We could argue all day about the definition of Britishness in war films but we all know what it means. This is the Think Defence list of the Top 25 British War Films
The definition of a British War Film is one that is largely British in character, they may have been directed by non-British directors, or have non-British actors in the cast. and may even have been made in Hollywood or elsewhere, but they retain that element of Britishness that we all understand.
So no Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now, sorry folks.
The judging criteria do not include historical accuracy, whether the correct buttons and rank insignia were worn, or whether the film is a ‘visceral and worthy portrayal of the realities of war’ or some other such artsy bollocks, instead, it is simply enjoyability for a wet Sunday afternoon in.
It is not a list for the film buff, historian or the yoghurt-weaving wheatgrass smoothy types for them to bemoan the inhumanity and pointlessness of war.
Most of these have a back story that is as good as, if not better, than the film.
The Think Defence Top 25 British War Films
Table of Contents
25 – Breaker Morant
Breaker Morant (1980)
Drama, History, War | 107min | July 3, 1980 (Australia)
Director:Bruce BeresfordWriter:Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, Bruce BeresfordStars:Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John WatersSummary: During the Boer War, three Australian lieutenants are on trial for shooting Boer prisoners. Though they acted under orders, they are being used as scapegoats by the General Staff, who hopes to distance themselves from the irregular practices of the war. The trial does not progress as smoothly as expected by the General Staff, as the defence puts up a strong fight in the courtroom. —Kasper Sevaj <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Director:Anthony MannWriter:Ivan Moffat, Ben Barzman, Harold PinterStars:Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla JacobssonSummary: Set in German-occupied Norway, this is an embellished account of the remarkable efforts of the Norwegian resistance to sabotage the German development of the atomic bomb. Resistance fighter Knut Straud (Richard Harris) enlists the reluctant physicist Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) in an effort to destroy the German heavy water production plant near the village of Rjukan in rural Telemark. In the process, Pedersen discovers that his ex-wife Anna (Ulla Jacobsson) and her uncle (Sir Michael Redgrave) have also joined the resistance. British commandos dispatched to destroy the plant are killed when their glider hits the mountainside at night. An improvised raid by the resistance ends in the partial destruction of the heavy water canisters, but the contingency plans of Reichskommissar Terboven (Eric Porter) enable the Germans to resume production quickly. Pedersen wants to recommend to London that the Allies bomb the plant. Straud opposes him because of the potential death toll on Norwegian civilians and a fight ensues. They send in separate recommendations, and the air raid takes place, but it fails to destroy the heavy water. A Norwegian traitor gives away the resistance hideout, and Anna's uncle is killed. The Germans load the canisters onto a ferry for shipment to Germany, and the resistance rig explosives to sink the ferry in the fjord. As the ferry is about to leave, it is boarded by the widow and baby of one of Pedersen's and Straud's colleagues. Pedersen boards the ferry and organizes a children's game of "lifejacket" in order to minimize civilian deaths. This movie closes with resistance members rescuing passengers as the ferry sinks. —Peter Grosvenor
The scenery, Kirk Douglas’ chin, and the bit on the boat with the kids, nail-biting. Not particularly full of memorable quotes though!
Terboven: Winston Churchill is puffing an extra big cigar today. And we laugh at him. Why? Because all these containers, which the British did so much to destroy, have already been pre-fabricated in Berlin. They are already on their way here and will be installed by tomorrow.
Nilssen: That is… I must say that is fantastic efficiency!
Terboven: Don’t you ever make the mistake of under-rating the Germans. By Easter we will have not merely 10000 pounds of heavy water, but 12000 pounds of heavy water.
An old-school war film but one made especially interesting by the back story, Hitler’s aspirations for atomic weapons and the at-all-cost effort to thwart them.
Special effects, questionable, but some classic quotes, the immortal Dambusters March music beloved of England football fans everywhere and the best Carling Black Label advert ever.
Official, Ministry of Aircraft Production: You say you need a Wellington Bomber for test drops. They’re worth their weight in gold. Do you really think the authorities will lend you one? What possible argument could I put forward to get you a Wellington?
Barnes Wallace: Well, if you told them I designed it, do you think that might help?
