Recently, I was lucky enough to visit "Real to Reel", an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London that is devoted to the genre and which covers pretty well every aspect that you could imagine, from the very earliest film, The Battle of The Somme, a documentary actually made during the same year of the Allied offensive in 1916, right through to the modern day Kajaki as well as American Sniper both dating from 2014. The exhibition looks at the initial ideas for movies, the 'vision' of a director, the casting, as well as the physical and logistical difficulties in making an historically accurate depiction. Sometimes though, film makers get things horribly wrong; the execrable U-571 dating from 2000, ignored the historical fact that the Royal Navy captured the first Enigma coding machine and actually showed this as an entirely American feat of heroics. The film was debated in Parliament and rightly shunned by British veterans. The film makers were eventually shamed into inserting a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie to explain what really happened but by then the damage had already been done. Another example was Objective Burma! made in 1945 and which featured Errol Flynn leading American paratroopers defeating the Japanese in a conflict which in reality was almost exclusively a British and Commonwealth affair. The outrage caused at the time was widespead and the movie was actually banned in British cinemas shortly after it was released.
Number 9 sees another film I first saw as a young lad - this time on tv - and which made a lasting impression upon me. This is The Cruel Sea, a 1953 production from Ealing Studios which itself is an adaptation of Nicholas Monsarrat's classic novel of the same name. Monsarrat himself served in the Royal Navy on North Atlantic, East Coast and Arctic convoy duties, so much of what we see in the film is based on his own experiences. The film stars Jack Hawkins as Commander Ericson of the fictitious corvette HMS Compass Rose and who in my opinion, gives the performance of his career. He is ably supported by Donald Sinden as Lieut. Lockhart (who is almost certainly Monsarrat), Denholm Elliott and Virginia McKenna, as well as a superbly unpleasant performance by Stanley Baker. Perhaps the most famous scene in the book features Ericson having to make an agonising decision when a U-Boat is detected directly beneath a group of survivors in the water. Having decided to attack, the men are blown to pieces in the ensuing depth-charge attack, with Ericson and his crew watching horrified at the sight of what they have done. Haunted by what has happened, Ericson gets himself helplessly drunk when Compass Rose puts into Gibraltar at the end of this voyage. The little corvette has already rescued many survivors of other sunken ships and some of them try to console Ericson by telling him that they owe him their lives and that he should feel no remorse towards the men who died in the water - "The men you had to kill" - as one of them says somewhat undiplomatically. He is joined by Lockhart who has also been drinking and who also tries to console Ericson by taking the blame for identifying the contact as a U-Boat. Ericson tearfully looks at Lockhart and merely replies that "No one murdered those men, it's the war, the whole bloody war."
A castle known as the Schloss Adler features at number 7 in the 1968 movie Where Eagles Dare, based on the novel by Alistair MacLean and which contains many of the author's trademarks, such as the heroes fighting against seemingly overwhelming odds as well as there being a traitor (or traitors) within the closer circles of the heroes, with the main traitor not being unmasked until almost the end of the film. The action features around the rescue attempt of one General Carnaby, a senior American planner behind the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe. His aircraft is shot down and Carnaby is taken to the castle, where he is to be interrogated, if necessary by the use of Scopalomene, a 'truth' drug. A crack team of British commandos is assigned to rescue him, led by Richard Burton, as Major Smith and Clint Eastwood, an American Ranger officer seconded to the team. The casting of Eastwood ensured that the film would do well in America and was also a central point of the plot of the movie. The team eventually infiltrate the castle, despite losing two of their number in mysterious circumstances and meet up with two female operatives working under deep cover. Once in the castle, Smith allows himself to be captured and reveals to the others that he is in fact, a double agent and exposes three other members of the team, Thomas, Berkeley and Christiansen, who the Germans are convinced are their men, as being British agents. If you're confused, one only has to look at Eastwood's expression whilst all this is going on, to realise that you're not alone! It turns out that Carnaby isn't Carnaby at all but is merely an American actor, Cartwright Jones, planted to force all of this out into the open - Burton isn't a German spy and the three traitors really are British traitors working for the Germans, now fully exposed. An incredible escape from the castle now takes place, with the four survivors plus Cartwright Jones seemingly accounting for hundreds of German troops as they make for the local Luftwaffe base. Once aboard a plane and heading home, the final traitor unmasking takes place in dramatic circumstances - I won't reveal any more in case you're one of the handful of people who have never seen this often shown movie. An absolute classic!
