War Movies From the Enemy's Perspective

As Americans, we like to think of our military as defending freedom and saving the world from evildoers, whether they be Nazis or terrorists. We tend to think of ourselves as "the good guys." 

Consequently, it's interesting - every once and a while - to look at some of our American wars through the perspective of our enemies: The Germans and Japanese in the Second World War, and Russia. 

What follows are the top war films shown from the enemy's perspective - some of these are Hollywood films which simply took a chance, others are foreign war movies that were made overseas and just developed a following in the United States. (For war movies where America was the bad guy, click here!)

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Das Boot - 1981 (German)

Das Boot poster

Das Boot is the story of a U-Boat captain and his crew during World War II. It's catastrophic and claustrophobic combat on a submarine. A thrilling film, it shows the dangers and absolute terrors of wartime service on a sub

It also does a good job of showing the young Germans as just like their young American counterparts: Idealistic, patriotic, and filled with their own dreams and ambitions. It's a good reminder to remember, "Hey! They're just like us!" One could easily forget that they were fighting for a man named Adolf. 

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All Quiet on the Western Front - 1930 (German)

All Quiet on the Western Front poster

This 1930 film, arguably the first real war film to ever be made, is also - to this day - one of the top ten best war films of all time. It's one of the types of war films that I like to call, "The Regretful Infantryman." 

Which is to say, it's the story of an infantry soldier who is buoyed forward by patriotism, camaraderie, and a sense of adventure that finds out, much too late, that war is hell. In this film, the hell is the trench warfare of the first World War. 

This was also the first war film to tell what would become a central motif of future war films, the idea of innocence despoiled. And time hasn't lost anything on this film - it's still a powerful viewing experience and still delivers a visceral punch in the gut in its final scenes. 

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Fire on the Plains - 1951 (Japan)

Fire on the Plains

This intensely disturbing Japanese war movie follows a single soldier long after the war is lost, as he attempts to survive, amidst disease, starvation, and fellow soldiers anxious to shoot him for his cowardice. 

This is, just perhaps, one of the most depressing war movies (or any movie) you'll ever see. An hour and a half of constant suffering in black and white with subtitles. The characters in the film even resort to cannibalism, a fairly grim story contrivance given that it was filmed in the 1950s. 

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Tora! Tora! Tora! - 1970 (Japan)

Tora! Tora! Tora! poster

 A highly imperfect film, that nonetheless was one of the first films to fully delve into the attack on Pearl Habor, and a film which helped frame our narrative about the Pearl Habor attack. 

The film was grandly ambitious, attempting to tell the story from both the U.S. and Japanese perspectives, as the film cut back and forth between the two sides and the inevitable attack, which ends the film. 

Unfortunately, it's ambition is somewhat lost in what becomes a muddled narrative. However, despite its artistic failing, it remains a historically important film. 

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Cross of Iron - 1971 (German)

Cross of Iron cover

This is the only war film directed by Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch), and it tells the story of World War II from the perspective of Nazis, focusing on the brutal violent life of the enlisted soldier. 

This is a highly contentious film, one that has been criticized for its unrelenting violence and brutality, but one that is also praised in other quarters as the best war movie ever made. It was, in part, the inspiration for Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds

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Come and See - 1985 (Russian)

Come and See

In what I called one of the best World War II films ever made, this little-seen Russian film (which was hugely popular in Soviet-era Russia), follows two children as they attempt to survive during the German invasion. 

The war and all of its resulting brutality are seen through their innocent eyes. (They don't stay innocent for very long.) The film is powerful, dramatic, stirring, and mesmerizing. 

Surprise, surprise! Russian children are just like American children! They too long for their mothers, to be safe, and to be happy! This brutal film though ensures that they will get to do no such thing.

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Grave of the Fireflies - 1988 (Japan)

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is a moving, powerful, film about an orphaned young boy, and his younger sister, as they struggle to survive in mainland Japan during the final days of the Second World War. 

The country is in turmoil, food is scarce, medicine non-existent, and the population is devastated; empathy for the suffering is not at a high point. 

With the mother dying early in the film, it's essentially a two-hour film that highlights nothing but children suffering. But it's not gratuitous filmmaking; it was based on a real-life story. It's also, to the surprise of many, a cartoon.

