War Movies have been a mainstay of cinema since the medium has existed. Even in the days of silent film, many of the early hits were War Movies. Take a look at The General (1926) as an example of an early one and Greyhound (2020) as a more recent one. However, with the constant presence of this genre, there is a subgenre that has largely disappeared.
“Epic” as a descriptive term for movies has a number of different uses. Exactly what it means depends on who you ask at what time period you are talking about. There might be some people who would disagree with my use of the term to describe the genre I am talking about, but I can’t think of a better term.
The type of movie I am describing is one where war is not just the setting, it’s the plot. Specifically, where the scope of the tale is so large that it ceases to be about the individual characters involved in the battle. Instead, those individuals become mere vehicles through which the story is told. Just like how soldiers often become in real conflicts, the individual characters are simply cogs in the machine of a much larger beast. It might be fair to say that the main characters in these movies are the opposing armies themselves (or fleets, or air wings, or whatever other gathering of warbands occurs).
The movies typically use a large number of POV characters who have little interaction with each other. However, this isn’t a necessity. The important part is to have POVs in the right spots so that the audience gets to see the full scope of the battle. So long as the scope of the tactics and strategy involved is showcased, this is accomplished.
This is a style of story that can work in any medium. The author Harry Turtledove is quite skill at making use of it in almost every one of his novels. Similarly, Game of Thrones (both the TV Show and the books it was based on) have several excerpts or episodes that function as Battle Epics if taken in isolation. Lord of the Rings (both the books and the movies based on them) have sections that on their own work. If the assault on Minas Tirith was a stand alone movie, I would put it in this genre. For the purpose of this, however, I am focused solely on movies that fit into the genre in their entirety.
The heyday of this genre was during the 60’s and 70’s. During that time frame, there was a torrent of Battle Epics being produced. But, into the 80’s they became less common. Gettysburg (1993) is the last movie I consider to be firmly in the Battle Epic genre. Since then, all examples I can think of that approach the genre only capture partial aspects of it.
Instead, more recent films have become much more focused on the individual. Dunkirk (2017) and 1917 (2019) both do an excellent job of showing the full scope of the battle involved. However, they both use a very limited POV. Dunkirk uses four POVs (don’t let the title cards claiming three fool you) and 1917 only uses one. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Both movies use it to fantastic effect and I would call them masterpiece examples of War Movies. 1917 in particular was very impressive with how well coordinated they had every other aspect of the movie to make it seem like a single take with a single POV character.
However, this limited POV takes away something the Battle Epic had as a core aspect. Both movies treat the opposing army as a backdrop or force of nature instead of an antagonist. Dunkirk never even had the opposing soldiers in shot (except for one shot where they are out of focus). The result is that even though in both movies we can see a great deal of what the British Army is doing, it fails to feel like a character itself because it is never given an opposing character.
Compare that to what is seen in Waterloo (1970). In that movie, Napoleon is used as a POV character to the same extent that Wellington is and there are just as many minor French characters as there are minor British Characters. The result is that we have a clear picture of what both armies are doing and they begin to feel like two characters at odds with each other. There is even a third minor character that gets involved in the form of the Prussian Army following behind Blücher like a nebulous horde.
Note that none of these three commanding officers ever interact with each other in the movie but it feels like they do because their armies are acting as extensions of themselves. If the armies are characters, the commanding generals are the brains while the soldiers are the body. Just like when we see two humans interacting, we don’t need to see their brains physically touch to see them having an exchange.
So, why has this style faded away? Put simply, money. Both Gettysburg and Waterloo lost money at the box office. There have been few Battle Epics that have been successful at actually pulling in large crowds. The Longest Day (1962) and Midway (1976) are the only movies I was able to find in my research that would be unambiguously considered box office hits. The rest either lost money or didn’t make back enough to enthuse studios. This comes from two different reasons:
The first is that it is expensive to shoot a movie with such a large scope. The number of actors needed (both speaking roles and extras), the amount of special effects (whether practical or CGI), the number of props, etc. All of these things mean that it becomes exorbitantly expensive to cover that kind of scale. Instead, a more limited story can be shot for a much smaller budget.
The second reason comes down to the tastes of the audience. While me and my fellow military history nerds might eat up another Battle Epic being made, the majority of movie goers are not going to be as enthused. By narrowing the scope to become more human focused, they can reach a broader audience. Not everyone stared at maps of lines of battle as a kid like I did, but most movie goers have at least a few fellow humans they can relate to. By putting someone in the battle that the audience can relate to, it helps make the battle feel real. Without that, everything shown on the screen carries no weight.
Alas, I doubt anyone at Hollywood is going to fund a big budget Battle Epic like I want to see anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean the War Movie as a whole is a dead genre. There are regular additions to the catalog that can easily be called cinematic classics even by cinephiles who don’t like war movies. The Battle Epic is simply a phase of cinematic history that the industry has moved past. Fans of the style must content themselves with the classics already out there and with similar stories in other mediums.