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15 films that best capture the horrors of war

Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now and Schindler's List are a few of the films that take a stark look at conflict.

Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now and Schindler's List are a few of the films that take a stark look at conflict

Dunkirk was Christopher Nolan's first historical drama — and one he wanted to make for over 25 years. (Warner Bros.)

Almost since the dawn of film, there have been films about war.

Some glorify conflict and its leaders, creating a patriotic glow. Others, while they still have their heroes, force audiences to face the chaos and brutality of war, and to witness its deep human cost. 

In honour of Remembrance Day, we have gathered 15 films that, even though they're set at different points in history and range from comedies to heartbreaking dramas, best capture the horrors of war.

Of course there are many more; make sure to add your favourites in the comments.

Schindler's List
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Released: 1993
Based on the novel Schindler's Ark by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, this unforgettable film follows real-life German businessman and Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who was credited with narrowly saving the lives of more than 1,000 Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by hiring them in his factories. The film was a box office hit and landed seven Academy Awards, among them best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best original score. In 2007 the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked it at number 8 on its list of the 100 greatest American films of all time


Gallipoli
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Mel Gibson, Mark Lee
Released: 1981
Director Peter Weir may be best known for quirky dramas and comedies including Dead Poets Society, Green Card and The Truman Show, but nearly a decade earlier, he was the director behind Gallipoli — a World War I drama that traces young Australian men sent to the Gallipoli peninsula (now modern-day Turkey), where the chaos and senseless loss of life is laid bare, in particular in the deadly Battle of the Nek. 


Paths of Glory
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker
Released: 1957
Set during World War I and based on a 1935 novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory tells the story of a French army unit sent on a mission that will seal their doom — and when the men refuse to follow orders, they face court martial. But it's the brutal battle scene, where Kubrick lined up six cameras to maximize the scope of the loss, that few forget. Wrote the New York Times, "The close, hard eye of Mr. Kubrick's sullen camera bores directly into the minds of scheming men and into the hearts of patient, frightened soldiers who have to accept orders to die." Controversial when it was first released, Paths of Glory is widely considered one of the best war films ever made, and to this day holds a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Thirty years later, Kubrick released Full Metal Jacket, another film that captures the madness of war. 


Apocalypse Now
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper
Released: 1979
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, this famed classic travels to the deepest jungles of the Vietnam War — and into the dark, twisted psyche of Colonel Kurtz, an army officer who goes insane and is accused of murder. As Kurtz famously says, "The horror, the horror." The film won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes, as well as two Oscars, and is regularly named one of the greatest films of all time. 


Life is Beautiful
Director: Roberto Benigni 
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi
Released: 1997
Legendary Italian comedic actor Roberto Benigni takes a more serious turn with this moving 1997 film, which follows a Jewish-Italian bookshop owner who tries to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp by framing events as steps in a larger game. The film is sweet, funny and totally devastating. Life is Beautiful went on to win the Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as Oscars for best actor, music, original dramatic score and best foreign language film — and Benigni gave a speech that few can forget.


The Pianist
Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Emilia Fox, Michał Żebrowski
Released: 2002
War films normally follow soldiers put into horrific situations, but The Pianist tells the true story of a Jewish civilian whose life and community get torn to pieces. Based on an autobiography by Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, the film traces that destruction — from the early days when Jews in Warsaw were stopped from working or owning businesses, to the squalid conditions of the Warsaw ghetto, to the Treblinka extermination camp. Ultimately, Szpilman escapes and survives, thanks largely to his passion for music, but the dehumanization and loss he suffered remains. 

 

Dunkirk
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles
Released: 2017
Christopher Nolan directed some of Hollywood's biggest movies, among them The Dark Knight, Interstellar, Inception, Batman Begins and Memento — but with Dunkirk, he took on his first-ever historically-based drama. The World War II thriller follows the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from the French city of Dunkirk before Nazi forces could take hold, and takes place in the air, on land and at sea. No expense was spared in making the film as realistic as possible; at one point there were 62 ships in the water, and more than 6,000 extras were used in the filming. 


