The 50 greatest war films of all time

Fall in for TONY's list of mighty military movies.

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  • War films: They Were Expendable (1945)

  • War films: MASH (1970)

  • War films: Sergeant York (1941)

  • War films: Army of Shadows (1969)

  • War films: Come and See (1985)

  • War films: Starship Troopers (1997)

  • War films: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

  • War films: Grand Illusion (1937)

  • War films: Apocalypse Now (1979)

  • War films: Paths of Glory (1957)

War films: They Were Expendable (1945)

10
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)

They Were Expendable (1945)

The kind of film that can force you to revise your idea of whole careers—even decades of work—this assiduous, unshowy portrait of the fighting men of the Philippines builds a quiet impact out of small, keenly observed moments. Our heroes, mainly John Wayne's junior-grade lieutenant, wind away the small hours in Manila, waiting for an assignment to the fight. They don't realize, of course, that these are the good times; when news comes of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the tone shifts to one of a stoic ode to workmanlike sacrifice. Director John Ford, normally a sentimentalist behind the camera, reigns in his impulses, while Wayne (still closer to dewy at this point) shows depths that hadn't been tapped.—Joshua Rothkopf

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9
MASH (1970)

MASH (1970)

With the U.S. mired in the seemingly endless horrors of Vietnam, what better time was there for something as biting and hilarious as Robert Altman's Korean War satire? The director's biggest hit of his career, like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove before it, gave audiences the chance to snicker at strife: The narrative follows members of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital—standouts include Donald Sutherland's Hawkeye and Elliott Gould's Trapper John—as they make anarchic mischief (usually of the spy-on-the-girl-in-the-showers variety) in between gory operations. No target is sacred; even The Last Supper is recreated with gleeful blasphemy. (If you only know the TV show, see where all the high jinks began.)—Keith Uhlich

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8
SERGEANT YORK (1941)

Sergeant York (1941)

No truly great war film will ever strike a tone of total conviction; that's the realm of imperialist propaganda. Howard Hawks's massively popular drama (released only months before America's entrance into WWII) takes the exact opposite tack: It's the story of real-life First World War soldier Alvin York, a Tennessee simpleton who hoped to avoid enlistment on the sincere grounds of his religiosity and pacifism. His request denied, York proves himself on the battlefield as a singularly talented sharpshooter and wrestles with the killing gift God has given him. Gary Cooper's tortured performance won him an Oscar and continues to inspire a conversation about situational ethics.—Joshua Rothkopf

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7
ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969)

Army of Shadows (1969)

Rediscovered in 2006 with the fanfare usually reserved for unearthing a lost classic (which was pretty much the case), Jean-Pierre Melville's cool-blue portrait of French Resistance fighters makes a beautiful case for honor among wanted men. Back-room beatings and drive-by shootings spark a mostly conversational film about the sacrifice of spies. Melville's reputation had previously rested on chilly, remote gangster pictures like Le Samoura (1967), but to see his canvas widened to national politics was a revelation. And the reason the movie had been ignored in the first place? Fashionable French critics had dismissed it as too pro-De Gaulle. What comes around...—Joshua Rothkopf

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6
COME AND SEE (1985)

Come and See (1985)

It's likely you'll want to avert your eyes during Russian director Elem Klimov's terrifying WWII epic about the Nazi occupation of Belarus. Yet it weaves a mesmerizing spell, from the opening image of two children digging in a field for abandoned rifles. One of those boys is taken from his home by partisans to fight the Germans. It's the start of a nine-circles-of-hell odyssey that culminates with a dreamlike encounter with the ultimate persecutor. But before that finale, we're subjected to a staggering succession of atrocities (ear-shattering explosions, corpses piled high, a village systematically destroyed) that would be unbearable were it not for the film's entrancing, near-surreal aesthetic.—Joshua Rothkopf

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5
STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)

Starship Troopers (1997)

Stop snickering: There's a real reason why this sci-fi actioner is so high on our list. Never before (and probably never again) had the monied apparatus of Hollywood been so co-opted to make a subversive comment about its own fascist impulses. Director Paul Verhoeven cackled all the way to the box office as giant bugs were exterminated by gorgeous, empty-headed bimbos; when Neil Patrick Harris showed up near the end of the movie in a full-length Nazi trench coat, the in-joke was practically outed. Source novelist Robert Heinlein meant his militaristic tale sincerely; meanwhile, the blithe destruction of humankind on display here could only be intended as a sharp critique, both of soldiering and of popular tastes. Return to it with fresh eyes.—Joshua Rothkopf

