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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The Army of Shadows aka L´armée des ombres (1969): The Classic Movie on French Resistance

Bad memories, I welcome you nevertheless,  you are my distant youth.

If you are really interested in the topic of French Resistance there is no escaping this movie.  If you are truly interested in film there is no escaping this movie either. Especially not since there has been a recent wave of Resistance movies (Les femmes de l´ombre (Female Agents), L´armée du Crime ( The Army of Crime), Flame and Citron, Black Book, Winter in Wartime, Max Manus) and it is always good to see where they come from, what influences they had.

Jean-Pierre Melvilles´s L´armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (or in the Shadows) is a classic and a work of art.

It is beautiful like a foggy autumn evening, like the solitary cawing of a crow, like bare branches of a tree in winter, like the bluish colour of an early nightfall, like bitter sweet music and coffee drunk at midnight in an empty bar. (Would I  have to compare it to a contemporary movie, I think I would choose Shutter Island.  The movie as a whole and particularly the sad song during the end credits, Dinah Washington´s Bitter Earth blended with Max Richter´s On the Nature of Daylight, has a similar dense atmospheric quality.)

Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is captured by the Gestapo early in the movie. He manages to escape but knows he has been betrayed. Only one of his own could have told the Gestapo where this overly careful man was hiding.

Gerbier is head of a Resistance cell that operates between Paris, London, Lyon and Marseille. They always on the look out for people they can trust. They must always be careful, they could be betrayed anytime. They are hunted and on the run continuously. When they are caught by the Germans or the collaborators, they will be tortured mercilessly as the film shows drastically. But the group will risk everything to save one of their own.

The cell kills traitors as well  as people who become too risky. No matter how much they helped them in the past, no matter how much they like them. The group ultimately lives and dies for the cause.

Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret are fabulous in this movie. It is a pleasure to watch such assured actors.

A feeling of abandonment and utter loneliness pervades the whole film. It seems to illustrate the existentialist angst of the times. Melancholy in its purest form.

What impressed me most was the sound. No effects like we know them nowadays but so artfully and sparingly used noises and sounds and just a little bit of music. The rain in the beginning, echoing footsteps in empty streets, the ticking of a pendulum in a room, the distant cry of birds.

It is quite a sad movie and I would not recommend you watch it should you feel very blue. It would not cheer you up. But on days when you feel balanced enough you will admire these brave people and suffer with them when they find out one of them is being tortured but won´t speak, not even when he knows he is going to die.

And, please remember, this is a true story.

Quote from Joseph Kessel´s Account of the French Resistance L´armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows

The following short quotes are taken from the introduction to Joseph Kessel´s book on the French Resistance L´armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows. The  introduction written by the author himself in 1943 is a testimony to the difficulty of writing this book. He wanted to stay true to the facts which he had experienced himself during his years in the Resistance and also protect those who appear in these pages.

Jean-Pierre Melville based his beautiful movie L´armée des ombres aka Army of Shadows on Kessel´s account. Seldom has a movie been so true to the haunting atmosphere created by a book.

This book contains no propaganda and it is no work of fiction either. No detail has been forced and none has been invented. (…)

France has no more bread, no more wine, no more fire. But above all she has no more laws. Civil disobedience, individual or organised rebellion have become duties towards the home country. (…)

Never has France been engaged in a more noble or beautiful war than in the one that is fought in cellars where her free newspapers are printed, in the nocturnal terrains and secret rocky coves where she receives her free friends and from where her free children swarm out, in the torture chambers where despite the pliers, the needles reddened by fire and the broken bones, the French die as free men.

Everything you may read in this account has been experienced by French people.

(Translated from the original French by allaboutwarmovies)

Film review and trailer will follow tomorrow.