Subtitled War Films: International Examinations of Conflict

Come and SeeEver since I was young, I have enjoyed war films. Whether they were about medieval battles, colonial expansion, or one of the world wars, I found them exciting, inspiring, and enthralling. As I got a little older, I began to look past the glory and the heroism portrayed, and tried to find something deeper in them. Any film fan, especially a male, could probably name dozens of war films if asked, and easily provide a list of his favourites. We could ignore the jingoism, the disregard of the suffering, and just enjoy the rousing action, trying to imagine what it might have been like. Whether on land, at sea, or in the air, as long as it was about war, I didn’t care.

In more modern times, the emphasis has changed. The films portrayed the plight of the ordinary soldier; the cruelty of armies; and the effects on civilians, those unwilling participants in events that overwhelmed them. War films got better, conveyed more messages, and acknowledged an audience that no longer believed in false heroics and shallow propaganda. The world was now watching wars as they happened on the TV, no longer in ignorance of the harsh realities. The film industry had to reflect this, and to add ever more realism and accuracy to any war films released. For a long time, the genre stalled. If it had become the everyday, then why would we want to watch a film about it?

Along came a new type of war film, made by young directors with a very different agenda. You will be familiar with these films: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Gallipoli, Blackhawk Down, and many more. They took us into the action like never before; asked questions about the ethics, even showed us atrocities and men on the edge of insanity. They became less partisan films, about events and with more conscience. But they were all in English. What of the other countries involved in wars? Did their film industries reflect the same progress and offer similar viewing experiences? The answer is that they did, and in this article I would like to suggest some excellent war films with an alternative view to that with which we have become familiar. These films are frequently about conflicts rarely covered by western cinema… and they’re usually not in English!

The Red and The White (1967)

This Hungarian film from Miklos Janckso deals with the involvement of Hungarian volunteers in the Russian Civil War in 1919. They are fighting on the side of the Reds, against the former Tsarist White Army, hence the title. The film has little structure, and avoids the usual group of protagonists seen in most movies within the war genre. Instead, it is often confusing, using unusual camera angles, long-shots, and filming on wide vistas. Like war itself, it does not make for easy or comfortable viewing.

The Red and The White is memorable for its use of panoramic filming and sharp black and white photography, but also for set-pieces that stay in the mind long after the movie ends. There are sweeping battle scenes, executions, rape, and the whole terror of war is brilliantly portrayed. Legions of cavalry appear as if out of the ground itself. Panicking men run shirtless across the steppes and into rivers. If you think that you have seen it all, this incredible film will make you realise you haven’t.

Come and See (1985)

I should start by saying that I consider this to be one of the best films ever made, on any subject.

If I did lists, and I do not, it would certainly be in the top three. I watched it at the cinema thirty years ago, and have never forgotten the impact that it had on me. I have seen it again since on DVD, and it has lost none of its power. Made by Russian director Elem Klimov. It deals with the experiences of youngsters trying to become partisans during the German occupation of Belarus after the invasion in 1941. The feel of the period is so accurate that at times it feels like watching a documentary.

Come and See is disturbing throughout and offers no happy endings. The atrocities committed by the Germans are not avoided, and as in many Russian films, they are portrayed as little more than callous beasts. When you realise that it is based partly on real events, this is perhaps understandable, but this is not a conventional war film. It is a film about childhood experiences of the inhumanity of war, and what seeing the previously unimaginable can do to a mind. Many of the scenes are surreal and dream-like, and the main character of Florya, portrayed with incredible emotion by Aleksey Kravchenko, has a haunting, other-worldly screen presence. I will not add more, to avoid spoilers, but I will say that this is a film serious viewers will never forget. It will stay with you, uncomfortably, throughout your life.

The term ‘Masterpiece’ is used all too freely these days. It is applied to films about Batman, or others about the angst of American relationships in modern California. Forget all that – this film re-establishes the true meaning of the word.

Talvisota (1989)

Finland is not the first country that springs to mind when you think about World Cinema. But you might be surprised at how good their war films are. The war between Russia and Finland started just after the Second World War, and flared up once again after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941. The short war of 1939 was often called ‘The Winter War’, and was in response to the Soviet invasion of southern Finland, in an attempt to capture territory that the Russians had always considered to be part of their country.

