Hollywood has churned out scores of war movies in the past and continues to do so. The war movies types include pro-war propaganda, historical soap operas, anti-war tomes and (occasionally) well-done military history. You may ask which movies are the best in terms of historical accuracy, as we know it. Make no mistake, it is not Hollywood's business model to teach history lessons, but to entertain and make lots of money. In fact, the dry historical facts are of little interest to most movie fans.
Nevertheless, there are many movies that got the key facts and spirit of the time right on the bull's eye. The movies listed below, in alphabetical order, are six of my favorite military history films that are based on true stories and known for historical accuracy.
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
The film is faithful to its source material, A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan, a famed WWII war reporter and author. It is also entertaining with an outstanding ensemble cast, and a fast moving, straightforward men-at-war story. Those who insist on a shoehorned romance subplot should look elsewhere. The film chronicles Operation Market-Garden, a gallant, but failed Allied attempt in September 1944 to quickly end WWII. This movie contains several impressive battle scenes and, unlike typical WWII films, it is mostly unbiased. The big battle is covered from all the major perspectives: British, American, German, Polish and Dutch. As we watch a major battle unfold, we begin to understand the numerous reasons for the Allied defeat and heavy casualties, not the least of which was a gross underestimate by Field Marshall Montgomery on the strength of the German army, and wildly optimistic expectations for a tank army to advance rapidly in the boggy lowlands of Holland. This movie wins the Gold Statue for accuracy in a historical drama (a new award invented here).
Battle of Britain (1969)
Anyone with an interest in epic battles and WWII fighter aircraft will enjoy this film. It is rare to see authentic, working Spitfires, Hurricanes, and Messerschmitts. This movie has stunning shots of wonderfully restored WWII fighter aircraft taxiing on grass runways and whirling in chaotic dogfight scenes that feel real and dangerous. Both British and German fighter pilot aces were technical consultants for the film and it shows. While the sleek aircraft and the aerial combat scenes add excitement to this movie, the filmmakers also include scenes where some of the hard decisions that determined the air battle were made. The film is not without flaws. The romance subplot is not worth discussing; suffice to say that there is zero love chemistry. Also the cast of fighter pilots on both sides should have been young men (19 or 20 years) instead of middle age men. For obvious box office reasons, more famous (older) actors were cast. However, those are only details.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This Hollywood version of WWI in the Middle East is loosely based on the book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (AKA Lawrence of Arabia). His book about leading the Arab revolt in 1916-18 is considered by most to be a blend of fact and fiction, but that is the best source we have about a remote battle front. The movie is a magnificent piece of filmmaking and cinema-photography, with plenty of action and desert charm. A recreation of the Battle of Aqaba is a memorable highlight. Peter O'Toole, playing T.E. Lawrence, charges on his camel with his rag tag army of Arab warriors and sends the Turks reeling back to Istanbul. Lawrence confesses in his book that in the Aqaba excitement he shot his camel in the head, but that part is omitted from the movie. Too bad, it would have added some comic relief. Perhaps we will see it in the eventual remake.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The title of the movie was the code for a successful attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor and was transmitted by the commander of the first wave of Japanese warplanes on December 7, 1941. A rare war movie which sticks to true history and tells it like it was, from both the American and Japanese sides. There is a little bit of bias towards the winners, but that is only to be expected. In fact the film batters the American military complacency and errors that helped make the Japanese surprise attack a success. The film shows that providence was at work on that infamous day because the American aircraft carriers were absent from Pearl and the huge fuel depots at Clark Field and ship repair docks were not bombed. Highest praise has to go to the stuntmen in the realistic battle scenes. It was later revealed some of the stunts went out of control, and the actors were really running for their lives.
This is a dramatized version of history that never strays from real events. Locked in the bloodiest struggle in history with the Soviet Red army, Germany was faced with a two-front war after a huge Allied army landed in France in June 1944 (D-Day). Several high ranking German officers believed that German defeat was a fait accompli and decided it was time for a military coup. It was not the first attempt on Adolf Hitler's life and, as we all know, it failed. However, the fateful outcome does not detract from a fascinating and thrilling true story.
There is no break from reality in this movie to allow the good guys to win. The ending is cruel and tragic and this underrated film does not look away. Prussian nobleman Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg emerged as the leader of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and is well played by Tom Cruise. A choir of nitpickers and TV critics scorned his American accent, but that was only a minor problem in a fine history film.
British infantry wearing their famous scarlet coats in volley fire with proper Martini-Henry rifles, together with Michael Caine's great performance in his first major role are a couple of highlights in this thrilling recreation of the 1879 Battle of Rorke's Drift in South Africa. The filmmakers took historical accuracy into consideration. The bulk of the film was shot on location in South Africa about an hour drive from the real location of the Rorke's Drift mission. The Zulu warriors in the film were locals and a Zulu tribal historian helped get the native costumes, weapons and nuances correct. A record number of Victoria Cross medals, England's highest military honor, was awarded to the survivors of perhaps the most legendary battle of the Victorian Age. The spectacular full-scale battle scene is not to be missed. This film would not be made today.
Honorable Mentions for Historical Accuracy
Monuments Men, Das Boot, Patton, Alamo, Enemy at the Gates, Midway, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Pursuit of the Graf Spee, The Desert Fox, The Longest Day, Twelve O'Clock High, Sergeant York, The Alamo (1960), God is my Co-Pilot.
Post also hosted on Chuck Hawks' website