“War is hell,” first spoken by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, is a phrase that understates its truth with its brevity.
In terms of movies, war and hell make for great drama. The action element is high, the emotional weight strong, and the stakes — life vs. death, good vs. evil — couldn’t be higher.
We are reminded of those very real stakes today on Memorial Day in the United States where Americans remember, acknowledge, and honor those who have served their country, fought for it, and in many cases, died for it.
To commemorate these men and women, I scoured through the list of Academy Award winners for “Best Cinematography” and found 10 films that delve deeper into the life of the American soldier during wartime through stunning cinematography and the emotional power of cinema.
1. A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Director: Frank Borzage
Cinematographer: Charles Lang
Based on the Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, A Farewell to Arms takes place in Europe during World War I and follows the romance between an American ambulance driver and an English Red Cross Nurse. On the cusp of the burgeoning sound era, the film took home an Oscar for its sound as well as cinematography.
During its release, the film was shipped with a happy ending and the original more somber ending. Hemingway was vehemently against the happy ending and the somber ending won out providing Americans with a taste of what The Great War truly cost.
2. Gone with the Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming
Cinematographer: Ernest Haller
Gone with the Wind needs little to no introduction to those familiar with film history. It was an epic picture at almost 4 hours and was watched in epic proportions by millions of moviegoers. In some theaters, the film played for four years after its release!
The film is a true American classic.
It was also a landmark in cinematography by being one of the first major films shot in color and took home the Oscar for exemplary use of the medium.
This film gets its mention on Memorial Day for the story being set with the backdrop of the Civil War. A dark spot in American history, the Civil War hammered the South where the level of casualties and economic impact was far greater than the winning Union North.
3. Wilson (1944)
Director: Henry King
Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy
Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States and also a favorite of producer Darryl F. Zanuck who piloted the biopic about the wartime President. As Commander-in-Chief, Wilson is responsible for bringing the United States into World War I as well as out of it.
The movie did lousy at the box office, but was a critical success and won many awards including Best Cinematography (for color — they used to do two awards depending on the color medium).
4. Battleground (1949)
Director: William Wellman
Cinematographer: Paul Vogel
There’s no doubt that World War II has had a significant cultural impact and influenced many stories put on celluloid. Battleground was the first of these to achieve critical significance.
Battleground takes place during World War II and the infamous Battle of the Bulge. It came out relatively close to the end of WWII in 1945 and is notable for its realistic portrayal (at the time) of soldiers during the conflict.
One of the themes of the film is how soldiers are human and, despite their courage to fight in the war, try to find their own ways out of it. Watch the clip above to get an idea of how the film questions the entire purpose of the war with the “$64 question,” was this trip necessary?
5. From Here to Eternity (1953)
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
While From Here to Eternity doesn’t set itself entirely within a war, the attack on Pearl Harbor is a climatic point in the film’s plot as it was for the United States in mobilizing to war.
In the clip above, you will find a film that is more honest in its war attack scenes than you might expect for 1953.
The barrage of bullets must’ve been familiar territory for cinematographer Burnett Guffey when, 14 years later, he filmed Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway plastered by police with machine guns in Bonnie and Clyde.
6. The Longest Day (1962)
Director: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, and Darryl F. Zanuck
Cinematographer: Jean Bourgoin and Walter Wottitz
I haven’t seen The Longest Day before, but in researching clips on YouTube I am stunned by its beautiful black-and-white cinematography that takes full advantage of the Widescreen Aspect Ratio.
And there’s no accident that Saving Private Ryan draws many visual similarities to the film since The Longest Day is a film all about D-Day and storming the beaches of Normandy.
D-Day was a turning point in World War II and the devotion of an entire film to it still doesn’t give the event its due justice of importance. Many troops — of all nationalities — were taken from the Earth that day.
7. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro
Apocalypse Now is one of the best films of all-time, let alone about war. It nearly killed director Francis Ford Coppola to make it and is a true example of something profoundly creative rising from terrible circumstances.
The cinematography of Storaro, playing off the intense oranges of the sun against the bright green of the jungle, was intensified by the genius and skills of Walter Murch, an editorial Yoda.
Besides being a great example of a large-scale arthouse film, Apocalypse Now is a serious commentary on the war in Vietnam and war in general. It aims down the middle, but ultimately shoots its arrow towards the bullseye with Marlon Brando’s famous utterance: “The horror. The…. horror.”
8. Glory (1989)
Director: Edward Zwick
Cinematographer: Freddie Francis
The first of two films on this list for director Edward Zwick, Glory puts the audience in the front lines of the Civil War with one of the first military regiments of black soldiers. The film tackles both topics of racism and the Civil War with poise.
Of course, it helps to have actors like Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman bring a high level of professionalism to the production.
The film reminds us that America will always have the stain of slavery on its coat and that, despite the heavy racism, people of all colors fought to preserve the nation and defend their freedoms.
9. Legends of the Fall (1994)
Director: Edwrad Zwick
Cinematographer: John Toll
Legends of the Fall might not be a war film in the same vein as Zwick’s other film on this list, Glory, but it does send its characters into enemy territory during World War I.
Of two brothers assigned to the 10th Battalion, CEF, one treads into the dreaded no man’s land while the other uses his rage to kill and scalp two German gunners, as shown above. The act, justified or not, horrifies the fellow soldiers.
Perhaps more than some of the other films, Legends of the Fall shows us a fuller story by revealing a soldier’s life before and after war — a poignant reminder that soldiers aren’t defined by their helmets, their guns, or the people they’ve killed.
10. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski
It’s no secret by now that Steven Spielberg is a World War II enthusiast. The director established his knowledge and emotional understanding of the war with Schindler’s List in 1993 (which also won Best Cinematography) and sealed it with Saving Private Ryan five years later.
The film makes no qualms about the perils of war, throwing you into the fray of Nazi gunfire on D-Day at the outset of the film (watch the clip above).
The hyperrealistic style of Kaminski and Spielberg’s camerawork both sucks you in and makes you sick at the same time.
If there is any film that is able to touch the American sentiment for war, while also portraying how awful the process is, it’s Saving Private Ryan. For those who fought in World War II, it serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made and, for those who didn’t, it places you in hell.
In Remembrance of All
Films and movies are one way to remember the sacrifices soldiers have made for America. If there’s anything films can do well, it is inject an event with emotion and make us realize that history is more than chapters in textbooks.
The movie screen transports you there and shows you — for a brief moment — what it means to fight with courage, for freedom, and to question what it all means in the first place.
Some great films that won cinematography Oscars weren’t included on this list because they didn’t focus on Americans, but stories like The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Schindler’s List show that war has a global effect and, in some cases, requires a global effort.
So thank you to those who have fought in the wars, prepared to fight in war, and been willing to put your life on the line for your country.
Your personal story may not be emboldened on the big screen, but your story as a whole is immortalized on celluloid for future generations to feel the emotional weight of war, reflect on its consequences, and remember the opportunities their ancestors fought for.