On Friday, 8th May we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day – Victory in Europe: the day when the Allied forces of WWII accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, ending the fighting in Europe. One of the most significant dates of the 20th century, there were naturally many largescale events planned to mark 75 years since this hugely momentous day in the history of our planet. However, with lockdown rumbling on and social distancing set to be the norm for some time, these events have necessarily been cancelled.
It is vital, however, that this date should be remembered and, in a time when the spotlight is being shone so brightly on a different type of hero, it is so important we remember the people whose selfless, often unnoticed heroics, enabled that day to come about. It is a poignant reminder that, when you put all the hot air and bluster of politics to one side, it is the bravery of normal people and their unflinching care for the good of the whole, that ultimately protects people, communities, and our way of life.
It seems trite to now talk of movies and foster some kind of weak connection – but sadly I’m still going to. With events cancelled, and all of us stuck at home, we’re limited in the ways we can mark such a day, other than observing the two minutes’ silence at 11am. As a result, my plan for the day, after that moment of quiet reflection, thinking of my dapper Grandpa who lost his leg in WWII, is to make a coffee and watch a couple of films that, although could never adequately portray the horrors of war to those of us lucky enough not to have witnessed them, can at least serve to give us some reminder of how grateful we should be for what we have, and how so many people gave everything in order for us to have it. Below are 10 war movies that will make you think, cry, smile, and everything in between.
A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)
Released the year after WWII ended, A Matter Of Life And Death presented a Blitz-weary Britain with a profound existential question. Which likely contributed to poor commercial performance at the time. Decades later, it’s now acknowledged for how ground-breaking, both visually and narratively, it is. Like any respectable drama, with humour and originality it examines the value of life and love.
David Niven stars as a downed airman, who is still connecting with the air controller attempting to guide him home. When Niven is inexplicably washed ashore, the pair meet and fall in love. But all is not well. There’s a fault in celestial mechanics, and the airman cannot expect to escape fate. A significant work in many ways, not least for a ‘stairway to heaven’ scene or the depiction of an angelic bureaucracy, its deft use of visual effects is often awe-inspiring. While we all may be insignificant on a universal scale, even the tiniest of personal moments can have a monumental impact on our lives.
The Great Escape (1963)
Having taken on the mantle of classic holiday movie, The Great Escape now seems inescapably cloaked in nostalgia, universal cultural reference, and subsequently copied movie tropes. It almost seems like we need reminding that this is a war movie, not to mention a bloody good one. The film is based on Paul Brickhill’s account of the true-life and audacious mass escape by Allied soldiers from the German POW camp, Stalag Luft III.
The all-star cast including James Garner and Richard Attenborough is headed up by the impossibly cool Steve McQueen, and the film features one of the most instantly recognisable scores in movie history. With hold-your-breath scenes throughout the film, as well as some of the most iconic (think McQueen bouncing the baseball off the wall to himself), and one of the most famous stunts ever seen on screen (the motorcycle jump over the barbed wire fence), this is a perfect film to watch as a family this weekend.
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
War creates a state of chaos and lawlessness, where some thrive and others are swept along in events. Alongside Apocalypse Now, Kelly’s Heroes shows how futile and inane armed conflicts are. On the surface, it’s standard stuff. A mash of two genres – the heist and the action-adventure – it’s obviously a product of some boozy lunchtime pitch session. ‘How about Oceans 11 meets The Dirty Dozen?’ Then you pop in a stellar cast, a groovy soundtrack and some strangely offbeat set pieces and you’ve got a war blockbuster for the flower power generation.
Chewing the scenery is Donald Sutherland, a delightfully odd tank commander and seemingly stoned big-band music DJ. Eastwood strolls through everything, letting his eyebrows do most of the heavy lifting, and dispensing poignancies on demand. The plot? There’s some Nazi gold, and Telly Savalas isn’t interested in following orders. Not while there’s wartime Europe providing him with a playground.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s seminal Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now is still one of the most talked about films ever made. Shrouded in stories of strange behaviour by the cast and crew, particularly its star, Marlon Brando, the film has built up its own almost mythical status within the genre. However, this wouldn’t be the case unless, at the heart of the rumours and controversies, there was a brilliant and mesmerising film.
Of the giants of directing, this time it is Francis Ford Coppola who takes the reins, telling the story of a US Army officer serving in Vietnam who is tasked with assassinating a renegade Special Forces Colonel (Brando) who has seemingly gone insane and is waging unsanctioned guerrilla warfare throughout the region. Having taken up refuge at an outpost in Cambodia, he sees himself as a God. The film follows the river journey to find the Colonel through the smothering jungle, and benefits from a near perfect soundtrack including the Stones, the Doors, and Wagner’s stirring Ride of the Valkyries, making the film sound as good as it looks. This masterpiece is a must for any fan of the genre.
