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Best Movies About War

Updated on September 22, 2014
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Bombs exploding all around you, families ripped apart, incredible acts of courage and heroism...these are just a few of the reasons we are so drawn to the drama of the best war movies. War films capture the best of the human spirit, but also the worst side of human nature. We have compiled this list of the greatest war films of all time based on inputs from some very knowledgeable movie bloggers and fans.

The best war movies provide a realistic glimpse of combat and the chaotic life of soldiers in wartime. But like all great movies, they also have to develop deep characters with the tools of great actors. We are drawn to human drama, so they cannot just be about battle scenes. We must empathize with the characters...feel their pain and their joy.

The "Big One", World War II has produced the most war movies and the Vietnam War has probably produced the most war films during the past 20 years. So it is no surprise that our Top Ten list is heavily represented by movies from those two conflicts. However, the full list of over 50 war movies includes many outstanding war films about World War I, the US Civil War, the Iraq War and many other conflicts throughout the world.

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And Now the Top 10 Best War Movies

10. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

What Could you Accomplish if your Back was Against the Wall?

When you are serving a death sentence, you have nothing to lose; or at least that is the premise behind The Dirty Dozen. Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) is a US Army Major with a reputation for leading tough missions and he is selected to lead a 'suicide mission' to kill a group of German Generals in a bunkered rest home.

Reisman interviews a group of convicted murderers serving life or death sentences and offers them a shot at freedom in exchange for participating in this suicide mission.

The film has a star-studded cast that included Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland. Robert Aldrich directed this war movie and does an excellent job developing the characters of this rag-tag bunch so that you empathize with each of them as they struggle through the mission.

While not historically accurate like so many of the more recent war movies, The Dirty Dozen endures as a war cult classic and a rite of passage viewing for young males.

If you loved The Dirty Dozen, you should also check out Kelly's Heroes

9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Two Conflicting Perspectives on Honor and Character

I bet you can't think of this title without whistling the catchy title track from this 1957 Best Picture Oscar winner. It is one of the most recognizable movie themes of all time and a great Film Score. This is a great prisoner-of-war movie set in the Pacific Islands during World War II.

It is not a typical war movie in that there is only one battle scene at the end. It is the story of American and British POWs that are enlisted to build a bridge to help the Japanese supply their front lines.

Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is a British officer believes staunchly in British morale and dignity and against his first instincts, he agrees to build the bridge for the Japanese as a monument to British character.

However, unknown to him, the Americans send in an operative, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) to blow up the bridge. Working with Shears (William Holden), the American POW leader, they implement a plan to destroy the bridge once it is completed.

It is a beautifully acted movie and a deep look into the nuance of human spirit, even when it is misguided.

If you enjoyed The Bridge on the River Kwai... - You may also like The Great Escape

The Great Escape
The Great Escape

Another of the great war movies about prisoners of war. In this classic, Steve McQueen and a group of POWs plot a near impossible escape from a Nazi war prison.

 

8. Band of Brothers (HBO 2001)

Ten Compelling Hours with the Easy Company

Band of Brothers is based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose and it was produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks after they hooked up for the filming of Saving Private Ryan. However, while the book was a historical documentary, the movie was a thrilling war movie that was based on true events.

Imagine a war drama with the intensity of the first 20 minutes of i> but for the entire 10 hours of the mini series. This was a mini series first aired on HBO but now available on DVD and Netflix. This is my favorite war movie because it provides such a realism of the WWII Normandy campaign. Because it was 10 hours, they had the luxury to delve into the strategy and deep development of the characters.

The acting is outstanding despite largely being unknown actors in their first major starring roles. If you were only given the option to watch one war movie, this is the one I would recommend to you. It is a brilliant account of the Easy Company of the 101st Airborne with the start of the Normandy invasion through the taking of Berlin. It provides a highly realistic glimpse into war, the chain of command, interpersonal issues, strategy, injury and death.

At the beginning and end of each one-hour episode, some of the actual veterans from Easy Company, tell their impressions of the events that transpired in that episode. I loved this concept because it both honored the veterans while also providing further validation of the realism of the entire film. Kudos to Spielberg and Hanks for creating what I believe is the best war films of all time.

7. Inglourious Basterds (2010)

What if the Tables had been Turned on the Nazis?

In the vein of Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino provides his take on war movies in Inglourious Basterd. And like most Tarantino productions, it is extremely violent, including some ruthless torture scenes. Unlike most of the movies on this list of war films, Basterds is complete fiction.

Inglourious Basterds portrays rewrite of history in which a group of Jewish American guerrilla soldiers, led by the sadistic Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), terrorize the Nazis from occupied France. They scalp and torture the bands of unfortunate Nazis that they catch.

The movie ends with a climatic scene in small town theater where most of the high-ranking German officers, including Hitler, have gathered to view Goering's latest propaganda film. If you can get past the violence it is an entertaining movie, however I did not personally rank it in my Top 20 war movies because of its lack of factual context. But clearly a lot of people really liked this film and voted it into the Top 5 war films of all time.

