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2022’s All Quiet on the Western Front is currently streaming on Netflix, a battle-torn drama adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, who channeled his experiences as a German soldier during World War One in a criticism of the war itself. The groundbreaking story is the quintessential anti-war film depicting the proverbial hell-on-earth landscape of trench warfare as it follows an eager young soldier, Paul (Felix Kammerer), whose fantasies of heroism are quickly ravaged by warfare.
Now the concept of an anti-war film has been thoroughly debated, some critics, historians, and filmmakers would say any film about war is pro-war, while others find them inherently anti-war. Characterizing a war film as either pro or anti-war is entirely subjective and can fall along a diverse spectrum between the two polar opposites. However, the traits of films like All Quiet on the Western Front that do not idolize or romanticize warfare often focus on tragic events over heroic actions and beg the question if the bloodshed was even worth the cost.
Updated on March 13, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
Now the top pick among the war movies on Netflix, the German-language anti-war film, All Quiet on the Western Front, made its mark during the 95th Academy Awards by receiving the Oscars for Best International Feature Film, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design (four out of its whopping nine nominations). It is now considered one of the best anti-war movies of all time, alongside some of the greats.
15 ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)
Born on the Fourth of July plays many of the same notes as All Quiet on the Western Front, showcasing a main protagonist willing and eager to join the war effort only to become quickly disillusioned. Similar to Paul, Sergeant Ron Kovick, played by Tom Cruise, is raised as a proud citizen and motivated to defend his country. However, both characters quickly experience brutality and loss as Kovick returns home physically and emotionally wounded.
The film is based on the autobiography of the real Ron Kovick, who would return from the Vietnam War paralyzed and haunted by his experiences. The anti-war sentiment is mustered within the film as Kovick channeled his torment into activism, speaking out against the war and criticizing the government for the poor treatment of its traumatized veterans.
14 ‘American Sniper’ (2014)
Studying the complexities of war films reveals that the difference between an anti-war and pro-war film is not black and white, but a spectrum, and American Sniper is a great exercise in this debate, having themes of both. It stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, a real US Navy SEAL who became one of the deadliest marksmen in US History. Mobilized by the attacks on 9/11 Kyle acted as a protector, yet the war would take a tremendous toll on his civilian life.
The war film is a complex beast of emotions and actions, and like so many effective anti-war films American Sniper focuses the lens on the individual soldier and their hardships, a final lesson that begs the system to support its veterans, not the war itself. While every war is the same, every war is different by the man, woman, or child who experiences it, and in the end, the message often displays that the very nature of war, despite any good intentions, can negatively impact the soul.
Watch on DirecTV
13 ‘Fury’ (2014)
Another war film that teeters between anti and pro, Fury is set in April 1945, when the Allies are preparing their final push. It follows a group manning a Sherman tank led by jaded Army sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), who is about to take his five-man team on their most dangerous mission yet behind enemy lines. With more opposition than they can handle and a newbie (Logan Lerman) dragging the team down, the odds are stacked against them.
Written and directed by David Ayer, Fury has been described by The Independent as “a thoroughly contradictory affair” because it’s “an anti-war film that also wants to be an action thriller.” It manages to succeed in sending a haunting message about the pointlessness and harshness of war, while, like American Sniper, delivering some exhilarating moments for fans of the action-war genre.
Watch on Starz
12 ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)
Before 1978, most films depicting the Vietnam War still had a sense of heroics, morality, and justice in their narratives, however, The Deer Hunter was one of the first to show the conflict in a negative light. Instead of focusing on the valor of men in combat, the film takes its time to study its main characters before, during, and after the war to see how their experiences affected them and their families back home.
Featuring strong performances from Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, and many more, the story is structured in three parts; before the war to establish the characters, during the war when the main two protagonists become prisoners of war, and after when the two grapple with their altered lives in very different ways. The simmering drama boils over during tense scenes of Russian Roulette, where the gamble of life and death during wartime shows the perverse nature of war.