Perhaps best of all, it is a fairly unvarnished account of the actual operation.
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Action, Adventure, Drama, War | 158min | April 28, 1961 (United Kingdom)
Director:J. Lee ThompsonWriter:Alistair MacLean, Carl ForemanStars:David Niven, Gregory Peck, Anthony QuinnSummary: In 1943, the British Navy is not able to rescue 2,000 soldiers trapped in the Island of Kheros since two powerful German cannons on the top of the Navarone Island are sinking the Allied vessels. After a failed aerial attack, the Allied command decide to send a six-man team disguised as fishermen to Navarone to blow-up the guns. The squad is commanded by Maj. Roy Franklin and composed by Capt. Keith Mallory, who is an experienced mountain climber, and his former partner Col. Andrea Stavros; the explosive expert Cpl. John Anthony Miller; the engineer CPO 'Butcher' Brown; and the Greek assassin Spyros Pappadimos, who was born in Navarone. They sail during the night and after an encounter with a German patrol boat and a storm in the sea, they arrive to Navarone and Capt. Mallory needs to climb a cliff face during a heavy rainy night to proceed their mission. Will they succeed? —Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Hannibal Brooks (1969)
Comedy, Adventure, War, Action | 101min | March 30, 1969 (United Kingdom)
Director:Michael WinnerWriter:Michael Winner, Tom Wright, Dick ClementStars:Oliver Reed, John Alderton, Michael J. PollardSummary: In WW2, captured British soldier Stephen Brooks is on a prison train to Germany.On the train he meets an American prisoner, Packy, who's obsessed with escaping.Brooks tries to temper Packy and reminds him that escaped prisoners are shot if recaptured.Packy is insistent despite Brooks' warnings. On arrival at the POW camp Stalag 7A, Brooks and other fellow POWs are sent to work at the local Munich zoo, to care for the animals.Brooks is assigned to care for Lucy the elephant.The German caretaker in charge of Lucy is asked to train Brooks in his new job.At first, Brooks hates the assignment, considering the large amount of animal waste to be cleaned daily.However, he eventually becomes attached to Lucy the elephant.After a devastating bombing raid that kills some of the animals and zoo staff it is decided to evacuate the surviving animals.Lucy is scheduled to be transported by train to Innsbruck, Austria.On the departure day, the train is commandeered by a moody SS Colonel, for his troops.The colonel jokes that Brooks can walk the elephant all the way to Austria, if he wishes.The joke gives Brooks the idea of walking the elephant to Austria, with two armed guards and a Polish maid as cook.The Munich Zoo director, worried for Lucy's safety, agrees to evacuate her and send her to Austria on foot.Two soldiers provide the armed guard.One is Willy,a friendly Austrian soldier, and the other is Kurt,a brutal German soldier who gets drunk often, insults everyone and threatens to shoot the elephant.The group leaves Munich on a sunny day but the voyage to Austria isn't a promenade in the park when they start running into trouble. —nufs68
Director:Peter WeirWriter:Patrick O'Brian, Peter Weir, John ColleeStars:Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy BoydSummary: In April 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars, H.M.S. Surprise, a British frigate, is under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey. Aubrey and the Surprise's current orders are to track and capture or destroy a French privateer named Acheron. The Acheron is currently in the Atlantic off South America headed toward the Pacific in order to extend Napoleon's reach of the wars. This task will be a difficult one as Aubrey quickly learns in an initial battle with the Acheron that it is a bigger and faster ship than the Surprise, which puts the Surprise at a disadvantage. Aubrey's single-mindedness in this seemingly impossible pursuit puts him at odds with the Surprise's doctor and naturalist, Stephen Maturin, who is also Aubrey's most trusted advisor on board and closest friend. Facing other internal obstacles which have resulted in what they consider a string of bad luck, Aubrey ultimately uses Maturin's scientific exploits to figure out a way to achieve his and the ship's seemingly impossible goal. —Huggo
The story is of course well known, but this quote reveals the role of radar.
Senior civil servant: Churchill puts great faith in radar.
Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding: It’s vital, but it won’t shot down aircraft.
