Aspects of History’s Top 10 War Films

Oliver Webb-Carter

Our editor gives his run down in the wake of the BAFTA win of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Jean Martin as Philippe Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers
Home » Articles » Aspects of History’s Top 10 War Films

With All Quiet on the Western Front having won the BAFTA for best film, it got me thinking as to my top 10 of war films. Now my lists are always subject to change depending on my mood, and whilst I enjoyed AQotWF, it hasn’t made the list. Nor have other recent movies such as 1917 and Dunkirk. Instead various films, from different countries and with varied budgets. Let me know what you think @olliewcq. You can listen to my chat with Director Tim Hewitt on the Aspects of History Podcast talking films, most recently with Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 epic.

  1. Breaker Morant

This story of the brutal Kommando fighting of the Boer War was made alongside a flurry of other great Aussie movies at the time (Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max). Starring the peerless Edward Woodward as Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant with able support from Bryan Brown, it’s a nuanced look at a war crime, and inevitably involves perfidious British involvement in the form of Kitchener (played by Alan Cassell). A moment in the final scene is remarkable and all the more so as it was unplanned by Woodward and Brown, but subsequently turned out to be true.

  1. Inglourious Basterds

Inspired in many ways by #3, language plays a key role, from the opening scene that is overflowing with tension, and which introduces the hugely watchable Christoph Waltz to Hollywood films. Tarantino was apparently in despair at finding a suitable German actor fluent in English, French and Italian, which does seem like quite a high bar to set. Language re-appears in the cellar tavern as a host of acting talent assembles for a showdown that ends in true Tarantino bloodbath fashion. The dialogue throughout makes this quite an unusual war film, and Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine gets many of the best lines. Escapism at its best, and it was touch and go whether to include Kelly’s Heroes in its place.

  1. A Bridge Too Far

“We’re going to fly 35,000 men behand enemy lines,” says Dirk Bogarde in a wonderfully effete 1940s accent (Bogarde himself was a veteran of the SWW). The story of the disastrous airborne operation, Montgomery’s brainchild, is an anti-war film with probably the greatest cast of all time. The movie has numerous fantastic scenes, many of them seemingly too good to be true, but they are (including unbelievably the James Caan episode). Based on Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same title, the lack of CGI still inspires awe today as the American 101st and 82nd and the British and Polish Airborne Divisions are flown in a what appears to be an endless number of Dakotas and gliders. The suffering of Dutch civilians is placed prominently, quite rightly. The suicidal bravery of Major Julian Cook’s battalion as it crosses the Waal depicts one of the most courageous assaults of World War Two.

  1. Gallipoli

Perhaps it’s the scene as fresh Australian troops disembark at night-time onto Gallipoli beach, to the sound of Adagio in G Minor by Tomaso Albinoni, which gets me every time. Or it’s the final, useless, attack as British officers are ‘sitting on the beach, drinking cups of tea’. Either way, this is a powerful film that no doubt has Gary Sheffield tearing his hair out at the historical inaccuracies (more French and British troops died at Gallipoli than ANZAC). The events depicted, though, focus on the Nek assault, which resulted in the loss of around 350 Australian Light Horse troops. Great performances from Bill Kerr, Bill Hunter, Mark Lee and of course, Mel Gibson – this is a great film.

  1. Alexander

I’m slightly obsessed with this Oliver Stone film released in 2004 (and which has had two further revisions). Whilst panned by the critics, I think it gets much of the history right, which is likely down to Robin Lane Fox having been historical consultant. The depiction of the Battle of Gaugamela in 331BC is quite simply the best of a battle from antiquity. The cast is fantastic, with Colin Farrell brilliant as an insecure and unstable Alexander – and a special mention for Gary Stretch as Cleitus the Black. I get the accent decision – Athenians and others looked down on Macedonians – and I’m quite happy to overlook Angelina Jolie as Farrell’s mother Olympias, despite being only a year older in reality, because it’s Angelina Jolie.

  1. Zulu

With the liberal award of the Victoria Cross at Rorke’s Drift, in the wake of the massacre and humiliation of Isandlwana in 1879, the Victorian establishment had attempted to whitewash Lord Chelmsford’s disastrous attack on the Zululand. One could argue Stanley Baker and Cy Endfield did the same, but that would be churlish. Zulu is a brilliant account of the iconic battle when a small unit of British troops withstood wave upon wave of Zulu attacks. Michael Caine, in an early role as the upper class Bromhead, steals the show and the rendition of Men of Harlech towards the end prompts tears every time.

  1. Platoon

The experience of working-class troops is the main focus of this Oliver Stone film who himself served two tours during the Vietnam War. The plot revolves around two sergeants, Willem Defoe as Elias and Tom Berenger as Barnes, fighting over the young volunteer played by Charlie Sheen, whose brother Emilio Estevez was originally cast as the lead. Filmed in the Philippines, it must have been very odd for Sheen given his father’s role in Apocalypse Now less than ten years before, filmed in the same country, dealing with similar subject matter. Elsewhere Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, Keith David, Tony Todd and John C. McGinley are all fantastic as members of the platoon that portray the microcosm of America’s involvement in Vietnam, culminating in the Tet Offensive of 1968.

  1. Where Eagles Dare

Richard Burton bossing every member of the cast around, Clint Eastwood mowing down countless Nazis, Broadsword calling Danny Boy, the wonderful theme tune. What’s not to like? This is escapism, so don’t worry about the helicopter, or the fact that everyone speaks English (cleared up in the briefing scene, “You all speak fluent German”), or that Clint’s Schmeisser doesn’t require reloading. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve watched this film, and it’s on every Christmas under my roof. The wonderful Geoff Dyer has written a brilliant short account of WED which I highly recommend. It’s almost the perfect movie for me, particularly since any perfect movie must cast Burton and Eastwood and so it is unique for that reason alone.

  1. Downfall

The inspiration to countless YouTube parodies, the final days of Adolf Hitler are shown in gripping detail as Bruno Ganz gives a spellbinding performance in the claustrophobic confines of the Führerbunker, seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge, his secretary. The chilling killings of the Goebbels children is shocking, as are the mass-suicides of a succession of Nazi officers as the Russians close in. The final days of the Nazi regime are shown to be as insane and frenzied as one imagines, and Hitler’s unceremonious death and cremation a fitting end.

  1. The Battle of Algiers

As Aspects of History author Tom Petch states, every British officer should be made to watch TBoA at Sandhurst. The movie was made only four years after the conclusion of the Algerian War of Independence, and starred many veterans of the conflict – from both sides. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, Jean Martin steals the show as Colonel Mathieu. Martin, who served in the French Resistance and later Indochina, states to his bosses that he can win battles, but unless there is political will, the French cause is doomed – and so it was.

Disagree? Are you asking what about Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan? Get in touch with the editor, @olliewcq or email