War Films of the Modern Age

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Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Sir, there’s a large formation of planes coming in from the north, 140 miles, 3 degrees east.” “Yeah? Don’t worry about it.” This is just one of the many mishaps chronicled in Tora! Tora! Tora! The epic film shows the bombing of Pearl Harbor from both sides in the historic first American-Japanese coproduction: American director Richard Fleischer oversaw the complicated production (the Japanese sequences were directed by Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, after Akira Kurosawa withdrew from the film), wrestling a sprawling story with dozens of characters into a manageable, fairly easy-to-follow film.

The first half maps out the collapse of diplomacy between the nations and the military blunders that left naval and air forces sitting ducks for the impending attack, while the second half is an amazing re-creation of the devastating battle. The special effects won an Oscar, but the film was shut out of every other category by, ironically, the other epic war picture of the year, Patton.

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The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

John Wayne catapulted from Hollywood leading man to All-American hero with his Oscar-nominated performance as Sergeant Stryker, a hard-nosed Marine sergeant who must mold a company of raw recruits into a combat-ready fighting machine.

Feared by many and hated by all, Stryker’s training is soon put to the test in a full-scale assault against the Japanese on Iwo Jima—an infamous battle that will live forever in one of cinema’s most famous scenes, the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.

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The Thin Red Line (1998)

Adaptation of James Jones’ huge novel of the campaign to take Guadalcanal. Director Terrence Malick has bypassed generic war movie obligations to introduce clearly characters, establish tag traits that make them and their emotional/spiritual/military-team playing progress easy to track, and also lay out the tactical objectives clearly, with a big picture view of how this all fits into the war effort. The principal characters are Charlie Company, and the story is not only how they cope with the Japanese, and with their own intra-Army tensions. It’s also the awesome, metaphysically charged spectacle of man doing terrible things to man within the multicolored and multifarious cathedral of Nature.

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Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)

This is an interesting film about the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos labs.

Personalizing the story by focusing on General Groves (Paul Newman), the bullheaded Army officer who was handed the job; and the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz), who organized the brain trust that created the bomb.

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Hiroshima (1995)

Account of the events leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, as told from both sides in two separate, interwoven films – one Canadian (with Kenneth Welsh as Truman), the other Japanese, with subtitles. Recently uncovered footage, newsreels, armed forces clips, and dramatized encounters with the leading figures of the time provide stunning results for this ambitious TV effort. Interestingly, other than a few U. S. actors, no American hands were involved, despite dealing mainly with Harry Truman, his closest advisors, and the Manhattan Project.

Hiroshima uses a unique structure to convey the story of that fateful decision, mixing newsreels with new sepia-toned footage, color dramatizations, and interviews with Hiroshima survivors and U.S.military personnel. At times, the transitions between the segments can be a bit jarring, but Hiroshima is an extraordinary look at the human element of the decision to use nuclear weapons. Its painstaking attention to period detail makes it a historical drama that plays nearly like a documentary.

Kenneth Welsh, in particular, is an uncanny Harry Truman, having obviously studied the president’s clipped Midwestern twang and ramrod-straight bearing at great length. Unlike many other films on the subject, Hiroshima also shows the Japanese side of the equation, with a diplomatic corps ready to sue for peace while the fanatics in the military would never hear of it. Its unswervingly objective, balanced tone, and sober direction make Hiroshima a thoughtful and informative look at the decision that changed the course of history forever.

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Black Rain (1990)

Somber, restrained, and very moving story detailing five years in the life of a family which survived Hiroshima, and the ways their bodies and souls are poisoned by the fallout – or “black rain. ” A quietly observant character study with a number of haunting black and white images. This is a wonderful black and white film by one of Japan’s foremost directors, Shohei Imamura. “Black Rain” explores a difficult subject, the bombing of Hiroshima, but does it not by assigning blame for the bombing.

