How to Write a War Film That’s Compelling and Modern
This article will offer key pointers on how to write a war film.
- Using five successful but very different films as a template, we will point out the shared ingredients of any great modern war film.
- Whilst we’ll also stress the scope for creativity and independent thought when writing in this genre.
Modern here refers to the date of the films’ production (the article will focus on war films released in the 21st century), not the era of warfare that they depict.
The greatest advantage of war films, perhaps over any other genre, is inherent drama.
There isn’t anything more dramatic in life than war.
A great war film will channel this drama but also include idiosyncratic elements.
- They focus on different wars, depict different nations, and are even in different languages (Letters from Iwo Jima is predominantly in Japanese, the others are mainly in English).
- They were made on budgets ranging from £8.1 million (’71) to over £100m (Dunkirk and 1917).
On close inspection, however, it becomes clear that these films utilise many of the same tropes and devices, albeit in incredibly different ways.
This article will focus on openings, lead characters, moments of humanity and inhumanity, and set pieces, in these five films. In doing so, it will demonstrate the best ways to write a war film.
War Film Openings
These five films start in very different ways. In doing so, they present a number of ‘ways in’ to a war film. The approaches are as follows:
The most immediate way into a war film is to launch us straight into military action.
The advantage of this kind of approach is the stakes—kill or be killed—of war are immediately spelt out. The viewer is immediately exposed to the horror and danger of warfare.
The opening scene of The Hurt Locker exploits the tension of war to devastating effect.
- We are immediately introduced to the U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq, midway through a mission.
- A robot designed to disarm an improvised explosive device (IED) gets stuck on a rock.
- This means Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson has to don a protective suit and disarm the bomb himself.
- Events develop slowly in Mark Boal’s screenplay. A local butcher, and potential suspect, pulls out a mobile phone.
- Eventually, the IED explodes and Thompson is killed.
Straight away, we are alerted to the dangers of this job. In this world, life and death are terrifyingly close together.
The only disadvantage to this hard-hitting approach is it might mean your options are more limited later down the line. Generating tension early on is great, but it sets the bar high for what is to come.
2. School of Hard Knocks
Often, screenwriters will show soldiers training at the beginning of a war film. This can be a gripping way of starting a war film.
- Famously, the entire first half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket depicts US marines training for the Vietnam War.
It is a technique that Gregory Burke chose for the opening of ’71.
- We watch young British soldiers box one another, run across mountains, and commando crawl through rivers, as they are barked at by an imposing commanding officer.
This approach ensures that we, as viewers, grow with the soldiers. We have an affinity for them because we have shared in their development.
Further, showing a young soldier train and prepare often means that we will discover warfare with them. They, like us, are novices—unaware of the realities of war.
A disadvantage to this approach is that it has been used almost to the point of cliché. A compelling and modern war film must take this trope and make it new.
- In ‘71 Gregory Burke achieved this by writing a boxing scene between two soldiers to start the film.
- We have two soldiers from the same side fighting one another.
- In a film where it is difficult to know who is on who’s side, and where in-fighting and betrayal are rife, it is a clever premonition for the succeeding action.
3. Character Set-Up
Occasionally, a war film will initially develop on character. The opening of 1917 focuses on introducing us to two characters—Private Blake and Private Schofield.
- We glimpse the world around them—trenches, mud, and hundreds of men.
- But Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns focus the start of their screenplay on telling us as much about these characters as they can.
Schofield’s behaviour and speech are particularly revealing.
- We learn he is compassionate and values his friendship with Blake when he offers his friend a ham sandwich.
- His most important line is; ‘It’s easier not to go back at all’ when discussing the idea of returning home on leave.
Immediately, we learn he is homesick—he has people and places back home he misses, making him a sympathetic character.
4. Narrative Set-Up
Dunkirk is an example of a war film that focuses on immediately establishing the narrative.
