Unforgettable Historical Antiwar Movies That Made an Impact

Unforgettable Historical Antiwar Movies That Made an Impact

Historical movies typically tend to begin with a credit that says something along the lines of “Based on a true story.” One supposes that this often tenuous connection to historical facts somehow elevates the status of the film. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” claims to be based on fact. That’s all ye need to know about how closely historical fact and film drama need to be. “JFK” is a terrific film if you approach it as almost 100% a work of fiction. In fact, the only connection that exists between historical fact and Stone’s film is that JFK did indeed die in 1963. Other than that, one might as well say Star Wars was based on a true story.

It probably all goes back to the Greek philosopher Plato. In a passage from his book The Republic, Plato suggested that drama isn’t to be trusted and, in fact, contains the danger of confusing audiences who will take what is happening on stage for fact. Plato questioned the validity of actual learning from fiction. Hence, several thousand years later, storytellers still feel the need to connect their drama with reality in order for it to actually contain a certain level of importance.

Let’s just state it right out here at the beginning. No movie based on historical facts ever cared more about getting those facts right than telling a good story. Nor should it.

Movies are not meant to be history lessons, and the fact that a distressingly large portion of the public believes in at least some parts of Stone’s conspiracy to kill JFK proves that point. The best historical movies capture the essence of the time in which they take place and sculpt the facts closely enough to history that they still bear at least a resemblance to what actually took place while allowing a dramatic story to be told around those events.

Many of the best historical movies have been war-based. No surprise there. After all, few events in human history contain the built-in drama of war. From the personal drama of human sacrifice to the high drama of the political machinations that drive megalomaniacs to sacrifice those lives for their personal visions, war provides a built-in dramatic spine on which to build a story.

A great historical war movie doesn’t even have to technically be about battles. One could make a case that Gone with the Wind is, at heart, a war story. Same with Casablanca.

Neither of those films could tell their stories without including the Civil War and World War II, respectively. This isn’t to say that historical movies about actual warfare aren’t memorable as well. From the rousing patriotic (and propagandistic) epics about World War II starring John Wayne to the more realistic portrayal of that same war in Saving Private Ryan, actual battle-based films have provided the cinema with some of its greatest moments.

One subgenre of the historical war movie that had produced its fair share of masterpieces would be the historical antiwar movie. Making an antiwar movie during wartime tends to be problematic. It is absolutely inconceivable that a major studio would finance a major film with big stars today that took an antiwar stance against the current situation in Iraq. For one thing, they would instantly be attacked as un-American. More egregiously, all those associated with the film would be condemned by our leaders and their fervent supporters for putting the lives of our real-life troops in danger. The fact that sending our troops to fight an unnecessary war without proper equipment for some reason isn’t seen as un-American or as putting their lives in danger.

The first major antiwar movie that was concerned with the Korean War, the Korean “Conflict” as its perpetrators would rather it be called- wasn’t made until 1970, over a decade after the war ended. That movie was, of course, the classic M*A*S*H. Interestingly enough, that time frame is roughly equal to the amount of time between the end of World War I and the first major antiwar movie made about that war. In fact, All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t just a great historical antiwar movie about World War I; it may be the very epitome of an antiwar movie.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Poster

One of the problems inherent in making an antiwar movie about a real war is overcoming the problem that in some wars, the enemy is clear and obvious and not open for discussion. World War I and World War II come most quickly to mind. So, how can you possibly make a valid argument against war when it was apparently so necessary to protect the rights and freedom of so many people?

Watching All Quiet on the Western Front answers that question. By telling it from the enemy’s point of view. Well, not really. The real enemy of World War I wasn’t the German soldiers. They were just doing what the French, British, Russian, and American soldiers were doing: following orders. The real enemy was the leaders who convinced these young men that they were fighting for a just cause.

The film focuses on those young Germans and shows how they believed in that cause just as much as the kids they were fighting against. What makes a great antiwar movie is showing how those who are doing the fighting are victims no matter what side they are fighting for. An antiwar movie doesn’t question whether those pulling the trigger are good or bad, right or wrong. It questions those in power who use that power to send innocents to do the job they should be doing. If the leaders of countries had to settle their differences on a battlefield with no one but themselves, we’d no doubt have far fewer wars and far more diplomacy.

All Quiet on the Western Front effective captures the feeling of World War I. This war a war fought mostly in trenches and the overhead shots of bodies falling backward into those safe havens captures the futility of this kind of battle plan better than the explicit blood-laden special effects that would no doubt be utilized nowadays. Of course, the classic scene from this film is of the soldier reaching out for a butterfly, only to be shot to death. It’s a powerful scene even today.

But it’s not the only great antiwar movie based on World War I. That particular war was brutal. The number of lives lost was staggering, and the utter stupidity of some of its architects leads one to question the very basis of the phrase “military intelligence.” Few episodes from World War I were more horrifying than the Battle of Gallipoli. Told brilliantly in the film of the same name-one of Mel Gibson’s earliest films-you cannot help but ask if there is anything even remotely worth fighting for if this is what soldiers are asked to do.

