Tuesday 21 February 2012 by Emma Campbell. 16 comments

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)



Interesting article - - mention should be made of Damien Parer's "Kokoda Front Line" - the 1942 (Cinesound) newsreel which was the first Australian film to win an Academy Award. Agree with your historian's comment on "Beneath Hill 60" - full credit to the makers of this well made film for looking beyond Gallipoli and Kokoda for inspiration. The parameters by which you define a 'war film' are rather narrow. I would extend the above list to include "Breaker Morant" (Australian -1980) "Odd Angry Shot" (Australian -1979) "MASH" (1970) "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) and no doubt other readers might have their own list. Yes, while some notable war films focus on a singular battle (I would also include the 1970 film 'Tora Tora Tora' in this category) others use the drama of conflict and battle to explore other aspects of the human condition. Heightened emotion, the irreverence and humour that can be found in the darkest of places, the search for a brief respite from imminent violence and death, the relationships that form between people confined in small spaces such as a trench or in a submarine, the political machinations and subterfuge - these are the elements that can also drive a great 'war film' . And yes, a good war related film can be 'soppy' or sentimental or feature life on the home front - think of the 1942 film "Mrs Miniver' or the 1946 film "Best Years of Our Lives" incidentally both directed by William Wyler. There are many great Australian war stories to be told... if our film makers choose to rise above the current dreary fixation on organised crime and serial killers - and they can start with the amazing account of the World War One submarine AE2 and its crew on 25 April 1915.

rusty a

I think they left out one of the best. The Beast of War. An american film based on the russian army in afghanistan. A bit like Platoon.

Simon M

I agree with the list but I think the film Tora, Tora, Tora! which is based on the Pearl Harbour should be added, plus the miniseries Anzacs that starred Paul Hogan


I agree with the ones I've seen and others that I know have influenced older people. Bridge on the River Kwai bothers me because it so completely misled its audience about the whole Burma Siam railway process and in a way demeans the efforts of those who tried to get the men through.

Dianne Manning

Totally agree with the inclusion of the miniseries The Anzacs.....About time we had a movie about Weary Dunlop...


Of recent out of Asia has come some very good movies. Brother hood (Korean War.) NANKING City of Life and Death. (China-Japan 1937) and Japan itself has produced some well made films from her view of history. YAMATO( the largest Battleship ever), For you I will go and die (About the Kamikaze Corps) ISOROKU YAMAMOTO and Sea of No Escape (Kamikaze submarines). Stalingrad by the Germans (1991) and Downfall (listed here) have also been brilliant. The mini series The Pacific was also excellent but not to teh standard of Band of Brothers.

Graham H

Great list ! The mini series ANZAC's with Paul Hogan and a great Australian cast is timeless ! It was recently on FOXTEL and hard not to watch ! Heading to the Western Front next month and this has been a bit of good "homework" for me ! The Cruel Sea was also a great movie - studied it at school and and all time personal favoriate !


Patton? Patton have to be one of the worst war movies, same with Hurt Locker, in history. I couldn't watch Patton. The first ten minutes dragged on and I fell asleep. I walked out on Hurt Locker because it bored me to tears. Saving Private Ryan, Stalingrad, Enemy at the Gates and Beneath Hill 60 are one of the best war movies off all time...oh Battle of Britan and Full Metal Jacket as well but Patton? Come on


"We were the Rats" starring Chips Rafferty is a must


Correction to the above it should be The Rats of Tobruk" filmed in 1944

brett campbell

I always thought that from a film makers point of view a film about Le Hamel would be a winner. Great story to start with plus a VC winner plus the US and British markets would be catered for through their troops involvement in the battle. A good producer might be then able to find a decent budget. The drama over the US involvement would make for particularly good storytelling as would the tension between the Aussie infantry and the British tankers before the battle.

Ash M

Fantastic to see Stalingrad in the list, have been telling people for ages abouth how good that film is. While there's a couple of classics of the genre in there, would love to see a decent new film about the Air War in the First World War made; both 'Flyboys' and 'The Red Baron' were pretty ordinary - RB actually probably rates as one of the worst films I've ever seen, it is so historically inaccurate it actually mad me angry! The short film in the Over the Front display at the AWM is brilliant, someone like Peter Jackson who has an interest in the field the and is a great filmmaker would be perfect to do a feature film on it.

Peter Doyle

'The Man Who Would Be King'' isn't a war movie-it falls into the action adventure type of genre. In its place I would nominate the German film 'The Bridge' 1959-despite the technical problems of having no real tanks available for the film it's still an impressive look at the last ditch resistance (or not) of a group of school boys at the death knell of the 'Thousand Year Reich'.

Denis Connelly

'Tour of Duty' TV series worthy of a mention.


Hi, I would think the 1966, French Foreigh Legion film LOST COMMAND starring Anthony Quinn, Alain Delon, George Segal and Michèle Morgan is a very good war movie. The movie deals with loyalty and officers facing the changing counter insurgency situations of Dien Bien Phu and Algeria. However, ZULU the 1964 historical war film depicting the Battle of Rorke's Drift between the small British Army garrison and thousands of brave, gallant Zulu warriors in January 1879, which starred Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, and James Booth could possibly be the greatest war movie of them all. The theme music grips with the savage drama of the day and a half battle, culminating in one of the savagest battle scenes ever filmed. Although the real final battle was fought in the dark, the portrayal in the movie of this battle with the attacking Zulus and the defending British (Welsh) is excellently portrayed, with the courage of both sides totally undeniable. The movie really shows the courage of dedicated men on both sides struggling to gain victory and survive, and finally the Zulus salute their fellow braves that still defended the Mission Station at Rorke's Drift, Natal Province, South Africa 22 -23 January 1879. Zulu is an excellent portrayal of soldiers.


I agree Ross, whilst the historians see the cinema as a tool for reaching audiences and one of a multimedia toolkit of information pathways, for just pure cinema experience Zulu is awesome. It has sufficient attention to detail to get history boffins happy, tight script to keep the tension and drama unfolding, an excellent subplot of racial respect at a time of racism, and acting that brings out the old adage - ordinary men doing extraordinary deeds. The John Barry score remains for me the ultimate war movie score with possibly Paradise Road a close second. The sinking of the vessel (with the White Ensign still flying) gets me every time. Old pusser talking.