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I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy,
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Well, it is Mother’s Day, after all.  And since we naturally think of mothers as being opposed to war, this seemed like a good day to reflect on antiwar movies.  But while I was pondering which antiwar movie was the best one I had ever seen, it occurred to me that some wars are more suitable as a setting for an antiwar movie than others, and this led me to wonder what the perfect war is for an antiwar movie.

First of all, the war should take place since the Age of Reason, which began in Europe in the 17th century.  Though wars were probably more ghastly in ancient times, what with Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of everyone in Canaan, the routine putting-men-to-the-sword in the Peloponnesian War, the destruction of Carthage, and many other atrocities too numerous to mention, yet we just have a hard time working up antiwar sentiments when watching movies set in those days.  There are a few antiwar movies set in the ancient world, such as The Trojan Women (1971), which involves mothers again, but they are the exception.  More common is a movie like 300 Spartans (1962), in which we enjoy watching some real manliness in the face of overwhelming odds.  When King Leonidas is told that so many Persian arrows will fill the sky that they will blot out the sun, he calmly replies, “Then we will fight in the shade.”  But what really sets the mood is when a Spartan mother tells her son, “Come back with your shield or on it.”  Now, how are you going to have an antiwar movie when Mom has an attitude like that?

The Mediaeval Period is not much better, perhaps because romantic figures like King Arthur, Richard the Lionhearted, and Charlemagne are not conducive to making a good antiwar movie. Apparently, we need to be in the Modern Period, where men are expected to be a little more civilized and educated, in order to find wars suitable for the making of an antiwar movie.

The second thing that is needed is a war in which many people were killed.  It is fortunate that since World War II, the number of soldiers dying in American wars has been decreasing, but the fact remains that the relatively fewer casualties make these recent wars less than ideal for an antiwar movie.  It is not that I have forgotten about MASH (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Black Hawk Down (2001), and others, good antiwar movies all.  But the wars in which these movies were set just don’t have the numbers needed to make it to the top of the list.

At this point, I cannot help but think about the Civil War.  It certainly has the numbers, for with 620,000 deaths, it by far is the deadliest of all the wars America has fought in.  Deadliest for Americans, that is.  America has fought in wars where many more people died, such as World Wars I and II, but American deaths were less than that of the Civil War.  This American element is important.  Hollywood still dominates the movie industry, and is primarily geared toward an American audience.  Therefore, a good war for an antiwar movie should be one in which Americans are involved, or failing that, Europeans.  In other words, no matter how many people might be slaughtered in a war in Africa or Asia, if neither Americans nor Europeans are involved, it just will not hold our attention.  So American or European involvement is the third condition that must be met for the setting of a good antiwar movie.

The fourth ingredient for a perfect antiwar war is that there should be a lot of naïve optimism and dreams of glory on the part of the young men in the beginning, only to be crushed as the war progresses.  And here again, the War Between the States would seem to be a good candidate, as in Gone With the Wind (1939).  Several scenes come to mind:  The Tarleton twins becoming horrified when Scarlett tells them there isn’t going to be any war; the talk about licking the Yankees in six weeks; the young men hollering with glee when news comes that war has finally broken out; Scarlett in the hospital, where a woman writes a letter dictated by a dying soldier to his mother (mothers again); and Scarlett walking across the railroad yard to find the doctor to help deliver Melanie’s baby (another mother), as the camera pulls back, revealing a panorama of wounded men.

But while the Civil War meets all the conditions considered thus far, it has one unfortunate flaw.  It had a noble purpose, which was ending slavery.  A perfect war for the setting of an antiwar movie must be one that is pointless.  Wars that either were fought for a noble cause or had a beneficial outcome just do not make for good antiwar movies.  Correct me if I am wrong, but I have never seen an antiwar movie set during the American Revolution.  I guess the British could make one from their point of view, but even so, if there is such a film, I have never seen it.

The Napoleonic Wars might be a good candidate.  Americans were not involved, but Europeans were.  There was an enormous loss of life, the most pointless of which was the invasion of Moscow, where Napoleon started out with 500,000 men, was easily victorious, and then lost all but 50,000 men trying to get back home in the freezing weather.  And in War and Peace (1956), one of the many screen adaptations of Tolstoy’s novel, Prince Bolkonsky (Mel Ferrer) says of his participation in the Battle of Austerlitz, “I delayed, for ten minutes, a retreat in a battle that was lost, in a war that was lost.”