6. The Deer Hunter (1978)

A Disconcerting Look at the Mental Trauma Inflicted by War

The Deer Hunter is a gripping tale of endurance and the mental strain of war. After three friends from Pennsylvania enlist and go to fight in Vietnam, they are captured by the Viet Cong and endure horror as POWs, including playing Russian roulette with loaded guns.

While this is technically a war film, it is also a social drama, which deals with the difficulty of adapting to civilian life after living through the horrors of war. While all three of their friends are affected, Nick (Christopher Walken) really snaps and becomes addicted to the 'thrill' of Russian roulette. Walken won a Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant role.

This war movie one the Best Picture for its harrowing portrayal of the mental strain of war. The cast is outstanding with Robert De Niro, Walken, Meryl Streep and John Savage. It is a difficult movie to watch at times but an outstanding war film that everyone should see at least once.

5. Black Hawk Down (2001)

No Man Left Behind - A True Story of Heroism

Based on actual events in Somalia in 1993 Black Hawk Down is a gripping tale of a group of elite US Army Rangers that are dropped into a military zone of Mogadishu that is controlled by a Somali warlord. Their mission is to capture two of the key lieutenants of the warlord who have wreaked havoc on the food and relief efforts of the United Nations.

Unfortunately, the mission goes poorly from the start as the Somalis are armed with surface to air missiles that take down two of the Blackhawk helicopters and the rest of the film is the effort to rescue these downed men.

It is a harrowing mission in which a contingent must survive the night in a war torn area of Mogadishu, while rebel gangs have them surrounded. However, is also a heroic story of bravery, perseverance and trust in fellow soldiers. Ultimately, most of the soldiers are rescued in the morning by a large contingent of Peace-Keeping Forces. In the end, 19 US soldiers died in the raid, but over 1,000 Somali rebels also died. Sadly many of those Somalis were ill-equipped young men and boys that were recruited by this ruthless rebel warlord and his gang of thugs.

If you liked Blackhawk Down, then you should also see Zero Dark Thirty

4. Platoon (1986)

Oliver Stone's Tour de Force about the Vietnam War

Platoon was Oliver Stone's first blockbuster movie and was a realistic depiction of the chaotic fighting in Vietnam. Stone set out to capture the harrowing feel of combat in the jungles of Southeast Asia and his success earned him the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Platoon.

However, the film was not merely movie about war, but also an exploration of morality in a combat setting. The action pitted two platoon leaders against each other in a classical archenemy battle between the good Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the bad Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). They both were nominated for Supporting Actor Oscars for their outstanding performances.

Overall the cast is incredible and also included Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp and Kevin Dillon. It is a riveting story and I believe this war film is the crowning achievement in Stone's highly successful Directorial career.

3. Apocalypse Now (1979)

An Unnerving Journey up the Nung River

Apocalypse Now is a gritty story about Captain Benjamin Willard's (Martin Sheen) mission to find and kill Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a brilliant officer who has gone rogue in Cambodia. While a fictional story, the film is incredibly compelling because of the realism of the fighting conditions in the Vietnam War.

The film is both a war movie and a psychological drama in which Willard is struggling with his own demons as he tries to figure out what went wrong with Kurtz, by reading his dossier. Sheen's voice narrates his review of the Kurtz dossier and his narrative provides a chilling backdrop as the boat slowly floats up the Nung River.

This film was a triumph for Francis Ford Coppola and followed closely on the heels of his sequel to The Godfather. The cinematography in the Vietnam backcountry is brilliant and provides a haunting, mystical feeling that pervades the entire movie. The final scene features the unsettling song, The End, by The Doors and Jim Morrison's disquieting narrative perfectly compliments the bizarre action occurring onscreen.

Apocalypse Now is definitely one of the best movies about war ever made and probably the best Vietnam War Film.

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Opening Scene is Unparalleled in the Depiction of Combat

If asked to name one single scene that most epitomizes a war movie, most would probably select the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. It is an incredible scene that captures the absolute fear and hopelessness experienced by the soldiers landing at Normandy. The sound, visual effects and utter chaos of the scene was so overwhelming, that it gives us the most realistic portrayal of war ever filmed. Even veterans that were interviewed said that the scene truly captured the chaos of the Normandy landing.

Throughout this film the combat scenes are highly realistic depictions of the fighting during World War 2. Unfortunately, the storyline of Saving Private Ryan alienated many devoted war movie fans. After the initial Normandy landing scene Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), and his unit, are assigned to find and bring back Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) because his three brothers have all died in the landing and the US Chief of Staff does not want to risk a mother losing all four sons in the invasion.

While critics complain about the storyline, Steven Spielberg has created a highly engaging film that keeps you enthralled throughout. I recently watched this film again recently and was amazed at the cast of this great war movie. There were many big name stars like Hanks, Damon, Tom Sizemore and Ted Danson, but more importantly many of the role players in this film went on to have big film careers including Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Giovanni Ribisi, Edward Burns and Adam Goldberg. Overall, Saving Private Ryan has superb acting, thrilling and realistic combat scenes and excellent cinematography and deserves a spot among the greatest war films of all time.