This is primarily because Christopher Nolan’s narrative is quite unusual—it is non-linear and is made up of three different perspectives that take place over different periods of time:
- The mole (a jetty for launching ships) on a Dunkirk beach where the action takes place over a week.
- The sea, where we meet a civilian skipper preparing his ‘small ship’. This action takes place over a day.
- The air, which takes place in the cockpit of a spitfire. This action takes place over an hour.
Nolan’s unique screenplay meant it was essential to quickly establish the different time zones in order to set up the narrative.
Unless the narrative is unusual, however, as with Dunkirk, screenwriters need not worry about establishing the setup too early on. It is more important to focus on snatching the audience’s attention.
5. Historical Framing
Letters from Iwo Jima is a war film that depicts a battle between Japan and US forces during the Second World War.
The opening scene, however, takes place in the present day. An archaeological dig on a beach uncovers an old satchel.
- Iris Yamashita (the screenwriter) opts for a framed narrative; the start and the end of the film take place in the present day.
- This film is about legacy and memory.
- So starting the movie in the present, and in doing so linking the action to our current world, immediately hints at the key underlying theme.
Starting your war film in a different time setting, whether that be years before or after the war took place, can be a profoundly touching way of opening a war film.
- It gives writers the opportunity to display what was different before/after this war.
- How has this war changed the world/ community/country /individuals?
- Setting it in an alternative time period allows the writer to show the significance of this war in a historical context.
While each of these films opens with a different focus, they serve a shared function. Each movie starts by focusing on a theme that it will pursue over the course of the film.
In an exciting war film, the opening should set up what is unique about the film that we are watching.
- We should know, from the start of the film, what makes this war film different from those we have seen before.
War Film Characters
If the audience doesn’t care about the people involved in the war, then they’re not going to care about the story.
Again, these five films show the range of potential scope when constructing characters for war films.
What they all have in common, however, is characters that we are intrigued to spend time with over two or so hours.
1. The Rookie
An exhilarating war film will often include a character who is a newcomer to the world of war.
As previously mentioned, the protagonist in ’71, Private Gary Hook, is a new-comer to the war in Northern Ireland.
- Having the hero encounter war for the first time is a good way of siding the character with the audience.
- Given we, as audiences, have never been to war, we can relate to Hook’s edginess or naivety.
In one memorable scene, Hook leaves his army bunk, late at night, to smoke a cigarette outside. It is the night before his British troop will first patrol the Belfast streets.
We can sympathise with Hook’s inability to sleep. This one brief scene markedly develops Hook’s character.
2. The Nutter
The Hurt Locker’s protagonist is fascinating in a completely different way.
- What felt original about this war film was that Mark Boal wrote Sergeant William James, the main character, as being obsessed with the danger of war.
- James gets a kick out of disarming bombs.
Whilst war movies often have characters who are less afraid, or are even crazy, Boal’s depiction of a soldier who feeds off the adrenaline rush of military conflict was a fresh concept.
One way of making a character interesting in a war film is by making them react in an unusual way. James is a great example of this.
He jogs towards bombs in the protective suit—apparently eager to get nearer them. Audiences might not like this character, but they are going to find his unusual behaviour captivating.
3. The Sentimentalist
Human feelings and emotions are out-of-place in a war zone.
Many soldiers have to suppress their fears and affections in battle. Seeing friends die and killing others is entirely incompatible with ordinary human behaviour.
Modern war films have acknowledged how difficult this can be. Often, a war film will have a sentimental character who isn’t cut out for the horrors of war. This character’s humanity will expose the inhumanity of warfare.
In The Hurt Locker, Specialist Owen Eldridge fills this role.
- There is a scene where Eldridge sits back in camp after his crew have disarmed a bomb.
- Eldridge raises a gun (on safety) and mimes pulling the trigger. ‘He’s dead. He’s alive’ – Eldridge continually repeats.
- Eldridge is aware of the very real proximity of death in war. He is afraid because he has begun to think about the very real dangers of warfare.
- Mark Boal (the screenwriter) suggests that stopping to consider the realities of war is dangerous.
