There is no subject as well suited for the movies as war.
In war there is conflict, love, and of course lots of action. Movies, said Hitchcock, are just like life, but with the boring parts cut out. Thus, movies about war delete the incredible boredom of most war-time experiences in favor of the hyper-drama that characterizes training, combat, and the bursts of romance and friendship that invariably help define characters within a blasted landscape.
Seraphic Secret would like to draw your attention to ten spectacular war movies. Each film seethes with a specific national and regional point of view. And yet war and man’s experiences in war are universal, and each film left yours truly horrified, enlightened and deeply moved.
1. Come and See, 1985. The Nazi occupation of Byeloruss was particularly savage. In this Soviet film, Florian, a naive teenager anxious to join the partisans, and Glasha, a village beauty, together wander a landscape that resembles hell on earth. Every frame of this film thunders with powerful, unforgettable images. The almost medieval world of the peasants stands in stark contrast to the mechanized death brought by the Nazis. There are moments of lyricism that are just overwhelming: In a rain drenched forest, Glasha climbs up on a log and dances the Charleston. The title comes from The Apocalypse of John:
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
2. Ride with the Devil, 1999. A brilliant Civil War movie about the merciless bushwacker warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border. A near perfect screen adaptation by James Shamus based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell. Vivid and touching performances by Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Brandis and Jewel. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a psychopath bushwhacker nearly steals the show with an over-the-top performance—is he playing the character sorta gay?—that shouldn’t work but does. The massacre of Lawrence, Kansas is a scene you will not soon forget. A major box office flop, “Ride” will eventually be recognized as a masterpiece.
3. City of Life and Death, 2009. You know the moral landscape has shifted beneath your feet when a Nazi diplomat is a character you look to as a compass of decency. Indeed, the 1937 rape of Nanking, the subject of this intense movie, presents the Japanese—quite correctly—as savage racists who slaughter Chinese men, women and children with all the cold glee that Nazis reserved for Jews. I usually try to watch movies in one sitting, but this remarkable Chinese film was filled with so many horrific scenes, all drawn from documented incidents, that I had to take several breaks in order to recover. Shot in black and white, “City of Life and Death” follows several characters, Chinese and Japanese, men, women, and children, who end up as completely realized characters.
4. The Lighthorsemen, 1985. A beautiful Australian movie shot entirely in South Australia, that takes place during World War I, telling the story of a light horse unit fighting in Ottoman Palestine. The final assault on Beersheva is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The director, Simon Wincer, told me that he was working with very few horses and he just used lots of “simple camera tricks” to make the final charge such a tour de force. The 100th anniversary of the Lighthorsemen’s brave charge at Beersheva was just celebrated. When next you go to Israel make sure to pay your respects at the graves of the fine young Australians who paid the ultimate price in that courageous charge. Their graves can be found at the Beersheva War Cemetery.
5. Brest Fortress, AKA Fortress of War, (2010). In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, making a mockery of the Nazi-Soviet Non Agression pact. Stalin was so stunned by the invasion that he retreated to his dacha where he fully expected to be arrested and shot. The Brest Fortress was one of the first fronts of the blitzkrieg. The Soviet garrison, filled with wives and children, was criminally unprepared for the German onslaught, a Rassenkampf, or race war of annihilation against Bolsheviks and Jews.
Told from the point of view of 15 year-old Sasha Akimov, the son of a brave officer, the film is unflinching in its depiction of the merciless initial attack and the excruciating final siege of the fortress. The plot follows true life events as closely as possible. The production cooperated with the Brest Fortress Museum.
At points, the film feels like classic Soviet propaganda, but in the end this viewer was deeply moved by the heroic resistance of the doomed defenders of the fortress. Battle scenes are brutal and expertly staged. But it’s the love stories—Avrech’s rule#1: all good movies are love stories—that are the emotional core of this stunning film.
6. Cuckoo, (2002). In 1944, days before the Finns pull out of the Continuation War, a Finnish soldier, in punishment for being a pacifist, is chained to a rock and left with a sniper rifle and a few day’s provisions. Snipers were called Cuckoos. At the same time, a loyal Soviet soldier is arrested for anti-Soviet activity and is on his way to a court-martial that will land him a firing squad. Not far away in Lappland is the rough home of a young Sami woman, a reindeer farmer, whose husband was forcibly drafted by the Finnish government.
