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From Spike Lee to Steven Spielberg: The 10 best war films available on Netflix

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead, across your dreams in pale battalions go, say not soft things as other men have said, that you’ll remember.” – Charles Sorley

British war poet Wilfrid Wilson Owen once said: “My subject is War and the pity of War. the poetry is in the pity.” It is a deeply layered statement as one is forced to think about whether one should really pity war or should they condemn it. Standing at the crossroads of humanity where we are advancing painfully slowly towards an apocalyptic ending, the world is ravaged by wars: political, economic, psychological and more. Every day we wake up to the news bites about innocent civilians being bombed or peaceful protesters mysteriously disappearing. The world is dystopic, our futures uncertain. Humanity is at war with itself and it mirrors the older centuries. 

The world has seen mass destruction, genocide and more, especially during the two Great Wars, ranging from 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945. The generations of people that lived through the war were left traumatised, broken and emotionally bereft of feelings. Handing down the trauma to younger generations, these members of the lost generation produced brilliant pieces of poetry, artwork, prose and more that recounted their harrowing experiences as well as a common trope of survivor’s guilt. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is a must-read for everyone trying to learn more about the long-standing effects of war. 

Films, too, have tried to uphold the immense horror inflicted upon the civilians as well as the intense PTSD the soldier bore long after the wars were over. Being an audio-visual medium, it is often more scarring and moving, portraying how the conflict of interest brings out the beast in man. A constant commentary on humanity and the destruction ravaged by warfare, these war films often motivate us to think about the ethics of warfare and whether it is all worth it. Most war films are centred around the two great wars while other focus on other horrifying wars that have destroyed families and torn apart lovers. The image of soldiers kissing their beloved with the Eiffel Tower in its backdrop after the end of the war is a bittersweet reminder of the reunions that happen at the end of the war yet a constant reminder of how the losing side must be mourning. 

War films are usually emotionally hefty and take a lot of patience and courage to endure. If you are up for a weekend of heart-wrenching commentary on the atrocities of warfare, here are the 10 best war films streaming on Netflix.

The 10 best war films available on Netflix:

10. The 12th Man (Harald Zwart. 2017)

Following the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War, 12 Norwegian resistance fighters decide to infiltrate and sabotage the German military facilities and undertake Operation Martin by caring eight tons of TNT in their boat. However, their identity gets compromised; betrayed and no longer having their informant who is dead, the men are captured and tortured relentlessly and mercilessly. While most of them die and are interrogated or executed, one lone ranger by the name of Jan Baalsrud manages to make a narrow escape. Thus begins the story of his survival in harsh Norwegian temperatures and other tests of physical endurance as he tries his level best to stay alive. He receives assistance from local people who risk their own lives to provide him with aid.

While the film focuses more on the harsh conditions Ballsrud was subjected to more than the torture of the resistance fighters at the hands of the Nazis, it is a compelling commentary on the violence and atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi Germans. To prepare for his role as Baalsrud, Thomas Gullestad had gone on an extreme diet to look thin and cold. He also suffered frostbite while shooting. Gullestad had gone from being a Norwegian hip hop artist and rapper to playing such an intense character on-screen which was genuinely commendable. Although the film is pretty predictable, it portrays the brutality of warfare to the correct degree by painting the picture of the saboteurs’ torture as well as Baalsrud’s fight for survival amidst hostile conditions.  

“Only one man came back alive. The most incredible events in this story are the ones that actually took place.”

9. Outlaw King (David Mackenzie, 2018)

Starring Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh and more, this historical drama set in the 14th century recounts the tale of using wit, bravery and cunning by the Scottish Outlaw ing Robert the Bruce to defeat the English army that was larger in size and way more equipped. Robert the Bruce is proclaimed as the Outlaw when he instigates rebellion among the Scottish army against the English empire headed by the tyrannical King Edward and his son. On his way towards making his quest’s purpose be fulfilled, Robert the Bruce gets attacked on numerous occasions whereby his supporter strength keeps decreasing but he employs guerilla warfare to stay put. While the English army has too many people and can decimate the Scottish army without having to work too much, the story is an exploration of heroism and the strife of a man to seek justice from the unjust English rulers. 

With its intricate detailing and spectacular battle scenes, the film explores the bravery and courage of the Scots at its core and their willpower which helped them to never give up. The actors are extremely convincing in their roles, especially Pine. the film has certain factual errors yet remains as historically accurate as possible in comparison to other films. The incredible visuals however are undercut by the criticism of trying to incorporate too much substance into the film, spanning the Wars of Scottish Independence. While some would prefer it to be a TV show with a slow development of all the characters as well as the unfurling of the plot, the realism and brutality of warfare is undeniably well-portrayed in this explosive and one-of-a-kind film. 

“You could fight for God, or country, or family. I do not care, so long as you fight!”