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4
FULL METAL JACKET (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick's unnerving contribution to Vietnam war movies will gouge out your eyes and skull-fuck you (to quote a line). The first half of this opus, set at the Marines' Parris Island training facility, is widely lauded: Drill instructor R. Lee Ermey spouts every imaginable expletive (plus some new ones) while putting a group of new recruits through their paces. Yet the less-discussed second half—which follows Matthew Modine's Pvt. "Joker" and his fellow soldiers through the Tet Offensive—is a necessarily complement. This is where we see the end result of turning men into killing machines, and it's like gazing into the abyss.—Keith Uhlich

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3
GRAND ILLUSION (1937)

Grand Illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir, the great humanist of cinema, cowrote and directed this superlative WWI story about two French aviators who are captured by a German captain (Erich von Stroheim, perfectly cast as a mannerly despot) and shuttled between prisons. The duo plans a great escape, but this isn't a simple tale of heroes and villains. Class conflict is prevalent: One of our heroes is an aristocrat and easily befriends his warden. The other, meanwhile, is a rough-hewn everyguy—a charismatic ranter against the system. Yet Renoir places no one character above another. Indeed, the film is sympathetic to all perspectives, even as it sagely questions how these combative circumstances came about. For its pointed generousness, the movie was awarded numerous prizes and earned the ire of Joseph Goebbels who declared it "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1."—Keith Uhlich

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2
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

The battles behind Francis Ford Coppola's surreal war movie are well-documented: the nightmarish, multiyear shoot; star Martin Sheen's heart attack and recovery; a cackling press corps that sharpened its knives for a turkey of epic proportions. Coppola would have the last laugh. So much of the vocabulary of the modern-day war picture comes from this movie, an operatic Vietnam-set tragedy shaped out of whirring helicopter blades, Wagnerian explosions, purple haze and Joseph Conrad's colonialist fantasia Heart of Darkness. Fans of the Godfather director, so pivotal to the 1970s, know this to be his last fully realized work; connoisseurs of the war movie see it (correctly) as his second all-out masterpiece.—Joshua Rothkopf

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1
PATHS OF GLORY (1957)

Paths of Glory (1957)

And so we've reached the top of the top, the ultimate statement on man's inhumanity to man. Is it any surprise that it comes from Stanley Kubrick? So much of the director's filmography was devoted to depicting military folly (and believe us, we toyed with including Barry Lyndon, too). Elevating Paths of Glory above the fray—and above every other title—was not its brutal scenes of WWI trench warfare but its scalpel-scarp indictment of the pride that comes with battle. Kirk Douglas's lawyer-colonel is tasked with mounting a courtroom defense of three innocent soldiers who just happened to be part of a losing skirmish. Based on a real-life episode of French soldiers executed for "cowardice," Kubrick's movie so angered France's government that it couldn't be screened publicly there until 1975. The film's lesson is universal and timeless, though: If warfare turns us into monsters even off the battlefield, then we have no purpose waging it.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Users say

192 comments
Christopher J
Christopher J

I would add U-571 and Black Hawk Down to this list and Saving Private Ryan should definitely be in the top 5.

Brian M
Brian M

Breaker Morant, The Odd Angry Shot...the list goes on.  And somehow Starship Troopers comes in at number 5?  I was enjoying this list up until that point.

Ismael C
Ismael C

Oh come on Starship Troopers? Battle of the Bulge, MacArthur, Hamburgel Hill, From Here to Eternity, The lost Platoon. LMFAO. 

David S
David S

The Blue Max, greatest aviation war movie!!!

Marvin P
Marvin P

Starship Troopers?!? Is this a fucking joke? Where is Guns of Navarone and Hamburger Hill?

Rio S
Rio S

i think "Saving Private Ryan" no 1
and where "Black Hawk Down" ?
now "Lone Survivor" appropriate in to list :D

Ed E
Ed E

Really, Starship Troopers? Why not just throw Tropic Thunder on the list. Patton & Platoon don't even break below 30. What about From Here to Eternity, In Harm's Way, Tora Tora Tora, To Hell and Back. Sure they from an older generation of movies many of the actors and crew actually served in the military.

Stalag 17 was better then about 45 of those movies.

ChicagoCrew .
ChicagoCrew .

