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10 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Movies Set During Real Wars


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Summary

  • War movies often use historical conflicts as a backdrop, such as World War II in “Captain America: The First Avenger” and World War I in “Wonder Woman.”
  • Sci-fi and fantasy films set during war can explore the nature of humanity and armed conflict, like in “Overlord” and “Watchmen.”
  • Wars can provide a context for characters to escape the horrors of reality, as seen in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

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Wartime settings are usually used for harrowing, realistic portrayals of warfare in cinema, but real wars have also been used as a backdrop for sci-fi and fantasy stories. Sometimes, wars are used to add to the historical context of a genre story. War can even be used to bolster the themes of a fantasy movie. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the 10-year-old heroine Ofelia goes to a hidden fantasyland to escape from the horrors of Francoist Spain. That story wouldn’t land nearly as effectively if it was set during a peaceful time in Spanish history.

Sometimes, war is just a backdrop, like the American Civil War in John Carter, while other times, it’s key to the story, like World War II in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Some comic book movies have taken place during a war to imagine how the war would’ve played out differently with a superhero on one side of it. Wonder Woman puts its titular hero on the battlefields of World War I, Captain America: The First Avenger puts its titular hero on the battlefields of World War II, and Watchmen completely changes the outcome of the Vietnam War.

Related

10 Greatest Sci-Fi War Movies Of All Time

War movies allow filmmakers to ruminate on the nature of humanity and armed conflict. Sci-fi war films do the same – but from the fringes of science.

10 Overlord

World War II

Two soldiers looking scared in Overlord

There are all kinds of rumors and legends about the nefarious underground experiments carried out by Nazi scientists during World War II. Julius Avery imagined what those experiments might have been in his disturbing sci-fi thriller Overlord. Set in an alternate timeline on the eve of D-Day, Overlord sees a paratrooper squad stumbling upon a secret German base where scientists are conducting experiments on the villagers – and on themselves – to create an army of super-strong mutants. It brings Call of Duty’s notorious Nazi zombies to the big screen in thrilling fashion.

9 Universal Soldier

Vietnam War

Jean-Claude Van Damme as Luc Deveraux in Universal Soldier

In the 1969-set opening scene of Universal Soldier, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Luc Deveraux is killed in action by his deranged sergeant in the Vietnam War. He’s then brought back to life as an unstoppable superhuman warrior in a top-secret military experiment. Universal Soldier is a classic high-concept actioner, with Van Damme and his co-star Dolph Lundgren wringing every ounce of fun out of this ludicrous story. It’s not a very substantial movie, but it’s certainly entertaining.

8 Captain America: The First Avenger

World War II

One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s earliest installments, Captain America: The First Avenger, takes place at the height of the Second World War. The U.S. government develops the Super Soldier Serum and turns Steve Rogers into the perfect fighting machine in a desperate bid to even the scales. To avoid being too inflammatory, Captain America: The First Avenger doesn’t have Cap fighting Nazis; instead, he fights Marvel Comics’ stand-in organization for the Nazis: Hydra, led by the nefarious Red Skull.

7 John Carter

American Civil War

John Carter about to hurl a rock at gigantic Martian beasts in John Carter.

Adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic science fantasy stories, John Carter revolves around an interplanetary hero’s attempts to mediate between the conflicting kingdoms of Barsoom (known to Earthlings as Mars). But before he’s whisked off to Mars, Carter is a Confederate Army captain in 1868, fighting in the Arizona Territory in the American Civil War. The movie draws interesting parallels between the civil war amongst Americans on Earth and the civil war amongst Martians on Barsoom.

6 X-Men: First Class

Cold War

Michael Fassbender as Magneto wearing his helmet in X-Men First Class

In going back to fill in the X-Men’s origin story, Matthew Vaughn took the franchise back to the 1960s in X-Men: First Class. The prequel focuses on Charles Xavier’s relationship with Magneto, and how they went from being close friends to mortal enemies. Vaughn cleverly uses the Cuban Missile Crisis as the backdrop for this falling-out. The standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union complements the standoff between Xavier and Magneto in fascinating ways.

5 Kong: Skull Island

Vietnam War

Helicopters fly towards Kong in Kong Skull Island

For his ‘70s-set introduction to the MonsterVerse’s King Kong, Jordan Vogt-Roberts was heavily influenced by the aesthetic of Vietnam War films. With its image of American helicopters tearing through jungle landscapes with napalm, Kong: Skull Island is essentially Apocalypse Now with a giant ape. The monster-infested jungles of Skull Island are shown to be even deadlier than the battlefields of Vietnam. With songs by artists like Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Kong: Skull Island even has the soundtrack of a Vietnam War movie.

4 The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe

World War II

Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie amazed at seeing Narnia for the first time in the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The first chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, treats the magical realm found inside the wardrobe as an escape from the horrors of World War II. The movie opens with a terrifying air raid sequence in which the Pevensie children flee their London home for the safety of a shelter. After being evacuated to a big house in the countryside, the kids discover a portal to the merry old land of Narnia at the back of a wardrobe. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe uses a fantastical setting to leave war behind.

3 Watchmen

Vietnam War

Dr Manhattan in Vietnam in Watchmen

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book Watchmen reimagines how 20th-century American history would’ve played out if the U.S. had superheroes on its side. In Watchmen’s alternate history, America won the Vietnam War – but it’s on the brink of World War III. Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation might have missed the point by glorifying Watchmen’s superpowered vigilantes, but it masterfully translated Gibbons’ gorgeous imagery to the big screen (and that includes shockingly gruesome scenes of superheroes slaying North Vietnamese forces on the battlefield).

2 Wonder Woman

World War I

When Diana Prince leaves Themyscira for the first time to explore the wider world in Wonder Woman, she finds the world at war. At first, the movie is a fish-out-of-water story, but it uses the culture clash to make some poignant points. Diana criticizes the generals making life-or-death decisions for their troops from the comfort of the war room, because Themyscira’s generals lead their armies into battle. In Wonder Woman, the main villain is war itself (well, technically Ares, the Olympian God of War, but he represents the same thing).

1 Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade

World War II

Germany has declared war on the Jones boys!” Technically, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade takes place in the late 1930s, right on the cusp of World War II, but Indy encounters so many Nazis – including Adolf Hitler himself – that it feels like a World War II movie. In his third big-screen outing, Indy teams up with his estranged father to go searching for the ultimate treasure: the Holy Grail. Having the Nazis on Indy’s trail raises the stakes of his quest to find the Grail, and brings real-world grounding to what could’ve been an overly fantastical action-adventure story.

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