The Ten Greatest Films About War

Today, April 25, is Anzac Day. For Australia and New Zealand, this is a very unique day. It’s a day of remembrance for all those who died in war, particularly the devastating slaughter at Gallipoli on this day in 1915. Pondering it this evening, I found myself with as good an idea as any for a list on Southern Vision, of ten films that deal with the subject of war truly exceptionally, perhaps better than all others on the subject, and certainly worthy of a sitting by all whose eyes fall upon them.

10: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

As well as being the funniest film of all time, Dr. Strangelove is also one of the best to deal with war. It can be dangerous to try and satirise war, and though some have succeeded, few have done it with the subtlety and brilliance of Stanley Kubrick in 1964. He found humour in the tiniest of details, rather than complex and long jokes. Dr. Strangelove is not a film that will have you laughing out loud, but you will smile almost the whole way through, and I can guarantee that.

9: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest film (and one of the best films of the 1970s), Apocalypse Now deals with war in a frank and bitter way; from the astonishing use of Wagner to the quiet evil of Colonel Kurtz, horror is communicated in many startling ways, and this is a film that remains ringing in the viewer’s ears, and flashing every time they close their eyes.

8: The Battle of Algiers (1965)

The IMDb plot summary simply reads: “An account of the bloodiest revolution in modern history,” and in short that is exactly what Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is. But it is also so much more. This is one of the most fascinating, shocking re-enactments of war as well as one of the most widely seen, chronicling the violence and warfare between the French and the Algerians, and highlighted by numerous unforgettable sequences of tension.

7: Grin Without a Cat (1977)

I saw Chris Marker’s 3-hour archive-footage documentary just a couple of weeks ago, and, expecting to be somewhat bored by such a long documentary about politics, I was thoroughly surprised at how enthralled I was for every minute. Now one of my favourite documentaries of all time, Grin Without a Cat (which has many other equally mysterious titles, such as The Base of the Air Is Red) mixes archive footage with Marker’s own striking editing techniques, making this film more unique and original than it may at first seem. The first five minutes of this film alone, which you can view here, is one of the greatest opening scenes of all cinema.

6: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

One of the first American films to capture the pure horror of war so acutely and realistically, All Quiet on the Western Front is a narrative film about war that wraps the viewer in tight and does not let them go, forcing them to confront war from a soldier’s perspective, and how the things he witnesses and the acts he commits shall never leave him.

5: Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Nearly a year ago, a good friend of mine invited me and others we knew to watch Battleship Potemkin in his newly built home theatre room, on a projection screen in complete darkness at 10pm. I agreed without hesitation. Pardon the clichès, but that viewing experience was truly breathtaking and stunning, and I shall never forget it. It is only rivaled by my viewings of Koyaanisqatsi and Satantango in the same room. Battleship Potemkin is one of the most well-directed, well-edited and shocking films about war, an all-time great of silent cinema and an incredibly vital experience.

4: Paths of Glory (1957)

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory has so many countless moments of harrowing perfection, far beyond the famous final scene, throughout the entire picture. From the chilling ‘firing squad’ sequence to Kirk Douglas’s mesmeric delivery of the line “You are a degenerate, sadistic old man, and you can go to Hell!”, Kubrick’s film is constantly incredible, one of the most important anti-war movies ever made.

3: Shoah (1985)

Anyone with the opportunity to see Shoah who refuses it without good reason is ignorant. They are ignoring one of cinema’s most desperate cries of horror and sadness, one of cinema’s most potent screams of pain and despair and one of cinema’s most harrowing pleas for recognition and acceptance. They are ignoring one of the most important milestones in the history of man’s confrontation with the acts man is capable of, and it is they who need it more than anyone else.

2: Come and See (1985)

Elem Klimov made twelve films during his 70-year life, and Come and See was the last. In 140 minutes, Klimov said all that has ever needed to be said about the loss of innocence and the destruction of humanity. A film constructed of scenes showing violence, killing, devastation and harrowing death, Come and See is the most effective anti-war movie I’ve ever watched.

1: Night and Fog (1955)

“The greatest film ever made.” – Francois Truffaut. I have never, ever seen something so harrowing, influential, important and realistic with such short a runtime as thirty two minutes. I doubt I ever will again. Night and Fog does not fuck around, and this is one of its hundreds of strengths. If there is one film about war – or indeed, about anything really – that I compel you to see without delay, it is this amazing picture, which is thoroughly deserving of the title bestowed by Truffaut.

What do you think of these films? What are some of your favourite war films? Leave a comment below.

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Posted on April 25, 2012, in Lists, Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 43 Comments.

  1. Wow….Night and Fog looks intense and heartwrenching. Dr. Strangelove and All Quiet on the Western Front have been on my list for a while as well. Great list (I always find great film recommendations here)

    • Night and Fog is so effective because it doesn’t waste time. Since it’s a short film, it gets straight to the point, which makes the images look even more startling and shocking. And there are some very shocking images.

