War films are a film genre concerned with warfare, usually about naval, air or land battles, sometimes focusing instead on prisoners of war, covert operations, military training or other related subjects. At times war films focus on daily military or civilian life in wartime without depicting battles. Their stories may be fiction, based on history, docudrama, biographical, or even alternate history fiction. Themes explored in war films include combat, survivor and escape stories, tales of sacrifice, studies of the futility and inhumanity of battle, the effects of war on society, and explorations of the moral and human issues raised by war.
The term anti-war film is sometimes used to describe films which bring to the viewer the pain and horror of war, often from a political or ideological perspective, in order to express opposition to a specific war (such as the Vietnam War) or to the concept of war in general.
John Belton identified four narrative elements of the war film within the context of Hollywood production: a) the suspension of civilian morality during times of war, b) primacy of collective goals over individual motivations, c) rivalry between men in predominantly male groups as well as marginalization and objectification of women, and d) depiction of the reintegration of veterans. Film scholar Kathryn Kane has pointed out similarities between the war film genre and the Western. Both genres use opposing concepts like war and peace, civilization and savagery. War films usually frame World War II as a conflict between good and evil as represented by the Allied forces and Nazi Germany whereas the Western portrays the conflict between "civilized" settlers and the "savage" indigenous peoples. Film historian Jeanine Basinger argues that a sub-genre, the World War II combat film, emerged in 1943. This sub-genre depicts military action whereas the war film genre need not portray armed combat.
One of the most influential silent films from the beginning of the twentieth century is Birth of a Nation (1915), the first half of which established many conventions for War films and Motion Pictures in general. This film has been described as a great film for a terrible cause. Protests and violence erupted in the wake of its opening and it became one of the first films to raise the issue of cinema's potentially detrimental effect on mass culture. Notably the film depicts the American Civil War in a manner reminiscent of the First World War, which was happening overseas at the time of its release.
In 1914-1918, both the Central Powers and the Allies produced war documentaries. The films were also used as propaganda in neutral countries like the United States. Among the most notable motion pictures was a film shot at the Eastern Front by cameraman Albert K. Dawson: The Battle and Fall of Przemysl (1915). Dawson was attached to the German, Austrian and Bulgarian armies as an official war photographer. His documentaries were released by The American Correspondent Film Company.
1920s and 1930s
An early notable war film is Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms made in 1918. The film set a style for war films to come and it can be considered the first comedy about war in film history. Films made in the years following World War I tended to emphasise the horror or futility of warfare most notably The Big Parade (1925) and What Price Glory? (1926). With the sound era, films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) (and its much darker German counterpart Westfront 1918), Howard Hawks' Road to Glory (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937), focused on the futility of war for non-American soldiers whilst Hollywood produced American soldiers featuring in World War I comedies such as Buster Keaton's Doughboys (1930) and Wheeler & Woolsey's Half Shot at Sunrise (1930), or exciting tales of the U.S. Marine Corps putting down rebellions in Central America, China, and the Pacific Islands in films like Frank Capra's Flight (1930), The Leathernecks Have Landed (1936) and Tell it to the Marines (1926 film). Other films focused on the drama inherent in the new technology and fading chivalry of aerial combat in films such as Wings (1927), Hell's Angels (1930) and The Dawn Patrol (1930 and 1938 versions).
The first popular war films during the Second World War came from Britain and Germany and were often documentary or semi-documentary in nature. Examples include The Lion Has Wings and Target for Tonight (British) and Sieg im Westen (German).
By the early 1940s, the British film industry began to combine documentary techniques with fictional stories in films like Noël Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), Millions Like Us (1943) and The Way Ahead (1944). Others used the medium of the fiction film to carry a propaganda message; about the need for vigilance (Went the Day Well?) or to avoid "careless talk" (The Next of Kin).