There is just one problem.  Because the Russians and the British were victorious in their war against Napoleon, who was clearly an aggressor, the war seems morally justified from their point of view.  The war is more suitable for antiwar treatment from the French point of view. But that won’t work either.  Remember earlier when I said that even if a war did not have American involvement, it might still be worth considering as a good antiwar war if it involves Europeans, because we readily identify with Europeans?  Well, that is certainly true, unless they are French.  Then we just don’t identify so well.

I must no longer tax the reader’s patience.  He or she has known for several paragraphs running where we would end up.  The war to end all antiwar wars is obviously World War I. Set in the Modern Period, on the European continent, it involved a great slaughter, and even though I have read several books on the subject, I still can’t figure out what the fighting was all about.  It had something to do with entangling alliances, imperialism, revanchism, and assassination, as best I can tell.  But it all adds up to one big pointless mess.  Woodrow Wilson said it was to make the world safe for democracy, but the Europeans didn’t know what he was talking about.  I sometimes think that is why they changed the name from the Great War to World War I:  by making it seem like a prequel to World War II, which had the noble purpose of defeating the Nazis, it seems to acquire some purpose and justification by the association of ideas.

Furthermore, WWI began with the required naïve optimism and dreams of glory.  I remember reading somewhere that one of the generals observed that there had been a definite change in attitude on the part of the troops from one world war to the next, saying, “The doughboys sang songs, but the GIs made wisecracks.”  If that is true, then this cynicism is another reason why the Second World War is not suitable for an antiwar movie.  And it is also a reason why the Vietnam War cannot be the perfect war for an antiwar movie either.

In All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), we see young men being inspired to go to war by their teacher.  Since they are WWI Germans, it is all right for Americans to identify with them. In Gallipoli (1981), the main character sees the war in terms of a great moral purpose, and he is most apprehensive lest he will miss out on something that is larger than life.  Since he is an English speaking Australian, we even more easily identify with him.  Paths of Glory (1957) is a good antiwar movie, but since all the soldiers are French, identification is difficult.

Actually, this brings out the fact that some distancing is a good thing.  A good antiwar movie must be full of fools and knaves.  In particular, the fools are the young men who vaingloriously march off to war, while the knaves are the officers who send them to their death.  Americans don’t like to think of themselves as being either fools or knaves, so it is better to let the Europeans take those roles.  That is why the best WWI antiwar movies do not involve Americans at all.  Regarding All Quiet on the Western Front, Danny Peary makes the following remarks in his Alternate Oscars:

My feeling is that the film has always been well received in America because it shows Germans—our enemies in World War I—coming to their senses in a losing war effort. (Importantly, none of their victims is identified as an American.)  … I doubt if American audiences would have received it so well over the years if, with few script changes, these soldiers who question giving up their lives for uniform, flag, and country were Americans.
In other words, one of the things that makes WWI the perfect antiwar war is that Americans were involved, but only as reluctant warriors, as in Sergeant York (1941), while it is the Europeans who get to play the parts of idealistic young men being sent to their death by callous officers.

Finally, since we are talking about movies, there must be memorable imagery.  It is not enough to just pile up the bodies.  The destruction of human life must have cinematic value.  The Crimean War provides us with the Charge of the Light Brigade, giving us one poem and two movies.  But while the imagery is right, its significance varies from being noble and glorious to being insane and futile.

The imagery in WWI, however, is unequivocal:  men climb out of their trenches, run toward the enemy line, and are cut down by machinegun fire.  When it comes to antiwar movies, it doesn’t get any better than that.  In Gallipoli, my favorite part is when the commanding officer tells the soldiers to remove all the bullets from their rifles before they charge.  “Bayonets only!” is the command.  I guess the idea is that if you have bullets in your rifle, you might want to take aim at the people who are shooting at you, thereby slowing down the charge.  But with an empty rifle, your only hope is to run as fast as possible toward the machine gun and stab the man who is firing it.  That was the plan.  I don’t suppose I need to tell you how the plan worked out.

