We could argue all day about the definition of a British War Film and what the best means but for this entirely unscientific list, the definition of a British War Film is one that is largely British in character. They may have been directed by non-British directors, have non-British actors 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, Apocalypse Now or other such great films.
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. So, 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.
In reverse order, the Top 25 British War Films;
25 – Breaker Morant
Breaker Morant is a 1980 Australian war- and trial film directed by Bruce Beresford, who also co-wrote based on Kenneth G. Ross’ 1978 play of the same name. The film centres around the 1902 court-martial of Lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton – one of the first war crimes prosecutions in British military history. Australians serving in the British Army during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Lts. Morant, Handcock, and Witton stood accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and an unarmed civilian in the Northern Transvaal. The film is notable for its exploration of the Nuremberg Defense, the politics of the death penalty, and the human cost of total war. As the trial unfolds, the events in question are shown in flashbacks.
A really good film, what else is there to say.
Major Thomas: The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations.
Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown are excellent.
And the end scene
24 – The Heroes of Telemark
The Heroes of Telemark is a British 1965 Eastman Color war film directed by Anthony Mann based on the true story of the Norwegian heavy water sabotage during World War II. It was filmed on location in Norway.
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.
23 – The Dam Busters
One of the most popular British war films of all time, The Dam Busters tells the true story of one of the most daring and brilliant raids of World War II. With the campaign for Europe in the balance, Dr. Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) comes up with an ingenious design for a bouncing bomb which could be used to target the great dams in Germany’s Ruhr valley. Wing Commander Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) leads the specially-convened squadron on a mission that would become symbolic for the Allies eventual victory over Germany.
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.
And of course, that advert
22 – The Guns of Navarone
The Guns of Navarone is a 1961 British-American epic adventure war film directed by J. Lee Thompson. The screenplay by producer Carl Foreman was based on Alistair MacLean’s 1957 novel The Guns of Navarone, which was inspired by the Battle of Leros during the Dodecanese Campaign of World War II. The film stars Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn, along with Stanley Baker and Anthony Quayle. The book and the film share the same basic plot: the efforts of an Allied commando team to destroy a seemingly impregnable German fortress that threatens Allied naval ships in the Aegean Sea, and prevents 2,000 isolated British troops
In musical form
21 – Hannibal Brooks
A prisoner of war working at a zoo gets the chance to escape from the Germans, so he does and he takes with him the elephant that he’s been caring for. Together they head for the Swiss border and freedom.
Not many would include this but I like it, great performances all round
The full film is also also commonly available on YouTube
20 – Master and Commander
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a 2003 American epic historical drama film written, produced and directed by Peter Weir. The film stars Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin. The film was released by 20th Century Fox, Miramax Films, Universal Pictures, and Samuel Goldwyn Films on November 14, 2003. The film’s plot and characters are adapted from three novels in author Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series, which includes 20 completed novels of Jack Aubrey’s naval career.
Russell Crowe is actually very good in this.
Capt. Jack Aubrey: England is under threat of invasion, and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England.
Watch it because…
- The Royal Navy giving the French a proper kicking.
- The lesser of two weevils
The battle scene
19 – The Battle of Britain
It is 1940, and the diabolical mind of Adolf Hitler is planning to bomb England into submission to his warped dreams of a ‘Fortress Europe’. Standing between Britain’s freedom & Hitler’s terrifying plans is the R.A.F – dedicated pilots who took to the skies again & again in the face of overwhelming odds. The German Luftwaffe’s planes outnumber the R.A.F’s by more than 2 to 1 – 650 planes of the R.A.F. vs. 2,500 of the Luftwaffe! These odds. however, do not deplete the determination of the R.A.F. to stop Hitler, and as the Luftwaffe launches wave after wave of Heinkel 111 bombers against British cities, the R.A.F. responds, under the leadership of Air Vice Marshal Park and Squadron Leaders Canfield and Harvey who lead the newest pilots of the R.A.F. into confrontation after confrontation with the Luftwaffe’s experienced veterans, with the aim of driving Hitler’s forces away from Dover’s white cliffs for good…
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.
