After this week, it’s likely that “Civil War” is going to be a term sewn into the cultural conversation to mean, at least temporarily, something less serious than what it meant before. But, presumably, the newest Captain America film will lean lightly on the same themes carried over from stories of war. Civil wars have always made for richly thematic film material. So, to prepare for the suphero version of the form, we’ve collected four prime examples of movies that explore history’s civil wars.
A Field in England
The English Civil War was fought between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. In the end Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army triumphed over the Royalists and Charles the First was executed and Christmas was banned in England. None of that really comes into play in A Field in England, a unique little movie from Ben Wheatley. The film revolves around a group of deserters, a magician (?), the Devil (?), and some missing treasure. The movie is a nightmare of black and white surrealism filled with odd tableaus, a bloodless, terrifying, torture scene (the aftermath is the more terrifying), and a kaleidoscopic scene of drug enhanced madness that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s also got Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley in it, and if you know who those two are (you should) than that should be selling point enough.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a war film about fairies, or a fantasy film set in a war, or a horror film. Or all of those. Or none of those. Pan’s Labyrinth is what happens when you let Guillermo del Toro do his thing. There are single images in this movie that other directors would cut off their own noses to create and del Toro does them every few seconds. And what’s more, considering our topic today, as good as his fantastic elements are, his war scenes are incredible too. Del Toro, playing in the same sand pit as his fantastic The Devil’s Backbone, doesn’t have a sense of romance when it comes to war. He understands that ghost/fairy stories are stories but war is war. As scary as the eyeless dude is, it is Captain Vidal who is the true evil. The eyeless dude is pure horrific fantasy. Vidal is a man fighting a real war, and in doing so he performs acts of cruelty and wickedness too foul for fairy tales.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
It would be easy to mistake The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for a Western. All the trapping are there: Clint Eastwood, guns, cowboys, etc. But actually the movie is a war film. It’s setting, the US Civil War, plays a massive part in almost every scene. The gold they’re searching for is army gold, the first time Blondie escapes is because of a military cannon, they end up in an army prison camp, cannon fire helps them again later, they end up having to blow up a bridge to pass by a platoon of soldiers, and Blondie reveals his goodness in a scene where he helps a dying soldier on his way to the other side. The movie is Leone’s anti-war treatise. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is literally said aloud by the characters. Using the war as a help and hindrance to the characters is a masterstroke as it provides a constant source of tension and obstacle, while also giving the viewer huge set pieces and excuses to blow up bridges.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Ken Loach’s 2006 film follows the relationship of two brothers who join the Irish Republican Army to fight for independence from the United Kingdom. Perhaps a bit drawn out and maybe a bit influenced by Loach’s commonly known politics, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (the name derived from the title of a song from the late 18th Century rebellion) nonetheless becomes an emotionally draining and socially hypnotic recounting of the fracturing caused by geographic infighting. Anchored by a powerful performance from Cillian Murphy and moved by Loach’s need to explore the social side of the revolution, The Wind That Shakes the Barley builds to an unshakably jarring conclusion.