Barry Norman’s 101 greatest films: war

From The Great Escape to The Hurt Locker - our critic picks his favourite ten films from the genre

The Great Escape 1963 PG 165min Colour


A Second World War escape drama and, judging from the frequency with which it is shown on TV, an eternal favourite. Based (very loosely) on a true story, it tells of the mass escape, masterminded by Richard Attenborough, from Stalag Luft III and its tragic aftermath. 

Steve McQueen, playing a fictional character since there were no Americans involved in the real escape, catches the eye with his spectacular motorcycle dash for freedom, but in a tense, exciting story the rest of the cast is first rate, too.

Did you know? The motorcycle jump over Nazi lines was done by Steve McQueen’s friend Bud Ekins. McQueen did ride behind disguised as one of the German soldiers, so on film he’s actually chasing himself.

Say it Again! “I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air, and I plan on doing both before the war is over.” Hilts

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Apocalypse Now 1979 18 147min Colour

It’s self-indulgent, flawed, pretentious and yet quite a magnificent piece of work, a nightmare journey through the horrors of war. Martin Sheen is the soldier sent to assassinate Marlon Brando’s mad, dangerous maverick Colonel Kurtz, a fellow American, in the depths of Cambodia. 

A loose version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Francis Coppola’s film is memorable for a series of vivid vignettes and lines like “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Did you know? The picture went so far over schedule that in Hollywood it was known as “Apocalypse When?”

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To Be or Not to Be U 94min BW
Ernst Lubitsch’s now sadly neglected but hilarious farce doubles as a most effective antiwar movie. It centres on a theatre company run by Jack Benny and his wife, the divine Carole Lombard, in German-occupied Warsaw where, unwillingly forced to do the Nazis’ bidding, they extract ample revenge. 

The plot is deviously complicated and nobody, least of all the Nazis, is spared the wicked humour. Memorable line (a German officer on Benny’s acting): “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.”

Did you know?  Carole Lombard’s final film before her untimely death.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai1957 PG 155min Colour
David Lean’s first epic centres on a superb performance by Alec Guinness as the British colonel who, for the best of totally misguided reasons, instructs his men in a Japanese PoW camp in Burma to build a railway bridge over the river. Meanwhile, the Allies are planning to blow it up. 

There’s very little war here but so much else instead — notably the cultural difference between the Japanese and the British, and Guinness’s descent into a kind of heroic madness. A tremendous film.

Say it Again! “Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!” Colonel Saito 

Oscarsbest picture, David Lean directing, Alec Guinness actor, Pierre Boulle, Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson adapted screenplay

Say it Again! “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.” Colonel Kurtz

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Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 1963 PG 90min BW

This could easily fit in the comedy section — a cynically hilarious film made soon after the Cuban Missile crisis and the development of the hydrogen bomb. Peter Sellers plays three roles, including the crazy Dr Strangelove, in Stanley Kubrick’s study of human stupidity that ends in the potential destruction of the world and answers the question: what would happen if the wrong man was in charge of dropping the bomb? 

Sellers is excellent in all three roles, as is George C Scott as the US general intent on war.

Did you know? The aerial photograph of Burpelson Air Force Base in General Ripper’s office is actually a view of Heathrow Airport.

Say it Again!  “Mr President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.” General “Buck” Turgidson

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Paths of Glory 1957 PG 86min BW
For me, this is Stanley Kubrick’s most powerful film and Kirk Douglas’s best, too. The picture is indeed so powerful that it was banned in France for many years. An over-ambitious French general during the First World War orders his men to make a suicidal attack on an impregnable German position. 

When the attack fails, three French soldiers are arbitrarily chosen to face a court martial for cowardice. Douglas is the unit commander who defends them. Shot in black and white, it’s a nail-biting, totally believable and uncompromising story, superbly executed.

Did you know? The title is a quotation from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Say it Again! “Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.” Colonel Dax

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The Hurt Locker 2008 15 125min Colour
This will always be remembered as the film that made Kathryn Bigelow the first woman director to win the Oscar. It also happens to be a fine war movie, set in Iraq and following the fate of a bomb-disposal unit, in particular that of its leader, Jeremy Renner, a man for whom war is a drug and who is never more alive than when defusing a bomb that might kill him. 

There is no glamour here but plenty of suspense, especially in a very well-staged desert gunfight.

Did you know? The film’s title is the vernacular used by soldiers in Iraq to refer to explosions as sending you to “the hurt locker” 

Say it Again! “There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.” Staff Sgt William James

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Shoah 1985 PG 565min Colour

A nine-hour documentary by the French director Claude Lanzmann, this was originally shown here on TV. Of all the films made about the Holocaust, this is the most harrowing: it simply uses the recollections of survivors of such death camps as Auschwitz to tell what happened to them and those around them.

To the modern generation it must be almost unbelievable, but I defy anyone to watch this film and come away as a Holocaust denier.

Did you know?  The film took 11 years to make — six years recording the interviewees and five years editing 350 hours of raw footage.

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The Cruel Sea 1953 PG 120min BW 

First a confession: my father Leslie Norman produced this one. Dunkirk, which he directed, was also damn good; both have more to do with the futility than the glory or madness of war. 

The Cruel Sea, directed by Charles Frend and based on Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel, gave a first screen role to Donald Sinden and follows the adventures of the corvette Compass Rose, under Captain Jack Hawkins, during the Second World War. There are no mock-heroics here, just a compelling study of ordinary men doing their best in extreme circumstances.

Did you know? When the film was made, there were no Flower Class corvettes in Royal Navy service. The ship used was a Greek one that was brought to Britain for scrapping. It had already been scrapped when the film premiered.

Say it Again!  “No one murdered them — it’s the war, the whole bloody war! We’ve just got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.” Ericson  

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Schindler’s List 1993 15 187min BW/Colour

Probably Steven Spielberg’s finest work and possibly the best feature about the Holocaust, this is the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a chancer who inexplicably (the film doesn’t attempt to unravel his complexity) risked his own life to save those of 1,100 Jews working in his Krakow factory. 

Superbly made with sentimentality mostly held at bay and splendidly played by Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes as the brutal Nazi commander. The only splash of colour in the film is the red coat worn by a little girl whom we follow to her death.

Did you know? Spielberg was unable to get permission to film inside Auschwitz, so the scenes of the death camp were filmed outside the gates on a set built in a mirror image of the real location.

Say it Again!  “This list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.” Itzhak Stern

Oscars Best Picture, Steven Spielberg directing, Steven Zaillian adapted screenplay

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time! part 1 was first published in Radio Times magazine (21-27 January 2012)


Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time! part 2 is available in next week’s Radio Times magazine