Das Boot
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Released: 1981
A film adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim's 1973 novel, this powerful World War II film captures the intensity and claustrophobia aboard a German U-boat, which is both a weapon of war and a target, and where sailors are needlessly driven to the brink. "War is hell," wrote Roger Ebert in a review of the 1997 director's cut. "Being trapped in a disabled submarine is worse." When it was first released in 1981, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won best director and best adapted screenplay — almost unheard of for a foreign film. 

All Quiet on the Western Front
Director: Lewis Milestone
Starring: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander.
Released: 1930
Considered one of the most realistic portrayals of World War I, this film — also based on a novel of a the same name — was the first to win Academy awards for both direction and production. A 1930 review in Variety describes it best: "Nothing passed up for the niceties; nothing glossed over for the women. Here exhibited is a war as it is, butchery," it reads. "Driving men and boys to their certain finish before those murderous machine guns, dodging all kinds of killing missiles from the air, living with the rats, starving while fighting, forgetting country and home, just becoming a fight machine on a routine, and probably shell-shocked into future oblivion if surviving all of these war years; that's the story and the picture you hear and see in 'Western Front.'" 


Letters From Iwo Jima
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya
Released: 2006
War films can be guilty of dehumanizing "the other side," and making them little more than almost robotic attackers with no reasonable cause. But Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the World War II battle for the Japanese island from the perspective of the Japanese fighters, who were hugely outnumbered and yet forced to fight — and die — for their country's honour. The film is a complement to Flags of Our Fathers, which zooms in on U.S. fighters, and together they make a clear statement about how the lines between "good guy" and "bad buy" can't always be so easily drawn.


The Thin Red Line
Director: Terrence Mallick
Starring: Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin
Released: 1999
Two soldiers who have gone AWOL and are living idyllic lives on a Pacific island get captured and thrown back into a vicious and chaotic battle in The Thin Red Line — and it's that contrast, along with serious questions about the morality of war, that make the film especially brutal. As a Rolling Stone reviewer put it at the time, the film, which was based on a novel by James Jones, "offers raw fear, combat numbness and moral uncertainty, plus assurances that war dehumanizes the men it doesn't kill. Malick tells us what we don't want to hear." 


M*A*S*H*
Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall
Released: 1970
M*A*S*H* is best known as a hit TV series, but that long-running show began as a feature film. Like the TV show, it was set in a field hospital and combined the horrors of the Korean war with wry humour about everything from death to love to the mundanities of everyday life. But that pitch-black humour never made light of the conflict; on the contrary, for millions of viewers, it gave the war a human face and highlighted its senselessness. "Most comedies want us to laugh at things that aren't really funny; in this one we laugh precisely because they're not funny," wrote Roger Ebert in a review at the time. "We laugh, that we may not cry."


The Deer Hunter
Director: Michael Cimino
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep
Released: 1978
Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage star as working class buddies from a steel town in Pennsylvania who take a final hunting trip before heading overseas to fight in Vietnam — but they aren't at all prepared for the horrors that await, or the psychological effects that keep them from stepping back into society. An emotionally jarring film, The Deer Hunter went on to win five Oscars, including best film and best director.


Hotel Rwanda
Director: Terry George
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, Nick Nolte
Released: 2004
The Rwandan genocide wasn't understood in the West until it was far too late, and this film snapped into raw, vivid focus the atrocities that were committed — and the abandonment of the victims by international forces. In it, Don Cheadle plays a Hutu hotel manager whose wife is Tutsi, and who shelters Tutsi refugees from the escalating violence in his luxury hotel. The film doesn't try to capture the massacre of more than a million people; rather, it keeps it smaller and more focused, making it all the more powerful. "A film cannot be about a million murders," wrote Roger Ebert in a review, "but it can be about how a few people respond."


Joyeux Noël
Director: Christian Carion
Starring: Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Daniel Brühl, Diane Kruger, Gary Lewis, Alex Ferns
Released: 2005
It's one of the most hopeful stories of World War I: it was Christmas Eve, 1914, and despite the fact that they had been locked in deadly trench warfare, British and French troops and their German enemies laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together; instead of exchanging gunfire, they exchanged food, souvenirs and songs. Soon after, however, they were swiftly pulled back into action and forced to once again see each other as enemies. This Christian Carion film tells a fictionalized version of the tale that brings truth to its tagline: "Without an enemy there can be no war."


About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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