15 of the best war films of all time.

It’s only a week now until the release of my most anticipated film of the year, Dunkirk. Despite being pivotal to the entire WW2, the brave and often selfless actions of the British Expeditionary Force and allied French and Belgian troops is often forgotten outside these shores.  A matter that will be surely changed with the forthcoming release of Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan.

 

Maybe I was just odd, I probably am but I’m sure children were a bit more adult in their television and movie-going experiences… probably adults were too before half the planet ended up watching celebrity nonsense.  Whilst everyone else spent their youth watching cute Disney type films, I was watching action and adventure and likely thousands of people getting killed on celluloid.

In preparation for the new movie, I thought I would post a rundown of 15 of my other favourite war movies and see just what the competition will be.  In no particular order, as that would be way to hard at this time of the morning.

 

The Great Escape, 1963,

Based on a true story, a group of British escape artist-type prisoners-of-war (POWs) are all put in an ‘escape proof’ camp. Their leader decides to try to take out several hundred all at once. The first half of the film is played for comedy as the prisoners mostly outwit their jailers to dig the escape tunnel. The second half is high adventure as they use boats and trains and planes to get out of occupied Europe.  Sadly most of them don’t make it and are executed on Hitlers personal orders.  Perhaps the most exhilarating moments include Steve McQueen and the sadly entirely fictional attempts to cross over the border fence on a motorbike.

This film is full of great actors and cinematic moments along with some great cinematography and a soundtrack full of pomp.   They might have well just stopped making films after the chase below.

 

Zulu, 1964.

Again based on actual events. Zululand, South Africa, 1879. The British are fighting the Zulus and one of their columns has just been wiped out at Isandlwana. The Zulus next fix their sights on the small British outpost at Rorke’s Drift. At the outpost are 150 British troops under the command of Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard. In the next few days these 150 troops will fight about 4,000 Zulus in one of the most courageous battles in history.

The film that made Michael Caine famous and the battle that made two enemy nations garner utmost respect for each other.

Colour Sgt. Bourne: Sir, sentries report the Zulus have gone. All of them! It’s a miracle.

Lt. Chard: If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer-Henry point-four-five caliber miracle.

Sgt. Bourne: And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind it.

Now, everyone get their singing voice ready.  Bonus points to anyone who can sing in Zulu too 🙂  yes, I’ve watched the film that many times.

For more on Zulu and the actual events in the battle, check out my blog post. 

The Password Is Courage, 1962

Another true to life film but this one on with a lower budget and more understated tone.  The man who broke into Auschwitz. When he was captured in France in 1940 Sergeant-Major Charles Coward launched his own private war against the Germans (although he was being held as a prisoner-of-war). For several years he was the most incredible amateur espionage and sabotage agent of World War Two, opposing the Nazis while sending back vital information to England. He escaped from captivity nine times and was, eventually, sent to Auschwitz III (a

He escaped from captivity nine times and was, eventually, sent to Auschwitz III (a labour camp just five miles from Auschwitz II, the extermination camp). He carried guns and dynamite for the Polish underground movement, traded in dead bodies (by swapping the corpses of dead prisoners for Jewish prisoners, allowing the prisoners to escape) and, finally, he smuggled himself into Auschwitz where he witnessed the full horrors of the extermination camp. This is one of the most heroic and extraordinary stories of World War Two. Charles Coward fought the might of the Nazi army and won, his courage is

This is one of the most heroic and extraordinary stories of World War Two. Charles Coward fought the might of the Nazi army and won, his courage is testament to the indomitable human spirit facing overwhelming odds. At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials Coward’s testimony was sensational, allowing over 2,000 Auschwitz survivors to file lawsuits for compensations against their former oppressors.

The film is remarkably quite comedic with the prisoners running hoops round their guards but it all gets serious

Hin und oder hin und zurück?      I made sure I learned the answer when I took up German!

 

Enemy At The Gates, 2001.

