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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.