18 – My Boy Jack
English gentleman author Rudyard Kipling, famous for the Jungle Book, uses his considerable influence, being on a War Office propaganda think tank, to get his nearly 18 year-old son John ‘Jack’, admitted for military service during World war I after he is repeatedly refused on account of his bad eyesight. He is enrolled in the Irish Guards: their patriotic dream but mother and sister’s nightmare. After a short officer training course Jack gets command of a platoon and embarks in France. Soon, and just after his 18th birthday, his unit suffers terrible losses and Jack is reported missing. Now mother Caroline ‘Carry’ Kipling proves unstoppable pushing Rudyard’s influence and half of England to help find out the truth. When it finally comes, there is far less glory than gore and guilt.
Bear with me on this one, it’s nothing to do with Harry Potter but tells the tale of the loss of a son to war as seen by his father, Rudyard Kipling, and the conflict between his love of King and Country and the love of family. A conflict which I guess was echoed in countless families during and after the Great War.
Rudyard Kipling: [after being informed of Jack’s death] By all accounts he was very brave, so few of us have the opportunity to play our part properly. But he did. He achieved what he set out to achieve.
Caroline Kipling: He must have been in such awful pain.
Rudyard Kipling: If you talked to wounded soldiers they would tell you the pain only sets in later. So, he was lucky. I was done with quickly.
Caroline Kipling: Don’t tell me he was lucky! He wasn’t lucky, or… or Brave, or happy! Jack was eighteen years and 1 day old! He died in the rain, he couldn’t see a thing, he was alone! You can’t persuade me that there’s any glory in that!
Great performances, a cracking script, and let’s face it, Kim Cattrall is always worth a glance.
17 – The Cruel Sea
Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel is an unflinching, realistic and emotionally involving account of naval life during the Second World War in which the “heroes” are the men, the “heroines” the ships and the “villain” is not so much the German U-Boats lurking below as “the cruel sea” itself. This 1953 film has become a classic of British cinema largely because it is a straightforward, no-frills adaptation of the book and retain’s much of the original’s compelling yet almost understated dramatic focus. On convoy duty in the North Atlantic, the crew of HMS Compass Rose face as a matter of routine the threat of destruction from U-Boats as well as a constant struggle against the elements.
The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea…
Capt. Ericson: [after choosing a battle strategy that has cost lives] I had to do it!
Lockhart: Anyway, it’s all in the report.
Capt. Ericson: It was my fault!
Lockhart: I… I identified it as a submarine. If anyone murdered those men, I did.
Capt. Ericson: No one murdered them – it’s the war, the whole bloody war! We’ve just got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.
The scene where the Merchant Seamen are in the water and the U-Boat underneath them is brilliantly done, watch it just for that, being in charge is a lonely place.
16 – Where Eagles Dare
Where Eagles Dare is a British 1968 World War II action film starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, and Mary Ure. It was directed by Brian G. Hutton and shot on location in Austria and Bavaria. Alistair MacLean wrote the novel and the screenplay at the same time. It was his first screenplay; both film and book became commercial successes.
Forget the historical nonsense, shocking voice procedure and sometimes comedy special effects, all can be forgiven for ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’
Vice Admiral Rolland: Security? The word’s become a bloody joke!
Oh Danny Boy
15 – The Way Ahead
The Way Ahead is a British Second World War drama released in 1944. It stars David Niven and Stanley Holloway and follows a group of civilians who are conscripted into the British Army to fight in North Africa. In the U.S., an edited version was released as The Immortal Battalion. The film was written by Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov and directed by Carol Reed. The three had originally produced the 1943 training film The New Lot, which was produced for the Army Kinematograph Service. The Way Ahead was an expanded remake of their earlier film, this time intended for a commercial audience. The two films featured some of the same actors, including John Laurie, Raymond Huntley and Peter Ustinov. Niven, a 1930 graduate of Sandhurst, was at the time a major in the British Army working with the Army Film Unit and later served in Normandy with GHQ Liaison Regiment.
Filmed before the outcome of WWII was certain it is an excellent study in wartime film making
We would have dug trenches and taken the Germans in the rear
At the end of the film, instead of closing with ‘The End’ it instead shows ‘The Beginning’
An overlooked gem.
