Osprey's Favourite War Films

In Military History, Featured

To mark the publication of 50 Great War Films in the UK and Rest of World we asked around the office for people to chip in with their favourite war films.

Phil Smith, Games Manager

There’s a lot of great war movies out there. There are also those that are, objectively, not great, but which I find to be incredibly enjoyable. I’ve picked two examples of the latter – neither of them were ever going to win an Oscar (for acting anyway – scores and costume design would have been more plausible), but both are hugely entertaining.

Kingdom of Heaven is an alright film. It’s fun enough, but there are a few plot holes that make it a rather unsatisfying whole. The Director’s Cut, however, adds about 45 minutes to the film, and makes it a good film. Sure, you still have Orlando Bloom at his po-faced and earnest best, but it actually explains why he’s so solemn for most of the runtime, and also why this French blacksmith is a competent horseman, swordsman, and siege engineer from the outset. Historically, it’s got a few quirks, but a strenuously historical movie would probably be rather tedious! It also has one of my favourite battle scenes of all time – the skirmish in the snowy forest between Liam Neeson’s crusaders and the men sent by the local bishop to apprehend Orlando’s character – brutal and beautiful in equal measure. Plus, how can you not love a movie that includes the line “I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle”?

Liam and the gang before things get real.

Second, and stretching the definition of ‘film’ somewhat, is Rough Riders, a 1997 miniseries about Teddy Roosevelt and the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry. It’s a film about the Spanish–American War, which almost certainly guarantees that I’ll like it (and puts it in a very small field), but the cast. Oh, the cast. It’s a who’s who of some of my favourite actors: Sam Elliott, Tom Berenger, Nick Chinlund, Holt McCallany, Geoffrey Lewis, Titus Welliver… It also has Gary Busey, but I’ll forgive it that oversight. The battle scenes (Las Guasimas and San Juan Hill) are very well shot, and appropriately visceral, and Berenger’s Roosevelt is just great fun throughout.

Fun Fact: 80% of Tom Berenger’s dialogue was shouted.


Richard Sullivan, Managing Director

This one was tricky. I was torn between this choice, The Eagle has Landed, The Duellists, A Bridge Too Far and so on… Don’t make me choose! Finally I pulled myself together and fixed on The Man who would be King. An absolute classic. Based on the short story by the now unjustly maligned Rudyard Kipling this film portrays the magic and terror of late nineteenth century India and Afghanistan and the men who fought and died for power and riches.

“Detriments you call us? Detriments? Well I want to remind you it was "detriments" like us that built this bloody Empire *and* the Izzat of the bloody Raj, 'ats on!”

Sterling performances by Caine and Connery make The Man who would be King a must-see!

The film is anchored on the brilliant performances of Michael Caine and Sean Connery as Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot respectively. Ex British Army NCOs on the make, with ambitions beyond their humble stations, they head into Afghanistan with 20 Martini Henry rifles intent on taking over a kingdom and making themselves rich. Initially successful their fortunes soon unravel and they ruined by delusions of grandeur, lust and greed. However, despite being tested, their great friendship and warm banter survives to the end and they meet their fates with the bravery of stoicism of the British Redcoat.

Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We're going to teach you soldiering. The world's noblest profession. When we're done with you, you'll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men.

Directed by John Huston, filmed at Pinewood and in France and Morocco, the film has an able supporting cast with Christopher Plummer as Kipling and Saeed Jaffrey as the lost Gurkha, Billy Fish, who dies so bravely with his kukri in his hand.

Although a fictional story there was an American adventurer, Josiah Harlan, who travelled, intrigued and fought his way around the Punjab and Afghanistan, becoming the Prince of Ghor. Ben McIntyre’s account is worth a read as is our Weapon title on the Martini-Henry rifle.

James Boulton, Marketing Executive

Nazis make excellent villains. They represent the very worst of humanity: violence, hatred, fear of others, destruction. This has meant that in most films about World War II, they generally are portrayed as being nothing less than pure evil. Rarely are they especially developed characters, and this is in many ways because it is very hard for us to think of Nazis like Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels as human beings – we like to think of them more monolithically as monsters.

Downfall is set in the last 10 days of World War II in Europe, and takes place almost entirely in the Führerbunker.  As the Soviets advance through Berlin, Hitler desperately tries to organise a defence of the Reich, all the while showing his contempt for the people of Germany and the Wehrmacht in particular. As Berlin burns, the bunker becomes ever more disconnected from reality, as the leading Nazis come to terms with the fall of their empire and one by one they desert or end their lives.

Despite the serious subject matter, or perhaps because of it, Downfall is frequently parodied online.

Its most famous scene is a meeting between Hitler and his generals where he yells in fury at their perceived incompetence.  Since the film is in German, people on Youtube have taken to parodying the scene by changing the subtitles to something more mundane such as Hitler railing against the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman.

