10. The Dam Busters
Director Michael Anderson, 1955
When the British were seeking a way to halt the German war machine, they looked to the industrialised area of the Ruhr Valley, the site of hydro-electric power stations, factories and mines. Operation Chastise was designed to breach the Möhne, Sorpe and Edersee dams, and was driven by the invention of the “bouncing bomb”, the brainchild of inventor Sir Barnes Neville Wallis. This 1955 movie follows Wallis (Michael Redgrave) as he struggles to make his idea work. The climactic mission itself is let down a little by the limitations of 1950s special effects, but the film remains an enduring tale of British ingenuity and skill, and a testament to the bravery and sacrifices of the men of 617 Squadron: of the 133 aircrew involved, only 53 made it back
9. The Big Red One
Director Samuel Fuller, 1980
Famous for featuring Mark Hamill in between Star Wars movies, this is director Samuel Fuller’s semi-autobiographical account of life in the 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One of the title). It follows four men in a squad led by their Sergeant (Lee Marvin), who experience action in North Africa, Sicily and Czechoslovakia, where they help liberate the Falkenau concentration camp. Fuller’s brusque, unsentimental storytelling puts the viewer right there with the troops, as they experience all the vicissitudes of war: fear, agony, joy, madness, despair. As the crew move from one battle to another, Fuller presents war as cruel and random, obscene and absurd; a string of unconnected vignettes – because that’s what war is like. Darkly comic, dispassionate, sometimes messy, The Big Red One is, nonetheless, an intimate depiction of war told by someone who experienced it first-hand
8. Days of Glory
Director Rachid Bouchareb, 2006
This movie highlights the segregation between French troops and their colonial brethren – from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – who were recruited to fight alongside them. The action kicks off in the Italian campaign, with an attack on a German mountain outpost, where the French commanding officer sends North African troops in to attack. Later, the same troops are denied privileges, such as tomatoes in their rations and leave of absence to visit home. The film ends with a statement about how the French Government decided to freeze military pensions in former colonial countries at the level of the late 1950s (colonials received a tenth of the pension of French veterans). On its release, so touched was he that President Jacques Chirac ordered the pensions to be paid in full
7. A Bridge Too Far
Director Richard Attenborough, 1977
One of a long line of war films directed by Richard Attenborough, A Bridge Too Far tells the heroic but ultimately disastrous story of Operation Market Garden, where British troops parachuted into the Netherlands to secure bridges over the Maas and the Rhine, facilitating Field Marshal Montgomery’s entry into northern Germany. The plan had been for the 10,000 men of 1st Airborne Division to defend the bridge at Arnhem for two days. However, after a German onslaught decimated the force, just 740 men held it for four. A very British war film, A Bridge Too Far is notable for covering what was seen as an Allied failure.
6. Das Boot
Director Wolfgang Petersen, 1981
Focusing on the terrible privations faced by submarine crews, Das Boot is based on the real-life exploits of U-96, a Type VIIC U-boat that survived 11 patrols over nearly three years, sinking 27 ships in the process. It follows a war correspondent as he joins the crew and bears witness to the stresses and strains of life at sea: the boredom of a three-week storm, cramped and unhealthy living conditions, and the terror of being depth-charged by the British Navy. While the film is incredibly realistic in its portrayal, the submarine-interior shots were actually shot on land in Munich, using a painstakingly accurate representation of a U-boat that could be shaken and tilted. The effect works brilliantly – Das Boot has gone down as one of the most poignant German films ever made.
5. The Longest Day
Directors Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton, 1962
Although it was made in 1962, director Ken Annakin shot this epic account of the D-Day landings in black and white docu-drama style (the “colourised” TV version is best avoided). Events are recalled in a linear fashion, starting a few days before the landings, with Allied forces debating the date of their attack while the Germans prevaricate about locations and their intended response. The film also pays respect to other activities, such as the US Paratroopers shot down around Sainte-Mère-Église, the British glider assault on the Pegasus Bridge and a sweeping, three-minute helicopter shot of the Free French Forces’ assault on Ouistreham. Eschewing the visceral carnage of Saving Private Ryan, this is war stripped of its horror – but it’s impressive nonetheless.
4. Saving Private Ryan
Director Steven Spielberg, 1998
Spielberg’s D-Day tale follows a US Army Captain (Tom Hanks) and his squad as they attempt to find and repatriate Private James Francis Ryan. Ryan’s three brothers have all been killed in action and it is deemed that their mother must not lose the fourth. The film begins with a depiction of the Omaha Beach landings, with Spielberg capturing the brutality as troops were cut down by German gunfire. On the flip-side, historian Antony Beevor has described the end of the film as “ghastly”, suggesting that Spielberg “milks our tear ducts with both hands”. But Saving Private Ryan still stands as a great war film, presenting an unflinching view of the horrors of combat on a very personal level.
3. Letters From Iwo Jima
Director Clint Eastwood, 2006
When Clint Eastwood wanted to recount the US assault on Iwo Jima, he decided it needed two movies: one from the viewpoint of the Americans, the other from the Japanese. The former was well received, but it was the companion film that won the real plaudits. Letters From Iwo Jima sees the battle through the eyes of the defenders, who were outnumbered, without air or sea support, and told that they would die defending the island. With a force of just 22,000 men, they weren’t expected to hold out for more than five days. But under the guidance of wily, unorthodox Lt General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who suggested building a network of caves and tunnels, they held back 100,000 US troops for 35. Eastwood’s desaturated cinematography perfectly captures the despair of the defenders’ situation, and this tragic tale is at turns breathtaking and heartbreaking.
2. Come and See
Director Elem Klimov, 1985
Based on the real-life experiences of director Elem Klimov, this Soviet movie covers the atrocities carried out by Nazis during their occupation of Belarus, when 628 villages were systematically burned to the ground along with their inhabitants. Central to the story is a 14-year-old boy, Florya, who digs up an old rifle in order to join the Soviet partisans. What follows is an unflinching account of his experiences, which include rapes, executions and churches set on fire. Free of blockbuster effects, Come and See explores the psychological effects of the barbarities of war – as Florya descends into insanity, the film takes on a disturbing, hallucinatory feel. But it’s also an important depiction of real-world events that acts as a reminder of the depravity that man is capable of in conflict.
1. Schindler’s List
Director: Steven Spielberg, 1993
Beating his own film to the top spot is the latter of Steven Spielberg’s World War II masterpieces. It tells the incredible true story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist, spy and member of the Nazi party who, horrified by the “punishment” meted out to the Jewish populace by his comrades, saved the lives of 1,200 men, women and children by employing them at his enamelware factory and bribing SS officials to leave them alone. Spielberg’s film – which scooped seven Academy Awards, including ones for Best Film and Best Director – is emotive and poignant, while avoiding his usual heavy-handed sentimentalism. At times, it makes for difficult viewing, yet it remains eminently watchable.