  2. You clearly feel very passionate about some of the films on this list, which is great to see. One of my favourite war films of all time has to be Full Metal Jacket, although being a massive Kubrick fan i have to agree with your thoughts on Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory. Full Metal Jacket though, for me, is almost a perfect film, and having studied it, i have a much greater appreciation of it than other films in the genre.

    Great list, i’ll do my best to check out some of the others on there.

  3. It is really hard to define a “war film”,if you count those post war films or stories happen during war time but not on battleground,there would be so many candidates.

    For me,Apocalypse Now is the best war film ever made,just like the famous line”terror,terror!!”,you have to be IN THE WAR to really witness what dehumanization it is.

    I will introduce a Chinese war film called Devils on the Doorstep,it’s hilarious yet profound,try it.

    • Yeah, APOCALYPSE NOW is hard to top.

      Thanks for the recommendation. If I can find Devils on the Doorstep, I’ll definitely give it a look.

  4. David Blakeslee

    A pair of war films from Criterion’s Eclipse Series left a strong impact on me. Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses and Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent. Not sure if they’d crack your Top Ten here, but they’re both very powerful classics, worthy of consideration.

  5. daveackackattack

    Nice list. I have to say the first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket and the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan were absolutely brilliant even if only in parts. Denis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land would have to be on my list. Darkly humorous and has an ending that will stay with you for a long time. I also really liked The Thin Red Line.

    The recently released blu-ray of Apocalypse Now is so good you’d think Criterion released it.

    Speaking of Gallipoli… what did you think of that movie? Heartbreaking.

    • I own the Apocalypse Now blu-ray. It’s fantastic.

      I actually haven’t seen Gallipoli, oddly.

      • daveackackattack

        It’s worth a look if you can still stomach Mel Gibson. Also Breaker Morant from Bruce Beresford is pretty damn good. It’s about the Boer war and is kind of a cross with Paths Of Glory and A Few Good Men. It’s based on true events.

        I really don’t consider my all time favorite film,Lawrence Of Arabia, a war film. I think it’s more about the eclectic man, T. E. Lawrence, than the Arab uprising.

        • I’ve heard of Breaker Morant from another person, so I’ll move that up on the list.

          I saw Lawrence in the theatre and for those three and a bit hours it was my favourite film ever. Then my memory sort of faded of it, and it’s slipped down on my Top 100 films list. I have a DVD of it so I shall have to rewatch it.

  6. Good list Tyler. I’ve never heard of Grin Without A Cat and I admit Night and Fog is in my queue but it seems unrelentingly depressing. It’s a wide category and you only chose 10 – where’s Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Stalag 17, or The Great Escape?

    • You’re right, it is a very wide category. I do love Bridge and Lawrence, but I haven’t seen Stalag 17 or The Great Escape (well, I saw the latter when I was a kid, but not since then).

  7. Christian Hallbeck

    “Come and See” (“Go and See” in the Swedish translation) is a film that has a tangible, physical effect on me every time I watch it: I get a splitting headache; I feel both physically and mentally exhausted; i feel numb, sick… I want to turn it off, because I feel uneasy about what it does to my mind and soul. I want to escape from the horrors it portrays. I don’t want to be reminded of a world that looks that way. In other words: it is the only war movie I know which at least gives me a HINT of the complete hell it must be to have a war going on around you. And that is of course the reason why I must leave it turned on, and, while I suffer, see what it’s all about.

  8. I’m generally not into war films, but I did enjoy ‘Dr. Strangelove’ it’s so well-written and well-acted. Out of the rest, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is the one I’m curious about the most. Btw, I do like ‘The Thin Red Line’ which is a good commentary about war that doesn’t show too much about the battle scenes.

    • You’d like All Quiet on the Western Front, since I know you love classic Hollywood.

      I thought The Thin Red Line was very good, but it didn’t make this list for me.

  9. Whoa, great list. I figured you’d pick Night and Fog as number 1, and what a great choice it is.

    The Thin Red Line is, for me, the best film that depicts the hell of war, whereas The Deer Hunter is the best film that depicts the hell off coming home from war.

    I definitely need to check out Grin Without a Cat.

    • I liked The Thin Red Line and The Deer Hunter, but I far from loved them. I may have to see them a second time, of course.

      The whole three-hour version of Grin Without a Cat is on YouTube, if you’re up for it. I started watching intending on watching the first half one night and the second half another, but I ended up seeing the whole thing in one sitting and absolutely loving it. Here’s part one on YT:

  10. No Ivan’s Childhood?

  11. Some serious films I need to see on here. Some of the recent documentaries I have seen shocked and saddened me. Not sure if they count as war films though the subjects being documented are the results of war. Standard Operating Procedure, Taxi to the Darkside etc. Must see some of the docs on here. They sound deeply distressing.