In World War II, the fall of Stalingrad will mean the collapse of the whole country. The Germans and Russians are fighting over every block, leaving only ruins behind. The Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev stalks the Germans, taking them out one by one, thus hurting the morale of the German troops. The political officer Danilov leads him on, publishing his efforts to give his countrymen some hope. But Vassili eventually start to feel that he can not live up to the expectations on him. He and Danilov fall in love with the same girl, Tanya, a female soldier. From Germany comes the master sniper König to put an end to the extraordinary skilled Russian sniper.

Inspired by true events and with an epic Stalingrad set, this is one tense film.

Kajaki, 2014.

In September 2006, a 3 man patrol of Paras sets off from their outpost overlooking Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, to engage the Taliban. As they make their way across a dried out river bed one of them steps on a mine left from the Russian occupation some 25 years before. His colleagues rush to his aid only to find they are surrounded by mines and every move threatens serious injury or death.

I remember watching this film very vividly and found it to be intensely gripping.  A low budget but incredible modern day war film which I had the pleasure to get to know some of the people involved, both the cinematic and actual heroes.

You can read more about Kajaki here.

Above the Kajaki Dam

Above the Kajaki Dam

 

Ice Cold In Alex, 1958

John Mills stars in this war story set after the fall of Tobruk in World War II. Two English army officers (John Mills and Harry Andrews) and two young nurses (Sylvia Syms and Diane Clare) are driving an ambulance through occupied North Africa to Alexandria. Along the way they pick up a South African officer (Anthony Quayle), and more than once avoid capture and death while crossing the German lines. However, as the South African officer begins to undermine their confidence, they gradually come to suspect him of being a German spy.

This has to be an all-time classic of any genre with some action, a bit of plot and some heart-wrenching moments.   Having myself spent time looking forward to an Ice Cold (beer) in Alex myself, albeit with out the Nazis, it is one sure way to spend a happy 2 hours.   These days I get the same reaction when driving through London traffic and thinking of a pepperoni pizza.

 

Platoon, 1987.

Oliver Stone’s award winning film tells the story of a young innocent 19-year-old soldier, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who is thrown headfirst into the bloody Vietnam conflict. He is forced to fight not only the Viet Cong, but also his own fears and intense anger. As a result of not being able to make any progress against the enemy, the soldiers, led by the strict and unsympathetic Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), are forced to turn their anger and guns on each other. Barnes also has a personal battle with fellow officer Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), who is the more understanding and compassionate of the two officers and helps Sheen to cope with his personal problems.

Platoon was the preeminent of the Vietnam War films that were released in the late 1980’s.  I remember watching quite under-age to be confronted by what would now be classed as one big F-Bomb.

I guess as the film was titled, the first casualty of war is innocence.

 

Full Metal Jacket, 1987.

One of a series of revisionist Vietnam cinema released in the late 1980s, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is essentially split into two stories linked by a number of characters. The film follows new recruit Joker (Matthew Modine) and his fellow soldiers through their basic training and into combat in Vietnam. The first half is a chilling portrayal of military brutality and de-humanisation, mainly at the hands of Sgt Hartman (played at a level of staggering intensity by ex-Marine Lee Ermey), that centres around the tragic character of Private Pyle, a young man pushed to the edge of his endurance. The tone of the film is no less harsh when transported to the combat zone as we see the results of the training process in action: the young men turned into unquestioning killing machines. Joker is perhaps the one exception, a soldier with “Born to Kill” written on his helmet who also sports a peace sign on his lapel. But the film finds itself caught in the trap of many of the war movies of the time–how to create audience empathy with characters who are essentially in the wrong. It’s a dilemma that

The tone of the film is no less harsh when transported to the combat zone as we see the results of the training process in action: the young men turned into unquestioning killing machines. Joker is perhaps the one exception, a soldier with “Born to Kill” written on his helmet who also sports a peace sign on his lapel. But the film finds itself caught in the trap of many of the war movies of the time–how to create audience empathy with characters who are essentially in the wrong. It’s a dilemma that Full Metal Jacket never really solves, although as a spectacle the film is a masterpiece. Made in the days before CGI became the norm, the battle sequences–filmed, rather bizarrely, in London’s Docklands before its redevelopment–are hugely realistic and are perhaps the key moments of the movie, heightening the disorientation and fear felt by the soldiers. By offering no more than a snapshot of the Vietnam conflict (the action deals with one individual skirmish), Kubrick cleverly leaves any

