Characteristics of War Movies

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Movies have portrayed war, along with its inherent struggles, horrors and opportunities for heroism, since the early years of film. The category of war movies spans nearly all film genres, including action, suspense, romance, westerns and even comedy. The themes presented in war movies vary and include leadership, patriotism, fighting enemies, effects on society, personal breakdowns and the absurd aspects of war. Even after taking into account their diversity, war movies do share some characteristics.

Combat Scenes

Sequences portraying battles that involve tanks, fighter planes, warships, firearms and hand-to-hand combat have been consistent hallmarks of war movies since the earliest days of the genre. For example, D.W. Griffith's 1918 silent film "Hearts of the World" depicted trench warfare from the World War I era. Even war movies that explore the inner workings of their characters' minds frequently include combat scenes as well. For example, "Patton," an award-winning 1970 biographical film about Gen. George S. Patton, features extensive battleground scenes as well as sequences based on dialogue.

Multicultural Cast of Characters

War movies frequently portray combat units made up of soldiers from various geographical, ethnic and racial backgrounds. This characteristic became particularly pronounced in war movies made during and after World War II that were focused on American troops. Units portrayed in movies from the World War II era typically included American combatants with Irish, Italian and Jewish roots. The characters were from big cities like New York or Philadelphia as well as small towns in the South and Midwest. "None but the Brave," a 1965 movie starring Frank Sinatra, took this concept to the next level by showing Japanese individuals from the enemy camp in a sympathetic light.

Psychology of War

Exploring the psychological aspects of war, including the mental strain that combat exerts on soldiers, is another characteristic of war movies. Throughout the history of war movies, for instance, a character who acts in a cowardly manner is often permitted to undergo a period of self-growth and redeem himself with a courageous act. "Hart's War," a prisoner-of-war movie from 2002 starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell, is an example of this characteristic. The ultimate example of a movie that examines how war can ravage a man's mental state is "Apocalypse Now," the 1979 Vietnam War epic.

Pro-War or Anti-War Stance

Movies produced during or shortly after a major war have tended to emphasize the righteousness of a war's cause and the heroic traits of their characters, including courage, patriotism and technical fighting skills. For example, Gary Cooper won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his sympathetic portrayal of Alvin York, a highly decorated World War I soldier, in the 1941 movie "Sergeant York." Movies produced during peacetime frequently take a different angle by satirizing war or taking a stance that war is futile. "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) and "M_A_S*H" (1970) serve as examples of this characteristic.


  • "A History of Popular Culture: More of Everything, Faster and Brighter"; Raymond F. Betts; 2004
  • "Brassey's Guide to War Films"; Alun Evans; 2000
  • "American Cinema of the 1940s: Themes and Variations"; Wheeler W. Dixon; 2006
  • "Sinatra in Hollywood"; Tom Santopietro; 2008

About the Author

Steven Wilkens has been a professional editor and writer since 1994. His work has appeared in national newspapers and magazines, including "The Honolulu Advertiser" and "USA Today." Wilkens received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Saint Joseph's University.

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