I will say outright, I am not the biggest fan of war movies. There are very few I enjoy and I am not going to run out and watch a movie that is centered around a soldier at war. It's not that the topic doesn't interest me. I really like watching documentaries about wars and military. My NaNoWriMo novel has shades of a military story (even though it is mostly a coming of age road trip story). I just find that many war stories tend to walk a tried and true line. You have to go through a bucket of crabapples to find good ones. And I really don't understand why people don't try to be daring (I'm not talking about using buckets of violence or anything meaning daring) as war has been a part of the human condition for almost as long as humans have been around. It is also one of the most debated topics in human history. So, I find it frustrating that people fall into formulas. Don't get me wrong, there are some stories that rock the formula. And there is nothing wrong with that.
I just find, at least to me, is that war movies usually fall into two categories: War is Hell and Makes Us All Monsters versus War is Glory/Good Guys Will Win Over Bad Guys. There is no middle ground which is where I tend to stand. I fully acknowledge that nothing really good comes from war. People die and those who don't are left with scars both physical and mental. But I can never fully buy into the pacifist frame of mind. There will be misguided people out there who will want to kill you and your family based on perceived politics or religion or ethnicity/race no matter what diplomatic argument you may present. And when it comes to that, I will fight to protect myself and those I love. And that is war.
I know there are movies/books/media in which it does fall somewhere in the middle but they tend to be pretty rare. I tend to like my war movies to fall in the middle of that. Yes, war makes monsters of us all and is hell. But also, war is sometimes a necessary evil and it forms bonds like no other. I want my war movies to focus on grey morality. Of course, even saying that, there are exceptions.
This Veteran's Day I decided to post my favorite "War Movies" and it will show just how eclectic I can be. I know I am cheating with some of these and stretching the definition but here you go. There will be no Saving Private Ryan (man they played that thing on repeat at MEPS) or Top Gun (man, they played that repeatedly when I was stationed at a Naval Station) but there will be some that are surprising and some that aren't.
1. Full Metal Jacket
People who are a fan of this movie always point to the first 20 minutes or so in which the main character goes through basic training, watches as a fellow recruit "Private Pyle" gets bullied by the Drill Instructor, and then Pyle blows the Drill away. People remember this scene because it is so brutal and the Drill's lines are quotable even if vicious. Most people who watch Full Metal Jacket will talk about this part of the movie and if you didn't know any better, you wouldn't know most of the movie takes place in Vietnam.
It's a shame, really, because I really like the climax. Up until that point, the main character and his squad are being gunned down by a lone sniper. They curse about him. They talk about how they will destroy him. When they finally get to the sniper's nest, they realize that he is really a she in a classic Samus is a Girl moment. She was gravely injured and as she writhes in pain on the ground, she begs for them to kill her. These tough talking guys suddenly can't. They've been talking about it and they're upset to lose several of their own. But now they saw the face of the sniper and realize that if she had been in Saigon in a bar, they probably would have hit on her. The whole Vietnam section of the film does a great deal to dehumanize the Vietnamese in the eyes of the main characters. This quiet moment when they face the enemy is that programing reversed. Until the main character pulls the trigger, as if given into his programming finally.
I will never forget watching this movie for the first time and just gasping when the sniper turned around. That look of not messing around, that she is not fighting for some ideology but for her life. It is a shame that all people remember from Full Metal Jacket is Private Pyle and the "sucky sucky five dollah" scene.
Full Metal Jacket is full of war tropes that it both borrows from old movie and also created them but I just feel the movie does them well. And I don't know why but if someone said, "Hey, Mary, you want to watch Full Metal Jacket?" I will almost always say yes.
2. The Hurt Locker
This time, I sense my military friends rolling their eyes. One of my friends got downright pissed at me for saying I enjoy this film. Yeah, I know it's not really accurate. And Jeremy Renner's SFC James pretty much plays a cowboy soldier who does things that no one in the actual military could get away with. But there was so much about Hurt Locker I liked narrative-wise I can forgive all that.
For one, there is a lot of "senseless" tension in the movie. Many war movies are about traveling through enemy territory or meeting on the battlefield. In the Hurt Locker, the lines of the battlefield are blurry which makes you feel on edge. This is the Iraq War. You don't know if a cellphone is linked to a bomb. You don't know if there is a bomb under that car. It is the psychology of terror. Another aspect that adds to the tension is there are a few scenes that contribute to how futile it really is. SFC James goes out of the way to get retribution for the death of a boy, going through hell and confusing who to trust, only to realize the kid never went missing to begin with. Then there is the scene of the suicide bomber who got cold feet who James tries to save and is unsuccessful. Renner's character seems broken up about it too. The Hurt Locker reminds you that in War you may tell yourself you are going to save the little guy but sometimes you just can't.
