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10 Best British War Movies, Ranked

Summary

  • Many British war movies focus on World War II, but there are many other conflicts which have grabbed the nation’s attention.
  • These films capture intense psychological dramas within the military, highlighting conflicts between characters rather than just front line action.
  • Some British war movies delve into the personal stories of individuals involved in the war, highlighting their struggles and contributions beyond the battlefield.

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Some of the best British films of all time are war movies. Britain has a long military history, dating from tribal skirmishes in the ancient world to the modern era. The country has played a key role in some of the most pivotal global conflicts in history, with war also holding an important place in the nation’s conscience.

Most British war movies are set during World War II since this period remains a huge focus of British popular culture. There are stories from the front lines in France and elsewhere, but British movies also conjure the spirit of the conflict, seeing how ordinary people who left home contributed to the war effort. Movies about other wars in Britain’s long history are less widespread, but they can still cut through with incredible cinematography and acting performances.

RELATED: 10 Best War Movies On Netflix

10 A Field In England (2013)

Dir. Ben Wheatley

A Field in England

Set in the English Civil War, A Field in England twists an ordinary war story into a grisly psychedelic horror movie. The battles are a confronting depiction of visceral carnage, but the movie devolves further after a group of deserters unwittingly consume hallucinogenic mushrooms and are forced to dig for treasure by a mysterious alchemist. A Field in England straddles the line between brutal realism and absurdity. The wind and cold are palpable, but there are images of quasi-religious mythology among the barren trees, reflecting the theological lens through which the characters understand the Civil War and their roles in it.

9 Darkest Hour (2017)

Dir. Joe Wright

Winston Churchill delivering a speech in Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour finds a way to separate the man from the myth.

Gary Oldman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, but Darkest Hour is much more than just an acting showcase. The script and visual design create an immersive picture of the British political sphere in 1940. Churchill holds an almost legendary status in Britain, always pictured chomping one of his famous cigars, but Darkest Hour finds a way to separate the man from the myth, crafting a nuanced portrait of a flawed leader with an unshakable faith in his convictions. Darkest Hour’s historical changes are minor, and they are each carefully considered for the benefit of the plot.

8 The Hill (1965)

Dir. Sidney Lumet

Sean Connery in military uniform in The Hill.

The Hill doesn’t feature the front line action usually associated with war movies, but the conflict between the characters is just as compelling. Sean Connery plays a Sergeant Major imprisoned for striking a superior officer, and he quickly finds himself at odds with the brutality of the British military prison’s commanding officers. The Hill shows one of the forgotten sides to World War II, with men suffering in the intense North African heat. They are all on the same side of the war, but the enemy is completely immaterial to the tense psychological drama, with opposing personalities jostling for control of the prison.

7 Dunkirk (2017)

Dir. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s anxiety-inducing depiction of Operation Dynamo is a masterpiece in visual storytelling. Many of the scenes play out entirely wordlessly, but the careful construction of the mise-en-scène reveals a huge amount of detail about the characters and their dire situations. Most of Tom Hardy’s character in Dunkirk is conveyed through his actions, even though the majority of his scenes rely on fairly static close-up shots. Nolan weaves together a lot of different threads expertly, managing to inject nerve-shredding tension into stories with minimal screen time. Dunkirk does overstate the role of the small boats in Operation Dynamo, but the scene captures Britain’s plucky spirit in World War II.

6 The Guns Of Navarone (1961)

Dir. J. Lee Thompson

The squad posing for a picture in The Guns of Navarone.

Some war movies revel in the spectacle of violence, but the most refined will use the inherent stakes of war to heighten the drama of deeply personal stories. The Guns of Navarone is a delicate drama about wildly different people drawn together by a shared goal. The fact that it features thunderous action sequences is merely a bonus. Gregory Peck leads a superb cast of misfits who must sabotage some German weapons to ensure safe passage through the Aegean Sea for the Allies. Beneath the surface The Guns of Navarone also features a tender romance, told primarily through exquisite, intangible tension.

5 The Imitation Game (2014)

Dir. Morten Tyldum

Possibly the closest British equivalent to Oppenheimer, The Imitation Game focuses on the life of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who cracked the enigma code. Like Oppenheimer, Turing was a vital part of the war effort, even if he never saw any combat. Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding as the peculiar genius Turing, capturing both his idiosyncratic nature and his tortured inner psyche. Many war movies are unerringly patriotic, but The Imitation Game also highlights the cruelty of Britain’s past, as Turing was persecuted for his homosexuality. Despite being a key factor in Britain’s victory, Turing didn’t receive the recognition he deserved.

4 The Dam Busters (1955)

Dir. Michael Anderson

Two pilots in the cockpit in The Dam Busters

There is a haunting beauty to the bombing scenes as pilots weave through enemy gunfire.

The Dam Busters follows a squadron of Royal Air Force bombers as they try to destroy the dams in the German Ruhr valley as part of Operation Chastise. The thriller pulls together a team to carry out a complicated and challenging job, and in many ways it mirrors a heist movie. The effects have aged fairly poorly, especially the explosions of the bouncing bombs, but there is a haunting beauty to the bombing scenes as pilots weave through enemy gunfire. The Dam Busters featured an unforgettable opening song, but the third act cuts the music to focus in on the tension of the operation. There is just the low droning of the planes, and the occasional ping of bullets ricocheting off metal.

3 1917 (2019)

Dir. Sam Mendes

Schofield running across a row of charging soldiers in 1917.

World War I doesn’t hold quite the same level of eminence within British culture as World War II, but there is still an enduring romanticization of trench warfare. Director Sam Mendes based 1917 on a story his grandfather told him about his time in the war, and it maintains a high level of realism. Mendes’ use of long takes creates a deeply immersive feeling, and each explosion and spurt of blood carries an extreme impact, but the quiet moments in the trenches are just as acutely observed. The characters are fictional, but 1917 is one of the most realistic movie depictions of World War I.

2 Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

Dir. David Lean

Considered one of the greatest British movies of all time, Lawrence of Arabia is a sweeping adventure epic, starring Peter O’Toole as British Army lieutenant T.E. Lawrence. As he fights alongside different Arabian desert tribes in the Ottoman Empire, Lawrence questions his allegiance to the British side amid the brutality of war. Lawrence of Arabia is a dazzling visual spectacle set in sprawling, hazy deserts, but the movie never loses sight of its fascinating main character. Its commitment to Lawrence’s depth and development is just as pivotal as any battle scene. Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven.

1 The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)

Dir. David Lean

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Despite the backdrop of global conflict, The Bridge on the River Kwai is primarily concerned with its characters, and how they will behave in a relatively small-scale situation. A group of British POWs in Thailand cling to their military discipline even when faced with torture and disarray, as a way of finding solace in community and work. It’s a particularly British response to their ordeal, embodying the famous “stiff upper lip” mentality. The intense relationship between the two colonels, one British and one Japanese, is beautifully measured, and shows that war makes enemies of men who could otherwise be friends.

As well as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean directed Doctor Zhivago, an outstanding romance set during World War I.

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