The 50 Best War Movies of All Time

screenshot from All Quiet on the Western Front

Here’s our epic list of the best war movies of all time.

Aspects to remember: first, these have to take place during wars or battles that actually happened. So, that means a great war movie like Starship Troopers won’t make the cut. Second, the more warfare it has, the higher it ranks. So, while many films take place during a war, the ones with no actual fighting on screen lose points, let’s say. Let’s not waste time. Let the fighting begin.

50. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Conflict: Vietnam War

Nothing says war like a radio DJ played by Robin Williams. The list starts with a war-comedy that earned Williams his first Oscar nomination (lost to Michael Douglas for Wall Street) which was the first to point to his ability to be a legitimate actor, rather than an unstoppable joke machine. Good Morning, Vietnam takes place in Saigon, as Adrian Cronauer (Williams) arrives to work at the Armed Forces Radio Service. He is, as Williams typically is, a loose cannon who refuses to abide by regulations, feeling that his American-focused broadcasts give the soldiers something they don’t typically get: a taste of home. After befriending a Vietnamese woman, Cronauer finds himself drawn into the world around him, getting closer to the line of duty than he ever has been. The film was critically praised, winning Williams a Golden Globe and eventually being named by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest American comedies of all time. The film is relatively light on actual warfare, but the conflict still exists within what is otherwise a relatively standard “fight authority” story.

49. Lone Survivor (2013)

Directed by: Peter Berg

Conflict: The War in Afghanistan

The most recent film on the list was a surprise box office and critical success, earning two Oscar nominations for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Lone Survivor stars Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, a sniper in SEAL Team 10, a reconnaissance and surveillance team stationed in Afghanistan, looking for Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. He works alongside three other Marines, played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch, and Lt. Commander Erik Kristensen, played by Eric Bana. They sneak through the mountains, coming upon some shepherds. After debate, they release them, only to find themselves ambushed by Taliban forces. From there, it’s a high energy trek through the mountains and forests, the team slowly shrinking one-by-one. Based on the true story of Luttrell, while the film functions as an action-focused war film, it also takes steps to avoid the “American glory above all” mindset, clearly identifying the Afghan residents’ role in the rescue mission. In such a young “war,” Lone Survivor is a bright spot of media treatment, finding a medium between anti-war and manifest destiny by stripping away the global conflict and delivering a character-focused drama.

48. Rescue Dawn (2006)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Conflict: Vietnam War

Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly was the source material, Herzog deciding to write a fictional screenplay based on the same story. Rescue Dawn stars Christian Bale as Dieter, a U.S. Navy pilot who is shot down over Laos during a combat mission. He is captured by the Pathet Lao, a communist organization in Laos that eventually organized and led the North Vietnam army. He is told he can leave if he signs a document condemning the US. His refusal leads to torture and relocation to a prison camp, where he meets more American soldiers, played by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn. From there, Dieter plots his escape, eventually convincing the others to join him, though only Duane Martin (Zahn) follows through with him in the effort. Herzog shot the film in Thailand – Bale, Davies, and Zahn spent months losing weight to give the appearane of war prisoners. Herzog then shot the film in reverse. Despite the historical inaccuracies brought to light post-release, Herzog’s film is still relatively successful, rather than retreading the same ground he did nine years earlier. It’s not one of Herzog’s more imaginative works, but it still tows the line as a solid look at the trek through the jungles of Thailand and their overbearing nature.

47. Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Directed by: Brian G. Hutton

Conflict: World War II

Another war comedy, Kelly’s Heroes tells the story of a group of soldiers who try to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) learns of some gold in a local bank vault, so he convinces the rest of his platoon to sneak off and steal it. His crew includes Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, and Donald Sutherland (I know – it’s insane). As in most comedic ensembles, most of the characters are relatively one-dimensional, each serving as a foil within the “collection of misfits,” as it were. The film was originally meant to have a female role, only to have it eventually cut, resulting in an all-male cast. Later, Eastwood claimed publicly that MGM had cut a multitude of extra scenes from the film which would have given the lead characters more depth. But, in the long history of American war films (and limited history of war comedies), Kelly’s Heroes finds its place among them, standing as one of Eastwood’s rare departures from drama and western, holding his own against comedic greats like O’Connor and Rickles. The biggest surprise was the unexpected success of the song “Burning Bridges,” performed by Mike Curb’s Congregation at the beginning and end of the film, which found its way onto the Billboard singles chart in 1971.

46. Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein, Dimitri Vasilyev

Conflict: Teutonic Invasion of Novgorod

It’s easily the most recognizable conflict covered by any film on this list. After a ten year absence from making films, Sergei Eisenstein took advantage of growing discord between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Stalinist era by producing this film about a Russian folk hero fighting a German insurgence. Alexander Nevsky stars Nikolai Cherkasov as the title prince, who rallies the people of his town of Novgorod to meet invading Teutonic knights to defeat them in an epic Battle of the Ice that takes place on the surface of the frozen Lake Peipus. A less than subtle attack on the situation in the Soviet Union at the time, Eisenstein’s original plans included helmets on the German soldiers with swastikas, as well as a fiercely anti-Catholic agenda, clearest in the appearance of swastikas on the knights’ bishop. While the film is much more structured than other Eisenstein films, the final Battle of the Ice actually spans 30+ minutes of the film – over a quarter of the running time. Vasilyev is given co-director credit on the film, though he was more or less hired to ensure that Eisenstein stuck to a schedule, rather than getting to caught up in the formalism of his style. Alexander Nevsky was Eisenstein’s first dramatic film with sound and, while it may not be the pinnacle of his work, its influence can be felt throughout plenty of genres since.

45. Gallipoli (1981)

Directed by: Peter Weir

Conflict: World War I

Before Mel Gibson was directing movies about Jesus, he was a small time Australian actor. Two years after his trademark role in Mad Max, he teamed up with Peter Weir on this long-gestating project about the Gallipoli campaign during the first World War. Gibson stars as a cynical railway worker who tries to win prize money for racing, only to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force alongside his competition, an 18-year-old stockman named Archy (Mark Lee). Their time in the military sees pain and suffering, eventually seeing them deep in battle in the Turkish peninsula of the title. Gallipoli is a rare Australian war film in a world dominated by American and other Western power-produced films. But, regardless of the setting or country of origin, it still emotes the same themes we see in plenty of other war films: young men forced into combat, losing their innocence, and either dying or becoming a shells of what they once were. Gibson’s work is some of his best, while Lee – recruited for the film after a photo session with Weir – delivers a novice, idealistic performance that fits the story perfectly. Much like plenty of other films on the list, it’s not a movie about war – that’s simply the setting for a movie about a friendship that defined two men until the end.

44. Casualties of War (1989)

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Conflict: Vietnam War

Based partly on an article in The New Yorker by Daniel Lang, Casualties of War tells the story of the incident on Hill 192 during the Vietnam War, starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, and John C. Reilly. Fox tells the story in flashback as Private Max Eriksson, eight years removed from the incident. Without going into too much detail, after a fierce battle, Eriksson’s group finds themselves on enemy territory, but without an oncoming threat. This leads to one of the soldiers kidnapping a local Vietnamese girl and he and his fellow military men take advantage of her. All except Eriksson, who refuses, even after threats by his commanding officers. Eventually, this leads to a trial and the ongoing question of ethical codes vs. loyalty to your brothers in arms. Released just three years after Oliver Stone’s Best Picture winner Platoon, it covers a lot of the same topics, but to middling results. While Stone’s film took a broader approach, De Palma’s focused so intently on one situation that it ended up fraying around the edges a bit. Still, the graphic nature of the film and horrific picture of the realities of the war manages to stir up nightmares.

43. El Cid (1961)

Directed by: Anthony Mann

Conflict: Unification of Spain

In Spain, Don Rodrigo Diaz is recognized as a folk hero; “El Cid” (Castillian Spanish pronounciation of the Arabic word for “Al Sidi,” which mean “Lord) fought the North African Almoravides, eventually leading to the unification of Spain. In 1961, Anthony Mann enlisted movie epic poster boy Charlton Heston to realize the story, starring alongside international beauty and superstar Sophia Loren. As Don Rodrigo (Heston) heads to meet his future bride (Loren), he gets himself caught up in a war with a Moorish army, only to release the enemy commanders, resulting in accusations of treason. For the most part, the film follows him on other missions, seeing him defeat various conspirators and tower high above the world he lives in, despite the corruption and murder around him. El Cid remains a favorite of Martin Scorsese, despite its spectacle status. Upon the film’s release, its scenery and cinematography was hailed as one of a kind, though Loren found herself in a legal battle with the production company, as her role in the film was downplayed (unintentionally or not is up for debate) in favor of Heston’s. It grabbed three Oscar nominations in all and, while it may get lost in the shuffle of various other epics of the era, there’s no denying its beauty and depiction of a historical icon.

