War is hell. It’s brutal and bloody. It destroys lives, countries, cultures. It shapes our past, our present, our future. And that is why it continues to be the fascination of filmmakers and movie-goers alike. Stories about war reveal the true nature of humanity in its darkest times.

And just because these are dramas often dealing with the military—telling stories of brave soldiers and great victories—these aren’t always flag-waving patriotic films. A war movie can be deeply pacifist, it can be revolutionary, it can be critical of our leaders who bring us into conflict.

best war movies
best war movies

Below we run down the 20 greatest war movies ever made. It includes some of the classics along with a few non-traditional choices to widen your expectations of what a war movie can be and do.

Nothing like starting a list of war movies with a film that is technically only adjacently about war. Set against the Spanish Civil War, Guillermo del Toro’s strange look into the era is a fantastical triumph and a welcome respite from the obvious war genre.

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino is a legend. The director’s revisionist look at World War II brings his pulpy style to “killin’ Nazis.” And like any Tarantino flick, it spares no opportunity for a bit of gore and bloodshed. Lt. Aldo Raine? A legend for-fucking-ever.

Gallipoli

Gallipoli is an Australian’s look into World War I, starring Mel Gibson. The film was lauded by critics, completely swept Australian film awards, and remains one of the greatest war epics of all time. Go Australia!

Dunkirk

This film is a masterful look at the attack on Dunkirk from three different vantage points. Also, as a bonus, it features Harry Styles in his first major acting role, and your boy will make you proud.

Black Hawn Down

Ridley Scott’s entry into war movies is based on a book of the same name. The ensemble cast led by Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor follows the story of the U.S. military’s 1993 raid in Mogadishu.

Full Metal Jacket

The 1987 war film by Stanley Kubrick stars Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio ,and Adam Baldwin. Full Metal Jacket takes you right into the trenches of war and is seen as one of the best films set during the Vietnam War.

Letters from Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Japenese-language film is one of the most celebrated war movies in recent history. That happens when you combine the powers of Spielberg producing, Eastwood directing, and Yamashita’s screenplay. It tackles the complexities of good and evil on both sides of World War II to absolute perfection.

Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory is actually a bit of an anti-war film. Directed by Stanley Kurbrick, it holds up as one of the most important entires into the genre and continues to be a guidepost for how to create a beautiful film about war.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

French director Alain Resnais may be most often associated with the free-wheeling films of the French New Wave movement, but perhaps his greatest gift to world cinema is Hiroshima mon amour. The movie explores a tragic and intimate love affair between a French actress and Japanese architect. Both of their lives were irrevocably changed by World War II and the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. Even if you’re not a film buff, this one is worth a watch–it’s every bit as vital as any of the war films on this list.

1917

I mean, just look at the trailer. This 2019 Best Picture nominee is more of a film about pacifism than it is about the glories of either side of WWI. Shot to look like one continuous take, after watching it, you’ll feel like you spent nearly 2 hours without breathing.

Patton

This biographical film about General George S. Patton is a favorite among war movie buffs… deservedly so. It went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director.

Schindler’s List

There is perhaps no more grueling and heartbreaking cinematic portrayal of the Holocaust than Schindler’s List, a portrayal of World War II where a German businessman works to save more than a thousand Jewish people by employing them in his factories.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the Ricer Kwai helped set a precedent for the war film genre in 1957. It also was nominated for an insane amount of Oscars, winning seven.

Platoon

Platoon stars Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen in one of the most raw and devastating portrayals of war in film history. Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay based on his own experience in Vietnam, and the effects are both moving and disturbing at the same time.

Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic is essentially an epic anti-war film starring the greats: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Martin Sheen. Skewering the pointlessness of the Vietnam War, the film has only gained acclaim as perhaps the best war epic of all time.

Ran

Ran is a war movie like no other. The 1985 epic takes a bit from Shakespeare’s King Lear, turning three loyal sons on their father, Hidetora Ichimonji, who abdicates his throne.

