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11 Best British War Movies To Better Understand Britain’s Military History!

11 Best British War Movies To Better Understand Britain’s Military History!

Within the annals of a nation steeped in the art of strategy and combat, Britain’s extensive history has served as fertile soil for numerous war narratives, shaping a compelling genre of British war movies. These myths and legends of resilient heroes and mighty battles aren’t merely etched in ink or sketched in pencil but vividly portrayed and immortalized on film.

War cinema has long held audiences captive, and rightly so. These films serve as time portals, transporting viewers across epochs and landscapes, enabling them to taste the bittersweet cocktail of war’s triumphs and tragedies from a sanctuary of safety.

Among the varied palette of war films, those showcasing Britain and Northern Ireland’s tumultuous history stand as particularly enthralling sub-genres. These narratives span from internal strife to grand global conflicts, drawing inspiration from the rich tapestry of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish military history. This storied past has prompted filmmakers to craft a catalogue of cinematic masterpieces that rank among the most unforgettable war films ever conceived.

In this exploration, we shall navigate the landscape of notable British war films. We will delve into those cinema classics set against the backdrop of Britain, featuring the valiant exploits of the British army, and probe into why these films persist in their powerful grip on audiences. This journey through Britain’s wartime past will reveal a treasure trove of cinematic gems that continue to enthrall viewers, burnishing their enduring legacy in the annals of global cinema.

11 Best British War Movies To Better Understand Britain's Military History!

These heroes may inspire us to be a better version of ourselves; thus, lessons from the past – taught via war movies such as those set in Vietnam, France, and Germany – help transform today’s society in a positive way.  We also have put together our favorite films set in Britain if you would like to learn more about this intriguing nation…

Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.

You can get one month free of Amazon Prime (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.

Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best. 

While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.

11 Best British War Movies To Better Understand Britain's Military History!
11 Best British War Movies To Better Understand Britain's Military History!
11 Best British War Movies To Better Understand Britain's Military History!

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Went the Day Well? is a British war film directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, a Brazilian-born filmmaker who was one of the pioneers of the French avant-garde cinema in the 1920s. Cavalcanti worked in France, England, and Brazil; his films were known for their visual experimentation and social commentary.

The film’s plot is set in a small English village during World War II, where a group of Nazi paratroopers disguised as British soldiers infiltrate the town intending to take it over. The villagers, who initially welcome the soldiers, soon realize their mistake and launch a counter-attack to defend their homes and country.

The film is based on a short story by Graham Greene, who also wrote the screenplay. The story was inspired by an actual incident in the British village of Whitchurch, where German paratroopers were found disguised as British soldiers in 1942.

Went the Day Well? is a must-watch for fans of war movies because of its unique take on the genre. Unlike most war films that focus on the battlefield, this film shows how ordinary civilians can become heroes in times of war.

The film’s suspenseful plot, realistic portrayal of the Nazi threat, and strong performances by the cast make it a gripping and unforgettable cinematic experience. Additionally, the film’s historical significance as a reflection of British society during World War II adds depth and context to the story, making it a film that war movie enthusiasts should not miss.

Shake Hands with the Devil (1959)

Shake Hands with the Devil is a war film directed by Michael Anderson. Anderson was a British director who had a prolific career spanning over five decades, and directed several notable films, including The Dam Busters (1955), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and Logan’s Run (1976).

The film is based on the historical events that occurred during the 1920s in Ireland, known as the Irish War of Independence. The story follows the character of Sean Lenihan (played by James Cagney), an Irish American who returns to Ireland and becomes involved in the conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Black and Tans.

The film depicts the brutal and violent tactics used by the British forces to suppress the Irish rebellion, including the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre of November 1920, which saw British forces open fire on a crowd of civilians attending a football match in Dublin.

Shake Hands with the Devil is based on the memoirs of General Sir John Maxwell, the British officer sent to Ireland to suppress the rebellion. However, the film takes a sympathetic view of the Irish struggle for independence, and portrays the British forces as cruel and oppressive.

Shake Hands with the Devil is a must-watch if you enjoy war movies. It provides a gripping and realistic depiction of the conflict in Ireland, with intense battle scenes and a well-crafted narrative that explores the complex political and social dynamics at play during this turbulent period in Irish history.

Zulu (1964)

Zulu is a British war movie directed by Cy Endfield, an American filmmaker who moved to the UK in the 1950s to escape McCarthyism. Endfield is best known for his work in the 1950s and 1960s, during which he directed several Westerns and war films, including Zulu and The Secret of the Incas. Zulu is often considered to be his masterpiece.

The plot of Zulu takes place in 1879 amid the Anglo-Zulu War, which occurred between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa. The movie focuses on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, which took place on January 22-23, 1879. The story follows a small garrison of British soldiers who find themselves vastly outnumbered by a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors.

