The 25 most important movies ever made about war and diplomacy.

The 25 most important movies ever made about war and diplomacy.

The 25 most important movies ever made about war and diplomacy.

Military analysis.
May 4 2009 7:20 PM

Hillary Clinton, Watch These Movies!

High Noon, Godfather II, Grand Illusion, and 22 other indispensable movies for understanding war and diplomacy.

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Drezner's third choice is the mid-'80s TV film The Day After, about a Soviet-American nuclear war and its aftermath. I agree with Drezner that it captures "the latent dread" that many felt during Cold War days. (I remember shivering a bit during the scene when the ICBMs blast out of their Kansas missile silos.) But to say, as he does, that the movie "does a much better job" at this than Dr. Strangelove is preposterous.

His next pick is Conspiracy, an HBO movie about the Wannsee Conference. At least it's better than Walt's choice of Judgment at Nuremberg; but again, the German-made Wannsee Conference (aka Hitler's Final Solution: The Wannsee Conference) is the one to see.

Drezner's big puzzler is Y Tu Mama Tambien. "Buried within this romp about two Mexican teenagers going on a road trip with a very attractive woman," he writes, "is a lot of subtext about the ways in which globalization has affected Mexico." Don't get me wrong: I like looking at Maribel Verdú's naked body as much as the next guy (and this is a really good film on other grounds, too); but subtexts about globalization? This strikes me as a stretch. Better films for that are El Norte or, more subtly (though not about Mexico), Yi Yi, In the Mood for Love, and especially Chungking Express.

Then comes Seven Days in May, about a hawkish general who plots a coup to keep the president from signing a nuclear arms-control accord with the Soviets. Not bad, though it suffers from heavy-handedness, and it isn't really about international politics. I prefer The Manchurian Candidate(the original 1962 version), which takes its Cold War paranoia with a highball chaser.

I'm also puzzled by his choice of Burnt By the Sun. Yes, it's about the tension and terror of living on beautiful terrain in a totalitarian society—in this case, the rolling dachas outside Moscow in the time of Stalin—but it's not really about foreign affairs, except that it takes place in a foreign country. A better pick along the same theme would have been Andrzej Wajda's 1950s war trilogyA Generation, Kanal, and especially Ashes and Diamonds—about the struggle of the Polish resistance against both Communist and fascist occupation. These films are more stirring than any movie on either blogger's list.

Some movies may be missing because of Walt's decision to exclude war films, spy films, and documentaries. Why he does this is unclear. (He says that most war films don't explain the war's causes. So?) He writes that he's aiming for "movies that tell us something about international relations more broadly." (Spy films don't do this?) He excludes documentaries mainly to avoid explicit propaganda films, such as Why We Fight and Triumph of the Will. But this also leaves off The Battle of Chile and The Sorrow and the Pity. 


Off the top of my head, here are 25 that neither Walt nor Drezner mention—and that, to my mind, beat all of theirs. In addition to those that I've already mentioned (The Battle of Algiers, Lawrence of Arabia, Three Kings, Ashes & Diamonds, The Manchurian Candidate, The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II), there's also:

The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (no better comedy about war's lunacy);
High Noon (in many ways a more succinct metaphor about U.S. foreign policy than Casablanca);
Army of Shadows (certainly a grimmer, more realistic drama about the French Resistance);
Goodbye Lenin! (here, Dan, is a poignant film, and funny, too, about the deceptions involved in living under totalitarianism);
The Lives of Others (ditto, but not so funny);
Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo's over-the-top but still meaty tale of British colonialism);
The Third Man (the classic about corruption and innocence in post-War Vienna—in Walt's terms, the breakdown of authority in a weak state);
13 Days (a quite accurate rendition of the Cuban missile crisis);
The Syrian Bride (an unexpectedly charming-tragic film about the Syrian-Israeli territorial dispute);
Memories of Underdevelopment (colonialism in Cuba);
Man of Marble (the Solidarity movement);
Apocalypse Now(not the director's cut);
Breaker Morant (to hell with Walt's prohibition of war films);
Foreign Correspondent;
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold;
The Lady Vanishes (ditto with the ban on spy films);
and, finally, one of the best films of all time, period, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, about the great themes of the 20th century: the decline of class, the rise of mass society, and the deadly illusion of national borders. How could they leave off this one, too?