Spanning seventy years of filmmaking and about three thousand years of war, these 25 best war movies of all time take you to the front lines (and often beyond). They try to get at just what it means to go to war. They offer a way to make sense of the terror, blood, peril and loss. They underline the courage it takes to go into battle, the brotherhood among soldiers, the sacrifice of life, innocence, and sometimes sanity.
World War II and Vietnam, Iraq and the War on Terror — each war movie here takes on a chapter of military history and each one does its best to show you what it felt like, what it looked like, and what it sounded like to diffuse a bomb, take fire from the enemy, survive in a POW camp, get rescued, or get ambushed.
Each and every title here is a classic or is on its way to becoming one. Get yourself a hard or digital copy and watch the ones you haven’t seen yet, or that you haven’t seen in a while. Spend two to three hours up close to the action, the destruction, the glory, the madness, and the hell that is war.
Saving Private Ryan
“He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.”
Eight soldiers from the 2nd Ranger Battalion are sent to rescue one paratrooper somewhere in occupied France, three days after the Normandy Invasion. The first half hour of Spielberg’s film takes you to Omaha Beach to witness D-Day in one of the most immersive, realistic, and accurate depictions of battle ever filmed. What follows is a powerful epic about war and duty with a star-packed roster including Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper.
“Moderation is for cowards.”
Not every mission is a success. Starring Mark Wahlberg, the film follows a four-man Navy SEALs reconnaissance team charged with locating a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan. After a hard decision exposes them to ambush, the team finds themselves in a close-range firefight where fleeing down cliff faces becomes their only option. Based on the non-fiction account written by Wahlberg’s character, this offers a visceral display of the effects of war on the human body and spirit.
Black Hawk Down
“Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics just goes right out the window.”
Ridley Scott’s frenetic immortalization of a lesser-known piece of US military history captures modern warfare in vivid detail, alongside a timeless representation of wartime heroism. Towards the beginning of the Somali Civil War, a task force including 75th Rangers, Delta Force, and 160th SOAR entered Mogadishu to capture Somali faction leaders in an operation that was meant to last no more than an hour — and turned into the bloodiest battle involving US troops since Vietnam.
“If you think that this war isn’t changing you you’re wrong.”
Based on the autobiography of the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history, Clint Eastwood directs this tense portrait of a soldier serving four tours of duty in Iraq. While his skill at covering his fellow soldiers on Iraqi streets and taking out targets is unmatched, his ability to adjust to life outside the war falters. Bradley Cooper gives an impressive and acclaimed performance as the celebrated hero coping with the tolls of war.
Full Metal Jacket
“I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.”
A benchmark of war filmmaking, Kubrick’s opus follows recruits through the punishment of USMC boot camp to the harsher realities of the Vietnam War. Matthew Modine plays Joker, a recruit making his way from training to seeing combat after the Tet Offensive. Dark humor and a sharp focus make this one of the most effective war films. And if you’re ever searching for a brutal insult, any one of drill instructor Hartman’s lines will serve.
The Great Escape
“Why didn’t anyone think of that before? It’s so stupid, it’s positively brilliant!”
Reading like a who’s who of old-school cool, The Great Escape cast list includes Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner and James Coburn in the story of Allied soldiers preparing for, making, and dealing with the aftermath of an epic escape from a German POW camp. Based on a true story — with a few embellishments for dramatic (and comedic) effect, such as a McQueen motorcycle action sequence — it’s a fantastic bit of escapism, with an fascinating escape.
“Please Lord, help me get one more.”
Refusing to carry a weapon, World War II combat medic Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for assisting, treating, and carrying to safety dozens of his fellow soldiers, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine gun and artillery fire during the Battle of Okinawa. His story was the basis for a 2004 documentary, which inspired this heavily nominated film, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield as Doss.
“What happened today is just the beginning. We’re going to lose this war.”
