As a setting for a compelling story, the extremes of war have been useful to the tellers of tales for centuries. After plenty of short films set during various wars had been made in the early years of filmmaking, the first American feature-length movie to receive widespread distribution was D.W. Griffith’s Civil War (and aftermath) silent melodrama “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). It was the original blockbuster.
Most of the best war movies, at least in my book, have a hint of anti-war sentiment in them. Some might call it sanity; war isn’t just hell, it’s crazy hell.
However, a traditional war movie is usually concerned with the quest to bravely fight through that crazy hell as part of a larger purpose. Frequently, it’s about losing oneself in the pursuit of that quest. The plots of such movies are about what goes into heroism, the circumstances surrounding a heroic act.
Whereas, an anti-war film is more likely to be about the toll of war, or perhaps the sheer folly of it. Although it’s sometimes hard to draw a clear line between war movies and anti-war movies, this time that’s exactly the point under consideration. And I’ll let my choices speak to that point.
Thus, for this installment of film favorites there are two different lists of five. Naturally, readers are encouraged to add their own lists for either category in the comments section.
Heroic War Films
“Attack” (1956): Directed by Robert Aldrich; Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin
“The Deer Hunter” (1978): Directed by Michael Cimino; Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale
“The Great Escape” (1963): Directed by John Sturges; Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough
“The Thin Red Line” (1998): Directed by Terrence Malick; Cast: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, James Caviezel
“The Train” (1964): Directed by John Frankenheimer; Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964): Directed by Stanley Kubrick; Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
“Forbidden Games” (1952): Directed by René Clément; Cast: Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly, Amédée
“King of Hearts” (1966): Directed by Philippe de Broca; Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur
“Paths of Glory” (1957): Directed by Stanley Kubrick; Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou
“Seven Beauties” (1975): Directed by Lina Wertmüller; Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler
— F.T. Rea