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The 20 Greatest War Movies of All Time
War is hell. It’s brutal and bloody. It destroys lives, countries, cultures. It shapes our past, our present, our future. And that is why it continues to be the fascination of filmmakers and movie-goers alike. Stories about war reveal the true nature of humanity in its darkest times.
And just because these are dramas often dealing with the military—telling stories of brave soldiers and great victories—these aren’t always flag-waving patriotic films. A war movie can be deeply pacifist, it can be revolutionary, it can be critical of our leaders who bring us into conflict.
Below we run down the 20 greatest war movies ever made. It includes some of the classics along with a few non-traditional choices to widen your expectations of what a war movie can be and do.
Honorable Mention: Captain America
Yes, it borders on the line of Marvel-induced jingoism and it’s a superhero movie that surely doesn’t shine a light on the throes of war like the rest of this list (which is why it’s an HM, not an actual entry). But Captain America, in a lot of ways, encapsulates who we can be and what, ultimately, we hope to not have to be at the same time. It’s still one of Marvel’s greatest outings, and man if ol’ Cap isn’t a great hero to rally around.
20. Pan’s Labyrinth
Nothing like starting a list of war movies with a film that is technically only adjacently about war. Set against the Spanish Civil War, Guillermo del Toro’s strange look into the era is a fantastical triumph and a welcome respite from the obvious war genre.
19. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino is a legend. The director’s revisionist look at World War II brings his pulpy style to “killin’ Nazis.” And like any Tarantino flick, it spares no opportunity for a bit of gore and bloodshed. Lt. Aldo Raine? A legend for-fucking-ever.
Gallipoli is an Australian’s look into World War I, starring Mel Gibson. The film was lauded by critics, completely swept Australian film awards, and remains one of the greatest war epics of all time. Go Australia!
This film is a masterful look at the attack on Dunkirk from three different vantage points. Also, as a bonus, it features Harry Styles in his first major acting role, and your boy will make you proud.
16. Black Hawn Down
Ridley Scott’s entry into war movies is based on a book of the same name. The ensemble cast led by Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor follows the story of the U.S. military’s 1993 raid in Mogadishu.
15. Full Metal Jacket
The 1987 war film by Stanley Kubrick stars Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio ,and Adam Baldwin. Full Metal Jacket takes you right into the trenches of war and is seen as one of the best films set during the Vietnam War.
14. Letters from Iwo Jima
Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Japenese-language film is one of the most celebrated war movies in recent history. That happens when you combine the powers of Spielberg producing, Eastwood directing, and Yamashita’s screenplay. It tackles the complexities of good and evil on both sides of World War II to absolute perfection.
13. Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory is actually a bit of an anti-war film. Directed by Stanley Kurbrick, it holds up as one of the most important entires into the genre and continues to be a guidepost for how to create a beautiful film about war.
12. Hiroshima Mon Amour
French director Alain Resnais may be most often associated with the free-wheeling films of the French New Wave movement, but perhaps his greatest gift to world cinema is Hiroshima mon amour. The movie explores a tragic and intimate love affair between a French actress and Japanese architect. Both of their lives were irrevocably changed by World War II and the devastation of the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. Even if you’re not a film buff, this one is worth a watch–it’s every bit as vital as any of the war films on this list.
I mean, just look at the trailer. This 2019 Best Picture nominee is more of a film about pacifism than it is about the glories of either side of WWI. Shot to look like one continuous take, after watching it, you’ll feel like you spent nearly 2 hours without breathing.
This biographical film about General George S. Patton is a favorite among war movie buffs… deservedly so. It went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director.
9. Schindler’s List
There is perhaps no more grueling and heartbreaking cinematic portrayal of the Holocaust than Schindler’s List, a portrayal of World War II where a German businessman works to save more than a thousand Jewish people by employing them in his factories.
8. The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Bridge on the Ricer Kwai helped set a precedent for the war film genre in 1957. It also was nominated for an insane amount of Oscars, winning seven.
Platoon stars Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen in one of the most raw and devastating portrayals of war in film history. Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay based on his own experience in Vietnam, and the effects are both moving and disturbing at the same time.
6. Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic is essentially an epic anti-war film starring the greats: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Martin Sheen. Skewering the pointlessness of the Vietnam War, the film has only gained acclaim as perhaps the best war epic of all time.
Ran is a war movie like no other. The 1985 epic takes a bit from Shakespeare’s King Lear, turning three loyal sons on their father, Hidetora Ichimonji, who abdicates his throne.
4. Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan dives into the complex ethics of war. When a mother loses three of her four sons in combat, a special mission is developed to go out to save the surviving Private Ryan (Matt Damon) in Normandy before he becomes the final fatality that breaks a family apart. But in doing so, the mission risks the lives of the seven men sent to save him.
3. The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow’s look at modern-day warfare is a fascinating glimpse into a revamped war genre. With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow became the first and only woman so far to win the Academy Award for Best Director.
2. The Thin Red Line
Starring Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, and a laundry list of other giant names, the Terrence Malick film is a contemporary look into World War II and often regarded as the greatest modern war epic.
1. The Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino, the film tackles the Vietnam War (seriously, people love to film the Vietnam War), a working-class Pennsylvania town and the physical and psychological effects it has on the boys who never come home or never come home whole again.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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