There’s a lot of fuss being made over the movie American Sniper. Some call it the best American war movie of all time, others a propagandist piece, but frankly I don’t think it’s that good or bad either way. I wasn’t engaged by the characters; and what ground it covered, The Hurt Locker did so much better.
If you want some really good war films, these are my favorites. The library has all of them.
1. Shame. Unknown setting. Ingmar Bergman shot it off the small island of Farö, but it’s not clear that the setting is intended as Swedish. Whatever this nation is, it’s either at war with an invading country or engaged in a civil war–left deliberately hazy to suggest a war that symbolizes all war without any political axe-grinding. Its focus is on a simple married couple who are uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs sexual favors for a government official. Things escalate to the point of humiliation and Jan, a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. We share Eva and Jan’s intimacies and hopelessness on a level not matched in any other war film. Shame speaks deeply about the human psyche and the will to survive. Like all Ingmar Bergman films it’s profound and timeless.
2. Paths of Glory. France, 1915-16; World War I. Stanley Kubrick’s classic is about a suicidal attack on an impregnable fortress captured by the Germans, inspired by the six-month bloodbath during the Battle of Verdun for Fort Douamont. It holds up well after so many decades (much as Spielberg tried, he didn’t surpass this brutal intensity in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, a film I really don’t like), and the court marshal of the second part remains a convincing piece of courtroom drama. And then there’s the final scene: the poor ridiculed stage-singer who manages to shatter everyone’s soul, a moment’s epiphany in an uncaring world. Against the backdrop of the First World War, soldier grunts emerge as worthless pawns, to be thrown away for the sake of their superiors’ aggrandizement, and military tribunals stand as parodies of justice.
3. The Thin Red Line. Solomon Islands, 1942-43; World War II. This masterpiece was overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan (also released in 1998), when I think it should have been the other way around. It laments warfare through naturalist philosophy. I believe that antiwar films have difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear but without preaching. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy (Shame) and Kubrick along the ladder of military hierarchy (Paths of Glory), Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms. He finds beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s a brilliant film, and the exotic setting of Melanesia somehow aligns perfectly with the tone of what Malick aims for.
4. Fury. Germany, 1945; World War II. Few war films capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. The story is set in the final days of World War II. An American tank crew of five plows across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it; the Nazis dig in to the end. The tank battles are nightmares; the Germans resist every step of the way. The best scene comes at the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in drunk, and a thoroughly unpleasant (and surreal) dinner ensues. The tank battles are spectacular and thoroughly realistic. Fury is defined by them.
5. The Hurt Locker. Baghdad, 2004; Iraq War. Neither anti- nor promilitary, but respectful and a sobering lesson in what bomb-deactivation squads go through. This is the film American Sniper tried to repeat: special-skilled soldiers, battle addiction, and the toll taken on wives back home. The title refers to shell shock, or the physical trauma of being continually close to the blast of an explosion: the horrible noise and prelude of compressed silence encasing you in a locker of pain. Kathryn Bigelow got best picture for it, and it was richly deserved. The film is not only an adrenaline rush, it’s a professional depiction of the Iraq War that refuses to plant a flag on either side of the conflict. It’s a thoughtful film about what it means to have skills that set soldiers above their peers, without glamorizing the role.
6. Flowers of War. Nanking, 1937; Sino-Japanese War. Set during the Rape of Nanking (the Chinese holocaust of World War II), this is loosely inspired by the diary of an American missionary who worked to protect Chinese civilians in the Nanking Safety Zone. A Catholic cathedral is used as a hideaway for young schoolgirls, who are soon joined by a group of prostitutes also seeking safety. The key character is the American mortician, who eventually must use his skills to disguise the older prostitutes as the 12-year-olds when the Japanese demand the schoolgirls be handed over for rape. The acting on display is as good as acting gets, and the drama pulls no punches showing the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War. The ending is left ambiguous–the disguised prostitutes are taken away from the cathedral–but safe to infer: these flowers have chosen to martyr themselves for the students’ freedom.
7. Full Metal Jacket. Vietnam, late 1960s; Vietnam War. There are zillions of films about the Vietnam War, many of them by Oliver Stone, most of them not very good. This one is legendary for Gunnery Sergeant Hartman–surely one of the most entertaining film characters of all time. As a 19-year-old, I remember thinking he went over the top for sake of theater, but quickly learned that actor R. Lee Ermey had been a real-life drill instructor, and that Kubrick allowed him to edit his own dialogue and improvise as he saw fit. I also remember my father saying he experienced some of these degradations heaped on the privates (and he was only in the Air Force, not the Marines). The film’s middle part is its weakest (where it feels like Europe more than Vietnam), but the sniper sequence at the end pulls it back on its feet.
8. A Field in England. England, 1646; English Civil War. This one is a weird psychological horror piece. A pious man flees from battle. He’s caught by another fugitive, who is holding two other hostages. They wander and happen on an Irishman, who seems to have a connection with the pious man. He convinces them to help him search for some lost magical treasure. They move across a field which goes on forever. They find a crop of hallucinogenic mushrooms and consume them. Witchcraft comes into play, one of the men enslaves the other, and uses him as a kind of divining rod to locate the treasure. It’s a subtly terrifying scene (see here)–one of the most memorable from any film. A Field in England is a surrealist experiment, as if someone’s dream was captured on celluloid.
9. Black Hawk Down. Mogadishu, 1993; Somalian intervention. Never has the chaos of battle been depicted so effectively as in Black Hawk Down. What should have been a simple seizing of Somalian lieutenants turned into a nightmare of 18 soldier deaths across an overnight standoff, with another soldier being captured as well. All things considered, it’s amazing the rangers and special forces were able to fight off an entire city as they did. I was actually in Africa the year of this event, and remember hearing of warlord Aidid. His weapon was hunger: capturing all the food coming into Mogadishu. The American intervention was long delayed and frustrating, and when finally put into effect was blown to smithereens by unforeseen blunders. Small mistakes and cruel acts of fate–these more than anything else are what left the soldiers stranded in the city teeming with Aidid’s thugs around every corner, well into the next day.
10. Lone Survivor. Hindu Kush Mountains, 2005; Afghanistan War. If you want a true story set in the Middle East, I’d recommend this one over American Sniper. (What’s fact and fiction is explained here.) It tells of four Navy Seals on a covert operation, spying on a Taliban hideout. When they’re spotted by a random group of goat herders, the Seals make the kind decision to let them go, and from that point they fend off an unrelenting assault, as Taliban soldiers chase them through the mountains, surround them, appear suddenly from behind trees, entirely at ease in native territory. The film honors the Seals who died in this operation but also the Afghan villagers who sheltered the lone survivor of the four, when it was basically suicide for them to oppose the Taliban in this way.
Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.