Realistic War Films?

A few months ago I had a nice long talk with a smart high-ranking, well-published (ex-) military officer who focuses on soldier psychological issues.  He said most war movies aren’t at all realistic.  When I pressed him for a realistic film, he offered Catch-22, at least for emotional realism.  This doesn’t appear on any of the four lists of most realistic war films I found in a quick search (here, here, here, here), which agree only modestly with each other.

The supposedly realistic Hurt Locker is favored to win Best Picture tomorrow, but some complain about its realism:

Many in the military say “Hurt Locker” is plagued by unforgivable inaccuracies that make the most critically acclaimed Iraq war film to date more a Hollywood fantasy than the searingly realistic rendition that civilians take it for. … To those who were there, Iraq is real life. And they’re very sensitive — some would say overly so — when their war is portrayed via a central character who is a reckless rogue. … “When he puts a hood on like Eminem and starts roving outside the wire, it’s ridiculous.”

Is it even possible to make and sell a realistic war movie?  The experience of war varies enormously across wars, battles, roles, moments, etc., and most of that is insufferably slow and boring.  Since war is so powerfully symbolic, and so many care about those symbols, it seems many would complain about most any emotionally compelling war film, even if exactly accurate on a particular event.

What exactly could it mean for a film to be “realistic”?  Since few are entertained by watching random samples of real life, entertaining films must select strongly from the space of actual and possible events.  One might allow a movie any initial setting, no matter how strange, and call it realistic if events depicted that were typical conditional on that setting.  But then how long does the movie get to “set the scene,” after which we start to evaluate its realism?  And for how many settings could realistic behavior given that setting be entertaining?

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  • Rob

    For some wider perspective than those lists reflect: Bruno Dumont’s Flanders, Nick Broomfied’s The Battle for Haditha, and, whose hallucinatory realism makes “Apocalypse Now” seem like cotton candy, Elem Klemov’s Come and See.

    • Eric

      Well said Rob. “Come and See” is a real eye-opener – seeing how civilians tried to survive as the “front” swept through their locale – as seen through the eyes of one barely able to lift a rifle. There is no “when the battle is over” because it won’t be over for heaven knows how long.

      Given your high rating of “Come and See,” I will respect your other recommendations and have a look.

  • Steve

    Even T.V. shows where they simply film people’s lives for a few month aren’t considered “real” by most people.

    I think the key here is that the setting has to be conducive to what you want reality to be, that way the movie can have the moral you want. Tons of people have told me The Hurt Locker is apolitical, yet they all happen to be anti-war.

  • Dylan

    The Hurt Locker is universally reviled by 100% of my fellow Army lieutenants who have seen it, sample size of around six. The universal complaint is that they go out in Baghdad with one vehicle – you’ll never see fewer than three, and four is the minimum in 98% of units.

    A realistic war movie would be a documentary. We know how exciting and popular those are.

  • Nanonymous

    It’s not like the word “realistic” suddenly takes on a new meaning when the subject is war as opposed to gangs, broken heart or madness. So if your question is whether it is possible to make realistic movie then the answer is yes (and the answer to the “sell” part is “it depends”). If your question is how to evaluate whether the movie is realistic or not, then it should be obvious that the best evaluators will be people with close/identical experience and even then there will always be a distribution, so, in the absence of a good experiment, one may as well simply take majority judgment on what is “real” (and maybe apply some correction afterward). And in regard to those lists, I find very few of the movies there to be realistic. The Thin Red Line, yes. Other than that, I second Come and See and would also suggest Stalingrad (1993, German). My impression of what war is like is partly based on many conversations with my grandparents (WWII) and few classmates (Afghanistan) – with the rest, as usual, being personal biases of all kinds. Flying flesh and cascades of blood (Saving The Private Ryan) =/= realistic.

  • Dylan
  • bruce

    Das Booty.

    It is strange that TV doesn’t use more real combat footage. Edited for the flashy bits, of course; but a shot of a routine Vietnam ‘Mad Minute’ would have lots of son et lumiere. It’s like science fiction TV not using NASA footage. Missing an easy win.

  • As a finn I want to suggest that finnish war movies about the WWII might be rather realistic. At least there has been somewhat religious zeal to please the soldiers that fought the war. Maybe that may have lead to keeping some negative things untold, but at least the feel of the war has to be right so that veterans approve.

    I assume that veterans want and recognize realistic war movies, then movies made for populations having a lot of veterans would probably be more realistic. Like finnish 1955 movie Tuntematon Sotilas. Lack of plot is probably something that most realistic war movies suffer from.

  • Andrew

    One thing I really liked about Band of Brothers is that it is the only war movie I’ve seen that accurately captured the complex internal social and cultural dynamics of the US Army as I remember it. Real militaries don’t have heroes and villains, they just have average folk trying to muddle their way through as best they can.