42. The Longest Day (1962)

Directed by: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, Darryl Zanuck

Conflict: World War II

Well, with so many to chose from, I had to include at least one John Wayne film on the list, didn’t I? Filmed in a docudrama style, The Longest Day was the fictionalization of the D-Day descent on Normandy, told from every side of the battle. The film takes its time focusing on the actual decision to go into Normandy by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American president at the time. Then it takes an American perspective, a German perspective, a British one, and a French one, each segment directed by someone else. Each foreign language segment was actually spoken in the native dialects, with subtitles included – a new technique, at the time. The major American role in the film – Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort – was actually sought by Charlton Heston, but was later given to Wayne, which forced Heston out. Vandervoort was actually 28 years younger during the actual event than Wayne was during the filming of the movie. Wayne also demanded a higher salary as compensation for director Zanuck’s previous comments about him to the press. The film was stuffed full of actors from the various nationalities, actually marking Sean Connery’s last film before he inhabited the role of James Bond for the first time. Despitre its originality and its attempt to show the war from all sides, the film sometimes gets lost when discussing some of the great World War II films. But, it still garners mentions here, if only for the first attempt to show a multi-faceted view of war.

41. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Conflict: Vietnam War

It was the movie that proved Tom Cruise was more than just a pretty face (though, I would argue, his performance in Rain Man is better than he gets credit for). Oliver Stone directed and co-wrote (with Kovic) the adaptation of Ron Kovic’s autobiography about his time in Vietnam during the war and his return home. During his tours in Vietnam, Kovic witnesses a fellow officer kill civilians, accidentally shoots and kills another soldiers, and eventually finds himself paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Kovic then finds himself disillusioned by the public’s treatment of veterans (especially crippled ones) and is abhorred by the minimal care provided to him by the government he served for so long. Of Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, this is really the most pessimistic, focusing less on the horrors of war and more on the post-war horrors our veterans go through. Cruise grabbed his first Oscar nomination for the film, one of the eight the movie achieved (it won Best Director for Stone and Best Film Editing). Stone wanted to film in Vietnam, but could not, due to relationships between the two nations still on the outs. A Vietnam veteran himself, with Born on the Fourth of July, Stone made his most visceral attack on the American military system to date, sometimes leaning to the unreasonably aggressive side. But, the message worked – the film is still considered one of his best and is commonly included in the list of worst Best Picture snubs (it lost to Driving Miss Daisy).

40. The Killing Fields (1984)

Directed by: Roland Joffé

Conflict: Cambodian Civil War

For all the films made about World War II and larger scale conflicts, the few that depict smaller, more concentrated ones are sometimes more effective. Roland Joffé’s 1984 drama The Killing Fields hones in on Cambodia, right in the middle of a battle with communist Khmer Rouge. The civil war is a byproduct of the Vietnam War – here, we look at the relationship between a Cambodian photographer named Dith Pran (Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor) and an American journalist named Sydney (Sam Waterston), who are taking photos of the execution of two military operatives. They find themselves arrested and, while Sydney will have no issues if he decides to leave, it’s not as easy for Pran, as the communist powers close in. That doesn’t deter Pran, who works with the American forces to send his family away, but agrees to stay in Cambodia with Sydney. Sydney eventually leaves (thanks to Pran), but, upon returning to the U.S., starts his own personal mission to locate Pran and remove him from the bloodshed. Joffé’s film is eye-opening – a rare look inside a part of the world with which the general public is less familiar. All the more engaging is the fact that the story is based in reality and the horrors aren’t imagined. Joffé never achieved this level of quality again, but his work here is exemplary.

39. Jarhead (2005)

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Conflict: Operation Desert Storm

It’s not exactly an antiwar film: it doesn’t celebrate war. Sam Mendes adapted Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir in 2005, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford. Jarhead takes place during the first Gulf War, following Swofford through training and eventually to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And that’s it. What results is Swofford, his roommate Troy (Peter Sarsgaard), and the other marines in this camp as they just kind of sit around. They are all thirsty for combat, but all they can do is wait, guard the oil fields, and try to keep from going crazy. Less about the dedication to the armed forces than it is about the paranoia soldiers have about their home lives, it gave a nice platform for Gyllenhaal to show off his acting chops and provided the world with a Marine-focused trademark phrase (Staff Sergeant Sykes’ “oo-ra”, delivered by Jamie Foxx as Sykes). After Mendes’ Oscar juggernaut American Beauty blew up in 1999, he found himself shifting to various other topics, from the less successful gangster/father-son film Road to Perdition, then to this. They all focus on the way our inner demons drive our responses during the various situation in which we find ourselves, but Mendes never found the same success as Beauty until he became the chosen one to helm the latest James Bond set of films, starting with Skyfall.

