/Answers: The Greatest War Movie Scenes

Dunkirk Trailer

Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. Tying in with the release of Dunkirk, this week’s edition asks “What is the greatest war-related scene in a movie?” As always, we have submissions from the /Film writing crew and podcast team.

Hoai-Tran Bui: The Dunkirk Tracking Shot in Atonement

The World War II evacuation of 400,000 British soldiers off the beaches of Dunkirk, France may seem like an obscure battle to American audiences, but it is one that is greatly remembered in British history — hence Christopher Nolan’s aptly named Dunkirk tackling the topic this weekend.

But American audiences most likely got their first taste of Dunkirk in the historical romance Atonement, Joe Wright’s delicate depiction of a tragic romance torn apart by a young girl’s jealousy and misunderstanding. Falsely accused and sent to prison for raping a girl, Robbie Turner is allowed a reduced sentence if he serves as a soldier during World War II. Wounded, he makes his way on foot across the French countryside to Dunkirk, yearning to return to his lover Cecilia (Keira Knightley). But at Dunkirk, his supposed one chance to return home, he finds a mess of debris and trapped soldiers.

A five-minute unbroken tracking shot revolving around James McAvoy’s pale, sickly face expands to the destruction around him, as soldiers and civilians aimlessly wander the beach, waiting for rescue. The the strings in the score slowly well up to match with a choir of injured soldiers singing in the crowd, and the beachside carnival lays abandoned and besieged. It’s a profound portrait of war that doesn’t focus on its destruction as it much as it does its hopelessness — even as there is no violence or bloodshed.

Jacob Hall: The Battle of Stalingrad in Enemy at the Gates

The Normandy Beach sequence that opens Saving Private Ryan is probably the greatest war sequence put on film, capturing the misery and horror of a battlefield without romanticizing it. It’s a waking nightmare, a creation of sights and sounds no human being should ever have to see. And yet, the D-Day landings have been dramatized on film numerous times over the years. It’s a story Hollywood loves. It’s tale we all know. So for the purposes of this week’s question, I want to look east. I want to look to Enemy at the Gates, the mostly forgotten 2001 film about the Battle of Stalingrad and a game of cat and mouse between a veteran German sniper (Ed Harris) and a fresh young Russian marksman (Jude Law).

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film isn’t a great one, but it’s a very good one, the kind of lavish, melodramatic war picture that Hollywood have made in the ’40s if it was interested in making fictionalized propaganda about the heroes of the eastern front during World War II. The bulk of the movie is a feature-length showdown between Harris’ König and Law’s Vassili, and while the two spend the bulk of the movie looking for each other through the scope of their rifles and never meeting, there is palpable tension between these two foes. Their showdown is the reason the movie works.

Before Vassili learns that he’s a crack shot and begins to battle the Nazi forces as a sniper, he must first survive his first minutes in the war torn city of Stalingrad. Although historians will surely watch the opening sequence of Enemy at the Gates and get a migraine, it’s a fine Hollywood-ization of the many horrors the Soviet army faced when they were unexpectedly attacked by their neighbor to the west (despite a non-aggression pact signed in 1939). The Soviet army was caught by surprise by a superior fighting force with more advanced weaponry and better trained troops. Eventually, the Soviet army would repel the invaders by taking advantage of harsh Russian winters and whittling away at the German resolve. Millions would die first.

First, there would be many ill-fated battles fought by under-equipped troops. It’s hard to imagine the number of unfortunate and horrible things that happen to Vassili in this opening scene happening to a single guy in just a few minutes, but it’s the horrors of the eastern front presented in a quickly digestible nutshell – if you don’t know the history, here’s everything you need to know in a just a few scenes so you can have context for the rest of the story. It’s not the most nuanced war scene in movie history, but there’s no denying that the sequence packs a punch.

Enemy at the Gates remains on of the few Hollywood movies to take place on World War II’s eastern front and for that reason, it’s a must-watch for any war movie buff. It’s not going to replace a good book on the subject, but anyone wondering what the war looked like on the other side of the conflict after watching so many tales of western accomplishments will find a very good movie to sketch the basics.

Ben Pearson: Russian Roulette in The Deer Hunter

If there’s a movie that depicts the intense psychological trauma of war better than Michael Cimino’s 1978 movie The Deer Hunter, I don’t think I’ve seen it. I finally got around to watching this film for the first time a couple of months ago, and the movie’s famous Russian roulette sequences have stayed with me ever since. While Christopher Walken’s Nick later uses the twisted game as a way to make money because he can’t cope with the horrific acts he’s committed, witnessed, and endured, this scene, in which he and Robert De Niro’s Mike are pitted against each other, is a rare moment of success in a film that’s often as bleak a depiction of war as I can recall.

Mike convinces their sadistic jailers to add more bullets to the gun’s chamber, which lowers their chances of survival but ultimately becomes their salvation when he and Nick survive long enough to turn the tables on their captors. It’s a tense moment that leaves some severe psychic scars on its characters, but the brief victory isn’t enough to save the souls of the war’s tortured participants. This isn’t an easy movie to watch, but through its portrait of working class men who were thrown into an impossibly screwed-up situation, I came away from it with a fresh understanding of the horrors of war.

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