Ever since we first learned how to capture moving images on film, directors have been turning their lenses – and viewers their eyes – to the drama, violence, and suffering that comes with armed conflict. As early as the 1890s films were being made of the Spanish American War raging down in Cuba. Whether it was soldiers being lined up against a wall and shot, funeral processions marching through town, or images of soldiers washing dishes – camera operators were eager to capture it and viewers eager to see it. In fact, you can still see many of ghostly films thanks to the preservation done by the Library of Congress.
As the way we fight our wars has morphed and shifted, so has the way we tell stories about them. Filmmakers directing movies about World War II offered up parables of a stark fight between good and evil, right and wrong, while the films of the 1970s and ‘80s reflected what was a much more morally ambiguous fight. As the remaining superpowers settled into their trenches during the cold war, directors attempted to reflect the utter paranoia and absurdity of living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Now, as films are being released about contemporary conflicts – they come are often accompanied with fights over their true meaning or the broader narrative that should be drawn about our wars. War movies are about more than just the conflict onto which they train their lenses – they’re about how we, in turn, process those fights. In our minds, the following list is the 30 best war movies ever made.
The Act Of Killing
Far from your common Hollywood war film, this documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer focuses on Anwar Congo, a grandfather, national hero, and former leader of an Indonesian death squad in the 1960s. In this bizarre and gripping film, Anwar smilingly directs a filmic re-creation of his war-crimes he himself committed. This film within the film forces Anwar to revisit the hundreds of murders he committed, and reveals his own imagination to the viewer in a completely unique way. The 116 minute film leaves the viewer with a kind of sticky moral nausea that simply can’t be shook.
All Quiet On The Western Front
This film from the early 1930s is based on the famous book of the same name. Director Lewis Milestone follows young German soldiers as they slog through gore and mud filled trenches of World War I. With each passing challenge, the men grow increasingly disillusioned with their once solid sense of nationalism and pride until finally they each meet their own inglorious and unavoidable end. The film was the first to win the Academy Award for both Best Director and Outstanding Production, and was recognized by the AFI in 1998.
An incredible character study of one of the most lethal snipers in the American armed forces. Director Clint Eastwood has a real ability to hold suspense when Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, is behind the scope, but it is the tension between home life and the challenges of the battlefield that really propel the movie forward. As the movie paces along we get a sense of the emotional and interpersonal tole being enacted on Kyle with each passing tour. War, more than just being a proving ground for his skillset, provides to be a kind of trap from which he can’t escape.
Another classic war film based off great book, Apocalypse Now traces Benjamin L. Willard’s journey to go find Colonel Kurtz, a decorated special operations operator who has gone rogue. The film, an almost instant classic, nearly didn’t get made. Coppola’s project was plagued by constant issues on set – including his star Martin Sheen having a heart attack and Marlon Brando arriving severely overweight. Thanks to Coppola’s diligence, however, the film ended up being released in 1979 and was incredibly well received – spawning perpetually quotable lines and hard to forget scenes.
The Battle Of Algiers
Presented almost entirely as a flashback, this film focuses on the memories of a top member of the Algerian Front de Liberation National who fought for independence from France in the 1950s, but ended up captured. Intended to look like a newsreel, the movie was shot entirely in black and white and remains a surprisingly lifelike depiction of urban warfare. A winner of the Venice Film Festival, this partisan look at the struggle between colonial forces and native Algerians has retained a special relevance today as the world struggles with the complex geopolitics of the Middle East. The movie was shown in the Pentagon back in 2003 as an illustration of the challenges of urban conflict and a year later was added to the Criterion collection.
Black Hawk Down
Directed by Ridley Scott, the same man responsible for classic films like Blade Runner, Alien, and Gladiator, this film tracks the disaster that followed when U.S. Army Rangers were dropped into Mogadishu, Somalia in the middle of a civil war to track down top lieutenants in a crime lord’s squad. After helicopters are struck by surface to air missiles, all hell breaks loose. While many film’s special effects and action sequences don’t age well, Scott and his actors managed to build a tension into this movie that simply won’t budge.
The Bridge On the River Kwai
Released twelve or so years after the end of the Second World War, this classic war movie is set in a Japanese POW camp in Burma where captured British Colonel Nicholson is forced to organize the building of a bridge by camp commander Colonel Saito. After initially resisting, he begins to take pride in the project. While this is all happening, an American soldier escaped from the camp leads a group of British troops to destroy that same bridge. When it was released in 1957, the film won seven Academy awards including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actor. The film has more than stood up to the test of time.
Casablanca most often gets included in broader categories of film – but it is undeniably a war movie. Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine owns a night club in Casablanca that attracts clientele ranging from German and French military forces, as well as refugees trying to reach the U.S. In the course of the film Rick runs into a former lover whose husband is a known figure of the Czech resistance, causing conflict and heartbreak. The film has more than lasted the test of time – constantly referred to as among the best ever produced and a shining example of noir.
