War has been an ever-present aspect of human history, so it only makes sense that films would be made that reflect the many conflicts that have sprung up throughout history. From the more romanticized films of the ’40s and ’50s to the grittier films of today, pretty much every war in recorded history has been given the Hollywood treatment at one point or another. Being able to capture the soldier’s experience in these conflicts can sometimes provide the most emotional and exhilarating experience for movie goers. It also can serve as a gateway into the lives of these men and women who risk life and limb fighting for their country, allowing audiences to get an idea of just what life during war can be like, regardless of the time. And while there have been countless such films released over the years, these films do the best job of giving audiences that experience.
Here are the 15 Best War Movies Of All Time.
15. Black Hawk Down
Ridley Scott has tackled almost every genre possible in film, from comedy to sci-fi to epic. In 2001, he decided to dive headlong into the war genre with 2001’s Black Hawk Down. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Hardy, and Sam Shepard as members of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force in Somalia during the 1993 civil war, it recounts how they were caught off guard by local militia forces during a raid and the battle that ensued.
The film essentially embodies the phrase, ‘no plan survives contact with the enemy,’ as you get to watch this carefully planned raid fall apart as two black hawk helicopters get shot down by Somali militia. Its does, though, highlight the efforts of the men who went in to secure both sights and save whoever they could from both. The visceral action Scott is known for is ever present in the film, capturing the chaos of battling in the urban maze that was Mogadishu and the wear it has on the men during a long day of fighting. The core of this film is summarized best by Eric Bana at the end, saying that people back home won’t understand why they do it, that its about the guys standing next to you and protecting them.
Coming off of the disappointing Sabotage, David Ayer bounced back in 2014 with his World War II film, Fury. Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Shia LaBeouf, and Jon Bernthal as a tank crew in the closing days of World War II, it told the story of a new recruit joining a tight-knit crew as they march across Germany.
Fury‘s strength comes from the intimate relationship Ayer builds between these characters who share this enclosed war machine in the European theater and how Logan Lerman adjusts to the harsh reality of war. You see him traumatized and desensitized by what he witnesses and experiences as part of the crew as the film progresses. And while the cast is great, LeBeouf might just be the biggest standout of the five as the bible-thumping gunner for the titular tank, one of many contradictions within the crew itself that only adds to the film.
13. We Were Soldiers
Say what you will about Mel Gibson, he has turned out some great films during his long career. One of his more visceral efforts was 2002’s We Were Soldiers, where Gibson portrays Lt. Colonel Hal Moore in the lead-up to and early days of Vietnam.
Based on Colonel Moore’s book, We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, it follows Moore as he is tasked with putting together one of the U.S. Army’s first air-cav units and their deployment into the Ia Drang Valley, which was the first major encounters between the U.S. and the NVA. This film does not skimp on the visceral violence either, showing how brutal the battle was on both sides as American forces had to hold out against a significantly larger force. It also provides the perspective of Joe Galloway, a reporter who was present during a majority of the battle, serving as the outside eyes looking in on the devastation. It is made clear that the U.S. was not prepared for the kind of showdown that occurred, evidenced by the all-too-busy taxi service tasked with delivering telegrams to the families of soldiers who die during the battle.
12. The Longest Day
1962’s The Longest Day features one of the most star-studded casts ever put together. Featuring the likes of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery to name a few, it’s a film that follows a simple narrative, focusing entirely on the Normandy Invasion.
The film begins the day before the invasion, as Allied and Nazi forces prepare for the inevitable invasion. It doesn’t hold back in giving audience members a taste of the absolute mess that the early paratrooper drops turned out to be, drops that scattered the Allied forces all over the French countryside. Misinformation was the name of the game in this era, as the prediction from the Nazis that the invasion would come farther north on smother waters also proved to be inaccurate.
11. Tora! Tora! Tora!
The bombing of Pearl Harbor has been put to film in several different iterations, with its historical significance speaking for itself. One of the best films surrounding the attack was 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, showing the lead-up of the attack itself from both sides. You get to see the meticulous planning by the Japanese and the miscommunication on the side of the Americans that resulted in the attack.
The film itself was a daunting piece, with three directors working on each half of the film. In a notable move, the film lacks any box office stars of the era, with the directors and 20th Century Fox wanting the film to focus on the story and not get overtaken by any movie stars of the time. The end result is an incredible piece of film that shows the attack in a fair light to both sides, while not making light of the devastation caused by the air raid.