Therefore, World War I is the perfect war for an antiwar movie.  And so I’ll end where I started, with a mother’s lament in fearful anticipation of that war:

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,
When she looks at her blighted home?
What victory can bring her back
All she cared to call her own?
Let each mother answer
In the years to be,
Remember that my boy belongs to me!
Happy Mother’s Day.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for this--and happy Mothers Day. n/t (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Musial, Rashaverak
  •  "unless they are French. Then we just don’t (0+ / 0-)

    identify so well."

    Who is 'we'? Is there something about the French that makes it hard for you to identify with them?

  •  2 things- Charles Sumner predicted it in 1870 (4+ / 0-)

    in "the Duel between France and Germany' when he asked France to disarm, said that peaceful arbitration of international disputes was held back by absurd military rules of honor, later ridiculed in Duck Soup. Sumner said that peace time war preparation was the efficient cause of war, failure to disarm. Second thing, Russia and England wanted to stop Germany from expanding into Adriatic warm water ports and similarly railroad terminals- strictly geopolitical balance of power stuff as in WWII. Sumner's 1845 pacifist manifesto "The True Grandeur of Nations" gets into detail of the horrors of then recent Euro wars, and he proposes something like the UN, which today would work if there were global disarmament. The end of trial by battle and legalized forms of local warfare and duelling augur a trend of increasing civilization trending logically if not materially toward the end of warfare as a global institution.

  •  I realize this is a Euro-centric and Amer-centric (2+ / 0-)

    diary, but you might consider wars in Africa, specifically the genocide in Rwanda, which there was a movie made about.

    Il est dangereux d’avoir raison dans des choses où des hommes accrédités ont tort. - Voltaire
    Don't trust anyone over 84414 - BentLiberal

    by BentLiberal on Sun May 11, 2014 at 02:53:22 PM PDT

  •  for best anti-war song I'll go with Makem & Clancy (4+ / 0-)

    singing The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

    In 1915 my country said son, it's time to stop ramblin' there's work to be done. So they gave me a tin-hat and they gave me a gun, and they sent me away to the War. And the Band played Waltzing Matilda, as the ship pulled away from the Key- and amid all the tears, flag wavin' and cheers, we sailed off for Gallipoli.
    But for an anti war movie, I suggest that there should be a movie made of Where Men Win Glory: the Odyssey of Pat Tillman. I respect Krakauer's journalism and I also went to high school at the same time and understood things the way he describes Tillman as feeling and thinking so it all rang true. Not to mention Rumsfeld. Sh*t, I mentioned him. Well he's best not forgotten, wherever he's rotting, now. I hope it's in prison some day.

    We are all pupils in the eyes of God.

    by nuclear winter solstice on Sun May 11, 2014 at 03:04:12 PM PDT

  •  One for each WW (4+ / 0-)

    WWI - Johnny Got His Gun

    Father: You're gonna make the world safe for democracy!
    Joe Age 10: What is democracy?
    Father: Well it's never bright clear on myself. Like any other kind government it's got something to do with young men killing each other I believe.
    WWII - The Big Red One
    [the troop stops before a memorial]
    Johnson: Would you look at how fast they put the names of all our guys who got killed?
    The Sergeant: That's a World War One memorial.
    Johnson: But the name's are the same.
    The Sergeant: They always are.

    “Texas is a so-called red state, but you’ve got 10 million Democrats here in Texas. And …, there are a whole lot of people here in Texas who need us, and who need us to fight for them.” President Obama

    by Catte Nappe on Sun May 11, 2014 at 03:11:45 PM PDT

  •  The greatest of all antiwar films: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rashaverak, HedwigKos

    Renoir's The Grand Illusion. Goebbels knew just how powerful it was. That's why he declared it "cinematic public enemy Number One" and tried to destroy every copy in Europe.

  •  World War One was perhaps the most unpopular war (3+ / 0-)

    in US history. There was so much opposition to it that the US passed the Espionage Act and then the Sedition Amendment to outlaw antiwar views. Tens of thousand of Americans were rounded up and arrested for speaking and writing against the war--Eugene V Debs ran for President on the Socialist ticket while he was in jail on sedition charges for speaking against the war.

    The only other wars that even came close to that level of unpopularity were the Mexican-American War (condemned by a huge proportion of the US population as an unjust war of conquest), and the Vietnam War.

