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The British War Film Genre

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The Second World War was a landmark event in the history of the 20th Century. Its impact has influenced the countries involved, including their art, and especially their films. Yet the war has had profoundly different impacts on the different countries depending on their experiences. Japan, the only nation in the world to suffer the impact of an atomic bomb, has since made atomic creature features such as Godzilla and post-apocalyptic imagery is often contained in Japan's animé such as Akira. In France, the most popular post-war film character has been Asterix, a hero who fights against an empire that has conquered all of France. In America, the Second World War has been largely ignored in recent years in favour of Vietnam. It is often seen as a setting for general action-adventure films.

Although war films had been made in Britain before, the Second World War created a new and unique genre, the British War Film. These are films that have embraced documentary principles, realism and autobiography; films which show the war's Horrors and Heroes, Terrors and Triumphs; films which have influenced Hollywood blockbusters themselves.

What is a British War Film?

British War Films tend to emphasise realism, legitimacy and documentary principles; what is shown is an adaptation of true events, usually strongly researched with input from the people concerned. British War Films were not entirely without influence from Hollywood. There were Anglo-American co-productions, such as The Longest Day (1962). Also, in the 1950s and 60s some of America's finest filmmakers fled to England from McCarthy witch-hunt era Hollywood. The British War Film genre's heyday was between 1940-70, and dealt largely, though not exclusively, with the Second World War.


There are several criticisms that can be legitimately made about the British WWII film genre. Its much-vaunted realism is, of course, only true and accurate for a given value of 'true'. Although most films were based on true subjects or situations, they were still subject to dramatisation, simplification, and exaggeration. Often the scale of the accomplishment charted in the film would be increased, sometimes the human cost would be exaggerated, other times downplayed. Sometimes the Official Secrets Act meant that the whole truth was unable to be told. Yet on the whole, most of the facts of the story would, at heart, be at least vaguely true.

Although the inherent verisimilitude of the films still stands up today, there are areas that seem old-fashioned by today's standards. The most damning is that the genre perpetuated rigid social barriers. Heroes were almost exclusively white officer-class males. Women often had very minor roles, often stereotyped as being sweethearts and mothers. The enemy's perspective is also often ignored, with opposing soldiers rarely more than stereotypes without identities.

Another criticism made from the 1960s onwards was that British War Films continued to present a 'safe' portrayal of war. With the world in a nuclear era where wars could be won by the dropping of a single atomic bomb, this was no longer the case.

British Cinema in the Second World War

On Sunday 3 September, 1939 Britain not only declared war on Germany but also announced that, until further notice, all cinemas would be closed1. Winston Churchill also encouraged many of Britain's established directors to leave Britain for Hollywood, where he hoped they would make films, such as Hitchcock's Oscar-nominated Foreign Correspondent (1940), that would encourage America to join the war. This departure of established, and often old-fashioned directors, allowed a younger, more experimental generation of filmmakers to flourish, including Oscar winner Sir David Lean, Oscar-nominated Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and the Boulting Brothers. Although film production in Britain dropped from over 150 to 40 British films made each year, the films that were made were the subject of much greater focus than previously enjoyed.


Unlike Germany with films such as Triumph of the Will (1936), the British government considered all films showing military display to be potentially dangerous. In early September 1939, all photography or filming of military matters was banned. This meant that in the early stage of the war neutral countries like America had a lot of German news reels of their vast armies marching through Poland. The only unclassified footage available of the British army was of a few Royal Engineers carrying shovels. Eventually by January 1940, censorship was relaxed enough to allow approved filming of military material. Despite this, throughout the war, films continued to be seen as of lesser importance than newsreels. Winston Churchill himself often attempted to ban films he personally disliked, including Ships with Wings (1941) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), which was successfully advertised as 'The Film the Government Tried to Ban'2.

Some early films made during the Second World War were unofficial propaganda. The first was The Lion Has Wings, made in late 1939. This was a rather disjointed affair as a film of three acts. The first contrasts Hitler speaking at a Nazi rally with King George VI singing with Boy Scouts, and German and British values on a whole. The second contains film footage of air raids on German ports on 4th September, the day after war was declared. Michael Powell had begged the RAF that he be allowed to fly in one of the bombers, but was refused and given genuine footage of the raid instead, exaggerating the impact this had. The third act had been intended to show how effective radar was at defending Britain, however with radar a state secret, the film was forced to change tack and instead implied rather limply that German planes didn't really like barrage balloons that much.