The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 was passed by the United States Congress on September 16, 1940, becoming the first peacetime conscription in United States history. Hollywood reflected the interest of the American public in Conscription in the United States by having nearly every film studio bring out a military film comedy in 1941 with their resident comedian(s). Universal Pictures' Abbott and Costello came out with the first feature film on the subject Buck Privates and followed it with the team In The Navy and in the United States Army Air Corps to Keep 'Em Flying. Paramount Pictures' Bob Hope was Caught In The Draft, Warner Brothers told Phil Silvers and Jimmy Durante You're In The Army Now, Columbia Pictures put Fred Astaire in the army declaring You'll Never Get Rich, Hal Roach gave his new comedy team of William Tracy and Joe Sawyer Tanks a Million and 20th Century Fox had the former Hal Roach team of Laurel & Hardy going Great Guns. The minor studios such as Republic Pictures made Bob Crosby and Eddie Foy Jr Rookies on Parade and Monogram Pictures enlisted Nat Pendleton as Top Sergeant Mulligan. However, the first comedians to hit the screen in an army comedy were The Three Stooges as Boobs in Arms.
Serious 1941 films involving training for war included U.S. Cavalry in MGM's The Bugle Sounds, RKO's Parachute Battalion, Paramount Pictures I Wanted Wings and Warner Brothers' Dive Bomber. 20th Century Fox made the last pre-war military film about the U.S. Marine Corps To The Shores of Tripoli. When the Pearl Harbor attack occurred the studio reshot the ending to have John Payne reenlist in the Corps and march off with the Marines whilst his father implores him to 'Get a Jap for me'.
Prior to Pearl Harbor, Warner Brothers warned of Confessions of a Nazi Spy whilst PRC told of Hitler, Beast of Berlin. A metaphor for America was Gary Cooper as the real life Sergeant York who went from hillbilly hell-raiser, to pacifist, to a draftee comparing the Bible to the History of the United States and deciding that his marksmanship against the Germans was righteous.
After the United States entered the war in 1941 Hollywood began to mass-produce war films. Many of the American dramatic war films in the early 1940s were designed to celebrate American unity and demonize "the enemy." One of the conventions of the genre that developed during the period was of a cross-section of the American people who come together with a common purpose for the good of the country, i.e. the need for mobilization.
The American industry also produced films designed to extol the heroics of America's allies, such as Mrs. Miniver (about a British family on the home front), Edge of Darkness (Norwegian resistance fighters) and The North Star (the Soviet Union and its Communist Party). Towards the end of the war popular books became the source of films of higher quality and more serious tone, extoling more long-term values, including Guadalcanal Diary (film) (1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and They Were Expendable (1945). The film stars of the time that starred in these films, playing both heroes and villains alike include Greer Garson, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Raymond Massey, Basil Rathbone, Walter Slezak, Dana Andrews, Don Ameche, Richard Loo, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn and the most popular film star of the era, John Wayne.
The years after World War II brought a large number of mostly patriotic war films, which used the war as a backdrop for dramas and adventure stories, partly carried over from the 1940s war films. Many films made in Britain drew on true stories, such as The Dam Busters (1954), Dunkirk (1958), Reach for the Sky (1956) telling the life of Douglas Bader and Sink the Bismarck! (1960). The immediate aftermath of the war in Hollywood avoided the action film and delved into problems experienced by the returning veterans, turning out a number of high quality films that included The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Battleground (1949), Home of the Brave (1949), Command Decision (1948), and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). The latter two examined the psychological effects of combat and the stresses of command.
Hollywood films in the 1950s and 1960s were often inclined towards spectacular heroics or self-sacrifice in films like Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Halls of Montezuma (1950) or D-Day the Sixth of June (1956). They also tended to toward stereotyping: typically, a small group of ethnically diverse men would come together but would not be developed much beyond their ethnicity; the senior officer would often be unreasonable and unyielding; almost anyone sharing personal information — especially plans for returning home — would die shortly thereafter and anyone acting in a cowardly or unpatriotic manner would convert to heroism or die (or both, in quick succession). Twentieth-Century Fox made a succession of war films realistically filmed in black-and-white in the early 1950s that highlighted little-known aspects of World War II, among them The Frogmen, Go For Broke!, You're in the Navy Now, and Decision Before Dawn.
Another large group of films emerged from the plethora of popular war novels penned after the war. Their quality was largely dependent on their faithfulness to the plot or theme of the original, casting, direction, and production values. Much of their appeal for the American public was that they covered virtually every branch of the service involved in the war. These include: The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1955), The Young Lions (1958), The Naked and the Dead (1958), Battle Cry (1955), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), The Caine Mutiny (1954), Away All Boats (1956), The Enemy Below (1957), From Here to Eternity (1953), Kings Go Forth (1958), Never So Few (1959), The Mountain Road (1960), and In Harm's Way (1965).
