The 15 Most Original War Movies

The question you might ask yourself right away is probably: What is an original war movie? Is Stalingrad original or Black Hawk Down? I would argue, no, they are not. They are great, they are absolute must-sees but they are not original. They consist pretty much of linear story telling. Well filmed but nothing out of the ordinary. What about Enemy at the Gates? Admittedly according to my definition this  almost made it into the list, as it is originally beautiful, but so are others.

Original is about something more than beautiful cinematography, it is something beyond the well-trodden path. Either a different way of telling an old story, a new look at something we saw before, a different way of filming, a genre-blend, an original story etc. After thinking for a very long time about it, I came up with the following fifteen movies that are far from the ordinary. I guess that all these fifteen films are movies that mostly also appeal to cinema lovers in general.

Three Kings (USA, 1999): Taking place during the first Iraq war it is definitely one of the most original movies I have ever seen. The way certain things are filmed is pretty unusual. When someone gets hit by a bullet we follow the bullet on its way inside the body, see how it affects the system and causes gangrene. Quite astonishing. On top of that it is a crazy, fast-paced story. Like a filmed version of a rock song.

Pan’s Labyrinth aka El laberinto del fauno (Spain, 2006): Set during WWII in Franco’s Spain. A genre blend, half fantasy, half war movie. Uses lots of fantastic elements, striking colors. Absolutely different.

Ovelord (UK, 1975): WWII, UK just before D-Day. A very short movie that alternates original footage and filmed bits. Filmed in black and white, it has a very old-fashioned feel. The story is original as well as it focuses on one individual soldier who will be shipped to France. Uses dream sequences, elements of foreboding. Still straightforward storytelling. (see my post Overlord: An Overlooked War Movies masterpiece)

The Thin Red Line (USA, 1998): WWII, The Pacific. This is the most lyrical of all  war movies. Intense pictures, haunting voices in the off meditate about death and dying. It is one of those cases –  you love it or you hate it but can’t deny it is original.

War Requiem (UK, 1989): WWI, France. Silent movie. Visual interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem based o the life of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Mixed with original footage that gets more and more gruesome towards the end. The most gruesome original footage that I have every seen. Heavy on symbolism, colors etc. Despite Sean Bean this is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. (see my post War Requiem; Derek Jarman’s Impressive Interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Eponymous Requiem)

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK, 1943): Boer war, WWI, WWII. A movie that relies heavily on almost choreography like acting, loads of allusions to British culture. Extremely funny, filmed in brilliant Technicolor. Quite slapsticky at times, reminded me of one or the other Laurel and Hardy at war movies, but undeniably British humor. Two astonishing acting achievements. Deborah Kerr playing three different women and Roger Livesey playing the young, the middle-aged and the old Colonel Blimp. Amazing performances.

The Downfall aka Der Untergang (Germany, 2004). There have been such a lot of movies about Hitler but this concentrates on his very last moment, in the bunker in Berlin. Quite an unusual look. Creepy, spooky, with a fabulous Bruno Ganz in one of his best roles.

300 (USA, 2006): The last fight of the Spartans is original because of the heavy use of CGI, outstanding camera work and graphics. (see my post 300: This is Sparta! )

The Hurt Locker (USA, 2008). Iraq movie. Academy Award Winner. Different in the sense that it focuses on one special task, bomb disposal and one special man who is doing it his way. He goes about his business as if he was a player in some video game. Death-defying. Plus the movie has a thriller feel which is quite unusual for a war movie. At times it feels like Speed goes to Iraq. (see my post A War Movie Gone Thriller: The Hurt Locker)

Birdy (USA, 1984). Post-Vietnam. This is unusual in many ways. Outstanding acting, a story that is far from ordinary and a way to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome like we haven’t seen it often before. (see my post Alan Parker’s Birdy: A Tale of Frienship, War and Being Different)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (USA, 2008). WWII, Holocaust. Haven’t we all seen a lot of Holocaust movies? This is one that will stay with you. The cinematography is brilliant and the story is haunting. Nobody would expect that ending. The Holocaust seen through the eyes of a child that has no clue what is going on, only sees the signs and interprets them his way, is creepy. (see my post The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: An Unusual Look at the Holocaust)

Grave of the Fireflies aka Hotaru no Haka (Japan, 1988). Beautiful anime from the Ghibli studios. The sad and moving tale of two kids in WWII Japan, fighting for their survival after the loss of their family. (see my post Grave of the Fireflies: An Anime War Movies)

Waltz with Bashir (Israel, 2008): Israel.  Another animated movie but of an altogether very different kind. This looks more like a woodcut. Interesting take at the Lebanon war.

Apocalypse Now (USA, 1979). Considered by many to be one of the best war movies there is, it is also very original as it doesn’t show the Vietnam war as it was, instead more like a hallucinatory re-telling of The Heart of Darkness set during the Vietnam war. Using Wagner’s Valkyrie and The End by the Doors further underlines it’s aiming at being something different. Whether you like it or not, it is very original.

