War, huh, good-god …what is it good for? Depressing movies, that’s what. If Hollywood has taught us nothing else in the last few decades it’s that war sucks. It sucks a big hairy, sweaty, stale, cheesy one. But you have to assume that most world leaders have been living under diamond encrusted rocks for the past few decades as twenty years into the twenty-first century we’re still blowing innocent people and beautiful places to smithereens. Despite the likes of For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943), Battleground (1949), Come And See (1985) and Flanders (2006), not to mention centuries of conflict all documented by the survivors as the most horrific and fruitless endeavours ever dreamt up by man, we continue to blow shit up under the war banner. I say we, I really mean the handful of power wielders in the world. For as much as war is a motherfucker, it’s a profitable one. There’s the spoils of victory, new lands to be had full of precious commodities like oil, gold and cheap call centres. There’s also military contracts doled out to companies that those in power have no affiliation with whatsoever. And it’s not as if those in charge are going to be getting their hands dirty. Trump and Kim Jong-un are never going to have to fish a friend’s dog-tags out of the sloppy remains of their cannon blasted abdomen. Nine times out of ten the only suffering the idiots that declare war have to endure is the humiliation of signing terms of surrender, whilst the winners point, laugh and moon in their direction; boo fucking hoo. When are these piss-takers going to look back on the blood stained history of the human race and reach the same obvious conclusion that the rest of us have reached; war changes nothing and none of us want it. Obviously, there’s the rare occasion when our hand is forced (a respectful doff of the cap to all those brave souls who fought in World War II). But by and large ninety nine percent of the world’s population could live without it. So what say we round up the few war-mongering-bastards out there, pop them on their own island and let them kill each other in the face to their hearts content? Here’s ten sterling filmmakers that I’m sure would agree with me.
- ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)
It didn’t take long for the art world to reflect upon the pointless brutality of World War One, or the Great War as it was known at the time. Poets such as Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon were writing stirring verses even when the war was still raging. One of the most important pieces of art on the war was released in 1928, Im Westen nichts Neues, by Erich Maria Remarque. Despite coming from Germany the novel was widely accepted as the greatest writing on the mental and physical effects of modern warfare. Just two years later a film adaptation arrived in theatres, All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone. Surprisingly, given modern Hollywood’s predilection for relocating stories to an American setting, the plot still concerns a German soldiers experiences fighting in the trenches. Lew Ayres, in just his second full acting performances, plays the role of Paul Baumer assigned to leads a group of young recruits in to the Army and out on to the front lines. Once there the horrors of the Great War grind Baumer down until he is taken out of service through injury. Returning home he is shocked to discover just how ill-informed the civilians around him are, and when he brings a class of potential new recruits up to speed on what life at the front is really like he is lambasted for being a coward. With little left but a return to the battlefields Baumer heads back to fight again. If Remarque’s story and Milestone’s film were made today it would be a defiant artistic endeavour; in 1930 it was positively heroic. Such was its impact in Germany that the Nazi Party banned the movie outright. For forty plus years it remained the definitive movie on the violence and degradation of war, one that it seemed those in high office paid little attention to sadly.
Tasty Morsel – A made for television remake was released in 1979, starring Ernest Borgnine, Ian Holm, Donald Pleasence, and Richard Thomas as Baumer.
- THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
By the early seventies it was clear that the Vietnam War was far from the US military's finest hour. In April 1975 the war finally ended, just six months shy of the twenty-year mark since the conflict started. During the war and just after there were very few American made films that touched on the war, the jingoistic John Wayne movie The Green Berets (1968) being the notable exception. In the late sixties producer Michael Deeley purchased a script entitled The Man Who Came To Play about a high-stakes game of Russian roulette set in Las Vegas. He later hired writer and director Michael Cimino to relocate the story to the Vietnam War, retitling the project The Deer Hunter (1978). A controversial move at the time, it was thought that no American viewer would pay to watch a film about the harsh truths of a war that was still having a negative impact on American life, returning American troops, and their families. To counter this Cimino cast the cream of young Hollywood talent, with Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale, and Christoper Walken taking on the lead roles. Cimino also ensured that the plot was an accurate reflection of how the war actually affected the lives of the ordinary men who went across the world to fight. We follow three steelworkers from Pennsylvania before, during, and after their service in Vietnam, which includes a harrowing stint in a POW camp. Cimino’s film was so direct in its telling of the mental and physical tole the war took on the three men, when Universal executives first viewed the director’s finished work they were shocked and unsure whether the movie should be released at all. The film did cause some controversy over the inclusion of Russian roulette as a form of torture used on captured American troops in Vietnam (there was no documented evidence that this ever happened), but it was legendary film critic Roger Ebert who came to the movie’s defence, succinctly pointing out that the scenes work as a perfect symbol of the impact of violence and the superfluous nature of war on the men who are forced to take part. All round critical acclaim followed, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Walken. More importantly than that though, it opened the floodgates for the truth about the Vietnam War to be told.
