The Most Disturbing War Films You've Never Seen

Most war films play it safe. They tantalize with us a quick cutaway shot of someone taking a bullet, they allude to carnage in the background, but as viewers, we're still mostly spared the true awful intense horror that warfare can be. It's because we're spared some of these details that we can view war films as exhilarating. That we can be "greatly entertained" by battle films where people die. (As a war film fan, I'm more guilty of this than anyone; I love a good cinematic firefight!) But there are some war films that set out to try and re-create the vivid horrors of war as intensely as possible. Their goal is not to entertain, but to horrify. What follows are six of the most disturbing war movies that I've ever seen, and that, most likely you haven't - but if you like to be shocked and disturbed, perhaps you should check them out.

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Threads (1984)


This BBC film from the United Kingdom is a live-action film following a series of families in a declining mid-sized town in the midlands. First, they are simply living their lives - work, love, family squabbles - in the background, news reports discuss escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.  

And then, very very quickly, panic starts to hit.  And when the center collapses, it collapses very quickly, indeed.  A sort of mass hysteria hits.  Stores are looted for supplies.  Gas stations run out of petrol.

This is the happy, cheerful part of the film, because then the bombs start falling.  Many of the characters are obliterated immediately.  Some on the outer edge of the blast suffer immense radiation burns and sickness, not consumed by fire, but covered in third degree burns, unable to move from their destroyed homes, left to die.  

Those not hit by the bombs suffer the most, they are stuck living in the aftermath of a society ground to a complete halt, food and fuel supply chains permanently ended.  Rioting in the street.  Widespread radiation sickness and disease.  Families dying.

One of the story threads follows a government official who attempts to maintain his chapter of regional governance, following the protocols of the British government - but it's futile gesture and his attempts at order are quickly overcome by so much desperate need.

The film doesn't end here though, it continues decades into the future where a nuclear winter has all but destroyed humans ability to plant and grow food.  The destroyed atmosphere means that cancer and cataracts are widespread.  The population of the planet has been reduced to that of the Dark Ages.  A once civilized society now lives on rats, and deals with rape, and sickness and death as matters of daily life.

This show was created, by the way, as what was considered by many leading scientists to be a realistic scenario of what could be expected in the event of an all out nuclear exchange during the Cold War.

So you know, your average cheerful romantic comedy, basically.

Click here for the Top Nuclear War Movies.

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Fires on the Plain (1959)


This World War II film follows a diseased starving Japanese soldier in the waning days of the war, long after the Japanese loss has been assumed.  In the jungles of an unidentified southeast Asian island, the film's protagonist is sick with malaria, but, the hospital won't take him.  His commanding officer, having no rations to feed his own troops, the Japanese supply lines no longer running, advises him to take his own life.  It'd be the honorable thing to do (as well as relieving him of yet one more injured soldier that he has not the capacity to care for).  The film's protagonist wanders into the jungle, half hallucinating, and starving, as he alternates between succumbing to death and fighting to live.  

There is no measure or means by which this film could be referred to as entertainment.  It's simply a two-hour exposition of suffering.  But - and here's the big but - it is real.  The film was based on the real-life experiences of Japanese soldiers following the end of the second World War, soldiers who were mostly abandoned by the Japanese military, who not only weren't fed or cared for ​but in some instances, weren't even brought back home to the mainland. 

One of the grimmest, depressing, and dark films I've ever seen.  

Click here for the Best and Worst Pacific Theatre World War II Films.

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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies.

The late great film critic Roger Ebert called this movie one of the greatest war films ever made.  It's a Japanese cartoon, which opens with hundreds of American super fortress bombers flying over the Japanese city of Kobe, quickly decimating the city.  The film focuses on two siblings, a young boy and his younger sister who attempt to survive during the post-war collapse of Japanese society.  After their mother dies, they take refuge with an aunt, but without food to feed them, they are forced to leave, first to a camp (at which, conditions are awful) and eventually to the street.  This is essentially a two hour film which details nothing but suffering, sadness, and despair.  And the ending is shattering.  What makes the film all the more difficult to endure is that the children at its center are essentially naive, confused, and innocent.  It's powerful and - sadly - probably a fairly realistic portrayal of how life was for many.  Indeed, it was based on one man's true life story.

Click here for the Top Animated War Films.