8. The Siege of Jadotville (Richie Smyth, 2016) 

Set in 1961. The film records the political turmoil when an Irish peacekeeping mission is sent to Katanga in Congo. The agenda is to protect the townspeople from the outbreak of a civil war which can cost several lives. The mission is headed by Commandant Patwuintan. Meanwhile, UN advisor Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien launched a surprise military attack against Belgian and French mercenaries in government buildings which left a huge blow on Quintan and his team as some of the mercenary soldiers started besieging the Irish.

This film is a riveting watch with intense battle sequences which makes it so very intriguing. The actors had undergone proper military training for their respective roles because the director felt that “there’s nothing worse than watching actors acting like they’re in an action movie, pretending to run upstairs with guns and look serious”. While the battle at Jadotville has been the fodder for conspiracy theory and the film itself is highly dramatized, considering this was is his first feature film, Smyth does a pretty decent job of being able to hold the audience attention steady throughout the film. 

“We’ll hold out until our last bullet is spent. We could do that with whiskey.”

7. War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous 1982 novel, the film is centred on the beautiful bond shared by a boy and his horse and how they manage to find their way back to one another despite being separated by the devastation of warfare. In 1912, a farmer named Ted outbids his landlords to acquire a Thoroughbred colt whom his son Albert names Joey and develops a close friendship with. Together, they forge a beautiful friendship and Joey responds to Albert’s owl hoot. In 1914, as the First World War breaks out, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the troops but Albert vows to find him back. While the war continues and Albert grows old enough to enlist in the army, Joey has adventures of his own while the war plummets. Gradually, they are reunited and the boy keeps his promise of finding his best friend no matter what. 

Although the film ends on an optimistic note, the overall atmosphere is gloomy and frightening. The war is showcased via Joey’s eyes which upholds the horrific conditions of warfare and how it adversely affected innocent lives of people and animals. The films and the book are a conscious infusion of “Black Beauty goes to war”. Starring Emily Watson, Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and more, the film received six Academy Award nominations and is a personal favourite due to the emotional depth of the film. Embedded in realism, it is heartwarming to see love and friendship triumph over the destructiveness of warfare. 

“We’ll be alright Joey. We’re the lucky ones, you and me. Lucky since the day I met you.”

6. Defiance (Edward Zwick, 2008)

In an insane story of survival, the four Polish-Jewish Bielski brothers, namely Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron watch their parents get brutally slaughtered by the local police who adhere to the Nazi task forces at the beginning of 1941. Although they escape to the forest unscathed, they vow to avenge the deaths of their parents and soon encounter other Jews with whom they form a rebel troop, raiding farms for supplies and shifting their base to evade capture. However, soon Tuvia and Zus fall apart over their shared difference of opinions and Tuvia keeps leading this group of Jews which has grown to an unbelievable extent while Zus joins the Soviet. However, when Tuvia’s group is attacked by Nazi troops, Zus and his band of partisans join to defend themselves. Together, the Bielskis build a village, sheltering about a thousand Jewish non-combatants. 

Starring Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, Liev Schreiber, Allan Corduner and more, this epic tale of survival amidst the looming, unforgiving forests of German-invaded eastern Europe portrays the darkest period in history. It is a tribute to the bravery and selflessness of the Bielski brothers who risked everything to bring the non-combatant Jews to safety. With stunning visuals, scathing realism and intense performances, it is a gripping watch. They are not portrayed as supreme heroes, their flaws are highlighted which makes them seem human and fascinating, their task arduous and humane. The musical score composed by James Newton Howard adds emotiveness and tension to the atmospheric melancholy.  

“We may be hunted like animals, but we will not become animals.”

5. Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2015)

To quote A.O. Scott, “The line between innocence and evil is as thin as the blade of a machete”. Beasts of No Nation is violent and tragic. The film chronicles the untimely loss of innocence amidst an African civil war. Agu is a young boy who is separated from his family and he is forced and manipulated into joining as a child-soldier for a guerrilla army where he is trained by a ruthless warlord. Subject to the violent abuse, humiliation and degradation, Agu transforms from an innocent boy to a destructive, maniacal beast where he is constantly torn between the family values instilled in him versus the aggression of his new self.

Abraham Attah as Agu is splendid with his involuntary transformation amidst the despairing conditions of war and economic inadequacy is heart-rending. The atrocities he has to face at such a tender age is often hard to bear yet paints the realistic and poignant picture of the kind of life these child soldiers are subjected to amidst war where rape, abuse, violence and other unthinkable acts are rampant. Idris Elba as the sinister and opportunistic warlord is scary and nightmarish. He exists as a manifestation of Agu’s trauma and loss that is a result of war. Agu is suspended between an adult consciousness and a childish innocence where he constantly tries to find a balance amidst such horrifying conditions. He is afraid of himself and the gory violence he is capable of. Powerful and moving, Fukunaga does complete justice to Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, by delivering a scathing, well-crafted masterpiece that is complemented by brilliant visuals and stunning performances.

“Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you cannot shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

4.  First They Killed My Father (Angelina Jolie, 2017)

Set in Cambodia during the violent times of the Vietnam War which has led to the ensuing Camobian Civil War, young Loung Ung is forced into hiding with her family as they might all be slaughtered if her father, Pa’s identity as a government official is revealed. As her family keeps getting decimated by the soldiers and her father gets taken away to meet his fated ending, she flees with her two siblings on being urged by her mother and lives as an orphan. Under the pretext of this identity, she is enrolled as a child soldier which leads her to set bombs and other traps to attack enemy lines.  

Grappled by violence and war, the film is a direct and realistic commentary on how wars impact the lives of innocent civilians. The film’s tone is compassionate and brimming with empathy. It laments the predicament of the families torn apart by war as well as the uncountable lives lost. A heartfelt exploration of the impact of war on childhood which results in trauma and devastation being wreaked on young minds is splendidly executed in the film. As a director, Angelina Jolie is successful in bringing out the correct magnitude of emotions which help the audience connect more with the characters. 

 “I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it.”

3. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, 2020)

Reflective of the deep gashes and wounds left by the Vietnam War, the film follows the journey of war veterans who return to the country to try and find the remains of their deceased squad leader, “Stormin” Norman Earl Holloway, as well as the gold bars they received as a payment from the Lahu people for helping the Viet Cong. Chadwick Boseman plays the fearless fallen squad leader who was dauntless in his rage against the exploitation of Black soldiers by the US Army. The men, who romanticised the unwavering courage of Stormin, are haunted by his untimely demise and his absence which looms over them. 

As a film in the war genre, it surprisingly has a shocking amount of greed and fear, “verging on action-movie melodrama and farce”, yet ends on a hopeful and cathartic note with Lee’s powerful and well-timed punch comprising an urgency of the message he wants to convey. The characters are flawed yet induce empathy in our hearts. Chadwick Boseman’s fantastic on-screen presence adds to the claustrophobic and caustic war-ridden horror that looms large over the film. The poignancy remains in it being one of Boseman’s last films which are also one of Spike Lee’s most expensive and ambitious projects. 

“We won’t let nobody use our rage against us. We control our rage.”

2. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)

Adapted from an autobiographical narrative, the film is based on a Polish-Jewish pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman whose life undergoes a sea of change with the commencement of the Second World War. After being forced to flee his home along with his family and forced into the Warsaw Ghetto with other Polish Jews, he is saved in the nick of the time by a friend during Operation Reinhard. He starts smuggling arms for a Jewish rebellion yet is forced to be on the run once again as he narrowly escapes capture. He keeps going from one place to another trying to find shelter and supplies while fighting illness. He is finally given shelter by a kind German officer named Hosenfeld who also provides food before Germany is defeated by Soviet forces. 

A harrowing commentary on the atrocities meted out to the Jews by the Nazis in the wake of the Second World War receives a haunting, dramatic twist. While we hate Polanski with all our heart for being a degenerate, one cannot ignore the fact that this film was a beautiful piece of art where Szpilman was a survivor via whose eyes we live the experience of the terrors of the war. Raw and moving, it is a powerful commentary on the inhumanity and brutality of warfare, it is perhaps one of the best Holocaust films ever made in Hollywood. The complexities of being a human being as well as the psychological anguish induced by warfare gains the foreground in this strangely poetic and beautiful film. It calls for sympathy and compassion amidst unimaginable devastation and chaos. Adrien brody even won the Best Actor award for his stupefying performance as the war-ravaged Szpilman. 

“Here, sell this [his watch]. Food is more important than time.”

1. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

As a Holocaust survivor and a Schindlerjuden, Poldek Pfefferberg persevered to tell the world about Schindler’s act of compassion towards countless Jews. He motivated Thomas Keneally to write Schindler’s Ark following which he persuaded Steven Spielberg to direct the adaptation. Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German, travels to Krakow amidst the Second World War to make a fortune for himself. He ends up acquiring a factory for enamelware production and hires cheap labour in the form of Jewish workers while enlisting the help of Itzhak Stern, making a lot of profit. However, as the ruthless Göth arrives, the Jews are mercilessly exterminated. Moved by their suffering, Schindler decides to help them and exhausts his fortune by bribing the officials to prevent them from slaughtering the Jews. With Stern, he forges an elaborate plan following which they successfully rescue the Jews. 

Schindler’s List is undoubtedly one of the best historical dramas that mirror the unthinkable horrors of the wars as well as the subsequent Holocaust. It stands witness to the atrocities meted out by the Nazi Germans to the Jews and contains gruesome scenes that petrify the audience. Amidst the atmospheric madness and mayhem, the motif of the girl in the red coat looms large in the monochromatic movie. Every move made by Spielberg is deliberate and stands for a particular thing in the film. The girl, like the Jews, is the innocent sacrificial lamb. Spielberg adds a touch of tender humanism to his protagonist. As Oskar breaks down about not being able to save more Jews, one cannot help but lament with him. Schindler’s List is a dark and emotionally heavy masterpiece that goes down in history as one of the greatest war films of all time.

“It’s Hebrew, it’s from the Talmud. It says, ‘Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.’” 

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