For Freedom (1940) features the sinking of the Graf Spree. In this, Captain Dove of the Africa Shell, a ship sunk by the pocket battleship, is played by himself. It also contains genuine footage of the crews of ships sunk by the Graf Spree parading through London. These crewmen had been captured and imprisoned by the Germans, but were rescued in a daring raid and returned home. The film ends with Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill3 giving a speech.

As well as allied victories, the consequences of defeat could also be shown in order to inspire vigilance and determination to win. Went the Day Well (1942) is a fictional attempt to show a German invasion of a small village, a theme which later inspired The Eagles Has Landed (1976). This film has also inspired the plots of various episodes of The Avengers, Doctor Who and more recently The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Propaganda films could occasionally backfire. 1941's Ships with Wings was about a Royal Navy raid on an Italian port loosely based on the attack of Taranto, for which an unprecedented amount of freedom to film on board aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, masquerading as fictional HMS Invincible4, was granted. Unfortunately, the film was lumbered with a melodramatic romantic plot, features an anti-hero who goes on a suicide mission to redeem himself and most damning of all has a very realistic sequence in which the ship's flight deck and aircraft are on fire, threatening the lives of the ship's pilots and crew. Winston Churchill tried to ban the film as it was released shortly after the loss of HMS Ark Royal itself. In the end the film did poorly, as audience expectation had been for a realistic portrayal of life in the Royal Navy, only to be given a dull fairytale romance about unfulfilled love.

Although Britain had set up a Ministry of Information in 1935, during the war it managed to make only one whole feature-length film5, 49th Parallel (1941) directed by Michael Powell about German U-boat survivors escaping from Canada to America6. This had been intended to convince America to join the war, showing how Canada had joined. The film was the top box-office hit in 1941 and it was also quite successful in America, where it was renamed The Invaders, but by the time it was released in the States, America had entered the war anyway. Despite its box office success, a Parliamentary Select Committee on Government Expenditure in the Films Division concluded that the Ministry of Information:

should not in future assume direct responsibility for the production of feature films by the provision of public money... no further commitments should be entered into.

Despite this, the Ministry of Information remained influential, encouraging filmmakers to make films covering what they wished to present. More importantly they encouraged documentary and fiction filmmakers to work closely together for the first time, a mutual co-operation which would create the realistic British War Film genre.

The other official filmmaking bodies were the Post Office controlled GPO Film Unit, later renamed the Crown Film Unit, which made about a dozen documentary films a year. The most famous was Fires Were Started, about auxiliary firemen coping with a German raid's aftermath. Other documentary films by the Army Film and Photography Unit were later released using genuine combat footage, and included Oscar-winning Desert Victory (1943), which also incorporated captured German newsreel film footage, Tunisian Victory (1944), Burma Victory (1945) and True Glory (1945). Theirs is the Glory (1946) dealt with the defeat at Arnhem, and so could be considered an odd choice for a propaganda piece.

The Ministry of Information heavily encouraged the making of The Way Ahead (1944). This was a propaganda film about raw recruits coming together and playing their part, and the consequences of what happens if they don't, starring David Niven and original Doctor William Hartnell. Although it did quite well as a film, as a propaganda piece it had little impact. The film had been proposed in early 1942 when morale was low, but the D-Day landings had taken place by the time it was made and released, and with the war's end in sight, morale had recovered anyway.

The Post War Appeal

War had been a common experience to many in the 1950s, certainly all of cinema-going age who could chose the film they were going to see would have been alive during the Second World War. War was very much a part of the British culture – the best-selling novels were often war books. Comics such as the Eagle concentrated on war, and war was featured on the radio and television, not only in serious documentaries, but also in more subversive comedies such as The Army Game and even the character of Major Bloodnok in The Goon Show, with many episodes set during the war. With war dominating every other media, it was perhaps inevitable that war films would be popular cinema also.


The British War Film genre was flexible enough to encompass several different sub-genres, but almost all contained the same documentary thread and spirit. With the Great War in recent memory and bombs raining from the sky a regular occurrence, British cinema audiences were too sophisticated to believe in simplistic, jingoistic messages. Early melodramas about the war consistently flopped and even successful Hollywood imports about the war, such as the Oscar-winning Mrs Miniver (1942), were considered in Britain to be childish, simplistic and disrespectful.

