Three Notable War Movies

It makes perfect sense that the first epic American movie was about war, “Birth of a Nation,” 1915.

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.

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.

Jeffrey Wright and Tobey Maguire in Ride With the Devil.

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

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.

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39 Comments

  1. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    I went downtown, last night after work, and rented RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG and GREEN FOR DANGER, to celebrate my birthday.

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    • Miranda Rose Smith
      Posted February 7, 2012 at 2:20 am | Permalink

      Warning! Possible Slight Spoiler! I watched GREEN FOR DANGER this morning, and the solution to the murder is SCARY!

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  2. MAJ Virgil Hilts
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I feel robbed.  All my time in war zones, and I saw no material for a love interest scene, other than perhaps “Lashkar Gar:  Brokeback Afghan Mountain.”

    My generation is missing out.  Have we not yet gathered up enough grievances against the Monaco to invade there?  ;-)

    Best,
    Virgil    

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Maj:

      Most war movies are about the love that binds warrior men together. I have a feeling you have not been cheated in this regard.

      Thanks so much for your service.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • MAJ Virgil Hilts
        Posted February 4, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        OK, fair enough.  I have indeed been blessed to see a good deal of that!

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  3. MAJ Virgil Hilts
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    The discussion of Japanese atrocities in China reminded me of a visit I made to a Japanese sword show some years ago.  In ancient times, the best swords were tested by cutting condemned prisoners.  The number of prisoners cut through in a single stroke was recorded in gold inlay under the handle.

    One sword I looked at had a gold inscription that caught my attention–cutting test inscriptions are rare.  It listed the usual information, which I immediately forgot when I saw the date:  Showa 12, i.e. 1938.  A war crime, around three pounds of gleaming gorgeous steel.

    It is worth our money to keep defending Japan and Germany.  They don’t do well left to their own devices.  Good to keep watching the movies that remind us of that.

    Virgil
      

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Maj:

      It looks like German is finally going to rule Europe—through the EU. Without a shot fired, the EU seems poised to abdicate nationhood to the financial resources to Germany.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • MAJ Virgil Hilts
        Posted February 4, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

        And after them, the Muslim “guest workers.”  What a mess!

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      • Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        It may look that way from the outside, Robert, but the Germans are being screwed by the EU, same as the rest of us.  The financially astute and cautious German public are getting quite angry at being asked to bail out these failing nations.  The trouble with Germany is that they have it drummed into them from an early age that they have a tendency to evil and they might start invading and killing again at the drop of a hat, so they believe that they need to be subsumed into transnational organisations like the EU to keep themselves in check.  The EU abuses that to push Germany around, knowing they’d never dream of leaving.  Which I think is rather sad.

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  4. Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got well into Chinese cinema lately.  It has a very different moral perspective from western stuff, and their war movies are incredible.  The Chinese non-Disney “Mulan” is worth a look, as is “Warriors Of Heaven And Earth”.
     
    What did you think of “Behind Enemy Lines”, Robert?  It expresses sheer naked disgust for the UN and Europeans and open admiration for American unilateral action that puts morality ahead of the wishes of the UN.  It’s a miracle it got made, really.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Squander Two:

      I liked Behind Enemy Lines. It’s a refreshing take on war from Hollywood.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • K
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

        Note, however, that Behind Enemy Lines was made during a Democratic administration about an action instigated by same. I’m sure the upcoming “Seals get bin ladin” movie will have the same gung ho attitude towards the US military.

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  5. Raphael_Kaufman
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Bill, what is odd is how much real war actually does resemble the movies.   GIs in WWII often commented on combat that, “Gee! this is just like the movies!”  Sure, very few war movies (Saving Prive Ryan may be an exception) fully depict the extreme violence and trauma of battle, and fewer still can convey the emotional rollercoaster, terror and exultation (at the same time) that soldiers experience in battle,  but the depictions of the situatiions one finds oneself in is eerily familiar.  In my own experience, I not only noticed the resemblance to movie situations, I occasionally quoted appropriate movie dialog.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

    • Bill Brandt
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Raphael – if you have experienced combat you can speak from a vantage point that I can’t.
       
      But when I see “mortar fire” hit 5′ from someone – and they are still running – that’s not too believable. 
       
      Movies don’t generally show people being blown to bits by artillery fire (who’d want to see that movie?) 
       
      Since Robert really got me into movie history (still a novice I have to admit) but when director George Stevens returned from WW2 – having seen the terrible damage a firearm can do to someone – he decided to make Shane realistic as to gun violence.
       
      The people shot there don’t just fall over – you see them knocked down. You hear the BOOM of the shot.
       
      When Torrey is shot in the mud by the gunman he is literally thrown backwards into the mud.
       
      I had a next door neighbor – a Marine veteran of the South Pacific – and he told he 2 things about his combat that really stuck with me.
       
      When you were out in the jungle on a patrol and had to defaecate – you didn’t take a break for fear of snipers.
      Keep moving. 
       
