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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 have been named among the best films of all time. Regardless of their era depicted, 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, Andy Kryza & Phil de Semlyen

Best war movies ranked

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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.

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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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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.’

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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.

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  • 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.

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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...

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking after 20 years of silence was met with a rapturous response – and the movie truly deserves it. You don’t get the brilliant action sequences of most war pictures. Rather, here are soldiers in WWII’s Pacific theater, stunned by their own brutality, pondering the natural world and wondering when they’ll be back home.

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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.

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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.

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Naysayers love to ding Spielberg’s grunt-level war flick for its Boomer sentimentality and Greatest Generation lionisation, but nobody can deny that the opening Omaha Beach landing is unmatched for its visceral depiction of combat. It’s a 27-minute masterpiece of sand and blood, heroism and confusion, tragedy and atrocity. That’s not to say that the rest of the film sags: from sniper duels to the climactic siege, Saving Private Ryan’s episodic journey is littered with standout scenes of stunning bravado. So much so that you can forgive the director for getting a little misty eyed at the finish line.

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The director, Anthony Mann, was best known for his Westerns that pinned heroes in uncomfortable, craggy environments. When he tried his hand at a combat film (this was his first), he set the action in a Korean no-man's land where an American platoon led by Robert Ryan finds itself stranded. The result was an uncommonly tough movie for the Ike era.

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Director Sam Fuller's earthy WWII picture, starring Lee Marvin at the end of his likable career, might have lost the battle at the box office, but it's won the war of reputation: A 2004 reconstruction added nearly 50 minutes of excised material, including many off-kilter yet vivid scenes from veteran Fuller's own recollections of the battlefield.

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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 bandito, Spanish deserts can stand in for anywhere, and composer Ennio Morricone can transport viewers to Irish meadows with his loveliest of scores.

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.

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A strange outlier in the early career of David O Russell, Three Kings is a film of constant contradiction. Scene by scene, it jackknifes between realism and hyperstylisation, broad comedy and gut-wrenching drama, charisma and ugliness. Is it a comedy? An action heist flick? A meditation on America’s failed influence in the Middle East? The answer is all of the above: This is a film that earns the right to have its exploding cow and its political commentary on the same darkly comic platter. 

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Based on its most notorious scenes – games of Russian roulette, one of them with vicious Vietcong captors – this actorcentric POW movie (featuring an unhinged Christopher Walken) earns its place on our list. The metaphor is a provocative one: Many saw holding a loaded gun to one's head as an obvious parallel to the United States' entrance into the war itself.

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Peter Weir’s tragic, superbly mounted tale of two professional sprinters who join the Australian army circa WWI sheds some light on the casualty-heavy Turkish campaign. Weir's facility with action scenes is fully evident, especially during the gut-wrenching climactic battle. The film also helped to put a young actor named Mel Gibson on the international stage.

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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.

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It's become one of the most beloved ‘dad movies’ of all time – but maybe Father knows best. The murderous ‘dozen,’ conscripted for a suicide mission on the eve of D-Day, includes a shifty-eyed psychopath (John Cassavetes), a religious fanatic and woman-beater (Telly Savalas), and a slow-witted ‘General’ (Donald Sutherland). They get the job done.

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  • Thriller

Pervy Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is better known for Basic Instinct and Showgirls, but war movies are his true métier. In this deliciously plotted WWII survival tale (a comeback of sorts for the Hollywood exile), a hotcha Jewish singer becomes a spy, a freedom fighter and a bed partner of Nazis. Talented Carice van Houten commits fully.

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‘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.

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Famously, this was Richard Nixon's favorite film, a potent counterbalance to the voices of the protesters and a manly peptalk of righteousness. (It wasn't enough to help the President with his problems.) George C. Scott is magnificent in the title role, railing iconically in his opening monologue before a huge American flag.

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No proper war-movie list would be complete without an entry from the revered Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, who produced a masterful trilogy that included A Generation (1955) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), along with this Cannes prize-winner. It's the first film to (brutally) portray the sewer-based Warsaw Uprising against the the Nazis.

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Much of the cult of Oliver Stone rests upon this film, an impassioned and corrective countermyth to the official version of the Vietnam War. Released at a moment when America was finally ready to reexamine its involvement, Stone's grimy drama – marked by complex motivations among the troops – wrung an emotional catharsis from Samuel Barber's ‘Adagio for Strings.’

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If war movies have become sophisticated, critical responses to the illusion of the gung-ho supersoldier, we have this Hollywood drama to thank. Taking WWII’s pivotal Battle of the Bulge as its subject, director William Wellman's chronicle found room for then-bold notes of uncertainty and fear – even a hint of desertion.

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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.

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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
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Studio Ghibli director Tokuma Shoten has vehemently denied that Grave of the Fireflies contains an anti-war message. Yet his devastating tale of two orphaned girls struggling to survive alone after the firebombing of Kobe is the epitome of a ‘war is hell’ narrative, one that ditches battlefield heroics to focus almost exclusively on the suffering endured by children in the aftermath of atrocity. A stirringly beautiful, emotionally gutting experience, this is masterful storytelling that, like its protagonists, finds traces of light in suffocating darkness… then promptly extinguishes it to devastating effect. 

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A master of all genres, Howard Hawks tried his hand at everything from screwball zaniness (Bringing Up Baby) to alien terror (ghost-directing The Thing from Another World). When he made his war picture, he embraced the patriotism of the moment, but brought along William Faulkner to pen a killer deathbed speech.

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This French heartbreaker popularized a storyline that would appear forever in war films: the strength of children to find a way through the muck. An orphaned five-year-old girl is befriended by a boy who helps her bury her dog. They tend to other dead animals in their small, makeshift cemetery, a poetic image that still wrecks.

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Taking Tom Cruise seriously has always been a dicey proposition. But you can't fault him for this open-throated effort, portraying real-life Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, who returned home to Long Island paralyzed from the chest down yet unencumbered mentally and ready to rage. Only three years after Top Gun, here was a real actor.

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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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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.

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Made at the peak of Hollywood's studio system and a flawless example of robust mainstream entertainment, John Sturgess's protoblockbuster turned Steve McQueen into a marquee idol – he gobbles up the lens even before he jumps the barbed-wire fence of his WWII POW camp on a motorcycle. Amazingly, the story is a real-life one.

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A delicate Russian-made tribute to that nation’s staggering sacrifice during WWII, Grigori Chukhrai's drama concerns a teenage infantryman's journey back home for a six-day break, a reward for taking out two German tanks. He marvels at the rape of the land – and also connects with a beautiful girl. It's a film about the value of the fight.

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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.

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Gregory Peck had already arrived as a magnetic onscreen presence by the time this minutely detailed WWII Air Force drama gave him his most ambitious role to date, as a stern disciplinarian whose leadership transforms a bomber unit into a well-oiled machine. The ultimate praise: The movie was required viewing at military-service academies for decades.

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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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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.

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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.

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