1917 (dir. Sam Mendes, 2020) – Two soldiers are assigned on a mission against time to deliver a message that will stop their army from walking into a fatal trap.
War is hell, and 1917 takes no time to spiral into the centre of the inferno. An unbroken take soon fences us in with Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) in their race against time into no man’s land.
They look for cover, disoriented and exposed in the open. Just minutes ago, they had been idle on the field awaiting orders that never came. Now, they are within kill shot of unseen enemies, armed with a weapon each and no means of communications.
They have no reinforcement, but each other. The only refuge they have is in shallow trenches, strewn with bodies, their rot wafting through the stale air. All they can do is keep running, all to deliver an urgent message that could save 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s own brother.
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The Photographer of Mauthausen / El fotógrafo de Mauthausen (dir. Mar Targarona, 2019) – Francesc Boix, a Spaniard inmate in the Austrian concentration camp, tries to save the photographic evidence of the horrors committed within.
Boix’s subtle rebellion against the Nazi death camps proves one of the most important events in history, and The Photographer of Mauthausen is necessary telling of these less known heroics.
The Mauthausen Concentration Camp was one of Nazi Germany’s most brutal concentration camps, meant mostly for the Reich’s political prisoners. Over 8,000 Spaniards were interned at the camp, of which more than half lost their lives to the Nazis’ atrocious abuse and murders. These war crimes might have gone unpunished, if not for the courage of Francesc Boix (played by Mario Casas).
The warden’s right-hand man and reluctant photographer gained privileges that few had. But even at Boix’s young age, none of that was important to him. Instead, he plotted a rebellion and risked his life, all to hide the evidence that the Nazis wished to destroy. The Photographer of Mauthausen is a long-due homage to the bravery of Boix and the other Spaniard heroes, who succeeded in saving over 3,000 photographs from destruction.
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Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017) – During the second World War, the Allies managed an extraordinary evacuation of over 300,000 troops against all odds.
Visually and aurally spectacular, Dunkirk documents the resolve of humanity in dire times, and presents the futility of war in harrowing honesty.
Heroes never set out to be heroes. They do what they believe is right, and expect nothing in return. Some die needlessly, others sacrifice without choice. Most leave no names and stories behind. Those who survive, are plagued with guilt over those who did not.
Dunkirk depicts this ruthless reality of war in its powerful tribute to many forgotten men and deeds in history. In a daring move, writer-director Christopher Nolan dilutes character backstories, subverting expectations of the genre. Yet such minimal dramatisation feels true to the crowd of 300,000 trapped during the Battle of Dunkirk.
After all, these young men are in many ways faceless on the battlefield. Their lives come to a standstill in wartime, when they lose their self-identity and fight in the name of their country. Bound to the present moment, we are made to realise how survival is all that matters, no matter whose.
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The Siege of Jadotville (dir. Richie Smyth, 2016) – In 1961, Irish commandant Pat Quinlan led an army against mercenaries during a peacekeeping mission in the Congo.
A riveting true story. The little-known Siege of Jadotville gets a deserving tribute, if lacking in historical context.
In 1961, 155 Irish soldiers stood their ground on the battlefield against a 3,000-strong Kantangese army, backed by European mercenaries. Following the six-day siege and a month spent as prisoners-of-war, they suffered zero fatalities. If you have never heard of this extraordinary battle, you are not alone.
For decades, The Siege of Jadotville remained unwritten history. None of the young Irishmen were recognised for their military valour. Instead, they were humiliated with the term “Jadotville Jack”. This was invented as a derisive label for their forced surrender, a sensible move that was dismissed as cowardice.
It took 40 long years before the veterans were finally cleared of misconduct. This came nine years too late for Commandant Pat Quinlan, who died in 1997. The tragedy of which makes The Siege of Jadotville an especially powerful story and an essential watch.
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Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1939) – A young American soldier awakens in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell.
A haunting anti-war manifesto, Johnny Got A Gun echoes with relevance even today.
Every war narrative is essentially anti-war. In news or fiction, each account of its dire costs is a call for pacifism. WithJohnny Got His Gun, prolific writer and filmmaker Dalton Trumbo presents one of the most harrowing imageries in war literature, by giving a voice to the voiceless.
The story centres on the tragic fate of one young soldier, who wakes to find himself blind, mute, deaf and paralysed. Unable to tell if he is alive or dead, he struggles to come to terms with his disfigurement and hold onto his slipping soul by recalling his idyllic past.
The horrors of his position is unimaginable. Trapped in someone else’s war and consequently his own body, Joe Bonham becomes a man who finds no reason to live, yet cannot die. However inconceivable his pain must be, we come close to knowing the victim and how he feels in these vividly written pages.
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