What happens to women when the men are at war? If many of the most well-known film depictions were to be believed, the good women are left at home to keep house and wring their hands, to find new lovers, and grieve alone for families loved and lost. The bad women send ill-timed Dear John letters and distract men on the front with their feminine wiles, and use those same wiles to betray their country.
However, as James Kent’s film adaptation of the much-loved memoir Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain proved, this is hardly close to the true extent of women’s experiences during periods of unrest. The daughter of a well-to-do family, the headstrong Brittain was determined to defy social expectation by fighting against the prescribed future of middle-class wifedom to pursue a more fulfilling literary career. Through pure grit and determination she secured a place at Oxford but part-way into her first term, her longed-for studies suddenly felt like a decadent luxury. As the First World War began to claim her closest male friends and relatives, she decided to join them, as near to the frontline as a woman could be, by abandoning her studies to become a nurse.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
By the end of the war her life was completely changed and she poured her grief and newly found political insight into a clear-eyed account of her experiences. Brittain’s memoirs are both an enduringly persuasive argument for pacifism and a deeply personal feminist text, and Kent’s handsome adaptation wonderfully elucidates the transformative power the war had on her understandings of her womanhood and her own place in society.
It follows in the path of these 10 great films that reveal changing attitudes to women’s contributions to, and experiences of, war.
Director William A. Wellman
Middle-class hero Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and the wealthy David (Richard Arlen) are fighting over the same girl. But when they enlist in Air Combat training, the realities of men’s work in the war soon turn their rivalry into a charming bromance. A film about the First World War that was made in 1927, when Hollywood could indulge briefly in a non-critical love affair with war heroism, the film features some still-impressive air combat scenes and an early appearance from a young Gary Cooper.
The film was also the first film to be awarded the best picture Academy Award at the first annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award ceremony in 1929 and was one of the first films to show two men kissing. With such a masculine list of accolades, it is perhaps no surprise that is also a great example of the sidelining of women – even the most bankable of actors – in war films. Rewritten to accommodate the inclusion of Paramount’s biggest star Clara Bow, it gained her incandescent screen presence but not her approval, with her famously declaring “Wings is … a man’s picture and I’m just the whipped cream on top of the pie”.
Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Director William Wyler
While the battlefield made men out of the boys, the abandoned homestead made Madonnas out of the girls. A celebration of the English stiff upper lip, and the hardiness of the institution of family, Mrs. Miniver was a key cultural marker in rallying American support for the war effort.
The titular Kay Miniver (Greer Garson, who, as best actress, won one of the film’s six Academy Awards) is a fortysomething housewife who we meet as she is frantically rushing down a shopping street, overcome by the desire to buy an expensive hat. In a familiar narrative, Mrs. Miniver is a complacent and frivolous woman who until the war knows nothing beyond the world of tea party niceties and charity fetes. By the end of the film, the ravages of war have touched all of her family and she is transformed into the quintessential wartime Madonna, described in the contemporary trailer as a “valiant woman whose love and devotion shield her family from the cruelest onslaught of devastation ever visited on mankind”.
Millions like Us (1943)
Directors Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder
Part propaganda flick, part love story, Millions like Us is a rare film about female factory workers during World War II. It explores how the collective responsibility to contribute to the war effort altered all ordinary lives, dismantling old class prejudices and proving the truth of Churchill’s sentiments that the war would not just be won by “the few” but through the sweat and hard work of the eponymous “millions like us”.
Celia (Patricia Roc), the most ordinary of girls, has her sheltered and mundane home life turned upside down by a call from the Labour Exchange, summoning her to work at an aircraft components factory. Her world expanding to include meaningful female camaraderie and a shared common cause, the once shy and retiring Celia becomes a shining example of the empowering effects of the collective war effort – but the rewards are deeply conservative. As romance blossoms with a co-worker at the factory and a wedding ring is secured, Celia’s transformation is complete – a humble and hardworking wife is born.