Come and See (1985)
The title implores us to witness, often against our will, the stark and often disturbing realities of war in this Belarusian anti-war movie like no other. Filmed in the Soviet Union, and using its barren scrubland and cold, brutalist architecture almost as an extra member of the cast, the movie follows a young boy who, after finding an old rifle during WWII, decides to join the Belarusian resistance movement against the onslaught of the German forces.
Mixing uncomfortable realism with haunting surrealism, it feels part war movie, and part horror movie in the more traditional sense, and uses evocative imagery to devastating effect, forcing the viewer to take notice, and to remember long after the lights are up. The film is driven by the extraordinary performance of Aleksei Kravchenko as Flyora Gaishun, the teenager through whose eyes we see the human suffering and atrocities of war.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
One of the greatest war films of the 1980s, Full Metal Jacket brilliantly exposes the dehumanising effects of war. Starting with the brutal boot camps of the US Marines, we follow a platoon under the command of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (brilliantly portrayed by R. Lee Ermey), and one pragmatic recruit (Matthew Modine, in what is surely his career best performance), trying to look out for his fellow soldiers, as the ruthless training regime brings some to breaking point, and beyond. After graduation, we follow the recruits on their first military assignments, in Vietnam where they’re confronted with the true, bloody nature of war.
Visionary director (I know it’s clichéd, but in this instance it’s true) Stanley Kubrick, co-wrote the screenplay as well as directed this eye-opening examination of the contentious military training techniques deemed necessary to prepare young, vulnerable men for war, and their subsequent experiences in America’s second longest, and perhaps most controversial war to date.
Casualties of War (1989)
When you think of Michael J Fox, you think of Back to the Future, Teen Wolf, maybe The Secret of My Success. He was the Prince of 1980s teen-flicks, always manic with energy and a relatable vulnerability. It always comes as something of a surprise then, when I recall him to be in a movie that tackles such a dark secret of war, and the psychological aftermath for those involved.
Told in flashback form, Brian De Palma’s film examines ethics in the cauldron of war. During the Vietnam War, Max Eriksson (Fox) finds himself at odds with his squad as they kidnap a Vietnamese woman and subsequently rape and murder her. As a veteran, back in the US, Fox torturously relives how he was unable to stop them, as he continues to struggle with the impact of such an unnecessary atrocity.
As for Fox’s surprise casting – it was a stroke of genius. Not only did it jarringly showcase the supreme acting skills of Fox, but using an actor so synonymous with hijinks and light-hearted misadventure enabled his role to have an even greater impact: here was a normal, nice guy being crushed by his own history – what would we have done?
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
These days he may be a fast-running, quick-smiling, bizarre-“religion”-believing, Hollywood weirdo, but Tom Cruise is unequivocally box-office gold. And he has, undoubtedly, put in some stellar performances throughout his career, not least of which, as Ron Kovic, the Vietnam veteran paralyzed in the war who returns home to the US where he feels betrayed by the country he fought for.
Increasingly disillusioned, and battling alcoholism, Kovic becomes a voice for the anti-war movement and a pro-human rights activist. This troubling biopic held a mirror up to a country so boisterously proud of their troops, but not always so vocal when called upon to look after them once home. It also earned Cruise his first Oscar nomination, and director, Oliver Stone, his third Oscar.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
A meditation on the psychological impacts of war, from celebrated director Terrence Malick. Its lyrical script is poetically delivered by a who’s who of Hollywood cast. This adaptation of James Jones’ (From Here to Eternity) autobiographical account of the Battle of Guadalcanal focuses on the thoughts, the hopes and fears of individuals, with the conflict almost acting as the vicious thread that ties them all together. The film’s name, a military term referring to a small number of soldiers holding back a greater force, is explored as a different metaphor here, alluding to the brittle sanity of the mind, when tested by unimaginable horrors.
An inspired use of a tranquil, paradisiacal opening to the film on a tropical island, so peaceful and content, ostensibly oblivious to the world fighting all around it, reinforces both the futility and the brutality of war. And with the constant hum of tropical insects and birds, you can all but feel the inescapable heat amongst the claustrophobic tall grasses that render both sides frighteningly blind to the other.
Mr Nolan goes to war. While a non-linear style and cavalier attitude to historical fact annoyed some evangelical WWII fanatics, Dunkirk perfectly conveys the disorientating ambiguity of war. This isn’t a work bothering with detailed exposition – there are few Brits unaware of this moment in history. Menacingly equivocal about the true enemy, Dunkirk overshadows a loitering opposing army with the English Channel’s cold waters, a ticking clock and fear’s iron grip. This isn’t warfare presented as a noble pursuit, this is visceral, unnerving and complex.
Shot mostly on IMAX film stock, paired with an unfashionable number of physical effects, there’s often no escaping Dunkirk’s stark version of reality. But, for a film which concentrates heavily on huge spectacle, it succeeds in revealing human experiences of war. The concept of heroism is sharply redrawn. Nobility isn’t characterised by charging at the enemy, gun blazing from the hip, it’s stems from the simple act of looking out for strangers.