The 26 Best War Movies Ever Made
With a war movie, you know exactly what you’re getting. Suffering, cruelty, sadness, heroism and ethical dilemmas aplenty. Band of Brothers (2001) — even though it’s not a movie but a 10-part series from Tom Hanks set during World War II — is perhaps the most comprehensive piece of storytelling answering the question, “So what is war actually like?”
Because the truth is, most of us will never experience war. And one way of empathising with those that have and do and will, is by watching really well-made and well-told stories from the battlefields of history.
1| Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Studio Ghibli's depiction of the last, burning days of the Second World War starts with one of the main characters dying of starvation, and the bones of his sister being launched into a field. It's not a cheery watch. It is, however, achingly sad and hauntingly gorgeous. Seita and Setsuko are caught up in the firebombing of Kobe and scrabble hard to survive. Both nightmarish and lyrical.
2| Lifeboat (1944)
Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of John Steinbeck's short story follows the survivors from a torpedoed ship who manage to make it to a lifeboat, where the whole film takes place. Then the commander of the U-boat that sunk them clambers on board too. Though controversial in its time for humanising a Nazi – Hitchcock later reflected that the reviewer Dorothy Thompson "gave the film ten days to get out of town" – it's a prime example of how Hitchcock could make the daring and experimental thrillingly accessible.
3| Kelly's Heroes (1970)
When Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) discovers the existence of a cache of gold in a bank vault 30 miles behind enemy lines, he enlists a rag-tag bunch of outsiders and misfits to liberate it including a hippyish tank commander (Donald Sutherland), a motormouth sergeant (Don Rickles) and an unwilling master sergeant (Telly Savalas). It's a caper which turns into a bleak treatise on the horrors of war and back again, and also inspired a really, really good Black Grape song.
4| Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World (2003)
This is Russell Crowe's best film. There, said it. It's his best film. He's Captain 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey, the charismatic heart-of-oak type in command of HMS Surprise during the Napoleonic Wars. He's on the tail of the French ship Acheron, which jumped him and his crew and ghosted away. It manages to be both very big and very small at the same time: big in its staggering battle sequences, all splintering oak and gunsmoke; small in its subtly turned characters, and particularly the friendship between Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany).
5| Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee's Vietnam film about five Black veterans who go back to the country as older men has taken on extra, deeply sad resonance since Chadwick Boseman's passing. He plays the beloved squad leader 'Stormin' Norman, whose body the veterans want to find nearly 50 years after his death. There's also the small matter of a stash of looted gold, which they buried at the time too. It's an energetic, thrilling and very timely film which extends Lee's second golden age.
6| Culloden (1964)
Peter Watkins' revolutionary drama-documentary took its stylistic cues from the burgeoning new school of on-the-ground war reportage from Korea and Vietnam which had made far-off conflict feel distressingly close. Watkins pulls the same feat off with the far-off past. The 1746 battle which ended the Jacobite uprisings and Bonnie Prince Charlie's claim to the throne is retold by newsreel-style vox pops with players in the battle, from the very toffermost to the lowliest clansman. It's innovative, brutal and still fresh.
7| They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
The phrase 'movie magic' is hacky and awful and rubbish, obviously, but there are moments when it might be the only way to describe the transportive thrill that film can give you. The point where Peter Jackson's extraordinary World War I film transforms from flickering, jerky century-old black and white footage to smooth, high-definition colour, with recreated sound, is one of those moments. It is absolutely jaw-dropping.
They Shall Not Grow Old is not an exhaustive history of the war, or even a selective study of a small portion. It's not about the specifics; it's a broad sense portrait of the day-to-day realities of life on the Western Front, built on testimony from veterans. We move from the jollity of signing up in August 1914, to the trenches, to the mud, to the horrors which become mundane, to the moment of going over the top. It's a staggering achievement.
8| Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Every war is terrible, but a war that utilises children, brainwashes them and trains them to kill? That is, most certainly, worse. With a breakout role for Ghanaian first-time actor Abraham Attah and an incredible performance by Idris Elba as the austere Commandant, Cary Joji Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing tale of darkness that takes the viewer into the heart of the story of a child soldier in an unnamed African country.
9| Apocalypse Now (1979)
Perhaps one of the most recognisable war movies of all time, ironically, Apocalypse Now wasn’t Francis Ford Coppola’s most critically renowned war movie. Patton (1971), the biographical drama of General George S. Patton, won Coppola his first Oscar ever (for screenwriting, shared with Edmund H. North). But Apocalypse Now did win best cinematography and best sound. With an all-star cast including Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford and Dennis Hopper, the film is an adaptation of an 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, but set during the Vietnam War where a U.S. Army officer (Sheen) is tasked with the assassination of a renegade Colonel (Brando) whose ego has outgrown his rank.
