Tag: War


War Films: Horror and Glory

August 9, 2020

Films about war are one of the most popular and successful genres of film, winning Oscars, getting huge audiences and being some of the most memorable films ever made. The purposes of these films vary dramatically from over-the-top military worship like Top Gun to attempts to show the horror of war like Platoon to sometimes telling the stories of people in terrible situations.

World War Two – Enemy At The Gates

Enemy at the Gates
Enemy At The Gates (empireonline.com)

World War Two dominates this genre, not only is it the largest military conflict ever it is relatively recent and happened whilst movies were being made – Casablanca was released whilst the war was still going on. Saving Private Ryan’s opening of the assault on Normandy is often held up as the one of the best examples of film accurately depicting actual combat and is genuinely harrowing. Enemy at the Gates is one of the few English language World War Two films that looks at the conflict and doesn’t include any Americans or British forces. The film is about the terrible siege of Stalingrad in which the German and Russian forces fought for control of the city for nearly seven months with around 2 million casualties. The film focuses on the story of a sniper battle between Russian soldier Vassili and German soldier Major Konig. Vassili becomes a hero to the Russians, at a time when they badly need any good news, and Konig is brought in to kill him. As well as showing the utter devastation the battle caused the film portrays the propaganda battle going on behind the front lines. It is an interesting film as well in that neither side is shown as the good guys – certainly the Russians are defending against the invading Germans but the Soviet government is heavily criticised. On Vassili’s arrival in the city he is immediately thrown into combat but without a weapon, told to take one when the soldier next to them dies, then as they prepare to charge the Germans they are told if they retreat other Russian soldiers will shoot them – not exactly inspiring. There are glimpses into what Stalinist Russia is like and they are very unpleasant.

The Vietnam War – Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket (nytimes.com)

Stanley Kubrick has made more than one contribution to this genre but perhaps most famously with Full Metal Jacket – damning not only the Vietnam War but much of the idea of war. The film is essentially in two halves – the first half shows marines in boot camp, the second half following one of the marines – Joker – to Vietnam. Certainly the first half is the more famous, showing the inhuman treatment of the marines by their drill sergeant and military authorities in general. The drill sergeant was played by R. Lee Ermey (a real-life former drill sergeant) and has become the default of drill sergeants in popular culture. The punishment inflicted on the recruits is truly astonishing – ranging from cruel mockery and psychological torture to effectively encouraging recruits to beat their comrades. The worst of the cruelty is focused on Pyle, one of the less able recruits, who ultimately loses his mind and kills the sergeant who has tormented him. The film The Men Who Stare At Goats cites an interesting statistic – only 15 to 20 percent of new recruits will actually fire on the enemy when entering combat (despite their own lives being in danger), seemingly showing that people don’t want to kill other people. Full Metal Jacket is a film that understands that lesson and Ermey’s sergeant is trying to beat the humanity out of the recruits. The second half of the film showing Joker in the war demonstrates what comes of this treatment, for example, at one point a gunner on a helicopter randomly shooting Vietnamese people as they fly by, making jokes whilst he kills them.

Science Fiction – Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers (theguardian.com)

War films are not just confined to historical conflicts or even semi-fictionalised ones that have a very real-life setting, you get sci-fi and fantasy war films too. I watched Starship Troopers at a young age and a lot of what was going on with that film went over my head, I thought it was a cool sci-fi film. Watching it subsequently it is a satirical gem about the awfulness of war. In this film it’s humans versus alien bugs and so any idea of coming to terms with the enemy is abandoned – this is pretty much extermination. Populated by a cast of extremely good-looking people living in what is revealed to be something akin to a fascist society saturated with government propaganda. We follow three school-friends as each goes into a different branch of the military – infantry, navy (meaning spaceships) and intelligence. The film has sensational battle scenes and excellent special effects for the time making the alien bugs very believable. There is an awful grinding relentless to the fighting and you get the feeling that this is a war that is never going to end. The most memorable scene, however, is when the new recruits discuss why they joined the army, some wanting a career, some to do good, but what it comes out is one character wants to have children and another wants to go into politics – and without joining the army, neither of these goals are possible. This reveals a chilling insight into their world, especially as this passes without comment from anyone else.

