The war film that has perhaps made the greatest impact in the last 20 years is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. At the very beginning the audience is plunged into a battle sequence lasting 27 minutes, recreating the horrific reality of the D-Day offensive at Omaha Beach. It stars Tom Hanks in the role of John H. Miller, who is on a mission to locate Private Ryan, the last surviving member of a family of four brothers fighting in the war (played by Matt Damon). Much of the historical data used in the film is taken from the books by historian Stephen Ambrose, who branded it as “the best war movie ever made”. At times hard to watch, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, though nevertheless remains a modern classic of the genre.
Real footage, real bullets, real deaths: there is nothing staged about Restrepo, a feature-length documentary which chronicles a year in the lives of fifteen soldiers in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. Its directors, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, wanted to convey the brutality of war through the eyes of a U.S. platoon, and the only way for them to achieve this degree of realism was to be in the midst of the action itself. The heroic effort of both directors is reflected in the very nature of their work, living the same lives and being denied the same luxuries as the soldiers. The sacrifice involved in the shooting of this documentary was immense, and the untimely death of Hetherington while covering the conflict in Libya a year after Restrepo‘s release was yet another bleak reminder of the horrors of war portrayed within.
One of only a handful of German-made films about Hitler, Downfall is a rare gem amongst a multitude of biased and distorted Hollywood portrayals of the führer and commander of the Third Reich. The film chronicles the last ten days of Hitler’s life before his suicide, and provides a historically accurate account based on the memoirs of his private secretary, Traudl Junge. Bruno Ganz steals the show with his mesmerizing performance as the Nazi leader, casting a new light on one of the most infamous figures in history. No one would have guessed that such a serious topic would become the subject of countless memes and YouTube parodies either, but Ganz’s interpretation of Hitler will nonetheless surely be remembered as the truest of its kind for decades to come.
The aftermath of the Vietnam War saw a huge response from Hollywood directors trying to make sense of the infamous military disaster. Michael Cimino was among the first to do so with The Deer Hunter, casting legends Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and John Cazale in the main roles (Cazale was battling cancer throughout the shooting of the film and passed away before its completion). It centers on the stories of three steel workers whose ordinary lives change overnight when they are drafted to fight for their country and sent to Vietnam. A Russian roulette motif taken from an unproduced screenplay and merged with the war narrative permeates the film, and though it diminishes the historical credibility somewhat, it certainly enhances the underlying message: the dehumanizing effect of war on all involved.
Just a year after The Deer Hunter came the magnificently chaotic Apocalypse Now. After its premier at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979, its director Francis Ford Coppola famously told reporters: “My film is not about Vietnam. My film is Vietnam”. He certainly makes a strong case for it in the epic masterpiece, featuring the legendary Marlon Brando of Godfather fame as the demonic Colonel Kurtz. It wasn’t just the final product that received attention either: the production of the film, notoriously costly and haphazard, was documented ten years later in a separate work, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which gave insight into the apocalyptic behind-the-scenes of the film’s creation. In the end it survived numerous setbacks, including uncertainty as to the ending, and went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes that year.
The script for this one was an adaptation of Ivan, a short story penned by the Russian war novelist Vladimir Bogomolov, translated into more than 20 languages and read widely. The child protagonist of this tragic loss-of-innocence story is twelve-year-old scout Ivan Bondarev, whose youth comes to a premature end after the Germans kill his mother and sister. The desire for revenge sets in and the narrative is away. The director, Andrey Tarkovsky, analyses the fragility of the human condition under the influence of war from a child’s perspective – an original touch given the nature of the military profession. Tarkovsky’s directorial debut turned out to be one of the most widely acclaimed efforts by any Soviet director both at home and abroad, gaining recognition at both the Venice and San Francisco film festivals.
Dealing with the delicate subject matter of the Holocaust in a tragicomic film such as Life is Beautiful was always going to be a risky enterprise. A Jewish librarian played by the magnificent Roberto Benigni, who also co-wrote and directed the film, is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp along with his son, from whom he conceals the truth about their tragic fate by turning it all into a humorous game. Despite the divided opinions and feelings surrounding the decision to address the genocide of World War II with a comic touch, Benigni’s audacity clearly paid off: the year after its release it won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film, followed by the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival!
The Pacific War is a theme which seems to recur ad infinitum in the narratives of Hollywood cinema (Pearl Harbor, Empire of the Sun, Tora! Tora! Tora!, to name just a few), and in this respect there is nothing novel about Letters from Iwo Jima. What is unusual, however, is that Clint Eastwood should decide to shoot two separate films in tandem (the other being Flags of Our Fathers), covering the American and Japanese perspectives of the same events and the same conflict individually, without merging them into a single narrative. By doing so, Eastwood pays his respects to the memory of the Japanese soldiers killed in action at Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, highlighting both the shared and individual histories of the two nations.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is unanimously considered one of the all-time greats: amassing a whopping seven Oscars the year after its release – the first film in the genre to achieve the feat and equalled only by three others since (Lawrence of Arabia, Patton and Schindler’s List). Kwai is loosely based on the construction of a railway bridge by Allied soldiers and Asian civilian laborers at a Japanese POW camp in Burma and Thailand during World War II. Whilst many have criticized the film for failing to do justice to the shocking conditions of the camp, it does not fall short on drama and suspense, building up to an unforgettable climax that’s been hailed as one of the most stunning pieces of cinematography in film history.
An adaptation of a novella written and published clandestinely by the French resistance writer Vercors at the time of the German occupation of France, The Silence of the Sea presents a simple plot on the surface, with an allegorical layer beneath it. Every night Werner von Ebrennac, a German officer who lodges with a French family during World War II, courteously bids his hosts goodnight before he retires to his room upstairs. But his hosts never say a single word in reply. Their silence acts as a form of resistance which remains unbroken until the very end, despite the charm of von Ebrennac and his provocative monologues. Jean-Pierre Melville aptly brings the classic text to life on screen whilst staying loyal to the power of the spoken word in the original work.