War, what is it good for? Well, not much we grant you, but it has inspired moments of pure movie magic. From Lewis Milestone’s pioneering tracking shot across the shell-pocked battlefields of All Quiet On The Western Front to The Hurt Locker’s parched sniper-off, the chaos, horror and adrenaline-flood of combat has burnt off the screen. If you’re a newcomer to the genre, Empire’s handy guide offers a thorough grounding in ten simple steps. Only combat-based films qualify for this list, so no satires (Three Kings), no home-front flicks (Hope And Glory), no paranoia thrillers disguised as war movies (Crimson Tide), and no funny business (MASH). As for the rest, anything goes and, in the case of Come And See, actually does. Edwin Starr, these are for you.
Tagline: “40,000 men were sent out on German U-boats... 30,000 never returned.”
Now a mighty 210 minutes, Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine spectacular was originally released at a little over two hours and was a smash, both at the box office and the Academy (its six Oscar nods unprecedented for a foreign language film). Aside from giving audiences time to grow beards of their own, the extended director’s cut slows the pace to capture the gradients of life aboard a U-boat: days of dripping, cramped boredom bleeding into gnawing tension, occasionally giving way to moments of pure terror. It was Petersen’s intention to adapt Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s WW2 memoir into “a journey to the end of the mind”, an Apocalypse Now in bright yellow macs. Das Boot, more than any other sub movie, achieves that. Sub prime and then some.
Iconic moment: Ears ringing with the concussion of endless depth charges, eyes haunted by weeks of stress, water pouring through leaks in the hull, chief engineer Johann finally snaps.
What to quote: “ALARM!!”
Pub trivia: Jürgen Prochnow’s role was originally earmarked for Rutger Hauer. He turned it down in favour of Blade Runner, automatically making the Battle of the Atlantic 27% less terrifying.
Further reading… We Dive At Dawn (1943), The Enemy Below (1956), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
Tagline: “They look like Nazis but… The Major is British … The Lieutenant is American… The beautiful frauleins are Allied agents!”
Despite some seriously spoilerific taglines (see also: “First they're going to get the enemy... then they're going after the brass that sent them,” and “Look out! It’s the dude with the briefcase”), Where Eagles Dare is pretty much the perfect boy’s-own action flick. Director Brian G. Hutton plays things bullet straight (compare and contrast with his ‘70s tongue-in-cheek war film Kelly’s Heroes) without losing a sense of fun and, let’s be honest, preposterousness. If you can keep track amid all the double and triple-crossing, there’s definitely a job for you at MI5. Richard Burton, taking a few days off from carousing and leaning heavily on his stunt double, and Clint Eastwood, accruing a body count that’d alarm Dirty Harry, have a ball as Allied commandos parachuted into the yodelling part of the Third Reich to rescue a US general with top secret intel. Mazy, fun and thrilling, it just never gets old.
Iconic moment: That desperate cable-car fight to the death involving fists, feet and an ice-axe, hundreds of feet above the valley floor. An original cliff-hanger.
What to quote: “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.”
Pub trivia: Another war film with a title purloined from the pages of literature – in this case Richard III: "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.” We’d quite like to see ‘That Wrens Make Prey’, too.
Further reading… The Guns Of Navarone (1961), The Great Escape (1963), 633 Squadron (1964), The Heroes Of Telemark (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Tagline: “The battle that changed the face of the world”
With more interpreters than some movies have cast members, filming Waterloo was almost as complex an undertaking as the battle itself. Its 17,000 extras, borrowed from the Soviet Army in a cinematic glasnost that stood testament to Dino De Laurentiis’ negotiation skills, lend the fighting a vast scale that can’t be recaptured, even in the era of CGI. Marvel as the French dragoons sweep between the red-clad infantry squares, or the massed ranks of the Imperial Guard march defiantly into the face of withering British fire. The characterisation may not match Ukrainian director Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of War And Peace – Rod Steiger’s Napoleon is so hysterical you wouldn’t back him to successfully negotiate his way around Waterloo Station, let alone the British Army – but the scale he brings to the events of June 18, 1815 is simply breathtaking. This is the reason Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon never happened and, despite its box-office failure, a fairly compelling one at that.
Iconic moment: The arrival of Blücher’s Prussians, black-clad and not exactly a laugh-riot, snatches the battle from Boney’s despairing grasp. “I made one mistake in my life; I should have burned Berlin,” mutters the pocket-sized genius of a long-distant weekend break.
What to quote: “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.” Wellington (Christopher Plummer) makes his famous lament as the sun sets on a corpse-strewn battlefield.
Pub trivia: More than 5000 trees were planted, six miles of underground piping laid and five miles of roads constructed to recreate the mud-soaked battlefield.
