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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Intimate enemies aka L´ennemi intime (2007) or France, Algeria and the War that was no War

This was one of the hardest movies to watch for me for very personal reasons. All those who have read the About page on this blog, know why. For everyone else here´s a quick explanation. My father fought in this war for almost three years after having been drafted barely aged 18. His stories were as much part of my childhood as were his brooding silences and constant nightmares. I may say that this war is as much part of my life as it is of his. More so due to the nature of it. This is no war to be proud of – most are not but this one especially not. France didn´t even call this a war, they said it was an attempt to reestablish order. But there was a good reason to not call this a war since  Algeria was an integrate part of France, although not with the same rights. There was no real enemy to be fought since the Algerians were French, hence this movie´s title Intimate enemies, meaning the enemy within.

This created an extremely complex situation as this movie attempts to illustrate.

After the war had been won from a military point of view it was lost from a political point of view. De Gaulle decided to let Algeria go. What a waste of lives. In future years it was silenced. One was not to speak about it which weighed heavily on the returning soldiers. No one to turn to, no one to listen. As a psychiatrist once told me, it was the general tragedy for men returning from a war before Vietnam, that they had no one to turn to. Not even psychologists or psychiatrists. Post-traumatic stress was just not cured at the time. Ok, this is not totally correct, it was treated but only insofar as the soldier was meant to go back to fight (one of the major themes of Behind the Lines aka Regeneration) but those for whom the fighting was over were meant to knuckle down and shut it.

Considering that an apparently (haven´t seen it yet) very outspoken movie like The Battle of Algiers aka La Battaglia di Algeri (1966) was banned in France until 1971 we can imagine what it was like for soldiers having participated in a war that a) was no war b) wasn´t to be spoken about and c) didn´t officially happen… And absolutely no one to thank them when they came home.

The whole complexity of the situation is shown in Intimate enemies. Algerians who had already fought during WWII sided with the FLN, the Liberation movement to fight France. Others fought on the side of the French. During the war many changed sides both ways. (The highly acclaimed Days of Glory tells the story of four Algerians who fought during WWII).

One very horrible trait of this war was the intelligence´s use of torture. Funny enough, many of those soldiers who tortured were by far the most traumatized upon returning to France. Since my father was just a simple private he did not have to do it but apparently his brother, some years older and a lieutenant was part of the intelligence unit. I never liked the guy so I never bothered talking to him. Just heard he´s been under medication since the late 80ies on account of serious problems with his conscience.

Does this serve him right? There is an interesting scene in the movie where lieutenant Terrien talks to the intelligence Sgt. and is being told that he will come around and understand these methods.

However not only the French used torture, the Algerians did as well. And terrorism. And cruelty. I remember my father telling me of a march through the desert when they started to see something in the distance and thought it was a Fata Morgana that looked like  dancing crosses. Upon their coming closer to that place they discovered that it was a whole convent of nuns having been tortured, killed and nailed on wooden crosses. There would be other things I could add here but this is not the place to do so.

The main theme of the movie is a somewhat Platoon-like juxtaposition of a very humane, just and friendly lieutenant and some hardened old-time officers and soldiers. Lt. Terrien fights cruelty whenever he can. He refuses to torture or execute. When someone explains that torture has been ordered he says that you shouldn´t follow an order when it is morally unacceptable. What is usually not much spoken about either is the use of napalm during that war. Terrien questions the use of napalm, and unmasks the contradiction of this non-war by quoting the officials who state that napalm is only to be used during a war. “This is no war”, says Sgt Dougnac, ” and we don´t use napalm.”

All in all: a war with a very ugly face.

Now back to the movie. It is  well done and absolutely worth watching. It will definitely broaden the horizon of any war movie aficionado used to mainly watch movies of WWI, WWII and Vietnam. On a scale from 1 to 5 I would easily give it a 4.5.

One of its most outstanding achievements is to show neither side as being worse than the other. And it wants to make us understand that often diplomacy could save us from going to war.

All the Algerians wanted was the same rights as the French. And their independence of course. Is that too much to ask for?

The war ended in 1962 but only in 1999 the French government officially admitted that it had taken place. 2 000 000 mostly young French soldiers had to participate in this war.  I´m sorry for all of them and for their Algerian counter parts. I had the opportunity to see what it does to soldiers.

My father returned to France in 1959. To this day his nightmares haven´t stopped.

What is the worst thing you dream about I asked him once: “All those dead men”, he says “They all come back and haunt me.”

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