Historical Films


The war film is one of the great modes of cinematic expression. Many war films have been lauded for their realism and their focus on the cruelties of war, as well as for their portraits of heroism. Outstanding examples of the subgenre include formidable Hollywood productions such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Longest Day (1962), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Glory (1989), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), but also more subdued treatments of war and resistance such as Roberto Rossellini's (1906–1977) Roma, città aperta ( Rome, Open City , also known as Open City , 1945) and Paisà ( Paisan , 1946).

The Big Parade (1925) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) were extraordinarily successful works that established the war film in the United States as an important subgenre of historical filmmaking. The Big Parade , directed by King Vidor (1894–1982), contains memorable World War I battle sequences, especially a night battle scene that captures the nightmarish aspect of war on the western front, and became the model for many subsequent films. Lewis Milestone's (1895–1980) All Quiet on the Western Front won international and popular acclaim, as well as Oscars ® for Best Picture and Best Director in 1930, for its portrait of the horrors of war as experienced by a young German soldier. The film marked the first time Germans were treated sympathetically in Hollywood films made after the war. In the most extensive use of moving camera in a sound film up to that time, Milestone used a mobile crane to create elaborate moving camera shots for the battle scenes. The film not only established the power and commercial viability of the war film, but it also established the Great War as an enduring emblem of human loss. Posing serious questions about ideals such as nationalism, patriotism, and the dehumanizing effects of war, All Quiet on the Western Front articulated the antiwar sentiment later taken up by war films such as Paths of Glory (1957), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Apocalypse Now (1979).

Darryl F. Zanuck's (1902–1979) The Longest Day initiated what has become a historical film staple of combat spectaculars. The combination of extraordinary realism in the battle scenes and exceptional attentiveness to the small dramas unfolding among the individual soldiers provided the model for many films to come, among them Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan . The film also set a new standard for authenticity in the historical genre, in some scenes replicating the Normandy invasion so closely that stills taken from the shooting of the film

b. Rome, Italy, 8 May 1906, d. 3 June 1977

One of the most influential filmmakers in the history of world cinema, Roberto Rossellini followed an idiosyncratic artistic path that brought him world attention. Over the course of his career, Rossellini continually defied expectations and consistently forged his own creative path, a quality that gives his work an unequaled variety and range. Following an apprenticeship making films for the fascist government of Italy in the early 1940s, Rossellini first achieved renown with his neorealist films Roma, città aperta ( Rome, Open City , 1945) and Paisà ( Paisan , 1946). In the 1950s he made a series of films with actress Ingrid Bergman, including Viaggio in Italia ( Journey to Italy , 1953), which opened a new creative focus on the psychology of the couple. In the 1960s and 1970s he changed course again, making a series of didactic films on the history of western civilization for Italian and French television.

Rome, Open City , represents a fundamental breakthrough in film style and subject matter. Using the streets and apartments of Rome directly following the Nazi occupation, and employing a largely nonprofessional cast, Rome, Open City crystallized the emerging aesthetic of neorealism, which became one of the most celebrated film movements of the twentieth century, the emblematic filmic expression of the harsh social and psychological conditions of modern life. Rossellini followed with two additional films dealing with the devastation of World War II, Paisan and Germania anno zero ( Germany Year Zero , 1948), that employed the look and feel of documentary and merged it with the dramatic plotting of the fiction film to create a powerful sense of social truth.

After seeing Rome, Open City and Paisan in New York, the actress Ingrid Bergman wrote to Rossellini expressing her admiration for his work. They married in 1950 and began a collaboration that would result in several important films, including Stromboli (1950), Europa '51 ( The Greatest Love , 1952), and Journey to Italy . At this point in his career, however, Rossellini's critical and Paisa reputation was suffering from his supposed turning away from overtly social subjects to more psychological, "involuted" concerns. Critics in France, however, especially those associated with Cahiers du cinéma , argued that these films represented a fresh and liberating approach to filmmaking, one that was psychologically complex and daring.

In 1964, Rossellini again changed direction and began a series of "didactic" history projects for Italian and French television. These films, including La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV ( The Rise to Power of Louis XIV , 1966), L'Età di Cosimo de Medici ( The Age of the Medici , 1973), and Agostino d'Ippona ( Augustine of Hippo , 1972), among others, were explorations of the historical past shorn of dramatic fictional plotting. Concentrating on the behavioral details of the period, Rossellini foregrounded his own "didactic" role as historian-narrator by using a zoom lens, called the Pancinor, to highlight certain elements of the scene.


Roma, città aperta ( Rome Open City , 1945), Paisà ( Paisan , 1946), Germania anno zero ( Germany Year Zero , 1947), Stromboli (1950), Viaggio in Italia ( Journey to Italy , 1953), Il Générale della Rovere ( General della Rovere , 1959), La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV ( The Rise to Power of Louis XIV , 1966)


Bondanella, Peter. The Films of Roberto Rossellini . Cambridge UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Forgacs, David. Rome, Open City . London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Forgacs, David, Sarah Lutton, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real . London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Rossellini, Roberto. My Method: Writings and Interviews , edited by Adreano Apia. New York: Marsilio, 1995.

Robert Burgoyne

Roberto Rossellini at the time of Socrates (1970).

and stills taken from the actual invasion are nearly indistinguishable.

In the late 1970s the American cinema began to take on the subject of Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) both portrayed the war as a pathological endeavor that foreboded the ruin of a generation of young Americans. It was not until 1986, however, with the release of Oliver Stone's Platoon , that the Vietnam sub-genre began to flourish as a dominant mode of cinematic expression. Stone followed Platoon with Born on the Fourth of July , an antiwar film that dealt with the trauma of the returning Vietnam veteran. A sober and scathingly critical work, Born on the Fourth of July followed in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) in illustrating the profound alienation of returning veterans who have been traumatized by the experience of war.

The traditional war film experienced a resurgence at the turn of the century with films such as Saving Private Ryan , Black Hawk Down (2001), Glory , Pearl Harbor (2001), and The Patriot (2000), which together reestablished the power and appeal of films that crystallize the heroism and sacrifice that war entails. Noted for the authenticity of its battlefield sequences as well as for its evocation of nostalgia for the certainties of the "last good war," Saving Private Ryan resurrected the traditional war film, which had fallen into disrepute in the post-Vietnam period, and reestablished it as a dominant form in American cinema. Saving Private Ryan also broke new ground in its technological innovations, most evident in the Omaha Beach landing sequence, in which the film blends computer-generated imagery, live-action photography, reenactments of documentary photographs and sequences, accelerated editing, slow-motion cinematography, and electronically enhanced sound design. The film combines the traditions of the war film—stressing the importance of the individual soldier and the success of the collective endeavor mounted on his behalf—with advanced visual and acoustic techniques that give it a powerful claim to battlefield authenticity and realism.

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