"Every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie," declared Steven Spielberg, in an interview with Newsweek, after the release of Saving Private Ryan.
An opposing view is presented by Callum Marsh, a British journalist who in an article published in The Atlantic stated, "Every war movie is a pro-war movie. Even if films don't glorify conflict, they all come down to good guys against bad guys."
Both views are blanket statements; and it is necessary to qualify both of them.
In the case of Spielberg's statement, several reservations need to be noted.
First, we must remember the numerous propaganda films made while WW2 was in progress, and the United States was a participant in it. These films were part of a marketing strategy to sell War Bonds, which helped fund the war effort. These movies had to be pro-war, and appealing to the general public's patriotism.
Second, we must consider the motion picture The Green Berets (1968), based on the novel by Robin Moore. This author, who as a civilian went through Special Forces training, was a chronicler of this unit, and wrote about their experiences in Vietnam. John Wayne bought the rights to the book, co-directed and starred in the movie; with his son Michael as a .producer. 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive, and during increasing college campuses unrest, and protests against the war. John Wayne was pro-war, and the movie served to present his political views, with the tacit approval of our government. A propaganda film; just another cowboys and Indians movie, as one film critic put it.
Third, Saving Private Ryan is not an anti-war movie. It has a strong anti-war statement in the first two scenes of the movie, lasting close to 30 minutes. First, we see a cemetery, where Ryan as an elderly man, and members of this family, have come to visit the plot where Captain Miller is buried; the officer who led a group of men who saved Ryan. We see all the crosses (and one Star of David) from several angles, all neatly lined up; like a perfect formation. What we are seeing is the result of the second scene, the chaos of the Omaha Beach assault; an extremely graphic scene of the carnage that occurred. The rest of the movie is the dangerous mission, behind enemy lines, to find Private Ryan, bring it back, so he can be sent home. He has lost his three brothers; and he is the last surviving son in his family.
Last, numerous action films, featuring American elite forces, listed further on, are definitely pro-war.
In the case of Callum March statement, not all movies are pro-war. This can be shown in the selected filmography of anti-war films, which will be discussed later in this article.
Callum March's view, however, is very applicable to our more current wars. He uses Lone Survivor (2013) as an example, a film about a group of Navy Seals, on a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan. This happens to be a very good action movie, nominated for several awards, and winning some of them. This movie is part of a myriad of movies involving Navy Seals, Delta Force, Rangers, and any American elite military unit involved in the War on Terrorism. So, definitively these are pro-war films; which emphasize the professionalism of our elite forces. No matter what the outcome, they are heroes. They are the good guys; and the terrorists, of any variety, are the bad guys. Several notable films are based on non-fiction books, which is the case of Lone Survivor, but it really doesn't matter whether films are based on true accounts, or they are fictional. The screenplays are for action movies. Realistically, this is the only way these films are going to be produced. And it is what spectators and viewers want to see, an action movie.
But film history has many anti-war movies. For the purposes of this article, a selected filmography is offered.
Anti-war films in chronological order.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Pork Chop Hill (1959)
Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Hamburger Hill (1987)
Four of these films present two different kinds of warfare, which do nothing but expose the futility of war; while the two other films show the horrific impact of war upon those who have suffered immensurable injuries.
Trench warfare is shown by Paths of Glory and 1917.
In this kind of warfare, there are trenches opposing each other along a front, protected from assault by barbed wire. The area between opposing trench lines, was an unprotected "no man's land" exposed to artillery fire from both sides. "Going over the top," leaving the relative safety of the trenches meant certain death. But this is exactly what French soldiers, in Paths of Glory, are asked to do, to comply with high-ranking officers, and their ill-conceived plan. The first wave is totally annihilated. The second wave refuse to continue with this suicidal attack. General Broulard wants to court-martial one hundred men for cowardice, but General Mireau suggest successfully to cut the number to three men, Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, is the company commander ot these men, who tries to defend the three men; but since the court-martial is a farce, he is unsuccessful. The men are condemned to death; and that way the generals save face. Upon its release, this film was banned in France, Germany, the United States, and Switzerland.
1917 shows life in the trenches and beyond them, when there is a respite from the war. The film shows how extensive the trench front is, populated by exhausted soldiers, and the many wounded men. Beyond the trenches we see corpses all over the fields, and well-fed rats, with plenty of human flesh to eat.
General Erinmore learn that some the British soldiers in another trench front are about to walk into a trap set up by the Germans. There are 1,600 lives at stake. Since the field telephone lines are cut, he decides to send two Lance Corporals, William Schofield, and Tom Blake with a message for Colonel Mackenzie, who is the commander of the men whose lives are in extreme danger, if they advance, and attack.
