The 1960s was an incredible decade for film with movies like Cleopatra, Fistful of Dollars, and Dr. No, and war films were no exception. With the 1960s being only a couple of decades after World War II and a decade after the travesty of the Korean War, there was enough hindsight and cinematic advancements to make more realistic and thoughtful films about war.
At the same time, Hollywood still had an idealism and patriotism that would be crushed later in the decade by the failures, atrocities, and division of the Vietnam War. Thus, the 1960s is a unique era for the war film, and these are some of the best from the decade.
13 Sink the Bismarck! (1960)
Sink the Bismarck! recounts the events surrounding the World War II operation by the Royal Navy to destroy the titular German battleship. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, who went on to make Alfie, Educating Rita, and Shirley Valentine, Sink the Bismarck! is a war film that puts the focus on strategy and planning over bombastic battle sequences.
Drawing from C.S. Forester’s book, The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck, the film has been praised for its historical accuracy and re-creation of real-life events since it was first released in cinemas in 1960. To this day, Sink the Bismarck! remains the only cinematic dramatization of the sinking of the Bismarck, proving how definitive it is.
12 The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Richard McKenna, The Sand Pebbles tells the remarkable, yet totally fictional tale of a young U.S. Naval engineer in 1926 war-torn China, who is assigned a mission onboard the river gunboat, USS San Pablo.
The film stars Steve McQueen in the leading role, alongside Richard Attenborough (who would direct the great war film A Bridge Too Far) and Richard Crenna, and was nominated for and impressive eight Academy Awards at the 39th annual ceremony, with Attenborough winning for Best Supporting Actor. The Sand Pebbles is a classic war film that’s epic in both scale and story, and that’s still highly regarded today.
11 Battle of Britain (1969)
Frequent James Bond director Guy Hamilton took on a massive project when he signed to direct a film about the most famous air battle in British history. Detailing the events of the titular military campaign, the film follows Royal Airforce Pilots as they defend the British Isles from the Luftwaffe, and ultimately ensure that Adolf Hitler’s plot to invade Britain is called off.
At the time, Battle of Britain had a budget of $14 million, a massive amount for the time. Most of the money went to filming highly technical flying sequences that had never been done before. The cost was worth it though, as the sequences still hold up well today.
10 Where Eagles Dare (1968)
Both the screenplay for 1968’s Where Eagles Dare and the novel it was based on were written by adventure writer, Alistair Maclean, who served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. The film, like the book, follows a specialist mission by allied paratroopers to raid a castle in the German Alps and rescue an American brigadier the Nazis are holding prisoner.
With an impressive cast led by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, as well as one or two twists along the way, Where Eagles Dare is a thrilling watch that has gained a reputation as one of the best in the genre.
9 Zulu (1964)
Starring Michael Caine in his first major film appearance, alongside Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, and James Booth, Zulu depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift which saw 150 British soldiers take on over 3000 Zulu warriors. The film was highly successful when it was first released in 1964, gaining positive reviews from critics who praised its brutal and bloody portrayal of real-life events, as well as the scale of the battle scenes. At the time, it was also one of the biggest box office hits in British cinema history. Additionally, Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson, cited Zulu as an influence when it came to filming the Battle of Helm’s Deep sequence in The Two Towers.
8 Hell is for Heroes (1962)
Hell is for Heroes is about a unit of American soldiers who must hold off an entire Nazi company for 48 hours until reinforcements can get to them. The film is directed by Don Siegel and stars Steve McQueen as Private John Reese. The film is a great black-and-white war film that has you on the edge of your seat.
7 King Rat (1965)
King Rat is about Corporal King (George Segal) an American prisoner in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. The film was adapted from James Clavell’s novel which was partially based on his own experiences as a prisoner at Changi Prison in Malaya during the war. King Rat was written and directed by Bryan Forbes and is a real insight into the struggles of the Allied soldiers that were captured during this time.
6 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lawrence of Arabia is one of the longest Hollywood films ever made, clocking in at 227 minutes, and is considered one of the best films ever made. The film, directed by David Lean, is a stunning example of a moving picture. Although the film is long, it is hard to take your eyes off Freddie A. Young’s gorgeous cinematography. Lawrence of Arabia is a great movie about a meditative journey that stars Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won seven of them including Best Picture and Best Director.
5 The Longest Day (1962)
The Longest Day is an epic war film based on the 1959 non-fiction novel by Cornelius Ryan about the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. The film had one of the largest international casts of the time that included John Wayne, Sean Connery, and Henry Fonda. It was directed by three separate directors: Ken Annakins for the British and French material, Andrew Marton for all the American material, and Bernhard Wicki for the German shots. The Longest Day employed several military consultants who were there on June 6, 1944, which truly shows in the film’s accurate depictions. The Longest Day was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two.
4 Spartacus (1960)
Spartacus is based on the 1951 novel by Howard Fast, which was inspired by the leader of a Roman slave revolt, Spartacus. The classic was directed by Stanley Kubrick and is one of the longest Hollywood films ever made. The film stars Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, and Jean Simmons and won four Academy Awards. Spartacus is considered one of the best revolution depictions on film and was adapted into a three-season series by Starz.
3 Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Considered one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a black comedy about the Cold War. The film satirizes the fear of nuclear fallout between the Soviet Union and the United States as a rouge U.S. Air Force general orders the first nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.
Peter Sellers is hilarious in three separate roles: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, U.S. President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character Dr. Strangelove. Dr. Strangelove is not only considered one of the greatest comedies of all time but is also considered one of the greatest films of all time and was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989.
2 The Dirty Dozen (1967)
The Dirty Dozen is based on E. M. Nathanson’s 1965 bestselling novel which was inspired by the real-life World War II demolition specialists named the “Filthy Thirteen,” whose job it was to go behind enemy lines and destroy Axis targets. In The Dirty Dozen, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is tasked with taking 12 of the Army’s worst prisoners and training them for a suicide mission to destroy a Nazi target right before D-Day.
The film was a box office success when it was released and has an incredible cast of characters including Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, and Telly Savalas. The Dirty Dozen was even scheduled for a remake to be led by Suicide Squad director David Ayer, but there has not been much news from Warner Brothers on that subject.
1 The Great Escape (1963)
The Great Escape is one of the best World War II films ever made. The film, although heavily fiction, is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 non-fiction novel about the mass escape of British POWs from the German POW camp, Stalag Luft III. The Great Escape was directed by John Sturges and features a long list of stars including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Garner. The Great Escape was one of the highest-grossing films of 1963 and is credited with having one of the best stunts ever performed.