War films included not only documentaries such as The Dam Busters (1955), but also big spectacle war films such as Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Great Escape (1963) which were films with big star casts. War films could encompass the trend for spy films, such as The Man Who Never Was (1956), romantic films like Portrait from Life (1948), historic war films such as Zulu (1964), and comedies such as Private's Progress (1956) and Carry On Sergeant (1958). Flexibility of a genre enabled it to adapt to the latest fashions in film and continue to appeal to a wide audience. Even British defeats were popular, with films such as Dunkirk (1958) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) considered classics. However, the most successful approaches to making films about the war were the polarised extremes of absolute realism on one hand, and comedy, fantasy and satire on the other.

Comedy, Satire and Fantasy

A large majority of the films made in Britain during the Second World War were low-budget comedies. These often starred Arthur Askey and George Formby, who would foil the plots of swarms of German spies and everything would turn out nice again. Many were derivative and repetitive. As well as films unmasking spies, quislings and traitors, there were the evacuees-coping-with-the-countryside films and the recruitment films where incompetent army recruits are conscripted into the service and the hilarity that ensues, a sub-genre later epitomised by Carry On Sergeant (1958). Early war comedies did tend to show people of all backgrounds, sexes and classes, even if stereotyped.

The best comedies tended to push the boundaries a little and involved fantasy sequences, such as George Formby's Let George Do It (1940), in which he has a dream sequence in which he attacks Hitler. From these humble origins, the fantasy and satire war films were born. The most fondly regarded war fantasy is A Matter of Life and Death (1946), about an RAF pilot who should have died during a bombing mission, but survives and falls in love, before being taken to a heavenly court while his right to live is debated.

After the war ended, there were several war satires. These include the musical Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) and How I Won the War (1967), about a mission to establish a cricket pitch behind enemy lines. One of the best known satires is Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Set in the Cold War, it opens with a documentary-like narration describing American bombers flying worldwide. Based on RAF pilot Peter George's book Red Alert, its origins are revealed as the bomb raid scenes echo those in The Dam Busters, with the audience exposed to the same claustrophobic atmosphere. It satirises the Second World War film genre with the film ending with a nuclear explosion, just as the war itself had, and features prominently the Second World War song 'We'll Meet Again'.

When the Wind Blows (1987) is one of Britain's most moving animated films. Like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, it follows the life of a charming old couple7 who live in the English countryside. Aware of the risk of impending nuclear holocaust, they try to follow genuine government guidelines as they reminisce on the good old Second World War days, witness an atomic blast and stay cheerful during their gradual deterioration and death. The last line comes from the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the greatest anti-war statements ever written.

Home Front

The Home Front sub-genre was perhaps the only one other than comedies to consistently show working-class life and women at war. Common themes involved women's role, such as in Millions Like Us (1943), The Gentle Sex (1943) and more recently The Land Girls (1998), in which women from different backgrounds keep calm and carry on, make do and mend and ultimately dig for victory. Millions Like Us was actually filmed at the Castle Bromwich Spitfire factory. Women in home front films often had their loved one killed, only for them to gradually fall in love again in time for their new guy to be killed off too.

Films have been made showing the impact of the evacuees, urban children transported away from their homes and into the countryside. One of the best of these is Goodnight Mr Tom (1998).

After the war, films often dealt with the difficulty servicemen had in adapting to a post-war society with few jobs, and the lure of turning to crime. Perhaps the best is The Ship that Died of Shame (1955), about the former crew of a gunboat using their ship after the war for smuggling and illegal tasks, before the ship destroys itself. This was written by the same author, Nicholas Monsarrat, as The Cruel Sea (1953).

Women in War

Women tended to have a background role in many war films made in the 1940s and 50s. The most prominent women's roles in films made in the 1940s were in melodramas, which largely flopped in British cinemas, although there were several films made showing women winning on the home front. There were films about heroic exploits by British women, such as Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), both true biographies about female spies, but these were notable exceptions.

Curiously, European women have a far more positive role than their British counterparts in British War Films. Films showing Britons in occupied Europe returning to England often featured Dutch, French or Belgian women in the resistance. These are usually very intelligent and resourceful, able to outsmart the German soldiers and are instrumental in returning the Britons home. They are brave despite torture and often face firing squads with dignity.

