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.

What can The Godfather: Part II teach us about international relations? Click to expand.
What can The Godfather: Part II teach us about international relations?

Last week, in the online edition of Slate's sister publication Foreign Policy, two of its regular bloggers, Stephen M. Walt and Daniel W. Drezner, drew up lists of what they regard as the best movies ever made about international relations.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate, reviews films for Home Theater, and is the author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed. He can be reached through his website, http://www.fredkaplan.info.

Both are eminent international-relations professors, Walt at Harvard, Drezner at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. It's no surprise that neither of them gives our own film critic, Dana Stevens—or, for that matter, Gene Shalit—the slightest cause for worry. It is a shock, though, how lightly they've dipped into their own profession's vast cultural pool.

Walt was inspired to compile the list after a friend told him about a film festival featuring more than 30 movies about wine. "That got me thinking," he writes. "If Foreign Policy had a film festival, what movies should we show?"

A couple of his selections are no-brainers: Dr. Strangelove, the ultimate satire of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War mentality; and Casablanca, the ultimate romance (though far from the best movie) about occupation and resistance. The rest, however, range from lame to puzzling.

His No. 3 pick is The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's 1940 lampooning of Hitler, which, Walt writes, "reminds us that making fun of despots is often an effective weapon." Maybe Walt doesn't know that Chaplin regretted making this movie after learning of the Holocaust and the true extent of Hitler's monstrousness. The little tramp's pacifist speech at the end of the movie is also a disgrace given the timing of Chamberlain's appeasement. Even so, stipulating Walt's point about fun-poking, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be is the far defter film.

Walt lists Gandhiand A Passage to India for showing "everything you ever wanted to know about colonialism and the unavoidable clash of cultures that it produces." Really? They're not bad, if somewhat overblown and airbrushed. But when it comes to lifting the veil off colonialism, they're trifles compared with Battle of Algiers and Lawrence of Arabia. Battle is the most realistic film ever about colonialism, insurgencies, and urban-guerrilla conflict. Lawrenceis the quintessential epic about the "dreamers of day" who thought they could reshape the map of the Middle East. Yet both films go unmentioned by Walt and Drezner—reason enough to ignore their suggestions.

Next on Walt's list is Fail Safe, Sidney Lumet's 1964 melodrama about a nuclear showdown between the superpowers. The ending is infuriatingly banal, and the whole film is outshone in every respect, not least its realism (in substance if not tone) by Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which came out the same year.

Then comes Wag the Dog. OK, the mendacity of the Bush years has made this film a retrospective classic, though it's more about domestic politics than international affairs.

Judgment at Nuremberg, about the post-WWII Nazi war-crimes trials, Walt sees as a nail-biter and the birth of the human rights movement. But it's moralizing pap—like most of Stanley Kramer's movies—especially compared with The Wannsee Conference, a truly gripping German film, also based on documentary transcripts, about the secret meeting where the Nazi high command approved the Final Solution for Europe's Jews.

Appearing toward the end of Walt's list are two head-thumpers. The first is Syriana­, which he calls "an exciting if somewhat incoherent portrait of the interplay of oil companies, great power politics, local militias, and the tension between modernity and tradition in the Middle East," adding, "Not to be taken too seriously, but not without insights either"—all of which prompts two questions: What exactly are those "insights," and why is this movie on the list? (And, again, where is Lawrence of Arabia? Where's Three Kings?)

The most jaw-dropping pick of all, though, is Independence Day, which "makes my list," Walt writes, "because it is balance-of-power theory in action: an external threat (giant alien spaceships) gets the world to join forces against the common foe." Here's the thing. Walt is a classic International Realist, the author of such gravitas-beaming books as The Origins of Alliances, Taming American Power, and Revolution and War. Yet this is his view of "balance-of-power theory in action"—the one-worlder's wet-dream cliché about how all the nations join forces to beat back monsters from outer space? A much more cogent portrait of balance-of-power theory is the scene in The Godfather where the five families agree to get into the heroin business and divvy up the territory. (That's nearly a metaphor for the Congress of Vienna.) Better still is the scene in The Godfather Part II in which Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone, and the chiefs of various U.S. corporations, standing on a hotel balcony in Havana, slice up a birthday cake that's decorated with the map of Cuba.

Walt's list spurred Dan Drezner to devise his own, and Drezner's is even stranger. He agrees with Walt on Dr. Strangelove and Casablanca, but his No. 1 pick is The Lion in Winter, which he says is "about the strengths and limits of rational choice in international politics." Um, OK: a strange choice, especially for the top of the list, but there's a daring quality about it.

Then comes Children of Men, a terrific, truly frightening dystopian film. But Drezner sees it as a depiction of a global response to pandemic, when it's really about the breakdown of all order. (The premise of a suddenly infertile world is strictly metaphorical and the film's weakest element.)

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;
Notorious;
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?