38. Army of Shadows (1969)

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville

Conflict: World War II

The first World War II film in this portion of the list, Army of Shadows is Jean-Pierre Melville’s semi-adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1943 book of the same name. The film was actually criticized heavily in its first release in 1969, with French critics latching onto its perceived support of Charles de Gaulle. As a result, it was basically shelved for 40 years, until it was restored in the mid-90’s and re-released in 2006, where American critics gave it glowing reviews. Army of Shadows centers on the head of a Resistance network named Philippe (Lino Ventura) who gets arrested, but subsequently escapes from a French prison camp. He begins working his way through Europe by submarine, to bars and farmhouses, assembling a team of fellow resistance members, eventually finding out how large the web of resistance within Europe is. Melville’s film is dark and gritty – it makes no effort to sugarcoat any aspect of the effort. Army of Shadows paints a truly realistic picture of what people in these metaphorical shadows were doing while trying to escape Adolf Hitler’s growing fascist Nazi regime. Not every army was a group of gun-toting foot soldiers.

37. Black Hawk Down (2001)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Conflict: Battle of Mogadishu

It may be one of the more one-sided films on the list, which went to great lengths to vilify the Somalis in such a difficult time in their history. Based on the 1997 book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down is a detailed account of the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, where United States military raided the area in an effort to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. After the United Nations made an effort to help Somalia during their time of civil war and famine, Somali militia eventually declared war on the U.N. personnel, forcing the U.S. to send in troops to capture Aidid. What results is an action-filled, near real-time depiction of the event, which didn’t go according to plan. As the title card at the end explains, 19 American soldiers were killed; over 1,000 Somalis were. Black Hawk Down tried to take advantage of Josh Hartnett’s short-lived star power, Ridley Scott’s history with action films, and the production dollars of Jerry Bruckheimer and was at least moderately successful. The film grabbed two Oscars for Editing and Sound, as well as nominations for Cinematography and Director. But, in a post-Saving Private Ryan world, it wasn’t as popular with the general public. There was no heartwarming discussion; no downtime. Just soldiers trying to do their jobs, however unpopular it may have been.

36. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Conflict: World War II

Long before he contributed to Saving Private Ryan’s surprise Oscar loss at the hands of Shakespeare in Love (he was the screenwriter and won the Oscar), Tom Stoppard actually adapted J.G. Ballard’s novel for Steven Spielberg for make 1987’s Empire of the Sun. Starring a fresh-faced little kid named Christian Bale, this coming-of-age story revolves around Jim Graham (Bale), a boy who gets moved from wealthy living in Shanghai to living in a Japanese war camp during World War II. Originally slated as a project for director David Lean, Spielberg was attached to produce, but eventually shifted into the director’s chair. It’s really Spielberg’s first foray into the stories of World War II, which he has since become so interested in rehashing. Empire of the Sun, at its basic level, is a story of enlightenment and understanding, as a spoiled child goes from thinking nothing of the horrors of the world to being pushed full force into them. The film was the first major exposure of Bale to the world, landing the part thanks to Amy Irving, his co-star in the TV Movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anne, who just so happened to be Spielberg’s wife at the time; in addition, Ballard felt that Bale actually resembled him at the age at which he based his semi-autobiographical novel. Beyond its release of Christian Bale to the world, Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg’s more under-appreciated works and, despite going home empty-handed, tallied six Oscar nominations. Above all, it’s a touching portrait of growing up in a way no child should have to.

35. Downfall (2004)

Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Conflict: World War II

Looking for the hands down, best portrayal of Adolf Hitler on film? Look no further than Bruno Ganz’s turn in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (German: Der Untergang), which shows the final ten days of his reign over Nazi Germany in 1945. In the history of cinema, there are historical figures that are never portrayed in a positive light; Hitler is certainly one of these. While Downfall doesn’t turn him into a hero, it does create a three-dimensional character out him never really seen on film before then. Opposed to a stereotypical mad villain, it shows Hitler as a frustrated leader, realizing that his master plan is failing and his rule is nearing the end. We see him talking to advisors and soldiers, as he tries to figure out ways out of his doomed situation. He’s still the insane fascist we have all grown to hate, but he is also a living, breathing human being. As Roger Ebert said about the Hitler of Downfall, “Admiration I did not feel. Sympathy I felt in the sense that I would feel it for a rabid dog, while accepting that it must be destroyed.” Downfall was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, coming up empty handed. But, this unsettling, but surprisingly even-handed look at one of history biggest monsters is a rare and under seen cinematic feat.

