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Cinematic combat: Hollywood’s modern warefare

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Plato once famously said, “Only the dead have seen an end to war.” For film fans, this means there will never be an end to war movies.

Since the invention of cinema, war films have come in various types and styles. With the arrival of computer technology, war films about contemporary war have undergone broad transformations in the years before and after the turn of the twentieth century.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

This serious, brooding film from Terrence Malick details the ordeals, emotions and struggles of a young band of Marines fighting at Guadalcanal during World War II. Sean Penn headlines the all-star cast that also includes Adrien Brody, George Clooney and John C. Reilly. As with every other Malick film, “The Thin Red Line” is clearly his brainchild, a film he spent many years developing. Malick’s cinematography is both superb and unique, especially in battle scenes. The most distinctive feature is the film’s slow pace. The three-hour-long movie uses numerous flashbacks that highlight the difference between war and home and ultimately question the pain and evil associated with war.

Three Kings (1999)

“Three Kings” can best be described as a comedic war movie. It begins at the end of the Gulf War, when three American soldiers try to find and steal Saddam Hussein’s gold amid the turmoil and confusion at the end of Operation Desert Storm. The war scenes provide realistic and authentic visuals, and the comedy stems from good performances from Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and even rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube. Director David O. Russell crafts a movie that is smart and intelligent, and he manages to provide a good moral lesson at the end. There is also a distinct style to “Three Kings,” a gritty, bleached feel that makes the viewing experience visceral and powerful, as if one were really living and fighting in the sands of Iraq.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” relates how a standard U.S. military operation in Mogadishu, Somalia went terribly wrong on Oct. 3, 1993. The acclaimed director assembled a standout cast featuring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor and Eric Bana in this intense and bloody film. Unlike most other war movies, “Black Hawk Down” completely forgoes any political or cultural pretenses and depicts events strictly from the point of view of the soldiers. During filming, Scott created a 360-degree war with pyrotechnics and used dozens of hidden cameras to film the reactions of the actors. As a result, the actors exhibit a genuine fear that viewers can feel and comprehend. This film is so successful because of the frankness with which it allows viewers to experience both the horrors and heroics of war.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Without doubt the best war movie in recent history – and perhaps the greatest war film of all time – Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” is a masterpiece. Tom Hanks is the leader of a military unit that must venture behind enemy lines to rescue a comrade after experiencing the dread of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. The opening minutes of the film constitute some of the most graphic war footage ever, and a constantly moving camera adds to the total chaos of the situation.

After the surreal D-Day invasion, “Saving Private Ryan” becomes a character study of men at war who must decide whether orders from distant superiors are moral and feasible. Incredible performances by all the actors, especially Hanks, dominate the rest of the movie and leave viewers pondering powerful themes and questions long after the movie ends.

While it is possible to debate whether a good war film must either be for or against war, it may be more accurate to say that good war films depict characters with whom an audience can sympathize and relate.

Films like these four allow viewers to experience war realistically in order to understand and discuss its implications beyond the walls of a theater or living room.