ten good films
Editor's Note: The list below is not a "ten best films about war and peace" list. That would be impossible to choose, at least for me. Instead, I have chosen ten films which will help viewers to understand the nature of conflict, violence, nonviolence, and love. Most of these films concern war because that is where the best filmmakers—when they address these issues at all—have concentrated their efforts. All of them should be available on video and easy to obtain. Availability was one criterion for choosing a film, as was whether the film works well as a film. Watch the films below, and you will be moved and enlightened. Each one repays repeated viewings and careful study.
—Robert A. Seeley
A Bridge Too Far (all-star cast including Liv Ullman, Lord Olivier, Robert Redford, and Sean Connery)
Intended by producer Joseph E. Levine as an anti-war statement, this film portrays the Allied operation at Arnhem, Holland, in 1944. Excellent battle footage leads to a moving ending showing the plight of war's victims.
All Quiet on the Western Front (starring Lew Ayres)
This film, which won an Oscar for best picture, stands up well sixty years later. It depicts the experience of ordinary German soldiers in the trenches of World War I, thereby making one of the strongest anti-war statements on film. Ayres was a conscientious objector in World War II, and his performance here reflects his growing commitment to peace.
Dead Man Walking (starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon)
Not directly about war, but certainly about the nature of human violence, life, death, and love, this is the most powerful film available on the death penalty. Penn plays a convicted murderer, Sarandon the nun who tries to reach him at a human level.
Gandhi (starring Ben Kingsley; directed by Richard Attenborough)
An epic treatment of Gandhi's life and his nonviolent campaign to liberate India from British rule. Kingsley gives his best performance ever. Among other things, the film is full of lessons on nonviolent philosophy, tactics, and strategy, but it is really about one of the most extraordinary men of the 20th Century.
Glory (starring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick, among others in a first-rate cast)
A historical epic about a Negro unit in the U.S. Civil War, this film touches on a myriad of themes—racism, war, the nature of the military, and on and on—which continue to trouble us today. The cast, with few big names but many great actors, is superb, and the story riveting.
Paths of Glory (starring Kirk Douglas; directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick has directed a number of important films about war, including Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. None is more powerful than this one, which centers around the World War I court-martial of two ordinary soldiers who broke down when ordered into yet another suicidal attack. Douglas, as the defense attorney, is mesmerizing, and you will not find a better indictment of "chateau generalship" on film.
Platoon (directed by Oliver Stone)
Oliver Stone's first major box-office hit, and still among his best because it stays close to his Vietnam experience and avoids political preaching. The men in the unit which is at the center of the film just live out their story—and that is more than enough.
The King of Hearts (starring Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold; directed by Philippe de Broca)
A marvelous satire of the absurdity of war in which a village in the path of the Germans (in World War I) is abandoned to one British soldier and the escaped inhabitants of the local insane asylum. By the end it is clear that what we call "sane" (the war) is not sane at all—and perhaps the "insane," who treat each other with kindness and love, have got it right after all. The ending is worth the price of admission.
The War (starring Kevin Costner and Elijah Woods)
Set in Mississippi in the 1970s, this remarkable film depicts war writ small. Kostner plays a Vietnam veteran turned pacifist because of what he saw in the war. His struggles (and a first-rate performance) enrich the film, but the main plot concerns a conflict between two groups of children over a tree house. The conflict builds and finally gets out of hand in a terrifying final battle that shows the kids how pointless their fighting really was. Along the way the film explores combat stress, the nature of conflict, moral choice under fire, and many other themes.
Witness (starring Harrison Ford; directed by Peter Weir)
Peter Weir, who also directed Gallipoli, is always thoughtful when exploring the nature of violence and alternatives to it. The film stands up as a crime thriller, but its juxtaposition of the violence of the city streets and the non-violent life of the Amish people gives it a depth which only Weir would give this type of film.