10. Letters from Iwo Jima
In the mid-2000s, Clint Eastwood directed two films focused on the devastating Battle of Iwo Jima. First, he adapted the hit novel, Flags of our Fathers, into a successful, but somewhat underwhelming, film about the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima. The second, told from the perspective of the Japanese, was Letters from Iwo Jima, starring Ken Watanabe, which outshone its predecessor.
The film tells the battle from the Japanese perspective, specifically from Private Saigo, a soldier preparing defenses on Iwo Jima, and Lt. General Kuribayashi, who planned the defense of the island. It also keeps the film focused entirely on the battle of Iwo Jima, while Flags of our Fathers jumps between the battle and the time home for the three remaining flag raisers. Watanabe, who portrayed Kuribayashi, shines in the film as the general who is familiar with U.S. tactics from his time in America. It tells the tale in a way that does not degrade and stereotype the Japanese in the film, showing that these were regular soldiers, much like the Americans, fighting to protect their home from invasion.
9. The Great Escape
It is hard to argue against the star power of Steve McQueen during the ’50s and ’60s. As one of Hollywood’s top leading men of the era, he starred in numerous classics during his career. Among those, of course, was the ensemble war piece, The Great Escape. While fitting in with the more romanticized World War II films common with the times, it is based on the mass escape of Allied troops from Stalag Luft III, organized by a captured RAF captain that had been sent to the camp.
While Steve McQueen was the biggest star at the time, this film is perhaps best known for its highly talented ensemble cast, that included other stars like Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner. And while it was romanticized, it shows the drive and determination of the men held captive by the Germans, and the ingenuity of the prisoners in their attempt to escape.
8. The Hurt Locker
One of the most acclaimed m from the last few years, Katheryn Bigelow’s film chronicles the experiences of a bomb-disposal squad in Iraq during the mid to late 2000s. The film stars Jeremy Renner as William James, an EOD technician assigned to a team who’s technician was killed-in-action. From there, the film follows the trials and tensions that arise within the squad as a result of James’ risky tactics and the missions they are assigned.
Where this film succeeds is in its representation of the soldier’s experience, presenting three very different outlooks on the war and experiences during their time — all from the perspective of Renner’s character. It also captures the stress, intimacy and paranoia when the enemy is able to hide in plain sight. Renner’s character’s himself is what puts the film over the top, of course, as he serves as representation of the issues many soldiers struggle with today. William James is presented as a character who is addicted to the rush of war, and in the brief time he spends at home, it’s clear that he has no idea how to adjust back to civilian life. Many soldier’s struggle with that when their tour ends, and having that represented on film is a powerful way to punctuate a great film.
7. The Bridge on the River Kwai
Where The Great Escape presents a tale of determination and ingenuity to escape, in The Bridge on the River Kwai, rather than trying to escape, it offers a tale of pride for POWs trying to find a sense of accomplishment in the task given to them by their captors. Starring Alec Guinness, he serves as the head trying to rally the other prisoners behind the task given to them by the Japanese soldiers holding them prisoner.
Based on the construction of the Burma railway, Alec Guinness’ Lt. Colonel Nicholson drives the film, serving as the prisoners’ commander and representative with the head of the work camp. He sees the only way to maintain the men’s morale is challenging their pride in building this bridge, despite its value to the Japanese war effort. As a result of this, it earned Alec Guinness a Best Actor Oscar, cementing his status as an actor, and would, in part, lead to him being offered the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars years later.
6. The Thin Red Line
Released a few months after Saving Private Ryan, Terrance Malick released his own war epic with The Thin Red Line, which followed a troop battalion during the Battle of Guadalcanal. The film also boasted a star-studded ensemble for the time, one that included Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, and more. At the heart of the film is Jim Caviziel’s Private Witt, an AWOL soldier who is caught by his superiors and forced back into fighting during an intense battle with the Japanese for a key hill.
Malick has a great eye for detail in many of his films, and it certainly shines through in this film that focuses on capturing the paranoia and danger that surrounded the Pacific Theater in World War II, highlighting Japanese expertise in island warfare in the process. The movie questions the fight the soldiers are in, but on a larger scale, with officers clashing over the value of the men fighting this battle and whether or not they’re just fodder. In the end, Witt serves as the heart of the film, as he goes from wanting to have nothing to do with the war anymore to sacrificing himself for the men he fought with during the battle.