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Sun May 11, 2014 at 04:48:36 PM PDT

  •  my favorite antiwar movie? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Major Kong, Rashaverak, Alhambra

    "Starship Troopers".

    Heinlein's BOOK was a big long apologism for militaristic fascism.  But Verhoeven's MOVIE was definitely not.

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Sun May 11, 2014 at 04:50:24 PM PDT

    •  I think you're right (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rashaverak, Lenny Flank

      I remember watching the movie and noticing that the recruits kept getting younger and younger looking as the film went on.

      By the end they looked to be age 12-13.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Sun May 11, 2014 at 05:53:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Watched All Quiet on the Western Front recently (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Alhambra, Sunspots

    The scene at the end where the dead German soldiers all march off one after the other - and each one briefly turns his head and looks back at the camera. Incredibly moving.

    If you haven't seen it I highly recommend it. It holds up well even to this day.

    Paths of Glory is also worth watching in case you've never seen it. It really depicts the ignorance and corruption of the allied generals.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Sun May 11, 2014 at 05:59:02 PM PDT

  •  A Couple WWI Examples (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    disinterested spectator

    One is a French anti-war comedy from the early 70s titled The King of Hearts (yes, it's French), about a hapless scout who is trying to save a small French village from a munitions dump hidden somewhere in town which has been rigged to explode by the retreating German forces.  He doesn't realize that villagers have already evacuated and the people he is trying to save are residents of the local insane asylum who have taken over the vacant town.  I really ought to write a diary about it one of these days.

    The other isn't a movie; it's the final episode of the British TV series Blackadder Goes Forth.  In it the main character, Captain Blackadder, tries desperately to avoid being sent Over the Top as his superiors prepare to send him and his men on The Big Push.  The episode alternates between wacky humor, (Blackadder systematically and methodically attempts to feign madness to get invalided out), to gut-wrenching emotion, (his clueless subordinate, George, reminisces about enlisting in the Army with his college buddies, and slowly realizing that of that group he is the only one still alive), to bits which masterfully combine the two, (as when Blackadder tries to explain to the dim-witted Corporal Baldrick how the War started).  The ending is extremely moving.  There is no happy ending for Captain Blackadder.

    Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

    by quarkstomper on Sun May 11, 2014 at 06:50:30 PM PDT

    •  I almost cited Black Adder in the essay (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      My favorite scene is where Captain Blackadder is called in to headquarters to discuss the next day’s plan, which consists of climbing out of the trenches and heading toward enemy lines.  And it’s bound to work, the general says, because when they tried that plan on the previous seventeen occasions, everyone was slaughtered in the first ten minutes, so the Germans will never suspect the British to be so foolish as to try it again.

  •  I have two books to add to the list (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    disinterested spectator, P Carey

    November 1918:  A People Betrayed.  This book takes place after the Armistice is signed and before the Treaty of Versailles.  

    I have not read it, but Radetzky March by Joseph Roth may also be a good choice.  

    I'm a 4 Freedoms Democrat.

    by DavidMS on Sun May 11, 2014 at 06:52:30 PM PDT

  •  No such thing as anti-war war movie (0+ / 0-)

    I'm of the camp that holds the opinion that all war-movies, even ones branded as "anti-war", is actually a pro-war movie.

    For a movie to be an "anti-war" movie, it should leave you the viewer with the feeling of ash in your mouth, bitter disappointment, a sense of betrayal, even.

    It's kind of after watching the movie, you walk right up to it and said, "Hey, movie, what'cha doin'? I came here for the testosterone, for the glorious, intense battle scene, for the blood and intestines. How dare you tell me that the macho, macho, hero died for nothing? How dare you say that the weasely guy got the hero's girl? That the wimpy guy was actually right, and the macho guy was wrong?"

    I haven't found that film yet.

    Some of the films which are contenders are:
    The Battle of Algiers (Unfortunately about the French ^_^ )
    Southern Comfort
    Castle Keep (Well, the Americans died in glory, sort of)
    From Here to Eternity (Kinda like Halloran in the lobby)
    The Quiet American (2002)
    Go Tell the Spartans (I love Burt Lancaster)
    Three Kings (it needs more ironic detachment)
    Courage Under Fire (A bit unrealistic, Phillips' character would boast about his actions)

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