Rome, Open City (1945)
Director Roberto Rossellini
Roberto Rossellini’s World War II trilogy (Rome, Open City was followed by Paisà, 1946, and Germany, Year Zero, 1948) explores the impact of the conflict on ordinary people across the world. His neorealist classic Rome, Open City follows a group of Italian resistance fighters, including men, women, children and priests.
Pina (Anna Magnani) and Marina (Maria Michi) are Rome, Open City’s female opposites, representing the sullying effects of war on the epicentre of Italian family life – the woman. Marina, the femme fatale of the piece, sinks into drunken debauchery, corrupted by a lesbian affair with a German officer into informing on her own people. Pina, conversely, is a virtuous Madonna figure whose illegitimate pregnancy and a humiliatingly public death are shown to represent the perverse and despoiling effects of war. So pervasive was the image of Pina and her shameful end that when the Italian government commemorated the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, it produced a stamp that depicted Pina’s death scene as the defining emblem of the brutal pain of that period.
Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)
Director Lewis Gilbert
Lewis Gilbert’s 1958 film tells the story of Violette Szabo, a young woman who joined Britain’s Special Operations Executive and was only the second woman to be awarded the George Cross. A product of its time in its depiction of the Germans as indiscriminately conniving and malevolent, and the British as unfailingly resilient and dignified, it is markedly more forward-thinking in its depiction of its central female character.
Violette is a woman whose emotional strength as a wife and a mother is matched only by her physical prowess in the male world of war. Virginia McKenna, who played Violette, described her role in the film as one of the most challenging of her career and she gives an extraordinarily nuanced portrait, moving with ease from dutiful wife and mother to an ambitious, defiant and courageous contributor to the war effort. Most striking is the believable complexity in the presentation of Violette’s femininity, where her excitement over the purchase of expensive Parisian couture does not detract from her absolute and unerring loyalty to her country.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Director Gillo Pontecorvo
Pauline Kael’s 1973 review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece of political cinema famously commented that it was “probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people”. A clear-eyed portrait of the bloody years of struggle preceding Algerian independence from France, its startlingly honest portrayal of strategic violence during conflict on both sides has seen it used as a morale booster by everyone from the Black Panther party to the 2010 Algerian football team and was even screened at the Pentagon in 2004 to inform strategy in Iraq.
No less honest in its portrayal of women, one of the film’s most effective scenes sees three Algerian women begin to remove their veils and transform themselves into European hair and dress in preparation for a terrorist act. Pontecorvo’s direction of this central scene is a fantastically layered exploration of female subjectivity and a dismantling of expressions of cinematic otherness. As the women prepare to lay bombs across the city, their moral and emotional dilemma is clear, but so is their agency in the acts, and the centrality of the scene confirms them as key contributors to the resistance movement.
Director Fred Zinnemann
Director Fred Zinnemann’s career shows a particular interest in the place of women in the context of the Second World War and the anti-fascist resistance (notably Deborah Kerr’s army wife Karen in From Here to Eternity and Audrey Hepburn’s Gabrielle van der Mal in The Nun’s Story). In one of his final films, Zinnemann teamed up with Lillian Hellman, the first female writer to be admitted to the club of American dramatists, to adapt an episode in Hellman’s published memoirs Pentimento (1973). Eschewing the inflexible historical accuracy of many wartime narratives Zinnemann instead gives us a meditation on the nature of memory and reconstruction itself.
The story of Hellman’s childhood best friend, Julia, and her activism in the anti-fascist movement is ambiguously charted alongside the process of Hellman’s writing of her famous play The Children’s Hour to thrilling effect. On release, controversy dogged the veracity of Hellman’s story, but did little to put off female viewers, who responded to the passionate female friendship and plethora of female talent on screen; Vanessa Redgrave as Julia, Jane Fonda as Hellman and the first screen appearance of a 26-year old Meryl Streep in a triumphant turn as their bitchy socialite ‘frenemy’.
Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame (2007)
Director Hana Makhmalbaf
Hana Makhmalbaf comes from a family of prolific filmmakers, her father being leading Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and her sister, Samira Makhmalbaf, having had a feature film in competition in Cannes before she was 18. Samira’s films The Apple (1997), Blackboards (2000) and At Five in the Afternoon (2003) all show an incredible affinity to the plight of Muslim women caught up in the aftermath of fighting. All are great films, but this, a quietly unassuming film from the least well-known of the family, deserves a wider audience. Ostensibly a film about a child at war, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame is also about the brutal coming-of-age that conflict represents for young girls.
Six-year-old Baktay is determined to go to school. Selling enough eggs to buy herself a notebook, she wraps a golden scarf around her head and, armed with her mother’s lipstick as a pen, she sets off to school. On her way she is set upon by a group of boys who cover her head with a brown bag and attempt to bury her alive. Finally finding her classroom, on her return, she encounters the same boys, but this time seems to know how to handle them. Somehow during the day’s struggle, she seems to have learnt a brutal lesson on womanhood in her world – if she plays dead, she will finally find peace.
White Material (2009)
Director Claire Denis
Isabelle Huppert’s gruelling performance as Maria Vial in Claire Denis’s breathtaking White Material is an exercise in endurance. In an unnamed African country, Maria runs a coffee plantation, hiring local workers and living among them. Unable to fathom life back in her native France, she naively identifies with her fellow Africans, conveniently forgetting her own part in the inequalities they face, distancing herself from her fellow colonialists and their ‘white material’ amassed through an upholding of the social order that she benefits from.
It’s a disorienting, dreamlike film, full of haunted terrified faces and at times brimming with a palpable sense of malice. Denis captures with some painful truth the complexities of power between the whites and native Africans in Maria’s world. As the film approaches its grim dénouement, Maria’s dogged determination to cling on to her ravaged life becomes a cruel inversion of the wartime Madonna doing everything she can to save her family’s way of life in the midst of absolute and brutal chaos.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Director Kathryn Bigelow
The eagerly awaited dramatisation of “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man” ended up being directed by the first woman to win a best director Academy Award, and fronted by the pre-Raphaelite beauty of Jessica Chastain. Criticised on release for its ambivalent viewpoint, its lack of interest in anything but the winners, and apparent condoning of torture, Bigelow’s film is nonetheless a powerful, contemporary war thriller that raises questions about the gendering of warfare, as well as of historical narratives themselves.
Looking beyond the all-male Navy Seal team that were responsible for the death of Bin Laden, Bigelow locates the women who played critical roles and places them front and central. At first playing out like a revenge western, painting the protagonist Maya as a cold, unemotional and obsessively determined hunter who understands her mission in almost messianic terms, the film’s subdued ending tells a slightly more complex story. For critic Richard Combs, Bigelow’s ending raises a question on the gendering of heroism and glory in cinema:
“… in the female context the terms of the male Western scenario can’t be worked through in the same way. Which ultimately leaves Maya placeless. After identifying bin Laden’s corpse, she is airlifted out, alone, in a giant cargo plane, and the pilot asks: ‘Where do you want to go?’ The hero of any … Western … would have no trouble answering ‘Home.’ But the end of Maya’s story is silence.”
We asked you on Facebook and Twitter what we’d missed from the list. Here’s how you voted …
- The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)
- Odette (Herbert Wilcox, 1950)
- Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)
- The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)
- Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931)
- Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982)
- Two Women (Vittorio De Sica, 1960)
- Les Femmes de l’ombre (Jean-Paul Salomé, 2008)
- Plenty (Fred Schepisi, 1985)
- Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)
Your suggestions for films about women in wartime dug deep into film history, bringing to light films of various different nationalities and eras. The clear favourite was 1957 Soviet film The Cranes Are Flying, the tragic story of two lovers torn apart by the beginning of the Second World War. Mikhail Kalatozov’s won the Palme d’or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival and has been called “the first indisputable masterpiece of post-Stalin cinema.”