Below is a list of 31 antiwar movies that made deep impressions on me. These movies are built around the idea that war has no redeeming value whatsoever — except perhaps for instances of defending one’s own person from deadly assault, as in the incredible 1956 movie Kanal, about the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Some of these movies are clearcut 100% antiwar, others are more about stories of perseverance through war’s injustices, and many are combinations of these two themes.
Because there is such variation in tone between them, some having much comedy while others being entirely dour, some attempting complete realism while others including poetic and surrealistic elements, I do not see any value in ranking them from “greatest” on down to “least great.” I think their value in transmitting the antiwar sentiment to a viewer and reinforcing it is by seeing them all as a group, and viewing each with thoughtful attention. Each is a facet of that diamond of realization I call antiwar consciousness.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
La Grande Illusion (1937)
The Dawn Patrol (1938)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Paths of Glory (1957)
On the Beach (1959)
Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
The Americanization of Emily (1964)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
King of Hearts (1966)
Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
The Sorrow and the Pity (Vichy collaboration, 1969)
Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Winter Soldier (US Vietnam veterans testify, 1972)
Hearts and Minds (US Vietnam veterans testify, 1974)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Day After (1983)
Come and See (1985)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Apocalypse Now Redux (1979/2001)
Fog of War (Robert McNamara testifies, 2003)
Sir! No Sir! (US Vietnam veterans testify, 2005)
The Railway Man (2013)
The Unknown Known (Donald Rumsfeld testifies, 2013)
They Shall Not Grow Old (WWI veterans testify, 2018)
Final Account (old Nazis testify, 2020)
A much larger list of 75 antiwar films is published by wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_anti-war_films). Some of the movies on that list are in my view primarily good justifications of defensive war, as with Kanal (1956) and The Battle of Algiers (1966), and yes I agree that such good justifications for desperate defensive wars can also awaken one to an overall antiwar realization. But, my list of 31 is more “concentrated,” based on my views of the antiwar genre, and I also realize that I could easily expand my list with equally worthy antiwar movies I did not include.
For me, antiwar movies are focused on showing the harm, the physical and psychological damage and stupidity of war, and are intent to deglorify war and turn the audience against blind patriotism and war-making as solutions to political and international conflicts.
Antiwar movies can have elements of adventure, heroism, “exciting’ violence, stories of personal endurance and self-sacrifice, and comedy, but they cannot be conventionally patriotic, and the center-of-gravity of these films must be fully and overtly the antiwar intent.
All war films use war in an effort to make commercially successful mass entertainment, but true antiwar films are intentionally using film-making art to motivate a mass audience to a deeply antiwar, anti-violence, pro-peace, pro-diplomacy attitude, and to divorce patriotism from unthinking jingoism, belligerence, violence and obedience to militarism.
One epic antiwar film that is missing and I wished existed would be about the Indian Wars in the American West, and in particular about the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 that includes Custer’s Last Stand, entirely from the American Indian point of view.
There have been many, many Indian wars across North America instigated by European colonizers, immigrants and their descendants since 1492, and all those wars were lost by the Native Americans. In the American popular imagination Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 was the greatest of the temporary victories won by American Indians in their fight against the settler-colonialism warring against them.
Most American Western movies featuring conflicts with the American Indians were produced by descendants of the victors of the Indian Wars, and are thus celebrations of white supremacy colonialism, or at best sentimental regrets about the necessary inevitability of industrial civilization’s “progress.”
I was motivated to produce this antiwar movies list and commentary by the thought that it is always important to keep reminding today’s comfortable or prosperous or privileged or indolent or ignorant denizens of capitalist paradises (particularly in the United States, where 7 December 2021 will be commemorated as the 80th anniversary of the its entry into WWII) that sapping out the lifeblood of a national economy to feed a leeching and bloated military, and the technologically amplified bigotry called militarism, is chronically suicidal for the host society. Today we are all witnessing Planet Earth’s reaction — climate change — to our self-induced and suicidal civilizational affliction.
Poets and dreamers see the antiwar attitude as a first step in arriving at a species-wide sense of family for homo sapiens, and then such a grand consensus transforming all our lives for the better, on into future generations. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”