Best British war films set in the 20th century

12 feet below the barbed, booby-trapped, body-battered planes of Flander’s Fields scurried the rats and trench lice that would eventually find homes in the khaki seams of a freezing British soldier’s uniform. Amid mud, blood and death, the words “Dulce et decorum est” were etched on a grainy piece of paper stained with fingerprints. The man with the pen in hand was the great war poet, Wilfred Owen, who completed what was to be a seminal work of literature in an Edinburgh war hospital. Through the heinous bloodshed of World War I, Owen’s poetry managed to capture a sense of beauty and order in the frenetic chaos of the Western Front.

Siegfried Sassoon and John McCrae, like Owen, also documented the horrors of what unfolded before them in France through the art of poetry. Fast forward a century, and countless films have been made about Britain’s war efforts, particularly during the First and Second World Wars; the most recent, Ground Meat Operation with Colin Firth, is already acclaimed. Here are some of the best British war films of the 20th century that really set this kind of poetry in motion…

7 Mrs Miniver

This WWII classic Mrs Miniver was dubbed “propaganda worth 100 battleships” by Winston Churchill in response to the film’s critical success across the Atlantic, where it won six Oscars and helped dispel American reluctance to join the war effort. Mrs Miniver details the hardships and struggles of these (sometimes) fatherless families facing war within the confines of the British Isles.


6 The imitation game

While Morten Tyldum The imitation game is about as far removed from the fighting on beaches, airstrips, fields and streets as you can get, focusing instead on the intelligence battle at Bletchley Park, the center of Allied code-breaking during World War II world. Based on the book by Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigmathe film follows cryptographer, mathematician and decryptor Alan Turing, whose influence during the war was profound.

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Charged with the almost impossible task of deciphering the German enigma, the genius had developed in July 1942 a decryption technique called “Turingery”, which thus saved millions of lives. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing with aplomb, translating the clumsy, socially inept nature (perhaps a byproduct of undiagnosed Aspergers) into a truly dazzling and wholesome performance.


5 darkest hour

Perhaps the most eminent war leader of all time, Winston Churchill was made famous not only by his premiership during the Second World War, but also by his enthusiastic and inspiring speeches and his unwavering, unyielding approach to a fascist dictatorship. Gary Oldman won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Churchill in 2017 darkest hour. The film depicts the arduous demands of leading a nation through war, and the decisions facing the British Prime Minister as he grapples with the weighty question of whether to sign a peace treaty with Hitler’s Germany. . The film offers a detailed examination of Churchill’s work as leader of Britain, but also of his personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.

4 The English Patient

Ralph Fiennes stars as a badly burned pilot and a National Geographic expeditionary, in The English Patient, which won the Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director for Anthony Minghella. Set during the Allied campaign in Italy, the film tells the story of Count Lazio de Almasy on a National Geographic trip to Egypt, where he falls in love and embarks on an affair with a married woman, Katherine Clifton ( Kristin Scott Thomas). Now bedridden, with the inevitability of death in days, Almasy retraces his steps to his nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche). As Roger Ebert said, “Here he (Zaentz) has created a film with Minghella that does what a great novel can do: hold your attention the first time with its story, then force you to rethink everything you thought you’d learned after it was revealed what the story is *really* about.


3 1917

A surefire combination of Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, resulted in a perfectly executed picture, with the opening scenes mirroring that of birdmanSingle take of “One Shot”. As World War I entered its penultimate year, the Allies continued to drive through France. Lance Corporals Will Schofield (George Mackay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), tasked with undertaking a seemingly unprecedented operation to save two British battalions from a German ambush, one of which contains Blake’s older brother.

Naturally, comparisons have been made to Steven Spielberg’s mother of all war movies, Saving Private Ryan. A surface-level perspective would suggest the accuracy of this design, both in plot and in portraying the horrific reality of war. Still, 1917 seems to embody more than the immense ordeal of those involved, it perfectly encapsulates a sense of beauty in the humanity of the duo and their comrades, breathlessly magnifying the raw, caring emotions of compassion and caring.


2 Dunkirk

Nolan’s Instant Wartime Classic Dunkirk offers a three-point perspective of the largest evacuation of soldiers the world has seen, from land, sea and air. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, nearly 340,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. Through Nolan’s watchful lens, the film offers a multi-dimensional view of the scale of the evacuation and the solidarity shown by the British public in personally helping the hundreds of thousands of stranded soldiers.

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Hans Zimmer’s perfectly orchestrated score combines brilliantly with the film’s ability to plunge its audience into the almost palpable chaos and panic of the evacuation. The film’s popularity was such that it claimed the mantle as the highest-grossing war film of all time.


1 Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is widely regarded as one of the finest cinematic feats of all time, and light years ahead of its time. People like Spielberg and Scorsese have already touted the influence of Lawrence of Arabia and its director, David Lean, on their work, with Lean’s former masterpiece hailing “a miracle”. The 1963 film is an epic in every sense of the word, from the 3 hour long, legendary British cast featuring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif, to the expansive shots of the desert.

Based on the life of author TE Lawrence and his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence of Arabia follows the story of Lawrence, a British Army officer during World War I, who seeks to successfully mediate between feuding Arab tribes and unite them around a common goal; fight in the war against the Turks. The film stormed the Oscars, winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture.


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