Wars aren’t just fought in the trenches. There’s death and bloodshed and pain, but everywhere else, there are people trying to survive in other ways; men and women, whether directly associated with the conflict or not, living quieter lives behind the scenes. This particular angle has been visited by filmmakers for years, with directors ranging from Stanley Kubrick to Quentin Tarantino approaching war from a relatively non-combative perspective. In their films, the battlefield isn’t a battlefield in the traditional sense.
These wartime outliers contrast a long line of Hollywood epics, but are also made up of some of the most memorable war movies ever made. The fighting is secondary, or even nonexistent, and yet they still represent the horrors of it all. They just happen to be different kinds of horror. So, if you’re interested in seeing a more intimate, less explosive portrayal of combat, then keep reading to check out 18 War Movies That Aren’t Focused On The Fighting.
18. Pan’s Labyrinth
In Pan’s Labyrinth, a young girl named Ofelia is venturing into the fantastical unknown, completing tasks appointed to her by a faun who lives underground in a magical labyrinth. What sets this story apart from other fairy tales, however, is the fact that it’s set against the backdrop of war. Her stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal, is hunting, fighting, and killing rebels after the Spanish Civil War, and Ofelia is a helpless observer.
In fact, it may very well be on account of the war itself that Ofelia is so taken by the idea of magic. She’s escaping. Innocent men and women are being murdered, her mother is ill, and misery hangs over her new home like a bladed pendulum. Guillermo Del Toro crafted genuine magic in this film, but not in a traditionally fantastical way. After all, this isn’t Harry Potter, this is horror.
17. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino is as violent a filmmaker as they come. Between Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, he’s proven himself to be a bonafide gore hound. So, when he revealed that he was making his very own war picture, Tarantino devotees everywhere had a general idea as to what sort of direction that film might be headed.
If he were approaching war based on which ones were the bloodiest, he could have tackled the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, where the body count hit around 84,000, or the yearlong Battle of Stalingrad, which resulted in nearly two million casualties. However, even though his gory trademarks were still very much front and center, there were no battlefields to speak of in his entry into the war genre. Inglourious Basterds, though set dead center in German-occupied territory during WWII, ended up focusing on a fictional covert operation to wipe out Adolf Hitler and the rest of his Nazi stooges. The misery of war was complimented by German cinema, David Bowie, and some of Tarantino’s greatest dialogue to date.
16. The Great Escape
One of the more victorious war movies around, The Great Escape gears its focus on hope, despite the odds. What’s more is that this story was based on true events. Led by a ragtag team, including Steve McQueen’s Hilts, Richard Attenborough’s Bartlett, and Charles Bronson’s Danny, among quite a few others, the story itself may seem impossible, but that’s exactly what some of its own characters believed as well. Their goal: to get roughly 250 men out of an enemy prison. Their chance of success: not likely.
Though the escape isn’t without its foibles, adventure and camaraderie take precedence here, which is to be expected from a film showcasing an Ocean’s Eleven-level of Hollywood elite. The Great Escape is the kind of war film that wants you to cheer, so it steers clear of the trenches.
15. Life is Beautiful
For the first half of Life is Beautiful, war feels far away. There are hints of it scattered around neighborhoods, on signs or in conversations, but it’s not until the second half that the war takes center stage. Set against the tragic backdrop of a Nazi concentration camp, Life is Beautiful follows Guido (played by Roberto Benigni, who also directed) trying his best to trick his son into believing that the camps aren’t as bad as they seem. Desperate to keep him from understanding the truth, the camp in which they’re imprisoned becomes a sort of playground, expanding on the idea set up in the first act of the film, where Guido wants nothing more than to make sure his family is happy.
In fact, it’s all the more brutal witnessing the lengths to which Guido is willing to go in order to make one of the most violent moments in history seem like a game. Benigni won Best Director at the Oscars for his work.
14. Apocalypse Now
Some war movies focus on camaraderie and national pride, but Apocalypse Now isn’t like most war movies. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the soldiers who are front and center to the story aren’t embarking on a noble mission for freedom, they’re tasked with killing one of their own men, Colonel Walter Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando).
Kurtz has disappeared during the war in Vietnam, and he is more or less being worshipped by locals, while also losing his mind in the process. Instead of focusing on traditional battles, Apocalypse Now is a horrific visit to war, plunging audiences into “The horror… the horror…” There is no proud flag-waving or exciting pursuits into the unknown. What there is, however, is death, isolation, and pure, unfiltered madness.
13. Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket eventually takes its characters and its audience into war, but the centerpiece is boot camp. Recruits are training to become Marines under the guidance of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a man whose aggression seems to exceed well past the point of necessary. Stanley Kubrick was no stranger to delving into the mental degradation of his characters, and in Full Metal Jacket, that’s never been more evident. He reveals wartime to be a time where men aren’t fighting for honor, but are stripped of their humanity.
The second half of the film moves the recruits overseas into battle, but even then, these aren’t soldiers on screen, these are men who are just as lost as they were before — only now they have guns. During a war that was ripe with intense battles, Kubrick took an approach that was far more mental than physical, but was still just as terrifying.
12. The Deer Hunter
The main characters in The Deer Hunter were living happy enough lives until the war got them. They were friends in a small town, hunting together, attending each other’s weddings, living simple but meaningful lives. However, once the Vietnam War comes around, these friends are submerged into Hell, witnessing a level of atrocity that their small Pennsylvania town could have never prepared them for.
The Vietnam War was arguably one of the most brutal wars in recent history, and director Michael Cimino makes sure to drive that point home with visceral, agonizing details. The Deer Hunter shows that victims of war don’t only exist on the frontline, and even though some of the main characters are alive by the end of the film, when they return home, they’re all mostly dead, some way or another.
11. The Pianist
The Pianist is as much a war movie as it is a road movie. Adrien Brody plays real-life survivor and pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (which earned him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role) during World War II. It chronicles his journey following the destruction of Warsaw Ghetto, separating him from his family and forcing him onto a path of survival, where he is limited to his most raw and basic instincts.
The soldiers on screen aren’t on the frontline, but infiltrating the homes of innocent families, herding them like cattle and murdering them at will. This is all seen from Szpilman’s perspective while he journeys from one perilous place to the next in a sort of hellish Odyssey. Director Roman Polanski has crafted a career out of painting intimate depictions of isolation and despair, and with The Pianist, his themes are at their most haunting and compelling.
Atonement doesn’t start off as a war movie. Though the second half thrusts its three main characters into the belly of the Second World War, the first half revolves around a love affair, a wrongful conviction, and the bitter loss of innocence. At its core, Atonement is a story about growing up seen through the eyes of a precocious young girl named Briony. A natural storyteller, Briony ends up ruining the lives of two people — her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, their local handyman — due somewhat to jealousy, but mostly her immaturity.
By the time the film reaches its second half, war may as well signify loss overall. Briony wants nothing more than to atone for the irrevocable damages she’s caused, but ultimately learns the hard way that some mistakes can never be mended.
9. The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker is a “boots on the ground” war movie, but the soldiers on screen aren’t your typical infantrymen. They make up a very small bomb disposal unit, and every part of their job brings them an inch from death in any given scenario. Stationed in Iraq, the team is being led by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a sort of rebel without a cause. Even though he’s possibly the best man for the job, his reckless sensibilities end up making his team fearful for their own lives.
The Hurt Locker isn’t cut from the same cloth as most depictions of war, but it’s still one of the more tensely realistic ones to date. This is a very personal story. It’s jarring at times and brutal, but also surprisingly intimate.
There are so many layers to Casablanca that summing it up in a nutshell hardly does it justice. In fact, there’s a reason why the Writers Guild of America considers it to be the greatest screenplay of all time. Set towards the beginning of World War II, Casablanca exists far from the battlefield, but is still very much consumed by war. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a popular joint by the name of Rick’s Café Américain, where guests aren’t only made up of folks looking to have a good time, but refugees trying to get their hands on visas in order to escape to the U.S.
When a mysterious woman named Ilsa Lund and a popular resistance leader Victor Laszlo show up, however, Rick’s past comes back to haunt him, and he has no choice but to get his hands dirty once and for all.
Jarhead consists of characters who are obsessed with the idea of fighting in a war, but are never given the chance to do so. The film’s central jarhead, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Anthony Swofford, partially enlists because he wants to serve his country. But mostly because he wants to get in on the action.
Instead, what the film focuses on is disappointment. This escape that he’s embarked is not at all the sort of journey he might have been hoping for, and having experienced the less sensationalized parts of being a Marine, Swofford is ultimately disheartened. There is no genuine satisfaction in this particular pursuit, and despite the nobility of his decision to join, he’s still just a kid trying to fill up time in an otherwise humdrum world.
