15 War Movies Told Through The Perspective Of Children

List Rules
Vote up the best movies that show the horrors of war from a youthful point of view.

Few film genres have been as prestigious in Hollywood as the war movie. Very often, such films are used to highlight both the brutality of war and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit, a tension which often produces great drama (and, occasionally, a bleak sort of absurdist comedy).

This particular conflict is evident in the sub-genre of the war film, which features a child as the protagonist. The phenomenon of childish innocence put through the relentless meat grinder of war is a compelling one, and it very often adds a further layer of emotional complexity to this already fraught genre. 

Photo:

  • Throughout his career, Guillermo del Toro has shown himself to be a filmmaker of unique vision. This is especially evident in Pan’s Labyrinth. Focusing on a young girl, Ofelia, as she navigates both her fraught personal life - her mother has remarried to a brutal fascist in alliance with Franco - and a mysterious faun that inhabits their home. All of this is bookended with a fairy tale about an underground princess whose memory vanishes when she comes to the upper world. 

    The film is a skilled blend of the fantastic and the brutally real, and del Toro allows the viewer to grasp the ugliness of the Spanish Civil War through Ofelia’s eyes. The fantastic world she encounters could very well be real, or it could be her means of escaping the ugliness of the outside world, in which the unrest afflicting her country has also invaded the domestic space. To del Toro’s credit, he refuses to resolve it one way or the other and, in fairy tales as in war, there isn’t always a clear happy ending.

    34 votes

    Available On:

  • 2
    33 VOTES

    In Come and See, the 1985 Soviet film, the viewer meets Flyora, who decides to join the fight against the Nazis even though his mother opposes him doing so. Afterward, the film follows the boy as he encounters firsthand the brutal ugliness and utter visceral terror of war, particularly against the Nazis. 

    There is, indeed, something raw and at times surreal about the way the film frames the war. Though it is a celebration of the Soviet triumph against Nazi aggression, it is also a reminder of the terrible price. And, because all of this is refracted through the eyes and experiences of a child - with inexperienced actor Aleksei Kravchenko playing Flyora - one can feel his loss of innocence as he recognizes the true nature of the world in which he lives. It is a difficult film to watch, but its child focus grants it a brutal honesty so often missing in other war films.

    33 votes
  • There’s no question World War II was one of the most traumatic events in British history, leaving scars both physical and emotional. For Billy, the child protagonist of Hope and Glory, however, the story is a bit more complicated. Though the war years in London were undoubtedly filled with horror, through the power of family, Billy is able to survive and persevere. 

    The film doesn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of the war - the bombs, the rationing - but everything is refracted through the perspective of its young protagonist, who sees something almost magical about the whole experience. There is, moreover, a firm nostalgia to the depiction of London during the war, which in large part stems from the film's autobiographical nature (it is based on the recollections of director John Boorman). More than anything else, the film is a reminder of the ability of children to find joy even in the midst of terror.

    19 votes

    Available On:

    free

  • Grave of the Fireflies
    Photo: Toho

    Though many of the great war films told through a child’s perspective are live-action, Grave of the Fireflies is an exception. Presented in animated form, it is nevertheless a richly told and evocative tragedy of two children, Seita and Setsuko, as they try to find their way through the barbarism and chaos of World War II.

    Since it was animated by Studio Ghibli, it has the enchantment so often associated with the studio, which has always had a knack for evoking complex emotions through its unique style. However, while there is whimsy here, the film doesn’t shy away from wrenching tragedy. While so many war movies focus on the adventures of adults, this one is a quieter but no less devastating story. As the viewer follows these two children and their struggles, it is impossible not to find oneself condemning the youngest and most vulnerable to such difficult lives. It’s a beautiful film that forces the viewer to look at the terrible nature of war through fresh eyes.

    29 votes

    Available On:

  • Though he is more famous for his sentimental odes to the past than he is with brutal realism, Steven Spielberg nevertheless allows the viewer to grasp the impact of World War II on the mind and spirit of his young protagonist in Empire of the Sun. The film focuses on Christian Bale’s Jamie “Jim” Graham, a young British boy who is trapped in Shanghai after the Japanese invade. Separated from his family, he endures many trials and deprivations before at last being reunited with them.

    There is a wrenching and devastating emotional authenticity to this film, particularly since the combination of Spielberg’s assured direction and Bale’s soulful performance combine to show the viewer the war through a child’s eyes. Gradually, young Jim finds his youthful innocence crushed out of him by the relentlessness of war. His final reunion with his parents is a bittersweet one, as it takes him some time to recognize them. Though the future seems bright, his childhood has still been stolen from him.

    30 votes

    Available On:

  • 6
    14 VOTES

    Europa Europa is a truly fascinating film, focusing as it does on a Jewish boy, Solomon Perel, who has to masquerade as a member of the Hitler Youth in order to save himself from the horrors of the Holocaust. There is an absurdity to the premise which might strike some as implausible, but the film is in fact based on a true story. 

    Solomon has a generic sort of handsomeness which helps him to blend in with the world around him, and there is a distance to the film’s depiction of events which can be a bit jarring. However, this helps the viewer to understand the boy’s extraordinary luck in managing to pull off such a convincing (and incredibly dangerous) trick. Moreover, his ability to dupe the racial purity-obsessed Nazis, and his overwhelming success in doing so, points out just how ridiculous such an idea truly is. When, at last, he manages to not only survive the war but also emigrate to Israel, it’s impossible not to feel glad for him, even as one marvels at the simple absurdity of his situation.

    14 votes