34. The Pianist (2002)

Directed by: Roman Polanski

Conflict: World War II

This film, based on Władysław Szpilman’s autobiographical book about surviving the Holocaust, was the frontrunner for Best Picture for most of the Oscar season, eventually losing out to Chicago. Though it didn’t take home the top award, it walked away with an Adapted Screenplay Oscar, a Best Actor award for Adrien Brody and a Best Director Oscar for the great Roman Polanski,  still in Europe, avoiding American sentencing for unlawful sex with a minor 25 years earlier.  Brody plays Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist playing on the radio in Warsaw when the station is bombed by Nazi forces during their invasion of Poland. From there, it details his survival as his life increasingly gets worse and worse, from internment camp to slave laborer to eventually just being lost in the rubble of various Polish cities. Despite its surface appearance, The Pianist is less about perseverance and more about basic survival and luck. Władysław never does anything terribly heroic – he simply does what needs to be done and comes upon some very beneficial circumstances. It doesn’t make the film any less powerful and moving. Brody gives a master class in acting and Polanski’s approach to the story is harrowing, at best. Still, in a war that gives birth to quite a few gung ho, “victories over evil” style movies, it’s a welcome relief to see what happened long before the world powers stepped in and what it took ordinary people to survive.

33. The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Directed by: J. Lee Thompson

Conflict: World War II

A British-American action/adventure film directed by the man who, the following year, gave the world the original Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone stars Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn as members of a British team sent to take down a German base that controls an important sea channel near the Greek island of Navarone. As German forces see the war slipping away, they begin pushing the neutral country of Turkey into joining their campaign. To do this, they capture a group of British soldiers, holding them on an island in the Aegean Sea with only one way out, which is guarded by two massive batteries alongside the island of Navarone. So, the military sends a group of soldier in on foot to meet with Greek military and try to disarm the guns, despite the danger of a spy being in their group. The film grabbed seven Oscar nominations, winning for Special Effects. The Guns of Navarone was part of a group of World War II adventures that premiered in the last 50’s and early 60’s (some of which are on this list) and, despite its adaptation from the Alistair MacLean novel of the same name, was rewritten significantly by producer and screenwriter Carl Foreman. Thompson’s film is certainly not the most recognized of that era of WWII films, but it stands on its own as a successful collaboration between British and American production companies. Besides, it almost killed David Niven, which almost forced the film to be cancelled. Thankfully, he pulled through.

32. From Here to Eternity (1953)

Directed by: Fred Zinnemann

Conflict: World War II

This is the movie that Pearl Harbor tried to be, but failed miserably to achieve (thank you Michael Bay). Based on James Jones’ novel of the same name, From Here to Eternity starred Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra as three soldier stationed in Hawaii in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Private Robert Prewitt (Clift) is transferred to Oahu and gets pressure to take part in amateur boxing, but refuses. Meanwhile, First Sergeant Warden (Lancaster) is preparing court martial papers and comes to blows with Prewitt, who only gets help from his friend and fellow Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra – Oscar-winning role). Meanwhile, Warden begins an affair with Captain Holmes’ (Philip Ober) wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), giving the world the famous embrace on the beach in the tide.  It’s a soap opera leading up to the attack. That being said, it’s a delightful picture of how trivial the problems of these people were before they all had to band together in one way or another to fight a common enemy. In the end, whatever differences these men and women have may still bubble below the surface, but they’re all on the same side, whether they silently hate each other or not.

31. Come and See (1985)

Directed by: Elem Klimov

Conflict: World War II

It’s like an extended explanation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, inflicted on a young Belarusian boy during World War II. Come and See is an incredibly dark Russian psychological thriller about boy who finds an old rifle and gets the itch to enlist in the Soviet army. He quickly learns that his camp is extremely underprepared and short on weaponry and manpower, seeing dozens of his people murdered by what feels like an unstoppable German army. While many films have shown young men “come of age” during warfare, Come and See not only shows a young man maturation during battle, but results in the loss of grip on reality and sanity. The lead performance from Aleksey Kravchenko is magnificent; director Elem Klimov’s epic battle to get the film made began in 1977, fighting with censors for the duration. Eventually, the only change he was forced to make was the name, which was originally “Kill Hitler.” The film was made in chronological order and we watch as Kravchenko dissipates on screen, thanks to a strict diet and incredible fatigue. There have been plenty of antiwar films. There have been plenty of naturalistic war films. But Come and See if a different animal – a shock-filled vehicle of death and degradation that is more art film than combat film.