Major characters in 1917, Schofield, and Letters from Iwo Jima, Saigo, are also sentimental.
- In the opening pages of Iris Yamashita’s screenplay, Saigo reads out a letter home that complains about the war. He then struggles at a shooting drill.
- Yamashita establishes Saigo as a man of words, not of action.
Sentimental characters are easy for audiences to side with, because we, like them, are unused to the horrors of war.
Occasionally, a war film is led by an ensemble—meaning it has a number of main characters, rather than just one.
Dunkirk and Letters from Iwo Jima are both ensemble movies—with multiple key characters.
- This technique is perhaps easier in war cinema than in other genres, because action plays such a key part in war films.
- Often we follow the event, the war itself, rather than a specific character.
However, it is important to be tentative with this approach.
- Having many major characters only works if we care about them.
- A danger for screenwriters is writing lots of thin, uninteresting and two dimensional characters.
Dunkirk is successful because although there is no main character, many of the ensemble characters are interesting and well developed in their own right.
- Two great examples are Dawson, captain of one of the small ships,
- and a shell-shocked soldier that he picks up from the sea.
- Immediately, we can relate to Dawson’s determination and the soldier’s fear.
Nolan very quickly establishes character without using much dialogue. Although we barely know these characters, we have a sense of who they are, and so care about them.
Writing an ensemble piece is difficult because it is imperative that we care about a whole group of different characters. As a result, each character must be developed thoroughly and efficiently.
It is a difficult strategy, but it can be very rewarding, as in Dunkirk.
Man’s Inhumanity to Man in War Films
A gripping, realistic war film will showcase war’s lack of compassion. In warfare, human beings are crueller and more violent than at any other point in their existence.
- Contemporary viewers, however, are well-used to blood and gore.
- Good screenwriters will usually not compete.
- They will rarely try to shock audiences into attention with horrific images because audiences are depressingly used to imagery of foul acts of violence.
Instead, the most poignant, graphic scenes are not so much in the act of violence itself, but in the significance of that act to the story or the characters involved.
As evidence of this, imagine watching a film where a random man’s arm is blown off.
- It would be repulsive, but many viewers could watch this kind of horror without flinching.
- Now imagine this man is called Mike, he lives in Seattle, has three children, and works as a mechanic. Now we watch his arm being blown off.
- Even with that tiny bit of back story, we can relate more to Mike. He is more human. As a result, the violence is more shocking.
- We understand what the consequences will be for Mike as a result of this violent act.
Far less important than the act of violence itself is the character the violence has an effect on. The violence’s anonymity is lost and it becomes a lot more real and meaningful to the audience.
1. Banzai – Letters from Iwo Jima
A good war film will personalise the violence. A great example is in Letters from Iwo Jima.
- About halfway through the film, an isolated group of Japanese soldiers receive the order to commit suicide.
- One by one, the men shout ‘Tennoheika Banzai!’.
- They then pull the pins out of their personal grenades, and hug them to their chest, blowing themselves up.
Far more frightening, however, than this anonymous chain of suicide, is the look on Saigo’s face as he watches his comrades explode.
- Saigo knows that he is expected to commit suicide next.
- Saigo’s fear humanises the horror and makes it all-the-more jarring and tragic for an audience.
2. Beckham – The Hurt Locker
An even more harrowing example is in The Hurt Locker.
- At one moment, Sergeant James and his team find an IED stuffed into the corpse of a child.
- This, of course, is an example of a truly horrifying image.
- However, the scene is particularly powerful because James thinks he knows this child.
- There are two earlier scenes, where a cocky, confident young boy called Beckham hustles James to buy some pirate DVDs.
We, like James, grow fond of this quick-talking, charismatic kid. So seeing, what we presume to be Beckham, dead, is hugely distressing.
Mark Boal’s writing is particularly memorable because we also see the impact of Beckham’s apparent death on James.