Full Metal Jacket (USA, 1987). This is a highly original movie as it creates images that will burn themselves into your memory. Visually one of the most powerful movies. Plus it tells two stories. Boot camp and street fight. This last element is also quite original as Vietnam movies mostly portay combat in the jungle. Plus the Vietnamese sniper…

Have I forgotten any and if so, why should they be included?

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31 thoughts on “The 15 Most Original War Movies

  1. Novroz says:

    I’m glad Hotaru no Haka is in that list 🙂

    For me, saving private Ryan should be there too…it’s originality lies in how it was made like real war documentary because of the camera movement. That was the 1st time I see war movie with unsteady camera.

    300 is a movie I can’ finish…I have only seen parts of the movie, never the whole movie.

    • Seen that way you are right about Saving Private Ryan. Good to think some more. In the end I will post an amended list of 20 movies. I didn’t like 300 the first time around. Had to watch it again. These animated looking pictures with real people can be annoying.

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  3. warmoviebuff says:

    Fantastic idea for a post! I will be thinking on this for days. For now I will suggest:
    “Castle Keep’ – I hated it, but it is undoubtedly bizarre. A squad defends a castle inhabited by a lord and his sexy wife. One of the members falls in love with a Volkswagon Beetle and another shacks up with the baker’s wife and runs the bakery. That is just a taste. Best watched on LSD.
    “Beach Red” – a weird movie about jungle fighting in the Pacific in WWII. Lots of flashbacks, but they are mostly still shots. Includes recurring shots of a cockroach about to be stomped. I hated it also. Lots of voice-overs ala “Thin Red LIne”.
    “Come and See” – similar in style to “Apocalypse Now”. Russian film about partisans in WWII. Only war movie to feature a Red Slender Loris (some type of monkey/rat).

    • Thanks a lot. I enjoyed doing it. The original title of my post was “Most original war movies you must see”, although, you are probably right about Come and See I am not too sure about the other two. I must admit I haven’t seen them but are they must-sees? I think Novroz got a point with Saving Private Ryan. Influential and original can probably often be paired.

  4. warmoviebuff says:

    “Castle Keep” is unbelievably in the Military History 100 Greatest. I do not know about “must-see”, but I would like to know what you think. It is obviously a polarizing movie. You can skip “Beach Red”.
    I agree with Novroz. Now that we are used to the innovations SPR started, you can forget how original and revolutionary it was.
    “Catch-22” is another that is unorthodox. Flashbacks and flashforwards.

    • I always thought I should read the novel first, Catch 22, I mean.

      • warmoviebuff says:

        Good idea. When a movie is based on a renowned piece of literature, I would say read the book first. However, if the movie is not from a famous book, I would watch the movie first. You also have to factor in whether there is a surprise ending or it is a mystery. In that case, I would say movie first. Everyone believes the book is better than the movie, by the way.

  5. warmoviebuff says:

    I love “300” and I am straight. It definitely belongs on this list. In fact, at or near the top. There was absolutely no other war movie like it and that is still true.

    • I really liked it the second time I watched it. Didn’t get the straight bit. You mean Gerard Butler? I like Lena Headey.

      • warmoviebuff says:

        Here in America, the movie has a reputation for being very popular in the gay community. I think you can figure out why. It was a smash hit because it appealed to several audiences – women (those abs!), gay men (those abs!), straight men (the blood!), nerds (it’s from a comic, dude), macho dudes (I could kill like that).

      • Didn’t know that. That should be the same with Gladiator then, no?

  6. warmoviebuff says:

    As much as I loved it, I would take “Downfall” out. Although it is the best, there is a subgenre of “Hitler in the Bunker movies”. “The Bunker” starring Anthony Hopkins and “The Last Ten Days” starring Alec Guinness (Hitler tends to attract great actors, apparently) come to mind. It is original in spawning all those You Tube take-offs, however.

  7. warmoviebuff says:

    “84 Charlie MoPic” – a Vietnam War movie that follows a long-range patrol on a mission. The movie is original because it is the only POV war movie that I am aware of. The patrol is accompanied by a reporter and his videographer and we see the mission through the lens. Great low budget film that deserves to be more well known. Very good acting from the no-name ensemble. Terrific ending.

    • warmoviebuff says:

      Actually I just realized that the reporter is doing the videotaping, so there is no second crew member. This means we do not see him until the very end of the movie. We hear his interview questions and see the soldiers responding. There is also some action which we see through his eyes, so to speak.

    • I am afraid if we include Charlie MoPic, which I like, we would have to include Redacted too. It is original but I never managed to watch more than the first half… Try showing it in class and survive.

  8. warmoviebuff says:

    Not familiar with “Redacted”. I show 84 CM in my Military History class because I taped it off TV and it is edited for language. It is great for showing small unit dynamics, which is a theme of my course. “Platoon” is better for this, but I can not show it.

  9. warmoviebuff says:

    Who or what is “Litotes”?

  10. warmoviebuff says:

    You learn something not false every day, I guess.

  11. warmoviebuff says:

    I do not think “Gladiator” has the same reputation as “300”. As I recall, there are not nearly as many bare-chests in it.

  12. the war movie buff says:

    I just watched “Waltz with Bashir” and it is amazing. It definitely belongs on this list.

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