12 French War Movies You Must See Before You Die

France, a country that has endured and fought many wars, was at the center of many a battle and armed conflict, a country famous for its outstanding filmmaking has produced a very modest amount of war movies. You will find numerous WWII movies on the Resistance and a fair amount of rather psychological war-time movies but if you are looking for combat movies, you will not be lucky. I know of no French air combat or submarine movie at all.

There may be many reasons and I can only attempt an interpretation, comparing French cinema in general to the cinema of other countries. What becomes apparent soon is that the French are not keen on producing large-scale, epic or very action driven cinema. French movies are psychological and intimate. They focus on the dynamics between a few people, their interaction, the dialogue. Many of the most famous French movies focus on tiny details, small things. It’s easily understood that this doesn’t fit in with infantry combat movies with their huge casts and more action driven story lines.

In choosing 12 movies  I tried to pick the few real combat movies I knew and added the ones that I think excellent or that absoultely need to be watched. I also tried to covera wide range. I left out good ones, I’m sure.

For those who want to further explore French cinema the website French War Movies offers a great overview.

I discovered one huge problem for the non-native speaker when I watched La Grande Illusion recently as I bought a movie with English subtitles. Almost 2/3 of the dialogue was missing. I noticed the same when I watched and reviewed the Italian Rome, Open City (here is my review). Since French and Italian movies are dialogue driven, it’s very hard for a non-native speaker to fully appreciate them. I’m sure this is done better in more recent movies, still it is a problem.

With all this said, let’s open the curtain for twelve stunning movies:

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937): WWI. Jean Renoir’s movie is one of the great classics of European cinema starring the late great Jean Gabin. A POW movie that offers a lot. Interesting German characters included. (Here is the review)

Nuit et brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955): WWII. Alain Resnais’ Holocaust classic. Death Camps. Final Solution. Documentary/original footage about the horrors of the concentration camps. Gut-wrenching. Impressive. A must-see. (Here is the review)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959): WWII. Another movie by Alain Resnais. A love story between a French woman and a Japanese man from Hiroshima. Interspersed with original footage of Hiroshima. Very special and poetic based on the scenario by Marguerite Duras. A must see for French cinema aficionados. (review upcoming)

L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (1969): WWII. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance masterpiece. Another classic. Claustrophobic, impressive, sparse. Excellent actors. One of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. (Here is my review)

L’honneur d’un capitaine aka A Captain’s Honor (1982): Post war. Algeria. A captain who died on the battle field in Algeria is accused of having been a torturer and a murdered. His widow tries to prove that he wasn’t guilty. (review upcoming)

Dien Bien Phu (1992) : Indochina. Infantry Combat. Schoendoerffer’s movie shows the final defeat of the French in Indochina. Not nice to watch at all. (review upcoming)

Le pianiste aka The Pianist (2002): WWII. Holocaust. Tells the story of a Jewish pianist in the Warsaw ghetto. Harrowing and beautiful. My favourite Holocaust movie. Very moving. (review upcoming)

La chambre des officiers aka The Officer’s Ward (2001): WWI. Everything you never wanted to know about the horrible facial wounds that were so frequent during WWI. Made me quite sick. Painfully well-done  (Here is the review)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles aka A Very Long Engagement (2004): WWI. Based on Sébastien Japrisot’s eponymous novel it tells the harrowing story of young Mathilde who travels to the no man’s land of WWI in search of her lost fiancé.  This is one of the darling movies of international film critics. I did like it but wasn’t awed. Starring the much-loved Audrey Tautou. (review upcoming)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI. The story of the little peace during the Great War. During the first Christmas in WWI, German, French and British/Scottish troops cease fire and play football together. Wonderful movie with great actors. One of  my Top 10 all-time favourites and one of the bestanti-war movies that exist. (Here is the review)

L’ennemi intime aka Intimate Enemies (2007): Algeria. One of the very few French Infantry Combat movies. Very good and very critical. About the ugly side of an ugly war that was officially no war. If you want to find out why I found this hard to watch, you’ll have to read the About page. (Here is the review)

L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime (2009): WWII. French Resistance. Based on the true story of a group of young people and immigrants who fought a desperate fight against the Nazis. They were led by the poet Manouchian. This is an absolutely stunning and very tragic movie. One to watch and re-watch. It went directly on my Top 10. (Here is the review)

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31 thoughts on “12 French War Movies You Must See Before You Die

  1. Guy Savage says:

    I’ve seen most of these–not all. I haven’t seen A Capt’s Honour and Dien Bien Phu–not sure if I want to see the latter.

