ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

War and storytelling have been intimately associated since the dawn of violence and language. For example, we only need to look at the oldest book in the Western world, The Iliad, to see the tight and intimate connection between fiction and large-scale warfare. Indeed, this story, which tells of one hero's epic adventures during the Trojan War, is in many ways the beginning of a long line of stories that culminate in the modern war film.

However, even though motion picture is a comparatively young medium, its approach and opinion of warfare has changed markedly over time. Mostly, this has to do with the change from glorifying battle to vilifying, but there is also a change of focus.

For example, while previous films may have followed major American battles and decorated generals, more recently war films have chosen more intimate and lesser-known operations. A prime example of this would be the upcoming Anthropoid (in theaters August 12), a film which tells of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague by Czech resistance fighters. Importantly though, all of these changes are also closely correlated with our changing perceptions of warfare. Let's take a look at how the war movie has changed over the 20th and early 21st centuries.

1898–1939: 'Your Country Needs You!'

"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) — Universal
"All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) — Universal

The propaganda value of the motion picture was almost immediately recognized upon its inception. Simply put, motion picture had the ability to inform the public about warfare in a way newspaper articles or the written word simply couldn't. Politicians and generals where therefore extremely keen to ensure their interests were best represented by the new medium.

Most importantly, motion picture could be used to legitimize conflicts to the general public. In fact, one of the first "war films" is a staged 90-second propaganda clip showing the rising of the Stars and Stripes over Havana in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Such films did not show the bloody reality of war, but simply provided a visceral and easy-to-understand victory moment that legitimated the war effort.

Watch one of the first "war films" below:

World War I would see the culmination of these new concepts. In particular, sympathetic American directors often pushed for involvement in overseas conflicts. For example, fictional films, such as The Battle Cry of Peace (1915) showed an alternative history where the US was invaded by a European power, while The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) and Over the Top (1918) also encouraged and reinforced intervention.

For the most part, the movie output of WWI stood in stark contrast to the other mediums — namely poetry — that emerged from the trenches. They were used as propaganda and recruitment tools, essentially exciting moving versions of recruitment posters.

A scene from The Battle Cry of Peace (right) closely mirrors the tone of US recruitment posters (left)
A scene from The Battle Cry of Peace (right) closely mirrors the tone of US recruitment posters (left)

This continued throughout much of the 1920s and into the era of talkies. War films did become more graphic, but the expense of battle scenes meant many war films were actually romances set during wartime, for example The Big Parade (1925).

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a standout pacifistic movie of this period, and earned commercial and critical success for its portrayal of the brutal nature of trench warfare. Furthermore, the story followed German soldiers, humanizing men who had previously been seen as "the Hun" or "the Bosch." However, studios eventually realized audiences had become fatigued by war films, with the genre as a whole declining into the 1930s with the rise of American isolationism.

1939–1960: 'I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship'

"A Yank in the R.A.F." — 20th Century Fox.
"A Yank in the R.A.F." — 20th Century Fox.

With America refusing to be initially drawn into another European war, it was the British who led the war movie charge during World War II. With the country on the receiving end of continuous bombing, the government placed its faith in propagandist pictures such as The Lion has Wings (1939) to shore up morale. Many directors also appealed to America to join the war, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940).

In many ways, American filmmakers reciprocated, with films such as A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941) and, to a certain extent, Casablanca (1942), glorifying resistance and denouncing passivity. But the output at this time also reflects an undecided nation. One of the biggest hits of this period, Sergeant York (1941) was the story of a pacifist.

Rick turns from a passive bystander to an active resister of Nazi occupation in the final scenes of Casablanca:

However, once America had entered the war effort, the war movie changed severely. In total war, a nation must mobilize all of its assets in order to win — and that includes its film industry. With war officially declared, the movie industry essentially became another fighting arm of the military, churning out propagandist tales that showed the bravery of the Allies and the debauchery of the Axis, resulting in movies such as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Guadalcanal Diaries (1943) and The Fighting Sullivans (1944).

This tone continued into the post-war years, until things changed again in the 1960s and '70s. Instead of simply appealing to the jingoistic tendencies of the audience, war movies around this time attempted to become more impartial in their portrayal of events. In general, this coincided with the rise of a revisionist school in history that wanted to reinterpret the war away from a simple good versus evil conflict.

Sean Connery in "The Longest Day" 20th Century Fox.
Sean Connery in "The Longest Day" 20th Century Fox.

Films such as The Longest Day (1962) featured four perspectives on the war — British, French, American and German — and also featured a German director, Bernhard Wicki. Similarly, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) showed the attack on Pearl Harbor from both perspectives and helped to humanize the enemy who had previously been seen as universally evil or as simple cannon fodder to be mowed down by heroic Americans.

1963–1990: 'The horror... The horror...'

"Apocalypse Now" (1979).
"Apocalypse Now" (1979).

If World War II set up the war movie as a propagandist exercise in flag-waving, the Vietnam War pushed it back in the opposite direction. Indeed, of all the wars of the 20th century, Vietnam might have had the biggest impact upon the war film genre.

The mass participation in Vietnam, and the eventual American strategic defeat, meant the films that were later made about that conflict were a million miles away from Yankee Doodle Dandy. During the actual conflict, war movies tended to follow the script of World War II — heroic Americans fighting an evil enemy — with films such as To The Shores of Hell (1966) and The Green Berets (1968) taking the lead. John Wayne, in particular, took a central role in these productions, with the violently anti-communist actor feeling it was his job to redress the anti-war sentiment in the mainstream media.

