The following films are important in the study of military history.
The following films are important in the study of military history. They are selected for their value in representing the conflict and/or the period in question, and they are arranged in roughly chronological subsections, within which they are arranged alphabetically by title. An * (asterisk) denotes a foreign production; a ^ (caret) denotes a television production.
Alexander the Great began his conquest of the known world in 334
Released: 1960 and 2000 respectively
Taken together, these films provide an accurate depiction of the Roman legion and Roman warfare. Though the former is primarily fiction and the latter is based on the
Mel Gibson’s film about the life of William Wallace is both a blessing and a curse. Historically speaking, Braveheart is plagued with many significant inaccuracies, something Gibson acknowledged as necessary in order to enhance cinematic value; however, Braveheart’s numerous battle scenes
On Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415,
Beginning in 1095, the
This film is
In the most expensive Spanish-language production to date, based on the series of novels by
Despite its enormous importance to history, the Thirty Years’ War remains a scantly used setting for war films. The Last Valley is one of the few existing films to be set during the war, and although there are no epic battle scenes, the film provides a good visual context for the viewer and does contain one battle scene, which provides a basic depiction of seventeenth century warfare. Additionally, the complexity of the political and religious aspects of the war, especially religious zeal, are nicely conveyed through the interaction and dialogue of the characters.
England is locked in civil war. Forces loyal to King Charles I fight against the armies of Parliament, led by
Based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans is set during the Seven Years’ War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). The plot is set in the American colonies and revolves around the successful French
The film adaptation of
Newlyweds settle in the Mohawk Valley just as the revolution is erupting, and the young husband goes off to war; the film ends on a bright note with the birth of a new nation. Though a fictionalized and sentimental chronicle, this classic, directed by John Ford, offers a rich depiction of frontier life during the war. Props had to be made from scratch, and many are true to historic detail. Flintlock muskets, however, were those actually used during the era–the prop department tracked them down in Ethiopia, where they had been used to fight the Italians during World War II.
Based on the book by David McCullough, this acclaimed biographical television miniseries (HBO) chronicles Adams’s role as Founding Father, including the Revolutionary War period, beginning with the Boston Massacre.
The first adaptation of Esther Forbes’s novel portrays the beginning of the American Revolution from the perspective of a young man whose views on the war change as he evolves into a revolutionary. Emphasizes the human perspectives on the war, from both sides.
As a film about the course and causes of the American Revolution (1775-1783), The Patriot falls flat. It is too critical of the British, too praising of the colonists, too focused on the southern theater of war, and too idealistic in its depiction of race relations and slavery. However, the film is accurate in its portrayal of the military aspects of the war, particularly the difficulties of the Continental Army in maintaining adequate numbers and discipline. While the character of Benjamin Martin is so perfect that he is unbelievable, he is loosely modeled after the real soldier Francis Marion. Additionally, the scenes of the
The film version of the stage musical, depicting the Founding Fathers and America’s first congress.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander explores the
In 1812, Napoleon led his Grande Armée into Russia; it returned later that year in pieces. Both the United States and the Soviet Union produced epic films based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), but the 1956 American version, in limiting the film’s duration (though it is still more than three hours long), also limits its depiction of key battles such as those at Austerlitz and Borodino. The 1967 Soviet version requires a full day to watch, but it is more comprehensive and detailed in explaining the history behind Napoleon’s fatal invasion of Russia and allows the story of the breaking of Napoleon to be told by the country that broke him.
This film depicts the events leading up to, and the initial stages of, the conflict between Great Britain and imperial China known as the
Far superior to the 1936 Hollywood production of the same name (in terms of both historical accuracy and overall presentation), this film portrays the disastrous British cavalry attack known as the Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place at the
D. W. Griffith’s epic film about the reconstructed South and the origins of the
Perhaps the definitive Civil War documentary,
After Lincoln issued the
In terms of its contribution to film history, Gone with the Wind, America’s first epic in color and the most popular film in American history, is a masterpiece. In regard to historical representation, the film is both a blessing and a curse. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel of the same name, Gone with the Wind is the perfect film for depicting white society in the antebellum South; however, its portrayal of slavery and the causes and conduct of the Civil War is highly skewed. Like The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind is an excellent example of how film can rewrite the past, and its popularity reveals the extent to which the rewriting of history can be accepted.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British Empire went to war against Dutch farmers (Boers) in the southern tip of Africa. Because the Boers could not fight toe-to-toe with the British Army, the (second) Boer War (1899-1902) was an unconventional war and required the British to adopt unorthodox tactics in order to defeat the Dutch Kommandos. “Breaker” Morant is based on a true story and, though focusing on a court-martial (meaning the majority of the film is courtroom drama), the events leading up to the courtroom are told in flashbacks that display very well the aspects of the war that made it so unconventional.