This film, directed by Pekka Parikka, looks at the experiences of Finnish reservists called up to fight the Red Army on the Karelia front. Despite its focus on a small unit, and particularly on two brothers, the film does not lack scope. There is good character development, and we see these brothers from before the action, preparing to leave their home village, through to the fighting in the trenches where they are outnumbered against the Russians. It is satisfyingly authentic throughout, from the weapons used to the sounds of battle and the soldiers’ weary return on leave, all the way to a home where they feel that their families no longer understand them.

This is always a grim and realistic depiction of the hardships of war and the terrors of battle, both for the hard-pressed Finns and their Russian adversaries; conscript soldiers forced forward into suicidal, hand-to hand-fighting against a stubborn and defiant enemy. This is a war film in every sense, and one for any fan of the genre. It is also far better than many of the productions from English-speaking countries at the time.

Stalingrad (1993)

Not to be confused with earlier features or the more recent Russian film, this German production from Joseph Vilsmaier takes you into the heart of the city and the thick of the action. Most of us are aware of the epic battle in WW2 that cost the lives of over 200,000 German soldiers and turned the tide of the war in the east. Lasting from August 1942, until eventual Soviet victory in February 1943, the soldiers of both sides endured the privations of a harsh Russian winter, a lack of supplies, and near starvation.

The film follows one German unit, transferred from a peaceful life on the Italian front to the harsh reality of total war in Russia. They are thrown into street fighting in the industrial rubble that is all that remains of the city. Always palpably authentic, from the uniforms to the locations, the action is relentless and wearing. This is enhanced by the cast. Unknown to viewers outside Germany, with none particularly handsome or memorable, it has the sense of a dramatised documentary.

The cast playing the Russians are equally realistic, and most clichés, including love interests and undue sentimentality, are avoided. The result is a complete war film, focusing on the action, the terror, and the effects of the weather. There are no heroics, and no last-minute solutions or escapes. It is what it was, plain and simple.

The Brotherhood of War (2004)

There have been several films made about the war in Korea. This civil war, between the north and south of that country, attracted foreign intervention from both sides and the United Nations sent soldiers from many countries to assist the south against the communists. It lasted for three years from 1950, and was eventually settled by a shaky peace treaty, the legacy of which still surfaces in the problems that continue in the country today.

This South Korean epic was the biggest-budget film made up to then in the country, and it shows.

The story is about two brothers called up to serve in the army. They go off to the front, and experience the realities of war, including the shooting of prisoners, and become involved in crucial battles. The plot becomes more involved when one brother is captured and made to fight for the North. His sibling believes him to be dead, but when he hears rumours that he is still alive and fighting for the other side, he goes back into service intending to find his brother.

In the climactic battle that follows, the brothers are pitted against each other and one must make the ultimate sacrifice, to save the other. This is a sprawling saga, and pulls no punches in its depiction of the fighting in its glorious set piece battles. Although it feels old-fashioned for a film made in 2004, this works in its favour, as the period feel of the 1950s is constant throughout. This should be considered alongside any classic war film, and it is a must-see for any fan of the genre.

Assembly (2007)

This Chinese film follows an officer during the civil war between the communists and nationalists during the late 1940s. It examines the themes of loyalty and companionship during war, and also delivers a strong anti-war message. The Assembly of the title relates to a bugle call that is central to the story.

Captain Gu leads his men to capture a town, and in the aftermath is imprisoned and wrongly accused of incompetence. When the situation deteriorates, he is sent back to the front with the last survivors of his unit. He is tasked to defend an old mine and told that he must not retreat until he hears the bugle call for assembly.

After almost being overwhelmed by the enemy in desperate fighting, one of the younger officers claims to have heard the bugle call and suggests that they should retreat. But Gu has not heard the signal so insists that they fight on. Waking up in hospital some time later, Gu is horrified to discover that all his men have been killed, and that he is the only survivor. He feels that he betrayed them, and finds it hard to live with the fact that he didn’t die with his soldiers. He also has to face the derision of his colleagues, who treat him like a deserter and will not believe that he also fought bravely.

In a search for redemption, he volunteers to fight with the Chinese Army in the war in Korea where they are assisting the forces of the North. He becomes a private soldier, and showing no regard for his own safety is soon wounded again and sent back from the front. After the war he sets out on a personal journey back to the old mine where it all began. Determined to find the remains of his colleagues, he lives at the mine, working away with pick and shovel until he uncovers evidence of the battle that took place, and what is left of his comrades. During this time he encounters the former bugler of the regiment, who tells him that the assembly call was never sounded that day. He manages to find the body of one man but is still unhappy, despite the knowledge that the bugle call was never played that morning. The film moves forward many years, when an irrigation project uncovers the bodies of the remaining men. A monument is built to them, and Gu eventually finds the redemption he sought.