A popular sub-genre war films in the 1950s and 1960s was the prisoner of war film. This was a form popularised in Britain and recounted stories of real escapes from (usually German) P.O.W. camps in World War II. Examples include The Wooden Horse (1950), Albert R.N. (1953) and The Colditz Story (1955). Hollywood also made its own contribution to the genre with The Great Escape (1963) and the fictional Stalag 17 (1953). Other fictional P.O.W. films include The Captive Heart (1947), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), King Rat (1965), Danger Within (1958), The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968). Unusually, the British industry also produced a film based on German escaper Franz von Werra, The One That Got Away in (1957).
1960s and 1970s
By the early 1960s films based on commando missions like The Gift Horse (1952) based on the St. Nazaire Raid, and Ill Met by Moonlight (1956) had begun to inspire fictional adventure films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Train (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Hannibal Brooks (1969), which used the war as the backdrop for spectacular action films. The latter films had American producers, stars and financing but were filmed in England or on location with British film crews, supporting actors, and expertise.
The late 1950s and 1960s also brought some more thoughtful big war films like Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as well as a fashion for all-star epics based on battles which were often quasi-documentary in style and filmed in Europe where extras and production costs were cheaper. This trend was started by Darryl F. Zanuck's production The Longest Day in 1962, based on the first day of the 1944 D-Day landings. Other examples included Battle of the Bulge (1965), Anzio (1968), Battle of Britain (1969), The Battle of Neretva (1969), Waterloo (1970), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) (based on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), Midway (1976) and A Bridge Too Far (1977).
Though trouble in Southeast Asia was shown in Jack L. Warner's Brushfire (1961), and Marshall Thompson's A Yank in Viet-Nam (1964) and To the Shores of Hell (1966), the major Hollywood studios refused to make any Vietnam War films with the exception of John Wayne's The Green Berets based on the best-selling book by Robin Moore and using the theme song "Ballad of the Green Berets". No Vietnam war films followed until Jack Starrett's Nam Angels AKA The Losers (1970) filmed on Philippine sets left over from Robert Aldrich's Too Late the Hero (also 1970).
The effects of the Vietnam War tended to diminish the appetite for fictional war films by the turn of the 1970s. American war films produced during and just after the Vietnam War often reflected the disillusion of the American public towards the war. Most films made after the Vietnam War delved more deeply into the horrors of war than films made before it (This is not to say that there were no such films before the Vietnam War). Later war films like Catch-22 (set in WWII) and the black comedy MASH (set in Korea), reflected some of these attitudes. Another film, Patton (1970), showed the actions of real life General George S. Patton, but intermixed action with commentary about how he waged war, in North Africa and the Sicilian campaign, showing good and bad sides to a command. The smash film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor George C. Scott (he refused the Award).
In the decades following the War, the American film industry produced many war films either critical of American involvement in Vietnam, depicting American war crimes or the negative effects of war on combatants. These films included works by the most prominent actors and directors in American film and garnering the highest accolades and commercial success including:
- Taxi Driver (1976) — nominated for four Academy Awards, directed by Martin Scorsese.
- Coming Home (1978) — winner of three Academy Awards, directed by Hal Ashby.
- The Deer Hunter (1978) — winner of five Academy Awards, including Academy Award for Best Picture, directed by Michael Cimino.
- Apocalypse Now (1979) — winner of two Academy Awards, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
- Full Metal Jacket (1987) — directed by Stanley Kubrick.
- Hamburger Hill (1987) — directed by John Irvin.
- Casualties of War (1989) — directed by Brian De Palma.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Oliver Stone did a trilogy of Vietnam War films:
- Platoon (1986) — winner of Academy Award for Best Picture.
- Born on the Fourth of July (1989) — winner of two Academy Awards.
