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5 classic war films you should see before you see Dunkirk


Over the past decade or more, Christopher Nolan has fast become one of the biggest and most iconic directors of recent times. Beginning with his small film Following in 1998 and then later with the critically-acclaimed Memento and Insomnia, he broke out in 2005 when he resurrected the long-dormant Batman franchise with Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale.

Since then, aside from the two Bat-sequels (both of which topped $1billion each at the box office, he has dabbled with magicians (The Prestige), taken us to dream-worlds (Inception) and propelled us into space and black-holes (Interstellar), all of which were huge successes.

His latest film Dunkirk sees him take on perhaps his biggest and most challenging film to date: World War II, specifically the heroic story of Dunkirk, the infamous evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour in France in 1940. And with the film due in July, we take a look back at some of the best war films you should watch before seeing Nolan’s latest.


The Hurt Locker

In terms of films centered around the most recent wars, Kathryn Bigelow’s fascinating film from 2008 is perhaps the best example.

Winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, The Hurt Locker tells the story of a bomb disposal unit immersed deep in the Iraq War and their reckless new Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) whose reckless behavior continuously puts them in harm's way as the city around them becomes fraught with chaos.

A war film that’s also a heart-pounding, frenetic action thriller, Bigelow’s film a tense and frighteningly realistic tale that would set the scene for her equally impressive follow-up, 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty.

Saving Private Ryan

Released in 1998 to a plethora of stunning reviews, Saving Private Ryan is considered by some as director Steven Spielberg’s finest work.

And while the film itself is a masterclass of storytelling, cinematography and it’s intense and graphic portrayal of the horrors of war, many single out the opening half hour of the film - the magnificent, haunting assault on Omaha Beach during the Normandy Landings of June 6th, 1944.

Stunning in its camerawork, sound and images, it’s one of the greatest sequences ever committed to film and with superb performances from Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and an early appearance from Vin Diesel, the film is still a masterpiece.


Winner of Best Picture and Best Director at the 1986 Academy Awards, Platoon is arguably the greatest achievement in the career of its helmer Oliver Stone and considered one of greatest depictions of the Vietnam War.

Based in part on Stone’s own experiences as part of the war, the film stars Charlie Sheen as a young soldier who is thrust into the war after volunteering to serve but soon after arriving he finds himself fighting not just for survival against the enemy but against his fellow men of his platoon.

By turns frightening and violent in its approach, Stone’s film is simply astonishing on every level and one of the best films to come out the 1980’s.

Apocalypse Now

The fact that Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film got made in the first place is perhaps the biggest triumph of all given how it had one of the most fraught and unpredictable shoots in Hollywood history.

Typhoons, heart attacks and star Marlon Brando arriving to set unprepared and overweight sent the production into meltdown but Coppola stuck with it and it’s a testament to him that the film was a superb as it is, winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1979 and bringing us a visceral, raw look at the psychologies of war.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, an army vet who is set a dangerous and secret mission to navigate the Vietnam War and assassinate a renegade colonel (Brando) who has reportedly gone insane.

Schindler's List

Cheating a little with a second Steven Spielberg film here, but few can argue with the power and importance of the legendary filmmaker's 1993 film.

Winner of Seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, Schindler’s List is quite simply an astounding achievement that acts as both a compelling, thoughtful and moving film but also as an historical lesson about who Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson in the film) was and his everlasting impact through the Holocaust.

A visual masterpiece, every component of the film - from Janusz Kaminski’s photography, John Williams’ score to the stunning performances - is astounding and still, 24 years later, has lost none of its immense power.

Plenty to watch before Christopher Nolan's latest epic Dunkirk reaches the big screen but, somewhat surprisingly, it is the shortest film the director has made since his debut.

But that shouldn't detract from the huge scale and scope of the film, shot with IMAX cameras, that has been promised in the trailers, and with such actors as Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance along for the ride, it looks set to be one of the biggest of the year.

Scott J. Davis is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.

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