The subject of war has always been an important one for cinema, with filmmakers like D.W. Griffith making films on the subject of the American Civil War back in 1910. Although one of the most famous cinematic subjects has been the Second World War, war films reveal fundamental truths about the human condition irrespective of the specific historical events they cover.
While leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler thought that the cinematic medium had the infinite potential for the transmission of propaganda, the oeuvre of “anti-war” works has attempted to deconstruct nationalistic fervour. Consequently, they provide invaluable commentaries on the pernicious machinations of ideology in the mainstream consciousness.
In order to get a better understanding of this wildly popular genre, we take a look at some of the finest war films in the history of cinema. This list is an eclectic mixture of beloved masterpieces directed by filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola as well as criminally neglected gems from the Soviet era. Check out the full list of the 10 greatest films ever made on the subject of war.
The 10 greatest war films of all time:
10. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais – 1959)
A strikingly different kind of investigation of war, Alain Resnais’ brilliant film is an essential part of the French New Wave’s legacy. Structured in a nonlinear fashion, Hiroshima mon amour assaults the viewer with streams of images that serve as unforgettable reminders of the horror of the Second World War.
“I can’t see any reason why a film shouldn’t be stylised and visually beautiful. I don’t think a beautiful set is pretentious,” Resnais once declared. “If one were to create a sculpture he would want to make the form of the sculpture as beautiful as possible, and I don’t see how it could possibly be considered wrong to have the same approach in the creation of a film.”
9. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo – 1966)
A timeless cinematic masterpiece that highlights the need for decolonisation during the Algerian War, Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece chronicles the bravery of rebels who resisted the colonialist forces. For its courageous criticism of the ugliness of colonialism, the film was banned by French authorities for multiple years.
“The Italian producer to whom I brought this subject told me that he would make any film I wanted, but that this project was impossible. It meant ‘making a film without any meaning, in black and white, without actors and without a story.’ He said that ‘the Italian people don’t care about black people,’” Pontecorvo recalled.
8. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone – 1930)
All Quite on the Western Front is recommended viewing for anyone who is interested in the evolution of cinema because it effectively highlights the potential of the cinematic medium. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, the film paints an existential portrait of the First World War through the eyes of the defeated Germans. Hitler and the Nazis were so bitter about Milestone’s work that they ended up disrupting screenings and eventually banned it.
Lewis Milestone’s celebrated masterpiece is considered by many to be one of the most influential works of its kind and rightly so. It is a technological marvel and an essential lesson in filmmaking, ranked by the AFI as one of the greatest American epics of all time. For Milestone’s brilliant vision, he picked up the Academy Award for Best Director and the film won in the Outstanding Production category as well.
7. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)
The best film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s 1979 exploration of the Vietnam War is a complete cinematic experience. We follow the psychological and spiritual journey of Captain Benjamin L. Willard (played by Martin Sheen) who sets out to find the enigmatic Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
“What is considered avant-garde in one moment, 20 years later is used for wallpaper and becomes part of the culture. It seemed that’s what had happened with [Apocalypse Now],” Coppola said. “When I was making this, I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that.”
6. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville – 1969)
This 1969 gem is definitely the magnum opus of French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville, telling the stories of members of the French Resistance and painting a complete picture of the sociopolitical network of that time. Although it was initially denounced, Army of Shadows has been revived in the public consciousness by positive re-evalutions.
Melville complained: “I have been tidied away once and for all in a drawer in a sort of filing cabinet under the label ‘American’. This is quite wrong. I’ve put up with it for five years, but now I’ve had enough: I am absolutely not an American director. If by this people mean that I make my films with enormous care leaving nothing to chance, my answer is that the great Japanese directors work the same way. Anyway, I feel much more Japanese than American.”
5. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick – 1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s fantastic satirical treatment of the subject of war might just be the funniest anti-war film ever made. Dr. Strangelove is a scathing indictment of the military-industrial complex which holds the incompetent military leaders accountable for their blatant attempts to sell paranoia.
“I started work on the screenplay with every intention of making the film a serious treatment of the problem of accidental nuclear war,” Kubrick said. “As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself: ‘I can’t do this. People will laugh.’ But after a month or so I began to realise that all the things I was throwing out were the things which were most truthful.”
4. The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko – 1977)
The last film that Larisa Shepitko ever made also ended up becoming her best work. Although she passed away in a car accident soon after, The Ascent has immortalised her as one of the greatest directors of the 20th century. It tells the story of two peasant soldiers who get caught up in enemy territory which is occupied by the Germans.
While peaking about the source material, Shepitko commented, “It pinpoints the crucial importance of the spiritual fortitude of the Soviet man in the face of the Nazi military machine. I thought it very important the idea that the Soviet people won the war not only by the force of arms, but also by their strength of spirit. By their superior moral makeup. Like Bykov’s story, our film is an attempt to trace the sources of that spiritual fortitude and glorify the exploits of the human spirit.”
3. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata – 1988)
One of the finest Studio Ghibli films of all time, Grave of the Fireflies is a harrowing depiction of the effects that war can have on the lives of innocent children. By translating the bleakness of war to animated visuals, Takahata constructs a brilliantly subversive refutation of jingoism.
“It wasn’t my intention to give people the catharsis of crying. Yet, many people say ‘I cried so much,’ and some even say ‘I cried so much, and I don’t want to see it again.’ I tell them, ‘It would be more fun if you watch it one more time,'” the filmmaker joked.
2. The Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi – 1959)
The most definitive representation of Kobayashi’s filmmaking talents, The Human Condition is a trilogy of masterpieces that is usually seen in one single sitting and lasts over nine hours. A powerful examination of the existential conflicts of war, The Human Condition is championed by scholars as an important achievement in the history of cinema.
Kobayashi reflected: “I hate to sound self-aggrandising, but watching my films today, they don’t feel dated. What this means is that I really spent time on the editing, but also spent a lot of time working on the whole sound of the film, including the music. So when I finished a film, it was really complete.”
Adding, “Normally, others might spend about three days on the final edit. But I’d spend two weeks, even more in the case of Kwaidan. The fact that I was able to fully complete my films, with no regrets, is a significant factor in why, watching them today, they don’t feel dated, they remain relevant.”
1. Come and See (Elem Klimov – 1985)
It would be a crime if Come and See did not top a list about the greatest cinematic investigations of the subject of war. Elem Klimov’s incendiary masterpiece structures the spectacle of the horrors of humanity’s capacity for unabashed destruction through the tale of a teenaged protagonist whose psyche crumbles before our very eyes.
Klimov said, “It was some kind of reflection of what I felt of my own emotions at the time of the war. Or, you might say, of my wartime childhood. Because when the war started, I was only eight years old. I was born and raised in Stalingrad. So, like a lot of my friends and acquaintances, we all experienced together very hard times. We had to work hard. We felt human suffering. These were my memories of the war. Memories that will never leave me. And I am sure that, one way or another, they were reflected in the film Come and See.”