The Elusive War Movie

Christopher Nolan is adamant that “Dunkirk” is not a war movie.

In an Associated Press interview, he has suggested it is rather a survival film.  This is an honest distinction, and easily lost.   Cast a gimlet eye over your war movie collection and think again.   How easy is it to find, let alone pick, the top five war films?

Films set in wartime might be survival stories, or adventure movies, or psychological dramas.  Wartime as setting, backdrop or back story, does not a war film make. Is “The Deer Hunter” a war film?  “Rescue Dawn”?  “Full Metal Jacket”?  Likely not.  Though all three films provide some insight of wartime experience, their concerns are elsewhere.    “Apocalypse Now”?   No. The Vietnam war provides a spectacular setting for Coppola’s lavish production, but it is not the story.  

A war film proper, concerns itself primarily with the experience of warfare. It offers a sense of what it is to be subjected to an extreme situation, and the moral ambiguities this provokes. The author of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, Erich Maria Remarque, wrote of his story that it is “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it”.

A great war film will alter its viewers’ understanding of the human experience.  Such a film might be beautiful, exciting and entertaining, but it will also leave a mark.  It will convey the reality of an experience which at some point shatters the fabric of daily life. 

This does not have to an altogether grim film.   Lone Sherfig’s “Their Finest”, for example, achieves this understanding in a gentle and often funny and touching way, while remaining insightful about lives cut short, the sense of living only for the moment, and the shock of seeing familiar neighbourhoods destroyed.  The film includes references to the Dunkirk evacuation and the civilian flotilla sailing across to help.  Over time, this understated film will come to be seen as one of a few excellent British films about wartime.  It also helps to redress the balance about women’s significant role in wartime.   The film is a delight.  

On a completely different comedy register, Mike Nichols’ 1970 famous version of “Catch 22” captures the perverse craziness of a new reality dictated by war, and the fear of its horror – and yet it is funny.

Still, most films about war are also a lie of some sort. Writers such as Ernst Juenger in Storm of Steel, or Svetlana Alexievich in The Unwomanly Face of War, uncover that lie and recreate a striking sense of direct experience.  But those are books; it is harder to find films which do that. Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” almost gets there, thanks to the source of its story, JG Ballard’s harrowing but unflinching childhood recollections.   “Empire of the Sun” is however partly undone, despite being wonderful enjoyable, because it is more concerned with aesthetics and comfortable discomfort than it is with immediacy and bracing realisations.  Another Spielberg great, “Saving Private Ryan”, also gets close to the idea of the horror of war, but not to the cri de coeur it should provoke and the sense of a life altered.

Here are some war films which work towards that immediacy beautifully, and deserve a place in the Top Five.

“All quiet on the Western Front”.  The 1930 original.  Here the story itself dispels the lie.  During the First World War, a young German man and his classmates are sent to the Western Front, urged on by their schoolteacher.   The popular mood is belligerent but the reality awaiting the young men at the Front is beyond the imagination of civilians back home.  The film, produced by Universal, won two Oscars.   Copies of both the film and the book were burnt by the Nazis in 1933, deemed to be a betrayal.   A recent remake had been planned for release in 2018, but its future is uncertain.  Its financial backer Corsan, a Belgian production and sales house, was declared bankrupt in December 2016.

“Weekend à Zuydcoote”, known in the UK as “Weekend at Dunkirk”.   Made in 1964, a number of scenes are paralleled in Nolan’s “Dunkirk”. The focus is however far more personal and also portrays some civilians who stayed behind after the town’s evacuation.  The perspective is different to Nolan’s – here that of a French soldier and his unfruitful efforts to join the British evacuation.  The original story was written by Robert Merle, a Frenchman who had worked at that time as a liaison officer with the British Army and was captured by the Germans at Dunkirk.  Weekend a Zuydcoote, like “All Quiet on the Western Front”, also started life as a book, written from first-hand experience.  It’s a gripping and desperate film, with strong scenes – much less stylised than Nolan’s version, more documentary in feel, and certainly more troubling.  Does it take a first-hand witness, for a film to reveal uncomfortable truths?

“Das Boot” seems to confirm the trend.  This 1981 film is also based on a first-hand account, by the then U-boat correspondent Guenther-Lothar Buchheim.  A high budget film, one of the most expensive German films ever made, it met with great success both financially and critically.  The director, Wolfgang Petersen, had intended it to be a ‘trip to the edge of the mind’.  The film achieves this. The narrative tension is amplified by the confined space in which most of the film unfolds.  This is one of very few utterly gripping submarine films.  The book on which the film is based even more so.

“Waltz with Bashir”.  Ari Folman’s 2008 film is rather special.   It’s an animated film, and the direct testimony of former soldiers is embedded in the film.  Folman, a former Israeli soldier, realises later in life that he is suffering from partial amnesia.  He cannot recall certain moments from his time as a young soldier, when on duty in Lebanon.   He visits old friends, fellow ex-soldiers, and records their conversations.   Those conversations provide the soundtrack to the film.  The film is hugely watchable, engrossing.  Then Folman remembers what it was that he had forgotten. The reality of war comes to life, the film turns from animation to news footage.  Real footage, which shows what it is that Folman had seen and then temporarily unseen.

“Come and See” This 1985 Russian film by Elem Klimov is harrowing, and once more this is directly based on real life, witness testimony from Belorussian villagers who had survived the savagery of World War II.   It is also commonly acknowledged to be one of the best, if not the best war film made so far, leaving better known films such as “Apocalypse Now” or “Saving Private Ryan” far behind.  The story follows a boy who wants to join Soviet partisans, as German troops advance.  He sees and experiences terrible things.  Civilians are forced into the conflict, both as victims and combatants.   It is an unequal battle. The film is terrible and beautiful.  Elem Klimov had said in an interview “I understood that this would be a very brutal film and that it was unlikely that people would be able to watch it. I told this to my screenplay co-author, the writer Ales Adamovich. But he replied: “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”

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