Metalluk’s Top-Ten British War Films

Nov 17, 2005 (Updated Dec 21, 2005)

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The Bottom Line Use this list to help find your way to the greatest British war films!

Britain has certainly experienced its full share of military encounters and then some, throughout its history. Here are my selections for the top ten British war films. I've also included a bonus list of films featuring mainly home front drama in which wartime circumstances play a role in the film's story. To qualify for this list, the film must have been produced in Britain, but the military engagements featured do not necessarily have to involve British forces. The order in which I've listed the films is based on overall quality rather than the drama or quality of the battle footage per se.

Top Ten British War Films:

#1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This great epic directed by David Lean won both the Oscar and BAFTA awards for Best Picture. The all-star cast features Peter O'Toole as Lawrence, along with Omar Sharif, Arthur Kennedy, Jack Hawkins, Donald Wolfit, Claude Rains, Anthony Quayle, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Jose Ferrer. With gorgeous cinematography of the North Africa desert, this film chronicles the efforts of the eccentric T.E. Lawrence to induce the Arabs to rise up against their Turkish oppressors, who were also World War I foes of Britain.

#2. The Four Feathers (1939)
This film, beautifully realized by the Korda Brothers, finds Harry Faversham (Clive Baxter) reluctantly embarking on a military career because it is what his family has done for generations. When he resigns his commission to avoid being shipped off to the Sudan, he is handed four feathers, symbolizing cowardice, by three of his friends and his lover. By tradition, he can only rid himself of these stains on his honor by performing four feats of bravery. Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, and June Duprez also star.

#3. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
The first of David Lean's epic films was good enough to carry away Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Score, and Best Film Editing. Guinness's performance as the single-minded British Colonel is especially powerful. In a Japanese POW camp, the prisoners are assigned the task of building a bridge and Guinness's character puts pride in workmanship before strategic considerations. William Holden and Jack Hawkins play a couple of commandos assigned the task of destroying the bridge.

#4. Henry V (1944)
Laurence Olivier wrote the screenplay, directed, and starred in this rousing version of the Shakespeare play aimed at bolstering flagging British morale at a low-point during World War II. Olivier delivered much more than a mere propaganda film, however, and received a special Oscar for this artistic triumph.

#5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
From The Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) comes this exceptional study of a devoted military man (played by Roger Livesey), whose career spanned from the Boer War to the end of World War II. Deborah Kerr accomplishes the remarkable feat of playing three distinct characters, giving each one a unique quality. Anton Walbrook plays Blimp's erstwhile Austrian friend. Old soldiers never die . . .

#6. The English Patient (1996)
Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, and Colin Firth headline an all-star cast in a film set in the desert of North Africa around the time of World War II. Love lost is the film's theme but the backdrop is the struggle for control of the oil fields in the Middle East, as War approaches.

#7. The Killing Fields (1984)
In his debut film, Roland Joffe skillfully tells the story of a New York Times reporter (Sam Wasterston) and his Cambodian assistant (Dr. Haing S. Ngor), who are trapped in Phnom Penh as Cambodia falls to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. When the American reporter escapes on the last helicopter out, Ngor's character, Pran, is left behind to experience the horrors of "reeducation" at a rural work camp. Pran ultimately escapes, but must transit the so-called "killing fields" where millions of Cambodian civilians met their end. Ngor won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

#8. Zulu (1964)
Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, and Michael Caine are featured in this epic story about a greatly out-numbered British unit defending a remote African mission at Rorke's Drift against a horde of Zulu warriors. Cy Endfield directed this spectacular film in which most of the second half is concerned with the dramatic battle. Richard Burton narrates and John Barry provided the rousing musical score.

#9. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Kubrick's examination of U.S. Marine Corps boot camp serves as a prelude to questions about American's war in Vietnam. Matthew Modine stars as Private Joker, but the film's first half is carried by a stunning performance by R. Lee Ermey as the drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. Ermey had actually served as a drill instructor at Parris Island and gives the role full authenticity. Adam Baldwin comes on strong in the film's second half as an out-of-control, gung-ho Marine nicknamed "Animal Mother."

#10. The Cruel Sea (1952)
The screenplay by Eric Ambler, based on a best-seller by Nicholas Monsarrat, earned an Oscar nomination. Charles Frend directs Jack Hawkins as the captain of a Corvette class escort ship, ill equipped to deal with the rapacious Nazi U-boats during World War II. There's an almost documentary feel to this able portrayal of the sacrifices demanded during the Battle of the Atlantic. Donald Sinden and Stanley Baker earned recognition for their supporting roles.


Bonus British War Films Featuring the Home Front: (listed alphabetically)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)
This epic directed by David Lean, set in Russia, has some brief but dramatic battle footage from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I, but mostly concerns the ill-starred romance between a Russian doctor (Omar Sharif) and the beautiful Lara (Julie Christie).

Hope and Glory (1987)
War in the form of London air raids provides the backdrop for this unusual coming-of-age tale and a rare look at wartime experiences through the tinge of nostalgia.

I Know Where I'm Going (1945)
War plays a role in bringing both Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) home on leave to his beloved Scottish Hebrides and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) to the same destination on a gold-digging mission to marry an industrial magnate. Richly imbued with Scottish culture, this film provides a pleasing mix of romance and drama.

Whisky Galore! (1949)
The rationing of whisky on an island in the Scottish Hebrides provides the backdrop for this comedy starring Basil Radford and Joan Greenwood and directed by Alexander Mackendrick.

You may also enjoy my other lists relating to British films:

All One-hundred and Six BAFTA Award-Winning Films
London Critics' Circle Awards for Best Foreign Film
British Films Selected by the London Critics' Circle as Best Film or Best British Film
The British Film Institute's Top-100 British Films All-Time
Top-Ten English-Language ~Horror~ Films from Outside the USA
Top Ten British Comedies
Top Ten British Thrillers
Top Bond Films and Other British Spy Movies
Top-Ten British Costume Dramas

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