There have been several melodramas, usually set on the home front, about love across various divides, of class, race, nationality and age. These tend to end very unhappily, either by death or with accusations of rape. In I Live In Grosvenor Square (1945), a rich aristocratic woman falls in love with an American. In Piccadilly Incident (1946) a woman marries above her station, is shipwrecked when evacuated from Singapore and is believed dead; her husband remarries and has children before she is rescued. In The Affair (1995) a married Englishwoman has a relationship with a black GI who is accused of rape, while in the 1983 remake of Another Time, Another Place a married woman has an affair with an Italian PoW, who is also accused of rape. In The Reader (2008), set after the war, a woman with a guilty past has an affair with an innocent teenager.

Prisoner-of-War Films

Prisoner-of-War (PoW) films, and escapes from them, are a sub-genre that arose after the war, as the Ministry of Information discouraged the making of PoW camp films during the war in case it resulted in the Germans making conditions in the camps worse. The films were often highly accurate, based on the memoirs of those incarcerated in such camps, such as Albert, RN (1953), The Wooden Horse (1950) and The Colditz Story (1955), in which the first escapee is French.

These films are often criticised for being mainly focused on officers and ignoring the men. This has been blamed on the Geneva Convention, which prevented officers from undergoing manual labour, resulting in officers having vast amounts of free time to plot escapes, while men in the ranks were forced to work hard and had neither time nor strength to plot escape.

They are also criticised for being the sub-genre to least involve women, although the earliest PoW camp film, The Captive Heart (1946) features a Czech solider impersonating a dead British officer to avoid being killed by the Gestapo. To keep up the pretence, he writes love letters to the wife of the man he is impersonating, falling in love with her. Another interesting twist on the prisoner-of-war formula is Frieda (1947), in which an escaped British PoW returns home with his new wife Frieda, the German nurse who helped him escape. Frieda, the film's heroine, then faces small town racism.

With British PoW films a commercially successful genre, it was inevitable that it would attract Hollywood's attention. The first film to combine British War Film realism with Hollywood glamour was The Great Escape. This was based on a true book by Paul Brickhill, who, like Eric Williams, was imprisoned in the same camp featured in The Wooden Horse, Stalag Luft III8, although Paul Brickhill did not himself escape. In order to attract an American audience, an American character, played by Steve McQueen, was introduced even though no Americans escaped in The Great Escape. Although some have criticised the film for this inaccuracy, the film's heroes either British or American, and the role of people of other nationalities in the camp being ignored, this has not prevented the film from being regarded a popular classic.

Someone Had Blunder'd: Defeats and Disaster

From the 1950s onwards, British filmmakers would meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. From A Bridge too Far to Zulu Dawn (1979), there wasn't a British military defeat found unworthy of filming, including Dunkirk , The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Charge of the Light Brigade9 (1968). These were made to the same high standard of realism as British victories.

Tommies and Jerries

Considering Churchill's speech that 'never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few', comparatively few films about the Battle of Britain have been made, mainly because this was one area outside the budgets of even the most ambitious British directors. The nearest films are The First of the Few (1942) about the designer of the Spitfire, Reach for the Sky (1956) about Douglas Bader's fight to fly without legs and Angels One Five (1952) which realistically portrays fighter pilots' short lifespan. All of these have few airborne sequences; the ones in Angels One Five show Hurricanes from the Portuguese Air Service as none were still in service with the RAF. When the Battle of Britain was finally presented in a war epic, in a film of the same name, the film was lumbered with too many characters, too little plot and too long a run time. As the German aircraft exploding dramatically every time someone sneezed in their general direction, realism was sacrificed and the film flopped. Later films included 633 Squadron (1964) and Mosquito Squadron (1969) by the Mirisch Corporation, both attempts to recreate the magic of The Dam Busters featuring Mosquitoes.

There were far more films about the Royal Navy, with boats far easier to film than planes. These often showed the sea as a cruel mistress and death a common companion on those who sail on her, including films like Gift Horse (1952), The Cruel Sea. There were big budget battleship blockbusters The Battle of the River Plate (1957), which used genuine battleships from the Royal Navy and the New Zealand ship HMNZS Achilles which had actually been at the real battle almost 20 years earlier in 1939. In Sink the Bismarck! (1960) the main character's wife has been killed at home, his son was considered killed on HMS Ark Royal, and sinking the Bismarck has become a personal obsession.

The best films about the Army include Dunkirk, The Longest Day and Ice Cold in Alex (1958). Other films include raids which either succeed or go wrong, often fictional, such as in They Who Dare (1953), The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968).

Dive, Dive, Dive!