Yet for me the most fascinating thing about the film is that it presents the leaders of the Third Reich as broken men at the end of their world.  Some are unable to come to terms with the horrors that they have perpetrated, others in disbelief that the project that the believed destined for glory was crashing down at their feet. Some of the suicide and murder scenes are truly horrific, none more than Magda Goebbels poisoning their children as they slept, unwilling to ‘subject’ them to a world without Nazism. They are still horrific, despicable people, the worst of humanity, but Downfall presents them as human nonetheless.

It reminds us in a time when atrocities are still being perpetrated around the world including in Orlando last weekend that there is nothing inhuman about acts of horror and terror. The people that cause them may be the worst of us, but they are still humans. And it is that that makes Hitler and his acolytes all the more despicable in this film. There are no heroes in this film, you root for nobody, but there is no greater examination of the human condition at its most strained than Downfall.

Joseph McCullough, Games Marketing Manager

A long time ago, when I was in college at the University of North Carolina, my friends and I developed our own 4th of July tradition. Every year we would gather at someone’s house, usually with several buckets of Bojangles chicken and biscuits and watch the glorious 4 hour and 15 minute Civil War epic that is Gettysburg!

There are so many reasons to like this movie, it is hard to know where to begin. First off, it is just beautiful to watch. Many scenes were filmed on the actually Gettysburg battlefield (the first time that had been allowed), it used thousands of re-enactors, the costumes are fantastic, and the beards! So many good beards! Probably the nicest thing about this movie is that it shows both sides of the battle, and portrays them both sympathetically. For the South, the movie follows General Longstreet (ably played by Tom Berenger) so you get a very high level command view. On the Northern side, the movie follows Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels and his amazing moustache!) and gives a much more soldier’s eye view of the battle.

Glorious facial hair is just one of the many reasons to watch Gettysburg.

Sure the movie has a couple of historical hiccups or debatable bits, but it still manages to present a good overview of what is an enormous, complicated, three-day battle in a highly entertaining fashion.

For reasons unknown, the American Civil War has produced very few good movies (see also Glory), but this one makes up for a lot of failures.  Just don’t watch the sequel…

Vanessa Moir, Editorial Intern

My favourite war film is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  Set during the Napoleonic Wars, it follows the crew of British frigate Surprise, lead by Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, as they battle the elements and occasionally each other in a bid to defeat the Acheron, a better armed French warship.  Although marketed at the time as  a conventional action-filled thriller, ‘Master and Commander’, like the Patrick O’Brian books it’s based on, is quite episodic, and as well as chasing the Acheron, the crew battle storms around Cape Horn, deal with a supposedly cursed midshipman and pursue the study of natural history on the Galapagos Islands.  The key relationship in the film is between Captain Aubrey and his friend the civilian doctor and naturalist Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany, with whom he discusses the morality of the mission in between playing string duets together.

When not swashbuckling, string duets are the order of the day.

‘Master and Commander’ is a great war film for several reasons.  Firstly it looks and sounds great, with fantastic visuals and cinematography, with fantastic shots of the ships, storms and Galapagos Islands accompanied by sublime music, both classical string pieces played by Aubrey and Maturin, and music composed for the film.  Moreover, its script and depiction of the period its set in, and the people that make up the ship’s community feels rough and authentic, from the mix of ethnicities and nationalities within the crew to Aubrey accompanying an anecdote about Lord Nelson by commenting that he always tries to say it as Nelson did.   Any feeling of sentimentality or overtly cloying patriotism is offset by the character of Stephen Maturin, who provides the counterpart to Aubrey’s more conventional ideas of duty, without feeling like a modern character parachuted into the story.  It also has some great action sequences of both ship to ship and hand to hand combat, and does not shy away from showing the cost of war to both sides, although this is mischievously undercut right at the end when it turns out that the French haven’t been entirely honest...

What would top your list of favourite war films? Let us know in the comments section below!