Why Do We Make War Films?

Saving Private Ryan (mentalfloss.com)

So war films are big business – huge commercial successes and often hailed as some of the best films ever made. But what is the point of war films, why do we make them? That war is hell is a cliche but it is also true, why we do we want to watch hell? Something like Saving Private Ryan which can show the horrible savagery of what happens can be very useful. Most films on the Vietnam War are very critical – questioning why America joined the war, their use of chemical weapons, the impact on innocent civilians. Set during World War One Wonder Woman did an excellent job of capturing the absolute futility and pointlessness of it all – generals who did not care for the lives of their soldiers, regiments that had spent years fighting barely advanced. Sadly though things aren’t that simple and not all war films portray war in these terms. There is often a romanticism of war, of the nobility of warfare and conflict, and in some films war is simply cool.

Top Gun famously lead to a recruiting boom for the US navy with recruitment booths set up outside cinemas, now whether you see that as good or bad is a matter of opinion but what I think is perhaps the most striking thing about Top Gun is the people the pilots are fighting are never identified. The enemy aircraft are MiGs, a Soviet design, but they aren’t Russians, if the enemy in a war film is not even identified, then there is an awful feeling that “our side” must always be in the right.

Even if films are explicitly antiwar things can get complicated – Apocalypse Now is a damning critique of the Vietnam War but the famous Ride of the Valkyries scene has been referenced numerous times in other films and culture and it’s interpreted in different ways – in Gulf war film Jarhead, the marines have a screening of Apocalypse Now in which there is almost a standing ovation for this scene, with cheering and yelling as innocent civilians are killed. There is a famous quote usually attributed to French filmmaker Francois Truffaut “There is no such thing as an anti-war film” in which he seems to be saying that whatever the motivation of the filmmaker they will inevitably make war look heroic and be glorifying the conflict.

War films can tell huge, epic and tragic stories and they can be everything from summer blockbusters to indie think-pieces. They have been, and will continue to be, a huge part of cinema, not every war film needs to be an angry denunciation of war but a filmmaker should think carefully about the story they are telling.

Also Read: Da 5 Bloods (Review)

More: Hollywood & The Military: A Special Relationship

Like this article? Get the latest news, articles and interviews delivered straight to your inbox.


Questioning Our History

November 26, 2018
Hacksaw Ridge Screenshot

“History is written by the victors.” The irony of this quote from Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who led Britain through one of the most documented wars, isn’t lost when it comes to historical accuracy and how Hollywood’s depictions of historical events can shape our understanding of the past.

It is crucial that history is documented and Hollywood re-tellings can make previously unknown historical events accessible to a wider audience. However, issues arise when an artistic license is taken to a new level and scenarios can be changed in order to heighten drama or, a more damaging reason, to portray events from a particular bias.

The popularity of period dramas is undeniable; let’s face it, good period dramas are one of the main reasons the BBC can justify the TV license – not that I’m complaining as it brought Tommy Shelby into my life! Now other platforms are jumping on the historical bandwagon – or carriage – with series three of the Netflix original ‘The Crown’ now in production.

Audience numbers for ‘historical fiction’ films have peaked and dipped over the years. There was a huge increase in 1998, with 16.63% of overall tickets sold being for this genre (Titanic had been released the December before!) while the 2011 rise could be put down to the film adaption of The Help. However, ticket sales have declined rapidly in the past year, from 6.98% in 2017 to just 2.61% this year. So why the drop?

Perhaps the issue is the historical accuracies, or rather, inaccuracies which has caused audience numbers to dwindle. Perhaps it is the whitewashing of historical events which has been prevalent in Hollywood. Perhaps it is the lack of diversity within period and war dramas.