Based on the autobiographical novel of Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, this claustrophobic epic follows German U-Boat captain as he and his crew sail under the Atlantic in search of allied ships. The film embraces all aspects of life in a submarine – the oppressive boredom of it, the dankness that comes with being sealed in a tube with a crew of men, and utter terror and excitement that comes with both hunting and being hunted. What makes this movie remarkable, too, is its perspective. Rarely do we see WWII told from the viewpoint of German soldiers – and this film manages to do it in a tasteful way that highlights all the more how deeply wasteful war can be.
The Deer Hunter
Starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken, this movie depicts how the Vietnam war tore apart both a friendship and a blue collar working town. The movie ended up winning five Oscars including for best picture, director, supporting actor, and actress (Streep’s first). A too often looked over film well worth a watch.
You’ve seen Downfall, just out of context. The 2004 film about Hitler’s final days features tremendous acting on the part of Bruno Ganz as he portrays the infamous leader coming apart at the seams as allied forces close in on his bunker. The movie, maybe understandably, didn’t do that well in the box office, but in part thanks to one of its scenes being turned into a meme (and the fact that it is incredibly well reviewed) it has endured and come to be considered something of a gem.
It is hard to find a film so dark and yet so funny. Made during the height of the Cold War just after the Cuban Missile crisis, it is a show of no faith towards world leaders from the incredibly talented Stanley Kubrick. Despite the stakes of total nuclear annihilation, the political leaders, generals, and scientists of the film are driven not by high minded ideals or through careful consideration, but by pure id. The film’s cynicism (and incredible performances from Peter Sellers and George C. Scott) makes for what may be one of the best black comedies – and one of the best representations of cold war paranoia.
Full Metal Jacket
Kubrick was interested in more than just the Cold War. His film on the Vietnam war focuses on the experiences of one group of Marines starting at training camp and going through combat. His vision of the war is a kind of horrific comedy in its own right, with a real palpable fear and anxiety at the center of it.
Good Morning Vietnam
A Vietnam movie with a lot less shooting and a lot more laughing. The 1987 movie exhibits Robin Williams at his manic height as a radio DJ running the AFR Saigon airwaves. His willingness to play whatever he pleases puts him at odds with his superiors, and eventually threatens his position on the mic.
The Great Escape
We couldn’t not include this classic film. Released in 1963, it follows the true story of allied prisoners laying a plot to escape a Nazi prison during the height of the Second World War. Most definitely a product of its time, it is cleansed of the kind of horror and grit that we so often see in war films today. Yet, with that being said the on screen presences of actors like Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson paired with a compelling plot make it an fun watch.
The Guns of Navarone
An escape movie in its own right, this 1961 film focuses on a group of soldiers caught on a Nazi occupied Greek island. The Oscar winning film boasts great performances from Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven, who plot to slip their soldiers by the heavily fortified and gunned base at Navarone, climb up steep cliffs, and blow it all up.
Mel Gibson’s most recent film posits that not all heroes carry weapons. The 2016 box office success follows the true story of Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, as he fights for his ability to join the war effort as an American soldier without shouldering a weapon. The medic draws the ire of his fellow soldiers all the way up until he puts forward a heroic effort to save as many lives has he can while behind enemy lines.
The Hunt For Red October
One of the many Tom Clancy Jack Ryan thrillers (“I’m just an analyst!”), this movie follows Soviet U-Boat commander Marko Ramius (played by Sean Connery) as he tries to defect to the United States with the newest and most technically advanced submarine in the Soviet fleet. This decision on the part of Ramius sets off a desperate chase on the part of the Russians and a high stakes on the side of the Americans as to how they should respond. All things said a fun, tense, movie from the early 1990s.
The Hurt Locker
Katheryn Bigelow’s ability to ratchet up the tension and just keep it there is displayed perfectly in this film centered on an elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal team deployed in Iraq. While so much of the film has its focus set on the threat of big explosions, it has a touch for paying attention to smaller, almost journalistic details. Quite possibly the best film to come out of the U.S.’s excursion into the mideast and a breakout roll for Jeremy Renner.
Lawrence of Arabia
Told through the eyes T.E. Lawrence as played by Peter O’Toole, the film follows the British soldier as he serves the allied efforts in the Middle East during WW1. Initially caught between two worlds, Lawrence finds himself untrusted by his superiors, and dismissed by Arabs. Despite the challenges, Lawrence manages to use cunning, bribery, and diplomacy to pull together two factions in order to mount a successful rebellion agains the Turks. The making of the film itself was a bit of an epic – taking two years and $13 million dollars (an incredible amount at the time of making), but it ended u playing off in the form of seven Academy Awards and box office success. Hands down one of the best films ever made.