The City of Life and Death (2009)

China again, this time a film about the Japanese invasion of that country in the 1930s, and the long war that followed. When the Japanese army captured the city of Nanking, what followed is often described as ‘The Rape of Nanking’. The Japanese embarked on an orgy of violence. They killed thousands of civilians, murdered prisoners of war and raped and killed women and children too. It is one of history’s darkest episodes, and this chilling film from director Lu Chuan spares the viewer nothing. Filmed in black and white, adding to the period feel, it is exquisitely shot.

The City of Life and Death looks at events from both sides, following Chinese soldiers holding out in the ruins, as well as a Japanese officer and his men, intent on hunting them down. In the middle of all this carnage, a German Nazi and local businessman, John Rabe, tries to use his influence with the Japanese to establish a safe zone for refugees where they can escape the worst excesses of the occupation. But Rabe is unable to keep the Japanese out, and they enter his safe zone to rape and molest women, and seize anyone they are suspicious of. Rabe is eventually told to return to Germany due to diplomatic issues raised by his support of the Chinese. With him gone, the inhabitants of the zone are rounded up. All the men are considered to be soldiers and are massacred by the Japanese in a haunting scene.

This is not an easy watch. The atmosphere is tense at all times, and the killings and atrocities are shown with no punches pulled. It is a telling indictment of the conduct of the Japanese army in that city, and an immensely powerful and disturbing experience.

During the six weeks that these events took place, over 300,000 Chinese people were killed. Half of the population of the city. This film is a fitting tribute to their suffering.

Lebanon (2009)

Also released in 2009, this Israeli film tells the story of a tank crew during the first war with Lebanon in 1982. What immediately sets this film apart is the fact that almost all the action takes place inside the tank. We see what they see, through the cramped viewing slits, gun-sights, and night-vision equipment. This could have placed serious limitations on the film but instead has the opposite effect, bringing a new perspective to the war film and putting us inside the action as never before. The claustrophobic setting suits the confusion of war all too well, and the film won The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, going on to much acclaim elsewhere.

There are some war film stereotypes. The brave commander, the inexperienced and frightened new boy, and the Syrian prisoner, kept captive inside the vehicle. We get a snapshot of the harsh conflict when a Lebanese Christian militiaman arrives, wanting to torture and interrogate the prisoner.

However, this film is more about the confines, the sudden and unexpected fire-fights, unreliable machinery, and the comradeship of men forced together in a tiny space.

The situation generates real tension and eschews heroism and bravado for genuine emotion, portraying fear and confusion as the crew undertake their mission. I cannot recall anything similar, except perhaps some scenes in the submarine epic Das Boot. I would recommend it without hesitation, as one of the most unusual war films you will see.

There you have seven international war films, in other languages, using subtitles. Please avoid any of the dubbed versions, as you will lose the impact of them completely. Work a bit harder, stick with them, and enjoy some of the finest examples of the war film ever made. If you have never seen any of them, please explore the list. There is much to discover.

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

15 thoughts on “Subtitled War Films: International Examinations of Conflict

  1. After 2007’s excellent documentary “Nanking,” I found it hard to swallow the fictionalized “City of Life and Death,” a sentimental vulgarization of the appalling massacre of 300,000 Chinese at the hands of the Japanese following the invasion of Nanking in December of 1937. Director Lu Chan, whose previous credits include the memorable “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol,” takes a mendaciously Spielbergian approach to his material, transforming heartbreak into swill as surely as Spielberg did in “Schindler’s List.” While his reconstruction and destruction of the city is true to history, his direction resembles a gang war in the favelas of Sao Paolo more than an episode in the second Sino-Japanese War, It is also difficult to be moved by the dramatic re-enactment of mass murder when the tragedy of the war dead still cries out from the past. There are hellish images on display, a sea of slaughtered refugees following the shooting, burning, drowning, and live burial of all who move, but the fictions that cradle the dead are such an insult to their memory that the film itself becomes an object of moral outrage. Most offensive is the fabrication of a Japanese soldier as the movie’s hero. Kadokawa falls in love with the prostitute who has deflowered him and subsequently develops a conscience that results in his freeing two condemned prisoners of war in a climactic scene that is false, maudlin, and an affront to the 300,000 dead, all but a handful of which are shoveled into the earth anonymously. In this whole mess, the one scene worthy of attention is the ritualistic celebration of conquest in which the Japanese soldiers do a little dance to a big drum. “City of Life and Death” is a big, impressively mounted production that is riddled with termites and worms. Beneath its veneer of historical outrage is a soft parade of good Nazis, even better Japanese officers, and 100 noble Chinese women who mawkishly volunteer as prostitutes in hopes of calming the blood lust of their captors. The latter is particularly malicious in its rewriting of history. The truth was that, after the gang rape and murders of 20,000 females, some as young as ten years old, it was agreed to supply the Japanese army with 100 Chinese prostitutes. When only 21 could be found, the Japanese attempted to press 79 sexual innocents into service, but were prevented by the efforts of an American woman. “The City of Life and Death” may be a fresco of merciless carnage, but most of it is faceless, focusing on epic scenes of slaughter and saving the empathetic moments for characters who exist only in the movies.