Tasty Morsel – According to Cimino, Robert De Niro insisted that a single live bullet be placed in the gun he uses when threatening John Cazale to an impromptu game of Russian roulette. While Cazale agreed he insisted on checking that the bullet wasn’t the next one in the gun chamber before every take.
- APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
The story of some movies is so astounding their making passes in to legend. And they don’t get much more legendary than Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). The filming of his movie was such an ordeal Coppola’s wife helped turned that story in to its own fantastic documentary some years later, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1993). The stories are well known; whole sets wiped out by storms, Marlon Brando turning up overweight and unprepared, Martin Sheen’s heart attack and breakdown. The tumultuous making of the film is such that it almost overshadows the brilliance of Coppola’s work. Looking back to 1979, it certainly clouded the judgement of some reviews when it received a famously mixed reception upon release; ‘…emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty’ was how one critic summed it up. Apocalypse Now remains the most numbing and maddening examination of the surreal horrors of war, and it’s a title that is unlikely to be taken from Coppola at any time in the future. The film starts on unsure footing before quickly spiralling down a rabbit hole of psychosis at the horrifying end of a war that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Written jointly with John Milius, Coppola took the central plot idea from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and relocated it to Vietnam. Sheen plays Willard, an Army Captain already driven part crazy by the conflict, tasked with assassinating Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, a special forces officer who its believed has gone rogue and possibly insane. To think that Sheen didn’t win the Best Actor Oscar for his amazing performance is one thing, but the fact he wasn’t even nominated is a cinematic crime. Duvall was rightly nominated for his work as the gung-ho Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, but no such credit was given to Brando for his mesmerising display as Kurtz. Coppola and his movie also lost out, to Kramer vs Kramer (1979).
Tasty Morsel – Steve McQueen and Al Pacino were both offered the role of Captain Willard but turned it down due to the length of time they would be away from home shooting.
- PLATOON (1986)
The last time I cried watching a film I was fourteen and I’d just sat through Oliver Stone’s ode to futility, Platoon (1986). I’d been studying the mud caked history of World War One’s trench warfare at the time and I was just starting to understand the reality of war. It was a much more serious affair than I use to portray with my green plastic army men in the dirt and grass of our garden. Platoon took all the horror of The Great War, stuffed it in the more contemporary setting of Vietnam, and dropped a massive truth bomb on this naïve teenager. The attack on my tear-ducts was a classic pincer movement. Swooping in from the left was Charlie Sheen, following in his father’s Apocalypse Now footsteps, as the inexperienced Private Chris Taylor. The movie’s real battle is not between our heroes and the Viet Cong, but between two conflicting US Sergeants fighting for Chris’ naïve soul. Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) has had much of his humanity stripped away by the insanity and violence of war. He wants Chris to follow his hardline approach to dealing with the NVA threat. Sgt. Elias is the realist and humanitarian, keen to win the battle but even more eager to ensure the boys in his platoon get home in one piece. Countering this personal conflict within a real conflict and charging in from the right is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It is possibly the most sorrowful piece of music ever to waft into a viewer’s ear. It has become America’s unofficial music of mourning and Stone utilised it to crushing affect, none more so than when Sheen surveys the bloody carnage of the film’s climatic battleground. By this point Taylor has absolutely no idea what the hell he is doing in Vietnam, and when I watched it I had no idea either. The fact that my Dad, a font of historical knowledge, could offer up no real explanation as I questioned him through moistening eyes made the whole movie doubly depressing. Stone completed a hat-trick of stark Vietnam movies with Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) and Heaven And Earth (1993).
Tasty Morsel – Tellingly, the US Dept. of Defence refused to support Stone with the making of his film. Instead Stone had to borrow military equipment from the Philippines Armed Forces.
- HAMBURGER HILL (1987)
Platoon was a turning point for America. Though it had been preceded by films that utilised the lunacy of Vietnam to fuel a story, Stone’s movie was the first one to show the raw brutality of the war’s battlefield and the futility of the conflict. When the Academy bestowed it with a few Oscars it was an unofficial acknowledgment of all that was wrong with the war. Filmmakers were eager to express their own outrage and the tragic Vietnam movie sub-genre was born. At least the soldiers of the Great War were dying for something; this was just complete madness. Rather than the wandering pointlessness of Platoon, John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987) tells a story with a smidge more purpose, focusing on one infantry regiments mission to secure a heavily fortified position on the Ap Bia Mountain. But once you see the mound of dirt both sides are fighting over and the human cost of capturing it, the futility becomes just as stark as the other Vietnam movies that preceded it. Irvin managed to assemble an excellent cast of up and coming character actors to fill out his regiment, including Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, Courtney B Vance, and Steven Weber. Around them Irvin creates some of the most intense war scenes ever created, and certainly the most visceral that had been seen by audiences up to its release in 1987. The randomness of who makes it to the final credits and who doesn’t marks the pointlessness of planning something as brutal as modern warfare. It doesn’t matter who is in charge or how well battle plans are drawn up, once the guns start firing and the bombs start dropping its all a complete crap shoot. It makes for terrifying viewing as characters we land on as favourites are just as unsafe as the unpopular troops in Irvin’s cast, a technique used in numerous war movies from then on, Casualties of War (1989), The Thin Red Line (1998), We Were Soldiers (2002), Flags of our Fathers (2006), Dunkirk (2017).
