Beyond 1917: A List of Alternative War Films

1917 is a movie directed by Sam Mendes that has been swiping awards like crazy since it was released not much longer than a month ago. I personally liked the film but didn’t love it. The fact that it’s supposed to feel like a single shot movie is what makes the film great but also problematic since much of it feels dragged and unnecessary. However, the cinematography, acting, and soundtrack are great, resulting in a powerful movie that despite its qualities, it could have been much better.

I’m not here to talk about 1917 though – but to highlight the attention people are giving to it which I believe comes from the fact that it approaches the war in a different matter. Movies like Dunkirk, Zero Dark Thirty, Son of Saul or even Cold War are some of the titles that seem to deal with war in a more intimate, personal and interesting point of view, making me think of more obscure pictures that are not only better than 1917 but also amazing movies to check it out in case you feel like having a different experience with these types of films.

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Come and See (1985) by Elem Klimov

Even though this film is pretty well known, I couldn’t not think of Come and See while watching 1917. There are many scenes that clearly references Elem Klimov’s film which is probably why I didn’t love 1917 since this is way heavier and more disturbing when it comes to showing the horrors caused by the Nazis and the Second World War in general. More than that, Come and See feels like a poem, with magnificent scenes of both beauty and horror, resulting in one of the best movies ever made.

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The Painted Bird (2019) by Václav Marhoul

And speaking of brutality, the award for best war movie of the year should probably go to The Painted Bird, a movie that has been causing controversy in every film festival around the world. With three hours of duration, the film follows the tragedies and absurds that a young boy faces while trying to escape the Nazi’s on an occupied Poland. More than a war film, The Painted Bird is a study of the rotten side of humanity in times of desperation, resulting in a very difficult film to watch despite the astonishing black and white cinematography.

King and Country (1964) by Joseph Losey

King and Country (1964) by Joseph Losey

Another film that I believe has traces of 1917 – probably because the story is also set in 1917 in the British trenches; King and Country is a beautiful court drama starring Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde about a soldier who is accused of desertion. However, as the case of the court unfolds, we start to suspect the soldier isn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress, resulting in a very complex and philosophical drama with an outstanding and heartbreaking end.

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Ballad of a Soldier (1959) by Grigory Chukhray

A movie that has been mentioned at Papiro & Mint a couple of times, Ballad of a Soldier is probably one of my favorites war films of all time. Telling the story of a young soldier who is given a few days off after a heroic performance on the battlefield, the movie follows his this young soldier’s trip to home to visit his mother while he meets several different people along the way. Extremely touching and beautiful, Ballad of a Soldier is almost not considered a war movie for barely having any battle scenes.

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Le Silence de la Mer (1949) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Probably the most subtle film from the entire list, this not very well known Jean-Pierre Melville movie is based on Jean Bruller’s story and shot with an amazing cinematography by Henri Decae. The story follows a Frenchman and his niece who are forced to let a German lieutenant live in their house during an occupied France. As both of them decide to not speak to the officer, the German lieutenant starts talking to himself and as the days pass by, the officer starts to go crazy.

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Europa Europa (1990) by Agnieszka Holland

Having recently received a remastered blu ray edition from the Criterion Collection, this beautiful war film by Agnieszka Holland can be seen as a different war type of movie by focusing on the manhood and masculinity of the main character: a young Jewish boy who joins the Hitler youth pretending he is a Nazi so he can escape the concentration camps. More impressive than the fact this is based on a true story, is how the female director Agnieszka Holland portrays this character’s coming of age through Germany’s Nazism and Russian’s communism, resulting in a powerful and touching story about growing up on the worst-case scenarios.

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Lacombe Lucien (1974) by Louis Malle

And speaking of coming of ages during the World War, Lacombe Lucien is probably my favorite movie from the French director by telling the story of a young man who after being refused by the French Resistance, he allies himself with the Nazis who have taken over France and start living a better life. Also based on true events, Malle makes sure to not take any political view towards his story and delivers a personal tale of a confused man who only wants to be heard and ends up joining the wrong gang.

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War Requiem (1989) by Derek Jarman

And to finish with the most experimental movie of the list, War Requiem is Derek Jarman’s visual opera about the life of the poet Wilfred Owen with music by Benjamin Britten. Starring Tilda Swinton and Laurence Oliver, the movie follows Owen’s journey through the trenches of war through beautiful and surreal sets that could have easily been taken out of a painting. You will probably not understand everything that happens in this film, but the focus here is to stare at the powerful images Derek Jarman makes, resulting in a beautiful and transgressive experience.