Memorial Day is a great day for a good war flick. What makes a good war movie?
1. A sacrificial hero. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. A good war flick communicates the loyalty and loss that going to war requires. A good war flick takes the hero on a journey that involves loss of innocence, growth of character, acquisitions of skills, and development of trusting relationships with other soldiers. Capt. John Miller, a 30-year old married English teacher from Pennsylvania leads his company through Omaha Beach and into France in search on one man he’s been ordered to find. Miller is the picture of intelligent integrity and responsibility as he leads men he’s grown to care about into harm’s way on a mission he’s not completely behind.
Real soldiers say the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is an accurate picture of the chaos and horror of a real battle. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan has all the elements of a great war flick, a great sacrificial hero, a worthy cause on both an epic and personal scale, a great ensemble cast, and carefully crafted and researched battle scenes.
2. Research. It may sound nerdy but a well-researched war movie brings history alive. Authentic replicas of costumes and weapons, settings that mimic the real thing, re-enactments of specific details, dialog that voices that particular time period go a long way toward giving the audience a glimpse into what it was like to be there. There are times when keeping the story on track or developing a strong character arc requires altering or leaving out historical details, but those decisions should be deliberate choices that serve the story rather than the result of sloppy research.
Black Hawk Down depicts the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 which occurred during the American intervention in Somalia. In polls of soldiers who actually fought and military historians, Black Hawk Down is frequently chosen as a film that is historically accurate. According to Dan Ryan, a soldier who served there “the uniforms were right, the way the soldiers talked and acted was right, the weapons were right.” A realistic portrayal of war often relies on realistic depictions of the responses and interactions of the soldiers involved.
3. A group of soldiers. The bonding and loss that takes place between fellow warriors creates unique relationships. The obvious representative film for this is Band of of Brothers, a collaboration production between Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This HBO series premiered in 2001 and follows two lieutenants from training camp in Georgia to the end of the war in the European theater.
The series not only depicts the war effort but some of the simple practical aggravations that war brings involving everything from supplies and communication to strained relationships and military .
A highlight of the 10-part series are brief interviews with actual veterans of Easy Company. It’s worth a Memorial Day marathon.
4. Inspiring Heroism. The protagonist soldier who understands why he at war and heroically supports that noble cause at great personal sacrifice can really inspire.
Brotherhood, courage, loyalty, and overcoming prejudice are big themes that inspire in Glory, a 1989 Civil War film directed by Edward Zwick. Matthew Broderick plays Col. Robert Shaw, an idealistic white Union commander of a newly-formed black regiment who must learn to lead. Denzel Washington’s Private Trip has a powerful character arc as he overcomes his own anger and prejudice. Ideas like heroism and nobility can come off as corny, but Glory avoids corniness this by simply telling the stories of strong characters who grow as human beings through the experience of fighting together.
When the audience can get behind the reasons for the war being fought on screen it’s much easier to focus on the heroic and noble aspects of war. Glory doesn’t glorify war but it does glorify the heroic and noble character that serving in war sometimes inspires in imperfect people.
5. Battle scenes. Most war movies involve at least one epic battle. Soldiers protect one another. They fight. They lose friends on the battlefield. They kill. The sometimes they get to use cool equipment. Sometimes they have to get innovative with the equipment they have. Stuff blows up.
The helicopter battle scene in Apocalypse Now is one of the most epic in film. Target after target is destroyed. Machines, trees, and soldiers flash in confused cacophony to a score of Wagner’s Ride the Valkyries. The audience can practically smell the Napalm and it doesn’t smell glorious.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about Vietnam isn’t an “inspiring” war film about a noble cause. The psychological toll of this controversial war unfolds in the development and degradation of the main characters, Willard, Kurtz, and Kilgore, played by Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall.
In a film in which there is conflict over whether that war should have been fought at all, the tone is often dark, cynical, or fatalistic. Films about wars like Vietnam often focus on the horrific aspects of war. Sometimes the worthy cause a war film communicates is avoiding war altogether.