    Have you seen Black and White in Color? I really like that one, and le Silence de la Mer comes to mind. I’d have to add Beau Travail too.

    • I fiddled around with this list for days. I had Le Silence the la mer in it and also Au revoir les enfants, took them off again. Dien Bien Phu isn’t very graphic but I need to re-watch it . I’m not sure about Black and White in color. It does ring a bell… I’ll investigate.

  2. the war movie buff says:

    I love when you do these foreign film lists. Gives me so many ideas for my Net Flix queue. Actually, thanks to you I have already seen four and loved three. I will be watching Hiroshima, Mon Amour this month. Of the rest, Intimate Enemies sounds most interesting to me.

    • I’m sure you would like Intimate Enemies. You will have to watch Grand Illusion as it is on your 100 list. You will need to watch Le pianiste. It’s stunning. I also think The Officer’s Ward might be something you could like. Hiroshima Mon Amour, I have my doubts but you will “have to” as this months readalong is rather a watchalong. And you already know REsnais from Night and Fog. there are some similarities from what I remember.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    I second Intimate Enemies.
    I think it’s very difficult to narrow down French War films–there are so many really really good ones.

  4. In terms of combat movies Intimate Enemies is as good as the best from other countries.
    I was thinking that they were all somewhere between 8-10 on a scale of 1-10 which is a high average. You are right about the crime films, at least as far as I can judge.
    I hope you notice you won a DVD!

  5. JB says:

    You have to watch Les Croix de Bois, some amazing WW1 battle scenes, with vets as actors. As good as All Quiet on the Western Front, look for it on youtube.

  6. António says:

    This is my first post because i have just discovered your site and let me tell you that it is amazing. On the matter of French war films my modest opinion is that you have missed La 317e section and Le crabe-tambour. And now i am of to watch L’ ennemi intime. Thank you for a wonderful work from Portugal and i am sorry for opening a old thread

    • That’s quite alright, António. I don’t close the threads down. I’m glad you like my site. Thanks for visisting. I agree with you but I didn’t want to include too many of Schoendoerffer’s movies. He is excellent and when it comes to French war movies, he certainly is the place to go to. I hope you will like L’enemie intime. I think it’s very good. I will review most of Schoendoerffer’s movies this year but I need to re-watch them first.

  7. savoy6 says:

    what about le section 317?…also by Schoendoerffer.

  8. nem baj says:

    Bruno Dumont’s Flanders (2006) is a great example of what an “anti war-film” (as opposed to an “anti-war film”) can be.

    • I haven’t seen that one yet. But the distinction is interesting.

      • nem baj says:

        Well, if you’ve never seen a Bruno Dumont film you’re probably in for a shock 🙂

        The thing is, i had been recently watching a series of 1930’s Soviet films dealing at least partly with WWI (Pudovkin’s The Fall of St Petersburg, Dovzhenko’s Arsenal). They were supposed to be “anti-war”, yet it struck me that their 10-15 minutes lyrical sequences about the conflict, albeit visually very powerful – especially Dovzhenko’s – could actually be quite ambiguous.

        Is it true that, as Truffaut supposedly said, you cannot film war and be entirely anti-war at the same time? Dumont’s Flanders quotes Kubrick openly, which brought to my memory several studies about Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, notably Janet C. Moore’s paper (For Fighting and for Fun: Kubrick’s Complicitous Critique in Full Metal Jacket).