These three characters eventually meet and though they all speak different languages—Russian, Finnish, Sami—they come to understand each other’s basic humanity. Okay, this sounds like a dreary parable and to some extent it is. Basically this Russian production tells us that war happens because people don’t understand each other. In fact, the opposite is true. Wars are inevitable because people understand each other all too well.
In spite of the heavy literary symbolism Cuckoo shimmers limpidly with grand landscapes and three outstanding performances. The narrative conceit of three people who do not share a common language is simply delicious. Anni-Kristiina Juuso, a Sami actress, steals the show with her touching, off-beat performance as a practical yet mischievously sexy young woman whose loneliness is suddenly alleviated by the appearance of two men. There are no battle scenes, but “Cuckoo” explores a different side of war, a home front that is unique and compelling.
7. Lawrence of Arabia, 1962. One of the first lessons a screenwriter learns is to define heroes by their faults. The script for David Lean’s masterpiece elegantly portrays Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the violence he claims to abhor but in which, ultimately, he delights. His confused sexual identity is on display in several subtle scenes, and his divided allegiances between the British empire and the romanticized desert Arabs is fully rendered. This movie strikes the perfect balance between sweeping epic and intimate portraiture.
8. Zulu, 1964. The true—well, sorta—story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 1879, South Africa, where ninety British soldiers fought against several thousand Zulu warriors. At one point a young bugler, lips trembling, asks the tough Sergeant: “Why? Why?” And the Sergeant, stiff-upper lip, as the British used to be, replies, “Because we’re here, lad.” A young and incredibly gifted actor named Michael Caine makes his very first major film appearance as a foppish young officer who becomes a man in the crucible of battle. Zulu’s score by the great John Barry, is one of the most memorable I have ever heard. During the Yom Kippur War I used to hum it to myself to keep up my spirits and remind myself that numbers don’t matter, that in the end discipline, courage and fortitude triumph.
9. The Winter War, 1989. A spectacular Finnish movie that tells the story of the hundred day Winter War fought by Finland against the Soviet Union from November 30, 1939 to March 13, 1940. It was the Winter War that convinced Hitler that invading Russia would be a cake walk.This epic details how ill-equipped, inept, and poorly led Soviet troops repeatedly flung themselves against brave and determined Finnish soldiers posted in thin lines across a massive front. Fighting in bitter, subzero weather, the story is told through the multiple story lines of a single squad composed of farmers, school teachers and village merchants, intensely patriotic men whose lives in a harsh, isolated land breeds first-rate soldiers. The overwhelming strength of the Soviet Union in men and armaments seemed to doom the Finns to a fast and bloody defeat. But the Finns are a stubborn people whose resistance should rank with greatest last stands in military history.
Based on a classic, Hemingwayesque novel of the same name by Antti Tuuri, the central character, Martti Hakala, is a member of the 23rd Infantry regiment, an easy-going farmer who likes nothing better than plowing the fertile earth. The battle scenes are huge and impressively choreographed with waves of screaming Soviet soldiers charging frontally—flank attacks are way too subtle for the Soviet bear—into pitifully narrow Finnish lines. It takes a while for non-Finnish viewers to identify all the supporting characters, but soon enough the individual soldiers become distinct. Family life is lovingly rendered. The sturdy women who wait anxiously for their men to return are blessedly unglamorous. The film has a nicely understated heroic yet gritty quality that correctly views war as abrupt bursts of blood drenched chaos and soul-shattering fear. This is a classic war film that deserves a wide international audience.
10. Seven Samurai, 1954. Director Akira Kurosawa’s epic, the greatest movie ever made, speaks directly about the moral imperative of a just war.
The Seven Samurai takes place in medieval Japan, a time when bandits—the terrorists of their time—roamed the land looting, raping, and killing defenseless farmers.
Seven ragged but proud Samurai warriors are hired to defend one poor village. The Samurai do not negotiate with the bandits. They do not try and appease them. Nor do they ponder the root causes of banditry. The Samurai set strategy and kill the bandits. One by one.
This film tells us there is no deterrence and no freedom without the disproportionate use of force.
The climactic battle in the rain, where mud, blood, and tears mix, is perhaps, the finest choreographed battle scene ever staged.
All skilled directors and screenwriters in Hollywood study this masterpiece and try—without success—to emulate Kurosawa’s cinematic style. We all stand in Akira Kurosawa’s shadow. This is the film that compelled me to become a screenwriter.
If you love movies but have not seen The Seven Samurai, you are missing a rare cinematic experience.
Warning Label: All these films are brilliant but feature scenes of intense violence. Do not screen any of these movies when children are present.