Bastards, Brothers, and Unjust Warriors: Enmity and Ethics in Just War Cinema

Christopher Finlay

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How do members of the general public come to regard some uses of violence as legitimate and others as illegitimate? And how do they learn to use widely recognized normative principles in doing so such as those encapsulated in the laws of war and debated by just war theorists? This paper argues that popular cinema is likely to be a major source of influence especially through a subgenre that I call ‘Just War Cinema.’ Since the 1950s, many films have addressed the moral drama at the centre of contemporary Just War Theory through the figure of the enemy in World War II, offering often explicit and sophisticated treatments of the relationship between the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello that anticipate or echo the arguments of philosophers. But whereas Cold War era films may have supported Just War Theory’s ambitions to shape public understanding, a strongly revisionary tendency in Just War Cinema since the late 1990s is just as likely to thwart them. The potential of Just War Cinema to vitiate efforts to shape wider attitudes is a matter that both moral philosophers and those concerned with disseminating the law of war ought to pay close attention to.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-94
JournalReview of International Studies
Issue number1
Early online date13 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017

Bibliographical note

(NB: please use the version uploaded more recently as the version publicly available. And please feel free to delete the earlier one too.) This is the version I've just now submitted for typesetting by Cambridge UP for the journal so there shouldn't be major changes to this version and it can be used as the pre-publication copy and made accessible per the rights granted by the Press. The earlyview version of the article and a link address will be available in a couple of months hopefully.


  • just war theory
  • cinema
  • unjust warriors
  • cinema and international relations
  • international ethics
  • international law
  • international humanitarian law


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