What makes Zulu an excellent war movie is its attention to historical detail and how it portrays the bravery and determination of the soldiers involved in the battle. The film effectively conveys the tension and fear that the soldiers must have felt as they faced overwhelming odds, and the battle scenes are both realistic and thrilling.

Zulu is an excellent war movie that should appeal to anyone interested in historical dramas or action-packed battle scenes. It’s a well-crafted film with strong performances, effective direction, and an engaging story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you’re a fan of war movies or historical dramas, Zulu is definitely worth watching.

Waterloo (1970)

Waterloo is an epic historical war film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, a renowned Soviet filmmaker and actor. Bondarchuk is best known for his Academy Award-winning film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace. He was known for his extravagant style of filmmaking, and Waterloo is no exception.

The film follows the events of the Battle of Waterloo, which took place in 1815 and marked the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. The film portrays the battle in great detail, with stunning and realistic battle scenes that will keep war movie enthusiasts on the edge of their seats.

The film begins with Napoleon’s return to France from his exile on the island of Elba and his attempt to regain power. The British and their allies, led by the Duke of Wellington, prepare for the final showdown at Waterloo. The film focuses on the strategies and tactics used by both sides during the battle, including the infamous charge of the French cavalry.

Waterloo is a must-watch for war movie enthusiasts. The film’s stunning battle scenes, historical accuracy, and top-notch performances make it an unforgettable cinematic experience. The film is a perfect example of the epic war genre and will appeal to anyone who enjoys films like Braveheart or Gladiator.

Additionally, the film offers a fascinating glimpse into one of the most significant battles in history and the lives of the real-life people who fought in it. Waterloo is a cinematic masterpiece that is sure to captivate and thrill audiences.

Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart is a historical war epic directed by Mel Gibson. Gibson is an accomplished actor and director, having directed several acclaimed movies, including The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006). He won an Academy Award for Best Director for Braveheart, which was also nominated for Best Picture and won several other awards.

The movie’s plot revolves around the life of William Wallace, a Scottish warrior who led a rebellion against the English monarch, King Edward I. The movie depicts Wallace’s life from his childhood to his eventual defeat at the hands of the English army. The film is known for its stunning battle scenes, emotional performances, and stirring soundtrack.

Braveheart is based on historical events in the late 13th century in Scotland. At the time, Scotland was under English rule, and the Scottish people were subjected to harsh treatment by the English monarch. William Wallace emerged as a leader of the Scottish people and led them in a rebellion. While Wallace was ultimately defeated, his bravery and leadership inspired future generations of Scots to fight for their independence.

If you enjoy war movies, Braveheart is a must-see. The film is a gripping and emotional portrayal of a pivotal moment in Scottish history. The battle scenes are intense and realistic, and the film does an excellent job of capturing the brutal nature of medieval warfare. Braveheart is an epic and unforgettable war movie that will appeal to fans of the genre.

Rob Roy (1995)

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, Rob Roy is a historical war drama film released in 1995. Caton-Jones, a Scottish film director, started his career in the film industry as an assistant director and later moved on to direct his own movies. Some of his notable works include Scandal (1989), Memphis Belle (1990), and The Jackal (1997).

Rob Roy is set in the early 18th century in Scotland and is based on the real-life story of Robert Roy MacGregor, a Scottish outlaw who became a folk hero. The plot revolves around the life of MacGregor, who is forced to borrow money from a local nobleman, the Marquis of Montrose, to keep his land. However, when the money is stolen by his trusted friend and the Marquis demands repayment, MacGregor is caught in a web of deceit, betrayal, and violence.

The film is based on the Jacobite rising of 1715. The rising was a political movement aimed at restoring the exiled Stuart dynasty to the British throne. Rob Roy MacGregor participated in the uprising, fighting on the Jacobite side.

Rob Roy is full of action, suspense, and intense battle scenes, including a thrilling sword fight between MacGregor and Cunningham. The film also explores complex themes such as honor, loyalty, and justice, making it more than just a typical war movie.

Rob Roy is a well-crafted historical drama that offers a compelling story, stunning visuals, and excellent performances by the cast. If you’re a fan of war movies or enjoy historical dramas, this movie is definitely worth watching.

Michael Collins (1996)

Michael Collins is a historical drama film directed by Neil Jordan, an Irish filmmaker known for his work on films such as The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, and The End of the Affair. Jordan is renowned for his ability to craft complex characters and compelling narratives, often exploring themes of identity, sexuality, and politics in his films.

The plot of Michael Collins centers around the life of the titular character, who was a key figure in the Irish struggle for independence from British rule in the early 20th century. The film traces Collins’ rise from a young revolutionary to a leading figure in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as he leads a guerilla war against the British occupation and helps negotiate a peace treaty that ultimately leads to the creation of the Irish Free State.

The film is based on the real-life events of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the subsequent Irish Civil War (1922-1923). The conflict was marked by fierce fighting between the IRA and British forces, political maneuvering and negotiations between Irish leaders and the British government.

