I’m Adam Epstein, Quartz’s entertainment reporter.
The Oscars are Sunday and it’s looking like a close race between World War I epic 1917 and the South Korean psychological thriller Parasite for the night’s top prize. I’m rooting for Parasite, though I learned long ago not to care much about the results of the Oscars. (History tells us that the award show does little to change a film’s legacy.) In any event, 1917 would still be a worthy winner. Here’s how you can watch many of the Best Picture nominees online.
Directed by Sam Mendes and shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, 1917 was made to look as though it is a single continuous shot. Critics have compared the film to a video game. That might sound like an insult, but most of them meant it as a compliment. Though light on characterization, 1917 is among the most visceral and immersive experiences I’ve had in a theater in a long time.
A brief history. Hollywood wasn’t always as unsparing about the horrors of war as 1917. The war film has taken many forms throughout the past century, typically grafting onto the politics of the era.
Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, the earliest war films were decidedly jingoistic (and racist). Among the first to depict war was the 1927 silent film The Rough Riders, a fictional account of Teddy Roosevelt’s exploits in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Three years later, the overtly anti-war All Quiet on the Western Front helped usher in an era of films pointing out the futility of war. Unusual for being told from the perspective of German soldiers during World War I, the film was the target of a smear campaign by Joseph Goebbels and Nazi agitators, who released mice and detonated stink bombs in German theaters.
Following the Allied victory in World War II—and the emergence of McCarthyism—the 1950s marked a return to Hollywood jingoism. But two more nuanced 1957 films led to another reevaluation of the war genre: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (R.I.P. Kirk Douglas) and David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
A sharp left turn in American politics in the 1970s gave rise to films like The Deer Hunter and, of course, the genre’s magnum opus: Apocalypse Now. Regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory descent into the heart of darkness is now the bar all war movies try to meet. Most fail.
Anti-war films continued into the 1980s (namely Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy of Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven & Earth, and Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), but a move back toward the political right under Ronald Reagan created the military-entertainment complex we see today. That was no more apparent than in the Rambo franchise and 1986’s Top Gun, which was produced with the help of the US Navy and was directly credited with leading to more enlistments.
And then there was Saving Private Ryan in 1998. Critics still debate over if it was really pro- or anti-war, but what they agree on is its unflinching depiction of the brutality of war (the 20-minute Normandy sequence especially). It heralded the modern era of hyperrealistic war films, from Black Hawk Down to Dunkirk to 1917.
Battle royale. It’s not easy finding war films that are sufficiently entertaining, without being bloodthirsty or militaristic. I tend to look for the ones that try to go deeper than “war is bad” to tell us about other aspects of warfare that we might not always think about. Here are a few options (with links to watch):
- Glory: I had to watch this one in middle school and it’s been one of my favorite movies ever since. The true story of the Union army’s all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment during the American Civil War, Glory portrays that awful conflict from the perspective of those whom Hollywood often ignores. Come for a terrific performance from a young Denzel Washington, stay for Matthew Broderick’s weird goatee.
- Jarhead: Before he made 1917, Sam Mendes directed Jarhead, my favorite movie about the US involvement in the Middle East. Based on the book of the same name by Anthony Swofford, a former US Marine who served in the Gulf War, the film shows a side of war we rarely see, because it’s not deemed heroic. Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, saw almost no real combat. But the constant proximity to danger led to debilitating PTSD for he and many of his fellow Marines when they returned home.
- Generation Kill: I’m cheating a little bit, because this is an HBO miniseries, but it’s still well worth your time. Created by David Simon (of The Wire fame), the series has been called the definitive—and most accurate–account of the US invasion of Iraq by several soldiers who experienced it. It’s tragic and frustrating, but also funny and intimate, as viewers are embedded with a battalion of young men who were trained to kill but don’t really understand why.
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War scenes, ranked. The genre has given us some of cinema’s great scenes. If you don’t have time to watch any of the films above, try out these clips to get a taste of what war films have looked like over the years:
- “The horror! The horror!”—Apocalypse Now
- D-Day—Saving Private Ryan
- The Ride of the Rohirrim—The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (yes, I count this as a war movie!)
- Boot Camp—Full Metal Jacket
- The eve of battle—Glory
- “Freedom!” (and final scene)—Braveheart
- The bar scene—Inglourious Basterds
- The Man Comes Around—Generation Kill
- Spitfire saves the day—Dunkirk
- “Nobody asks to be a hero. It just sometimes turns out that way.”—Black Hawk Down
Whether or not 1917 joins the ranks of these films remains to be seen. Winning the Oscar on Sunday can’t hurt, though that alone won’t affect its reputation. That, if history is any indication, will fluctuate through time depending on the day’s milieu.
Have a great weekend!
Less war, more jazz. I can’t stop listening to Dirty Loops, a jazz-fusion trio from Sweden. I first discovered them years ago when their cover of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” went viral. I’m not exactly sure what happened after that—either they went on a hiatus, or I just forgot about them, but either way, they fell off my musical radar. Cut to a few weeks ago, when Spotify recommended their song “Work Shit Out,” which is just seven minutes of mind-blowing bass, keys, and drums (the keyboardist also sings). Each member of the trio is about as good as humanly possible at their respective instruments. I mean, just listen to the bass line on this cover of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.” The loops—they’re so very dirty.