War movies have existed since the earliest days of cinema. The first Academy Award for Best Picture went to the silent film “Wings” in 1927. The film was highly regarded for its realistic air-combat sequences.
“The backdrop of war serves as an incredible obstacle that increases the drama,” veteran Dave Witt said. He is a local filmmaker who served in the Army as a combat medic. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005 and was honorably discharged after seven years of service. “The spectacle of war makes the audience root for the main character as [they] put their life on the line.”
Films that depict military life are diverse. Movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Casablanca” and “From Here to Eternity” explore elements ranging from war’s brutality to its effects on civilian life.
“[A war movie] doesn’t necessarily have to have great battle scenes,” said Doug Pullen, the program director for the Plaza Classic Film Festival. His father served in the Army Air Corp. (formerly the U.S. Army Air Service) as a B-17 navigator in World War II. His brother was in the Army and served in Vietnam in the late ’60s.
“The best war movies tell some kind of compelling human story,” Pullen said. “They deal with the toll of war.”
The role of war films in American society has shifted through the years, from “us versus them” to a more critical view of nationalism.
“[The Vietnam-era] was when films truly became cutting edge,” said Felipa Solis, a film critic and member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. “This was war, rather than, ‘Here’s a candy-coated hero.’ Hollywood took war to a different edge.”
For this year’s military issue, What’s Up decided to explore a few war movies local film buffs consider essential.
Wings - 1927
Directed by William A. Wellman. Written by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton. Story by John Monk Saunders. Starring Clara Bow, Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen.
Set during World War I, the film tells the story of two young men in love with the same woman. The two rivals enlist in the Air Service (forerunner to the United States Air Force) and through service become friends.
The Deer Hunter - 1978
Directed by Michael Cimino. Written by Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn. Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage.
A story about three Russian American steelworkers who sign up to fight in Vietnam. “[The filmmakers] contrast what happened to these guys in Vietnam and how it affected them with how their absence affected the people back home,” Pullen said.
Black Hawk Down - 2001
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Ken Nolan. Starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Tom Sizemore.
Based on Mark Bowden’s 1999 non-fiction book about the 1993 United States raid of Mogadishu, Somalia, and the ensuing firefight, known as the Battle of Mogadishu.
“This film is about a conflict that put soldiers into a situation where they were surrounded,” Witt said. “This increased the drama in comparison to films about a war with a front.”
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - 2011
Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy.
Based on John le Carré’s 1974 novel, the film tells the story of a former British Intelligence agent brought out of retirement to investigate a possible Soviet Union mole.
“John LeCarré’s spy novels have been adapted to the big screen numerous times. In the modern cinema, war films still retain a view of individual sacrifice that we can aspire to,” Charles Horak said. He is the founder of the Film Salon, a monthly series of classic film screenings shown at Alamo Drafthouse. Horak also hosts KTEP radio program “On Film” every Saturday. “[They] are masterful reminders that the Cold War was a type of war with behemoth super-powers engaged in intimate battles.”