10| Crazy Horse (1996)
Shot in Black Hills, South Dakota — historically Native American land — and using mostly First Nations cast members, Crazy Horse is one of a very few films that aims to create authenticity and fairness when telling American Indians’ stories. Starring Michael Greyeyes and Irene Bedard (best known as the voice for Disney’s Pocahontas), the film is based on the true story of Crazy Horse (Greyeyes), a Lakota warrior who fought back against the encroachment of American Colonials in the late 19th century.
11| Jarhead (2005)
Though there are few scenes of actual “war” in Jarhead, this is one of those films about conflict that really digs deep into the psychology of soldiers. The story, adapted from the memoir of U.S. Marine sniper, Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), takes place during Operation Desert Storm (one of the codenames for The Gulf War in the early 1990s) as the battle between American/Kuwait forces and Iraq wages on and Swofford’s girlfriend is back at home, possibly cheating on him.
12| 1917 (2019)
Another Sam Mendes film, 1917 was praised up and down for its innovative filmmaking techniques (it was made to look like it was shot in only one take), its visceral scenes splattered with real-time special effects and its on-point acting. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman lead the story as two low-ranking British officers in World War I trenches who are tasked with getting a message across and through and around enemy territory in order to stop thousands of other soldiers from walking into a death trap.
13| The Hurt Locker (2008)
The Hurt Locker is one of the few war films directed by a woman. Kathryn Bigelow won the best directing and best picture Oscars for it, and then went on to make Zero Dark Thirty, another war film. The Hurt Locker was also when everyone started taking Jeremy Renner seriously. Renner plays a Staff Sargent whose maverick manoeuvres don’t land well during the Iraq War as he works with a small bomb squad to disarm life-threatening traps for his fellow soldiers and civilians.
14| Platoon (1986)
Less than a decade after his father starred in a movie about the atrocities of Vietnam, Charlie Sheen was starring — alongside Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker and others — in one, too. Platoon is written and directed by Oliver Stone and follows a group of young men as they navigate the immoralities of the war they’re a part of. Where Apocalypse Now focuses on the bigger picture of war through a targeted story, Platoon hones in on soldiers’ singular loss of innocence that came with the Vietnam War.
15| The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
At the time, Daniel Day Lewis – though an Academy Award-winning actor already — hadn’t played anything close to the hardened trapper, Hawkeye, raised by Native Americans in The Last of the Mohicans. Clearly, the man had potential. The story, directed by Michael Mann and adapted from both the 1826 novel and the 1936 film of the same names, is set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War (which is actually the British and the French fighting over what was in fact Native American territories). Hawkeye is charged with protecting a British Colonel’s daughter as they navigate the war-torn land to safety. Note: the score will have you humming for days.
16| Braveheart (1995)
After this movie came out, everyone in the world found out who William Wallace was. Except that, well, that’s not who William Wallace was at all. Not much is actually known about the Scottish warrior, and Robert the Bruce, who in the film is portrayed as his enemy, is actually a hero in the fight for Scottish independence. But, Braveheart, starring a charismatic Mel Gibson, (who also happened to direct this one) is a damn entertaining movie about one of the many battles fought in a centuries-long war for freedom, even if it is mostly fiction.
17| Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, those two names alone say enough about a war film. Specifically, that it’s probably going to be epic. Like 1917, this film won a bunch of below-the-line Oscars (editing, sound, sound effects, cinematography) and also like 1917 — though, let’s remember who did it first — this movie is predicated on a nearly impossible task as its major plot through line. Captain Miller (Hanks) is tasked with rescuing a paratrooper who landed behind enemy lines and is one of four brothers to remain alive during World War II’s Normandy Invasion. Get that boy home to his mum!
18| Glory (1989)
Glory is the all-important tale of the first black regiment of the Union Army during America’s Civil War. Led by the white Colonel Shaw (Matthew Broderick), he and his African American soldiers (including Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, who won his first Oscar for this supporting role) not only have to fight a way for their very freedom, but they have to endure harsh racism from both their enemy, the Confederates, and their own Unionists.
19| Schindler’s List (1993)
For however many films that depict the battles of World War II, there is probably an equal amount that depict the Holocaust—the epicentre of the atrocities of that war. The film — directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the book by Thomas Keneally — goes down in history as one of the most important pieces of media about the Holocaust since its release prompted more survivors to come out with their stories. It also won seven Oscars. Starring Liam Neeson in the title role alongside Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes, the tale of Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save Jewish workers in his Krakow-based factory by sneaking them out of occupied Poland.
20| Where Eagles Dare (1968)
The late Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood parachuting behind enemy lines before donning Nazi uniforms to infiltrate a Nazi fortress high in the Alps may sound like disposable, light-hearted Sunday afternoon viewing, but Brian G Hutton's 1968 classic has much to recommend it. Written as a screenplay by Alistair MacLean (the author behind The Guns Of Navarone) the film tackles Shakespearean themes of betrayal (the title is from a line in Richard III) as well as packing in more twists and turns than a creepy Nazi castle. Is Burton's Major Smith a double agent? Why is Mary Ure such a stone cold killer? And why don't British-made guns work?