  12. I’m not sure I’d say Night and Fog is a war film, but it is one of the finest films I’ve seen. Astounding.

    I need to check out Come and See.

    Battle of Algiers, All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now, Battleship Potempkin and Paths of Glory are great choices.

    I’d add The Thin Red Line. I know a lot of people think it’s Malick’s weakest film, but I think it’s the greatest anti war film ever made. There’s a lot of detail that emerges the more you see it.

    • daveackackattack

      Malick’s weakest film? Really? Says who? I personally think it’s his strongest film although I gotta go with Kubrick’s trifecta of anti-war films of Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket for the greatest anti-war films.

      Malick’s films:

      1. The Thin Red Line – Hans Zimmer’s finest score IMHO. An amazing cast even though Clooney and Travolta kind of took me out of the movie but then again every actor was willing to give their left nut to be in that film after Malick’s 20 year absence. John Toll’s cinematography… the shot of blood shed on a single blade of grass… it’s the kind of detail you just dont see in other films.
      2. Badlands – A remarkable first film with Martin Sheen doing his best James Dean.
      3. The New World – Q’orianka Kilcher was an amazing find. A remarkable silent performance.
      4. Days Of Heaven – It may be the most beautiful film ever shot what with all the “magic hour” shots but personally Richard Gere never did anything for me. So there’s that.
      5. Tree Of Life – A bit long and meandering although Douglas Trumbull’s cosmic section brought back memories of 2001: A Space Odyssey… which was a good thing.

      You either love him or hate him. His films have such a poetic, dreamlike quality to them. Of course a lot of people think poetry is a bunch of stuffy, intellectual, flowery nonsense so what are you going to do.

      • Malick certainly attracts a lot of different opinions as to which film is his best, but in my personal experience, it seems to be the one most people put at the bottom of their lists, even if they like all of Malick’s films. I think it’s the film where it’s not as easy to track the literal flow of events and who we’re following and why we are following them. The more I see it, the more I get the logic of each part, but I think a lot of people aren’t willing to put in that much effort.

        As for Kubrick, I like a lot of his films, but FMJ and Strangelove are outliers to me. There are great moments, but I think they both suffer from dissipating as quality as the film progresses. Paths of Glory is a fantastic film.

        • daveackackattack

          The Thin Red Line hard to follow? Well, as an arthouse filmmaker, he certainly doesn’t make films for the casual movie goer that’s for sure. All films are not for everybody. I don’t know… with non-linear films like Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros, Inception you certainly have to pay attention but I think the better one’s all make sense at the end. I’m just glad filmmakers like Malick, Nolan, Inarratu and Tarantino don’t dumb it down for the masses. That’s what Michael Bay and Tony Scott are for. LOL. Hey I’m no braniac… even I had to see Inception twice and with 2001 I had to go read all the film theory on it. I just never saw films as “effort”. I see those type of movies as more as a challenge. (only the bad ones are effort to me ala the 3 hour snoozefest that was Meet Joe Black which a girlfriend dragged me to because BRAD was in it. AAAAHH!!!). I just happen to be more of an active movie watcher than a passive movie watcher so it’s easier for me to follow the non-linear, mind f@#k stuff. The Game, Primer, Memento, The Usual Suspects, The Sweet Hereafter, The Thin Blue Line, any David Lynch… I’m a sucker for that stuff when it’s done well. Like a moth to the flame.

          Quick story on not all films are for everybody idea. I once worked at a movie rental store where I overheard a couple debating on whether the to rent the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. The husband says to the wife “I don’t want to have to think tonight honey. Let’s get something else.” Wha??!?! My brain almost exploded like the guy from Scanners. I guess he didn’t want to tax HIS brain with a movie that was half musical numbers. I was almost tempted to recommend Mike Judge’s Idiocrasy and see if he found that to be a comedy or futuristic docudrama.

          • That guy in the video store is certainly an asshole, but in all fairness, I did not like Walk the Line and I loved Idiocracy. If that’s even relevant. Which it probably isn’t. Your comment was better than mine, Dave.

        • James, you didn’t like Strangelove? What the hell is wrong with you?? ;)

      • From Malick, I’ve seen Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, and I’d rank them:

        1: Days of Heaven
        2: The Tree of Life
        3: Badlands
        4: The Thin Red Line

        Don’t get me wrong, I love all four films, but Thin Red Line comes last for me, so I definitely need to see it again.

    • James, you’d love Come and See. It’s astonishing. I’d love to read your review after you see it.

  13. I haven’t seen all the films in your list, but it looks like a good one. I’d have Paths of Glory somewhere on my top 10.

  14. From this list i’ve seen Dr. Strangelove, Apocalypse now, Paths of Glory, and i think Battleship Potemkin. May try to find the others you’ve listed

  15. Full Metal Jacket?

  1. Pingback: Weekly Recap ( Apr 19 – Apr 25 ) : A Collection of Great Reviews and Lists | Taste of Cinema

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