The first Hollywood film written and directed by a Vietnam vet, Oliver Stone’s Platoon won best Picture and Director in 1986. Charlie Sheen plays infantryman Chris Taylor assigned to a platoon near the Cambodian border. Night raids, patrols, booby traps, grunt work, zero sleep, eroding sanity and hostilities within the platoon each take their toll on Taylor. It’s a bleak, harsh and wholly indelible vision of the realities of war.
The Thin Red Line
“In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.”
This may be as close as one gets to an art film about war. Set during the World War II battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, it’s loosely based on a novel and stars just about every male actor working in the late nineties — names like Penn, Clooney, Cusack, Nolte, Harrelson and Travolta. More of a meditation on life, death, and war juxtaposed against the indifferent beauty of nature, it’s been called one of the most important films of our time.
Zero Dark Thirty
“I shot the third-floor guy.”
Chronicling the decade-long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, ZDT manages to be at once predictable and startling. Jessica Chastain stars as a CIA analyst recruited out of high school with a single-minded goal: track down and kill the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks. Bigelow’s recreation of Navy SEAL Team 6’s early morning raid on a Pakistani compound is night vision graininess spliced with darkness, paired with an intensely close sound design that nearly transports you into the mission.
“Best job I ever had.”
Near the final days of World War II, tank commander “Wardaddy” Collier, played by Brad Pitt, loses his hull gunner and an inexperienced Private Ellison gets added to his battle-proven tank crew to take his place. As the tank moves deeper into Germany, the crew land themselves in dark, intense battles and heavy tolls stack up on both sides. It’s a film that reminds you of a classic WWII platoon movie, but with a visceral, modern intensity.
“You can practically see it from here… Home.”
Christopher Nolan’s recreation of the WWII Dunkirk evacuation stands as the highest grossing WWII film ever. It tells the story from every angle, on the beach, in the air, and in the English Channel where an eight day evacuation resulted in the rescues of 300,000 Allied soldiers who had been cut off and surrounded by German troops. Using his command of imagery and editing, Nolan tells the story with minimal dialogue and maximum ambition, to near universal acclaim.
Casualties Of War
“You survive the Nam, you get to live forever, man.”
Brian De Palma’s Vietnam drama stars Michael J. Fox as the tirelessly good soldier and Sean Penn as the categorically bad. Based on actual events known as the incident on Hill 192, an article in The New Yorker and a following book served as background for the film. De Palma offers insight into the chaotic, unmoored lawlessness of Vietnam while trying to anchor it in Fox’s determined moral intensity.
“Say Auf Wiedersehen to your Nazi balls!”
Tarantino asks “what if” and answers that question with a maniacally unhinged two and a half hours of vengeance, revenge and genre-mashing entertainment. Under Brad Pitt’s Lieutenant Raine, a group of Jewish-American soldiers hunt and scalp German soldiers, ultimately planning to blow up Hitler and his senior Nazi leaders in a theater. The same theater where a similar and separate plot is already underway. Christoph Waltz’s performance as an SS colonel is delightfully menacing.
Twelve O’Clock High
“The one thing which is never expendable is your obligation to this group. That has to be your loyalty; your only reason for being.”
The earliest entry on our list, this WWII film came out just four years after the war ended. A heavy bomber group is failing their daylight precision bombing missions over Nazi Germany and Occupied France. A Brigadier General, played by Gregory Peck, is sent in to toughen them up and ready them for battle. The production benefited from the support of the USAF, allowing both the use of actual combat footage and location filming on air bases.
The Dirty Dozen
“You’ve got one religious maniac, one malignant dwarf, two near-idiots… and the rest I don’t even wanna think about.”
It’s Suicide Squad without the outfits. An army major played by Lee Marvin is given orders for a top-secret mission: train and ready twelve of the Army’s worst convicted prisoners, all sentenced to death or maximum time, to infiltrate a chateau filled with high-ranking German officers shortly before D-Day. Exceedingly violent for its time (1967), and more than a little pessimistic, the zeal and bleak humor propel the film along at breakneck pace.
