The top of the top – our No. 1 pick – is 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.
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing – well, except for movies. Military conflict has formed the background of many great films, including some of the best of all time. It’s not a surprise. Few events are such natural conduits for drama, suspense, horror, heroism and examination of the human condition. It’s the basis for exploring a slew of existential questions. Why do we fight? Why do people enlist? What happens afterward? Is war ever justified? Is it ever worth it in the end?
Even if there’s rarely ever any clear answer, the best war movies attempt to examine combat from all sides. Simply asking those questions in the right way can produce compelling, often harrowing cinema. For this list, we’ve compiled films that span the historical and fictional gamut, from both World Wars to Vietnam to Iraq to imaginary interplanetary conflict. (Although we did not count Star Wars – sorry, nerds.) If you’ve seen battle yourself, many of these movies will resonate somewhere deep within you. And if you haven’t, perhaps it will give you some small measure of understanding for what those who’ve fought have seen, experienced and felt.
Written by David Fear, Keith Uhlich, Joshua Rothkopf, Andy Kryza, Phil de Semlyen and Matthew Singer
🎖️ The best World War I movies
💥 The 50 best World War II movies
🔥 The 100 best movies of all-time
💣 The 101 best action movies ever made