Anti-War Films of World War II
Army of Shadows (1969) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville

Army of Shadows follows the story of the French Resistance under Nazi occupation during World War II. Wikipedia says of the film, "While portraying its characters as heroic, the film presents a bleak, unromantic view of the Resistance," and cites the Criterion and AV Club articles on the movie after its 2006 release in the United States.

Army of Shadows
Army of Shadows

Although Army of Shadows certainly is bleak, I disagree with idea that is is "unromantic" or that it somehow deconstructs ideas about the war. Rather, Army of Shadows romanticizes its heroes and their struggle in the way only the French can -- one of the central characters debates whether or not he ought to run from a firing squad. Once he is rescued, he pauses to ponder his own existence. The fictionalized Resistance members have the trendy cigarette-smoking, death-accepting cool we think of as stereotypically French.

It's also nearly impossible to make a World War II film without being pro-war. Everyone left of Lew Rockwell agrees the allies needed to fight the Nazi and Imperial Japanese forces. The alternate history is too horrible to even comprehend.

Dresden victim - Woman 's body in an air-raid shelter
Dresden victim - Woman 's body in an air-raid shelter

I can only think of a few anti-war films set in that action. There was the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which focused on atrocities committed by allied forces, rather than axis powers, as is usual. As many editions of Vonnegut's book now note, he derived much of his historical description of the bombing of Dresden from Holocaust denier David Irving. Certainly, the allies committed wartime atrocities. No army in history has fought a war with clean hands. But it is extremely difficult to criticize immoral acts made on the allied side without appearing to justify or create an equivalent with those on the axis side. The current Archbishop of Canterbury opened a large can of worms when he called the bombing of Dresden "controversial" a year ago.

Germany has made a few anti-war films, as a part of its postwar penance. Das Boot and Downfall are two of the most popular. They focus not so much on German war crimes (it would be perhaps too difficult to navigate the sensitivities involved to do that), as they do on German madness. In both films, the German people sin by acquiescing to their war-crazed leaders, but the blame is still laid on those at the top and not on the volk at large.

Grave of the Fireflies
Grave of the Fireflies

Japanese director Isao Takahata's 1988 animated film Grave of the Fireflies is the only film I've seen that portrays the horror of allied carpet bombing without abrogating the responsibility of the axis powers. It shows war as something that rains from above, like a powerful hailstorm. Those dropping the bombs are kept faceless, and largely nameless. This way, it can create sympathy for the children living in an axis country, without creating anger against the allied powers. If anything, Grave of the Fireflies hints that the Japanese Imperial system is to blame for bringing the plague upon the nation.

I write this to help contextualize Army of Shadows, and the French reaction to it in its initial release. Despite its lack of overt nationalism, it is still a pro-war film. "Do what needs to be done," the characters tell each other.

Army of Shadows
Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows was released in 1969, in the aftermath of the May 68 protests against right-wing President Charles de Gaulle, and the Algerian War. Both events made the French left skeptical of nationalism and anything that might glorify the Resistance, which de Gaulle led. So a film that portrays the French Resistance members as gritty heroes who gave their lives for the fatherland? Wasn't going to fly.

Decades later, its re-release in the United States went much better. Our left is more open to entertaining right-wing ideas - particularly in war. And, de Gaulle never left as bad of a taste in our mouths as he did in France. We don't have to worry much about domestic politics overseas, so we get a rosier picture of our foreign allies. Churchill, as everyone knows, is much more popular here than in Britain.