The film depicts the struggle for independence from the perspective of Collins, who is portrayed as a complex and charismatic figure torn between his desire for independence and his recognition of the practical limitations of armed conflict.

Michael Collins is a gripping and intense portrayal of a pivotal moment in Irish history, with powerful performances from its cast and a strong sense of historical authenticity. It’s a must-see film for anyone interested in the history of Ireland or the struggle for independence in general.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a powerful and poignant war drama directed by Ken Loach, a renowned filmmaker known for his socially and politically conscious films. Born in England in 1936, Loach has been making films since the 1960s and has become an influential figure in British cinema.

Set in early 20th century Ireland, The Wind That Shakes the Barley tells the story of two brothers, Damien and Teddy, who join the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to fight against British forces during the Irish War of Independence. The film explores the brutalities of war, the personal sacrifices made by the protagonists, and the devastating effects of the conflict on the community.

The film is based on the Irish War of Independence, which occurred between 1919 and 1921. The conflict was fought between Irish Republican forces and the British government, with the goal of achieving Irish independence. The film depicts the brutality of the conflict, including the British use of the Black and Tans, a notorious group of paramilitary police who committed atrocities against the Irish population.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley depicts the harsh realities of war, including the psychological toll it takes on the soldiers, the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, and the political and social ramifications of the conflict. The film’s powerful message of resistance and perseverance in the face of oppression will resonate with anyone who appreciates the bravery and sacrifice of those who fight for a cause they believe in. 

The Railway Man (2013)

The Railway Man is a British-Australian historical drama film directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Teplitzky is a British film and television director who has worked on various critically acclaimed productions. He is best known for his work on the television series Broadchurch, Marcella, and Ripper Street.

The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was captured by the Japanese during World War II and forced to work on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway. The plot follows Lomax (played by Colin Firth) as he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and decides to confront his former captor, Takashi Nagase (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), decades after the war.

The Railway Man is based on a significant historical event during World War II. The Japanese army captured thousands of Allied soldiers and forced them to work in brutal conditions to construct a railway from Thailand to Burma. The prisoners of war were subjected to torture, disease, and malnutrition, resulting in the death of an estimated 12,000 prisoners.

The Railway Man is a compelling and emotionally charged war movie that highlights the horrors of war and the lasting effects of trauma. It tells the story of a man who struggles to come to terms with his past and finds redemption through forgiveness. The film is a powerful reminder of the importance of forgiveness, understanding, and compassion in the face of great adversity.

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game is a historical drama film directed by Morten Tyldum. Tyldum is a Norwegian film director known for his work on the thriller Headhunters (2011) and the sci-fi romance Passengers (2016). The Imitation Game was his first English-language film and was a critical and commercial success, earning eight Academy Award nominations and winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The plot of The Imitation Game revolves around the life of British mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing, who played a pivotal role in cracking the German Enigma code during World War II. The film explores his personal life, including his homosexuality, which was criminalized in the UK at the time, and his work on the code-breaking machine called the Bombe.

The historical event that the film is based on is the Enigma code-breaking effort by the British during World War II. The Germans used the Enigma machine to encrypt their military communications, and the British code-breakers, led by Turing, worked tirelessly to decipher the code, which played a significant role in the war’s outcome.

The real-life people portrayed in the film include Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician and a pioneer in computer science, and Joan Clarke, a codebreaker at Bletchley Park who later became a successful computer scientist. The film accurately portrays the challenges and discrimination faced by Turing as a homosexual man, and his tragic end at the hands of the British government.

Outlaw King (2018)

Directed by David Mackenzie, Outlaw King is a historical war drama film that chronicles the story of Robert the Bruce, a 14th-century Scottish nobleman, who rose against the English rule and became the king of an independent Scotland. Mackenzie is a Scottish filmmaker known for his work on critically acclaimed movies like Young Adam, Hell or High Water, and Perfect Sense.

The film’s plot takes place in the early 14th century, when Scotland is under the rule of Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks. After William Wallace’s execution, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), a Scottish nobleman, is forced to submit to English rule and pledge loyalty to Edward. However, as Edward’s grip over Scotland tightens, Robert realizes that the only way to free his country from English tyranny is through rebellion.

The movie is based on the historical event known as the First War of Scottish Independence, a series of military campaigns fought between Scotland and England from 1296 to 1328. The film portrays the key historical figures involved in the conflict, including Robert the Bruce, Edward I, and his son, Edward II.

If you enjoy war movies, you should definitely watch Outlaw King. The film is a gripping and visceral depiction of medieval warfare, featuring epic battle scenes and intense one-on-one combat. The cinematography is stunning, and the movie does an excellent job of conveying the brutal and unforgiving nature of war. Moreover, it sheds light on an important chapter in Scottish history, making it a must-watch for history buffs and anyone interested in the struggle for independence.