Made in the days before CGI became the norm, the battle sequences–filmed, rather bizarrely, in London before its redevelopment–are hugely realistic and are perhaps the key moments of the movie, heightening the disorientation and fear felt by the soldiers. By offering no more than a snapshot of the Vietnam conflict (the action deals with one individual skirmish), Kubrick cleverly leaves any judgement on the war to the audience, although clearly attempting to influence them. The fate of the characters who survive is also left in the balance, but we can perhaps imagine what awaits them.

I remember that along with Platoon and the Arnie films of the time, my entire school was gripped by this film.  We all knew it intimately and could have entire conversations just using quotes from the movie.

Jesus Christ Pile!

 

The Bridge On The River Kwai, 1957.

The film deals with the situation of British prisoners of war during World War II who are ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. Their instinct is to sabotage the bridge but, under the leadership of Colonel Nicholson, they are persuaded that the bridge should be constructed as a symbol of British morale, spirit and dignity in adverse circumstances.

At first, the prisoners admire Nicholson when he bravely endures torture rather than compromise his principles for the benefit of the Japanese commandant Saito. He is an honourable but arrogant man, who is slowly revealed to be a deluded obsessive.

He convinces himself that the bridge is a monument to British character, but actually is a monument to himself, and his insistence on its construction becomes a subtle form of collaboration with the enemy.

Unknown to him, the Allies have sent a mission into the jungle, to blow up the bridge.

This old film swept the Oscars when it came out.  It’s superbly shot and is full of great actors.  No matter how many times you watch it, there is still the excitement at the end of what will happen to the bridge.

 

Where Eagles Dare, 1968.

During WW2 a British aircraft is shot down and crashes in Nazi held territory. The Germans capture the only survivor, an American General, and take him to the nearest SS headquarters.

Unknown to the Germans the General has full knowledge of the D-Day operation. The British decide that the General must not be allowed to divulge any details of the Normandy landing at all cost and order Major John Smith to lead a crack commando team to rescue him.

Amongst the team is an American Ranger, Lieutenant Schaffer, who is puzzled by his inclusion in an all British operation. When one of the team dies after the parachute drop, Schaffer suspects that Smith’s mission has a much more secret objective.

This is an entirely fictional story based on an Allistair Maclean novel and came into being after star Richard Burton wanted to make a movie his boys could enjoy (you see, it wasn’t just me watching these things when I was 5).

As it isn’t based on true events, the story is no doubt piqued to maximum excitement with a relentless amount of action and shooting which the 5 year old in me enjoyed as well as some espionage and double-agents that I didn’t really get.

Everytime I go on a cable-car, I always remember that fight.    Just watch out for the whole pick-axe in the arm moment!

Broadsword Calling Danny Boy.

 

Battle of Britain, 1969.

Featuring a stellar cast, including Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Michael Redgrave, Robert Shaw and Susannah York, Battle Of Britain is a spectacular retelling of a true story that shows courage at its inspiring best. Few defining moments can change the outcome of war. But when the outnumbered Royal Air Force defied insurmountable odds in engaging the German Luftwaffe, they may well have altered the course of history!

I remember watching this when I was young and found it to be a bit slow and boring at times but that is because it tries to accurately portray the events of the Battle Britain.  These days, it is a stonkingly good film.

 

The Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949.

During World War Two, hard-bitten sergeant John M. Stryker (John Wayne) earns the enmity of the recruits he trains for action in the Pacific. New recruit Peter Conway’s (John Agar) dislike for his commander turns to respect, however, when the latter saves him from a grenade. The squad are forced to show their mettle when they are sent into Iwo Jima to take Mount Suribachi whilst under constant fire from the Japanese. John Wayne’s performance earned him his first Oscar nomination.