Post Comments

Cicerius posted on 25 Jun 2016 09:27:00
War films eh?
I will put up Last of the Mohicans for consideration.
Daniel Day Lewis version.
Soundtrack is awesome, the combat scenes are quite plausible.
No repeating muskets for example.
Looked good as well. The soldiers were uniformed fairly accurately on both sides.
Played around with the massacre some, open heart surgery without an anesthetic for example, and when the French were mortaring Fort William the people I was watching the film in the theatre with, wargamers all of us were, we were wondering about the saving throw for if the bomb fuse would go out or not?
Well acted and the depiction of the Brits, French and Indians not badly done I thought.
C-Bone posted on 20 Jun 2016 14:26:54
Two films I forgot to mention: Pork Chop Hill and The Sand Pebbles. They actually built a full size gunboat for The Sand Pebbles. Also, my grandfather was a China Sailor (on submarines), and he happened to be named Jake (Steve McQueen's character is Jake Holman).
OspreyRich posted on 20 Jun 2016 10:44:18
Some great choices. Where Eagles Dare is coming to a TV screen near me very soon!
MTG posted on 19 Jun 2016 22:48:51
Not the greatest plot ever but I will forever remember when I was 15 and I went to watch Saving Private Ryan at the cinema with my Grandad who served in North Africa and Italy during WWII. I remember having just watched the Omaha Beach scene and thinking I've never seen anything like that before in a war film in terms of sheer raw power I looked sideways at my Grandad who had two tears running down his face which was something else I'd never seen before. He's now 93 and can still recite his service number backwards!
C-Bone posted on 17 Jun 2016 23:44:06
I definitely agree Downfall was a great film. So too, was The Man Who Would Be King. Never did care much for Gettysburg. Thought it was a bit too talky. But I would recommend John Huston's film version of The Red Badge of Courage, starring Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin. But you're right, Joe, there's not a lot of great Civil War films. Same thing with the American Revolution. About the best I can think of is Drums Along the Mohawk.
As for Master and Commander, I think Russell Crowe was miscast as Jack Aubrey. As a fan of the novels, I don't think he brought the joy to the character. Paul Bettany was OK as Stephen, but I also imagined him differently. Then there's the title. Why Master and Commander, when Jack has already made post? Plus, they made the antagonists in Far Side of the World French, when they were Americans in the novel. I suppose that was to placate us Yanks.
I saw Northwest Passage once as a kid. I should see it again. That was the first time I heard of Rogers' Rangers, and it piqued my interest. Francis Parkman also got into the Franco-British struggle for North America when he learned about the rangers.
I would say Das Boot is a great war film. And Paths of Glory.
Mark Lardas posted on 17 Jun 2016 19:21:56
Good choices. My favorite is Patton. George C. Scott was never better.

Fun fact: If you check my biography in my first book (American Heavy Frigates) you will see I lived in Palestine, TX at the time. Rough Riders was filmed (at least in part) in Palestine, and several of my friends appeared as extras in the movie.

The most notable one is the old Confederate veteran who when the movie grandson asks "Grandpa, whose soldiers are those?" replies "Their American soldiers" as the train with the Rough Riders passes by the station. He was the owner of the local bookstore - Booksmith's - and encouraged me to actually write.

The station was the Palestine terminal of the Texas State Railroad, and all of the train scenes were filmed on the TSRR. My acting friends urged me to join them, but as I had already been an extra in a movie (Challenger - I am in the cafeteria scene), I decided I had already checked that off my bucket list.
GI Gene posted on 17 Jun 2016 18:48:21
It was the movie Where Eagles Dare that inspired me to write Elite #173 Office of Strategic Services 1942-45. Over ten years ago when I first inquired about writing for Osprey I was told that titles about the Germans and Americans in World War II were best bets. My potential book would have to be an American subject since the only German I knew was from watching war movies. With that in mind I finally saw Where Eagles Dare in its entirety for the first time. Back then Osprey had not published a lot about the Allied secret services but after reading a few books and checking potential sources, the idea for an Elite title about the OSS was born. Writing it became an adventure all its own. The movie is what it is, an action adventure where Sir Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood wipe out half the German Army in a maelstrom of historical liberties. In the middle of the movie one of the German generals even stands up and yells “This is ridiculous!” Though none of the missions the OSS actually conducted matched the drama of the movie, some of the operations it did do during the war would be worthy of an HBO miniseries. So the next time you reach for Elite #173 on your shelf, you can thank Broadsword calling Danny Boy…
Aetius453 posted on 17 Jun 2016 17:55:58
One of my favorites has always been Northwest Passage. Released in 1940 and directed by King Vidor. It starred Spencer Tracy, Robert Young and Walter Brennan. I love it because it's one of the only films made by Hollywood that depicts the French and Indian War period and more importantly it depicts the Great St. Francis Raid which I believe is the most important raid ever conducted by an armed force. Approximately 175 American rangers (light infantry) led by Robert Rogers (the American woodsman par excellance) travelled through rugged and inhospitable territory avoiding French and Indian patrols to attack and destroy the Abenaki Indian village of St. Francis. The story is an amazing one if you ever want to look up the details.

And I am an Osprey man and so I am well aware of the inaccuracies of the movie from the uniforms worn by the American rangers to the inclusion of sentimental characters played by Robert Young and Walter Brennan who have no prior ranger experience. But the real thrill of the film is the actual attack on St. Francis which is very well done and the then long and torturous trek back to British occupied territory while being pursued by vengeful French and Indian forces. The film is too long and the pacing isn't always great, but the performances by the actors is top notch, especially Spencer Tracy as Rogers. I've included a link to the movie poster if anyone's interested and thanks for listening!


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