Capturing the Horror of War in Film

War is Hell, but the spectacle of battle makes for some exciting cinema.

Come And See
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There is absolutely nothing fun about war. In the movies, though, the cinematic spectacle of battle is exciting, thrilling, and often an impressive sight to behold. And while many films have tried to portray war as anything but glamorous, the safety net of seeing combat presented through the form of a motion picture allows us to enjoy the carnage on a visceral level. You remember the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, right? For all the brutality on display, it’s also a brilliant piece of filmmaking that boasts the same morbid thrills that action movies and splatter fare provide.
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Still, what constitutes a “war film” is debatable. In some movies, the war itself is a backdrop to another story which features little to no combat sequences. Fact-based documentaries and newsreels about war also count by some people’s definition, and I’d argue that those are the most chillingly effective as the real-life element hits harder. For this piece, though, I’ll be referring to dramatized or fictionalized war movies where combat is a central component of the film.

In the following essay by The Discarded Image, Julian Palmer looks at realism in war movies, focusing on films such as Saving Private RyanPlatoonThe Hurt Locker, and Redacted, and the “perverse” thrills they provide through action and suspense.

As this excellent essay notes, even filmmakers who’ve approached war films with the most respectful of intentions still fail to capture the true essence of battle. Not only are the films he mentioned prime examples of how cinema has turned combat into a thrill ride, but sometimes they’re also beautiful to look at. As the video highlights, for some filmmakers this visual tapestry is an intentional artistic statement. However, the nature of war movies as populist entertainment means that filmmakers do set out to make them as easy to digest as possible. Prettiness helps to accomplish this.

We also must acknowledge that these movies do take some liberties with historical accuracy. By doing that, the veil of realism is further stripped away and it’s easier to enjoy these films without feeling guilty for doing so. Rewriting history is an economic necessity for some movies, but some viewers might not fully appreciate the magnitude of the horror of the “true events” when said events have been fabricated by filmmakers.

That’s not to say war movies can’t be upsetting, though. I’ve balled my eyes out over many of them, but that’s usually because I’ve been suckered in by their emotional cues. Strong characters, compelling emotional performances, and a John Williams score can go a long way. But do these aspects stylize our interpretation of war?

The reality is that unless you’ve experienced battle first-hand, it’s impossible to know what war is really like. Depicting accurate realism might not be possible, but some movies have employed effective filmic techniques that make us question our enjoyment of this genre.

This video essay from Ask Clauswitz looks at how Elim Klimov‘s Come and See takes a different approach to achieve maximum impact. The end result is one of the best anti-war films ever made.

The film follows a teenage boy over a few days as he joins up with a fighting unit to take on invading Nazi forces during World War II. By centering the story around someone who shouldn’t be involved in combat, Come and See becomes a different kind of war movie — one which focuses on the loss of innocence and how war doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the plight of civilians.

The first paragraph of Roger Ebert‘s review sums up the harrowing power of the film in a nutshell:

“It’s said that you can’t make an effective anti-war film because war by its nature is exciting, and the end of the film belongs to the survivors. No one would ever make the mistake of saying that about Elem Klimov’s ‘Come and See.’ This 1985 film from Russia is one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead.”

As the video essay notes, Come and See captures that feeling of horror by employing horror movie techniques. The idea that what we don’t see is scarier than what we do see. German soldiers are portrayed as almost mythic and ghost-like. They dwell in the fog and exemplify that fear of the unknown. Civilians rarely see the opposing army in war, but they do feel their wrath.

Come and See is also a somber movie, despite the carnage that surrounds the child protagonist and the other residents of his village. The action-packed thrills that are synonymous with the genre aren’t thrilling. There are explosions and gunfire, but the “thrills” are intentionally dour and the cinematography is bleak and dull. The movie is out to punish the viewer. This adds a feeling of hopeless, as we know it’s only a matter of time before innocent people are slaughtered by an enemy they can’t see coming. I think it’s easier to empathize with a war movie like this one because it focuses on the persecution of everyday people.

Klimov co-wrote the screenplay with Ales Adamovich, who aided in his country’s war effort as a teenager. The events clearly took their toll on him and Come and See was made to document evidence of the nature of war and make a rallying call for peace. Maybe movies will never truly capture the horror of combat as it really is on the battlefield, but Come and See is by far the most horrifying portrayal of war you’re ever likely to see.

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