      He survived the battle of Tarawa – which – because the navy wouldn’t listen to the Australian coast watcher and his telling them about the tides – the landing craft were stuck on the coral atoll 100-200 yards off shore – and hundreds of Marines were machine gunned before they made it to shore.
       
      I asked my neighbor how he survived and he would hold his breath, go under water – pop up – then go back down.
       
      I think combat may be a bit like the professional airline pilot’s lament – that it is “99% boredom and 1% sheer terror”. 
       
      But having never had to be in combat can’t say from first hand experience.
       
      At least that is my take…

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      • Raphael_Kaufman
        Posted February 3, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        Yeah, technical details are  difficult to reproduce. For instance, no movie has accurately reproduced the sound of battle.  It’s incredibly loud and disorienting, like when someone cranks off half a magazine 6″ from your ear, or the sound of exploding ordnance (a 105MM air burst sounds like G-d snapping His fingers). 

        The best depiction of battle I’ve seen in the movies is the night attack in Platoon. Stone got the confusion right. Of course, he had first hand knowledge.  He also got the colors right.  The other Vietnam movies were a touch too green.  I think I saw a different version of Platoon than everyone else.  In my version Sgt. Barnes was a tragic hero.

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      • Raphael_Kaufman
        Posted February 3, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        Regarding the effect of small arms on human beings, in my experience, neither an M16 round or an AK round can actually knock a man down. A head or spine hit will usually cause near instant collapse. A solid torso hit can also cause a man to collapse but there a lot of variation.  If a man is hit when he is pumped up with adrenalin, he can run quite a few steps before he collapses.  It is, in fact, amazing how much damage a man can sustain and still keep fighting.  

        Even Saving Private Ryan  didn’t fully depict the horrible things that bullets and fragments can do to people (although it tried).  Having said that, it is also amazing that anyone could recover from some of the damage inflicted, but many do. Today, GIs are surviving head wounds that were certain death back in the bad old days.

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        • kgbudge
          Posted February 3, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          You’re right. Raphael. The physics is wrong for a bullet to knock a man down. Does firing a rifle knock you down? The momentum is the same or even a little less (due to air drag.)
           
          However, the reaction to being hit might resemble being knocked down, with the important exception that you could well jerk in the direction you were hit. Worth keeping in mind next time you meet a Kennedy assassination conspiracy nut.
           

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Raphael:

      I have a friend who was a tank commanderin the Yom Kippur war. He was in the thick of the hellish tank battles on the Golan. He told me that the fear he experienced cannot be conveyed in a movie. But he did say that at certain moments in the midst of ferocious tank duels he found that he was looking at himself as if he was a movie character.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    BTW Did you ever see the movie Defiance? Based on a true story – I think Danial Craig did a great job.
     
    The scene where the partisans catch the German truck out in the forest – amid the snow – and shooting the survivors seems to stand out with me. 
     
    The German movie Stalingrad and Das Boot seemed to be memorable.

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    • Shyla
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      I agree–I thought Defiance was really quite something.

      Robert, regarding, “Movies, someone once said, are just like life, only with the boring parts cut out,” I submit that whoever said that never sat through The Hours

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      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Shyla:

        I did not sit through “The Hours.” I walked out. Correction: I sprinted out of the theater. Life is waaaay too short.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Bill:

      I did see “Defiance” and was sorely disappointed. The real story of the Beilski Brothers is far more interesting than the string of movie cliches used to power the narrative. Further, the Beilski Bros. did not fight pitch battes with the Nazis, knowing they would lose. They kept on moving, saving women, children and the old.

      I’m not against  using fiction in a true story, but this was so clumsy and forced and the director has zero ability when it comes to staging battle scenes.

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      • Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        I liked “Defiance”.  In its defence, it is certainly worth mentioning that Zus Bielski’s son thought Liev Schreiber got his father down pat.  And how often do we get to see a portrayal of a real historical character good enough to get a recommendation like that from their own family?

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  7. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Robert – i think most war movies don’t really depict war as it really is. The opening scene from Steven Spielberg’s Saving private Ryan was an exception.
     
    Of the 3 movies you present I have seen Ride With The Devil  and I think that movie did justice to the historical facts – showing all the cruelty and deprivation of that time.  
     
    I’ll have to look into the other 2.
     
    Did you ever read Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking?

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    • Johnny
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      Bill, there are people on the Kansas-Missouri border that will never believe anything about the Civil War is going to be fair to their side.  The Missouri Tigers and the Kansas Jayhawks both have their origins in the Civil War and even today you can find differing opinions concerning Quantrill. 
       
      I have yet to read Chang’s Rape of Nanking but I did read Finding Iris Chang.  She was an interesting person to say the least and you can’t help but feel sadness over her demise.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted February 2, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

        Johnny – in death Iris is an enigma. Her death was officially listed as a suicide, but she had received threats from Japanese nationalists over the years since the publication of the book. 
         
        Japan refuses to acknowledge their treatment of the Chinese (obviously any blanket statement is wrong but I understand so much of the atrocities they committed isn’t in their books).
        My friend the South Pacific Veteran said something I thought interesting – that Japan was never really held to account the way the Nazis were – at least not on the scale.
        The book really details the treatment of the Japanese towards the Chinese with the invasion of Nanking. 
         