Senior civil servant: Ha… well I must say you don’t, exactly exude a spirit of optimism.
Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding: God willing we will hold out minister.
Senior civil servant: I see. So I tell the cabinet, that you’re trusting in radar and praying to God, is that right?
Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding: [chuckles] more accurately the other way round. Trusting in god and praying for radar. But the essential arithmetic is that our young men will have to shoot down their young men at the rate of four to one, if we’re to keep pace at all.
Dog Soldiers (2002)
Action, Horror, Thriller | 105min | May 10, 2002 (United Kingdom)
Director:Neil MarshallWriter:Neil MarshallStars:Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma CleasbySummary: A British Squad is sent on a training mission in the Highlands of Scotland against Special Operations squad. Ignoring the childish "campfire" stories heard about the area, they continue with their mission and come across the bloody remains of the Special Ops Squad, and a fierce howling is pitching the night sky... With two mortally wounded men, they make an escape, running into a zoologist by the name of Megan - who knows exactly what hunts them. What began as what they thought was a training mission turns into a battle for their lives against the most unlikely enemies they would have expected - werewolves. —Dismal Angel
The Cruel Sea (1953)
Drama, War | 126min | August 19, 1953 (United States)
Director:Charles FrendWriter:Nicholas Monsarrat, Eric AmblerStars:Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, John StrattonSummary: At the start of World War II, Cmdr. Ericson is assigned to convoy escort HMS Compass Rose with inexperienced officers and men just out of training. The winter seas make life miserable enough, but the men must also harden themselves to rescuing survivors of U-Boat attacks, while seldom able to strike back. Traumatic events afloat and ashore create a warm bond between the skipper and his first officer. Atmospheric sea footage. —Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Action, Adventure, War | 158min | March 12, 1969 (United States)
Director:Brian G. HuttonWriter:Alistair MacLeanStars:Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary UreSummary: During World War II, a British aircraft is shot down and crashes in Nazi held territory. The Germans capture the only survivor, American Brigadier General George Carnaby (Robert Beatty), and take him to the nearest S.S. 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 costs, and order Major Jonathan Smith (Richard Burton) to lead a crack commando team to rescue him. Amongst the team is an American Ranger, Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), 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. —Dave Jenkins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Way Ahead (1944)
Drama, War | 91min | June 3, 1945 (United States)
Director:Carol ReedWriter:Eric Ambler, Peter UstinovStars:David Niven, Stanley Holloway, James DonaldSummary: A group of draftees are called up into the infantry during World War II. At first, they appear to be a hopeless bunch, but their Sergeant and Lieutenant have faith in them and mould them into a good team. When they go into action in North Africa, they realize what it's all about. —Steve Crook <email@example.com>
Dumbledore Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Hardy Kruger and Roger Moore give great performances but they are all upstaged by Jack Watson playing RSM Sandy Young. Jack Watson served as a Royal Navy PTI during the War and eases into the overdone RSM role with familiar ease borne of ‘doing lots of shouting’
On your feet you fucking abortion
The actor that played the part of ‘Tosh’ was named Ian Yule, an ex-Para and SAS soldier, and Joan Armatrading does a pretty good theme song, what more could you want?
The Great Escape (1963)
Adventure, Drama, History, Thriller, War | 172min | July 4, 1963 (United States)
Director:John SturgesWriter:Paul Brickhill, James Clavell, W.R. BurnettStars:Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard AttenboroughSummary: Based on a true story, a group of allied escape artist-type prisoners-of-war 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 movie 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 planes, trains, and boats to get out of occupied Europe. —John Vogel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, War | 228min | December 11, 1962 (United Kingdom)
Director:David LeanWriter:T.E. Lawrence, Robert Bolt, Michael WilsonStars:Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony QuinnSummary: Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal and serve as a liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of native Sherif Ali, Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port. —Jwelch5742
Director:David LeanWriter:Pierre Boulle, Carl Foreman, Michael WilsonStars:William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack HawkinsSummary: During WW II, allied POWs in a Japanese internment camp 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're persuaded the bridge should be built to help morale, spirit. At first, the prisoners admire Nicholson when he bravely endures torture rather than compromise his principles for the benefit of Japanese Commandant Colonel Saito, but soon they realise it's a monument to Nicholson, himself, as well as a form of collaboration with the enemy. —alfiehitchie
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10 – Who Dares Wins
The Final Option (1982)
Action, Thriller | 125min | September 16, 1983 (United States)
Director:Ian SharpWriter:George Markstein, Reginald Rose, James FollettStars:Lewis Collins, Judy Davis, Richard WidmarkSummary: A trooper with the British Special Air Service (SAS) infiltrates a radical political group who are planning a terrorist operation against American dignitaries. A glamourized look at the methods and tactics of the famed British anti-terrorist squad.The SAS are a elite army unit which as well as its Anti terrorist role also performs covert and overt training of friendly countries armed forces and operates enemy lines. —Keith Loh <email@example.com>
The music is great, it has SLRs and a leading actor with a bit of a military background.