Tasty Morsel – The characters in the film were named after men scriptwriter James Carabatsos had fought alongside in Vietnam.
- FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
Halves tend to come in twos, so to say something is a whatever of two halves seems a bit puerile. But Stanley Kubrick’s entry in the war genre (based on The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford) was exactly that, a movie of two halves, both of which prove that war is one of life’s harshest kicks to the testicles. Training for war is a pointed stiletto punt and taking part is a steel toe-capped flying dropkick. Our first chapter is marshalled spectacularly by former real-life drill sergeant Lee R. Ermey. It was a debut so show-stoppingly vocal Ermey was able to build an acting career off the back of it. Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman spends the first half of Full Metal Jacket (1987) bellowing the greatest cinematic concoction of insults and expletives at a selection of greenhorn marine recruits “Only steers and queers come from Texas, Private Cowboy, and you don't look much like a steer to me, so that kinda narrows it down.”. His aim is to strip them of their humanity so that by the time they reach Vietnam they have no qualms in taking the lives of as many Viet Cong as possible. But Hartman proves too adept at his job as the equally excellent Vincent D’Onofrio reveals his major malfunction to be a habit of shooting foul-mouthed Army officers. It’s then onto Saigon for part two as Kubrick shows that the dehumanising training Stateside was only the start of the marine recruits suffering. Real combat is a confusing crawl through alien terrain, peppered with lightening fast moments of life or death. It’s unclear where or what Joker and his fellow marines are fighting for, and that’s exactly the point. Joker’s attempts to hold on to some sanity by focusing on his role as an Army reporter only partly helps. The nail-biting shootout during the film’s finale would be a tiny footnote in the catalogue of the conflict but it is this mundanity that makes the loss of life and the loss of innocence that much more horrific.
Tasty Morsel – Kubrick was so impressed with Ermey’s performance, he let the actor ad-lib most of his lines, unheard of in any Kubrick film. He also only took two or three takes of Ermey’s scenes, again unheard from a director who nearly always insisted on multiple takes from all of his actors.
- SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
Some real veterans of the D-Day landings were said to have wept when they viewed Spielberg’s recreation of that fateful day in cinematic form. Saving Private Ryan (1998) was just that well made, modern cinemas first big budget recital of World War II. So stark was its authenticity, the film will forever remain a vital document for preserving a time when ordinary men become heroes, men that those who have enjoyed living in a free Western World since 1944 owe everything. It wasn’t the first time the graphic violence of the battlefield had been shown on a cinema screen; the Vietnam conflict had been depicted as a bloody hell in numerous movies. But before Ryan World War II had been shown in movies as a oddly bloodless affair, a war won with an adventurous spirit rather than a bravery to plough on through carnage and chaos. Spielberg’s film changed all of that with its opening thirty-minute salvo as we join Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller as he and thousands of other Allied troops storm the Normandy beaches. No punches were pulled, as Spielberg strove for full reality; limbs are blown off, bodies strewn in to pieces, the surf turns red with blood, and heroes are killed before they even make it ashore. It was a cinematic watershed moment. For the first time those who didn’t participate in the battles of World War II finally got a glimpse of what it was actually like to put oneself through that, and it was utterly terrifying. Its such an impactful opening that it takes a while for the rest of the movie to return to a natural kilter. Once it does Hanks leads a great cast of soon-to-be-known actors (Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Giovani Ribsi) on a mission which, at first, seems wholly right, but grows to be questionable; risk a whole platoon of men for just one man. The final twist of exactly who is standing in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in the first scene is the last stirring moment, ‘Tell me I’ve led a good life’, and one that won’t leave a single viewer with a dry eye.
Tasty Morsel – Spielberg originally wanted an unknown actor in the role of Ryan, so cast an at-the-time little known Matt Damon. Shortly after casting Damon one an Oscar for Good Will Hunting (1997) putting pay to Spielberg’s plan.
- BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by journalist Mark Bowden in 1999 remains one of the best books even published on warfare in the twenty-first century. It was a strange fit then when it landed in the hands of high-octane Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Fortunately for viewers he handed the script to veteran director Ridley Scott. The script was a faithful retelling of the events of Bowden’s book, which detailed the UN sanctioned and US led joint military forces attempt to capture the Somali faction leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu. The militia who met military forces head on were more prepared than was expected, and when one of the forces UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters is shot down the operation changed from one of capture to one of rescue from the tight, battered African city streets. However, whereas Bowden’s book had around 100 key characters, Scott’s script reduced it to 39 for the sake of a coherent two-hour movie. Even then though, the number of characters to follow during the Mogadishu alleyways gets dizzying at times. At first this appears to be a flaw, but you quickly realise that the chaos of the fighting in the city streets would have been this confounding in real life. With so many moving parts Scott was able to pull together one of the best ensemble casts of the era, including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Ioan Gruffudd, Jason Isaacs, Tom Hardy, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, William Fitchner, Jeremy Piven, and Sam Shepherd. Around them Scott creates perhaps the most visceral and sustained battlefield assault on a cinema audience to date, with bullets whizzing almost non-stop, explosives launched from every angle, and seemingly impossible situations dropped on nearly every cast member. Its an exhausting, terrifying experience from start to finish, just as a movie telling this story should be.
Tasty Morsel – Filming in Sale, Morocco, Scott had a daily issue with stray dogs roaming in to shot. For authenticity Scott left these moments in the film. Eight of the dogs were later adopted by crew working on the film and eventually flown to America to be rehomed.
- WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)
When it comes to war on the big screen, the good versus evil of World War II made for an easy cinematic presentation. The ambiguous nature of the Vietnam conflict made for trickier filmmaking but eventually movies started to arrive. The Middle East is an entirely different beast though. Mired in centuries of religious discord, tit for tat horrors, and wars of varying degrees of scope, even the loftiest scholar would struggle to explain why there is conflict in the Middle East and how it has progressed over time; the everyday movie goer has no hope of understanding it. As such, films on the subject have been few and far between. The volatility of the religions doesn’t help. One of the finest movies, not just on the Middle East conflicts but on any war, was made by Israeli director Ari Fulman in 2008, Waltz With Bashir (2008). The film follows Fulman as he struggles to recall the memories of the Shaba and Shatila massacre in 1982, when around 3,000 Palestinian and Lebanese were slaughtered by militia affiliated to the Kataeb Party. Surprisingly for a documentary Fulman’s film is fully animated, apart from the climatic use of news footage of the massacre aftermath. The presentation is combination of different music, both classical and contemporary to the 1980s. and different animation styles. But rather than distance the audience from the reality of what occurred, by lowering the viewers guard Fulman’s memories of what happened become even more affecting. It’s a method so effective you wonder why it hasn’t been used again since. But Fulman’s film remains unique in the genre and all the more stunning for it. That it re-shone a light on one of the most pointlessly savage occurrences in the long ongoing Middle East conflict was rightly applauded by all critics.
Tasty Morsel – Fulman’s movie was the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, losing out to Departures (2008)
- THE HURT LOCKER (2009)
When Kathryn Bigelow adapted a Playboy article by journalist Mark Boal in to the 2002 television series The Inside, little did she know it was the start of a relationship that would lead the filmmaker to becoming the first woman to receive the Best Director Academy Award. In 2004 Boal spent two weeks following a US Army bomb disposal squad around Iraq, observing up close how they carry out the critical task of making safe explosive devices on the battlefield. Sensing the idea for a movie even before he left for the Middle East, Boal kept Bigelow updated on his experiences each day via email. His aim was to create the first film which showed the Iraq War from the point of view of the troops on the ground. Originally titling his script The Something Jacket, it eventually became The Hurt Locker (2009), and was shot by Bigelow in Jordan, just a few miles from the Iraq border. The shoot was gruelling for all concerned due to the extreme heat and tough conditions; the cast, including Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Guy Pearce, Evangeline Lilly, and Ralph Fiennes, all commented that it created an authenticity that would have been impossible to fake. We follow Renner's Sergeant James, a bomb disposal officer whose unorthodox methods raise concerns with his fellow officers. As the end of their current duty approaches, the pressures and violence of life in Iraq start to mount, pushing some to want out, but, almost perversely, providing others with an adrenaline buzz one could only liken to a drug. It was this note that made the biggest impact on viewers and critics, and though some real-life service personnel criticised the authenticity of some aspects including the recklessness of James in his methods, there was much praise given to Bigelow for highlighting the mental impact extended service has on our service men and women. That the director did so with a movie that was as exhilarating as it was horrifying rightly earned the filmmaker both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.
Tasty Morsel – To date The Hurt Locker is the lowest grossing film to have won the Best Picture Academy Award