    I’m sure this is highly contextual. Different theaters have different experiences. My own perspective was as part of a light infantry company very similar to Easy Company in Band of Brothers, so it is less surprising that I might identify the accuracy of that depiction; there are many unique subcultures within the military.

  • tim

    HBO’s Generation Kill is considered a very realistic portrayal of the invasion of Iraq. One of the primary consultants was a Marine who played himself in the show. It illustrates the reason why war films usually aren’t that realistic, too: long, boring stretches of nothing punctuated by moments of hyperventilating terror in which nobody gets hurt. Show that over and over and audiences get either bored or numb.

  • Alien was pretty realistic for showing that exotic infections are often more powerful killers than arrows or cannonballs. Most war movies don’t focus at all on the psychology of disease and being infected, but historically it was a big deal.

  • cournot

    Among films in English, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron is often overlooked and probably a more accurate slice of war on the Eastern Front than Enemy at the Gates.

  • Charles

    I agree with Tim, I found Generation Kill realistic (OK, I’ve never been a soldier, so I have no idea what constitutes realistic), in that it is about 5% real danger, peril and action and 95% boredom.

    Plus there are the ‘office politics’ of who likes what commander etc, the bureaucracy of the US army, constant accidents and ineptitude (eg dropping a 500lb bomb on a small farmer’s hut killing 5 innocent people because the soldiers misheard each other over the radio).

    I found the above combination much more believable than the traditional 95% action 5% dialogue war movie. Plus, Generation Kill was based on a journalist’s book of the first 100 days of the war, which makes it 10 times more realistic than any Hollywood screenplay.

  • Laura

    Having never been in a war, I can’t be certain of how ‘realistic’ it is, but “Deutschland Bleiche Mutter,” certainly seems to give a good representation of a German civilian’s perspective in WWII. I am a Jew, and I still found this to be one of the most depressing war movies I’ve ever seen, perhaps because of its realism.

  • Daublin

    An accurate and watchable film will accurately portray a few of the emotional and tactical issues and then use fluff to fill in the rest. That way, the most memorable things portrayed are accurate. The inaccurate parts are in the fluff.

    This includes emotional issues. It would be a real community service to find out what our soldiers are really facing and how they really deal with. Then, portray a piece of that.

    Accurate film is entirely sensible, just like an accurate lecture or accurate blog article is sensible. Neither one portrays every detail. However, it can at least get it right for its most important points.

  • LetUsHavePeace

    The “complaints” about “Hurt Locker” were technical observations about the B.S. being portrayed in terms of how EOD people actually defuse ordnance. Hint: they do NOT use a pair of pliers. There are no generalities to be made about “war”; the subject does not exist. The first questions anyone who is seriously honest about their military experience will answer are Which war? Which sector? When? How close to the front lines? Which unit? Who was in charge? Robin’s friend may not have answered these questions, or they may not have been asked; but without knowing them, there is very little to be said and certainly no justification for all the blather about “our” soldiers. Without the answers to those questions we are all in the realm of the Lone Ranger-Tonto joke; and we have yet another reminder of why the punch line (“What you mean, ‘we’?”) should be engraved at the top of the black/white board in every classroom. There is no “common” experience about getting shot at. What war movies have in common is that they all use dummy ammunition and exploding gasoline bombs – the one thing never used in any war – and lots and lots of music; and all of them exaggerate grotesquely how much anyone actually knows about what is going on. In that sense, Yossarian’s monologues do come closer to poetic truth that anything with splatter.

  • bellisaurius

    An interesting side question would be something along the line of “what performance is the most like real life?” (waiting for godot, perhaps?)The military seemed like that, but more so; the boredom more intense, the excitement a bit higher.

  • Carl Shulman
  • My father was a fireman and he worked a lot with the police department and he said the only realistic cop show was “Barney Miller”.

    As far as the military (he fought in WWII), he said the only realistic military character on TV or in movies was Sargent Cater in Gomer Pyle.

    BTW I assume that the CIA is much like “Barney Miller” (or BTW like your office) also.

  • Jack Mackerel

    Actually, that was the only complaint I’ve heard about The Hurt Locker – that they didn’t have an escort. But the main character is supposed to be a reckless wannabe, and his squad members hate him for it, not to mention when he dons the hoodie and runs around looking ridiculous, that scene was meant to be ridiculous – he doesn’t get anything from following the man home, and he gets in trouble as soon as he comes back.

  • pg 2010

    —Speaking of realism —let’s have a little realistic and unflinching
    light on the awesome, indeed staggering, genocidal legacy
    of Hollywood’s ‘fave’ mass market paradise —ACROSS the Pacific.

    70 million exterminated in ‘peacetime’ unoutted and utterly unanswered for —-FACT.

    All this esp. galling on this, the 60th Anniversary of the epic
    and STILL unfolding —-and once again ‘mysteriously overlooked’

    Hollywood covers for Red China —plain and simple
    —NOW —deal with it!