War Movies – A Pacifist Outlook

sa/whitakerSome time ago, in an exchange I had with a noted movie critic, the question of anti-war movies was raised, and it made me reflect more on the subject.  The subject matter of war violence in the context of movies is difficult, as it can be depicted from abstract fantasy to realistic gore.  Value laden messages and choices by the filmmaker also muddle the picture, with a range of depictions from heroic to hellish  for both characters and situations.

Evaluating movies about war without coloring judgment from the viewer’s personal perspective is an additional hurdle.  But on the simple, yes/no question of “is this movie an anti-war movie?” a check list helps put any particular film in one column or the other:

Is the war real?  It is hard to make a case for a movie being pro or anti-war if the depiction is totally abstracted away from a reality context.  Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings or most war comedies are examples in which an effort must be made to empathize about the life and personal situation of individual enemy soldiers and the impact of their death in their own, private world. In these movies such characters are foils, as relatable to the viewer’s emotion as a tree or a rock blocking the hero’s path to glory or redemption.

If the war is real that is the first step in evaluating its pro or con stance.

Is the enemy real? How repulsive or empathetic is the the portrayal of the enemy?  The abstraction of the enemy into a faceless impersonal mass is what mostly differentiates “pro” and “anti” war movies.  Clearly Starship Troopers is the ultimate case of this, with swarms of giant alien cockroaches portrayed as the enemy in what otherwise would be a glorification of (caricatured) army discipline.   WWII Hollywood propaganda films of the 40’s presented Nazi Germans as a portrayal of cartoon evil (as does Inglourious Basterds, albeit with irony towards those movies).

During the cold war the enemy object label was “Commies”;  they were the spooky evil.  Many years after the end of WWII, with Das Boot (1981), a real personalization of Nazi soldiers as real people instead of disposable objects was (almost) acceptable.  Just as, for WWI,  many years earlier German soldiers were made personal in All Quiet on the Western Front. 

 To a certain extent, if the side of the protagonist, the “allies”, also has a degree of abstraction–a  detachment (an almost impossibly heroic “stiff upper lip”) from the real impact of pain, injury and death–more likely than not the film is a pro-war movie.

Is the physical pain real?  The depiction of “War is Hell” can go either way for an “anti” or “pro” stance.  Hamburger Hill, Platoon, and Saving Private Ryan personalize and make real the soldier’s physical pain and death. This is the third test. Blood, guts, maimed limbs, screams of pain, tears of fear, all cinematographic but sometimes hidden from view to focus on “the win”. True courage is going into battle with full recognition of its true nature, yet overcoming the logical instinct to avoid such battle. True foolhardy is going into battle without that recognition.

Once these items are checked off , the value judgment of the general context of war kicks in.  The film maker typically chooses to depict personal conflicts within the larger context of the conflict of war.  What carries the ultimate message of the movie is whether the war “wins”, prevailing over the petty foibles of the film’s protagonists regardless of character arc, or if the character “wins”, overcoming the enormous hurdle of a situation larger than life affecting his/her own life.  The lens filtering this view is brought into focus by the film maker.  In The Longest Day the war wins as it does in The Hurt Locker.  Yet, by using the reality check list above, the first could be considered “pro” war while the latter could probably said to be “anti” war by most.

More recently in American Sniper, a movie that abstracts the enemy and minimizes the reality of the protagonist’s and his comrades war pain, the war ultimately “wins” when the hero is felled by a traumatized fellow veteran. Yet, any critical assessment of this movie would characterize it as pro-war.

To believe a movie is a proper anti-war movie it probably should be qualified as such in terms of its simultaneity with its war.  That is, the film maker was making a statement while the war depicted was going on or was very recent.  Yet, it is rare that films critical of war come out during the war itself, as it is deemed anti-patriotic.   The Green Berets (1968), which came out during the Viet Nam war is definitely “pro” and was made, depicted and publicized as an answer to the anti-war street protests of the times.  If an “anti-war” movie depicts the war years after the fact, it should be properly called “pacifist” as its activism is displaced in time.  But maybe that is being too much of a purist.

With all those caveats my list of anti-war / pacifist movies include:

I  just rattled these off my memory, and I am sure I missed many.  Maybe you can suggest some more.

CJ Rangel – December 2012
(updated – Jan 2015)