A sub-genre that emerged from the Royal Navy films were films set on board submarines. Tense, claustrophobic thrillers, these began with films such as We Dive at Dawn (1943). Far removed from the typical cat-and-mouse plots of later films, the audience never learns whether an attack on a German battleship has succeeded, with the action limited to the raising and lowering of a periscope, emphasising the confined nature of submarine service. Western Approaches (1945) shows us a German submarine and even encourages viewers to sympathise with the crew when their U-boat is sunk, and was actually filmed at sea, leading to problems making the film when the cameraman spent the entire shoot suffering with sea-sickness.

If submarine films weren't tense enough, others dealt with midget submarines. Above Us The Waves (1955) is the true tale of a midget submarine attacking the German battleship Tirpitz. The Cockleshell Heroes (1958) features a similar true-life mission to attack German ships using canoes, and Submarine X1, where midget submarines attack another German battleship. Showing the other side, The Silent Enemy (1958) featured British divers trying to defend the Royal Navy against Italian midget submarines and limpet mines. These films inspired later Hollywood movies, from comedy Operation Petticoat (1958) to Cold War thrillers such as The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Crimson Tide (1995).

Soldier, Spy?

One sub-genre popular during the lead up to and the beginning of the war was that of the spy thriller, which features some elements of film noir and, quite often, steam trains. Alfred Hitchcock in many ways has defined the early pre-war spy thrillers with films such as The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942), which feature Nazis as villains. A similar film to The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich (1940) features Nazis and spies, but also involves concentration camps and daring rescues. The master of daring rescues is of course the Scarlet Pimpernel, played by Leslie Howard in the 1934 film of the same name. He also played his Second World War equivalent, Pimpernel Smith (1941), rescuing artists and scientists from concentration camps rather than aristocrats from the guillotine.

Curiously, more films about spies were made before the war than during. Audiences before the war were desperate to know the truth about what Germany's intentions were, while during the blitz they knew it all too well. Films released in 1939 included Spy for a Day, The Spy in Black, Spies of the Air and Traitor Spy.

As war began, the spy thriller became increasingly comic, including top secret plans and weapons as well as long train journeys. Films such as Q Planes (1939) which combined comic-serial secret rays with new aircraft tests, while beloved familiar characters of the time such as Inspector Hornleigh get in on the act by capturing spies on an express train in Inspector Hornleigh Goes To It (1940). Cottage to Let (1941) included fifth columnists and secret inventions.

Post war, perhaps the best WWII-set spy film was The Man Who Never Was (1956), a film which featured a plan to fool the Germans into misdirecting their troops through the use of a corpse, with a spy sent to verify whether or not his invented past is true. Alfred Hitchcock continued to make spy films, culminating in the classic North by Northwest (1959) while in the 1960s Cold War, spy James Bond exploded in popularity with his second film From Russia With Love (1963) perhaps owing the greatest debt to the British spy films, as much of it is set on board a steam train.

Autobiographies and Biographies

Many classic films were based on autobiographies, from Guy Gibson's account of The Dam Busters and The Colditz Story (both 1955) based on the book by Pat Reid, who was imprisoned in Colditz until his escape. Another classic, 1942's In Which We Serve, was written by Noel Coward, directed by David Lean and based on the life of Lord Mountbatten and his ship HMS Kelly, sunk during the Battle of Crete. Mountbatten was involved in the project, but frequently requested Coward make the captain less like himself. This was Britain's most successful film of the war years.

Even comedies were often autobiographical in origin. Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall (1972) was based on Spike Milligan's war memoirs, and featured Spike himself playing his own father. In the film version of BBC television comedy series Dad's Army (1971), the character of Pike is based on writer Jimmy Perry's own experiences in the Home Guard. The comedy in scenes in which teenage boys were expected to fight invading tanks armed only with kitchen knives tied onto broom handles is based on actual events.

Criticisms of autobiography-based war films include that they were often written only by the well-educated, and so again present a middle-class view of society. Another is that, by their very nature, dramatic tension is reduced as it is obvious that the hero survives. However they often have high levels of accuracy.


I saw a film today oh boy. The English army had just won the war. A crowd of people turned away but I just had to look having read the book.
- The Beatles, 'A Day in the Life'10

One of the main reasons for the commercial and critical success of British War Films is the awareness that members of the public already had of their story. Many successful war films of the 1950s were based on best-selling books. War films based on best-selling books included true-life tales such as The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, The Great Escape, The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky, as well as fiction such as The Cruel Sea and Bridge on the River Kwai11.

