Fifty Great War Movies – Review by Mark Barnes

I am writing this in early July, but there is no doubt in my mind that this book will be popular five months from now when people are trying to find a present for their awkward dads.

Author Tim Newmark offers appreciations of fifty war films, and I am impressed with the publisher for the careful way they selected the title for this book. It says great and not greatest.

There is a world of difference in the inference, and the latter might have got the author shot down in flames.  Needless to say, this book is a triumph of glorious subjectivity – and so it should be. Nobody, not the most knowledgeable film critic or resolute anorak, can sit down and claim any war film as being ‘the greatest.’

The fifty recalled here are unlikely to match any list you or I would cobble together. I have to be honest and say I would have trouble picking that many even for a casual breeze like this.

But there are plenty most of us can agree with and in each case, the author takes a look at the plot and offers up bits of background details on how or why the films were made.

Now, we could go through his choices from one to fifty, and all this would achieve is a sort of parallel book. That would be pointless. Much better for you to look at the book yourself where you can agree or disagree with Mr. Newmark’s selection or his potted histories.

Just to illustrate my point, the classic Zulu is not in the fifty. I first saw that film at the Carlton cinema in Essex Road, Islington, a million years ago and I still remember that night for the film, for the monsoon rain that fell all evening and having to wait for ages for a 73 bus back to Stoke Newington.

I doubt I am alone connecting films with a time and place.  Zulu is a very special film to me, and it has a place in British culture with paraphrased lines from the script cropping up quite often.

Regardless of accuracy, the film awakened an interest in the real events, and it is still the case today. The battlefield is one I plan to visit so I can tick it off my bucket list.

We all like a list, don’t we? So, I am happy to tell you my favourite war films: Dunkirk, They Were Expendable, The Dam Busters, The Longest Day, Full Metal Jacket, In Which We Serve, Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds, Blackhawk Down, The Blue Max, The Eagle Has Landed, Kelly’s Heroes, Battle of Britain and Zulu, of course.

Phew! Hopefully, some of you were nodding as you read through my selection. I would have added Fury except for the last third – once our heroes leave the German town, it is just daft. Until then I detected strong traces of The Victors, another favourite of mine.

I really admire American Sniper. It is an outstanding film, but I have only seen it once. Some of the others are near perennials in my life.

I can take you to the East Sussex coast where Dunkirk was filmed and have the glossy programmes for Battle of Britain and The Longest Day they used to sell for big movies back in the late sixties when my dad took me to see them at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road.

Movies have a place in our hearts, not just war films; because if you asked me to name a wonderful battle scene from any movie it would be when Bernard Hill addresses his army of Rohan warriors in one of the Lord of the Rings movies, I forget which one; or I might pick a few moments from A Bridge Too Far or Apocalypse Now.

I could point you to Angels One Five or An Appointment in London, or any number of US Cavalry themed ‘westerns’ I lap up.  Give me LA Confidential or the Blues Brothers any day. Just saying…

This is a brave book. But aside from being a very personal collection it entertains and informs. Treat it as the bit of fun it is. Don’t get hung up on the choices and please don’t base your criticism purely on whether that bloke had the correct buttons on his jacket.

Technical and historical accuracy have become key to modern war films, but some recent examples might be better remembered for a believable plot rather than the colour of the protagonist’s socks.

War films are actually quite rare beasts these days.  The cinema audiences much prefer their heroes to be super. No complaints here, I love the Marvel stuff – even if I don’t always keep pace with what the hell is going on – and I am really looking forward to the next Star Trek instalment.

They will all be welcome until we finally get to see Peter Jackson’s revisit to the story of Guy Gibson and the Dambusters of May 1943. We can but hope it will be a classic. In the mean time enjoy your favourite war movies in your own way.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.



By Tim Newark
Osprey Publishing
ISBN: 978 1 47282 000 6

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.