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Apocalypse Now
Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate Home EntertainmentApocalypse Now

The 50 best war movies of all time

Fall in! The best war movies of all time range from patriotic to pointed—and several shades of heroism in between.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Keith Uhlich
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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Drop and give us 20, because we’re about to give you 50 – of the best war movies of all time. Many of these harrowing epics have taken home Academy Awards; some are among the best action movies and foreign films ever made (and they often appear on the best movies on Netflix). But all have something meaningful to say about human nature and the perennial question of why we fight. If you’ve served in the military, we salute you. And if you hope to better understand what that means, get on your war face and brace for incoming.

Written by
David Fear, Keith Uhlich, Joshua Rothkopf & Phil de Semlyen

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the 100 best movies of all time

Best war movies ranked

  • Movies

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.

Watch Paths of Glory on Amazon Instant Video

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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.

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  • Movies

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.”

Watch Grand Illusion on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Drama

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.

Watch Full Metal Jacket on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Science fiction

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.

Watch Starship Troopers on Amazon Instant Video

  • Movies

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...

Watch Army of Shadows on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

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.

Buy Come and See on Amazon

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  • Drama

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.

Watch Sergeant York on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies

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.

Watch MASH on Amazon Instant Video

  • Movies

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.

Watch They Were Expendable on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

These days, Christian Bale is as huge as it gets: multiple Oscar nominations (and a win for The Fighter), the Batsuit, etc. But when he debuted as a 12-year-old in Steven Spielberg’s surreal WWII Shanghai drama—beating out 4,000 other kids for the role—all the talent was there. His character, Jim, is obsessed with war planes and sees his internment camp as a playground. Still he’s not above fear, and, by film’s end, he’s lost his innocence.

Watch Empire of the Sun on Amazon Instant Video

  • Movies

Between this film and director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, we have the two finest modern-day studies of what it means to fight in today’s confusing war against terrorism. The slightest edge goes to The Hurt Locker, which dives deeply into the process of Iraq-based bomb defusing and the personal detachment that can result from putting oneself in harm’s way on an hourly basis.

Watch The Hurt Locker on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

You might already know how the May 1940 evacuation of France’s Dunkirk turned out, but the power of Christopher Nolan’s harrowing dramatic re-creation is that it tries, with real success, not to make any of this feel like just another war movie. Instead there’s an uneasy sense of a strange event unfolding in that unknowable way that those on the ground might have experienced it. Dunkirk is awe-inspiring and alienating, as it should be.

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  • Movies

To make a war movie (not just a propaganda piece) at the same time when the real-life war is still in progress takes enormous courage. Fortunately for viewers of this Korea War drama—about a group of bickering soldiers holed up in a Buddhist temple—its writer-director was Samuel Fuller, himself a combat veteran. Hollywood must have seemed like a cakewalk after getting shot at.

Watch The Steel Helmet on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies

Well ahead of its time as a long-form TV series (it was part-financed by German broadcasters and has recently been successfully reinvented for the small-screen), Wolfgang Peterson’s U-boat masterpiece has endured as stubbornly as oil on a bosun’s rag in its three-hour movie form. Riding shotgun with its young submariners in all their fear, suffering and comradeship in a form of hellish lockdown below the surface of the Atlantic remains a sofa-arm-grippingly tense experience.

Watch Das Boot on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

Brian De Palma has always struggled with his reputation. Sometimes he’s made things worse by being extra salacious in movies like Body Double, Femme Fatale and Scarface. But with this horrific Vietnam War drama—about an American squad gone rogue and dipping into sex slavery—he was swinging for the critical fences. Michael J. Fox does superb work, grappling with situational ethics.

Watch Casualties of War on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Drama

Steven Spielberg's WWII drama weds an intimate story to the sweep of history—and even if you didn't care for the fortunes of one lucky soldier, you couldn't avoid being floored by the movie's epic mounting of the 1944 Omaha Beach landing. Spattered with gore and mud (and running a harrowing 27 minutes), the sequence has no equal on this list, or anywhere else.

Watch Saving Private Ryan on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies

Also known as A Fistful of Dynamite, this less-seen Sergio Leone action film uses the gory Mexican Revolution as its setting. But frankly speaking, it really takes place in “Leone-land”—a mythical place where Rod Steiger can play a swarthy bandito, Spanish deserts can stand in for anywhere, and composer Ennio Morricone can transport viewers to Irish meadows with his loveliest of scores.