So far, all of my favourites have taken place in World War Two, not so number 6, which sees us during an earlier conflict, one of Britain's many colonial wars fought throughout her history. This is Zulu, a 1964 re-telling of the events at Rorke's Drift, a missionary station and makeshift Field Hospital in January 1879, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Isandlwana, a crushing British defeat. The film stars Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Nigel Greene and Michael Caine in his first major starring role. Baker, a proud Welshman, became interested in becoming involved with the film when shown an account of the battle, in which eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the predominently Welsh defenders of Rorke's Drift, written by the historian John Prebble. Prebble later co-wrote the screenplay with Cy Endfield, who also directed the film as well as co-producing it with Baker. The 24th Regiment of Foot (the South Wales Borderers) along with a handful of others at the Field Hospital were around 150 strong but managed to fend off attack after attack from seemingly overwhelming numbers of Zulu warriors. The actions are shown in great detail and the relationships between the various defenders are brought to light, although there are some inaccuracies from real life. For example, we see Private Henry Hook portrayed by James Booth as a malingering, heavy drinking layabout, when in reality Hook was a model soldier and teetotaller. This portrayal of him caused his daughter to walk out of the film's premiere in disgust. Conversely, Corporal Allen (played in the movie by Glyn Edwards of later 'Minder' television fame) is shown as a model soldier, when in reality he had just been demoted to Corporal due to drunkeness. Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, brilliantly played by Nigel Greene, is shown as a battle hardened veteran soldier, when in fact he was just 24 years of age and was at the time, the youngest Colour Sergeant in the British Army. A curiosity in the film is the appearance of Chief Buthelezi, playing his own uncle King Cetschwayo kaMpande. Despite the inaccuracies described earlier, this is a classic war movie, which survives the test of time and which is still shown frequently.
So there are my ten war films; it has been an extremely difficult task to whittle down my list to a mere ten. It has meant leaving out some of my other favourites and consequently there is no room for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, San Demetrio: London, A Matter of Life and Death, The Colditz Story, The Way Ahead, The Way to the Stars, The First of The Few, Dunkirk, Bridge on the River Kwai, We Dive at Dawn and Went The Day Well? from the classic British era of war films. Neither is there space for The Longest Day, Patton, Von Ryan's Express, The Great Escape or Tora! Tora! Tora! from the American epics. Coming slightly more up to date, it has meant that Memphis Belle, Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far all miss out, as does the German made masterpiece, Downfall. It isn't just Second World War films that have been omitted out as I haven't been able to include the Vietnam movies Apocalypse Now or Platoon nor Black Hawk Down from a more recent conflict in Somalia, as well as the Napoleonic War films Waterloo or Master and Commander. As I have concentrated solely on feature films, there is no place for any of the superb documentaries made about the Second World War, such as The True Glory, Western Approaches or Desert Victory.
These are all fabulous pieces of work and whilst it might seem criminal to leave out at least some of those mentioned, I only allowed myself to choose ten.
As mentioned earlier, I'd really like to hear your choices and your reasons - it may be like me you have a leaning for the classic British movies of the 1940s and 50s, you might be younger and will have chosen some more recent offerings but please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Leave a name rather than an anonymous selection and please be polite about my choices and those of others. Enjoy your film watching!
"Real to Reel" is on at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017. Tickets cost £10.00 (free if you're an IWM Member) and can be purchased via the IWM website or on the day at the Museum's Information Desk.
The Blitzwalker Ten
Battle of Britain - 1969, MGM Studios - Director: Guy Hamilton
The Cruel Sea - 1953, Ealing Studios - Director: Charles Frend
Das Boot - 1981, Bavaria Film - Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Where Eagles Dare - 1968, Warner Bros - Director: Brian G Hutton
Zulu - 1964, Diamond Films - Director: Cy Endfield
Lawrence of Arabia - 1962, Columbia Pictures - Director: David Lean
Paths of Glory - 1957, United Artists - Director: Stanley Kubrick
Ice Cold in Alex - 1958, Associated British - Director: J Lee Thompson
Twelve O'Clock High - 1949, Twentieth Century Fox - Director: Henry King
The Dam Busters - 1954, Associated British - Director: Michael Anderson