The Reel Dad's top seven visual takes on war


Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" includes a graphic and violent depiction of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

Contributed Photo / Contributed Photo

“1917” uses a unique visual language to tell its personal tale of heroism during World War I. Over the years, many films about war have relied on visual choices. Here are seven of my favorites.

“Saving Private Ryan” (1998): Steven Spielberg wins a well-deserved Best Director Oscar for reinventing how Hollywood usually films intense scenes of battle. In his high-voltage opening to this tale of D-Day, Spielberg invents a new visual language that dares to intensify the pain that wars can create. While the rest of the film may return to a more conventional approach, Spielberg’s opening sets a tone that will influence many directors, including how Sam Mendes approaches “1917.”

“A Bridge Too Far” (1977): Some 21 years earlier, Richard Attenborough reaches beyond the Hollywood conventions of that time to create a new visual approach to tell this story of the heroics involved in Operation Market Garden during World War II. By focusing on the people impacted by war, Attenborough ignores the conventional ways to film explosions and brigades to focus on the personal tragedies that war can create.

“Black Hawk Down” (2001): In the first year of the new century, director Ridley Scott offers a war film where people are incidental. Instead of letting us get to know the characters, this examination of the 1993 raid on Mogadishu by the United States focuses on the machinery of war, the details of battle, without diluting the intricacies with sentiment. As if creating a documentary, Scott uses narrative film to explain what it takes for war to progress.

“The Longest Day” (1962): With amazing detail, director Kenneth Annakin recreates the preparation for and the actual landing of allied forces at Normandy in June 1944 at a most critical point in World War II. Under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the allies knew this was their one chance to pierce the German stronghold in Europe, and begin to overcome the huge obstacles to turning the tide of the war. Annakin’s camera brings all the action to life in vivid black-and-white.

“Platoon” (1986): While the scars of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war are still fresh, director Oliver Stone uses a stylized visual approach to examine the tragedy of this conflict in his Oscar-winning exploration. The emphasis here is on the victims, those people directly impacted by war, as well as those immediately involved. By making us see how ugly war can become, Stone makes a plea for people to consider the impact before declaring the intent.

“Apocalypse Now” (1979): After taking his camera inside the world of organized crime in “The Godfather,” director Francis Ford Coppola examines the reasons people and countries go to war in this intense tale inspired by Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Using the Vietnam War as the background, Coppola’s tale becomes less a study of the causes that nations may pursue as it is a piercing look at the personal ambitions that war can exploit.

“M*A*S*H” (1970): While we may immediately remember the television version, this story of a mobile hospital during the Korean conflict first comes to the big screen under the irreverent direction of Robert Altman. With little regard for Hollywood traditions for films about war, Altman lets the blood fly and the profanity abound in a humorous yet horrific tale of the impact of war on people simply trying to do a day’s work. To save lives.

Yes, moviemakers continue to find new visual ways to tell stories of war they believe audiences need to absorb. Thank goodness.