War Movie Themes

Monday, April 4 by Lee Grayson

War movie themes involve a group of plot points that follow the same pattern as literature. The old saying, "War is Hell!" is apparent in movies about war, but it doesn't stop movie producers and script writers from putting together some interesting film treatments of war. Some of the most famous films deal with battles and arm-to-arm conflict, but these can also be grouped around a few central themes. Some films overlap themes, while other movie plots center on only one overall war theme. 

  1. Love in the Time of War. "A Farewell to Arms," "The English Patient" and "To Be or Not to Be" all have plot lines that revolve around finding love during the time of war. Love is difficult to find in times of peace, but adding true love to a war movie theme creates a film experience that film promoters will appeal to both men and women filmgoers. 
  2. Man Against Man. This theme is used for Westerns, adventure and war movie themes. One person involved in the war, even on the sidelines, takes on the powers that be to fight the evil. "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Casablanca" focus on the actions of one man in dealing with war, even though other characters have significant roles to play in the film. Each of the main characters takes a personal interest in fighting the enemy and the audience is given a first-hand look at the dangers they face and how they handle the stress.
  3. Battling Against All Odds. "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" traces a group of prisoners forced to labor constructing a bridge for the enemy to use to fight against the prisoner's own homeland. Despite the controls placed over the construction, the prisoners end up destroying the bridge and defeating the enemy. "Saving Private Ryan" also incorporates the themes of taking an impossible task and completing it with honor. The soldiers accepting the duty to bring Private Ryan away from the warfront are themselves fighting against all odds to bring him back safely. 
  4. The Futility of War. Some war movie themes focus on the absolute futility of war. Even though the plot line follows the action, the overall theme is that war is an absolutely ridiculous way to solve world issues. "Apocalypse Now" is a good example of a film built around the nonsensical reasoning of fighting. Charlie Chaplin's film the "great Dictator," filmed in 1940, brought this theme home so clearly, that people in the U.S. were accusing him of supporting fascist causes in Europe. Chaplin was so insulted that he left the country and refused to return for decades. 
  5. Human Destruction. "The Deer Hunter" and "All Quiet on the Western Front," as well as "The Hurt Locker," all deal with the loss of human life and the destruction of the human spirit as a result of war experiences. The war action in many war movies using this theme shows the war in the form of flashbacks. The unfortunate side of the films using this theme deals with the futility that the person will again be whole. War has damaged the character beyond repair. He may be able to cope with everyday living, but he'll never be the same as he was before the war experience. 
  6. The Group as Heroes. The scripts for the war movies "Glory," "Platoon," "The Big Red One" and "The Great Escape" build a relationship between the audience and a band of fighting men so that when the film is over, the focus is on the heroic actions of these fighting men. This theme fights against the solo hero theme and asks the audience to accept that the battle or small war depicted in the film could only have been one by the actions of the entire group, even when one or two men stand out in a scene or two. 
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