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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War Requiem (1989) Derek Jarman’s Impressive Interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s Eponymous Requiem

Futility 

Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

 

I have never seen anything like the War Requiem before. Although I used to like Derek Jarman‘s movies (especially Caravaggio, Sebastiane and The Tempest) I wasn’t aware that this existed before I saw a review on the War Movie Blog. This is certainly not for everybody. If you don’t like classical music, especially requiem’s you will have a hard time. I tell you this right away. Jarman took Britten’s War Requiem, which consists of a proper requiem and sung versions of Wilfred Owen’s poems, and illustrated it. Wilfred Owen is the young poet we also see in the movie Regeneration. He was killed in action one week before the end of in WWI. As you can see I added two of his poems for you.

War Requiem is actually a silent movie so to speak. We see images, acted scenes and hear Britten’s music. In part it’s a reenactment of Wilfred Owen’s story, in part we see actual footage of different wars. Documentary and art are entwined and the result is extremely rich and interesting. The acting is of course somewhat exaggerated as the actors are miming not acting as they don’t talk (silent movie style). The two main actors are Nathaniel Parker (Owen) and Tilda Swinton (The Nurse): Sean Bean (The German Soldier) and Laurence Olivier (The old Soldier) are in minor roles. There is a bit with Tilda Swinton who plays the nurse that is very annoying (scene 10). But that was the only bit I found hard to take. The rest is impressive. Beautiful images. Colors are very important and highly overdrawn as they are in all of Jarman’s movies. In this one it is the color red that is artificially bright. Colors have a special meaning in Jarman’s work. He wrote a book, Chroma: A Book of Colors, dedicated to color interpretations and his last movie is dedicated solely to the color Blue. The tragedy behind all this is that Jarman was going blind towards the end of his life. He suffered from AIDS related illnesses and finally succumbed to them.

War Requiem is remarkable also because it is not only an anti-war movie but also an “anti war movie movie”. If you watch all of it and don’t give up in the middle you might be astonished to see what kind of actual footage you see towards the end. I have never seen anything like it before and felt very uncomfortable. The footage we see – especially from Vietnam and Angola – is horrible and gruesome. What is even more horrible is that you see the difference between wounds in a war movie and these head wounds and other wounds in these documentary bits. It simply doesn’t look the same. You see immediately that these people are really dead. I think to see something like this would be good for every person who regularly watches war movies. The atrocities of war are so much more horrible in reality. It was extremely sobering to say the least.

This is a really special movie. It is an interesting contribution to cinema history as well as to war movies  in general. But it is not for everybody.

Anthem for Doomed Youth 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.