Further reading… The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936), The Four Feathers (1939), Henry V (1944), Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), Zulu (1964), War And Peace (1967), Glory (1989)
La Grande Illusion saw director Jean Renoir dubbed "Cinematic Enemy Number One" by Nazi Germany’s resident film critic Josef Goebbels, so he must have been doing something right. The daddy of POW movies, his moving masterpiece was full of uncomfortable truths for the deeply divided French society of the time. For aviator de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Prussian ace von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), class transcends national ties. Both are imprisoned, not just by the stone-slab stalag high in the Vosges Mountains, but by the new social order heralded by war. The future belongs to Maréchal’s (Jean Gabin) working-class airman and wealthy Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), who make good their escape as de Boeldieu sacrifices himself to the German guards.
Iconic moment: As de Boeldieu lies dying from a stomach wound, his German captor, the man who shot him, is struck with deep remorse. “I aimed at your legs!”
What to quote: “For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and I, it's a good way out,” von Rauffenstein gloomily cuts to the chase.
Pub trivia: The film’s original print had as dramatic an odyssey as Dalio and Gabin’s escapees. It was smuggled out of Paris by a Nazi officer, a film enthusiast who archived it in Germany until the occupying Soviets transported it to Moscow. It eventually found its way back to France. Sadly, Renoir died unaware of its existence.
Further reading… The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943), Stalag 17 (1953), The Bridge On The River Quai (1957), The Great Escape (1963), Von Ryan’s Express (1965)
Tagline: “Never has the screen thrust so deeply into the guts of war!”
Considering the colossal impact of the Great War, and the wealth of source material, it’s perhaps a surprise that cinema hasn’t visited the mud-splattered battlefields of Flanders and Picardy more often. With Birdsong ending up on stage rather than screen, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is next in line to tackle this senseless conflict. Until then, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet On The Western Front and Stanley Kubrick’s Path Of Glory stand head and shoulders above any other depictions. Both are anti-war cris de coeur, featuring spectacular tracking-shot recreations of frontal assaults, but Kubrick’s focus falls more heavily on the absurd internal logic of war – a general orders the shelling of his own men, before randomly selecting brave men to stand trial for cowardice – which divides Paths Of Glory neatly into battlefield epic and courtroom drama. Both are driven by a passion and humanity that’s one in the eye of anyone who believes Kubrick’s films lack heart.
Iconic moment: “Sir, would like me to suggest what you can do with that promotion?” Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) finally turns on the weasely General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), who believes he’s been angling for a promotion all along.
What to quote: “There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.” General Broulard redefines cynicism.
Pub trivia: The title comes from Thomas Grey’s poem, Elegy Written In A Country Graveyard (‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave”).
Further reading… All Quiet On The Western Front (1924), The Big Parade (1925), Wings (1927), Sergeant York (1941), Oh, What A Lovely War! (1967), Aces High (1976), Gallipoli (1981), Regeneration (1997)
Tagline: “The first casualty of war is innocence”
Like Jean Renoir, Sam Fuller and Jean-Pierre Melville, Oliver Stone channels his first-hand experience of combat into seriously visceral cinema. While not overtly political, his Vietnam War memoir is an unflinching indictment of the conflict and, as its tagline suggest, a eulogy to a broken generation. The combat scenes, fierce and disorientating, expertly capture the maelstrom, but at its heart Platoon is a character study of men under unsustainable stress. Each copes differently; some don’t cope at all, but, behind the hazy, barrack-room ragging, only the psychopathic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) functions exactly as he’s supposed to. It’s the hideous conundrum of war that Kubrick was exploring at almost exactly the same time on the Docklands set of Full Metal Jacket, a very different film that drew many of the same conclusions.
Iconic moment: The end of Elias, who, with obvious symbolism and a nod to Art Greenspon’s iconic Vietnam War image, is spread-eagled by Vietcong bullets. The death of his stoned messiah leaves Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) with only the devil for company.
What to quote: “Somebody once wrote: ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That's what this place feels like. Hell.”
Pub trivia: Stone wrote the script on his return from Vietnam and sent it to Jim Morrison, who he was considering for the role that eventually went to Sheen. Morrison reputedly had it with him when he died.
Further reading… The 317th Platoon (1965), The Deer Hunter (1973), Apocalypse Now (1979), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties Of War (1987), Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), Jarhead (2005), The Hurt Locker (2008)
Jean-Pierre Melville, himself a veteran of the French Resistance, released this bleak, taut and quite magnificent wartime thriller to a largely indifferent public. France was unreceptive to the feats of the Maquis at a time when De Gaulle was busy quashing a student uprising. Subsequently re-released and re-evaluated, it’s more than stood the test of time. The melancholy mood lends the white-collar heroism of a small band of ordinary men and women an understated quality – think a seriously classy Red Dawn in suits and ties – while the set-pieces are unbearably tense. With names like Le Bison, Le Masque and the Grand Patron, the Resistance fighters sound like figures from a gangster thriller. In a way, though Melville hated the comparison, they’re exactly that. A master of the genre, he brings the brutality, code of honour and fatalism of the underworld to 1942 France.
Iconic moment: Mild-mannered civil servant Philippe Gerbier makes a Hong Kong Phooey-like transformation to escape from the clutches of the Gestapo, killing a guard and wandering cool-as-ice from their Paris HQ.