14 – The Wild Geese
One Last Pay Day… One More Chance To Die! Legendary hell-raisers Richard Burton and Richard Harris, along with a coolly detached Roger Moore are aging mercenaries with a taste for fine liquor, drawn together for a late but extremely lucrative pay day in The Wild Geese, an African adventure soaked in booze, gunfire and bloodshed. Colonel Allen Faulkner (Burton) is secretly back in London to accept the task of reinstating an African leader deposed in a violent military coup, but without the combat skills of his two old friends, there isn t going to be a mission. With his two reliable loose cannons in place, Faulkner and the team enact a text book rescue operation but disaster is close at hand when the cynical multinational who set up the whole deal turns the tables, striking a new deal with the local despot which sees The Wild Geese trying to escape with their lives intact.
Am on a bit of an SLR run here, yet more (kind of) on display but even they were upstaged by a certain Mr Vickers.
The free-fall scene is also bloody fantastic.
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 a 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?
RSM Sandy Young
13 – The Great Escape
The Great Escape is a 1963 American World War II epic film by DeLuxe Color based on an escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from a German POW camp during World War II, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough, filmed in Panavision. The film is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book of the same name, a non-fiction first-hand account of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany. The characters are based on real men, and in some cases are composites of several men. However, many details of the actual escape attempt were changed for the film, and the role of American personnel in both the planning and the escape was largely fabricated. The Great Escape was made by the Mirisch Company, released by United Artists, and produced and directed by John Sturges.
An outstanding performance from each and every one of the actors, with a back story of equal measure.
Ramsey: Up the rebels.
Goff: Down the British.
Who can forget the Cooler King and Von Luger’s butter?
Christmas is not Christmas without the Great Escape on the TV.
Oh, and watching the RAF personnel wearing white socks with their uniform, priceless
12 – Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 epic historical drama film based on the life of T. E. Lawrence. It was directed by David Lean and produced by Sam Spiegel through his British company Horizon Pictures, with the screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson. The film stars Peter O’Toole in the title role. It is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema. The dramatic score by Maurice Jarre and the Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Freddie Young are also highly acclaimed. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won seven in total including Best Director, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture.
Simply put, an amazing film.
T.E. Lawrence: So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.
Watch it because this is what they mean when a film is described as epic
11 – Bridge on the River Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai is a British-American 1957 World War II epic film directed by David Lean and starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, and Sessue Hayakawa. Based on the novel Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai (1952) by Pierre Boulle, the film is a work of fiction, but borrows the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942–43 for its historical setting. The movie was filmed in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). The bridge in the film was near Kitulgala.
A great big fat moral dilemma and a truly horrific back story, it does have a rather nice cantilever bridge though.
Colonel Nicholson: What have I done?
Watch it because; Alec Guinness, stiff upper lips all round, a 2″ mortar and the memorable end scene.
10 – Who Dares Wins
When a British government undercover agent is assassinated, a radical anti-nuclear group is held responsible. SAS agent Skellen (Lewis Collins, The Professionals) is called upon to infiltrate the group and put an end to their terrorist activities. He is welcomed into the group by its fanatical leader Frankie Leith (Judy Davis, A Passage to India) and gets closer to uncovering her plan to attack a major political target. The group raids the American embassy and Skellen, from within the residence, must use all of his skill and courage to support and guide his SAS colleagues to save the lives of the high-ranking hostages being held captive. Who Dares Wins was inspired by the SAS rescue of hostages at the besieged Iranian Embassy in May 1980.
The music is great, it has SLR’s 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 cracking stuff, including a visualisation trying to see out of an S6 respirator and the effects of Hatton breaching rounds. It didn’t receive great critical acclaim, especially from the Guardian, but yoghurt knitting sandal munching critics, what would they know. Did I tell you I was second man on the balcony!
The late great Lewis Collins
9 – Went the Day Well
Went the Day Well? is a 1942 British war film adapted from a story by Graham Greene and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. It was produced by Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios and served as unofficial propaganda for the war effort. It tells of how an English village is taken over by Nazi paratroopers. It reflects the greatest potential nightmare of many Britons of the time, although the threat of German invasion had largely receded by that point. (Germany’s planned invasion, Operation Sea Lion, had been indefinitely postponed.) It includes the first significant role of Thora Hird’s career, and one of the last of C. V. France. The village location for some scenes was Turville in Buckinghamshire.In the film the village is named Bramley End and the entire incident is said to be called the Battle of Bramley End.
Another wartime film, with obvious echoes in Dads Army and The Eagle Has Landed, like The Way Ahead, an overlooked classic.