Tom is killed along the way, so William goes alone through the ordeal of getting the message to Colonel MacKenzie in time. In contrast to Paths of Glory, 1917 has a glimmer of hope: green fields not scarred by war; cherry blossoms growing inside some ruins; and a orphan baby girl being taken care of by a French woman. The biggest hope is represented by William. whose determination saves the lives of others, by risking his own. When he is getting closer to Colonel Mackenzie, he sees there is a lot of people and movement in the trenches, so he goes outside the trenches to reach his destination in time. It shows what one individual can do to save lives. The war will resume; but he did everything he could. We last see Schofield looking at the pictures of his wife and children. He is hoping to see them again.
Hill Strategy is shown by Pork Chop Hill, during the Korean war, and Hamburger Hill, during the Vietnam war.
To be entrenched on top of a hill is an extremely advantageous and strategic location. But, in both films this was the strategy of the enemy. The American strategy was to assault those hills, no matter what the cost of human lives. Victory had little meaning, because those hills had no importance whatsoever, in the general picture of these wars. The battle for Pork Chop Hill was happening during peace negotiations, and the Chinese were pouring in soldiers into this battle, to test the resolve of the Americans in the negotiations. The taking of Pork Chop Hill is successful. In the film, of an American company of 135 men, only 25 men are left to claim victory.
The battle of Hamburger Hill lasted eleven days, during May of 1969. Everything started as a reconnaissance mission, but escalated into a major battle. There were air strikes and artillery attacks galore. There were many casualties on both sides.
The film Hamburger Hill has the most brutal and realistic scenes of any war film ever made. An excellent film overshadowed by Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, both films released prior to Hamburger Hill.
The horrific impact of war is shown by Hiroshima Mon Amour and Johnny Got His Gun. The devastation of an entire city is shown in the first film; The total devastation of a single human being, a destruction worse than death, is shown in the second film.
In Hiroshima Mon Amour, a French actress is taking part in a film about the impact of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The actress has had an affair with a Japanese architect, and before leaving Hiroshima, she is having a long, friendly conversation with him. In the film within a film, we see the town's devastation, and the injuries due to radiation of the survivors. Of the dead there is no trace. The actress and the architect are nameless; they are only known to us as She and He, She relates she had an affair with a German soldier, who later died in the war. He has lost his family in the bombing. They share their perspectives on war. The takeaway of this film is that people are apart by war, and they are together by love. Love exists before, during and after a war. War cannot obliterate love. Dialogue is important.
Johnny Got His Gun has to be the top anti-war film of all times. It is a difficult film to watch. Dalton Trumbo made this movie, based on his own novel. During WW1, an unidentified soldier is severely injured (through his memories, dreams and visions, we learn his name is Joe Bonham). He has lost his arms and his legs. At the field hospital, the military doctor in charge realizes his brain is still functioning, but sees no justification for his being alive, except to help science. Joe is transferred to a regular hospital. He is a scientific specimen, for whom there is no room in the wards. So, he is placed in an utility room, where he is periodically visited by a group of doctors.
The doctors want to become more knowledgeable; they want to be better prepared for the "next war," while in the community civic leaders give the usual patriotic speeches.
After a long time, Joe is able to use Morse Code to communicate with the doctors. He wants to be put on display, so people can see what he has become. Then he wants to be killed. Both requests are denied. They are against regulations. He'll spend the rest of his days in storage, in that utility room.
It must be noted, that there are excellent films which are neither pro-war nor anti-war. These movies simply recreate historical events. A few examples are: The Flags of Our Fathers (2006); Letters from Iwo Jima (2006); Dunkirk (2017), and Midway (2019).
With The Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood has become part of film history, by presenting the events of Iwo Jima from the American and Japanese points of view. Some viewers may have a problem with Eastwood's efforts. Presenting two perspectives, in these companion films, humanizes the enemy. The opposite may be desirable to some nowadays. If an enemy is uncompromising, empathy is problematic; there are just a bunch of evildoers. Nevertheless, Clint Eastwood's cinematic efforts are commendable.
We must remind ourselves that movies are primarily entertainment. Two things are certain, going back centuries: people love a good story, and there is a consistent need for heroes who inspire us, who make us believe in justice, and who give us hope. Atomic bomb survivors, the severely handicapped, and soldiers who are massacred, do not conform to the narratives we value. Their plight is not inspiring. But their stories are also recorded, and available to those who are interested.
Finally, one can say that as long as there are wars, there will be war movies. The genre is safe.