Filmmakers knew an audience already existed for these films, making the marketing and distribution easier. By adapting only best-selling books, film studios had the advantage of knowing that the story contained in the novel had already proved popular and successful, in itself a form of quality control. As the stories contained something audiences had already considered desirable, resulting in its becoming a best-seller, a well-made film adaptation could grasp the cause of that success and transfer it into a successful film. This is still true in the 21st Century, shown by the success of Enigma (2001). Atonement (2007) and War Horse (2011).

Financing War Films

One of the major factors behind the success of British War Films in the 1950s and 60s is that they were cheap to make. Films such as The Wooden Horse had few sets and the costumes were low-cost, as there were a plethora of uniforms still in existence.

Through the support of the armed forces, it was possible to make grand films on comparatively small budgets. As long as the filmmakers agreed to show the truth about the armed services, the services were happy to help support any film which portrayed them in a positive light. Filmmakers had tremendous support from all services, which often supplied time, equipment and men. The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment were British Paratroopers in The Longest Day and RAF Scampton was made available to be itself for the filming of The Dam Busters. This not only increased the realism of the films but was a huge financial boost. Fewer props, sets and locations were needed, extras did not need to be hired and costumes did not need to be prepared, resulting in substantial savings.

This was not always the case; army authorities declined to provide either men or vehicles for the Boulting Brother's satire Private’s Progress (1956). As this was an exceptional instance, it highlights how common armed services assistance was. War films were also made cheaply by using actual wartime film spliced in among footage of ten or more years later, adding to the realism of the film. The Army Film Bureau would also book several prints of completed war films to be shown in camp and barrack cinemas, thus ensuring an audience. It is no wonder that British filmmakers continued to enjoy creating war films in the 1950s and 60s.


One of the undervalued reasons behind the success of British War Films of the 1950s and 60s is the fact that they were realistic, with extravagant measures taken to ensure that attention to detail was paramount. It was a constant theme of contemporary press reports that British War Films were accurate and showed true events, for example The Man Who Never Was was inspired by Operation Mincemeat. The Lion Has Wings showed the actual raid, with genuine bombs filmed being loaded onto the bombers and a real damaged Wellington bomber was used in which to film additional scenes.

During the 1940s and 50s a large proportion of the actors who appeared in the films fought in the war, including Alec Guinness, Richard Todd, David Niven and Denholm Elliott, while Michael Caine had fought in the Korean War. Many sailor extras in In Which We Serve, a film loosely based on Mountbatten's war experience, were played by genuine sailors who were recuperating in Haslar Naval Hospital. The ship set was a replica of a K-class destroyer, with genuine specially-shot footage of K-class destroyers used in the film. For A Bridge Too Far, the actors were even sent to Boot Camp in order to better be able to portray military personnel.

For films set during the Second World War made during the 1950s it was easier to create extraordinary amounts of realism, leading to critical success, as many of the key personnel behind the operations were still alive. Interviews with survivors was standard practice. In I was Monty’s Double (1958) Clifton James played himself in a re-enactment of his pretending to be Montgomery, and the script was assisted by those who had thought up the original deception.

Above Us The Waves featured genuine original equipment used in the raid, and filming for We Dive At Dawn, made during the war with the co-operation of the Admiralty, utilised two genuine submarines, P-614 and P-615, standing in for the fictional P-61.

The Dam Busters is considered the epitome of this accurate approach, it boasting that no dialogue or incident appears onscreen that was not true. Actors for the film were cast based on their similarity to the actual pilots who took part in the raid, and the film was based on Guy Gibson's autobiography12. The Dam Busters being perceived as both the most accurate and the most successful war film of the 1950s is evidence that there was a strong link between success and realism in war films as a popular genre.

Naturally not every war film had realism as its aim. A fictional, successful, full-scale invasion of Britain was shown in It Happened Here (1966).


The British War Film's approach is a trend which has escaped the confines of its country of origin and can be seen in more modern films. The beach landings scene in Saving Private Ryan (1998) was quite realistic, and the film enjoyed considerable success. A war film released only two years later, U-571 (2000) presented an incorrect depiction of the capture of an Enigma machine and the breaking of its code. As a result, in Britain the national press encouraged a boycott. Accuracy certainly affects critics' judgement of a film and has in recent times led to the success or failure of war films. This was similarly the case in the 1950s and 60s. War films, such as The Dam Busters, continued to enjoy success because of the accuracy of their portrayal of experiences familiar to much of the audience.