The Longest Day
A sanitized, 1960s take on D-Day, but a compelling one all the same. Featuring an all star cast with everyone from John Wayne to Sean Connery and Henry Fonda, this nearly three hour long movie captures all that it can of the Allied invasion of Europe. It raked in millions when it was released and remains a fun watch today.
General Patton was one of the more divisive generals of WWII, but at the same time likely one of the war’s most compelling characters. George C. Scott brings the man to life with an incredible performance that highlights his brutishness as well as his vulnerability. From firing pistols at war-planes in Africa to humiliating soldiers with PTSD, the movie offers an unflinching look at one of the most distinct genearls from WWII.
Based on Oliver Stone’s experiences as an infantryman in the Vietnam war, it was the first film to be directed by a veteran of the war. The film follows a Chris Taylor (played by Charlie Sheen) volunteer who is assigned to a platoon on the Cambodian border where he finds himself caught between the will of two sergeants, played by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. A harrowing, unflinching look into the suck that was the Vietnam war.
Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg’s war epic follows a group of men who are assigned to extract Private James Ryan from battle after they learn that all three Ryan brother and been killed in the span of just a week. Based on a true story as told by Stephen Ambrose in his book D-Day: June 6, 1944, the film follows a special squad lead by Capt. John Miller (played by Tom Hanks) set out through occupied territory. As they go, the squad encounters death and destruction, forcing them to wrestle with the wisdom of sacrificing one life for another. An interesting aside – this was Vin Diesel’s first major role.
Another Spielberg picture set during WWII, but with an entirely different focus. Based on a true story, this film follows a German businessman Oskar Schindler as transforms from a wartime profiteer to a man with a conscience and a mission. As the war plugs on he begins to comprehend the extent of the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews, and as result he tries to do all he can to bribe save German and Polish Jews from the concentration camps. As much as the film depicts one man’s bravery, it maybe even better depicts the the holocaust on a human scale. Instead of portraying the lost lives in astonishingly high but altogether dry numbers, it shows them as people, families, a community. A devastating film, and likely one of Spielberg’s best.
Set in a German POW camp during the 1940s, Stalag 17 is a war film dripping in paranoia and intrigue. The prison in which the film is set is entirely populated by sergeants – most all of whom do little more than try and escape by day and twiddle their thumbs at night. After one of their escape attempts fail miserably, they begin to suspect that they have a mole within their midst. But all is not as it seems. The film was well received when it was released in the early 1950s, and the performance of Sefton by William Holden ended up winning him an Academy Award. Over fifty years later the movie still stands up as being among the best war movies made.
The Thin Red Line
It is not often that we hear of a war film that could be classified as poetic, but it is hard to find a better word to assign to this star-studded film by director Terrence Malick. The first film Malick made after a 20 year absence from directing, this two hour long film based on a book by the same name focuses on Private Witt, a deserter who is picked back up by the Navy and made to return to active duty as the U.S. Armed Forces prepare for one of the most important battles in the Pacific Theater. More than just a back and forth shoot-em-up, the film is full of the Witt’s rumination on death, life, and the dividing line between the sane and insane. The movie is full of stars ranging from a brief appearance from George Clooney, to a minor roll by John C. Reilly. A stunning, moving film.
Twelve O’Clock High
Starring Gregory Peck, this early WWII movie focused on an Air Force Squadron tasked with running daylight bombing runs in Germany. While the film notably uses some impressive footage of aerial runs and dogfights shot during the war, what propels the film more than anything else is the performances by Gregory Peck and supporting actor Dean Jagger.
Waltz With Bashir
Not quite a documentary and not quite a feature, this animated film follows director Ari Folman as he searches for his lost memories of being a soldier during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. His quest leads him to reconnect with men he knew while serving as a young IDF infantry soldier. In the course of interviewing them he delve into their memories of the war and how they have or have not moved on from it. A psychedelic and nightmarish excursion into the nature of memory and the trauma that comes with war.
Zero Dark Thirty
A tense, moody depiction of the decade long lead up to, and execution of, the mission that resulted in the death of the U.S’s number one enemy. Bigelow, like in the Hurt Locker, manages to keep tensions high throughout the film as she focuses on a CIA intelligence analyst’s efforts to find the man responsible for the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil. The acclaim the film received was only matched by the amount of fighting it caused – both in regards to the classified information it did or didn’t depict, and the manner in which it portrayed torture in the film on the part of American soldiers. Wherever people fell on those arguments – it is impossible to deny the film was terrific.
Best Movies Of All Time
We’ve got more where that came from. Check out our comprehensive list of the best movies of all time.
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