This quote, unintentionally amusing;
You Germans are partial to sausage, aren’t you?
But watch it and you will not forget the teacher with the hand grenade scene or Dame Thora Hird dropping Germans with a .303
8 – Warriors
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. Some familiar faces, ‘before they were famous’
7 – An Ungentlemanly Act
A recreation of the first 36 hours of the Falklands conflict. Bob Peck plays Major Mike Norman, who has only recently arrived on the island to take over from Major Noot. Ian Richardson is Governor Sir Rex Hunt, who has only 70 Royal Marines to see off the entire Argentinian invasion fleet.
The film has a couple of fantastic quotes
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!
Colour Sgt. Muir: Fuck off you spick bastards!
6 – Ice Cold in Alex
Ice Cold in Alex (1958) is a British film described as a true story in the film’s opening credits, based on the novel of the same name by British author Christopher Landon. Directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring John Mills, the film was a prizewinner at the 8th Berlin International Film Festival. The film was not released in the United States until 1961, in an edited version that was 54 minutes shorter than the original – under the title Desert Attack
The scene with the ambulance and the hill, spirit crushing, or not.
Capt. Anson: [draining his glass of beer] Worth waiting for.
The final scene used real lager and required multiple takes, they were mullered at the end!. Ultimately, a film about British fair play and determination, which is why it has such a satisfying ending.
5 – A Bridge Too Far
The film tells the story of the failure of Operation Market Garden during World War II. The operation was intended to allow the Allies to break through German lines and seize several bridges in the occupied Netherlands, including one at Arnhem, with the main objective of outflanking German defences in order to end the war by Christmas of 1944.
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.
The Germans surrender
The Red Devils of Arnhem
4 – Kajaki
Kajaki Dam 2006. A company of young British soldiers encounter an unexpected, terrifying enemy. A dried-out river bed, and under every step the possibility of an anti-personnel mine. A mine that could cost you your leg – or your life
A story told with no sentimentality or commentary on some of the more obvious issues it raises, the lack of suitable helicopters being the most obvious.
Spud McMellon: This country’s full of shit left behind when armies fucked off, Russians, it was the mines. Ten million fucking mines. God knows what we’re going to leave behind.
It is called Kilo Two Bravo for US audiences, but don’t let that put you off. A humbling story of brave men and a brilliant film, whichever way you put it.
3 – Carry On… Up the Kyhber
Carry On… Up the Khyber is the sixteenth in the series of Carry On films to be made, released in 1968. It stars Carry On regulars Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth. Roy Castle makes his only Carry On appearance in the romantic male lead part usually played by Jim Dale. Angela Douglas makes her fourth and final appearance in the series. Terry Scott returned to the series after his minor role in the first film of the series, Carry On Sergeant a decade earlier. The film is, in part, a spoof of Kiplingesque movies and television series about life in the British Raj, both contemporary and from earlier, Hollywood, periods. The title is a play on words in the risqué Carry On tradition, with “Khyber” (short for “Khyber Pass”) being rhyming slang for “arse”.
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, one of the funniest pieces of cinema ever
The dinner party
2 – The Guns at Batasi
Guns at Batasi is a 1964 drama film starring Richard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins, Flora Robson, John Leyton and Mia Farrow. The film was based on the 1962 novel The Siege of Battersea by Robert Holles and was directed by John Guillermin. Although the action is set in an overseas colonial military outpost during the last days of the British Empire in East Africa, the production was made at Pinewood Studios in the United Kingdom.
Apart from Star Wars, one of the very few films to feature the Sterling SMG, oh, and yet another Top 20 with an SLR!
Without 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 and officer whilst in the presence of an RSM.
1 – Zulu
Zulu is a 1964 epic war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It depicts 150 British soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded patients in a field hospital, who successfully held off a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors.
Probably no surprise this is Number 1
Forget the outrageous slurs on the good character of Private Henry Hook (who was a model soldier and campaigning tee-totaller) and Commissary James Langley Dalton (who was the most experienced soldier at the mission station and widely credited with initiating the defence)
Forget British War Films, this is the best War Film full stop, in fact, forget War Films, Zulu is without a shadow of a doubt, THE best film ever made
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
So there you go, so many great films not on the list, and perhaps a few unforgivable omissions, lets have at it in the comments!