Best Movies by Farr: Anti-War Cinema

August 24, 2011 | John Farr

Richard Lester’s How I Won the War, this week’s Reel 13 Classic, is a unique film in a long tradition of anti-war movies. John Farr suggests three more essential entries.

Paths of Glory (1957)

An aloof, ambitious French general (Adolphe Menjou) sends his men out on a suicide mission during the First World War, and when they ultimately retreat, selects three soldiers at random to face charges of cowardice, for which the sentence is death. Guilt-ridden and seething with injustice, the soldiers’ commander (Kirk Douglas) defends his men in the court martial proceedings.

Few films expose war’s insanity more starkly, contrasting the all-powerful, remote armchair generals with young recruits, mere pawns in an obscene political game, who get slaughtered on the front line of the war to end all wars. We share Douglas’ righteous fury at the plight of his men as the rushed sham of a trial progresses. One of Stanley Kubrick’s earlier, less self-indulgent gems, this stark, disturbing anti-war film hasn’t aged a bit.

Coming Home (1978)

Fonda plays Sally, a Veterans’ hospital volunteer, whose husband (Bruce Dern) is away in Vietnam. At the hospital, she befriends Luke (John Voight), a paraplegic, as a result of the same war. Luke’s bitterness is gradually overcome by his relationship with Sally, which evolves into a love affair. When her husband returns from overseas, he, Sally and Luke have a lot to sort through.

A love story to be sure, but also a highly original take on the human price of war. This riveting film is propelled by intense performances from the three leads, all of whom were Oscar-nominated (both Voight and Fonda won). A triumph from the late, talented Hal Ashby.

Breaker Morant (1980)

When war breaks out in 1899 between Great Britain and the Boers (African settlers of Dutch heritage), a number of Australians volunteer to serve in the British army. In the heat of battle, a group of Boer prisoners and a German missionary are killed by an Australian unit, and three men–including Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward)–are court-martialed for murder, to placate both the Germans and the Boers, who may be ready to make peace.

One of the high points in Australian cinema, Beresford’s devastating film recounts the true story of Australian soldiers martyred for political expediency. Accurately depicting the injustice visited upon these three “colonials” by their British commanders, “Morant” is also a magnificent character study. Thompson is terrific as the lawyer who defends the men, but Woodward’s resonant, heart-rending performance in the title role is reason enough to see this stunning film.

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