All war films have action, but the best ones are those that (intelligently) that examine war itself, its heavy cost and the nature of man himself. Luckily, Netflix’s streaming library has a few modern and classic flicks that serve as excellent examples of gripping drama married to the kind of commentary necessary for dealing with such a weighty subject as war. My guess is you’ve seen one of them and haven’t heard of the other four.
5. The Wind That Shakes The Barley
An unflinching account of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War fought from 1919-1923 seen through the eyes of two brothers who volunteer to serve in the Irish Liberation Army. In a way, it’s like ‘The Godfather’ of war films in that it’s about the birth of one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations and their transition from soldiers to gangsters. The film toes the ambiguous line that divides terrorists and revolutionaries, showing how the IRA the world came to know (and hate) was formed. The great tragedy is how the extremes the freedom fighters went to in the former war solidified the impossibility of their unity. The Wind That Shakes The Barley questions the perceptions of traitor and loyalist and which one wears the uniform as former brothers and neighbors break their unity. Cillian Murphy is excellent as is the supporting cast. Nothing looks unreal and a microcosm of Ireland’s history of sadness is keenly portrayed in the film’s conclusion.
4. Flame and Citron
This sometimes ponderous tale of Danish resistance fighters in World War 2 feels like the film that ‘Inglorious Basterds’ was parodying. Danish director Christian Madsen takes the true story of two of Denmark’s most storied resistors and spins a dark tale of intrigue and murder. The two fighters can only find friends in each other as they discover that Denmark’s resistance force is far from a unified liberation movement. The film takes a distinctly noir tone as the main characters sink deeper into violence and atrocity to accomplish their ends. Asking the “why?” question to a WWII liberation movement seems audacious at best, but Madsen zeroes in relentlessly on his main characters navigating in the urban claustrophobia of occupied Copenhagen. The film portrays war (more pointedly, resistance) as a deeply personal affair where precious anonymity comes at great cost. It almost feels like a relief when the Nazis enter the picture, since they introduce a clear line between friend and enemy.
Yes, that’s a young Michael Caine. In fact, Zulu was his first lead role. This is the film that Peter Jackson cited as inspiration for his adaptation of Tolkien’s The Two Towers. Zulu ratchets up the tension of siege and the nervous preparations leading up to the defense of a hopeless position and the exhaustion and heavy toll of war. The film is a fictionalized account of the historical Defense of Rorke’s Drift in which a company of 150 British soldiers defended a tiny border outpost against a force of 4,000-6,000 Zulu warriors. It is the ‘last stand’ film that John Wayne’s Alamo never was. Director Cy Enfield–though blacklisted for his supposed communist sympathies–is tough to peg here. His sympathies are not revealed, and the film appears to be more about the inevitability of war than its morality, though it is not shallow at all. The Swedish missionary stationed at the outpost serves as a strange kind of serpent in the garden of war, urging the troops to lay down their arms and participate in divine pacifism. The questions are posed and then completely and totally silenced as the officers remind their soldiers that the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on the battlefield is exactly the line between ‘duty’ and ‘desertion’. The complicated origins of the Anglo-Zulu war are totally unexplored. No outside life is depicted for the soldiers, their world is the outpost and the Zulu armies might as well be dark thunderclouds rolling over the horizon. The most interesting thing about this film is its portrayal of the Zulu armies, the greatest military force Africa has ever seen. Instead of the usual depiction of Africans as helpless victims of the West, here they are shown in all their glory as formidable and unstoppable warriors and leaders of a vast and rich culture. Enfield’s portrayal of the Zulus comes off as boldly respectful and the battle as the inevitable clash between two proud forces with equal dreams of dominance. Enfield seems to posit that violence between men is as inevitable as the turning of the seasons and focuses closely on the emotional state of those caught within it and the mutual admiration born between warriors on the battlefield.
2. The Thin Red Line
Terrence Mallick’s depiction of the Battle of Guadalcanal opens with the very unusual scene of Jim Caveziel meandering through the villages of the peaceful natives of the island. From the get-go, it’s obvious that this isn’t your average WWII flick. Nope, this is Mallick we’re talking about so get ready for a decidedly existential take on soldiers in the Pacific theater shot with a rare attention to incidental detail, zoomed-in to the headspace of the soldiers. The enemy is left faceless, like a force of nature. It’s hard to even make out that they are Japanese. I don’t even remember seeing any flags in this film. Like all of Mallick’s films, the war is a backdrop for man’s precarious state in the universe, free from historical connotations. Lofty themes to be sure, but appropriate to the period. It’s easy to see World War II in the reflective lens of history, an open-and-shut tale of political allegiances, flags, mass-murder, dictators and heroes, but at the time it must have seemed like the apocalypse itself, Biblical in proportion. Mallick asks different questions in this film than in any other war film I’ve ever seen. He makes powerful use of the dread caused by the incomprehensibly large war and puts the humans under the helmets into the spotlight and examines their souls in imagery and narration. Mallick’s WWII is an example of the constant state of the human being, peace and happiness always out of reach and the choice between hanging onto beauty and giving into hardness of heart. The violence is at times almost tender as lives are snuffed out swiftly and quietly. The performances are solid, though sometimes strained as each actor deals with Mallick’s existentialism differently. Caveziel is more convincing than Penn and Nolte leans into his role as the callous general with the spitting rage of a mad dog. Sometimes it’s too much, but it makes the point easy to grasp. It also helps that this film stars just about every recognizable male performer ever and by the end it turns into a fun game of ‘spot the actor’. Love it or hate it, The Thin Red Line is an unforgettable and wholly unique war film.
1. Breaker Morant
If you have not seen this film, watch it tonight. You will not regret it. Technically, this film belongs to the courtroom drama genre, but the subject of war is so directly in its crosshairs that it’s impossible to stop it from topping the ‘War film’ list. It’s the true story of three British soldiers court-martialed for atrocities committed during England’s bloody Boer War in South Africa in the dawning years of the 20th century. In a way, it’s an interesting ‘sequel’ of sorts to Zulu in that it’s the white man’s war that broke out after the Anglo-Zulu war. You’ll be able to appreciate the knowing looks and loaded dialogue between the English and the friendly Boers in Zulu after watching Breaker Morant. The film is impeccably shot, as are most Australian films from the ’70s and 80s (see also: Walkabout, The Road Warrior). What makes this film so good is how taut it is for a bunch of guys sitting in a bare courtroom. No scene is wasted, every flashback and battle is evidence contributing to the case and therefore the overall plot. Building slowly throughout, however is the film’s message. It’s a pointed and barbed theme that I will not spoil here. Breaker Morant is one of the few modern films with the gall to have the main character spell out exactly what the film is about without the least bit of ambiguity and it only strengthens the drama. David against Goliath, scapegoats versus an empire. Breaker Morant is certainly one of the best films ever made. It grips you tightly with its mystery and makes its point home at its conclusion like a sledgehammer driving a stake.