War films often fall into one of the three categories: glorification, anti-war, and biographical, without taking sides. Till the end of World War II, war films were used as a propaganda tool across the world. Films such as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) or Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942) served to promote the cause of war and glorify battles or soldiers.
In the post-World War period, while pro-war films were still raging, anti-war films focused on the inhumane atrocities of war. Films like Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1954), Dr Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) agonised over the mental, emotional and physical damages afflicted on soldiers and civilians. Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), set during the Vietnam War, was a direct retort to John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968), which was made to assert the pro-war stance of the United States.
Later, war films sought to tell an introspective story of true incidents. Dramatic retellings like Pearl Harbour (2001), Valkyrie (2008) and Black Hawk Down (2001) gave an insight into true incidents, told through the perspective of those who participated in these events. On the other hand, The Pianist (2002) and Schindler's List (1993) were told in the voice of a civilian survivor.
Besides reiterating history, war films today reveal untold stories and introduce forgotten war heroes. For instance, Christopher Nolan's upcoming Dunkirk looks at the famous Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.
Releasing on November 4 worldwide, Hacksaw Ridge is the story of US Army medic Desmond T. Doss, who was awarded the Medal of Honour despite never firing a bullet during World War II. Starring Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn, it adds to Mel Gibson's bag of war films.
Here's a look some other war films based on true incidents, which were released in the last decade and half:
Thirteen Days (2000)
Starring Kevin Costner as Kenneth O'Dowell (Special Assistant to the President) and Bruce Greenwood as President John F. Kennedy, this thriller is about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The crisis refers to the time when the US and Cuba, backed by the Soviet Union were almost on the brink of a nuclear war, and how the Kennedy administration thwarted it. Based on The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, the film plays out like a docu-drama. It won critical acclaim, even as historians and members of the Kennedy administration accused the film of some flaws.
Enemy at the Gates (2001)
This film is a loose adaptation of Soviet sniper Vasili Zaytsev's stories, as mentioned in the non-fiction book of the same name by William Craig. It starts off during World War II at the Battle of Stalingrad, where Zaitsev, played by Jude Law, saves commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) from oncoming troops. Zaytsev is then promoted as a national hero and propaganda icon, and becomes a sniper. His stories are used as a “morale booster” for the Soviet forces. Meanwhile, a German Major (Ed Harris) is sent to Stalingrad to kill Zaytsev. What follows is a tense cat-and-mouse game, involving double agents and romance. While the romance aspect of the film waters down the tension, the depiction of the war history was well received by critics.
Based on a memoir by Marine Corps veteran Anthony Swofford, Jarhead epitomises the phrase “much ado about nothing”. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Swofford, who enlists in the US Marine Corps, struggles through every day, and just about manages to become a sniper. When the Gulf War begins, Swofford and his unit are sent to Saudi Arabia on Operation Desert Shield. But, there is not much fighting to be done, only routine drills. Swofford is in for a long wait (175 days), unaccustomed to heat, cleaning toilets as punishment for getting into trouble, playing desert football with his new buddies. The long awaited Operation Desert Storm begins, but gets over too soon, without giving him a real chance to kill. When Swofford gets back home, he is disillusioned by the victories of war.
Lone Survivor (2013)
Based on the US Navy SEALs failed mission, Operation Red Wings, in Afghanistan, Lone Survivor is a retelling of the non-fictional account by former US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. The mission—to capture Taliban leader Ahmad Shah—is tasked to four Navy SEALs, including Luttrell, portrayed in this film by Mark Wahlberg. Following communication problems, the team is exposed by herdsmen while in the mountains of the Hindu Kush region. After an outnumbered battle with Taliban troops, the team tries to escape and calls for help. In the end, an injured Luttrell remains the only survivor, and is helped by a local Pashtun villager, who fends off Taliban fighters and sends for help.
American Sniper (2014)
This Clint Eastwood-directed film is based on a memoir by Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL veteran. Kyle is one of US military's “deadliest” marksmen who served four missions in Iraq. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle, who is celebrated for his sniper skills, but suffers from having a conscience. Kyle's personal life is affected, too, as his wife and newborn son take a back seat in his life. After his return, he struggles with normal life. The film, nominated for multiple Academy awards, has poignant reflections on how war seems rewarding but takes a toll on those fighting it on the field.
During World War II, the assassination of the Reich's top third commander (after Hitler and Himmler), SS General Reinhard Heydrich, ended in the murder of 15,000 Czech civilians. Based on this incident, Anthropoid stars Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as two exiled soldiers who plot Heydrich's assassination. Operation Anthropoid is said to be the only successful assassination attempt ordered by the Czech government. Heydrich was hunted down for being the brain behind the systemised “extermination” of Jews, called the Final Solution. However, his death led to Nazi troops terrorising Czech villages, where all men were shot dead, while women were sent to camps and children gassed.