Colonel Hadley: When the SAS is called upon to do what we’re trained to do, we have been likened to a surgeon cutting out a cancer. It’s a filthy and difficult job. We don’t like doing it, but it’s our duty
Best of all, the original embassy re-decorators were closely involved including, if Wikipedia is to be believed, in a number of scenes.
The final raid scene is brilliantly done, OK, so the ninjas hanging underneath the Scout helicopters might have been a bit far-fetched but the rest is enjoyable stuff.
It didn’t receive great critical acclaim, especially from the Guardian, what would they know?
Did I tell you I was the second man on the balcony?
Acclaimed drama documentary Warriors depicts British soldiers’ experiences as peacekeepers for the United Nations Protection Force during the Bosnian War (1992-95), the psychological impact of the atrocities they witness but are not allowed to stop, and their struggle to readjust to civilian life. Although the characters are fictitious and Bosnian scenes were filmed in the Czech Republic, the production team thoroughly researched real events such as 1993’s Ahmići massacre through interviews, documents, archive footage and a visit to Bosnia by director Peter Kosminsky and writer Leigh Jackson.
This is actually difficult to get hold of as it was a BBC film, made for TV, but it is a superb film and well worth seeking out.
Director:Stuart UrbanWriter:Stuart UrbanStars:Ian Richardson, Rosemary Leach, Ian McNeiceSummary: Based on actual accounts, this film portrays the days and hours before and during the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina, which eventually lead to the Falklands War. As the Argentine forces land on the main island and make their way towards Government House, the British Royal Marines batten down the hatches and prepare to defend Governer Rex Hunt, his family and their fellow islanders from the invaders. —Alexander Lum <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Why would anyone bother with half a million sheep and some seaweed
and my favourite
Lt. Quiroga: Mr Hunt… Time to give up Mr Hunt… your phone is cut off… armoured amphibious vehicles will be closing in soon!Mr Hunt,We have very superior numbers… I am sure you are a reasonable man… come out with your hands on head… alone!
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Drama, History, War | 175min | June 15, 1977 (United States)
Director:Richard AttenboroughWriter:Cornelius Ryan, William GoldmanStars:Sean Connery, Ryan O'Neal, Michael CaineSummary: The true story of Operation Market Garden, the Allies attempt, in September 1944, to hasten the end of World War II by driving through Belgium and Holland into Germany. The idea was for U.S. airborne divisions to take the towns of Eindhoven and Nijmegen and a British airborne division, reinforced by a Polish airborne brigade, to take the town of Arnhem. They would be reinforced, in due course and in turn, by the British XXX Corps, land-based and driving up from the British lines in the south. The key to the operation was the bridges, as if the Germans held or blew them, the paratroopers could not be relieved. Faulty intelligence, Allied high command hubris, and stubborn German resistance would ensure that Arnhem was a bridge too far. —grantss
Two bridge-related films in the Top 10, who would have thought it!
Corporal Hancock: Sir.
[Offers mug of tea]
Major General Urquhart: Hancock. I’ve got lunatics laughing at me from the woods. My original plan has been scuppered now that the jeeps haven’t arrived. My communications are completely broken down. Do you really believe any of that can be helped by a cup of tea?
Corporal Hancock: Couldn’t hurt, sir.
