On War Movies

W.J. Astore

The other night, my wife and I watched “1917,” a movie set during World War I. The Western Front was the setting, and the movie took pains to show the many horrors of trench warfare. Rotting corpses of men and horses. Rats and flies around those corpses. Huge shell craters. Barbed wire everywhere. Broken down tanks and other discarded military equipment. Nature itself blasted. It made you wonder how men could have slaughtered each other under such conditions for so long.

But it’s hard to sustain such horrors, even in a war movie crafted with such care. Because the overall story was a noble one about sacrifice, persistence, and endurance at the longest of odds.

Most war movies are like this. They may show the horrors of war, and do it viscerally and effectively, as Steven Spielberg did in his opening sequence of D-Day in “Saving Private Ryan.” But such horror can’t be sustained in what is ultimately meant as a form of entertainment, so in Spielberg’s film there is meaning and purpose. Sacrifice is ennobling. It is memorable and remembered. The hero does not die in vain.

I’ve seen war movies that have stayed with me, but no war scene in any movie captures the horrors of real life. And if somehow a movie could capture such horrors, who would voluntarily go and see it? Especially if they were not mere spectators but participants — with skin in the game, so to speak.

There are many good war movies out there, but has a movie ever stopped anyone from fighting and dying?

We make war into something larger than life. The irony is that war is most often the negation of life. Too many people die for no purpose and no reason. There is no dramatic arc. Only death and more death.

Yet we remain fascinated by war. Libraries are filled with books on war, and new war movies come out on a regular basis, promising drama and meaning and authenticity.

What was the last peace movie you saw?