Perhaps the most powerful antiwar film that I’ve seen is “Testament of Youth” (2014), based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same title. I watched it soon after it first came out, and I rewatched it this past week after Russia invaded Ukraine. The film rips your heart out with its depiction of the costs of war: battered and bloodied bodies, blasted and shattered nature. It’s set during World War I and recounts Brittain’s heartrending loss of her fiancé, her brother, and other close friends. Brittain is played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander, who pours her heart and soul into every scene.
Especially powerful is the scene near the end, where Brittain passionately denounces war and the way it demonizes and dehumanizes the enemy, even as “patriots” (including her younger self) send young men off to fight and die in the name of honor. Even if you haven’t seen all that leads up to this scene, it retains its power (you may need to click and watch on YouTube):
“No to killing. No to war.”
Near the end of Brittain’s memoir, she passionately asks us to find another way, a better way, than the murderous one of war. She seeks to “rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war,” to lead an “exultant fight” against war that would enlarge the soul of humanity.
Earlier in her memoir, she quoted from the war diary she kept that “It is impossible to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilization.” How right she was, and remains.
One aspect of this film I truly appreciate is that it shows the costs of war without glorifying battle. In fact, there are no spectacular battle scenes; no rousing music; nothing to distract us from war’s many horrors. The movie does not romanticize war in any way, which makes it that much more effective.
I’m astonished this movie isn’t better known. It is worth 100 “Avatars” and “Titanics” and Marvel/DC superhero movies. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked; antiwar films are rarely that popular, no matter how powerful, no matter how well-crafted, no matter how true.
If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Think about its message. We need to ask ourselves, again and again, why we as humans simply can’t say no to war.