Released: 1925, as
In the wake of their disastrous defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the
In the last years of World War I, the Russian people revolted against the czar. Following the collapse of the monarchy and withdrawal from World War I, Russia sank into a brutal civil war pitting the Reds (Bolsheviks) against the Whites (Mensheviks), with the majority of the population caught in the middle. Doctor Zhivago, though focusing primarily on a love story rather than political and social events, provides an excellent representation of life in Russia during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Viewers will draw the most from the film if they brush up on early twentieth century Russian history, but even without that effort, the film has much to offer.
Released: 1930, 1979 (television)
Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s famous war novel Im Westen nichts Neues (1929), All Quiet on the Western Front is the classic World War I film. Depicting the fighting between the French and the Germans from the German viewpoint, the film not only shows the brutality of trench warfare but also illustrates the patriotic fervor that led millions of young men on both sides to enlist, as well as the disparity between what the German home front was being told and the actual situation. Of the two versions, each has its advantages. The original version follows the novel more precisely and is a film classic, but color film and improved special effects make the 1979 version better for providing a visual of trench warfare on the western front.
In 1915, the British attempted to break the deadlock of trench warfare in Europe and knock the newly entered
Considering the film’s age, Hell’s Angels is a remarkable film. Though incredibly exepensive, director Howard Hughes captured some amazing aerial footage in his filming of Great War dogfights. Most of the scenes involving aircraft are shot with real planes, not models, giving the film enhanced authority and authenticity. The film also illustrates the Zeppelin raids over London, a topic often left out of World War I lectures. The accompanying love story does little to enhance the film, but viewers who stick it out to the end will get to witness a wide-shot aerial battle between the British Royal Flying Corps and the infamous Red Baron’s Flying Circus.
One of the most remarkable events of World War I took place on Christmas Eve, 1914. The British, French, and German troops in one section of the front put down their weapons and fraternized with the enemy. The
Jean Renoir’s classic
This film is a collaborative effort between the United Kingdom and Spain and depicts the civil war that erupted in Spain between 1936 and 1939. The war was one of political ideology (primarily fascist vs. communist) and as such was incredibly brutal. Not only does the film excellently portray the hatred between the two groups; it also brilliantly illustrates the divisions and dissension within the loyalist force (those opposing Generalissimo Francisco Franco), which contributed a great deal to Franco’s eventual victory. It also includes the International Brigades, another crucial aspect of the Spanish Civil War, by centering the story on the life of a British communist who goes to Spain to fight.
Despite its enormous importance to the war effort, the task of the U.S.
Based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers was an HBO miniseries about the exploits of the
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was just a part of a massive offensive in the South Pacific that included an attack on the American-controlled
In the winter of 1944, Germany launched a massive attack
After the successful D-day landings, Field Marshall
Released: 1956, as
Taking place on the Italian Peninsula in the later years of World War II, Catch-22 is an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel about the American bombing efforts from Italy after the fall of Benito Mussolini. As a sharp criticism of war (Vietnam in particular, with which the film was contemporaneous) and the people who run it, Catch-22 is unconventional and comedic in its portrayal of war and the American military. The absurdity of the characters and events in the film are meant to express the absurdity of war. The very term “catch-22” entered the English vocabulary as a result of Heller’s unorthodox and comedic approach to war criticism.
Whereas Action in the North Atlantic tells the story of the war in the Atlantic from the perspective of the U.S. Merchant Marine, Das Boot shows the war from the view of the German
An important, though often forgotten, aspect of World War II on the eastern front is the role of the
See “Cold War” section below.