11 ‘Platoon’ (1986)
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, filmmaker Oliver Stone crafted many of his movies to criticize the human cost of war and the darkness of humanity he witnessed, depicting warfare with cynicism, narcissism, and savagery. As a result, Platoon displays a grisly take on war as the group of U.S. Army soldiers are conflicted between two radically different leaders, one evil and the other good.
Platoon follows newly volunteered soldier Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who witnesses a split between his platoon siding with either the ruthless and cynical Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) or the more idealistic and moral compass of Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Like many negative interpretations of war, Barnes is willing to commit horrendous actions in order to get the job done, seeing Elias’ moral code as a weakness that is expendable.
Watch on HBO Max
10 ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (2016)
Hacksaw Ridge does depict acts of heroism, however, what sets this film apart is that the heroics come from the protection of life rather than extinguishing it. The film stars Andrew Garfield in the true story of Desmond Doss, an American combat medic who received the medal of honor for saving countless lives during the battle of Okinawa in 1945.
Doss was a conscientious objector, who through his devout religious and pacifist ideals refused to carry a weapon or kill in combat. The film showcases Doss’ criticisms from his comrades, going against the basic principles of the mission of war, but his selfless actions as a medic to save lives is a unique take on the anti-war characteristics of this heroic war film.
Watch on Hulu
9 ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008)
A great animated film for adults and a war movie unlike any other, Waltz with Bashir was written, produced, and directed by Ari Folman, and is about his own experiences fighting during the 1982 Lebanon War. While it is about many horrific aspects of the conflict, Folman particularly focuses on his lack of memory around the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which he witnessed.
The film uses beautifully animated scenes in stark contrast with the terrifying events it chronicles. It also has interviews with other soldiers who were in Beirut like Folman, as well as a psychologist who delves into post-traumatic stress disorders. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it centers on the individuals that become victims of warfare, and who are forever changed by it.
8 ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940)
The Great Dictator was written, directed, produced, scored by and starring the legendary Charlie Chaplin in the first talking film of his career. In a deliberate criticism of the rise of Fascism in Europe, Chaplin crafted a satirical comedy and portrayed both a power hungry dictator and a humble Jewish barber. Through a string of gags and stunts, Chaplin delivered his trademark humor, before turning the film into a platform for one of cinema’s most enthralling monologues.
In an impassioned speech that is still all too relevant today, Chaplin denounces evil to promote compassion and love for one another. While Chaplin was calling out the dictators that came to power, the message as a whole was anti-war, anti-greed, and anti-hatred. In the reaction to the bloodshed and lessons of history, Chaplin hoped to inspire humanity to take a course of action to protect humanity as a whole.
Watch on HBO Max
7 ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930)
Before 2022’s version, 1930 had its own legendary adaptation of Remarque’s novel. Directed by Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front is faithful to the source material and tells the familiar story of a group of German schoolboys who sign up for World War I, not realizing what exactly is at stake.
A glaring difference between Milestone’s version and its contemporary counterpart is that the 1930 film was extremely controversial when it first premiered. According to Britannica, it was banned in numerous countries (including Germany) because of its pacificist theme. But like its modern counterpart, the 1930 epic anti-war film sends a message about war that’s impossible to ignore, by depicting harrowing and jarring events that its likable main characters go through.
Full Metal Jacket falls in line with so many negative interpretations of the Vietnam War, depicting the dehumanization and depravity of war. The film tip-toes the line in being purely anti-war, however, the film is included in Stanley Kubrick‘s impressive filmography that features many anti-war tendencies. Kubrick has never been known to be so blatant but instead displays certain contradictions and hypocrisies of the military.
