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War movies: what distinguishes the good from the great?

Written by Film

The theme of warfare and human destruction generally wouldn’t seem to be the brightest of ideas to base a motion picture on – just going by the surface of it. And yet some of the most iconic films of the last two to three decades, if not all time, have explored the theme of war and the conditions surrounding it. Saving Private Ryan (1998), Dunkirk (2017), 1917 (2019), A Private War (2018) and so many more movies document the grim realities of war.

What makes a good war movie? What is it about films like Downfall (2004) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) for example that make them stand out in a genre of filmmaking that has spawned thousands of films?

Historical Accuracy and Setting

Downfall, praised for its historical accuracy, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2005 Academy Awards.
Image Credit: IMDB

Any war movie is set in a particular scene of conflict. While the story itself may be fictional, the timeline during which the fictional story is set must be quite accurately represented. To illustrate this point, I would take the example of two movies set in the Second World War. The opening scenes of both Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk take place in the beaches of France. However, while the former was so accurate that they even shot the film at the same place in Normandy as the D-Day landings, replicating the killing fields that they were without any bit of sanitisation, Dunkirk did not have the same level of accuracy. In real life, the city near the beach of Dunkirk was pretty much obliterated by Nazi bombing but in the movie, the soldiers are shown to navigate a surprisingly minimally damaged city – almost like it was a city far from conflict or a pre-war city.

A lot of people who come to watch historical movies are often quite well versed in the real life events that form the fabric for that movie and presenting a distorted version of it is quite jarring as an experience

To a lot of people, that may not be an important detail but during war time, sticking to historical accuracy with regard to timelines is extremely important and is a key part of the movie. A lot of people who come to watch historical movies are often quite well versed in the real life events that form the fabric for that movie and presenting a distorted version of it is quite jarring as an experience. Downfall (which you might know from the famous Hitler Parodies scene on Youtube), was especially remarkable in this regard.

That is not to say there is no creative license involved. For example, the small French town that Matt Damon and Tom Hanks defend in Saving Private Ryan is entirely fictional but by and large they stuck to the basic tenets of the timeline and fit their small alterations into it seamlessly.

Realistic Human Emotions

Whatever the story may be and whatever war the film may be a part of, unless it is a historical account of the battle, it is going to focus on one or a few characters. War is a unique situation in life. It is one that brings out a side in you that few other situations can. Human emotions are entirely different in wartime compared to what they are in peacetime and focusing on these is an essential part of war films.

While some of the films released during wars may focus on rousing speeches and trying to instill a sense of duty (movies unsurprisingly were often used as recruiting tools), films released after wars or about wars past often focus on the emotions of it. And this really is what separates the good war films from the great ones. Saving Private Ryan probably did one of the best jobs I have ever seen in this aspect. It is all well and good to say war is about rousing speeches and dying for your country but on the ground level, war is about humans who are thrust in the field of conflict far away from home knowing that their lives could end any second. It is about these humans who miss the small things in life (whatever they may be because they are different for different people) that they took for granted and that is something that the best war movies capture.

The best war movies are raw, often hitting a nerve with the viewer and movies that tend to do very well are often those that are not idealistic but realistic.

Acting and Script

This is a cliché and it will of course, apply to any film, but war films often require some of the most impressive acting for that person’s career. It follows on in effect from how war movies tend to portray emotion. Because a lot of war is visceral and primal, portraying emotions like that take a lot of effort and good acting is key to the movie being successful. No matter how good the script and how accurate the movie, nothing would matter if there isn’t a connection between the viewer and the actor playing the role on a subconsciously human level. Good Morning Vietnam would never have been a success had it not been for Robin Williams’ portrayal of a cheery radio officer who is eventually conflicted by his need to tell the truth to people versus his sense of duty. I don’t want to harp too much on this because like I mentioned earlier, it is a cliche to say good acting is key to a film but it is a cliche for a reason.

The other major thing is the script. The actor can be good and the acting can be good but it is of no use if the script is not good. At the heart of the idea of realism and of exploring human emotion is the script. What does he or she say in a particular situation. More often than not, war encourages pensive dialogues, reflections, character changes and subtle heroism that you would not see in theme park-like movies and franchises. The script makes a huge difference in these films to show you what real war is like.

Visuals and Background score

Letters From Iwo Jima won Best Achievement in Sound Editing at the 2007 Academy Awards, in addition to scoring nominations in the Best Picture and Best Director categories.
Image Credit: IMDB

In a way this ties into the previous argument of realism but camerawork, music and screenplay make up for a lot of a war film’s worth. War films cannot sanitise anything and should not sanitise anything because sanitising the extreme brutality of war is not helping anyone. War is meant to be jarring and yet in a way immersive because all your senses need to be heightened in war as a soldier. And as a viewer, you need to be transported to an environment that you never thankfully had to be a part of in real life. As with any film but especially so in war movies, visuals and background score make up for a vast majority of the viewer’s experience.

Visuals and the audio effects (including music) go a long way towards transporting the viewer into the movie – a trait it shares very specifically and almost metaphorically, with horror movies

Whether it is living in caves amidst diarrhoea in Iwo Jima, navigating German trenches with your best mate or being part of a bloodbath in France, visuals and the audio effects (including music) of a film go a long way towards transporting the viewer into the movie – a trait it shares very specifically and almost metaphorically, with horror movies. One only has to look at the impact of Saving Private Ryan to see how unsanitised and unhealthy war really is and how it should be portrayed. There were multiple helplines set up in US for war veterans upon the movie’s release following complaints of people suffering PTSD because of the opening twenty seven minutes.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list and I am no expert in the study of films but having watched quite a lot of them, these are, in my view, the most important things that a war movie should have to be a good war movie.

Last modified: 6th April 2020

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