Missing movies ----- The Enemy Below

                                     Captain Horatio Hornblower

                                       Sink the Bismarck

                                       Courage Under Fire 

                                       Glory

                                       Braveheart

joe
joe

This is a terrible list.

Claire
Claire

Johnny got his gun (1971)

Daniel Devine
Daniel Devine

This is ridiculous. Saving Private Ryan not top 10? WHAT??!! Where is Glory in the top 10 as well? No Hamburger Hill?

Mike Crowner
Mike Crowner

What about Glory??????????????? Glory is the best war movie by far! Come on!

Mark Bell
Mark Bell

Bingo! Good List because he got "Paths of Glory" at top. Good Choice. The man knows how to value and review a movie.

Andrew
Andrew

How come The Fall (Der Untergang) depicting last 48hrs of Hitler's reign in the bunker NOT on the list!????

Anthony DeRoche
Anthony DeRoche

Come on - what a joke of a list. This guy is a Disney lover! Assembly, Johnny Mad Dog, Stalingrad to name a few are missing. Someone please compile a serious list .

mike
mike

How is Hamburger Hill not even on this list.. Easily a top 15 (top 10 in my books)

jayce
jayce

who ever made this list is an idiot with no understanding of movie quality, maybe go review cartoons instead cant believe I spent a couple minutes of my life reading the order of that list.

JJ
JJ

I nominate this piece as number one worst list of great war films. No Blackhawk down? Apocalypse now as #2? WTH

Fred Pahlke
Fred Pahlke

No Lawrence of Arabia? I would rank it third, behind Come and See and Paths of Glory.

douglas
douglas

its a good list Ive seen over half these movies and enjoyed everyone. the only problem I have with this list is WHY is Starship Troopers on here and not Enemy at the Gates?

Paul
Paul

This list could use some work. Hamburger Hill, Blackhawk Down, We were Soldiers could all certainly replace a few movies on this list for top 50. Yet, the biggest mistake is not making "Band of Brothers" the #1 war movie. Some films such as hurt Locker should not be in the top 50. As a military veteran I am giving you a combat experienced point of view. The Pacific could also easily beat a few of these films.

jon mcinerney
jon mcinerney

this list is incredibly poor, the longest day is one of the epic war films of all time, but doesnt make the list, neither does a bridge too far, both epic productions..so many films missing from this...

Armstrong
Armstrong

David, Joshua and Keith, you guys must be on drugs or something, STARSHIP TROOPERS!!! OMG!!! Why not Star Wars or maybe Star Trek or the Lord of the Rings but no no it has to be STARSHIP TROOPERS !!! WOW!!! I'm lost for words.....STARSHIP TROOPERS!!!

Top
Top

I got a good pointers for movies I had forgotten or didn\t know about, which I think makes this a good list. Seen way too many all/too/obvious lists of movies I have already seen. I\d add a couple of very good ones for anyonewho is looking for some good suggestions to watch instead of a reason to complain about how their obvious favs are not included. Stalingrad (1993), Ghetto(2006), Bretskaya Krepost (Brest Fortress/fortress of war (2010)...

chaloner
chaloner

Three Kings (1999) better then All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) STUPID!!!!!!!!!!!

David
David

This list is not up to your usual standards. Sorry, but you rate an automatic fail for omission of. . . Do I have to say it? Fail Safe (original sixties version). Best war movie ever. And what about its black comedy counterpart Dr. Strangelove? Still more points lost for failure to include The Enemy Below, which Das Boot was a bit of a ripoff of. Better revise this one, boys.

John Reviewer
John Reviewer

Horrible List. I stopped looking at it when The thin Red Line was ranked higher than Saving Private Ryan. Seriously, Apocalypse Now 2nd, ridiculous. Starship Troopers? How about putting spaceballs on the list.

Chris
Chris

How about Midway? The Green Beret? Schindlers List? The Alamo (John Wayne version)

Connor
Connor

We Were Soldiers, The Patriot, Enemy at the Gates, God and Generals, Gettysburg, Last of the Mohicans, Braveheart, Jarhead, SO MANY MORE.

Art Ryden
Art Ryden

Starship Troopers...Are you kidding? No Zulu? No Glory? No Gladiator? Platoon has to be rated higher than it is here. I'm glad to see that older films get their proper representation here. There is such a tendency to give higher ratings to more recent movies at the expense of earlier films.

