Memorializing the Horrors of War With 10 Must-See War Films

“The horror… the horror…” – Apocalypse Now (1979)

“You can’t 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 audience’s head every night, you know, and have actual casualties in the theater.” – Sam Fuller, film director and author

Nearly 71 years ago, the United States unleashed atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 individuals, many of whom were civilians.

Fast forward to the present day, and President Obama – the antiwar candidate and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has waged war longer than any American president and whose legacy includes targeted-drone killings and at least 1.3 million lives lost to the U.S.-led war on terror – is paying lip service to the victims of America’s nuclear carnage, all the while continuing to feed the war machine.

America has long had a penchant for endless wars that empty our national coffers while fattening those of the military industrial complex. Since 9/11, we’ve spent more than $1.6 trillion to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Adding in our military efforts in Pakistan, as well as the lifetime price of health care for disabled veterans and interest on the national debt, that cost rises to $4.4 trillion. Even now, the war drums are sounding as Obama prepares to deploy U.S. troops on a long-term mission to Libya and continues to police the rest of the world with more than 1.3 million US troops being stationed at roughly 1000 military bases in over 150 countries.

To this end, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, Americans are fed a steady diet of pro-war propaganda that keeps them content to wave flags with patriotic fervor and less inclined to look too closely at the mounting body counts, the ruined lives, the ravaged countries, the blowback arising from ill-advised targeted-drone killings and bombing campaigns in foreign lands, and the transformation of our own homeland into a warzone.

Nowhere is this double-edged irony more apparent than during military holidays such as Memorial Day, when we get treated to a generous serving of praise and grandstanding by politicians, corporations and others with similarly self-serving motives eager to go on record as being pro-military.

Yet war is a grisly business, a horror of epic proportions. In terms of human carnage alone, war’s devastation is staggering. For example, it is estimated that approximately 231 million people died worldwide during the wars of the 20th century. This figure does not take into account the walking wounded – both physically and psychologically – who “survive” war.

War drives the American police state. The military-industrial complex is the world’s largest employer. War sustains our way of life while killing us at the same time. 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 also entertains us with its carnage, its killing fields, its thrills and chills and bloodied battles set to music and memorialized in books, on television, in video games, and in superhero films and blockbuster Hollywood movies financed in part by the military.

War has become a centerpiece of American entertainment culture, most prevalent in war movies.

War movies deal in the extremes of human behavior. The best films address not only destruction on a vast scale but also plumb the depths of humanity’s 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 also 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.

While there are many films to choose from, the following 10 war films 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.

The Third Man (1949). Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which deals primarily with the aftereffects of the ravages of war, is a great film by anyone’s 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.

Paths 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.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962). John Frankenheimer’s 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 film’s 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.

Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964). One of the great films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 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 didn’t). Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott are excellent in support.

The Deer Hunter (1978). Michael Cimino’s 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 superb.

Apocalypse Now (1979). I consider this Francis Ford Coppola’s best film. Based on Joseph Conrad’s 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.

Platoon (1986). This is not Oliver Stone’s 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.

Full Metal Jacket (1987). Stanley Kubrick’s 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 Kubrick’s work, is top notch.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Adrian Lyne’s 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.

Jarhead (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 Sykes.

As these films illustrate, war is indeed hell.

What we must decide is whether we’re stuck with war as a necessity of the world in which we live, as President Obama suggested in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, or whether we’re prepared to do as Martin Luther King suggested 45 years earlier in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture and find an alternative to war.

Speaking in Oslo in 1964, King declared:

Man’s proneness to engage in war is still a fact. But wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war.

Reprinted with permission from the Rutherford Institute.

22 thoughts on “Memorializing the Horrors of War With 10 Must-See War Films”

  1. You forgot 1985’s Come and See. Not American (Russian) but probably the most soul-shattering movie on warfare ever committed to celluloid. I’m pretty sure even John McCain would think twice about voting for another war crime after seeing it (he still would, though, because he’s a vampire.)

  2. Excellent list, sir. Two additional ones come to mind: Joyeux Noel and Johnny Got His Gun.

  3. Stone said that Platoon was inspired by the Iliad. A tale of a great country invading a foreign land, fighting futilely for ten years and eventually destroying its own soldiers. The Odyssey has a subtext about the toll the Trojan war took on the Greeks at home. Stone’s Barnes was inspired by Homer’s Achilles – an invincible warrior who could not be killed by the Vietnamese, driven to insanity real and imaginary enemies, eventually killing civilians and in his paranoia ultimately killing his American comrades. Like Achilles, Barnes had a fatal weakness – Barnes could only be killed by a fellow American. Barnes’ weakness was Stone’s metaphorical statement that only Americans can stop the horrors our government unleashes on humanity.