Films about German
Though not a war film per se, The Grey Zone depicts the Holocaust as the consequence of combining nationalism, modernity, industrialism, and warfare. No list of war films would be complete without at least one film that addresses the Holocaust, and this one–not Steven Spielberg’s
In 1944, the German army was in retreat. As the advancing Red Army entered Poland, partisans in the city staged a massive uprising, hoping for help from the approaching Soviets. Unfortunately, the Soviets halted outside Warsaw, allowing the Germans time to crush the uprising. Kanal, a Polish production, is the first film about the uprising (not to be confused with the
Released: Both 2006
As the film adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book, The Longest Day rests alongside 1969’s Battle of Britain and 1977’s A Bridge Too Far as the classics of epic World War II films. The film tells the story of
Beginning in 1942, the United States Army Air Force took part in the air war against Germany by conducting daylight bombing raids using the
In June of 1942,
Released: 1945 and 1969 respectively
After the fall of France in 1940, those men and women who continued to resist both the Germans and the Vichy government formed the
Along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Since You Went Away is a film that reminds its audience that war is not just about “over there.” In many ways this film is simply producer David O. Selznik’s Gone with the Wind retold in a World War II setting. The entire film takes place on the home front and shows what civilians, particularly the
World War II marked the end of the
Released: 1943 and 1947 respectively
Shortly after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the Soviet Union used the nonaggression pact with Germany to launch an invasion of
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States wanted to take some sort of immediate, punitive action against the Japanese. The result was the
On December 7, 1941, carrier-based planes of the Japanese Navy laid waste to the American fleet at
In the last days of World War II,
In July of 1944, a small group of
One of the most controversial films of its day, aired on television, The Day After depicts the grim aftereffects of a
Although completely fictitious, the context and themes of Dr. Strangelove are completely accurate. Just two years before the film’s release, the United States and the Soviet Union came within inches of
This 150-minute docudrama details the events leading up to and during the
For two weeks in October of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came as close as they ever would come to starting World War III over the Soviet positioning of missiles in Cuba. Thirteen Days tells the story of the
Set during the Korean War, M*A*S*H is a unique war film. First, it takes place in a
Released: 1952 and 1959 respectively
The Korean War matched U.N. forces (predominantly South Korean and American) against communist North Korea and its Chinese allies. In choosing a film about the experience of American soldiers in combat, the choice is a toss-up between Pork Chop Hill and Retreat, Hell! Historically speaking, Retreat, Hell! is a better film for showing the course of the war from General
The Korean War pitted the North Koreans and their Chinese allies against United Nations forces consisting of South Koreans, Americans, British, Canadians, and a half dozen other countries. What makes this film so essential is that it portrays the war as a Korean war. Most other major films about the Korean War portray the American effort against the Chinese. This film however, portrays the film as a civil war and does an excellent job, not only in utilizing the filming techniques that made the battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan so surreal but also in making an
Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel
This film is Oliver Stone’s second Vietnam-based project and, like its predecessor Platoon (1986), is highly critical of the Vietnam War, showing the terrible price that the war extracted from those who fought it. Based on the life of Vietnam veteran
The siege of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu began in March, 1954, and ended two months later. The Viet Minh, with help from communist China, besieged the fortress and slowly strangled it into submission. The battle was significant because it signaled the end of French control in Vietnam, and the beginning of the path toward eventual American involvement. Dien Bien Phu, a French production, is one of the only films available about the battle.
Nearly every set in movies about the Vietnam War represents the ground and recounts the war from the standpoint of the men who waded through the jungles and rice paddies. However,
Like Platoon (1986), Apocalypse Now (1979), and The Deer Hunter (1978), Stanley Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket is a classic
The Green Berets is John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam, pro-American
Oliver Stone’s first anti-Vietnam film has become, arguably, the anti-Vietnam film. The film depicts the actions of one platoon in Vietnam and illustrates the myriad conflicts and problems within the army itself, to say nothing of difficulties fighting the enemy–problems such as insubordination, drug addiction, fragging, and atrocities against the Vietnamese, to name a few. Although no specific historical battle is portrayed, the film gives an excellent depiction of the
Near the close of 1965, the United States had its first, and one of the only, pitched battles against North Vietnamese regulars in the
As the war in Vietnam intensified, it spilled over into neighboring Cambodia. The communist
The end of colonialism was characterized by war. This film depicts the
In October of 1973, Egypt and Syria jointly attacked Israel on
Released: 1992 and 2005 respectively
The fight for the Falkland Islands (or the Malvinas, to the Argentineans) began in April of 1982. The war lasted only a few months and ended in a British victory. Each of these films is biased in favor of the country that produced it, but together they paint a good picture of the entire conflict as well as demonstrate that history changes depending on who is telling it. An Ungentlemanly Act focuses primarily on the initial Argentinean invasion. Only the last five minutes of the film address Britain’s counterattack and eventual reconquest of the island. Iluminados por el fuego begins in the midst of the war, after the British returned in force, and carries through to the postwar era.
Of the handful of films set in the First Gulf War–including Courage Under Fire (1996) and Three Kings (1999)–Jarhead is the best choice. It follows a unit of Marine snipers from boot camp to the end of the war. There is not much combat, and no epic battle scene caps the film, but that is what makes Jarhead valuable. Battles in the First Gulf War were few and far between, which was good for civilians at home but was torture for Marines trained to fight and kill;
With the death of
In 1993, the United States military staged a small raid in the city of Mogadishu, hoping to capture important figures in the government of Warlord
Film and Warfare