War is Ugly, Even on Film

by Derrick G. Jeter

“War, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of a moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war, is much worse. . . . A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing he cares about more than his own safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” [1]

–John Stuart Mill

War indeed is an ugly business, as is often depicted by filmmakers since the invention of the moving picture. As early as 1915, D. W. Griffith, a mere fifty years after the end of the American Civil War, captured the horror of that war on film in The Birth of a Nation. A decade later, in 1924, Griffith portrayed the war of American independence in America.

Movies have come a long way since Griffith’s grainy black and white silent pictures—and so has the depiction of war in film. War has always stirred deep and conflicting emotions in the arts community, with strong pro- and anti- American portrayals in various bodies of work. However, the general tenor of film from it’s earliest days through the 1950s, painted America in a favorable light, regardless of a filmmaker’s personal opinions about war in general or the war he was depicting in particular. But in the 1960s the tenor changed, with a few exceptions, resulting in a spate of decidedly anti-American war movies. This carried over into the next three decades. Filmmakers no longer felt constrained to keep their opinions to themselves, as their predecessors had—if for no other reason than out of a sense of patriotism, particularly during times of real war. These modern filmmakers, whatever their intentions, left the impression in the minds of American audiences that our political and military leaders were corrupt and incompetent (Dr. Strange Love and Catch-22), and that American soldiers possessed a bloodlust for cruelty in how they treated enemy soldiers and civilians, and were more interested in getting and staying high, drunk, and laid (MASH, Apocalypse Now, Platoon).

While many of America’s leaders have been incompetent and many an American soldier has engaged in atrocities, it was not true of everyone. The makers of these modern films, each of which is stunning and engaging in its own way, seemed to be working out their own angst or demons regarding their views of America and opinions about war, particularly the Vietnam War. But there is no mistake as to the meaning each of these films communicates: America is not a good a noble place, just look at her leaders and soldiers.

I began to think about depictions of America in war movies after The Hurt Locker—a pro-American movie—won best picture at the 2010 Academy Awards. So, on the heels of that film, and on the eve of two new releases portraying America’s involvement in war—The Green Zone, set in modern day Iraq, and the HBO miniseries, The Pacific set in World War II—here are twenty of my favorite pro-American war movies. (Here’s a caveat: I’m not a film critic, so this list isn’t necessarily a reflection of technical merits; it only represents those films I enjoy watching without having to apologize for my American heritage.)

  1. Patton (1970)
  2. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
  3. Saving Private Ryan (1999)
  4. Glory (1989)
  5. The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
  6. Black Hawk Down (2001)
  7. The Patriot (2000)
  8. The Longest Day (1962)
  9. The Great Escape (1963; I know, this isn’t really an American film depicting American soldiers, but you have to admit Steve McQueen is the real star of the film.)
  10. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
  11. Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
  12. Guadalcanal Diary (1943)
  13. They Were Expendable (1945)
  14. We Were Soldiers (2002)
  15. The Big Red One (1980)
  16. Sergeant York (1941)
  17. The Green Berets (1968)
  18. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
  19. The Sand Pebbles (1966)
  20. The Alamo (1960; Not a great film, I know, but I’m from Texas so I couldn’t leave it out!)

Other war films worth the time, whether portraying American service men or not, include: All Quiet on the West Front (1930), The Bridge Over the Rive Kwai (1957), The Blue Max (1966), The Deer Hunter (1978), Das Boot (1981; see the German version), Hamburger Hill (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), Enemy at the Gates (2001), and Band of Brothers (2001; the HBO miniseries from Stephen Ambrose’s book).

Do you have a favorite war movie? Let me know.

[1] John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America,” Harper’s New Month Magazine, vol. 24, issue 143 (April, 1862): 683–4.