The immediate affect of making British War Films was to give directors experience in directing action-adventures. Many went on to direct James Bond films – including Guy Hamilton (4), Lewis Gilbert CBE (3) and Terence Young (3) – still the most successful film series of all time. Other British War Film directors used the experience when they came to make disaster films of the 60s and 70s, often those including defeats, to create such classics as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).

The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide contain elements from naval films such as We Dive at Dawn and Above Us The Waves. At the other end of the scale, British War Films have inspired animated adventures. These include Nick Park's Chicken Run (2000), essentially a prisoner-of-war camp drama, and RAF films inspired Valiant (2005), an animated film about pigeons.

War fantasies such as A Matter of Life and Death have inspired a range of films in which children escape from the horrors of war and are evacuated to the countryside where they discover either a world of magic, or magical worlds. These include Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Five Children and It (2004), films in the Chronicles of Narnia series (2005-10) and Mexican film Pan's Labyrinth (2006), set during the Spanish Civil War.

A Long Time Ago in a Busted Dam Far, Far Away

One of the most popular films of all time that owes a heavy debt to the British War Film genre is Star Wars (1977). Despite the difference in style and tone between the documentary feel of war films and the science fiction glamour of Star Wars, its inspirations are easy to see. The film stars Alec Guinness, a British War Film stalwart, while the enemy is an evil Empire not unlike the Third Reich, whose uniforms are very reminiscent of those from the Second World War period.

The film's origins can be most clearly seen in the dramatic climax, in which the rebels fight the Death Star. This is a remake of elements of The Dam Busters, with anti-aircraft guns on towers and dropping the bouncing bomb against the wall of the dam being turned into firing proton torpedoes into the Death Star's thermal exhaust port. Just like the bombers in The Dam Busters, each fighter only has one shot at destroying the target. Luke's proton torpedo even does a change of direction 'bounce' at the last second to get into the exhaust port. 633 Squadron, featuring a raid along a narrow fjord, inspired the flying down the trench sequence and enemy aircraft in films such as The Battle of Britain are replaced by TIE-fighters

This was deliberate, as Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz has said:

We had this massive library of old war movies – 'The Dam Busters', 'The Battle of Britain' and about 45 other movies [including '633 Squadron']. We picked out scenes to use as guidelines in the battle.

Influence on Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest directors of all time, has made several films regarding war. Part of his success is his ability to work within different genres, including that of the British War Film. Spielberg's first war film was 1941 (1979), a disjointed film that was less than the sum of its parts, about Dan Akroyd's attempts to join the Mile High Club while Christopher Lee looks menacing and a big wheel rolls down the road. This was followed by two of his highly enjoyable Indiana Jones films, which epitomise the American action-adventure genre, set before the Second World War and feature Nazis.

During the making of Empire of the Sun (1987), based on JG Ballard's autobiographical novel, he worked closely with Sir David Lean, a director who was one of his greatest influences. Following this, he adapted some of Lean's approaches as well as those of the British War Film genre as a whole. Taking the best of both the British War Film documentary approach and Hollywood spectacle, combined with his own inestimable talent, he has since made war films that clearly have British War Film influences. These include Schindler's List (1993), a film which like many British War Films is filmed stylistically as a black-and-white documentary and is based on a true story13. This was followed by Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks' first big-budget film, a make-or-break picture for the fledgling studio. For this he studied in great detail genuine British, Canadian and American D-Day footage to recreate the beach landings as accurately as possible.

In 2001 he was knighted for services to British Cinema and in 2011 adapted British novel War Horse14 into a film about the Great War.

The Sinking of U-571

U-571 (2000) is a film about a German U-boat15 which is almost as accurate as The Land that Time Forgot (1975). In this film, a German U-boat discovers an island populated with dinosaurs. Although the real U-571 was an unremarkable German submarine which sank seven ships before being sunk herself, in the film the American navy captures the submarine and its Enigma code machine. In reality, similar operations had been performed by British forces, especially the Royal Navy, capturing an Enigma machine in 1941 from U-110, a code book from U-559 and the entire submarine U-570. The film's release led to a debate in Parliament in which Prime Minister Tony Blair called the film an affront, and the nation boycotted the film in protest. British cinema-goers' protests informed Hollywood that this was not how war films were made, and so film company Canal hastily added an on-screen epitaph that acknowledged that this was a work of fiction and in reality events similar to those shown were conducted by the Royal Navy, effectively apologising for the rest of the film, many sequences of which had been lifted from We Dive at Dawn and Above Us The Waves.

