On August 23rd, 1942, the German Sixth Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, a mid-sized industrial city and river port which most of General Paulus's battle-hardened troops had never even heard of.
Their objective was simple: they were to occupy the city and thus block transportation of vital supplies and American arms from the Caspian Sea to Soviet forces in beleaguered north.
They expected the conflict to last weeks, instead it lasted almost six months, became the bloodiest battle in human history and left more than a million dead. Stalingrad was a charnel house, a living nightmare for both the soldiers who fought in it and those unfortunate civilians unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire. In fact it's so colossal an event it's almost too big to capture on film, but that hasn't stopped a Russian filmmaker called Fedor Bondarchuk from having a go.
In Stalingrad, a big-budget, 3D spectacular that opens here next week, the story of the decisive battle of World War II is told through the experiences of a small group of Soviet reconnaissance troops and a vulnerable young woman they take under their wing. It's pretty gruelling viewing as you can imagine, and the film does give a compelling insight into how dreadful it must have been to be in Stalingrad when it all kicked off.
It's gone down a bomb in Russia, where it took over $600m (€440m) at the box office and has become one of the most successful movies in the country's history. But unfortunately, Stalingrad is not a very good war film. It's absurdly sentimental, includes moments of ridiculous jingoism, gives no real overview of the battle and its flashy, slow-motion fight scenes seem absurdly out of place given its deadly serious subject.
Which is not to say that good war films can't have a little fun along the way. Some of my favourite war films are jaunty affairs that celebrate stiff-upper-lipped bravery and draw a veil over the darker stuff. Films like The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen are essentially adventure movies that turn the grisly business of war into a rousing caper.
But the really great war movies mix a strong story with an investigation of the terrible things that violence and conflict do to the human soul. And there's no better example than Lewis Milestone's 1930 masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front.
Based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the film follows a group of German schoolboys who are persuaded to enlist in 1914 by their rabidly nationalistic teacher, and find out what war really means in the trenches of Belgium and France. Milestone's film contrasted tin-drum patriotism and jingoism with the banal reality of conflict, and Joseph Goebbels got the message loud and clear. When it opened briefly in Weimar Germany, Goebbels and his henchmen disrupted screenings by releasing mice and setting off stink bombs.
The Nazis didn't much like La Grande Illusion (1937) either. Also set during World War I, it starred Jean Gabin as a working class Parisian airman who's shot down and captured by the Germans. In the prison camps he meets aristocratic officers and lowly commoners, one of them a Jew, who've all been thrown together by a senseless war.
Renoir ridiculed class and prejudice, but most of all attacked the pointlessness of war. Goebbels dubbed Grande Illusion "cinematic enemy number one", and when the Nazis reached Paris in 1940 they seized all prints and the negative of the film. Happily, it survived.
Between 1944 and 1948, Roberto Rosselini released a remarkable and controversial trilogy of films dealing with the World War II. Rome, Open City was made soon after the Italian capital had been liberated by the advancing Allies, and was a grimly realistic account of the Nazi occupation. In Paisa, he dramatised the Allied campaign in Italy. And the nihilism of postwar Germany was hauntingly examined in Germany, Year Zero.
By contrast, most early US and British films about World War II were rousing, gung-ho affairs that celebrated the selfless heroism of Allied combatants. But there was the odd exception, like William Wellman's 1949 film Battleground. Wellman's gripping drama was set during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45, when the retreating Germans surprised the Allies by counterattacking in the Ardennes forests.
Though the besieged US soldiers in Battleground were heroic, they showed fear, had moments of panic, and even considered running away. In other words they were ordinary men whose subsequent heroism was all the more impressive.
David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was another film that showed how war can be anything but simple. It starred Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, a British officer in a Japanese prison camp in the Burmese jungles who becomes so intent on keeping his men's morale up that he ends up helping the enemy build a vital rail bridge.
More than 30 years after Lean's film, a new realism would be brought to the depiction of World War II by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. Partly filmed in Ireland, Spielberg's film involved the search for the last living son of an American woman who's already lost three of her children in battle, but is most famous for its terrifying recreations of the D-Day landings.
Perhaps because it was so deeply unpopular in America, the Vietnam War inspired a remarkable number of classic films. Released just three years after the conflict had ended, Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter explored Vietnam through the eyes of three working class men conscripted to fight in it.
Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage played Pittsburgh steelworkers who get captured by the Viet Cong and are variously humiliated. Three hours long and pretty grim viewing at times, Cimino's film was criticised for its violence – in particular, a Russian roulette scene, but Deer Hunter won five Oscars and is now considered a classic.
As is Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's sprawling epic that took three years to make, shot wildly over budget, almost killed its star Martin Sheen and seriously damaged the great director's Hollywood career. Inspired by the stories of Joseph Conrad, it starred Sheen as an unstable commando who heads into the Cambodian jungles to "terminate" a US officer called Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who's gone rogue. It is magnificent, and captures the mad poetry and nihilism of war.
Then there's Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick's nightmarish psychological thriller set mainly in a US Marine training camp. With typical intelligence, Kubrick used Vietnam to show how military training, even in supposedly benevolent democracies, irredeemably brutalises young men before they ever get to war.
The recent Iraq and Afghan conflicts have yet to yield comparable masterpieces, but Kathryn Bigelow's Hurt Locker is pretty remarkable. Bigelow's film deals with the consequences of conflict, and stars Jeremy Renner as a bomb disposal expert who's got so used to the adrenalin rush of his work that he can't adjust to civilian life and keeps going back to his war zone for more. For many soldiers, the hardest thing of all is peace.
The Best War Film Of All
Paths of Glory (1957)
Though a case could certainly be made for Grande Illusion or Apocalypse Now, Stanley Kubrick's note-perfect 1957 drama Paths of Glory is for me the greatest war film ever made. In fact, like most of the best ones, it's an anti-war film, based on the true story of four French soldiers who were shot for cowardice during World War I.
Kirk Douglas played Colonel Dax, an honourable trench officer ordered to lead his men on a suicidal attack on a German-held hilltop. When it fails, the generals blame the men, and a ridiculous kangaroo trial ensues.