Very few people on this planet would ever care to sympathize with Adolf Hitler, and though Downfall places him in the lead role, sympathy is far from its goal. In fact, Downfall is merely an intimate look into Hitler’s final days. The end of the war is nigh, and Hitler has locked himself away in a bunker in Berlin, awaiting the end. With his flamboyance and confidence near depleted, this is despair on a complicated level, for obvious reasons. Even among men who anticipated success without question, audiences are given the chance to see their true colors once the clock has nearly finished ticking.
However, as well known as this film may be, most internet users will recognize it best from the YouTube parody videos where alternate subtitles are added for humorous effect. That said, it still deserves to be seen, as its a pretty compelling drama all around.
5. Dr. Strangelove
There are plenty of elements having to do with war that fit in line with Stanley Kubrick’s artistic sensibilities, so it’s no wonder that he’s tackled the genre more than once.
Over twenty years before he made Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb stood as Kubrick’s satirical war picture. It’s a paranoid portrait of wartime, and Kubrick enlisted the the madness of Peter Sellers to convey just how absurd war can actually be. The film takes place mostly at the Pentagon (in the War Room, specifically), where military officials are trying to decide what sort of action they ought to take, while doing their best to avoid resorting to nuclear war — which is harder than it seems.
4. The Reader
The Reader tells an incredibly complicated story about war, secrecy, and failed reparations. When Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) was a boy, he met an older woman named Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet, who won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work), and the two had an affair. After their summer together, she up and disappears, and by the time they reconnect again, it’s in a courtroom.
Michael is observing former Nazis who are on trial for their war crimes, and Hanna ends up being among those being tried for said crimes. It’s as much about deceit as it is about shame shrouding the truth, and following the trials, Michael spends the rest of his life impacted by his experiences with this mysterious woman. In this particular take on the Second World War, the focus isn’t on the soldiers, but individuals who associated themselves with a party that they didn’t truly understand.
3. The English Patient
If movies have told audiences anything, it’s that love stories during war rarely have a chance of going the distance. In The English Patient, this is especially true. Set between two distinct time periods during World War II, the film focuses on Ralph Fiennes’ Laszlo de Almásy. Near the end of the war, he’s been so severely burned as a result of his plane being shot down that he is bedridden and scarred. A nurse (payed by Juliet Binoche) tends to him, and during that time, she learns about his mysterious past, where he was only involved in an affair, but may have had personal ties with the enemy.
It’s a war epic, but it showcases very little fighting. In fact, most of the violence and aggression that happens on screen affects individuals on much smaller scales than war epics are typically accustomed to. Seinfeld has sort of marred this film’s reputation, claiming it’s not nothing more than an epic borefest, but The English Patient deserves better, as does its director, the late Anthony Minghella.
2. The Imitation Game
Who really won the Second World War? Was it the soldiers on the ground? The generals? The politicians? As The Imitation Game explains in its intimate and very un-warlike setting, it was won by a small team of mathematicians. However, more specifically, it was won by Alan Turing, a genius who was ultimately persecuted on account of his sexual orientation.
The Imitation Game follows Turing and his self-appointed team of exceptionally clever men and a woman as they attempt to crack what is said to be an uncrackable Nazi code. Though Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) may seem a bit odd on the surface, his brain is working in ways that few people in his vicinity can comprehend. As a result, he manages to nearly end the war single-handedly — though not without a severe amount of pushback in the process.
1. Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg became a household name with films like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. He propelled his success as a director by wowing audiences through a perfect blend of innovation and inspiration. However, when he released Schindler’s List, Spielberg became so much more than that. Even though he had dabbled in films that sought a certain sense of importance before, Schindler’s List marked a new era. This is when he wholeheartedly earned his due, ranking as one of the greatest directors of all time in the process.
The film is horrific, but true. It’s violent and shocking, but it happened. And though some filmmakers might have rather shied away from the more grotesque imagery, no matter how true it might have been, Spielberg proved his artistic merits by portraying the reality of what Jews in Nazi-occupied territory suffered through. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it was never meant to be. These events happened, and Spielberg was determined to bring the actual horrors to light as honestly (and as graphically) as he felt was necessary.
What other war films chose to take the focus off the brave men and women on the frontlines? Let us know in the comments.
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