Full Metal Jacket stars Matthew Modine as Private J.T. “Joker” Davis, in his path through the Vietnam War starting with boot camp. Joker is put through the wringer by the harsh Drill Sergeant (R. Lee Ermey) and faced with communal punishment caused by the slowly adapting Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). While it wasn’t actual war that crushes Pyle’s humanity, it is just the first of many shattering experiences the characters would go through in the war ahead as their humanity is slowly beaten down.
Watch on Tubi
5 ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957)
Paths of Glory resembles the useless loss of life depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front, as it also depicts WWI, a war that is infamous for being a prolonged bloody stalemate that was catastrophic for both sides. Directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, the film follows French soldiers through the trenches and into no man’s land, facing the impossible demands of generals barking orders from their cushy command posts.
After failing to complete an attack and retreating the soldiers are accused of cowardice and three men are randomly chosen to be executed as an example. Douglas’ Colonel Dax defends the soldiers, vouching for the importance of human life while his leaders toss them away like pawns on the chessboard; without compassion or remorse for the casualties they cause out of their dangerous sense of pride.
Watch on Prime Video
4 ‘The Human Condition’ Film Series (1959 – 1961)
Known as some of the best WWII movies, The Human Condition epic war film trilogy was directed by Masaki Kobayashi and based on the 1958 eponymous novel by Junpei Gomikawa. The trilogy is made up of No Greater Love (1959), Road to Eternity (1959), and A Soldier’s Prayer (1961), which all follow the life and experiences of the Japanese pacifist Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai).
Kaji’s awful journey from being an idealistic pacifist to a hardened and jaded survivor is chronicled in the trilogy, which doesn’t shy away from showing some horrifying situations. The protagonist’s storyline full of loss, pain, and grief is comparable to Paul’s transformation in All Quiet on the Western Front from a naive individual who joins the war into a shell of the person he once was after all has been said and done.
Watch on The Criterion Channel
3 ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988)
Any fan will be familiar with one of Studio Ghibli’s best movies, Grave of the Fireflies. Written and directed by Isao Takahata, the film recounts the heartbreaking story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko Yokokawa, who struggle to survive during the last months of World War II. They move from one place to another while avoiding the many dangers that come with an active battlefield, while also navigating their dynamic as siblings and recent orphans.
Just as All Quiet on the Western Front explores Paul’s relationship with his friends and the gravity of their loss on the frontlines, Grave of the Fireflies centers on Seita’s bond with Setsuko and how the war changes it. With stunning animation depicting the destruction of war in the background, it’s impossible not to feel invested in the duo’s lives, which is precisely what makes the film so gut-wrenching and unforgettable.
2 ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
It’s common for anti-war films to reside in conflicts that are highly regarded as controversial, like WWI which resulted in masses of unnecessary death. Likewise, the Vietnam War has been vastly depicted in harrowing ways in cinema’s history, and Apocalypse Now is no exception, as its characters experience horrible events and a slow slip into savagery the deeper they go into the jungle.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film stars Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, tasked to track down and eliminate a rogue special forces officer, Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando. Traversing the rivers and jungles, Willard narrates the ways the men around him cope with war – some dwell on the comforts of home, which can ironically make their psyches worse. In the final cynical conclusion, the rogue Colonel embraces the horror and accepts his inner evil in order to achieve victory.
1 ‘Come and See’ (1985)
Come and See is a disturbingly real look at war crimes, in this case, acts committed by the Nazis in occupied Belarus during WWII. The film stars 13-year-old Aleksei Kravchenko as Flyora, a boy who actively joins the Soviet Partisans and witnesses atrocities committed against his village. The film then challenges its characters and the audience on how to counteract such evil.
Displaying horrific scenes of violence and genocide from an evil that laughs and applauds at such acts is where the terror festers. But to counter evil with evil may spiral humanity into depths no one cannot return from, even presenting the hypothetical question, where does innocence stop and evil begin? Is war ever a solution or just an unfortunate response?
Watch on The Criterion Channel
NEXT: The Best War Movies of All Time, Ranked According to IMDb
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