If you enjoyed Saving Private Ryan... - You may also like Twelve O'Clock High

Twelve O'Clock High (Special Edition)
Twelve O'Clock High (Special Edition)

One of the best WWII films of all time, this film stars Gregory Peck as a Air Force officer brought in to turnaround an underperforming bomb unit.

 

1. Schindler's List (1993)

A stunning Film Based on an Incredible True Story

While not a traditional war movie, members voted Schindler's Lists as the best war film of all time. It is an incredible story with an amazing cast portraying dramatic and difficult events in world history. It is the story of a German businessman, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who starts the film as a cold, greedy industrialist, but is transformed into a humanitarian trying to save as many Jewish lives that he can.

Based on a true story, it is an astonishing story that provides a horrific, yet realistic depiction of the Holocaust and Nazi brutality. The entire cast is outstanding with Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley and of course Neeson. The film won 7 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.

It is a poignant movie about war that portrays the triumph of the human spirit in the face of truly abominable conditions.

If you liked Schindler's List... - You might also like Defiance

Defiance
Defiance

The amazing true story of a pair of brothers that led a group of Eastern European Jews into the forests and in the process saved the lives of over 1,200 Jews from Nazi oppressors.

 

Vote for your Favorite Movies about War

Which of these War Movies is the Best of All Time?

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    • rjbatty profile image

      rjbatty 2 years ago from Irvine

      Interesting list. I agreed with about 75%. That's a high margin in my estimation. But don't overlook the earlier films. No one seems to want to list "All Quiet on the Western Front," a movie that was before its time. It's difficult to get through. But, it's a necessity for all movie viewers who claim to have some knowledge about war films. And don't overlook the more obscure films such as "Johnny Got His Gun." For me, it's one of the most grueling anti-war films ever made.

    • profile image

      Colin323 4 years ago

      'Das Boot' is the one I can watch a dozen times and still enjoy, but 'Platoon' is my all-time favourite; great film.

    • profile image

      msseiboi 4 years ago

      Great list...

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Is that a jelly doghnut?

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I haven't seen all of these films, thank you for sharing

    • profile image

      Aunt-Mollie 4 years ago

      I can't believe I've seen every one of these on your list. It's not that I like war, but it is a dramatic topic.

    • Carpenter76 profile image

      Carpenter76 4 years ago

      Nice lens. My favourite movie was Der Untergang.

    • Eric Mayo profile image

      Eric Mayo 4 years ago

      "Don't fall down pvt. Pyle, you'll break my f**king heart"

    • profile image

      chickie99 4 years ago

      good lens...my favorite war movie was "patton"

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Excellent selection of films. Great lens.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I have watched all these and it is worth seeing what war does to people.

    • profile image

      pinoyrecipe 4 years ago

      Saving Private Ryan is one of the best war films of all time

    • Jo-Jackson profile image

      Jo-Jackson 4 years ago

      I like your selection but think Enemy At The Gates deserves a mention too.

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 5 years ago

      Truly great selection of films; I know this was technically not a "War Film" but more about after the war; "Best Years of Our Lives" was one of my faves.

    • profile image

      LuizAvila 5 years ago

      Great films!!!

    • heiksz profile image

      heiksz 5 years ago

      great lens!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Great deselection.

    • bernie74 lm profile image

      bernie74 lm 5 years ago

      A wonderful lens and tribute to these fantastic movies. I have seen some of these and loved them. I could not take your poll as I could not choose just one!

      Blessed by a Squid Angel!

    • raelcalu profile image

      raelcalu 5 years ago

      great list...i watched almost all of them except for the old ones (DD, BonRK)...although it is not my fave genre, i still watch them because my mom love war movies.

    • kovid7 profile image

      kovid7 5 years ago

      Great list. I haven't watched a few flicks of them. Will do now. I hadn't even heard of 'Band of Brothers'. Keep up the good work.

    • kovid7 profile image

      kovid7 5 years ago

      Great list. I haven't watched a few flicks of them. Will do now. I hadn't even heard of 'Band of Brothers'. Keep up the good work.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Make Love - Not War! Watch War Movies; But spread the message of Love! :))

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      When I came over, The Bridge on the Rive Kwai came to mind though I can't recall much of it. We saw it as a family when it came out and I immediately heard the music and saw the marching legs. Another excellent set of reviews by you. War movies always remind me of my Dad because he loved them.

    • Ben Reed profile image

      Ben Reed 5 years ago from Redcar

      A great choice of war films. Saving Private Ryan is my favourite.

    • MelonyVaughan profile image

      MelonyVaughan 5 years ago

      Great movie choices! I have yet to see Schindler's List.

    • SimilarSam profile image

      Sam 5 years ago from Australia

      Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down are by far my favs!

    • timelessearth profile image

      timelessearth 6 years ago

      It is hard to make a list of war movies. I would add Pearl Harbor (which was one of the great movies of all time) and Hamburger Hill.

    • profile image

      LuckyLongShot 6 years ago

      I like your list of war movies. I especially like the world war II era films. I would add The Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora!, but that's just me. If you're interested check out the lens on my war movie in progress about the Battle Off Samar in 1944.

      http://www.squidoo.com/the-battle-off-samar

    • profile image

      healthandsick 6 years ago

      it will be hard to make a real war to the movie