It's tempting to see the film as a two-person play-off between Burton and Eastwood (in pre-Dirty Harry dirty Harry mode) but the film belongs to Burton after the script was re-worked to give him the lion's share of the dialogue, helping him to out-cool The Man With No Name. The cable car fight scene in which Burton dispatches a Nazi with an ice-pick helps.
21| Paths Of Glory (1957)
The first of Kubrick's war films touches upon the anti-war themes later explored in Full Metal Jacket, with Kirk Douglas' Colonel Dax defending his group of French WW1 soldiers against claims of cowardice after they refused to carry out a suicidal attack.
Advertised on the original poster as the "bombshell story of a Colonel who led his regiment into hell and back – while their maddened General waited for them – with a firing squad", the film not only highlights the disparity between the high-ranking officers and the grunts in the trenches (something Blackadder Goes Fourth owes a debt to) but was one of the first films to explore the condition of "shell-shock" – what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress – and its perception as cowardice. From the brutal all-out assault on the German position (the "Ant Hill") to the court scenes of the three "guilty" soldiers awaiting their execution, Paths Of Glory reminds us that each soldier is just a cog in a bloody machine.
22| Das Boot (1981)
Wolfgang Petersen's German war epic follows the crew of a German U-Boat and their mission to sink Allied vessels in the Atlantic. A number of American-directed versions were previously suggested, including one with Robert Redford in the lead and another with Paul Newman, before Petersen took over, eventually shooting six hours of footage which was cut into the film and a separate TV series before being re-assembled as the 209 minute directors cut in 1997. The original version was nominated for six Academy Awards including for the claustrophobic interior scenes and the tense nighttime battles.
Although the film is told from the German perspective, many of the U-Boat's crew are indifferent or even skeptical of the Nazi party's aims. When the crewn are cramped up in a 10 feet by 150 feet metal tube, we quickly forget which side they're on, seeing them as men rather than the enemy. As Roger Ebert noted, "War is hell. Being trapped in a disabled submarine is worse."
23| Gallipoli (1981)
Before he was Mad Max, Mel Gibson starred in the story of "Australia's Somme", the First World War battle for the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, cumulating in the Battle Of The Nek (also known as "Godley's abattoir" after heavy Australian losses).
Exploring a little-seen side of the Allied war effort, the film follows wannabe sprinters Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) and Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) from their small-town beginnings to enlisting in the army due to a shared sense of adventure. As much a film about friendship and escape as it is about war, the scenes of the (not entirely historically accurate) rugby match played against a backdrop of Cairo's Great Pyramids during training in Egypt bring a sense of romanticism to the story of one of history's bloodiest battles, as The New York Times noted in their original review, the "film has an uncommon beauty, warmth, and immediacy, and a touch of the mysterious, too."
24| Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The film so good they names it thrice, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a film about the 1942 attacks on Pearl Harbor, told from the perspective of a trio of Japanese pilots and asks "why was one nation unprepared when another was geared for war?" The word 'tora means 'tiger', but in this context can be translated as "lightning attack", indicating the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a success. A study into just how the most powerful nation on Earth came to suffer their largest defeat at the hands of a previously unknown enemy. Forget Michael Bay's 2001 monstrosity, this is the only film about the catalyst behind America's decision to join WW2 that you need to see.
25| Black Hawk Down (2001)
Re-watching Ridley Scott's 2001 troops-cut-off-behind-enemy-lines thriller is like playing spot-the-famous-actor. Yes, that's Orlando Bloom breaking his back by falling out a helicopter at the beginning. Yes that's Ioan Gruffudd as LT John Beales and yes, that is Tom Hardy making a brief appearance as SPC Lance Twombly.
The plot is based around the real-life incident when a black hawk helicopter is downed (get it?) after embarking upon a mission to capture a war lord in Mogadishu. What follows is a tense, real-time battle during which Delta Force realise they're suddenly not flavour of the week. It's tense, bloody and mostly realistic (see the scene when a soldier is deafened after a machine gun is fired next to his ears). Mostly, it's just interesting to see the American armed forces as the victims, rather than the gung-ho, bullet-proof heroes.
26| The Dam Busters (1955)
Flooding the Ruhr valley to destroy munitions factories with a newly invented bouncing-bomb is exactly the type of never-gonna-happen plot that is perfect for film. Except it did happen, and the largely historically accurate film has been a Sunday afternoon staple for 60 years with its theme music (Eric Coates' 'The Dam Busters March') being adopted everywhere from spoofs to football terraces.
In terms of the film itself, the attack on the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams was a huge influence on the climatic Death Star assault from Star Wars: A New Hope, with George Lucas originally splicing Dam Busters footage into the rough pre-SFX cut of the film that he screened for Steven Spielberg.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.