        Is a complicitous critique the best a filmmaker can do when it comes to war? In my opinion, Dumont’s un-glamourizing gaze upon violence and suffering is a remarkable attempt at searching for another path* – however displeasurable the result may be.

        (*) Godard had tried another in Les Carabiniers.

      • I haven’t seen it. I remember watching Full Metal jacket for the first time nd wondering how anti-war it really was as clearly there are a lot of people watching it who are fond of the film for the opposite reasons. Especially the iconic Animal Mother has a huge fan base.
        I have to hunt for WWI movies more systemtically next year and will have a look at some of yur suggestions.

  9. nem baj says:

    Also, the mythical Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (about a group of very reluctant French draftees during the Algerian war) has been restored last year. The new DVD edition isn’t available yet, but you can get more than a peek at the old one on YT. Caroline, I’d be surprised if it didn’t make your top ten…

  10. nem baj says:

    In French cinema ‘Resistance movies’ are a subgenre in itself. Recent productions seem focused on (today’s) social groups that have hardly been represented before in that particular historical context: women (Female Agents, 2008), East-European immigrants (Army of Crime, 2009).

    In the same wave, Free Men (2011) tells the story of a network of North-African immigrants revolving around the Paris Great Mosque. It’s watchable thanks to its male lead (Tahar ‘A Prophet’ Rahim) and an interesting reconstitution of an ‘Arab Paris’ in the early 40’s – yet I think its contemporary theses are too obvious to be compelling.

  11. nem baj says:

    Rebellion (M. Kassovitz, 2011) is about a military operation in New Caledonia (a French territory in the Pacific) against a group of independence fighters who, after having attacked a gendarmerie barracks and killed three gendarmes, are holding 30 as hostages right in the middle of the 1988 presidential election.

    Though heavy-handed and at times a tad confusing (as it tries to embrace too many layers), it is quite watchable as a parable according to which, when mighty political forces and serious firepower are involved, ‘diplomatic’ and ‘humanitarian’ solutions don’t weigh much.

  12. Roudou says:

    I know this article is pretty old. But, for those who are still reading comments, i can add 3 good french war movies.

    -Capitaine Conan / Bertrand Tavernier / 1996
    Action is set in the Balkans front during the First World War and immediatly after. Capitaine Conan leads a french commandos company, a pure war dog. The movie depicts some aspects on how soldiers can endure a war.

    -Indigenous / Rachid Bouchareb / 2006
    A political war movie. You must know one thing. In France, just before the movie has been released, former fighters from french colonies never had their war indemnities. That’s why this movie has been released. A kind of: “French people, don’t forget what my father or my grand father did for all of us”. Now, the movie.
    It depicts the fictious war story (based on real events) of 3 algerians and 2 moroccan soldiers from the Campaign of Italy in 1943 to the Alsace region in 1945.

    -Week-end at Dunkirk / Henri Verneuil / 1964
    This movie depicts the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 from a french point of view. Combat scenes are soft, don’t expect an infantry combat movie.

    • Roudou says:

      The title of second movie is false. I’ve just translated from french to english. But the english title is completly different. The movie’s name is Days of Glory in english.

    • Thanks so much, Roudou. I’m always grateful for suggestions. I hadn’t heard of Weekend at Dunkirk. I’ve seen the others. They are very good.

      • Roudou says:

        To be honest i don’t remember well Weekend at Dunkirk, last time i’ve seen it, i was a child, more than 15 years ago. It’s maybe not a real war movie But i think it’s interesting to see another point of view than the british one.

        Another french ” maybe not real war movie” came to my mind yesterday: Fort Saganne. I know this movie had a good succes when it came out. The incredible cast is certainly part of its success. But when i saw it, a long time ago, i was just boring.

        Maybe take a look at the plot of those two movies before you decide to watch them.

  13. Nuning suma says:

    I’ve seen Indigenous… Great ! Really beyond my expectation. Being a person from non-French speaking country, I find it very refreshing and enlighting to see other movies from different countries. This is very good list. Definitely will check them out.

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