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Heaven and Earth - 1993 (Vietnam)

Heaven & Earth

As part of his trilogy of Vietnam films, Oliver Stone filmed Heaven & Earth, a film that follows a young Vietnamese woman whose victimized by South Vietnamese soldiers early in her life and eventually ends up moving to the United States after marrying a U.S. soldier (Tommy Lee Jones). It's a sometimes powerful (though sometimes sloppy) film about identity and culture.

Vietnam is a scar that still mars American's national psyche, and while we want to support our soldiers and troops that served there, it's also important to note that many Vietnamese were badly victimized in the war. Yes, by North Vietnamese troops, but also by Americans and South Vietnamese. 

No one likes to hear that their country is the aggressor or the enemy, but it's a perspective that undoubtedly exists among many Vietnamese, where the civilian casualty rate was in the millions, much of this due to indiscriminate U.S. bombing and Napalm.

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Enemy at the Gates - 2001 (Russia)

Enemy At the Gates poster

Not quite a film about our enemy (as the Russians were an uncomfortable ally during the Second World War, after all), but given our Cold War history and that the ally was a tenuous one during the Second World War, the film remains something not often seen: The Second World War told from a different perspective.

The film offers a fascinating look at Russian society during the war. While Americans were thriving and building suburbia, and buying washing machines, the Russians were struggling to eke out an existence. The opening scenes where two soldiers are sent off with a single rifle also rivals the opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan as far as carnage and battle intensity.

This is a film that's important because we've re-written history to view America's entry into the war as the deciding factor of the war, turning the tide against Hitler. And while this is partly true, it was the German losses on the Eastern front that most historians credit with defeating the German war machine. 

The Russians had far more casualties than the west, and the battles fought amid starvation conditions and brutal Russian winter, were often more brutal than those that occurred in Western Europe. Yet, for all of this, the Eastern Front is often ignored, or forgotten altogether.

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Letters From Iwo Jima - 2006 (Japan)

Letters From Iwo Jima

Letters From Iwo Jima is a film by Clint Eastwood, paired with Flags of Our Fathers. Both films are about the battle of Iwo Jima but told from two different perspectives. This is an incredibly brave move by Eastwood. 

It's easily understandable that one would want to make a movie about the Vietnamese that were victimized during an unpopular war. But the second World War is - as wars go - about the most popular conflict America has been involved with, at least in as far as America was considered to unambiguously be participating in a military conflict for the right reasons. 

Alternatively, Japan was an incredibly brutal occupying force during the second World War, engaged in all sorts of war crimes (read about the Rape of Nanking). For Eastwood to have the courage to humanize this enemy shows real artistic bravery.

And how does he do? A fantastic job. Far from the single-minded zealots willing to commit suicide in the name of the Emperor that they were described as, the film shows a range of personalities and young men who are afraid of war and dying, just as there are in all wars. 

Still, though the film doesn't shy away from the brutal culture of the Japanese at the time; the scene where the soldiers are told to commit suicide by blowing themselves up with grenades is brutal to watch.

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Valkyrie - 2008 (German)

Valkyrie poster

Tom Cruise is a Nazi officer in this film where he conspires with other officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It's a competent picture with some tension, and a serviceable Cruise in the lead role. 

Of course, there's nary a person watching the film that doesn't have an idea how things will turn out; knowing the protagonist will likely be killed only serves to elevate the tension - you know it's coming, you're just not sure when.

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The Green Prince (Palestinian)

The Green Prince

The Green Prince is the unusual story of a Hamas terrorist turned secret Israeli spy and his growing friendship with his handler in Shin Bet, the ultra-secret Israeli security agency. It's a story of loyalty, betrayal, and ultimately, of friendship. The real-life story here is wilder and more unbelievable than any Hollywood script showing that real life can often surprise. Intense, exciting, thoughtful, and entertaining all at once. 

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The Americans (Russia)

The Americans

The Americans, currently on its third season on F/X, comes in the tradition of The Sopranos or The Wire, it's a smart, well produced, intelligent series that features two undercover Soviet sleeper agents as the story's two leads. 

Each episode the husband and wife do their best to thwart America during the 1980s, the series' plot matching real-life headlines from the Reagan administration. 

The characters are so carefully done that even as Americans, we root for them to be successful and be able to destroy our country! And when you've managed a story where you're rooting for characters that should be your enemy, you've managed to tell a successful story!

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