Learning its lesson, since U-571 no Hollywood studio has attempted to make a war film that is quite this inaccurate16, while the backlash caused by this film resulted in a more accurate, though still fictional, film entitled Enigma (2001), being made in Britain. Unlike U-571, this featured genuine Enigma machines and was made after interviews with Bletchley Park survivors, some of whom even had cameo roles.

Principal British Second World War Films

  • In Which We Serve (1942) – About the different men and their backgrounds on board the fictional HMS Torrin, which is sunk.
  • The Colditz Story (1954) – Prisoners in Germany's PoW maximum security prison of Colditz Castle plan on escaping.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) – An engineer has a crazy idea of how to shorten the war; destroy German industry with a bouncing bomb. The most successful film in Britain in 1955.
  • Reach for the Sky (1956) – A true story about a pilot without legs flying Spitfires and defending his country, the most successful film in Britain in 1956.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – Fictional adaptation about British PoWs in Burma constructing a bridge for the Japanese.
  • Dunkirk (1958) – An account of the British Army's heroic retreat.
  • The Longest Day (1962) – Anglo-American film about D-Day and the last black-and-white epic.
  • The Battle of Britain (1969) – First major Second World War film flop, largely due to it being too ambitious and having vague characters.
  • A Bridge Too Far (1977) – The Allies' (British, American and Polish) defeat at Arnhem. Positively received in Britain, sadly a financial failure in America where audiences did not wish to watch America lose, and it was unable to compete in cinemas against Star Wars.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) – Adaptation of the true story of an American B-17 Flying Fortress aircrew's final mission.
  • The English Patient (1996) – A melodramatic romance with a war background.
  • Enigma (2001) – At Bletchley Park, the German Enigma code is broken.
  • Atonement (2007) – A misunderstanding prevents two star-crossed lovers from getting together.
  • The King's Speech (2010) – George VI overcomes his speech impediment to lead a country to war.

Other Wars

  • A Hill in Korea (1956) – About the Korean War.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – Epic film about an Englishman forging Arabs into a force to fight the Turks.
  • Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) – Cold War satire on the consequences of nuclear war.
  • Zulu (1964) – 4,000 Zulus face 100 Welshmen at a mission station and hospital on the Natal/Zululand border during the Anglo-Zulu War (1879).
  • When the Wind Blows (1987) – Animated film about a nuclear attack.
1This was because of the feared high death toll should crowded cinemas be hit by bombers. Fortunately by the time the bombers came, air raid warnings were on the whole preventing this sort of occurrence.2The Ministry of Information informed director Michael Powell that they could not prevent him from making it, but if he did, he would never be knighted. Three times Oscar-nominated Michael Powell is one of Britain's most successful and influential directors never to receive a knighthood, although this was also as a consequence of making controversial film Peeping Tom (1960).3Winston Churchill was Lord of the Admiralty between 1911-15 and 1939-40, before being appointed Prime Minister between 1940-45.4Real life would echo fiction with the launch of a later HMS Ark Royal in 1981, an Invincible-class aircraft carrier.5The first attempt, an Anglo-French co-production, was only half made when France surrendered.6Michael Powell's next film, One of our Aircraft is Missing, would be about a British aircrew escaping from occupied Holland back to Britain.7Jim is voiced by veteran Sir John Mills, one of the most prolific stars of films set during the Second World War.8Short for Stammlager Luft, Airmen Prisoner-of-War Camp III.9Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Charge of the Light Brigade is perhaps the finest work of art about British military incompetence.10John Lennon starred in war satire How I Won The War (1967), directed by A Hard Day's Night (1964), Help! (1965) and Superman III (1983) director Richard Lester.11Although the Japanese did indeed make prisoners of war construct bridges over the river Kwai, the characters are fictional.12This fanatical level of accuracy is to a small degree a myth. It is known that some incidents, such as a visit to the theatre inspiring the use of spot lights to guide the bomb, are fictitious and the film was heavily subject to the Official Secrets Act. In most important aspects it is true and the film does contain genuine footage from the bomb trails, even if the result of the raid is exaggerated.13Although Polish film Kanal (1956) was also a strong influence.14A book that was loosely inspired by the story of a real war horse called Warrior.15The best film about German submarines remains the classic Das Boot (1981).16With the exception of the obviously fictional Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the disappointing Pearl Harbour (2001).

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