- Heaven & Earth (1993)
Another subgenre were films that portrayed the American government cynically by reflecting upon the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue, the most known of which were Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
1990s to 2000s
World War II
The success of Steven Spielberg's realistic Saving Private Ryan in 1998 helped to usher in a revival of interest in World War II films. A number of these, such as Pearl Harbor and Enemy at the Gates were aimed at the blockbuster market, while others, like Enigma, Dark Blue World, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and Charlotte Gray, were more nostalgic in tone. Others were trying to represent a more harrowing side of the reality of the war such precursor movies as the German Joseph Vilsmaier's Stalingrad, Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot and the later, American director Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line.
Other notable films and TV series of the period dealing with World War II include:
Band of Brothers, The Pacific, The English Patient, Schindler's List, The Pianist, Defiance, Atonement, Katyn, Pornografia, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Adam Resurrected, The Reader, Valkyrie, Good, Life is Beautiful, Downfall, The Counterfeiters, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, Miracle at St. Anna, The Good German, Inglourious Basterds, Days of Glory, Empire of the Sun.
Notable films from the 1960s to the 2000s dealing with World War I are Lawrence of Arabia (film), Gallipoli, Oh! What a Lovely War, King of Hearts (1966 film), Passchendaele, A Very Long Engagement, Life and Nothing But, and War Horse (film).
Notable films dealing with contemporary conflict include:
Act of Valor, Red Dawn (2012 film), Children of Men, Afghan Luke, Tomorrow, When the War Began (film), Taking Chance, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Black Hawk Down, Behind Enemy Lines, Jarhead, Battle for Haditha, Body of Lies, Syriana, Blood Diamond, G.I. Jane, Rendition, The Kite Runner, Tears of the Sun, The Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah, No Man's Land, Three Kings, Welcome to Sarajevo, Rambo, Brothers, Green Zone. "The 9th Company", "The Patrol",
The military and the film industry
Many war films have been produced with the cooperation of a nation's military forces. The United States Navy has been very cooperative since World War II in providing ships and technical guidance; Top Gun is the most famous example. The U.S. Air Force provided considerable verisimilitude for The Big Lift, Strategic Air Command and A Gathering of Eagles, filmed on Air Force bases and using Air Force personnel in many roles.
Typically, the military will not assist filmmakers if the film is critical of them. Sometimes the military demands some editorial control in exchange for their cooperation, which can bias the result. Critics point out that the film Pearl Harbor's US-biased portrayal of events is a compensation for technical assistance received by the US armed forces. For another example, the U.S. Navy objected to elements of Crimson Tide, especially mutiny on board an American naval vessel, so the film was produced without their assistance.
If the home nation's military will not cooperate, or if filming in the home nation is too expensive, another country's may assist. Many 1950s and 1960s war films, including the Oscar-winning films Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, and Spartacus, were shot in Spain, which had large supplies of both Allied and Axis equipment. The Napoleonic epic Waterloo was shot in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), using Soviet soldiers. The D-Day scenes in Saving Private Ryan were shot with the cooperation of the Irish army because the French couldn't afford to close down the real Omaha Beach due to it being a monument. All of the major sequences in Dark Blue World were shot in the Czech Republic, at a disused air force base. In the "Crimson Tide" example, the French Navy (Marine Nationale) assisted the production team with the French aircraft carrier Foch and one SNLE.
- Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994, pp. 165-171, ISBN 978-0-07-004466-1.
- Kane, Kathryn. "The World War II Combat Film". In: Wes D. Gehring (ed.) Handbook of American Film Genres. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 90-91, ISBN 978-0-313-24715-6.
- Basinger, Jeanine. World War II Combat Film: The Anatomy of a Genre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 14-75, ISBN 978-0-231-05952-7.
- Suid, Lawrence (2002). Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film (2 ed.). University Press of Kentucky. p. 748. ISBN 978-0813190181. Retrieved 2/12/2009.
- Clarke, James (2006). War Films. Virgin Books. ISBN 978-0-7535-1094-0
- Slater, Jay (ed.) (2009). Under Fire: a century of war movies. Ian Allen Publishing. ISBN 0711033854
- The Lost Art of War, City Journal, Winter 2008
- Top War Movies at the Internet Movie Database
- War Movies & Literature Discussion Forum
- War Movie Reviews and News at WarMovieBlog
- WWII Movie news at War in Film
- Index of all known Vietnam War Films with links to reviews and criticism From La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA
- War Movies Lists of War Movies with trailers and reviews