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20 Great Anti-War Movies That Are Worth Your Time

15 June 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Daniel Gauss

best anti-war movies

In the novel ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book. Both are inevitable, so what’s the point? Au contraire mon frere. Please remember the graffiti from May of 1968 as French students nearly toppled their government: “Be a realist! Expect the impossible!”

David Mamet pointed out that war is always the failure of diplomacy – the politicians fail and the common soldier is called in to resolve the mess created by incompetent or corrupt politicians. Well, the great anti-war films point to a future where this corps of fighters might not be available.

When we think of anti-war films we tend to think of stuff like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – films that are anti-war because they turn our stomachs with horrific visual imagery. I would argue that the most effective anti-war films are, however, not bloody at all. They are human and moral dramas which reveal underlying absurdities and less-than-noble motives for armed conflict. There is also a class of films not regularly considered anti-war films because no war is depicted in them, but their ethos is clearly anti-war.

Since Taste of Cinema encourages experimentation and thinking out of the box, here’s my shot at a more unconventional anti-war film list, along with a few of the stalwarts you’d expect. I’m sure I missed some, so that’s where you come in – please supplement the list via the comments. I think there might be some spoilers but, come on, we’re all over 21 and knowing the end helps you understand the film better anyway.

 

1. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) by Nagisa Oshima

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

The novel on which this movie was based was titled ‘The Seed and the Sower’ by Laurens van der Post. It was, basically, a religious novel of how a pacifistic Allied soldier in a Japanese prisoner of war camp deeply influenced the Japanese commanding officer with his idealism and humanity. The ending irony is that although the officer was deeply affected (the prisoner was the Christian ‘sower’, the commander the ‘seed’) he is executed by the Allies as a war criminal.

Oshima adds amazing texture to the novel by implying a homosexual attraction between the sower and the seed. At the end Major “Straight-for” Jack Celliers (played by David Bowie) stops the commander (Ryuichi Sakamoto) from executing an English officer by kissing him on the cheeks. Throughout the film militarism and barbarity are countered by the deep humanity of Major Lawrence (Tom Conti – in one of the most affecting performances ever by a film actor) and Celliers. This is a film that sticks with you forever.

 

2. The White Rose (1982) by Michael Verhoeven

Die Weiße Rose

A film based on the true story of a group of German students at the University of Munich, and one of their professors, who felt compelled to oppose Nazism through pacifistic means – primarily the dissemination of knowledge as to what the Nazi government was truly doing during the war.

When Sophie and Hans Scholl decided to flood their university with fliers outlining Nazi atrocities, they expected the students to rise up against the government. Instead there was nothing but apathy among the students and the Scholls were captured.

An amazing story of how, even in the heart of a totalitarian society, it might be possible to demonstrate resistance. At one point the Gestapo was convinced The White Rose was an enormous and wide-spread organization throughout Germany and was forced to divert resources accordingly – while, in fact, all this trouble-making had been accomplished by one small group based in one city.

 

3. Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) by Keisuke Kenoshita

Twenty-Four Eyes (1954)

A film that spans the years 1928 to 1946 (the beginning of the Shōwa era in Japan) as a young, modern, female Japanese teacher watches her beloved students grow during the period of rising militarism in Japan. No spoilers here, just a highly recommended film. A classic in Japan which was neglected at art houses in the USA.

 

4. Hair (1979) by Miloš Forman

Hair (1979)

Very moving scene toward the end as you see lines of US soldiers marching into the cavernous bellies of transport planes to Vietnam. The military culture of the USA is contrasted with the hippy culture of New York City. There’s not as much energy in the movie as in the original soundtrack, but the ending makes a strong anti-war statement. I loved seeing the thousands of young people singing Let the Sun Shine In at the end.

 

5. J’accuse (1919 and 1938) by Abel Gance

J'accuse

“Friends! The time has come for us to rise again and see whether they valued our sacrifice!” In this amazing anti-war film, the dead from World War I rise from their graves to attempt to stop future wars. The first version was made immediately after WWI. When Gance saw that another war was looming, he made another version. It failed to stop WWII.

 

6. The Victors (1963) by Carl Foreman

VICTORS, THE

Credit: [ COLUMBIA / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

Carl Foreman begs to differ with all the ‘good war’ rhetoric about WWII in this anti-war classic. It might be George Hamilton’s greatest film! Yes that pretty boy could act up a storm when he needed to.

The film shows a group of Americans who are not driven by idealism – they are basically pawns going where they are told and doing what they are told, including serving on a firing squad at Christmas time in the execution of a fellow American soldier. A strong statement against war which was produced just before the American involvement in Vietnam. Well, Carl, at least you tried.

 

7. The Grand Illusion (1937) by Jean Renoir

la-grande-illusion

A lot has been made of the fact that this film shines a light on the changing class structure of Europe during the WWI period. OK, that’s true but I would argue it’s an anti-war film as well.

The film shows a glorification of nationalism accompanied by the dominance of an aristocratic war mongering class. Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) still views war as a gentleman’s occupation and almost as a type of game guys in the upper class play against each other – who cares how the civilian populations might be affected?

War is just a big World Cup where guys get killed. Against this attitude are the two heroes of the film Rosenthal and Maréchal – the “Jew” and the “mechanic” – both of whom have no place in the traditional war-as-game scenario and who just want to get out of a POW camp.