"The Green Berets" (1968).
"The Green Berets" (1968).

But as casualties mounted and more Americans had direct experience of the war, the war movie fell out of vogue — especially if the movie was about Vietnam. Instead, directors turned to other less controversial conflicts, such as World War II, or in Wayne's case, the Battle of the Alamo.

When the Vietnam War movie did emerge in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was an entirely different beast from those that emerged during World War II. Films such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), The Deer Hunter (1978), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) showed the horror and insanity of the Vietnam War, with their commercial and critical successes mirroring how the public's perspective of war had also changed. Meanwhile, movies such as Taxi Driver (1976) and First Blood (1982) also concerned themselves with the psychological impact of that conflict upon veterans.

Joker (Matthew Modine) passively watches the slaughter of Vietnamese people in Full Metal Jacket.

However, this period also saw the rise of the military/film industry relationship. A prime example of this was Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986). The film was produced in close cooperation with the US military, which provided technical assistance and allowed the crew to film on airbases. As such, Top Gun has been criticized as a propaganda recruitment film, and following its release, the military announced applications to the US Air Force and Navy had risen 500 percent. Other movies also pushed US Cold War interests, with Rambo III (1988) featuring a dedication to the mujahideen combating the Soviets in Afghanistan. This relationship would continue into almost all major modern war movies of the early 21st century, with the military denying assistance to any movie it deemed subversive to its image.

1990–2003: Spielberg Leads The Charge

"Saving Private Ryan."
"Saving Private Ryan."

The war movie again shifted following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early '90s. With the Cold War presumably won, the genre fell into decline, with war once again becoming a backdrop for other genres, such as science fiction (Independence Day), historical epics (Braveheart), romance (The English Patient) or satire (Three Kings).

It wasn't until Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) that the war movie saw a revival. Much like his earlier Schindler's List, Spielberg created a harrowing and gritty film that purported to show realistic combat and the savage nature of war. Whether or not Saving Private Ryan is an anti-war film has divided critics. Some point to its graphic depiction of death on the battlefield as evidence for a pacifist stance, while others suggest it in fact validates war by presenting it as a righteous and necessary cause fought for by heroic Americans.

Watch the famous opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan below:

Whatever its stance, the critical and commercial success of Saving Private Ryan led to many imitators, some of which fell back on traditional flag-waving and inaccuracy; take Pearl Harbor (2001) and U-571 (2000) as examples. In fact, it would be down to Spielberg to carry his own flag once again with the release of the miniseries Band of Brothers in 2001 — very much a spiritual successor to Saving Private Ryan.

2003 Onward: A Controversial War

"American Sniper," starring Bradley Cooper.
"American Sniper," starring Bradley Cooper.

The "war on terror" and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would prove to be the next major shift for the war movie. Importantly, it took a while for film studios and directors to pluck up the courage to touch the subject matter. For one thing, its story was already told in moving picture form. The Iraq War is arguably the first war of the modern internet age, with 24/7 news coverage, embedded reporters and copious amounts of firsthand footage. We didn't need the movies to tell us the story of the conflict because the rolling news was doing that well enough already.

Furthermore, the controversy surrounding the conflict — including the lack of weapons of mass destruction and the conduct of coalition soldiers in the conflict — also limited the war being used as the basis of entertainment. For this reason, many early Iraq War films are in fact documentaries — for example, The War Tapes (2006), No End In Sight (2007), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Control Room (2004). The popularity of these documentaries in the post-invasion years seems to indicate the audience still had many unanswered questions about the conflict.

Watch the trailer for The War Tapes below:

The controversial nature of the war is also represented by the reaction to the films that did eventually emerge about the conflict — for example The Hurt Locker (2008) and American Sniper (2014). Despite a Best Motion Picture Oscar win for the former and nomination for the latter, both films have divided viewers on their morals and stance. Ultimately, this division is representative of wider opinions of the war, the repercussions of which we are still seeing today.

A Return To The Familiar

"Fury" starring Brad Pitt.
"Fury" starring Brad Pitt.

Faced with this controversy in regard to contemporary wars, directors have once again returned to good ol' World War II for inspiration. The noncontroversial nature of the war effort between the Allies and the Axis makes it more comfortable for audiences than the murky and uncertain waters surrounding Iraq and Vietnam. Such movies include Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Inglourious Basterds, Fury, The Monuments Men and more.

It also looks like there are many more to come, with around 20 films currently in development at the time of writing. However, these World War II films are not the same as those we have seen before. In particular, they have often abandoned covering large-scale battles or events and instead concern themselves with smaller groups of soldiers and their experiences. As mentioned above, Fury revolved around a group of American soldiers in a claustrophobic Sherman tank, while the soon-to-be-released Anthropoid will follow the stories of two Czech resistance members who set out to assassinate high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Prague.

This different perspective, which has become less American-centric, not only represents our more mature understanding of history, but perhaps also reflects the fact that many of the real veterans of this war have now passed on. By concerning ourselves less with the glory of the struggle and more with the individual trials and tribulations of soldiers, we might be trying to better understand a generation that is rapidly dwindling.

With the world becoming a constantly more complex place in terms of security, and with our own attitudes toward the morality of warfare also changing and moving in various directions, the war film as we have traditionally known it might once again be about to fade away — for the time being, at least. In its place is hopefully a new breed of war film that can tell compelling stories of personal sacrifice and bravery without the need for ardent flag-waving and jingoism. However, one thing is for sure: Even if through some miracle we are able to eradicate war, the war story will still almost certainly exist.

Anthropoid arrives in theaters on August 12.

Find out more about Anthropoid at

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