[Urquhart accepts his mug of tea]
Watch it because; it has a Bailey Bridge, an incredible storyline and the fact that it had pretty much every actor of the day in it.
Kilo Two Bravo (2014)
Adventure, Biography, Drama, Thriller, War | 108min | November 13, 2015 (United States)
Director:Paul KatisWriter:Tom WilliamsStars:David Elliot, Mark Stanley, Scott KyleSummary: 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 intervention 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. —Andrew de Lotbiniere
Director:Gerald ThomasWriter:Talbot Rothwell, LarryStars:Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Charles HawtreySummary: Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond looks after the British outpost near the Khyber Pass. Protected by the kilted Third Foot and Mouth regiment, you would think they were safe. But the Khazi of Kalabar has other ideas. He wants all the British dead! But his troops fear the "skirted-devils"; they are rumoured not to wear anything underneath. Then one is caught with his pants on... —Simon N. McIntosh-Smith <Simon.N.Smith@cs.cf.ac.uk>
Just soak up the glorious late sixties-era humour, Welsh scenery and the devils in skirts!
Captain Keene: [news of the native revolt arrives] What do you intend to do, sir?
Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond: Do? Do? We’re British. We won’t do anything…
Major Shorthouse: …until it’s too late.
Sir Sidney Ruff-Diamond: Exactly. That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said all day.
The dinner party scene, is one of the funniest pieces of cinema ever
The dinner party
2 – The Guns at Batasi
Guns at Batasi (1964)
Drama, History, War | 103min | September 25, 1964 (United Kingdom)
Director:John GuillerminWriter:Robert Holles, Leo Marks, Marshall PughStars:Richard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins, Flora RobsonSummary: Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale (Sir Richard Attenborough) is a by-the-book, strict disciplinarian, who seems like an anachronism in a sleepy peacetime African outpost of the modern British commonwealth. Ridiculed behind his back by his subordinate N.C.O.s, he must play host to a liberal women M.P. making a tour of the base. However, when an ambitious African officer, who happens to be a protegè of the M.P., initiates a coup d'etat against Captain Abraham (Earl Cameron), the lawful African commandant, the resourceful Sergeant Major uses all of his military training to save his men from a certain firing squad. —Gabe Taverney (email@example.com)
Without a doubt the best portrayal of an RSM ever seen on screen (although perhaps a bit hammed up), a fantastic performance by Richard Attenborough
Headress, in the mess, perish the thought!
Mr. Boniface! I’ve been a member of this Mess for 23 years, Sir. In all that time I’ve never seen anybody, man, woman or child, Sergeant, Warrant Officer, Field Marshal or Prime Minister walk into this mess with his hat upon his head. I do not see you now, Sir.
See the clip, at about 3 minutes 40, RSM Lauderdale tears Mr. Boniface a new one!
Finally, in a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has ever dared not to salute an officer whilst in the presence of an RSM.
Drama, History, War | 138min | June 17, 1964 (United States)
Director:Cy EndfieldWriter:John Prebble, Cy EndfieldStars:Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Ulla JacobssonSummary: 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 one hundred fifty British troops under the command of Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard. In the next few days, these one hundred fifty troops will fight about four thousand Zulus in one of the most courageous battles in history. —grantss
Forget the outrageous slurs on the good character of Private Henry Hook (who was a model soldier and campaigning teetotaller) and Commissary James Langley Dalton (who was the most experienced soldier at the mission station and widely credited with initiating the defence)
The best bits are far too many to list.
Colour Sergeant Bourne: It’s a miracle.
Lieutenant John Chard: If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 calibre miracle.
Colour Sergeant Bourne: And a bayonet, sir, with some guts behind.
The final scene is, as the kids say, awesome
There are so many great films that didn’t make the cut.
Contact, The Hill, Waterloo, Too Late the Hero, The Eagle Has Landed, Sink the Bismark, The Battle of the River Plate, Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Dunkirk, We Dive at Dawn, The Cockleshell Heroes, They Were Not Divided, 71, Reach for the Skies, 633 Squadron Dunkirk and 1917.
So there you go, so many great films not on the list, and perhaps a few unforgivable omissions let’s have at it in the comments!
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