Gallipoli (1981)


Gallipoli tells the story of two Australian runners and is a terrific example of what a historical antiwar movie means. Is it factual? I have no idea. I only know it certainly feels factual, and if it is stretching the truth, it’s not doing it in any way that attempts to revise history. For most of the film, we get to know these two characters and come to care about them. Even at the point when we know it can only end horrifically, we still hold out hope.

The actual battle segment of this war movie only takes up the last twenty minutes or so, and even though these twenty minutes aren’t as graphic as the opening segment of Saving Private Ryan, in many ways, it is more harrowing. Because we’ve gotten to know these guys, we’ve gotten to like them, and, more importantly, we’ve gotten to understand how they are simply little pawns in a far larger game of chess about which they are almost totally ignorant. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but these soldiers are here for a job, and that’s what they do.

Breaker Morant (1980)


That stinking smell is what is at the heart of the greatest movie ever made about the Boer War. You may not know much about the Boer War, but don’t worry. It is based on a true story. Seriously, though, Breaker Morant is based on actual events, and even if they don’t necessarily correspond to what takes place in this brilliant film, that’s okay because this movie seems to have Vietnam on its mind more than Africa.

Breaker Morant (1980)

Have you ever been confused by the term “war crimes.” I have. After all, when it comes to the actual battlefield-I’m not referring to the particular war crimes taking place in Germany during WWII-how can there be crimes? Doesn’t everything go? And yet, soldiers have been tried, convicted, jailed, and even executed for committing crimes on the field of war. When I say that Breaker Morant seems to be more about Vietnam, I’m speaking directly about the My Lai massacre.

Breaker Morant is about an Australian unit serving during the Boer War who executed members of the enemy. Some were soldiers, and one may not be so many. The executions were exacted as revenge for the murder of one of their own officers, and the trio who wind up on trial insist the orders came from above. A court-martial is held to determine the facts of the case. Notice I said the facts and not the truth. Needless to say, the outcome of this trial was determined before the first pounding of the gavel. The film does not flinch from the fact and the truth that the soldiers on trial did, in fact, do what they are accused of.

The true subject of this film touches a nerve that is at the heart of the current Iraq invasion. How are wars started? That is to say, how do the politicians and the generals drum up support among a nation’s citizens for a war that isn’t necessarily a threat to their actual security? How far will those in charge go to secure their own interests in war? In this case, the British authorities were desperately afraid that Germany would enter into the Boer War, and they suspected that Germany was just waiting for an excuse. These murders seemed just the ticket, and so the British authorities denied any involvement in the episode at all, hanging the Australians out to dry as scapegoats.

To be honest, this is more of a courtroom drama than an actual war movie. The fact that it happens to be the finest courtroom drama ever made, knowing that the outcome cannot be any different than it is-makes this essential viewing. And as a historical antiwar movie, frankly, it doesn’t get any better. The fact that it isn’t a battle epic, that it does take place in a courtroom, is what gives this film its power, along with the phenomenal performances by Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown. Brown provides most of what little humor is in the film, and Woodward simply gives what is probably the most overlooked performance of the 80s.

Paths of Glory (1957)


If Breaker Morant is the greatest historical antiwar movie that isn’t actually about a battle, then Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is clearly the greatest historical antiwar movie that is about actual battle. Yes, this is yet another early 20th-century war film, yet another WWI movie. This film and Breaker Morant would actually make a fantastic double feature if you can handle the intensity. Kubrick’s film has much in common with Breaker Morant in that it is about the willing sacrifice of their own by higher authorities. In fact, Gallipoli has much in common as well. As mentioned earlier, antiwar movies don’t attack or condemn the ground soldier. It is not his fault that he is committing atrocities. Yes, some antiwar movies make a hero of the soldier who refuses to follow orders, but I suspect that decision is much more easily made on the screen than in the trenches.

Paths of Glory (1957) Scene

Paths of Glory tells the story of a French officer who commits his troops to a suicide mission because, well, he wants a promotion. When the assault cannot take place as planned because of heavy bombing from the Germans, this officer demands that three soldiers be picked to stand trial for cowardice. Why is it that the people in charge of war are always insane? Why is it that innocent men and women continue to die because somebody higher up wants something that isn’t worth dying for? Historical antiwar movies find these stories in our past because they keep repeating. Lessons that should be learned are not. Mistakes that should not be repeated are, in fact, repeated endlessly.

Suppose one day they started a war and nobody came? Suppose all soldiers on all sides realized that they weren’t fighting for the security of their country or for their freedom, but instead for some politician’s mad designs on history? Would it really be so bad?

When it comes right down to it, all historical antiwar movies ask the same question. The war may change; the circumstances may differ, but it all comes down to this: Why can we not figure out a better way to settle our differences than killing each other?

Author Gwen

Gwen is a freelance artist and writer for film, advertising, corporate projects, and web media. She feels his expertise in the entertainment industry provides a unique opportunity to engage the public through real-life stories and over a decade of experience and knowledge.