The Best and the Worst War Movie Dealing With Genocide

One of the most horrific outcomes of war is genocide, the wholesale elimination of entire peoples.  Whether it's the Jewish Holocaust, tribal extermination in Rwanda, or mass killings in Central America, the films that deal with this sensitive and awful issue are few and far between.  In this week's article, we look at the best and worst films to deal with this gruesome subject.

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The Killing Fields (1984)

The Killing Fields.

The Best!

The Killing Fields is based on the true story of Dith Pran, a Cambodian interpreter that worked for journalist Sydney Schanberg.  The film starts with Sydney in Cambodia, investigating incidents of human rights abuse by the Khmer Rouge with Pran by his side.  But then the Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia and all Westerners end up fleeing the country, but Pran, being Cambodian, is stuck inside.  What happens next is one of the worst genocides experienced in the 20th century:  The Khmer Rouge systematically began killing anyone with an education, or who was able to read.  Doctors, teachers, engineers were all massacred - often at the hands of weapon wielding children - as the Khmer Rouge attempted to bring about a peasant agrarian society.  Pran pretends to be an illiterate farmer to survive before eventually escaping to the United States.  It's the incredible true story of one man's quest for survival played out against the backdrop of unspeakable evil.

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Salvador (1986)


The Best!

In Salvador, James Woods plays a boozy freelance journalist in El Salvador during the 1980s, a period when much of Central America was roiled in conflict as leftist guerrillas clashed with U.S. backed "freedom fighter" (except these freedom fighters often ended up massacring large groups of people to make their message about freedom).  This is also one of Oliver Stone's first films.  There's a love story and some political hijinx involving the U.S. embassy.  It's an imperfect film that is nonetheless imminently watchable.

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Schindler's List (1993)

Schindler's List Movie Poster.

 The Best!

Spielberg's Schindler's List is considered by many to be a masterpiece.  It made my list of the best Holocaust movies and the best World War II movies.  It was also one of the best reviewed war movies and one of the few war movies to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  This is the definitive picture about the Jewish genocide that came to define the second World War, and which gave birth to the nation-state of Israel.  There's probably few people who haven't seen this film, but if you're one of them, you're missing out on a cinematic classic.

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Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda.

The Best!

tells the story of a hotel manager that - much like Oscar Schindler in Schindler's List - manages to save hundreds of Rwandas from genocide when the country erupts into a suicidal orgy of violence, by housing them in his hotel.  With only a few U.N. security guards at the driveway, he manages to fend off marauding killers through calling in favors, bribes, deceit, trickery, and cunning.  What's most frightening about the genocide in Rwanda is that for decades the two tribes at the center of the conflict - the Hutu and the Tutsi - lived in relative harmony with one another, until a small but determined group of agitators began playing on centuries old tribal divisions.  And when the massacre started, it wasn't just soldiers or militiamen that were doing the killing - it was housewives and neighbors and co-workers - all acting as if under the spell of some form of mass hysteria.  Evil can be understood when it's perpetrated by Nazis or terrorists; it's much harder to understand when it's perpetrated by the people who previously were your neighbors that you got along with.  The film's protagonist Paul Rusesabagina is a sole voice of reason in what is an otherwise senseless episode of depravity in our human history.  It's a powerful film of one man's courage in the face of evil.

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The Last King of Scotland (2006)

The Last King of Scotland.

The Best!

The Last King of Scotland tells the story of a Scottish doctor working as a mercenary in Uganda after graduating medical school, during the rise of Ida Amin, a classic African tinpot dictator.  Almost assuredly a psychopath, Amin begins to weed out detractors within his government, and then his country, through a regiment of torture, secret police whisking people away, and mass murder.  A fantastic film that tells the story of one man's incredible viewpoint on what happens when a psychopath becomes President.

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The Act of Killing (2012)

The Act of Killing.

The Best!

In 1965 and 1966, more than half a million Indonesians were killed when Suharto, a U.S. backed dictator, seized power in the small island nation and began eradicating all the supporters of his political enemies.  Many decades later, the filmmakers of The Act of Killing find the militiamen who perpetrated some of the worst slaughters and have them act out what they did in plays -- and then they film it.  It's surreal, strange, and difficult to believe cinema.  What's most surprising is that many of these men who did the killing laugh about it as they remember the fond old memories, as if was funny or amusing.  Some of them have become local celebrities because of their vicious notoriety.  Yet underneath the laughter, the strange social commentary, there are glimpses of pain, suffering, and human tragedy.