What to quote: “It’s impossible not to be afraid of dying,” intones Gerbier as he faces a German firing squad, “but I’m too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it.”
Pub trivia: For the scene depicting German soldiers goosestepping down the Champs-Elysées, Melville had to shoot at dawn. Actors in German uniforms have been banned from the Avenue since 1918.
Further reading… Went The Day Well? (1942), Kanal (1957), Ashes And Diamonds (1958), The Battle Of Algiers (1966), Land And Freedom (1995), Black Book (2006)
Tagline: “Out of the sky comes the screen's most incredible spectacle of men and war!”
It wouldn’t have been hard to find a parking space in Hollywood while this was being filmed. Just about every actor worth their salt donned camo smocks to appear in Richard Attenborough’s grand-scale recreation of Operation Market Garden. There were seven Oscar winners on the cast, an A-Z of ‘70s superstars. William Goldman’s dialogue peppered the action with moments of derring-do – not least Lt. Col Frost’s (Anthony Hopkins) nonchalant stroll across the enemy-held Arnhem Bridge – while the director went out of his way, and budget, to ensure historical accuracy. In many ways, it was a highly unlikely blockbuster. It’s consistently downbeat (hey, we lost this one) from moody opening to tragic ending, although what comes in between has such scale and doomed grandeur that it’s impossible not to be swept up in it all.
Iconic moment: The Germans broach the idea of surrender to the surrounded British paras, who are battered, low on ammo and down to their last few teabags. “We haven't the proper facilities to take you all prisoner!” comes the jaunty reply.
What to quote: “Well, as you know, I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far.” Lt. General ‘Boy’ Browning (Dirk Bogarde) cleverly works in the movie title while making his excuses.
Pub trivia: Bogarde, who served in military intelligence during the war, was sent to Arnhem in September 1944 by Montgomery.
Further reading… In Which We Serve (1942), Objective, Burma! (1945), The Desert Fox (1951), The Dam Busters (1955), Reach For The Sky (1956), The Train (1964), The Battle Of Britain (1969), Patton (1970), Midway (1974), Memphis Belle (1990), Schindler’s List (1993), The Pianist (2002), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), Days Of Glory (2006), Downfall (2004), Valkyrie (2008)
If war is the extension of diplomacy by other means, it does a pretty good job of hiding it in Elim Klimov’s seriously influential, deeply unsettling Belarussian opus. No film – not Apocalypse Now, not Full Metal Jacket – spells out the dehumanising impact of conflict more vividly, or ferociously. Its young protagonist, Florya, fresh-faced and innocent when we meet him in the damp woods of Byelorussia, is lined as an old man by the end of his odyssey, hollow eyes reflecting the horrific immensity of what he’s seen. The title comes from the Book of Revelation, a hint of the apocalyptic vision that Klimov unfolds, a vision filled with images that sear onto the subconscious: a German scout plane buzzing like an angel of death; parachutes fluttering from the sky like sinister moths; bright orange tracers thudding into the flanks of a helpless cow; an Einsatzgruppen officer’s playful Loris perched incongruously on his shoulder as he orders the extermination of a village. An impressionist masterpiece and possibly the worst date movie ever.
Iconic moment: As Florya and his young companion, Glasha, stumble through the abandoned village where he lives with his family, the camera pans behind him. There, piled like wood against a hut, are the villagers’ bodies. She sees it; he, thankfully, doesn’t.
What to quote: “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” (Revelation 6, v 6-7)
Pub trivia: The screenplay (originally entitled ‘Kill Hitler’) was written by Ales Adamovich, who fought with the Belarussian partisans as a teenager.
Further reading: Further reading… Ballad Of A Soldier (1959), Cross Of Iron (1977), Stalingrad (1993), The Thin Red Line (1998)
Tagline: “The mission is the man”
If you missed Private Ryan’s terrifyingly FUBAR opening scene on the big screen, you missed the beginning of a new era. Those first, searing minutes on Omaha beach, captured so brilliantly by Janusz Kaminski’s camera, marked a new chapter in war movies, one that’s heralded very-vérité depictions of conflict from Black Hawk Down to The Pacific. Gone was the pow-you’re-dead sanitisation of combat, gone the wobbly history and even wobblier tanks (Battle Of The Bulge, we’re looking at you). Steven Spielberg, who desaturated the film stock to give it the look of Robert Capa’s iconic D-Day stills, and writer Robert Rodat spare us none of the horror, while crafting a homage to the intimacy of comradeship under fire.
Iconic moment: To defuse a potentially explosive situation, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) finally spills his most closely-guarded secret, his peacetime occupation, to the squad. Whoever had $20 on go-go dancer pays up.
What to quote: “James, earn this... earn it.” Miller finally saves Private Ryan (Matt Damon). No pressure there, then.
Pub trivia: Damon was spared the gruelling pre-shoot boot camp to foster a genuine bitterness among the cast that would mirror the squad’s resentment towards Ryan. But really, how can you hate Matt Damon?
Further reading… The Longest Day (1962), Black Hawk Down (2001), Flags Of Our Fathers (2006)