill movie.
(2005). Sam Mendes film follows a Marine recruit (Jake Gyllenhaal)
through Marine boot camp to service in Operation Desert Storm, winding
up at the Highway of Death. But what Mendes serves up is war as
a phallic obsession in the oil-drenched sands of Kuwait and Iraq.
Here soldiers fight not for causes but to survive in the nihilistic
pursuit of destruction. Fine performance by Jamie Foxx as Sergeant
As these films
illustrate, war is indeed hell. With each and every passing moment,
we move closer to the point of no return. Thus, it is time for what
Martin Luther King Jr. called a true revolution of values
that will lay hands on the world order and say of war, this
way of settling differences is not just.
the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, King
declared that the only solution is an all-embracing and unconditional
love for all mankind. He maintained that We can no longer
afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.
The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides
of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and
individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The
Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).
© 2012 The Rutherford Institute
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