Although war films do not play as large a part in French cinema as they
do in that of other Western countries (notably America and Great Britain),
there are a fair number which deserve widespread appreciation. The occupation of France by the Germans during most of World War II meant
that no films about the First or Second World Wars were made during this
period, and sensitivity to what happened to France during the Second World War
made the subject an unattractive one to film directors and cinema-goers alike for some time after.
Most French war films centre on the activities of the French Resistance during World War II - it's a subject which can easily be accommodated on a fairly modest budget and fits well with established cinematic genres and styles, notably policier and film noir. By contrast, big budget action
films are seldom made in France and are rarely successful when they are.
Another defining characteristic of French war films is that their authors
tend to play down the glory and heroism of war, but rather show us the uglier
side of conflict: the death, the destruction and the inhumanity. Many of
these films carry a strong anti-war message, sometimes by showing us graphic images of carnage and devastation, but more usually by subtler means.
Here is a selection of the French war films that are certainly worth seeing.
With some remarkable imagery, Abel Gance creates one of the most memorable and powerful anti-war films ever made.
Verdun, visions d'histoire
The battle of Verdun is recreated in all its horrific grandeur in this recently restored silent masterpiece.
Les Croix de bois
With cast and crew composed largely of World War I veterans, this brutal portrait of a soldier's life on the Western Front is harrowingly realistic.
La Vie et rien d'autre
"All men are equal" is the subtext of this anti-war masterpiece from Jean Renoir, which features memorable contributions from Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim.
Le Caporal épinglé
Jean Renoir's version of "The Great Escape" looks on the lighter side of life in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Le Roi de coeur
What appears at first to be a frivoulous, light-hearted comedy is actually a remarkably effective, strikingly humanist anti-war film.
Bertrand Tavernier won a César for this powerful drama which explores the psychological impact of war on young soldiers.
La Chambre des officiers
The consequences of war are brought home in this poignant drama where a wounded soldier must rebuild his life as surgeons try to rebuild his shattered face.
Un long dimanche de fiançailles
Audrey Tautou plays a young woman desperate to track down her missing fiancé, presumed to have been executed during WWI, in this beautifully composed drama.
Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men... Enemy soldiers discover the true meaning of Christmas on a WWI battlefield - a poignant account of a real life incident.
Les Fragments d'Antonin
A WWI ex-combattant is traumatised by his experiences of conflict in this poignant meditation on the dehumanising effect of war.
Franju's adaptation of Jean Cocteau's anti-war novel is a hauntingly lyrical film that mocks the delusions associated with WWI whilst showing its senseless barbarism.
La Bataille du rail
Part documentary, part drama, this is cinema's most authentic depiction of the activities of the French Resistance.
The war seen through the eyes of two young children makes for one of the most potent anti-war statements - an unforgettable and darkly poetic film.
Le Silence de la mer
This intimate drama from Jean-Pierre Melville shows the folly of war with great simplicity, but also to great effect.
Nuit et brouillard
The full horror of the Nazi holocaust is brought home in this remarkably restrained yet emotionally wrenching documentary short.
La Traversée de Paris
Jean Gabin and Bourvil star in this darkly comic portrayal of the black market in German-occupied Paris.
La Vache et le prisonnier
A moving performance from iconic film star Fernandel makes this anti-war allegory particularly memorable.
Un condamné à mort s'est échappé
This gripping account of one man's bid for survival against all the odds is arguably Bresson's most spiritual and intense films.
Les Honneurs de la guerre
This extraordinarily simple film conveys the senseless brutality and futility of war with such force that you wonder why sane human beings ever allow wars to happen.
Bourvil and Michèle Morgan star in this engaging portrayal of ordinary folk living in France at the time of the Occupation.
La Ligne de démarcation
This raw drama portrays the courage of individuals who would rather die serving the French Resistance than live under Nazi rule.
Hiroshima mon amour
The scars of the present reflect the unspeakable tragedy of the past, at both a personal and societal level in this remarkable debut film from Alain Resnais.
One of the most spectacular war films made in France, this features an impressive international cast but was a box office disaster.
La Grande vadrouille
It took twenty years before a French film director was brave enough to show us the funny side of the Nazi Occupation. The result was the most successful film ever made in France.
Week-end a Zuydcoote
Jean-Paul Belmondo stars in this harrowingly realistic portrayal of the retreat and decimation of the English and French troops at Dunkirk in 1940 - another epitaph to the folly that is war.
L'Armée des ombres
Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret star in this gritty portrayal of life in the French Resistance, which explores familiar Melvillian themes of loyalty and betrayal.
Le Chagrin et la pitié
So what exactly did happen in France during World War II? This documentary lifts the lid and reveals more than a few unpalatable truths...
Horst Buchholz stars in this poignant and often shocking drama in which a young woman succumbs to the charms of a handsome young soldier who has a nasty surprise in store.
Arguably Louis Malle's most disturbing film, this explicit portrayal of a young man's corruption by Nazism is as moving as it is shocking, and offers some new perspectives on WWII.
Alain Delon plays a man suffering from a bizarre crisis of identity in this Kafkaesque noir thriller, arguably Joseph Losey's darkest, most stylish film.
Le Dernier métro
German occupied Paris provides the backdrop for this intense romantic drama starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, their first on-screen encounter.
L'As des as
A favourite with fans of Jean-Paul Belmondo, this is a likeable family-friendly action thriller in which we get to meet Hitler's little-known sister.
The conflict between family love and duty to the Motherland is brutally played out in this moving, low-key drama, in which Lucas Belvaux makes an impressive film debut.
Papy fait de la résistance
One of the funniest French film comedies of the 1980s, this galloping farce shows just how much fun can be had when living under a fascist occupying power.
Au revoir les enfants
Louis Malle's masterpiece is this engaging portrayal of childhood friendship set in France during the Occupation. An intensely humanist work with a devastatingly cruel ending.
Carole Bouquet and Daniel Auteuil star in this big budget drama in which a brave young woman joins up with the French Resistance to rescue her husband from the Nazis.
Un héros très discret
In this unconventional war-time film, Mathieu Kassovitz plays a compulsive liar who is determined to make himself into a national hero. Well, it seems to work for most politicians...
In this engaging wartime comedy-drama, Gérard Jugnot sensitively portrays an ordinary man who risks everything to save a young Jewish boy from the Nazis.
One man's harrowing ordeal to survive the Holocaust is the subject of this extraordinary wartime drama, possibly Roman Polanski's greatest film.
Another personal view of life in German Occupied France, with a very poignant performance from Jacques Villeret. To quote Chaplin: life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.
This complex and sophisticated spy drama is set just before the outbreak of World War II, at a time when the whole of Europe is shuddering beneath the might of two irreconcilable forces - Fascism and Communism...
Un taxi pour Tobrouk
Lino Ventura and Charles Aznavour star in this engaging classic anti-war drama which shows how individuals in opposing sides can settle their differences without blowing out each other's guts.
Un ami viendra ce soir
This tense wartime thriller made straight after WWII broaches some serious themes, notably that, when your country is in the hands of an occupying power, no one is quite what they seem...