Blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan is back on our screens with his WWII epic, Dunkirk. Featuring a veritable who’s who of British talent, the film dramatises the real life military evacuation of British forces during an early part of the war. The film has, thus far, been well recieved, with plaudits towards its realistic depiction of battlefield violence and technical mastery.
So, after you’ve experienced the horrors of being trapped by war in IMAX, what else could you watch? What are some other tales of conflict worth your time? Well, I have some ideas. Some all time classics that no self-respecting film geek should be without, and some which aren”t so discussed but desrve a mention nonetheless.
1. Apocalypse Now (1979):
Obvious and easy, but frankly, if you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now yet, there’s no really better time. A loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s seminal book Heart of Darkness, the film transplants the action from colonial era Congo to the Vietnam War, where Captain Willard is dispatched to deal with Colonel Hurtz, an American officer gone rogue and living like a God in the jungle.
A war film, told through the lens of a master like Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and with writing duties from John Milius (Dirty Harry) and even pre-prequels George Lucas, would already be a sign of good things, but Apocalypse Now is more than just stylish violence. Coppola’s direction creates a surreal, almost nightmarish quality to the jungles and rivers of Vietnam, while the screenplay allows us to dive deep into the insanity, hypocrises and cruelty that man does in the heat of battle. A pitch black sense of humour underpins many of the brutal slaughterfests, enhancing the already bizarre world, and is iced perfectly by musical contributions from The Doors. Really, why haven’t you already seen it?
2. Streamers (1983):
In each list, I do like to recommend films that take a slightly different perspective in their genre. Case in point, this 80s Robert Altman film (a very wobbly era for the legendary maverick, sandwiched between the misfired Popeye and his comeback The Player) about a group of four young recruits who are training to join in Nam, only to then be embroiled in tensions relating to race and even sexuality between them.
All the Altman tropes are present and accounted for: overlapping dialogue, multiple characters and story threads, a slightly odd sense of humour accompanying moraly grey subject matter, but these fit well and quickly immerse the viewer in what is a very small scale story. The cadets have clear personalities and conflicts, the young actors more than ably acquit themselves and share a spunky chemistry, and the whole thing has an uncomfortable atmosphere that isn’t afraid to confront its audience. Relevant then, relevant today.
3. Joyeux Noel (2005):
Let’s give some attention to The Great War with this fantastic and heart-rending French offering about how, in 1914, soldiers on both sides of the trenches decided to put down their guns and celebrate Christmas. They exchange gifts, sing songs and bury their dead, all the while hoping and praying that the war will end soon and they can all go home.
What could easily have been Hallmark-sappy is instead played with great reverence. Joyeux Noel is all about the human capacity for understanding, even in the face of such horror and blind nationalism. It accomplishes this via having several aces up its sleeve: First, it boasts a fine range of European talent, including the likes of a young Daniel Bruhl, Diane Kruger, Guillame Canet, Benno Furmann, Gary Lewis and Danny Boon. We also have a moving but sparse choral-centric score, fitting the yuletide setting, and rather convincing recreations of the filthy trench life and the desolation of No Man’s Land. It makes for one of the most different and best Christmas films out there, as well as one of the more inspiring war features.
4. Land and Freedom (1995):
Returning back to the run up to WWII, British auteur Ken Loach (Kes, I, Daniel Blake) delivers us a tale of faith and principles as Liverpool communist David Carr journeys to Spain to fight for the Second Republic against General Franco and the fascists, backed by Nazi Germany. Initially optimistic, believing the Republic to be a perfect bastion of Left wing ideals, he comes to discover how quickly power and human self-interest can corrupt ideas, and how in war, there are no angels.
Land and Freedom may not have the scale of Dunkirk or the imagery of Apocalypse, but what it possesses is a unique coming of age story about a man learning the truth of politics and principles while being there on the ground and seeing what it does to the Spanish people. It’s mature, sophisticated, doesn’t glamourous one side of the argument (doubly impressive, given Loach’s socialist leanings) and is lead by a solid turn from the much underrated Ian Hart.
And there you have it. Four very different choices for warfare cinema for you to enjoy on DVD or browsing through Netflix. Each set during a different time, each with a different goal but all very interesting slices of film, as well as world, history.