There is a clearly evident issue of harking back to the “good old days”, particularly in older war films. This is often the case with films told from a British perspective. Graham Dawson refers to this as “the pleasure culture of war”; films providing a nationalistic perspective. Although this is to be expected as the winners tell the story, this only provides a very limited narrative to audiences. The issues caused by this “revisionist” history can be incredibly damaging. On a small scale, it might infuriate historians to see a plane being used in a film which wasn’t commissioned until two years after the events it is portraying. But, on a more damaging scale, stories can be told which present people and even social groups in an unfairly positive or negative way.

Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 faced a huge backlash; both historically and socially. The film gave the Spartans all the credit when they were actually supported by around 7,000 other Greeks. More worrying is the film’s portrayal of the Persians. The Persians were one of the most advanced cultures within the ancient world while the film depicts them as savage killers who held people as slaves. It was, in fact, the Spartans who held the most slaves in Greece while the Persians had outlawed the practice. The film received a great deal of negativity in Iran due to this factually inaccurate and damaging depiction of the Persians.

Although issues can arise in the making of a film, it is still vitally important that these events are documented, albeit accurately and with fair representations. As  the old adage from George Santayana goes; “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But we still need to remember the actual past, not a fictional one created for heightened drama and box office sales.

World War Two is possibly the most documented war in modern cinema. There have been all sorts of perspectives told on the silver screen; from the battle in the air to the trials and tribulations of those left behind when their loved ones went off to fight. Stephen Spielberg has done his fair share of big budget war movies, most famously Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. (He also directed War Horse – a British story about British soldiers directed by an American – think that’s one for another post!) Both films mentioned have been heralded as incredibly accurate representations of the events they depict. Although Private Ryan wasn’t, in fact, a real person, the artillery used in the film most certainly was. In fact, the opening scene, the storming of Omaha Beach, was so accurate that WWII veterans had to be escorted from screenings. Schindler’s List is another Spielberg film which has been praised for its accurate telling of the harsh realities of Nazi Germany.

Perhaps that is what historical films need in order to be able to fully tell their story: harsh reality. 12 Years a Slave was incredibly difficult to watch because of the brutal violence shown. It has also been deemed one of the most accurate accounts to date by historians. The film was based on the actual experiences of Solomon Northup, a man who was forced into slavery and was able to share his narrative after he regained his freedom. It was a narrative that I was unfamiliar with until the Hollywood adaptation, at which point I read the book. This is why historical re-tellings are important; they provide the opportunity to learn about the lives of people which might otherwise have been lost. However, it is vital that these stories are told with the accuracy they deserve.


Review: Outlaw King

November 19, 2018
Warning – there are minor spoilers in this review but as it’s history I don’t think these will surprise anyone.


David Mckenzie’s new historical drama about how Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland

What’s Going On?

The film starts with Edward I, King of England, forgiving Scottish lords for rebelling against him. Edward I claimed the Scottish crown after they asked him to decide on should be king and he picked himself (he had no claim to the throne). Not surprisingly many Scottish lords rebelled but were soundly defeated by Edward I. Robert the Bruce, son of a Scottish lord, was one of the leading rebels but he too makes his peace with Edward, possibly only because his father is one of the strongest claimants and they think Edward will make him king. English rule on Scotland is hard with Edward I brutalising Scotland; at one point he refuses to accept surrender from one lord until he’s had a chance to try out his new catapult (this really happened). Eventually, the injustices prove too much to bear and Robert the Bruce rebels despite being hugely outnumbered.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by David Mackenzie, who I knew mainly from Hell Or High Water, which is perhaps best described as a modern western, a film I enjoyed a lot. This is a Netflix production and I would say does manage to feel like a “proper” film and not some made-for-tv second rate movie. Obviously, this is based on history and while taking some liberties does a good job of setting the scene and showing how utterly outmatched Robert the Bruce is.