Steve
Steve

gotta agree with some of the comments here, a list of top war movies is what is advertised...your description of starship troopers may or may not be true however put it on a different top list of ironic movies or whatever. To put it in the top five war movies of all time? that's just f*cking ridiculous.

chris mann
chris mann

How can this list not include, and should have been #1 "IN HARMS WAY"

Charles
Charles

Not a bad list although the Starship Trooper entry is just bizarre. So many of my favs like Mr. Roberts, Tora Tora Tora, Sand Pebbles, The Longest Day, Battle of Britain, Bridge too Far, From Here to Eternity, Run Silent Run Deep, Black Hawk Down, Midway, Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone ( I can go on and on) are not on the list.

E. A. Capuano
E. A. Capuano

Any set of "best movies of all time" is biased by the people who select it. I think some war movies do not deserve to be in this set (in fact, some of them are not war movies ...) and other must be in it: "The Lost Batallion", for instance, is a good movie that deserves to be among the "Top Ten" war movies of all time; and "The Thin Red Line" is not a war movie, but a dramatic movie. "Paths of Glory" can be the best war movie of all time only if you are a Kirk Douglas fan ... In my opinion, the best war movie of all time would be "Memphis Bell" and "Das Boot" the second ...!

Stephen
Stephen

Bolloxs, starship troopers in the top 5 and platoon is way back Terrible list and terrible taste in films

Daniel
Daniel

There are always going to be refutable omissions from a list like this. There are just too many great war movies out there. The films I was disappointed to see excluded were Glory, The Last of the Mohicans, Fort Apache, and Letters From Iwo Jima. But movies that I have been putting off seeing -- The Steel Helmet, Army of Shadows, Forbidden Games, Germany Year Zero, etc -- were so well argued for that I'm now even more excited to watch them. And to all the naysayers: Yes, Starship Troopers is indeed brilliant.

Chuck Catalano
Chuck Catalano

How can you have a list of the top 50 best war movies and not have Act of Valor on your list? Personally, I think it should be on the top ten, butat a minimum be on the list.

Kalah
Kalah

Re: previous comment.....They are obviously referring to what he did IN the movie sheesh

Mara
Mara

Steve MCQueen actually attempted to jump the barbed wire of the Swiss border NOT the barbed wire fence of his POW camp!!

Kalah
Kalah

What is wrong with this list? What happened to Schindlers List? U571? A Bridge Too far? Behind Enemy Lines, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Defiance, Braveheart, Cold Mountain, Enemy At The Gates, Geronimo, The Flowers of War, K19: The Widowmaker, The Last of the Mohicans, Mongol, The Pianist, The Messenger...most of these movies are set with WWII as their backdrop and have many war elements and tragedies and triumps and its tragic they are not recognized.

Pockeyway
Pockeyway

Horrible list on so many levels, that by the time I got to starship troopers I wasnt surprised. Apparently braveheat, the pianist, black hawk down, the longest & countless others wern't considered. Worst list I have seen in a long time.

Pockeyway
Pockeyway

Horrible list on so many levels, that by the time I got to starship troopers I wasnt surprised. Apparently braveheat, the pianist, black hawk down, the longest & countless others wern't considered. Worst list I have seen in a long time.

Pockeyway
Pockeyway

Horrible list on so many levels, that by the time I got to starship troopers I wasnt surprised. Apparently braveheat, the pianist, black hawk down, the longest & countless others wern't considered. Worst list I have seen in a long time.

Peter
Peter

What about THE BURMESE HARP (JAPAN)-perhaps the greatest film of all time.Also other classic war films are omitted:CANAL.(Poland);WAR AND PEACE; THE 45TH;,QUIET FLOWS THE DON and LENINGRAD.(all from Russia).CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH (China).They are all masterpieces.I suspect that most of your readers have never heard of or even seen any of these films.

Simon
Simon

Where is Battle Of Algiers!!?

Chris .
Chris .

@Mike Crowner Glory was a great movie,but Paths of Glory is the best War Movie ever,however he missed several great movies

Chris .
Chris .

@Paul Band of Brothers wasn't a movie was it?Paths of Glory won the Oscar and is rthe best war movie ever.Band of Brothers is certainly a decent mini series,but Kubrick's movie has much deeper meaning and is actually an indictment on the absurdity of war.Because we are veterans doesn't mean anything,this is about a movie.Band of Brothers merely followed a company from D-Day through the German offensive of the Bulge.