  4. Stone said that Platoon was inspired by the Iliad – a tale of a great country invading a foreign land and being torn apart internally after futilely wasting their youth on foreign shores for ten years. Stone’s Barhes was inspired by Homer’s Achilles – an invincible ferocious warrior who could not be killed by the Vietnamese. Barnes, like Achilles is a killing machine who moves from killing enemies to civilians to destroying villages and eventually in his paranoia killing his fellow Americans. Like Achilles, Barnes had only one weakness – Barnes could only be killed by another American. The movie is Stone’s statement that only an American antiwar movement can stop the horrors our government unleashes on humanity,

  5. I don’t think that Hollywood has ever made a genuinely anti-war movie. Most of your list are sops in my view. Highlighting the suffering of American soldiers a la the Deer Hunter and the like is kind of insulting to the populations they were killing en masse and whose suffering was far greater.

  6. I suggest adding TAKING CHANCE with Kevin Bacon to your list. The dignity involved in his taking Chance home is awesome and literally flawless. But when watching it several times the same question always prevails. Why is this casket here in the first place, when NOTHING has been achieved to make out country safer because of it? Our wars are now being fought, and our dead and mentally and physically maimed are coming home, with no advantage to anyone whatsoever.

  7. For books check out any of Sven Hassel’s novels, particularly recommend “March Battalion” “Monte Cassino” and “SS General”. All of Hassel’s novels have an antiwar theme and were based on his own experiences in a WW2 penal regiment.

  8. I’m not sure what was going on there, but it was not a “still being blocked” thing. It was one of two things:

    1) Your username or IP address changed, so the “whitelisting” function didn’t detect you; or

    2) Perhaps it was in another area of that I had “whitelisted” you? We have separate commenting systems for blog, commentary and news posts. Whitelisting in one doesn’t whitelist in the others.

    Anyway, sorry about that. I’ve been traveling again (to the Libertarian National Convention) and got behind on moderation duties. I think my traveling is mostly done for the summer now, though!

    1. Thanks, Tom.
      I understand you have to keep the Libertarians in order. Keep up your good work.
      I hope I am whitelisted here now.
      BTW, I can’t even open the comments page on any of Jason Ditz’ articles. Am I blacklisted there?

      1. Yeah, that’s happened to me too with some of the news posts. What gives? As far as I know I’ve never been blacklisted but I’m not sure how I would even know if I was.
        P.S. Sorry about your boy Perry, Tom. Looks like it’s Johnson/Weld 2016. I could live with Johnson but Weld pretty much guarantees I’m voting Stein, Again. What can I say, political parties kinda suck. Maybe we should just scrap em all.

        1. Very strange. I have passed both Skywalker’s and your notes on this. Some kind of site code problem, I assume. We’ll try and get it fixed. Angela Keaton asks me to assure both of you that no, you are NOT blacklisted and that she’s on the case.

          Thanks for the consolations. I was proud to support Perry/Coley at every opportunity (Coley dropped out and endorsed Sharpe for VP so I cast my vote for him on the second ballot). As a member of the Libertarian Party I won’t be OPPOSING the ticket, but I’ve ended my own congressional campaign rather than lend that ticket any support.

          Trivia question: If Sharpe had been nominated for vice-president, he would have been the second former US Marine to appear on American ballots for that office. Who was the first?

          1. I honestly have no idea off the top of my head. I could Google it but I wouldn’t feel good about the win. My grandfather would be seriously pissed at me right now if he were still around. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in Recon during Nam. Not exactly antiwar but by ’72 he was voting for McGovern. You tell me.

      2. So far as I know, not being able to open a comments page would not be a side effect of blacklisting — you just wouldn’t be able to comment. I’ll pass that on to our tech people and see what’s up.

  9. All fine antiwar films in the list, though I was surprised to see that the following two films didn’t make the cut.

    “All Quiet on the Western Front” – available in three versions – 1930 with Lew Ayres, and Louis Wolheim; 1976 with Ernest Borgnine and Richard Thomas; 2016 with Travis Fimmel. The black and white 1930’s version is, IMO, still the single best antiwar film ever made. 1976 version is excellent, too. Can’t speak for the 2016 version, haven’t yet seen it.

    “The Americanization of Emily” (1964) with James Garner and Julie Andrews has a script that truly captures some of the insanities of war, but the film may be light on action for viewers hoping for a war movie.

  10. I’m not sure why your comment got in moderation — or why it took several hours after its marked posting time to appear in the moderation queue. Sorry about that, and it should be taken care of now.

  11. Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Not only a legitimate candidate for the best western ever made, it would be a legit candidate for the best film ever made. Self-consciously anti-war. its depiction of the civil war as corrupt, pointless and bereft of even a speck of glory has to put it at the top of the list.

  12. this list NEEDS Grave Of The Fireflies and Catch 22 and the documentary In The Year Of The Pig and maybe Enemy At The Gates and Lost Horizon

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