Select Page

Five Movies About the Aftermath of War

War is hell, and there are plenty of movies showing that to us.  Platoon, Paths of Glory, Saving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Longest Day, Apocalypse Now are all great movies.

The drama inherent in war makes it a prime subject for movies, of course, and the scope of battle lends itself particularly well to the visual medium. But what happens when the war is over, and the soldiers return home? What about movies that deal with the “after”?

The Men (1950) 

Ken (Marlon Brando) comes back from the war paralyzed below the waist. He’s trying to get his body as healthy as possible in a VA hospital. But the bigger struggle is coming to terms with life in a wheelchair, and how to deal with the girl who was waiting for him to come home. The message is simple – not all wounds are physical, and sometimes the worst ones aren’t.


The movie is pretty unremarkable, and probably wouldn’t be noteworthy if it wasn’t Brando’s movie debut. (He’d follow it up the next year by bringing Stanley Kowalski to the screen.) His acting is head and shoulders above everyone else – so much so that it’s a bit of a distraction. Perhaps if Ken had been played by someone else, I think the movie might have held together a little better for me. As it is, when you watch Ken you’re reminded that the other people are simply actors playing assigned roles, which makes it harder to connect to the story.

First Blood (1982) 

Before John Rambo became a caricature in Rambo: First Blood Part II and the punchline of a bad joke in Rambo III, he was a well-developed and believable character in First Blood.


It’s a bit of a storytelling challenge to make us sympathize with a character who’s so strong and so capable of taking care of himself, but that’s exactly what we get here. Rambo is not just a forgotten war hero; he’s a shunned and rejected one. After finding out that his last good friend has died from Agent Orange exposure, Rambo is confronted by the local yokel sheriff who literally drives him out of town. Rambo comes back into town, asserting himself and his rights, but gets forced into another violent conflict. It’s an interesting take on the theme of trying to fit back into society after being at war.

First Blood showed us that even if his range isn’t broad, when you put Stallone in the right kind of role, he can deliver a great performance.The pacing of the movie is spot-on, the score works well, and First Blood is a pretty darn good movie.

Coming Home (1978) 

It’s difficult not to compare Coming Home with another movie on this list; Born on the Fourth of July. Both focus on a man coming back from Vietnam paralyzed, and his struggles and journey to make a life for himself. (In fact, Coming Home is apparently inspired in large measure by Ron Kovic’s autobiography, which later itself became Born on the Fourth of July.) Of the two, I strongly prefer Coming Home.


War changes a soldier, whether it’s physically or emotionally. It also changes the people who are back home, waiting. It can sometimes force a reevaluation of who you are, what you want and whether you want to keep on going with life. Coming Home is more subtle and personal than Born on the Fourth of July, and lets the characters tell the story, instead of forcing them into the story that the director wants to tell.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989) 

Though I liked parts of this movie (primarily what Tom Cruise brought to the role of Ron Kovic), I thought it fell short. Kovic is the only character who has any depth – everyone else just seems to be responsible for playing off him and staking claim to particular political point of view. The underlying story is heartbreaking. An all-American boy tries to do the honorable thing and serve his country, but is horribly injured during the war. He comes home to find that few people care about him or his sacrifice, while many others are openly hostile.


Unfortunately, it felt like Oliver Stone was running through a checklist of conflicts and challenges that Kovic had to face (ok, here’s his experience with the overworked, underfunded and sometimes indifferent hospital staff, there’s the run-in with an unsympathetic fellow marine from WWII, etc.), rather than giving us any other real people for Kovic to interact with. The first 10 minutes of the film – indulgent visual exposition – made it clear what was to come. Rather than being allowed to watch the story unfold, Oliver Stone was going to show it to me and tell me how I should feel.

It’s not that I fault the movie for being “one-sided” or “overtly political.” Even if either of those claims were true (and I don’t think they are), that’s not a problem because it’s unquestionably the filmmaker’s absolute right to do so.  I simply thought the film suffered from ineffective storytelling.

Brothers (2009) 

Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes away to war and leaves his family behind, just as his deadbeat brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison. Sam’s helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. Tommy grows closer to Sam’s wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and both try to fill a void. Sam comes back home alive but he’s not the same person he was when he left.


Brothers is an intimate story, although I would have gotten into it more if the second act had focused more on what was happening between Tommy and Grace. They thought Sam was dead, so we should be in same mindset. Don’t show us the horror Sam experiences in captivity – doing that only serves to remind us that he’s not dead. When we see Sam alive we can’t fully accept what’s going on back home between his wife and Brother. This makes it harder to appreciate what I took to be a significant theme of the movie – that people move on.

I’m going to have to check out the Danish original to see how that version of the story goes.

*  *  *  *  *

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.