Unless you’re part of the Fury team, historical accuracy is an important factor when making a war film. Military consultants and historical advisors are usually taken on board from the early development stages in the hope that they will steer the film in a direction intended to accurately inform the audience.
The five films below wanted to go the extra mile. When it came to getting a location, they chose to shoot the film on the very spot where the story happened.
Dunkirk, 2017 (WW2)
Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster captured the gut-wrenching tension of the evacuations. The superb cinematography and long periods without dialogue provide an eerie atmosphere that other war films often fall short of.
However, the accuracy of Dunkirk has been called into question, including ignoring the contribution of 1,000 plus men of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps as well as Tom Hardy’s somewhat unbelievable landing of his Spitfire on a sandy beach.
Despite this, the realistic feel of the film was a winner in most people’s books.
The opening sequence was shot in the Dunkirk quarter of Malo-Les-Bains. As Tommy (yes, that is his actual name) runs to escape German rifle fire, he hurls himself over a French barricade and dashes along a street which eventually opens up onto the beach itself.
By visiting the town (or going on Google Maps, like I did) you can follow Tommy’s escape along the Rue Belle Rade – albeit with a few more parked cars.
In May 2016, on Google maps you could see the Dunkirk set builders putting up the facade of Le Grand Hotel de la Plage.
Interestingly, the filmmakers decided to leave the four flag poles as part of the shot (although, they were happy to remove the trampolines). It’s worth noting how they also added extra sand to cover the modern patterns of the boulevard.
There’s not much left of the East mole. Nolan and the team managed to rebuild a large replica of the jetty on the same spot.
Land And Freedom, 1995 (Spanish Civil War)
Directed by one of Britain’s top directors, Ken Loach applied his improvisational style of filmmaking to a war rarely tackled by non-Spanish filmmakers. The film details the training, the fighting, and the politics of a war which split a country in two, from 1936 to 1939.
Shot in the medieval village of Mirambel in the community of Aragon, Spain, the main battle scene unfolds and offers us a glimpse of what conflict looks like without Hollywood’s greasy fingerprint. The rifle fire and shouting also sound far more authentic, reverberating in the streets of a village that was undoubtedly involved in the civil war.
During the civil war, Aragon was one of the last standing communities as the Spanish Republic fell to General Franco.
Scenes were also shot in Barcelona.
Loach was inspired by the first-hand experiences of George Orwell, recorded in his book Homage To Catalonia. Orwell and Loach both tell the story of how Barcelona went from being an energized socialist city to a sullen and defeated one.
While the film’s English protagonist is occupying the rooftop balcony of a building, he sparks up a conversation with a man he’s meant to be opposing who turns out to be from Manchester.
Loach wanted the authentic skyline of Barcelona as the backdrop and filmed the scene on top of a real building, framing the shots perfectly with pieces of set-build to mask the view of the modern parts of the city.
The Longest Day, 1962 (WW2)
You must know The Longest Day, surely? If not, order it now… it’s a classic.
As a D-Day film that addresses the differences between each landing beach, it’s no wonder that the filmmakers chose to film on the actual beaches of Normandy.
Geography played a fundamental role in the shaping of how each assault was to take place. For some, it was a long run up a wide beach, ducking into shell holes; for others, it required them to scale cliff edges 80 feet (24 meters) high.
Also know as Bénouville Bridge, this was a crucial point for the Allied forces to capture as they headed towards Paris. At 0016 hours on the 6th of June, Major John Howard, commanding a team of several Horsa gliders, crash landed with impeccable precision in a field alongside Bénouville Bridge.
After successfully fighting off the guarding Germans, repelling counter-attacks, and removing the explosives from the structure, Howard’s team held their position until Lord Lovat – with his piper, Bill Millin – and his commandos arrived to lend a hand.
All this was shot on the real Pegasus Bridge in the early 1960s. Although it was replaced in the 1990s by a larger, sturdier structure, you can visit the original bridge at the Mémorial Pégasus museum next door.
As the extras rolled in and the church square was brought alive with swastikas, German troops, and burning buildings, the production team felt it necessary to remind the wary townspeople – most of whom had witnessed the real thing only 17 years before – that these Germans were in fact French extras.
The place was dressed with additional buildings and dummies hanging from parachutes in trees. The crew had to hide the large memorial in the middle of the square with sandbags.
Whilst the Pegasus Bridge scenes were being filmed, another unit was shooting at Pointe-du-Hoc.
A landscape of sharp cliff faces and terrifying German defenses, the production designers had an easy ride owing to the relatively unchanged appearance of the place since D-Day.
Ouistreham Casino & Omaha beach
These were two locations that couldn’t be used.
The assault on Ouistreham casino was filmed in the far more picturesque fishing town of Port-En-Bessin which, funnily enough, is located between Omaha and Gold beaches and was captured by the No.47 (Royal Marine) Commandos in June 1944.
The scene – made memorable by the impressive helicopter tracking shot – is easily identifiable as little has changed since 1962.
It seems that, by 1962, Omaha beach was no longer useable and so the landings were filmed in Corsica.
Gettysburg, 1993 (American Civil War)
I admit, I read about the filming locations before watching the movie. But today I watched this Civil War epic for the first time… all four and a half hours of it. And I must say, it wasn’t bad at all.
A little knowledge of the war is useful to have in your back pocket when watching, and I suppose that’s why the use of the actual battlefields of Gettysburg was so important to the filmmakers.
The National Park Service gave permission for some of the most iconic scenes – including the Battle of Little Round Top – to be filmed there. A very rare privilege.
But what with the immense footfall of over 1,000 re-enactors, the rest of the film had to be shot in the neighboring Adam County farm to avoid damaging the site.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, 2001 (WW2)
This list couldn’t help but be a little heavy on the WW2 side. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, however, shows us a different side of the war in a different part of the world: the Greek island of Cephalonia (or Kefalonia – both are used).
In 1943, the Italians decided to surrender to the Allies, so the Nazis attempted to disarm them. The Italians of the 33rd Acqui Infantry Division resisted. Over a week of fighting ensued and left thousands dead.
The backdrop of this beautiful Greek island gives the film a sense of tranquility and romance which counterpoints the war and also fits the story of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin perfectly.
From the white pebbles and sharp cliffs of Myrtos beach where the WW1 mine is washed up and detonated, to the village of Old Vlachata where they filmed the machine-gun massacre, and the houses of Dichalia (ruined in a 1953 earthquake), these places formed the perfect locations in which to build the story’s village and the doctor’s house.