    • Hi Bill, an excellent comment, well-informed as always, and certainly historically accurate. I have seen a lot of documentaries about Nanking too, and many more about the Holocaust. I accept the Spielberg reference completely. Whether we like it or not, films like ‘City’, and ‘Shindler’s List’ do at least bring some of the horrors of these times to the sensibilities of a new generation, who would otherwise be unlikely to bother with what they regard as ‘boring history’ in many cases.
      I agree with what you say in many respects, but there are few films that even bother to address these issues, so something is better than nothing? Maybe not.
      Did you like any of the others? I would be interested to know.
      Hope all’s well down in Lima. Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Great stuff, Pete. I’m eager to see several of these. I distinctly remember having an epiphany while watching, of all things, The Americanization of Emily, which has none of the reality of war found in these selections, but does take the idea of traditional heroism found in most war films and turns it on its head. Movies that show the brutality of war do a great service, I think. Thanks for a very enlightening journey through some of the better ones.

    • Thanks Jon. I do tell almost everyone I know to watch ‘Come and See’. It is a lot like hypnosis, in that it cannot be fully removed from your thoughts. I saw ‘Emily’ a long time ago. I recall James Garner, but not much else. If you have limited time, and have to choose, then I would also suggest ‘City of Life and Death’. The film-making displayed there is first-rate.
      Best wishes from England. Pete.

  3. Brilliant article Pete, I love Come and See in particular, it’s an incredible film and also the Red and the White. A couple I haven’t seen so will look forward to watching them. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Best wishes, Jane

  4. These all look like excellent films, especially “Come and See.” I don’t have anything even remotely like them in my foreign language collection. I do have three films that are war-related, however: Paul Verhoeven’s “Soldaat van Oranje” (“Soldier of Orange”) and “Zwartboek” (“Black Book”), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” (“A Very Long Engagement”). One of my favorite English language war films is “Enemy at the Gates,” which is sort of like the Russian version of “American Sniper.” The film depicts the Battle of Stalingrad on a grand scale before it focuses on Vasily Zaytsev, played by Jude Law, and the German officer, played by Ed Harris, whose mission it is to take him out. I would be particularly interested in watching “Stalingrad” to get a non-Hollywood take on this particular battle.

    • Thanks for your comment David. I have all the other war films you mention on DVD, and I actually like the much-maligned ‘Enemy at The Gates’, despite the critical lashing it received. The same goes for ‘Black Book’. And ‘Soldier of Orange’ seems to be little-known outside Europe, so I am pleased that you have seen it. I could have done quite a few posts on this subject, and included some excellent French films of course. I might e-mail you about it!
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

      • Interestingly, on RottenTomatoes, the critical score for “Enemy at the Gates” is 54%, but the audience score is much higher at 83%. I’m glad you like the film. I mentioned “Enemy at the Gates” in my comments because it tied in with your review of “Stalingrad.” I always enjoy reading your excellent contributions to Curnblog, and look forward to more posts in the future.

  5. This is a fine examination of the genre, Pete, making for your usual good read. I have to say, I completely and sadly agree with your assessment of the state of the word “masterpiece,” which is thrown around these days like “genius” when evaluating movies or artistic talent. These words should be relegated to the greats, which are few in number. I think you suggest that point very astutely. Good piece.

  6. Pingback: Film articles: Another one | beetleypete

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