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan dives into the complex ethics of war. When a mother loses three of her four sons in combat, a special mission is developed to go out to save the surviving Private Ryan (Matt Damon) in Normandy before he becomes the final fatality that breaks a family apart. But in doing so, the mission risks the lives of the seven men sent to save him.

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow’s look at modern-day warfare is a fascinating glimpse into a revamped war genre. With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow became the first and only woman so far to win the Academy Award for Best Director.

The Thin Red Line

Starring Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, and a laundry list of other giant names, the Terrence Malick film is a contemporary look into World War II and often regarded as the greatest modern war epic.

The Deer Hunter

Directed by Michael Cimino, the film tackles the Vietnam War (seriously, people love to film the Vietnam War), a working-class Pennsylvania town and the physical and psychological effects it has on the boys who never come home or never come home whole again.

Best War Movies of All Time

The greatest war movies of all time have been around since the dawn of cinema. Ever since humans discovered the motion picture camera, we have stood in focus lenses at war, attempting to either capture the true harsh realities of war on film or just entertain an ever-busy audience with fancy spectacle. In between all these efforts, there has also been quite a bit of academic research done on the impact of war films on our psychology. Here are some of the findings.

Concentration Camps and War:

It is hard to imagine any modern movie that accurately captures the horrors of concentration camps and the human psyche as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Campione. This movie follows a young American soldier (played by Jason Statham) who is sent to a military prison camp after he refuses to fight in the Korean War. There he meets and befriends several other prisoners, including a German, who share his views on World War II and the necessity of a strong America. After a lengthy conflict, the group decides to escape and look for a way into the city of Seoul. But they are caught by the Chinese military and must plan their escape from the campsite to get to safety.

Battle For The Ages:

The year is 1941 and the Japanese launch an attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. A furious battle follows, pitting American soldiers against Japanese soldiers. As the tide begins to turn, the Americans are drawn into a never-ending conflict. As each side tries to win one step at a time, the long, tense battle turns into a brief but memorable minutes long moment when a plane crashes into the water near the USS Arizona memorial.

Casablanca!

This is the most famous war drama of all-time, and perhaps the best film no one ever has the opportunity to see. James Bond is called upon to save the world again after a mysterious explosion leaves New York City in flames. A top spy, Bond teams up with some new people while going after the notorious terrorists behind the attack, which is led by the evil henchman known as Scar. While some of the action is exciting, other scenes are slow, boring, or just plain stupid.

The Thin Red Line:

As if the title didn’t lend itself to an action classic, The Thin Red Line is without a doubt the best war movie ever made. Clint Eastwood’s film is a war movie that’s at once classic and modern, as it depicts true life events as they happened. One such event is the Laos War, which is just as much history as fiction. Eastwood plays a role, as does Mark Collison as Sam Adams, among others. In fact, Collison was even seen on the cover of the 1980s TV series “ER”.

A Few Good Men

One of the most memorable movies ever made is A Few Good Men. This movie follows the early days of World War II, when American servicemen are stationed in Vietnam. A patriotic singer stands up for the men, thinking they are fighting for “hers”, until his death. As the war continues, and anti-American sentiment grows, this war movie follows the soldiers as they fight for their country, rather than some foreign entity.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk is perhaps the most famous of all World War II movies, and is often considered the first “good guy” movie. After the allied forces end the war, thousands of weary, but exhausted soldiers sleep on beaches across Europe, and the German army makes a break through to the Russian Front. A few hundred strong German troops make it into Paris, and the French government, fearing for its safety, agrees to allow the Germans to withdraw.

 

Two weeks later, with the French resistance still on the brink of defeat, the Germans make another run through Paris. With one last push, the Germans manage to push the French out of Paris. A few hundred wounded French resistance soldiers are left in the city to find comfort in a nearby concentration camp. The remaining troops, led by a gutsy Major Kaspar, fight desperately against the SS troops and the German soldiers who have been given free reign to kill anyone they want. A final battle follows, and the movie ends with victory for the bad guys. Although Dunkirk did not win the war, it ranks as a true defining moment in the history of World War II.

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