The last part of the Hurt Locker I absolute love is when the main character heads back home. He is asked to pick up cereal at the grocery store by his wife. He stands in front of the cereal and looks completely lost. If this had been a question of which wire to cut, he would have no problem but making an innocuous choice with no consequence between Cheerios and Fruit Loops, he just can't do.
|It is my cheat day so maybe I can eat Reece's Peanut Butter Puffs|
The opening quote in the Hurt Locker notes War is a Drug. And that is what the movie follows along. SFC James can't handle the withdrawal of the adrenaline rush war brings him, even when he can't save the little guy in the end. But he keeps going back. And so does humanity.
3. A Very Long Engagement
This one is kind of cheating as the movie is post World War I but about almost half the movie is war flashbacks so I think it counts. I have only seen this movie once and I do feel I need to revisit it but it left a standing impression on me which is why it occupies a spot on the top five.
This beautiful French Film about a young woman named Mathilde who's fiancee never returns from the trenches during World War I. She proceeds to head off on her own to find out what happened to him only to uncover a conspiracy at the front lines. I can best describe this film as bittersweet. The acting is incredible. The storytelling is just absolutely amazing. I highly recommend this movie if you are in the mood for a foreign film.
There is so much I really like about this movie. For one, the World War I setting is pretty intriguing. It seems like nowadays people just cannot get over World War II. I think maybe part of it has to do with the fact that the U.S. didn't enter WWI until the end but had a much larger part in WWII. WWI was just brutal for France, Belgium and Germany. Trench warfare was no joke. This movie doesn't pull any punches about the trenches either. Those particular scenes were terrifying and the soldiers act terrified. They weren't strong men but a bunch scared shitless boys who had no idea what they were getting into.
|Don't worry, it's not so scary, kid! But make sure you have an extra set of underware|
But I think one of the main reasons I really like this film is because this movie is about war through the eyes of a woman. Mathilde should have been the good girl who would wait for her fiancee to come home. However, she is proactive and goes to look for him. She's a clever woman who is out to get the information she wants with any means possible. She is not passive at all and is quite engaging. You watch not only to find out what happened to Manech, her fiancee, but just how she will accomplish this task.
The ending will knock you off your feet so I won't give anything else away.
4. Fullmetal Alchemist
Okay, I'm cheating again because this is not really a war movie. It is a TV/comic series that has a lot of elements from a war movie in it. Fullmetal Alchemist is a manga/anime series that follows the adventures of the Elric Brothers who broke the greatest taboo in their world -- using Alchemy to try and bring back their dead mother. They sacrificed for it -- Ed loses a leg and Al loses his body. Ed sacrifices his arm to bind Al's soul to a suit of armor and together they try to find a way to gain back their bodies and uncover a government conspiracy in the process. That is what the show is about at first glance and the Elric brothers seem to be the sole main characters.
However, this sprawling narrative is actually two stories that intertwine. Yes, you do have the tale of Ed and Al's coming of age redemption story but that is only one part. The other tale follows Colonel Roy Mustang and his Band of Brothers who are in the process of planning to overthrow the country's military junta -- the country of which has shades of both Bismark's and Hitler's Germany and a bit of Japanese Imperialism tossed in for good measure. There are several episodes that deal with the war that happened proceeding the show's events and in my humble opinion, I find them to be among the best episodes in the series. They do feel like a throwback to military stories of old and I just felt they were well done.
In the show, the country where it takes place is called Amestris which does have a habit of absorbing nearby countries. In particular, there is a part of their country called Ishval. The people there have darker skin, red eyes, and worship a deity called Leto who calls Alchemy evil (as it plays God). There was an uprising after a soldier killed a little boy which turned into an all out war which resulted in the genocide against many innocent people. Mustang and his group are all veterans of this war.
|The kid even has a Teddy Bear because they always do|
The episodes dealing with war are heavy and do not pull punches. And you see how the war changed those in the Mustang group and how they individually dealt with it in the future. You see why Mustang's closest confidant, LTC Maes Hughes is so obsessed with his wife and daughter (it is what got him through the war, thinking he could see his then girlfriend again). You see why Lt. Riza Hawkeye, Mustang's right-hand woman, the Zoe to Mustang's Mal, is very stoic and cold. She was a sniper during the war. And as she tells Ed, many people in the war could just shoot into the crowd not aiming at anything but as a sniper, she knew who she was killing and she remembered every single one.
Pretty heavy stuff.