The U.S. Civil War is easily one of the darkest points in the country’s history, and is perhaps not-so-coincidentally a period that is not often seen put to film. Edward Zwick decided to tackle both the war and a central theme of the war in his 1989 film, Glory. Starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman, it follows the formation of one of the first African-American units formed in the Union Army and its efforts at Fort Wagner.
Zwick pulls no punches when showing the viciousness of the war itself and the struggle this unit faced, whether it was the tough training they endured or the racist views of superiors within the Union Army. It also served as a coming out party of sorts for Denzel Washington, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards for his work as the volatile Private Trip. Ultimately, this flick highlights the bravery of these men who, despite everything they faced, were willing to fight for those who weren’t free yet.
4. Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick made his own entry into the war genre with his piece on Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket. Split between the training of a regiment of marines and their time in Vietnam itself, the film is another stark criticism of a conflict many felt America had no place getting involved with.
As mentioned, the film is essentially split into two pieces. The first half follows Matthew Modine’s “Joker” Davis and his platoon as they go through basic training at the hands of R. Lee Emery’s intensely tough drill sergeant. This half shows the almost brainwashing that occurs to many of the recruits, but also highlights the stress such a scenario induces via Vincent D’Onofrio’s character Leonard, who suffers a mental breakdown, killing their drill sergeant and himself after the platoon’s graduation. The narrative shifts to “Joker” in ‘Nam as a war correspondent, and his desensitization to the war as he spends more time in it. This culminates in his “thousand-yard stare” after his first kill, showing just how far he has come, not just from training, but from who he was back home.
While several movies (most notably, the top entry on our list) have explored the general madness surrounding Vietnam, Oliver Stone told a more boots on the ground story with his 1986 film, Platoon, which was headlined by the likes of Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Willem Dafoe. The film follows Sheen’s Chris Taylor (a volunteer and new recruit in Vietnam), his interactions with the personalities in his platoon, and his change from a wide-eyed newcomer to a hardened soldier.
Stone was inspired to write and direct Platoon as a response to The Green Berets, a John Wayne Vietnam vehicle that was panned for its glorified, simplistic portrayal of the war. A Vietnam veteran himself, Stone drew from his own experiences for the film, wanting to present a more authentic vision of the soldier’s life in the conflict. His own experiences allowed the director to show how difficult it was for these men to keep going and hold onto their humanity in that kind of environment.
2. Saving Private Ryan
No war film in the last 20 years has accomplished the highs that Steven Spielberg achieved in this 1998 epic starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. The films follows a squad led by Hanks, who are sent deep into war-torn France after the D-Day landings to find Damon’s Private Ryan and get him home following the deaths of his three brothers. What follows is an emotionally gripping tale that asks a simple question, what are they really fighting for?
Easily one of Spielberg’s finest films, the emotional weight of this movie is felt throughout as this squad argues the merits of their mission, calling into question whether Private Ryan’s wellbeing is really worth the lives of Hanks and his entire crew. It also provides one of the most jarring, gut-wrenching sequences with the D-Day landing that opens the film, with many veterans saying that it’s as close to the real thing as a film could get. It captures the fear and devastation surrounding the hundreds of soldiers sent to break through German positions on the French coast.
The movie also features a notable misdirect, with an old man and his family seen at the start visiting the Normandy America Cemetery that phases into Tom Hanks, but is later revealed to be an older Private Ryan visiting the grave of Tom Hank’s Captain Miller. The film ends with Ryan asking his wife if he’s a good man, wondering himself if the sacrifices of the squad was worth his one life, giving audiences one final emotional gut-punch.
1. Apocalypse Now
Following America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, several of Hollywood’s best and brightest directors began to tackle the war, telling very dark stories that reflected the conflict itself. But Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war epic, Apocalypse Now, blew them all out of the water. The film follows Ben Willard, played by Martin Sheen, who is sent to find Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, who has gone crazy and commands a small village deep in Cambodia. From there, the film follows Willard’s journey and the decent into darkness, both literally and metaphorically.
Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, the film updates the tale to fit the Vietnam setting, but stays true to the thematic and narrative structure of Conrad’s story, highlighting the little difference that exists between the “civilized and savage.” It also captures the soldier’s experience in Vietnam, filled with paranoia over Viet Cong strikes, the jaded views and actions of those deployed to action, and the over-the-top personalities found throughout. The chaos seen on screen is also a taste of the chaos that occurred off screen, with stories and documentaries focused on the long and problematic shoot Coppola faced, which has only added to the mystical vibe this film acquired over time.
Do you agree with our rankings? Did we leave off your favorite wartime flick? Sound off in the comments.
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