In Front Of The Camera

The film stars Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce and he very much carries the film, it is his story from start to finish. Stephen Dillane is King Edward, probably best known as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, and it is in many ways a similar performance, certainly not a likeable man but extremely capable. Billy Howle gives a great performance as Prince Edward; an arrogant fool, constantly shoving his exalted status in other people’s face while having mountains of father issues to work through. Florence Pugh takes on the difficult role of Robert’s wife, an Englishwoman who is married to Robert (neither seemed to have much say in it) and displayed the strained circumstances and mixed loyalties she has when her husband rebels.

The Elephant In The Cinema

Inevitably there are going to be comparisons with the hugely successful and Oscar-winning Braveheart. Three of the central characters also appear in that film and it is telling much of the same story but from a different perspective. Braveheart focused on William Wallace who is never actually seen in Outlaw King but his existence is referenced a lot. There are many similarities between the two portrayals of Edward I, both are old but fierce men, with Braveheart’s king being crueller and crazier, seemingly going out of his way to be evil. The big difference is with Prince Edward, in Braveheart a weak and ineffectual man whereas in Outlaw King he is a far more aggressive and warlike man but still was glaring deficits. This change seems to make Prince Edward a more compelling adversary to Robert.

Does It Work?

The film is certainly enjoyable and is a grimmer, less elegant portrayal than many similar films, it feels like 50% of the film is people fighting or walking through mud. Everything and everyone is dirty; even kings. Unavoidably it suffers from the problem that we know what is going to happen but it does as well as it can at maintaining the jeopardy. Certainly, some people will not know the ending or how it all happened. At times Robert is asked specifically how many soldiers he has and you could fit them all on one bus, hardly an army, and it is hard to conceive how he can possibly win. The real problem is one of scale. There is only one large scale battle in the film which is quite possibly the smallest battle in this whole war, with Robert having around 500 men. While this is historically accurate you can’t help but think they chose this battle over, say, the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert had at least ten times that number because the smaller battle would be cheaper. Considering Game of Thrones has battles that feel on a bigger scale this is a real failing with the film. Indeed the film ends with text explaining what happened next and it really feels like they have only told half of Robert’s story.

The viewer’s sympathies do lie with Robert but there is an incident early in the film which does muddy the water a lot. To the filmmaker’s credit, this is something that really happened and permanently tarnished Robert’s reputation and damaged his standing with a lot of people. An equivalent action today would probably be committing a war crime. Robert is portrayed as wanting to act not out of personal ambition but for the good of Scotland and it’s people. In part, though the film makes less of a case for Robert being the good guy but in clearly demonstrating that King Edward and Prince Edward are clearly the bad guys. A good point about the film is I don’t think every English person is shown as thoroughly evil (a problem I think Braveheart has), more than the people in charge have tried to steal Scotland and the foot soldiers are just caught up in it.

Overall I’d say if you like historical dramas you will enjoy this but it certainly isn’t the cultural touchstone something like Braveheart or Gladiator are but in Outlaw King’s defence the film is far more historically accurate than either of those. It’s a two-hour film that was always interesting and enjoyable and a lot of its faults come from comparing it to other films.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Short Snacks

Red (Directed by Simone Smith) | Short Snacks #10

August 5, 2018
Red - Simone Smith - Big Picture Film Club's Short Snacks

Synopsis: A psychological hue which resembles that of blood evoked in the human observer. BAFTA New Talent award-winning short film. Red is an experimental psycho-drama about war and desensitisation.

Writer / Director / Producer: Simone Smith.

Starring: Nora Smyth

Big Picture Film Club’s Short Snacks series is a collection of interesting, thought-provoking and creative short films from emerging UK-based filmmakers.

Red (Directed by Simone Smith) | Short Snacks #10

Synopsis: A psychological hue which resembles that of blood evoked in the human observer. BAFTA New Talent award-winning short film. Red is an experimental psycho-drama about war and desensitisation.Writer / Director / Producer: Simone Smith WILD ROOM.Starring: Nora SmythBig Picture Film Club's Short Snacks series is a collection of interesting, thought-provoking and creative short films from emerging UK-based filmmakers.

Gepostet von Big Picture Film Club am Sonntag, 5. August 2018