Rather Imamura depicts the intolerance of humanity that leads to all wars and their equally terrible aftermath. The characters in the film, all very well acted, are dealing with radiation illness and their positions as new social outcasts in postwar Japan. Perhaps one of the most moving scenes is that of the three Buddhist prayers or “sutras” for Hiroshima’s dead chanted by a layman in the absence of the clergy. Indeed the film is one long prayer for peace and tolerance.

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Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Alain Resnais’s multi-award-winning film is neither an easy film to watch nor to synopsize, but it remains one of the high-water marks of the French “new wave” movement. Resnais weaves a complex story concerning a French actress’s experiences in occupied France, juxtaposed with the horrendous ordeal of a Japanese architect who survives the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. These stories are offered in quick flashback vignettes, which permeate the contemporary story of the woman’s relationship with the architect in contemporary Hiroshima.

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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Isao Takahata’s powerful film has been praised by critics wherever it has been screened around the world. When their mother is killed in the firebombing of Tokyo near the end of World War II, teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko are left on their own: their father is away, serving in the Imperial Navy.

The two children initially stay with an aunt, but she has little affection for them and resents the time and money they require. The two children set up housekeeping in a cave by a stream, but their meager resources are quickly exhausted, and Seita is reduced to stealing to feed his sister.

Despite his efforts, she succumbs to malnutrition. Seita painfully makes his way back to the devastated city where he quietly dies in a crowded railway station. The strength of the film lies in Takahata’s evenhanded portrayal of the characters. A sympathetic doctor, the greedy aunt, the disinterested cousins all know there is little they can do for Seita and Setsuko.

Their resources, like their country’s, are already overtaxed: anything they spare endangers their own survival. No mention is made of Japan’s role in the war as an aggressor; but the depiction of the needless suffering endured by its victims transcends national and ideological boundaries.

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Barefoot Gen (1992)

Gen Nakaoka is on his way to school when the bomb detonates. He makes his way back to his home through hellish scenes of ruined buildings, corpses, and hideously mutilated survivors. Although his family is still alive, Gen and his pregnant mother are unable to free his father, sister, and brother from the rubble of their house and must leave them to burn to death. His mother goes into labor during their flight and his new sister is born amid the devastation. Holding the infant, Gen tells her to remember the horrors, so that they never occur again. The film is drawn from writer Keiji Nakazawa’s true life experiences in the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.

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Dr. Strangelove (1963)

Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant classic is the perfect showcase for the versatility of Peter Sellers, who takes on three distinctive roles in the film. Funny and frightening, this black comedy about a group of military men who plan a nuclear apocalypse seems as relevant today as ever. Fueled by paranoia and a fanatical sense of patriotism, two psychotic generals—U.S. Air Force Commander Jack D. Ripper and Joint Chief of Staff “Buck” Turgison—trigger an ingenious, irrevocable scheme to attack Russia’s strategic targets with nuclear bombs.

The brains behind the scheme belong to Dr. Strangelove (Sellers), a wheelchair-bound nuclear scientist with bizarre ideas about mankind’s future. Rendered helpless to stop the bombers is the President of the U.S. (Sellers) and Ripper’s executive officer, Captain Mandrake (Sellers)—the only man who can stop them.

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War Game (1965)

A chilling documentary that imagines what would result if the Russians ever launched a nuclear attack on Great Britain.

“The War Game” shows the terrifying physical damage caused by weapons of such magnitude, as well as the enormous disorder that would break out in the battle’s aftermath. Filmmaker Peter Watkins uses newsreel techniques that make the horrors portrayed here even more realistic.

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Atomic Café (1982)

Artfully culled from newsreel footage and government archives of the 1940s and 50s, this film serves up the dark side of Cold War America in all its fear and paranoia, and manages to blend this with a deep black humor. The result is what has been called by critics “a nuclear REEFER MADNESS” and a “non-fiction DR. STRANGELOVE”.

Highpoints include scenes of soldiers wearing only sunglasses for protection when sent into areas devastated by nuclear detonation, happy suburban families practicing use of their bomb shelters and “Burt the Turtle” teaching children to “duck and cover” as protection from nuclear fall-out. The Atomic Café has proven to be a true classic and a darkly comic look at a defining period in the 20th century.