Watch Duck, You Sucker! on Amazon Instant Video

Paisan (1946)
Photo: Courtesy of Arthur Mayer & Joseph Burstyn

22. Paisan (1946)

Italy’s Neorealist genius Roberto Rossellini made a trio of essential WWII movies—this one falls in between Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948) and is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. It’s made up of six vignettes featuring soldiers, street urchins, prostitutes and priests. The total takeaway is aching humanity, even in the face of massive destruction and chaos.

Watch Paisan on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

People know this one better from the ironic whistling in The Breakfast Club—that’s the “Colonel Bogey March,” originally used in this film as captured WWII soldiers trudged their way into their POW camp. The movie has a bit of stuffiness to it: It’s a big prestige picture that won a lot of Oscars. But there’s no denying that when that bridge finally goes kaboom, we’ve seen one of cinema’s greatest action scenes.

Watch The Bridge on the River Kwai on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

“Not every gun is pointed at the enemy!” read a title card in the trailer, and there was truth in advertising: Robert Aldrich's WWII psychodrama concerns the breakdown of order between a captain losing his nerve (Eddie Albert) and a mouthy lieutenant (Jack Palance) rising to the occasion. The military refused to cooperate with the production, yet the low-budget filmmakers prevailed.

Watch Attack on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

Fighting would become an insistent theme in the work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, the Soviet-era giant who opened the world to his nation’s more ambitious cinema in the ’60s and ’70s. But even though his other movies have become more popular (e.g., Solaris), it’s this one, his breakthrough, that remains his most emotional. It’s about a boy who becomes an army spy and loses his soul.

Watch Ivan’s Childhood on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Action and adventure

To audience members in love with the sea, this movie, taken from three of Patrick O'Brian's popular Napoleonic War novels, will rank much higher. At its heart is the Kirk-Spock relationship between Russell Crowe's fearless captain and Paul Bettany's thoughtful doctor. The naval battles are an action fan's wet dream.

Watch Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

The second – and superior – of Clint Eastwood’s reversed perspective depictions of the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 is a more unsparing watch than Flags of Our Fathers. Its Japanese troops are holed up inside a mountain like an army of doomed Gollums, their grim despair captured through the viewpoint of one footsoldier not so keen to die for the Emperor. Directing in a language he doesn’t speak, Eastwood brings a humanist eye to a desperate struggle. 

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  • Drama

In a metaphorical sense, this sun is setting: Japan’s Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata, bearing an almost cosmic weight of shame) sees his country ravaged by atomic bombs at the end of WWII. Alone in his thoughts, he is approached by General Douglas MacArthur to negotiate a surrender. Alexander Sokurov’s fascinating drama approaches war from the top down, with an emphasis on power in decline.

Watch The Sun on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Drama

A slow-building and unlikely blockbuster (the biggest film of 86-year-old director Clint Eastwood’s career), this electrifying PTSD war drama became a political football for its questionable handling of the real-life Chris Kyle. But between a nervy performance by Bradley Cooper and some daring ambiguities on the matter of valor, you have a movie that only Eastwood, no simple conservative, could make.

Watch American Sniper on Amazon Instant Video

  • Movies

Two soldiers—one American, the other Japanese—are marooned on an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean during the height of WWII and must work together to survive. Director John Boorman crafts a potent existential parable out of their plight (Jean-Paul Sartre would be proud) while also allowing the great Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune to rage with crowd-pleasing gusto.

Watch Hell in the Pacific on Amazon Instant Video

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  • Movies
  • Thriller

One of the few things not rationed during World War II, propaganda films tend to depict the enemy in the kind of one-dimensional terms not usually the making of classic cinema. And, sure, the Nazis who invade an unsuspecting English village in this Ealing effort are little more than swivel-eyed swastikabots. But the rounded, doughty villagers who stand up to them offer a stirring time capsule for the lesser-heralded aspects of war: the bonds of community on the home front. The Home Alone-style fight back is pretty thrilling too.

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  • Movies

After years in a professional wilderness of his own making, Mel Gibson rebounded with one of his strongest films to date, both indebted to the ethical struggles of Sergeant York while remaining a distinct creation of this particular director. Brutally violent and tinged with overt religiosity, Hacksaw Ridge stars Andrew Garfield as the real-life Desmond Doss, who became a WWII hero while refusing to carry a weapon.

Watch Hacksaw Ridge on Amazon Instant Video

  • Movies

A WWII film, yes, but utterly Tarantino in every sense, from its constant banter, shifting allegiances and sudden shocks of violence. At its heart isn’t some scrappy U.S. private, but Nazi colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning, instantly iconic performance), whose slippery charm as the “Jew Hunter” made him a character we loved to hate.

Watch Inglourious Basterds on Amazon Instant Video

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