That is another part of why Mustang Group's storyline intrigues me so much as a war story. These people who up until that point you grew to like and see them as generally good people only to realize they were on the wrong side of that war. They were the bad guys. And they knew it. This is why they help Mustang with his goal to overthrow the Despot, it is for redemption. Hawkeye also tells Ed that she knows as soon as the revolution happens and Democracy is ushered in, there will be a call to try all those involved in the Ishval War. She will be one of them. And she would happily go on trial and accept whatever sentence is imposed on her. Democracy was worth it to her.
|Eh, it is more like a SQUAD as a Team implies two but now I'm being nitpicky|
Originally, I considered making this entry entirely about the military aspects of Fullmetal Alchemist. I love it very much so, mostly because it falls in the middle of the spectrum. Roy Mustang's tale has many complicated layers to it and it manages to discuss the tragedies of war but not diss those who serve in the military. In fact it is the bonds formed during war that brings the Mustang group close like a family (a Brotherhood if you will hur hur) and they possess traits common to those of the "honorable soldier" who fights for his men and to protect others. Mustang and his group envision a future in which everyone protects each other.
What I also like about the military culture in Fullmetal Alchemist is how there is a lot that happens at Garrison. It reminds me of my time in the military. There are a few filler episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist that are about the hijinx at HQ that kind of like M.A.S.H. in its hilarity (In fact, I am pretty sure Hawkeye is a purposeful MASH reference). But then there are other quiet moments that kind of remind me of how Frodo and Sam look at each other in Return of the King. The whole, "We've been through some tough shit but I got your back, brother."
I know there is a lot of military anime out there. Attack on Titan has military aspects to it. But why I chose FMA is because the show actively has a discussion of the dual nature of war and military culture that I feel is done extremely well for an anime. Also, I like how the heroes were on the wrong side of the war in question.
This one I also expect to get some eye rolls but Mulan is technically a war movie. It has all the staples of war movies albeit watered down and animated. It is also a very black and white good guys (China) against the bad guys (the Huns). It is still one of my favorite films and it has little to do with the fact of its Asian influence. There are a lot of themes in Mulan that still touch me in many ways which is why I really enjoy it.
For one, unrelated to war, Reflection always gets to me. Throughout my life, I always tried to impress my father and I always felt like I failed for most of my life. So this movie speaks to me on just that issue alone.
Another reason why I like Mulan as a war film is also because -- don't laugh -- I watched this movie the day before I shipped off to Basic Training to get pumped. I'll Make a Man Out of You is the best Training Montage ever -- move over Karate Kid! And actually, it wasn't too far from my Basic Training experience. You suck so bad when you get there and you all hate each other but by the end, you are the ultimate party warrior who can shimmy up poles with two weights on your hands or grab fish from a moving river with all the force of a Great Typhoon.
Also, one of my Drill Sergeants was like Sheng and it wasn't just because he was hot and Asian. He had this no-nonsense way about him. The other DS's were a bit funny. Not DS Sato. He was serious but when he demonstrated stuff, he did it with such cool skill. Also, all the girls crushed on him. No comment from me (I was in a relationship at the time) although he did save my life.
Anyway, even with all this, the scene in Mulan that will make me cry every time is when Mulan comes home to her father and shows him the sword from the Hun guy, the seal of the emperor, and other goodies. Her father tosses it all aside and gives her a hug. It reminds me of when I got out of the military and I was in a hotel room in South Carolina finishing paperwork. I talked to my dad on the phone and read the citation for my Joint Service Achievement Medal. My dad said that I always set out and did what I said I would do, his advice aside. He said he was proud of me without a hint of sarcasm. That was the Holy Grail.
I have a few honorable mentions. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy definitely has a lot of elements of a war story. In fact, Tolkien did borrow from his time in WWI. I absolutely enjoy those films (the books I could never finish). I am also putzing through Tolkien and the Great War which has been interesting
Letters from Iwo Jima was a really good movie. What I think it is so good about it has little to do with the fact I have this picture of the main character Saigo as played by Kazunari Ninomiya on my hard drive:
|Happy Veteran's Day People|
The Israeli TV show Hatufim, or Prisoners of War, also deserves a mention. The reason I like it very much ties into why I like A Very Long Engagement -- very interesting female characters who are stuck at home waiting. It is on Hulu. Check it out!
I have not finished Band of Brothers (I keep on walking in mid-way) but what I saw of it, I liked it.
The Australian Film, Tomorrow When the War Began is full of cheese that I absolutely love. That movie follows a group of Australian Teenagers whose town has been taken over by a "Them" (IDK, I think they're supposed to be China?) and they engage in guerilla warfare to try and take their town back. Sure, it is like Red Dawn but they have Australian accents! And lots of Australian scenery porn. That movie is on Amazon Prime. I recommend it for a good romp but don't take it too seriously. Although it would get you thinking about what if your home town was taken over. Could you become an insurgent?
Anyways, Happy Veteran's Day!