War Movies: More Than Guts And Glory

Above: 8 films that show both the horror and the humanity of war

War is hell. Fortunately for most of us, it’s a hell we’ll never have to endure. Those who have endured it will tell you no movie can quite capture the reality of war, the toll it takes on a person’s humanity. But there are some filmmakers who’ve come close, giving proper respect to soldiers and attempting to understand, without judgment, what they go through.

In honour of Remembrance Day, here are eight films that show both the horror and the humanity of war:

The Deer Hunter (1978)

The most important theme of The Deer Hunter is how arbitrary everything is in a warzone and how, even when the war is finished with its soldiers, they can’t quite shake the experience. While the veracity of the film’s POW experience has been questioned, our understanding of its effects lingers long after the credits roll.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppolla takes Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, which was published way back in 1899, and drops the story right in the middle of the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now tries to expose the moral ambiguity of war—there isn’t really any good or bad when you believe you’re fighting for your life and your country—using Marlon Brando’s sinister Kurtz to show that the enemy is never who or what you think they are.

Platoon (1986)

One of the central messages of Oliver Stone’s Platoon is that, for one to survive war, one must abandon their humanity. He introduces us to Barnes, who is a cold, merciless killer, and Elias, who struggles and manages to maintain his essential goodness despite living in a time and place that seems to punish goodness. See if you can guess which one wins out in the end.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick’s meditation on the senselessness of war—particularly the Vietnam War—is most affecting in its first half. The opening stanza tackles the dehumanizing psychological warfare a soldier faces before they even finish boot camp, a challenge that one recruit doesn’t survive. The second half reunites some of the recruits in the jungles of Vietnam, attempting to show the effects their training had on them—some have adapted to life in war, others have managed to hold onto their identities. But it’s that stark look at how regular people become fighting machines that’s most haunting.

Schindler’s List (1993)

It’s not a “war movie” in the strictest sense—it’s not about firefights and trenches and brothers-in-arms. Rather, Schindler’s List is about the civilians caught in the Second World War.  So many just had to get by, surviving as best they could and enduring their own suffering, hoping it would eventually come to an end. But some saw the hardships of others and dedicated themselves to trying to help, no matter the cost. As much good as we see, there’s always the heartbreaking refrain: “I could have got more out.”

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The first 25 or so minutes of the film might be the closest Hollywood has ever come to a perfect depiction of war. It’s noisy, chaotic, violent and seemingly senseless. There is no victory, only survival—and when it’s over there’s no celebration, no grand string overtures celebrating our heroes, just more work to be done.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

The conflict in Rwanda wasn’t a war, it was genocide, but the film still bears mentioning because it puts human faces on both sides of a massively deadly conflict—800,000 people died in just 100 days of killing—that went largely unnoticed or ignored by the outside world. It’s a reminder that, for all the things our soldiers are willing to fight for, it’s politicians who decide who, how and when those soldiers fight.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Modern warfare is nothing like the trench fighting of the First and Second World Wars, or the guerilla warfare of Vietnam. Our wars are desktop wars, battles for information and strategic attempts at destabilization, all plotted from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Zero Dark Thirty points out that this doesn’t mean we don’t still commit inhuman acts against each other in service of military gains.

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