 

8. Devils on the Doorstep (2000) by Jiang Wen

Devils on the Doorstep

Complex, funny and ironic film in which a Chinese village is asked to hold a crazy, war-loving Japanese soldier as prisoner until he can be picked up again by the group that has captured him. The group never comes back and the prisoner changes from a nutty death-demanding soldier to a grateful guest.

There are twists and turns in this film which won all kinds of awards but which was banned in China for God knows what reason; I guess they just like banning stuff there.

 

9. Chicago 10 (2007) by Brett Morgan

Chicago 10 (2007)

I love Abbie Hoffman. No, he is not dead. Well, technically he is but I am hoping that some stoner somewhere has his brain cryogenically frozen and ready to function again because, frankly, we need him now. That would be Abbie’s ultimate yippie prank – to lead a new protest movement in America from a cryogenic chamber or jar.

This is the story of how youth from around America came to Chicago to try to stop the Vietnam War, how Richard M. Daley unleashed his police force on the peaceful protesters and how the world was appalled. It is also about how the US government used and abused the court system, starring Justice “Just” Julius Hoffman, to throw the leaders of the protests, and their lawyers, in jail.

This is a film about how to protest a war creatively in a corrupt city under a corrupt president and the farce of a trial that railroaded some truly brilliant young folks trying to stop the insane carnage in Vietnam.

 

10. Fires on the Plain (1959) by Kon Ichikawa

Fires on the Plain

Private First Class Tamura has TB and is not in much shape to fight a war, but the hospital won’t take him. When he goes back to his unit his officer goes nuts prompting Tamura to declare: “I PFC Tamura will try to check into the hospital again and I will kill myself if they won’t take me.”

Well the hospital won’t take him and he begins a journey of survival in which he’ll basically do anything to survive. A story of how an everyman will, in the exigencies of war, abandon all ethics and live lower than an animal.

 

 

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  • Bryton Cherrier

    Where in the HELL is Johnny Got His Gun?!

    • Rainmaker

      I was looking for that film too and remained quite disappointed. Still not a bad list.

      • Daniel Gauss

        Ooops, I agree…sorry T_T – great choice!

        • Bryton Cherrier

          And while I’m at it.
          Have you watched Come And See?

          • Daniel Gauss

            Yep, now I’m feeling really guilty. I should have done a top 25 list. 😛 But it’s good that you mentioned these – I was hoping folks would supplement the list. Thanks! One of the reasons I didn’t include it, though, is that I thought it made its argument through blood and gore instead of drama…but maybe I should have included it…it is very dramatic.

  • Alkis3

    “The Thin Red Line” should fit in here…

  • sdgalante

    You may ask :Where in the HELL are Grave of the Fireflies?!!

    • Daniel Gauss

      Ooops…sorry. T_T

  • Simone Bionda

    I also suggest “La grande guerra” by Mario Monicelli.
    You dont realize you are weeping bitterly while you’re laughing. sorry for my bad english

    • Daniel Gauss

      Your English is fine! Thanks for the great contribution! I’m going to check it out!

  • marcel

    I’m glad you mentioned Welcome to Dongmakgol.

    • Daniel Gauss

      I loved that movie so much! Funny story: I used to teach English to a Korean pop group in NY City and one of the members of that group gave me the dvd of this film! I loved it!

  • SupernaturalCat

    Anti-nukes movies:

    Fail Safe 1964 (“the matador…”)

    The War Game (no, not the lame 1980s Matthew Broderick flick, but a 1965 BBC documdrama)

    Testament 1983 (the best of the bunch, no focus on cities being vaporized in fireballs, but packs an emotional wallop as the story centers on a family in small town America dying off one by one via radiation poisoning after everything is gone. You’ll cry several times throughout.)

    The Day After 1983 (American tv, lo-fi FX yet still horrifying to watch!!!)

    Threads 1984 (British tv movie, highly unrealistic nuke scenes–all stock footage from testing archive–but grim nuclear winter scenarios)

  • Dave Hinnrichs

    The white ribbon should be on this list.

    • Daniel Gauss

      That’s an interesting suggestion. Ostensibly the film isn’t about ‘war’ but the argument seemed to be, if I got it correctly, that the seeds of the future nazi government and its wars were sown through an oppressive and pervasive family structure. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Susan F

    Born on the Fourth of July is garbage. Someone mentioned The White Ribbon below, but as great as that Michael Haneke film is, it’s really about the origins of German fascism and its fascistic culture. I think a television film which nobody here ever heard of deserves mention. Its called Tumbledown. It takes place before, during and in the aftermath of the Falklands war. Colin Firth, who is largely unknown in the USA despite winning an Oscar, was fantastic in the film which he made before being typecast for decades as Mr. Darcy. He has finally partially broke thought that artistic prison. Its free on youtube. Take a look and tell me its not powerful and his performance superb. Its in multi parts. Here is part one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ku3ahX-RLls

  • Mike Bennet

    I’d like to say Tom Cruise made up for his participation an extremely effective 2-hour U.S. Navy advertisement (Top Gun) by making Born on the Fourth of July but, unfortunately, I heard him recently talk somewhat seriously about doing another 2-hour Navy advertisement (Top Gun 2).

  • burritolikethesun

    Any list like this without Come and See on it isn’t worth your time.