Five Essential… War Films

Helen Murdoch presents her five essential war films…

With our poppies pinned firmly to our coats, it’s the time of year where we remember the lives lost through war. War has always gripped cinema goers, whether through battle scenes or emotional tales of adversity and so on. It is a diverse genre that has created some of the best cinema over the last 100 years. Here’s a selection of essential war films…

The Eagle Has Landed (1976, dir. John Sturges)

Although not a standard battle-laden World War II film, The Eagle Has Landed is a gripping thriller full of exemplary performances from Michael Caine, Robert Duvall and Donald Sutherland.  The story follows Caine’s German Officer Colonel Steiner as he is assigned to abduct Winston Churchill. Under the guise of Polish soldiers training in a small English town, the film is a taut thriller and a superbly alternative war film. The Eagle Has Landed is usually not counted as one of the greatest war films, but it is expertly crafted from Jack Higgins’ seminal novel and is essential viewing.

Saving Private Ryan (1998, dir. Steven Spielberg)

In contrast to the subtleties of The Eagle Has Landed, Saving Private Ryan is one of the best war films of the last 15 years. It is by no means a perfect film, but it is classic Spielberg and the subject matter is treated with such dignity and grace that it’s impossible not to be bowled over by it. From the visually stunning beach landing through to the emotional crux, it doesn’t hold back on the emotional nature of war and sacrifice. Boasting a cast including Tom Hanks and a pre-Bourne Matt Damon, as well as a wealth of acting talent, Saving Private Ryan is the quintessential modern war film.

The Great Escape (1963, dir. John Sturges)

A Sunday afternoon TV staple, The Great Escape is the war film everyone thinks of around Remembrance Day. Whilst being a phenomenal film from start to finish, there is a clear reason why this film has endeared for so long – hope. Hope is the key message throughout and the idea that the POWs can have hope in such a desperate time is a feeling that still resonates today. McQueen, Attenborough and Garner make for intense viewing, and they’re supported by a superb cast. With Remembrance Day and Christmas fast approaching, expect to see this film on again.

Flags of our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, dir. Clint Eastwood)

Although technically two separate films, Clint Eastwood’s telling of the battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspective is intense viewing. Flags of our Fathers was released first, followed then by the all-Japanese Letters. Flags follows 6 American soldiers and explores their camaraderie throughout the battle. Flags is an interesting exploration of the American ideals but Letters from Iwo Jima is the stronger of the two. It explores a perspective that is largely ignored and by doing this, Eastwood creates characters who feel more real than the American counterpart. By making these two films, Eastwood was incredibly brave for touching on a perspective that many Americans didn’t feel was appropriate. What he’s created is a double feature that any war film fan must watch.

Schindler’s List (1993, dir. Steven Spielberg)

Taking a different view of war, Spielberg’s emotionally engaging Schindler’s List explores the Holocaust and doesn’t shy away from the horrors that took place. Although it is a Hollywood view of the Holocaust and not as in depth as say Shoah, Schindler’s List is honest film making at its best. War films should make the audience uncomfortable to a degree, and this film does that from the off. With unflinching brutality we see the persecution of the Jews and Schindler’s (a career best Liam Neeson) desperation to save as many as he can. When it boils down to it, Schindler’s List is about humanity, whether it’s the amount of respect for it that Schindler has, or the complete disregard that Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth has.

Honourable Mentions

Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

A retelling of Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war film is a gritty exploration into the psyche of war. Marlon Brando terrifies and Martin Sheen is at his best as the alcoholic Captain Willard sent to find him. With stunning visual effects and a twisted story, Apocalypse Now is a war film with a difference.

The Thin Red Line (1998, dir. Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick is never one to tell a story simply (take The Tree of Life as an example) and with The Thin Red Line he provides an alternative view of the conflict of Guadalcanal during World War II. Boasting a superb cast, The Thin Red Line subtly explores conflict and the essence of war.

Platoon (1986, dir. Oliver Stone)

Martin Sheen has Apocalypse Now and Charlie Sheen has Platoon. Oliver Stone’s brutal war film explores the loss of innocence during war and the moral crisis that every soldier must face. The Vietnam War proved fruitful in producing phenomenal cinema, and Platoon is breath-taking to watch.

Enemy at the Gates (2001, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud)

Enemy at the Gates isn’t a perfect film (why does Ed Harris have his normal accent?), but it is a great film to watch; from the opening battle through the epic showdown it doesn’t let up. Based on real events, Enemy at the Gates turns a world war into one man versus another and personalises the events.

Munich (2005, dir. Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg does love his war films! With Munich he chose to explore the aftermath of Black September and the 5 men tasked with taking the lives of those responsible. Although it is overlong, it is engaging and this is due to the performances from Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds and so on.

Agree? Disagree? We’d love to hear your comments…

Helen Murdoch

Around the Internet…

  • Genghis

    Great list. How about "A Bridge Too Far" and "Black Hawk Down"?

  • Trevor Hogg

    Other war films that come to mind: All Quiet on the Western Front, Sergeant York, Gallipoli, To Hell and Back, Paths of Glory, and granted it was a television series but one cannot forget Band of Brothers.

  • Dct

    Oh my.. So many others… Castle Keep, Gallipoli, in which we serve, das boot, glory, the deer hunter, and tunes of glory… Certainly the big red one, Zulu, Lawrence of Arabia, the light horsemen, the warlord, ulzanias raid, 1612, the hill, the battle of Britain, the last of the Mohicans, oh what a lovely war, Michael Collins… . On a midnight clear… And so many others.