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?