This is a list of anti-war masterpieces. Careful! This is NOT a list about movies on war. You won’t find films with astonishing battle shootings or stories of glory. Some of them are rather disturbing movies. But there are comedies too! Each of the settings are different: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. But it is not the action nor the setting that matters.
All of the following films are a deep plunge into the real nature of war: despair, destruction and death. Lack of hope and perspective. Hate. All of those films, in their way, denounce war; they consider it as a degeneration of human nature. Their directors haven’t just made another film; they used their art to show the absurdity of wars, and of military hierarchies, in a vain hope that someday we will live in peace. Through poetry or humor, great performances and master cinematography, they gifted us – me with the following masterpieces!
10. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
War wounds, you carry them all of your life
It was called ‘the birth of French new cinema,’ a passionate love story between a married Japanese architect and a French actor in postwar Japan. A French actress, Elle, travels to Japan for the shooting of an anti-war film. There she meets a Japanese man, Lui, and they stay together for 36 hours, during which they recall their experiences from the war, which has deeply marked them both.
Alain Resnais, who first intended to do a documentary on the atomic bomb, films a continuous conversation between Him and Her, abolishing any form of linear narration, as he plays with time, space, memories or emotions. He looks back at his memories of Hiroshima, as the whole of his family were back there in the day of the bombing. She tries to get into the story and share his feelings, but she is rejected.
At the end she reveals her trauma from the war: in her birth town, when the war finished, she was shamed and had her head shaved because she had a love affair with a German soldier. Her love has been punished and she had lost her hair, like the women in Hiroshima who found theirs on their pillows the next morning.
War traumas haunt people for the rest of their lives. They cannot be treated or cured because they are inexplicable. The destruction war brings to people’s lives is horrifying and inexplicable. The protagonists try to counterbalance with exasperate love that has no tomorrow, as war leaves people with no tomorrow.
9. Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Don’t panic, just prepare for World War III
This catalytic satire challenges the fear of humanity in the postwar era: the probable outburst of a nuclear war due to the continuous rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union in perfecting their nuclear weapons defense programs.
An insane general believes that American society is attacked by communists through fluoridation of water and deploys a nuclear attack mechanism without his superiors knowing. He is the only one who has the code to recall the attack, but has shut down communication. A fellow officer from Britain believes he knows the recall code and tries to get the message to the Pentagon War Room.
There, the president of United States, the General of Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high ranking officials have convened to discuss how they can stop it and prevent Soviet retaliations and doomsday. So they call the nuclear war adviser, former Nazi officer, Dr. Strangelove…
Lampooning both the Cold War paranoia and the close relations with ex-Nazis in an effort to face the Soviet Union, Kubrick creates the figure of Dr. Strangelove after the notorious rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who proposed the strategy of mutual assured destruction, as a man in a wheelchair who tries to control his right hand not to perform the Nazi salute, implying that governments have not learned from the atrocities of World War II and are prone to make the same mistakes.
8. The Hill (Sidney Lumet, 1965)
The war inside the war
One of the well-hidden gems of cinema, this film marks the beginning of the collaboration between Sidney Lumet and Sean Connery. The story takes place in a British military prison somewhere in Northern Africa during World War II. Five prisoners, all of whom are Commonwealth nationals, and officer John Roberts who is charged with disobedience among them, arrive in the prison. While a few miles away Allied troops fight the Rommel army, the offenders of the military law have to deal with a sadistic prison guard who forces them to run up and down under the hot African sun, an artificial hill made in the center of the camp.
This is a story about World War II not in the battlefields but in a ‘glass house.’ It may not be a glorious site, but it is still the army, and it is still war. The enemy here is not the Nazi but the fellow soldiers that become guards. The prisoners, accused either of serious or petty offenses, have to suffer humiliation and physical punishment as a result for their incapacity to follow the iron military rule. When the other administrators of the camp decide finally to report the abuses, the anger accumulated by the prisoners is very difficult to restrain.
The film is a study of human characters as it follows closely the five prisoners who are stacked together in a small cell, with everyone trying to survive the way their experiences and ethics dictate. The same conflicts burst among the guardians and the doctor of the camp, as everyone has a different notion of discipline. All of them, prisoners and guardians, are trapped by the cruelty of war and military order.
7. M.A.S.H. (Robert Altman, 1970)
Make fun – not war
The blackest comedy about war, this film was released at the end of the turbulent 60s by Robert Altman, a relatively then-unknown director who took a script other directors rejected and turned it to a cult 70’s anti war movie – and a Palme d’Or winner.
In 1950, three new surgeons arrive in the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea, just three miles from the front line. They are drafted into the Army and they don’t like at all military way of life, obedience and rituals. They are womanizers, heavy drinkers and prone to pranks … but they are very good surgeons, after all.
The commander of the camp doesn’t mind, as long as they are doing their job well, but there is a faction of military staff that wants to impose military order in the camp. A series of comical episodes that destabilize military discipline and hierarchy take place, showing that the best way to get along with the absurdity of war may be nothing else but tones of humor.
6. La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) & All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)
There is nothing glorious about war
Two films stand for the sixth position on this list, which, I believe, are highly complementary. They tell stories about World War I from different angles: the first from the French, the second from the German.
“La Grande Illusion,” an artistic achievement in cinematography, tells the story of two French officers who are captured by Germans, an aristocrat and a middle-class man. The film follows their wandering around different prisoners’ camps and their efforts to escape. Renoir highlighted the ‘aristocratic’ nature of that war, as both German and French aristocrats feel closer to each other than to the rest of their army, and the fact that wars are made to serve the interests of those who have against the lives of the have-nots.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque that was published just one year before and is considered one of the greatest American epic films. It follows a group of young German recruits who, fascinated by their professor’s patriotic speeches, enlist and go to the front, only to find death, mutilation and nothing of glory. It could be easily called “La Grande Disillusion.”
Both released in interwar (1937 and 1930) when the Nazi threat started to rise, they remind audiences what was supposed to be ‘the last of the wars.’