Best war movies ranked
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.
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.
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.”
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 necessary complement. This is where we see the end result of turning men into killing machines, and it's like gazing into the abyss.
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.
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 Samouraï (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...
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.
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.
Robert Altman’s classic comedy comes sugarcoated in associations: with the TV show, with that cloying laugh track, with Alan Alda. But to consider how truly subversive the movie was, you only have to compare it with the other elephantine war drama playing across town during those same weeks in 1970: Patton is about a misunderstood genius of carnage, and a somber vindication of the asshole-in-charge. MASH has no battle scenes whatsoever. It does end in a climactic, zany football game. Amazingly, both movies came from the same studio, 20th Century Fox. But by throwing out Ring Lardner Jr.’s conventional script and inspiring his ensemble to play, Altman devised an entirely new on-set process that would change American satire forever. This is the first real film of the 1970s.
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.