The Bridge On The River Kwai
“Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!”
Allied soldiers in a Japanese POW camp in Burma are ordered to build a railroad bridge. A British officer played by Alec Guinness encourages his men to put genuine effort and skill into the construction, so the bridge might stand as testament to British ingenuity and resolve long after the war has ended. Meanwhile, a US Navy officer, recently escaped from the camp, returns on a mission to destroy the bridge in this enduring classic.
“Charlie don’t surf!”
One of the more literary war movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s hypnotic epic draws on Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot and even Dante and Virgil to create a film that’s poetic, operatic and horrific all at the same time. It stars Martin Sheen as a special ops Captain Willard assigned to assassinate AWOL Colonel Kurtz who’s declared himself a godhead over a tribe of indigenous people in Cambodia. Willard’s trek upriver towards Kurtz is a voyage into the heart of darkness.
“Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
George C. Scott’s WWII General Patton goes down as one of the greatest screen portrayals of all time. The brash, egomaniacal, foul mouthed General commands his men with an iron fist, pushing them to the limits in the name of country and glory (sometimes his own). Though a brilliant strategist and commander, his outspoken nature costs him. And at the end of the war, a career general can’t help but lament the cessation of battle.
“If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we’ve never met before.”
Billy Wilder directs this balance of comedy and drama about a group of imprisoned US Army Sergeants in the German POW camp, Stalag 17. When escape attempts and contraband radios are too easily discovered by their German guards, the men suspect a mole. William Holden won an Academy Award playing the self-centered Sergeant Sefton who seems to get a few too many perks, leading the men in his barracks to think maybe he’s the rat.
The Hurt Locker
“You know, this doesn’t have to be a bad time in your life. Going to war is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It could be fun.”
Tense, taut and tight, this is an up close and personal depiction of an Iraq War Explosive Ordnance Disposal team lead by Sergeant James, played pitch-perfectly by Jeremy Renner. Exploring the fevered allure and moral conflicts of war, Bigelow’s direction was drawn from journalist Mark Boal’s experiences embedded with a bomb squad. It’s about as close as you can get to feeling what it’s like disposing of an IED, without actually doing it.
“You’re the skipper now, and the skipper always knows what to do whether he does or not.”
Though it caught a little flack for attributing the exploits of British sailors to American forces, the plot, actors, and a powerful sound design effectively ratchet up the tension, making U-571 a satisfying execution of a classic style WWII drama. Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel star as United States Navy submariners attempting to seize the German Enigma cipher machine by boarding and taking over a badly damaged German U-boat.
“The only thing I feel is afraid.”
This German film from the early 80s tells the story of a fictional German submarine and its crew. Vacillating between being hunted by Allied vessels and hunting the same, this slice of realism keeps the tension high with epic battles, then hones in on the terror and boredom of the hours in between. A complete interior of a U-96 was reconstructed for the film, allowing the cinematographer to closely follow the cast, delivering a simultaneous feeling of enduring claustrophobia and kinetic action.
“I know you can fight. But it’s our wits that make us men.”
Mel Gibson’s dramatization of the First War of Scottish Independence earned him a Best Picture and Best Director award and gave Scotland’s tourism a decent boost in the process. Telling the story of William Wallace, a Scottish warrior from the 13th century who rebelled against English Rule and gathered an army of Scots around him, Braveheart often favored cinematic impact over historical accuracy. But the result is a film of sweeping action, epic battles and kilted heroism.
“Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn’t that be a sight?”
By far the oldest war on our list, Troy tells the story of the Trojan War in 12th century BC. When the prince of Troy steals the king of Sparta’s wife, it sets off a war of epic (poem) proportions. Brad Pitt plays warrior Achilles, allied with the armies of the Greeks, and Eric Bana’s Hector leads the armies of the city of Troy. Based on Homer’s Iliad (and parts of the Odyssey) David Benioff (of Game of Thrones fame) wrote the screenplay.