French New Wave star director Francois Truffaut once said, “every film about war ends up being pro-war.” The excitement of the film's violence makes the portrayal of war attractive, even in films that highlight its cruelty. While there are certainly those who agree with Truffaut, it hasn’t stopped filmmakers around the world from trying, and I would argue, succeeding.
A Redditor recently requested war movies “that don’t glorify war” and received a wide range of answers. Some of those answers were more thrilling than devastating, and some combined the two perfectly. Here I’ve selected ten suggestions that most prove Truffaut’s statement about war films wrong.
1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Both the original 1930 and the recent 2022 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name received several mentions. But the character-focused 1930 adaptation wins out here, as it builds a real care for the young men who are forced into the horrors of World War I and makes each loss of life painful.
2. Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory, which received several mentions, is Stanley Kubrick’s first great film and one of the best war films ever made. The film, based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, tells the story of three French soldiers who are put on trial for cowardice after being sent on a suicide mission and turning back. It’s a movie about the evil of the machinery of war as much as it is about the dangers of combat.
Two respondents suggested Jarhead which centers on the psychological effects that the boredom of war can create. Based on the memoir of the same name by Anthony Swofford, Jarhead features almost no thrilling sequences of violence, instead highlighting the months of nothingness faced by troops during the Persian Gulf War.
4. Come and See
Many commenters recommended Come and See as one of the most harrowing depictions of war ever set to film. Come and See follows a young Belarusian teenager during the nazi occupation, and shows the audience the atrocities they committed through the young man’s perspective. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s a remarkable film.
The only documentary on this list, and the only film about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Restrepo documents the lives of soldiers at an outpost in the Korengal Valley as they fight for their lives and bond with one another. The film doesn’t offer much of a narrative structure, opting instead to deliver as much raw footage and as many first person testimonials as possible.
6. Full Metal Jacket
I usually stick away from mentioning one director twice on these lists, but Kubrick was a master of the anti-war war film and his later outing in the genre, Full Metal Jacket, received several mentions as well. Full Metal Jacket, based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford (who also co-wrote the screenplay), follows a group of young men through their experiences in boot camp and in Vietnam. The film’s first half of the film is iconic as it shows that boot camp can be just as brutal and dangerous as war.
7. The Hurt Locker
Many respondents suggested Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker which follows a bomb defusal expert during the Iraq War who is addicted to the adreneline. It includes some of the most stressful sequences in any war film. It’s also an important film historically as it was the first film directed by a woman to win Best Picture and the first film to win a woman the Oscar for Best Director.
Based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam, Platoon centers on a volunteer who soon realizes that the war is far different from what he expected. Like Paths of Glory, Platoon also highlights the cruelty that becomes a simple fact of war.
9. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Based on the novel of the same name by James Jones, The Thin Red Line follows a group of soldiers during the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II. I was somewhat surprised that the film only received two mentions as its contrast of the beauty of nature with the industrial brutality of war is one of the most stunning feats of filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
10. Das Boot
Das Boot received a few mentions, with one commenter noting that “It's a depressing but good one. (Like it's supposed to be).” Based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s autobiographical novel, the film centers on the crew of a German U-Boat during World War II as they hunt allied subs in the Atlantic. The movie does a great job sidestepping the politics of the Nazis by making only one of the crew a believer, and thus allows the audience to focus on the horror of the crew’s experience as one of survival rather than ideology.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Kyle Logan is a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Alternative Press, Cultured Vultures, Film Stories, Looper, and more. Kyle is particularly interested in horror and animation, as well as genre films written and directed by queer people and women. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.