Directed by Ang Lee, “Ride with the Devil” takes us into the mayhem of guerrilla fighting during the Civil War. Two members of the Missouri Bushwhackers (Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich) fight the Jayhawkers miles and worlds away from the official front lines. While hiding out and resisting pro-Union forces, the two men meet a former slave called Holt (Jeffrey Wright), which becomes a turning point in their journey.
The film is an adaptation of the novel “Woe to Live On” by Daniel Woodrell. Lee doesn’t delve too much into the background of the Civil War which confused some viewers and disappointed critics. What the film lacks in context it makes up for with a clear message: people go to war for several convoluted reasons. Yet, the experience of war drags any conceivable reason through the mud. The only endeavor is to leave war behind.
War Horse (2011)
“War Horse” is an adaption of a 1982 novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. Steven Spielberg gave it a second life on the silver screen. The story follows Albert, a young soldier, and Joey, his horse, on a journey across Europe during WWI. On their way, the two discover not one shred of glory in war, only horror and cruelty.
But in the middle of absurdity and bloodshed, Albert finds hope thanks to Joey who miraculously survives a casualty. Spielberg’s adaptation does a remarkable job of capturing moments of human frailty. There's also the extraordinary bond between man and animal, which is magnified a hundred times over in times of crisis.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Director Stanley Kubrick is ubiquitous to the war film genre, and “Full Metal Jacket” is among his best works. The film is a tense and nightmarish exploration of the Vietnam War with the first half showing soldiers in boot camp and the second in Vietnam, facing combat.
It’s a story of how war dehumanizes and how it doesn’t necessarily begin only after being shipped overseas. Both halves of the film are characterized by trauma, showing how the nightmare can take root at home during training. This is as brutal as war films get, with terrors so gripping and real that “Full Metal Jacket” occasionally feels like a horror movie.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
The impact of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is undeniable. Directed by Edward Berger, the film follows the story of men who enlist in the army during WWI, smitten with ideas of glory and valor only for things to rapidly fall apart. Each day is a waking nightmare. And death? Death is always imminent.
What makes the film a classic in the war genre is its extraordinary narrative. Most war films tend to rely on action and effects. “All Quiet on the Western Front” gives you substance, content so compelling it is heart-wrenching and brutal. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture and remains one of the most influential anti-war movies the silver screen has yet seen.
Paths of Glory (1957)
A list of war film greats is incomplete without “Paths of Glory.” The film revolves around the story of three men, unfortunate scapegoats for an entire unit that failed a trench offensive. It opens with a disturbing battle sequence that sets the stage for tragedy on the battlefield and the harsh trial to come.
The commentary is direct — a sharp condemnation of higher-ranking officials who avoid the trenches themselves but have no qualms about sending young officers to die in battle. “Paths of Glory” is among the best movies on WWI in cinematic history. Its nuanced and confident narrative is remarkable, especially when you consider that director Stanley Kubrick was just 29 when the film was released!