I always like finding a film that is new to me and I found this in the 1980’s.  I particularly liked the early scenes which shows the men training in New Zealand and preparing for the increasingly hellish Pacific battles to come.  I won’t give away the ending but it’s neat that along the way, such a tough Sgt show much he actually cares for his men.

You know my natural dislike of you is gradually turning into a strong hate!

59.jpg

The Dam Busters, 1955.

Something of a cult item among British war movies (and brilliantly spoofed a few years back by a lager ad), The Dam Busters turns a minor World War II incident into a saga of heroic stiff-upper-lippery in the classic British style. A bombing raid is proposed on a strategically vital Ruhr dam, but its position is inaccessible.

Enter eccentric inventor Dr Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave in best daffy professor mode) who comes up with a genius idea–a bomb that will bounce on water like a skimmed pebble. Naturally the top brass pooh-pooh it, but gallant Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) is persuaded, and between them flyer and boffin forge ahead.

The touches of carefully understated emotion now verge on self-parody, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the narrative sweep, especially when the bombers take off on their mission and Eric Coates’ stirring march hits the soundtrack. The modelwork, state-of-the-art for its early 1950s period, still looks impressive.

Watch/listen to the stirring intro below, it will put hair on your chest!

 

Zulu Dawn, 1979.

Cy Endfield co-wrote the epic prequel Zulu Dawn 15 years after his enormously popular Zulu. Set in 1879, this film depicts the catastrophic Battle of Isandhlwana, which remains the worst defeat of the British army by natives, with the British contingent outnumbered 16-to-1 by the Zulu tribesmen.

The film’s opinion of events is made immediately clear in its title sequence: ebullient African village life presided over by King Cetshwayo is contrasted with aristocratic artifice under the arrogant eye of General Lord Chelmsford (Peter O’Toole). Chelmsford is at the heart of all that goes wrong, initiating the catastrophic battle with an ultimatum made seemingly for the sake of giving his troops something to do. His detached manner leads to one mistake after another and this is wryly illustrated in a moment when neither he nor his officers can be bothered to pronounce the name of the land they’re in (Isandhlwana).

It is a beautiful land nonetheless–superb cinematography drinks in the massive open spaces that shrink the British army to a line of red ants. Splendidly stiff-upper-lipped support comes from a heroic Burt Lancaster and a fluffy, yet gruff, Bob Hoskins.

Although the story is less focused and inevitably more diffuse than the concentrated events of Rorke’s Drift which followed soon after, Zulu Dawn is about the most honest depiction of British Imperial diplomacy ever seen on screen.

Whilst far from the best film even on this list, it is possibly the film I watched the very most at a young age.

Come all this way to get shot by a bullet from Birmingham…SHOOT STRAIGHT YOU BASTARDS!!

 

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

To call Lawrence of Arabia a ‘mere’ war-film is no doubt doing it a disservice.     To see my review on Lawrence of Arabia and associated post where I Lawrence of Arabia and associated post where I travelled in his footsteps, do check out here in his footsteps, do check out here.

It’s not just a perfect war film, it is a perfect film, full stop.   Tying in the complex character of Lawrence and his battles with both his superiors and his own skin, we explore the massive geo-political changes of the Middle-East in WW1 with some of the most incredible set-piece battles and cinematography ever seen.

Lawrence and Sherif Ali

Lawrence and Sherif Ali

For a much more recent film set at the same time, in the same location check out the British-Jordanian 2015 flick, Theeb.

I realise I have missed off at least a dozen over classic war films such as Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, Black Hawk Down and many others.  Which is your favourite on my list and which do you think I should have sneaked in?

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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3 Responses to 15 of the best war films of all time.

  1. Like your choices! It only lacks Apocalypse Now and The Last Valley ( a personal favourite about the the 10O years war)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The opening sequence with the chopper/ceiling fan going round and the doors playing is the best start to any film I have seen.

    Like

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