- The protagonist, usually bizarrely blasé about war, is deeply moved when he sees the child’s body.
Boal writes (page 84 of the screenplay);
‘James tries to keep his feelings in check… but he can’t. The war has finally reached him… He closes the boy’s eyes. And slams his fists on the table.’
This is the first time in the film that James acts in an emotional way. We see the impact of violence not only on the child, who we cared about, but also on the seemingly unfeeling protagonist.
- It transpires that this child isn’t actually Beckham.
- But in setting him up as Beckham—both to us and to James, Boal shows how much more harrowing horrific events are when we have a sense of the human involved.
This is an important lesson to remember when writing a war film.
- Violence used merely to shock the audiences may catch their attention.
- But won’t it stick with viewers in the same way as violence that happens to characters we care about.
Write the inhumanity of war, but make sure this inhumanity happens to established, rounded characters.
The Humanity in a War Film
This is the flipside of the previous section.
Screenwriters depict rare moments of compassion in warfare with poignant emphasis. Including occasional scenes of humanity, among the brutality and chaos, is essential to writing a convincing modern war film.
Moments of empathy humanise the action and so ensure a greater impact on audiences.
1. The Crying Baby –1917
Mendes and Wilson-Cairns write a scene in 1917 that epitomises this war film technique.
- At one point, Schofield, on the run from German soldiers, hides himself away in the cellar of a house.
- Schofield finds a French woman with a crying baby in the cellar.
- The baby is desperate for something to eat. Fortunately, Schofield has a flask full of milk.
- The Private then begins to sing a lullaby to relax the baby.
- Moments earlier, outside in the warzone, Schofield strangled an opposing soldier, but in here he softly chants a nursery rhyme.
The screenwriters are obviously trying to emphasise that war happens to human beings. War forces compassionate people to do horrible things.
They juxtapose an act of extreme violence with an act of notable kindness to stress this point.
- Schofield singing a rhyme, however, borders on being over-the-top and heavy-handed. These are two extremes and the effect feels slightly contrived.
2. The Foster Home – ’71
A more convincing, powerful example is in ’71.
- Before leaving for Belfast, Private Hook plays football with a younger boy, roughly ten years old—who is presumably his brother.
- They then discuss girls at a diner.
- Afterwards, Hook returns the boy to a foster home.
As an audience, we only glimpse the relationship between these two. We have to guess at the connection. What we can clearly see, however, is the affection Hook has for the younger boy.
It humanises Hook—he is not just a soldier. He cares about others.
- Placing the younger boy in a foster home is also a clever bit of screenwriting.
- We know this younger boy has a lack of support or comfort—and so we desperately want Hook to return home. Hook is perhaps the only real relation the boy has.
In making the audience do more work, Burke writes a more realistic, less contrived, scene than Mendes and Wilson-Cairns in 1917.
War Films – Tense Set Pieces
In war films, more than any other genre, screenwriters have the opportunity to write gripping set pieces. A great war film always includes scenes of real tension.
The reason for this is simple.
- At war, mistakes end in death. The stakes are primal.
- In great war films, the sense of threat oscillates over the course of the narrative. It is important to have lulls and peaks in tension.
Good war screenplays will make the most of the genre and include a set piece where audiences are on edge, fearing for the characters’ lives.
1. The Chase
There is nothing more primal than running away from someone who wants to kill you. It is a trope often used in war films. Just watch this clip from 1917:
Schofield is on the run—sprinting away from armed German troops. He is quite literally running for his life.
Now watch how similar this clip is from ’71:
The action is almost entirely the same. The only difference is in setting and the way the action is shot.
The screenwriters have written formulaic scenes. And yet, in both films, these scenes are exciting.
Chase scenes are very visual and very easy to understand; run or die. For this reason, they are often reliably effective moments of tension.
2. The Unseen Enemy
In a good war film, screenwriters will often write an unseen enemy; the characters come under attack from a hidden threat.
