Historians and Hollywood: the best war movies

21 February 2012 by Emma Campbell

This Sunday night, the stars of cinema will come together in Hollywood to celebrate the year’s best films at the 84th Academy Awards. Among the nine movies vying for best picture is Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, about a young Englishman who enlists to serve in the First World War after his beloved horse is sold to the cavalry.

Whether or not War Horse wins, it’s no surprise that a war film has made the best picture list. The Academy’s very first best picture was a war film – Wings, in 1927–28 – and in its third year of issuing awards All Quiet on the Western Front (1929–30) took the gong. Other war films to have won best picture include The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), Platoon (1986) and, most recently, The Hurt Locker in 2009.

So when war historians look to the cinema for a fresh interpretation of a conflict – or just for good old-fashioned entertainment – they have a glut of films to choose from. The action, glory and tragedy of war make it a popular choice for filmmakers the world over, and thousands of movies on the topic have been made since the birth of cinema in 1895.

Defining a war film is not simple: it generally features a battle at sea, on land or in the air, but it is not confined to depicting combat alone. War films may focus on other aspects of war, such as covert operations, prisoners of war or the civilian experience. Action and drama are typically involved, but a war movie may be a comedy or romance. War films are used as propaganda, to mobilise forces, encourage patriotism or remind a nation of its power and glory. But they are also often anti-war films, concentrating on suffering and horror and designed to make a political or ideological statement about the futility of the endeavour.

Historians at the Australian War Memorial are as enamoured of war films as the broader movie-going public, but they view them through a different lens. They do not expect fictional war films to broaden their knowledge of war, but they do expect filmmakers to get the facts right.

“Historical accuracy is important, even within a fictional retelling of an event,” says Second World War historian Lachlan Grant. “Memory is often shaped by popular mediums such as literature, film, television, and even computer games in more recent times. There are many historical myths that have been fuelled or are reinforced by popular fictional works that are mistakenly accepted as historical fact.”

First World War expert Aaron Pegram agrees. “As historians, we have to turn to the real, tangential fragments of the past kept in archives, museums and from our veterans to get a real understanding of what the nature of conflict was like. War films can provide a frame of reference which we can use to imagine what war might have been like. Everything from the badges to buttons, the sights and sounds has to be as close to reality as possible. There’s nothing more irritating than a misrepresentation of the past.”

Action should be intense. To this end, our historians’ list of favourite war films includes many from the 1950s and 1960s, a period when combat-heavy films were all the rage: The Dam Busters, The Guns of Navarone and Battle of Britain are just some examples. More recent action-based war films that make the list are Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, Master and Commander and Saving Private Ryan – the first 30 minutes, anyway.

“It’s action and drama that I want to watch,” says Pacific war specialist Karl James. “I grew up watching John Wayne movies and I love the nostalgia and sentimentality of 1940s British war films.”

However, there is definitely a need for a meaningful, even romantic, story to propel a war film – just don’t get too soppy.

“As a historian, I’m looking for a movie that evokes something genuine about the experience and events of war without false sentimentality,” says Jean Bou, an authority on the Australian Light Horse. “Regardless of whether the sentimentality arises from an absurd romance, from shallow characters or from blatant nationalism, or whatever, it is the big killer, in my opinion.”

While American and British films dominate our historians’ list of favourite war flicks, films made by other nations are considered equally – if not more—important.

“The Germans make great war movies,” says Pegram. “Rarely do we see war from the other side of the hill; most are made from the Allies’ perspective.” Among his favourites are Downfall, which tells of Adolf Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker, and is based on a memoir by his last private secretary, Traudl Junge; and Stalingrad, a depiction of the brutal Russian battle as seen through the eyes of a German officer and his battalion.

It may have been made by an American, but Letters from Iwo Jima is important for telling the Japanese perspective of war, says Grant. Clint Eastwood’s Second World War film “re-humanises for Western audiences the Japanese experience of the war against the grain of often dehumanising depictions that have persisted since 1945. It therefore highlights the point that Japanese militarism, as an ideology, rather than the Japanese as a people, was the real enemy in this bitter conflict.”

Vietnam war and Gallipoli expert Ashley Ekins favours French films. “La grande illusion by Jean Renoir ranks as one of the greatest war/anti-war films of all time; and A Very Long Engagement is a brilliant re-creation of post–First World War France.” Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson, also makes his list. “Despite its historical inaccuracies, it is an enduring evocation of period and place.”

Despite a profusion of war films, there is room for more – particularly about Australians at war.

“Popular movies like The Lighthorsemen and Gallipoli have helped place the ‘sideshow’ campaigns in recent popular memory, but it’s the Western Front – the main theatre of the First World War – where Australian troops fought and suffered the most,” Pegram says. “It’s also where they performed their greatest achievements. I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Beneath Hill 60, which I think is an extraordinary story [about Australian tunnellers on the Western Front], but I think it’s time for a movie about the ‘ordinary’ soldier’s experience, and one much more representative of an Australian infantryman’s war.”

James would like to see a film about one of the final campaigns the Australians fought on Bougainville in 1945.

“The story has everything; heroes and villains, pitched battles and irregular warfare, mutinies, black market profiteers, three weddings – even cannibalism,” he says. A box-office hit, for sure.


Memorial historians’ best ever war movies (in no particular order)

 The Dam Busters (1955)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Das Boot (The Boat) (1981)

Der Untergang (Downfall) (2004)

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Henry V (1989)

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

In Which We Serve (1942)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Patton (1970)

Westfront 1918 (1930)

Stalingrad (1993)

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Battle of Britain (1969)

The Longest Day (1962)

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

La grande illusion (Grand Illusion) (1937)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

La vie et rien d’autre (Life and Nothing But) (1989)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) (2004)

Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) (2005)

Gallipoli (1981)

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983)

The Dawn Patrol (1930)

Wings (1927)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Quiet American (2002)

Cross of Iron (1977)

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930 and 1979)

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Glory (1989)

Master and Commander (2003)

Beneath Hill 60 (2010)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


TV Series or Mini-Series

Band of Brothers (2001)

Generation Kill (2008)