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Africa: Blood and Guts


There's precious few war films about Africa.  Unfortunately, one of the more famous ones is this 1966 Italian documentary which is nothing more than an exploitation film, showing the filmmakers transversing the African continent, visiting a perpetual stream of civil wars and genocidal conflicts.  There's little context or information about the conflicts, but there's lots of raw footage of real-life dead bodies.  This is a terribly difficult film to watch and made my list of all time most disturbing war films.

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When the Wind Blows (1986)


This British cartoon, drawn with very simplistic animation of the sort you'd expect to find in a toddler's cartoon, focuses on an elderly couple living in a small rural English village. They busy themselves with going into the market and making tea, and other quaint activities.

And then the Cold War erupts into a hot nuclear war. And the United Kingdom is hit with multiple nuclear warheads. Fortunately, (or, perhaps, unfortunately) spared from a direct hit, this old couple has to contend with the nuclear fallout and radiation. Armed only with a government provided pamphlet (which, actually did exist and was distributed to British households), the old couple attempt to follow it's instructions: They try and build a bomb shelter out of old mattresses and over-turned kitchen tables, they stockpile canned foods, they try to not go outside or open the windows.

And as they dutifully follow these instructions, they slowly get sick and die. This cartoon married couple, who have lived a long life with one another, succumb to sickness, madness, and eventually death. The film is gruesome and unsparing in its depictions of the conditions that occur when one is exposed to long-term radiation. It's made, of course, all the more disturbing, in that it's essentially framed as a children's cartoon.

This film is also one of my Top Under Appreciated War Films.

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Come and See (1985)


This film is the spiritual sibling to Apocalypse Now, a hallucinatory dreamscape of a film about two Russian children during the German advance into Russian during the second World War. For those not aware of their history, the Nazi occupation of Russia was brutal, with widespread mass murder, rape, and about every atrocity that you can fathom being heaped onto the civilian population - this film documents all of that. It's a hard film to describe, and a difficult film to get into - but if you give it a chance - you'll be well rewarded. Those who aren't used to foreign films will probably spend the first half hour asking themselves what they've started to watch - the rhythms and pacing are slightly "off" from what they are used to - but if they stick with it, they'll be well rewarded.

The film is stocked with graphic, disturbing scenes of the type never seen before in a war movie. It leaves the reader feeling dirty, uncomfortable, and awkward. It's not so much the blood (of which, there is plenty), as much as the treatment of the human beings in the film: The Nazis laughing after a slaughter, the casual killing of children, the graves of dead bodies. This is the sort of a film you see on a dare. It was a massive hit in the Soviet Union but barely seen outside of Russia - it's well worth the look, though - if you have the stomach for it.

Click here for the Top 10 Bloodiest War Movies Ever Made.

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Kilo Two Bravo

This film is one of the best suicide mission war films ever filmed.  It tells the true story of a contingent of British soldiers in a remote base in Afghanistan who end up trapped in a mine field.  At first, just one soldier is hit.  But then, in trying to aid that soldier, another soldier is hit.  Then a third, then a fourth.  And so on it goes.  They can't move for fear of stepping on a mine, yet they're surrounded by their comrades all screaming in agony begging for medical attention.  And, of course, as often happens in real life, the radios didn't work, so they had no easy way to call back to headquarters for a medical evacuation helicopter.  There are no firefights with the enemy, only soldiers stuck in various positions unable to move for fear of setting off a mine - yet it's one of the most intense war films I've ever seen.  

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Jacob's Ladder

A Vietnam veteran returns to New York City and begins having horrible hallucinations of demons and other disturbing images.  Soon he is in contact with the other men in his unit, only to find out that they're sharing his nightmares and that they might have all undergone governmental experimentation while in Vietnam, but before a horrible secret can be revealed, Jacob will have to discover why some people will do anything to keep him quiet.

...okay, simply describing the plot probably doesn't make it sound that enticing.  It sounds more like a bad horror movie.  But because the film takes itself very seriously, it pulls it off, creating a unique blend of horror, war, and thriller.  The film is quite adept at making Jacob's nightmares come alive, so that neither he - or the viewer - are quite what reality actually is.  It's a very unsettling movie, putting the viewer in the mind of a man suffering from PTSD who isn't sure whether or not he is going insane.