Not being able to see the enemy is particularly frightening, because it is impossible to retaliate. The opposition can see, and kill our characters, but the characters cannot attack the opposition.
In The Hurt Locker, in what appears to be a lull in the action, the soldiers suddenly find themselves under the attack of enemy sniper fire.
- One by one, different members of the group are picked off.
- The squad struggles to remain calm. No one knows what to do, or who will be the next victim.
- Snipers are a commonly used manifestation of the unseen enemy.
In Dunkirk, the opposition forces are unseen for the entire film.
- We never see the faces of the German troops.
- Instead, we just hear the chatter of gunfire from opposition territory.
Hiding the enemy makes them more terrifying, and less human. Horror films also often use this technique. The moment where we see the monster is always less scary than the build-up.
In Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan also constructs a tense set piece that involves an unseen enemy.
- About halfway through the screenplay (page 50 onwards), a group of English troops sit in a grounded fishing boat in opposition territory.
- They hope the tide will come in and then the boat will float, allowing them to evacuate the beach.
- Suddenly, gunshots begin to pierce the side of the boat.
Nolan writes the whole scene from inside the boat. The interior of the boat gets brighter and brighter as shafts of light shine through an increasing number of bullet holes.
Having characters paralysed under gunfire, trapped in a position like sitting ducks, is a great way of building up tension in a war film.
3. The Need For Stealth or Silence
This is another device that war films share with horror movies. Writing a scene where characters are forced to be stealthy or silent is a great way of building tension in a war film.
Once more, the stakes are simple—if they fail to act with stealth, or end up making noise, they die.
A good example is in Letters from Iwo Jima.
- Iris Yamashita writes a scene (page 62) where Saigo and other Japanese troops reach an open bit of land.
- Their team leader spells out the stakes clearly. He says:
‘We will make a run for the Motoyama mountains. There is no cover for two kilometres. It’s every man for himself. See you on the other side. If not on this earth, in the next world.’
Saigo crawls to the other side under heavy gunfire. If he makes too much noise, or moves too abruptly, he will be spotted and killed.
Scenes that require silence or stealth often have a significant impact on audiences. Viewers hold their breath, praying that the characters aren’t spotted.
Many exciting war films combine these different techniques. Dunkirk, for example, includes all three of these methods in set-pieces at various points during the film.
They are formulaic techniques that we have seen many times before, but they are effective at moving audiences.
- Merge these set-pieces with developed characters and a unique plot to move beyond familiarity and create an exhilarating and fresh war film.
War Film: What More?
The final tip for how to write a war film is to consider and elaborate on the basic stakes of your story.
- The exciting thing about war is how primal the individual’s stakes are—one wrong move or a bit of bad luck ends in death.
But successful war films include stakes that go beyond the cost of personal human life.
In Dunkirk and Letters from Iwo Jima, troops fight to stay alive, not just for themselves, but for their entire nation.
- These films are not just about the survival of individuals, they are about the survival of nations—of customs, of ways of life, of shared beliefs.
In 1917 and ’71, Private Schofield and Private Hook face extraordinary odds to stay alive.
- And yet the significance of these stories goes beyond their own lives.
- In both cases, the Privates have loved ones back home.
- They fight to stay alive more out of their love for others, than for themselves.
The Hurt Locker is about Sergeant James’ battle for survival as he disarms bombs, but it is also about the psychology of soldiers.
- At the end of Boal’s script, James returns home.
- While in Iraq, James was cocky and decisive, in America, he is out-of-place.
- Boal writes a scene where the protagonist stands in a supermarket, dithering as he tries to select a cereal.
- For James; real-life has lost its colour. The experience of being a soldier has altered his everyday life.
Erich Maria Remarque writes, in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, that World War One destroyed a whole generation of men, including those that ‘escaped the shells’.
- In The Hurt Locker, Boal updates Remarque and paints a portrait of a man destroyed by bombs—despite avoiding his own detonation.
Finding out what your story is really about, beyond grenades and gunfire, is the most important step in how to write a war film.