        Witnessing such horror one wonders how a just God would allow such a thing, but then I am sure many Jews wondered the same thing in the death camps. 
         
        Years ago my Jewish friend showed me a movie he had taped about some Jews in a barracks in Auschwitz – debating the role of God in the world.
         
        It was a very powerful movie – wish I could remember the title of it. I can ask Larry if anyone’s curious.
         
        Bill (in his typical tangents and meandering)

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        • kgbudge
          Posted February 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          The rape of Nanking was a horrible atrocity, and I don’t want to sound like I’m denying anyone’s Holocaust. But Chang’s book has gotten quite a few knocks from serious historians, even ones who do not at all deny or minimize the Rape of Nanking. The problem is not with Chang’s claim of a horrible evil atrocity, which all but Japanese ultranationalists agree took place. The problem is that she is so loose with her evidence that she discredits her own cause.
           
          It’s as if someone claimed the Nazis literally ate Jewish babies. (Please excuse what I understand could seem like  a very distasteful analogy; the point is important.) Isn’t the Holocaust awful enough that it doesn’t need embellishing? The claim is that Chang did some embellishing of her sources.
           
          I don’t think there’s anything to the claim that she was murdered. Her acquaintances reported that she was visibly losing it mentally in the days before her suicide. The strain of writing the book, then promoting it on tour, and having some nasty encounters with Japanese ultranationalists, seems to have drained all her mental reserves. A tragedy, not a crime.
           

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          • Posted February 8, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

            Although I never personally met her, I went to University with Iris Chang. Years later, after I realized she and I were classmates, I researched her situation a bit. If you’ve read the accounts of her death and the 3 suicide letters (2 drafts and 1 final version) she wrote, I think you’d agree she took her own life because of her mental health issues.
             
            I have not read her books, nor do I anticipate doing so. I understand that she was criticized for factual errors (some say embellishing, but that implies intentional deceit and I think it may have just been a case of believing everything she heard) in The Rape of Nanking, but I think she did us a service in reminding the world of the evil acts that took place and how quickly we will forget evil acts if left to our own pursuits. Lest we forget…
             

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            • kgbudge
              Posted February 9, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

              Yes, it’s quite possible Chang was credulous rather than consciously inflating her sources. For example, one of the criticisms I’ve heard is that some of her atrocity photographs are actually of Chinese executions of bandits. She may well have not known that when she reproduced them in her book with inaccurate captions.
               
              Of course, too many of her atrocity photographs are perfectly authentic, and that’s worth keeping in mind as well. It was a real and horrible atrocity she was embellising (knowingly or not).

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        • Miranda Rose Smith
          Posted February 5, 2012 at 2:20 am | Permalink

          Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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          • Miranda Rose Smith
            Posted February 6, 2012 at 3:49 am | Permalink

            Dear Mr. Brandt: You want to know why Japan was never really held to account the way the Nazis were-though there were war crimes in Tokyo and some criminals were sentenced to prison or hanged? THE TOKYO WAR CRIMES TRIALS WERE ORGANIZED BY WHITE MEN AND A LOT OF THE VICTIMS WEREN’T WHITE!!!!!

            Correction. Do Not Delete.

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            • kgbudge
              Posted February 6, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

              I dn’t think there’s much to this claim. For one thing, some thousands of Japanese soldiers were in fact hanged for war crimes after the war ended. For another, atrocities against whites, such as the Bataan Death March and the Burma-Siam Railroad, were known to the American publics.
              It is true that the American desire to leave the Emperor alone, for fear that without the Emperor the Americans could not keep control of the occupation, kept the war crimes trials from being as fair or thorough as the Nuremberg proceedings. As a result, Japan has never acknowledged the crimes of its armed forces the way Germany mostly has.

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              • Miranda Rose Smith
                Posted February 6, 2012 at 8:47 am | Permalink

                Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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                • kgbudge
                  Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

                  Were you aware that the Japanese general commanding the troops that carried out the Rape of Nanking was hanged by the Allies after the war?
                   
                   

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      • maya
        Posted February 3, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        To this day, The Rape of Nanking is the one book I’ve never been able to finish due to the utter depraved violence described within its pages.  I have a fairly strong stomach for the stuff, but even now, years later, what I read when I picked up the book lying around remains burned into my brain.  Horrific, indescribable sexual abuse perpetrated upon young girls and children, for a start.  

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted February 3, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

          Maya:

          I have been warned that Chang’s book is tough going. But I am going to make an effort. Confronting the details of evil is never pleasant but perhaps it is our obligation to those who were murdered.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Bill:

      Right after screening “City of Life and Death” I ordered Chang’s book.

      BTW, the film is available on Netflix for free if you are a member, so is “Ride With the Devil.”

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        Robert I am slowly adopting technology to the point I am at about 2005 ;-) Just got an LCD TV and Blu Ray Player and as soon as I hook up my computer to the TV and increase the DSL download speed (it is currently 768K) I will try streaming. 

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