There is no subject as well suited for the movies as war.
In war there is conflict, love, and of course lots of explosions. Movies, someone once said, are just like life—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 three spectacular if obscure 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.
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, end up together, wandering a landscape that resembles hell on earth. Every frame of this film thunders with powerful, unforgettable images. The almost medieval world of the peasants is 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 stands 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.
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 psychotic 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.
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. In the end, I felt a deep kinship with the people of Nanking.
Warning Label: All three films are brilliant but feature scenes of intense violence. Do not screen any of these movies when children are present.