30.  Black Book (2006)

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Conflict: World War II

In 2008, the Dutch public named it the greatest Dutch film ever made. Who am I to argue? A surprisingly complete film from a director who has Showgirls and Hollow Man under his belt (and Starship Troopers and Robocop…I can’t be too hard on him), Black Book is the story of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish singer hiding in the Netherlands from the Nazi regime. After nearly dying in a Nazi attack, Rachel finds herself still behind enemy lines. She gets involved with a Resistance group who eventually bleach her hair blonde and begin to use her as a spy, working as a secretary at the SD headquarters and befriending various SS officers, after attending one of their parties. It slowly devolves into a game, as Nazi officers figure out that Rachel is a spy, but decide to convince the Resistance that she is, in fact, an informant for them. While the majority of the films on this list are male-focused, Black Book is a rare case of a war film with a female protagonist, brilliantly played by van Houten. She received critical praise for her work, nominated for various Critic Association awards. While she had worked for almost ten years before Black Book, van Houten found her first international recognition for her powerhouse performance here. Six years later, she re-entered international consciousness with her role as Melisandre in Game of Thrones. GOT fans, do yourselves a favor – watch Black Book and see how much more the priestess of the Red God and Lord of Light can do.

29. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Directed by: David Lean

Conflict: World War I

David Lean’s sweeping, dramatic story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is widely recognized as one of the greatest film of all time, but lands a little further down the list because of its lack of true warfare. The majority of the movie is Lawrence stationed on the Arabian peninsula, more or less shielded from the more front facing side of World War I, focusing more on his connection with his Arabian tribes and his personal struggle with his own military and his deep seeded dislike of violence. The film is broken into two parts – the first focuses on Lawrence and how he gained acceptance and control over areas on the Arabian peninsula, working with local tribes to rebel against the oppressive Turks in the area. The second half sees Lawrence struggling to maintain his “no violence” stance, only to find himself eventually drawn into the warfare he had long been against. It’s a fascinating character study and one of the greatest singular performances every caught on film, but in terms of a true war film, it doesn’t stack up as highly as it could. Lawrence of Arabia takes place during war and is inherently about the effects of war, but it isn’t really focused on the war so much as it is the cultural imbalances not often discussed within the tenets of war. T.E. Lawrence went to the desert to check up on the British army there and ended up finding a place where he felt like home. Even as he is finally drawn to join the battle, he finds himself thrilled not to fight, but to join his new brothers.

28. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Directed by: Allan Dwan

Conflict: World War II

More John Wayne, this time centered on a group of Marines who go through the necessary training and eventually take part in the Battle of Iwo Jima. It grabbed Wayne an Oscar nomination, thought he came away empty handed. In the film, he plays a Sergeant John Stryker, the bane of his squad’s existence. Basically, he makes his team go through rigorous training, which they don’t like. Sure enough – as you’d expect – the team learns during battle that his methods were important in their development as soldiers. As with most every John Wayne war film, Sands of Iwo Jima is the antithesis of antiwar – it is a picture of patriotism and the need for “tough love” through every step of a soldier’s development. But, it doesn’t manage to show the “tough as nails” leader in a softer light at one point, so that makes it all okay. Sands of Iwo Jima doesn’t hold up – John Wayne was not the most skilled actor of his time, to say the least. But it is a great example of what war films were like post WWII, when patriotism was viewed as virtue and the United States had yet to blemish its military record so negatively.

27. Stalag 17 (1953)

Directed by: Billy Wilder

Conflict: World War II

The film sat on the shelf for a year – Paramount was worried that no one would want to see a film about prisoners of war, especially when the country was still knee deep in the Korean War. Finally, when the American POWs were released from the Korean War, the company released it in the hopes that its timely subject would exploit moviegoers and their current tastes. William Holden (Oscar winner for the role) stars as J.J. Sefton, one of hundreds of POWs held at the Luftwaffe prisoner-of-war camp along the Danube River. When two soldiers try to escape, they are shot and killed. This results in the rest of the prisoners coming to the conclusion that someone told the guards, which begins a long running search for a mole within them (actors have contended that they never found out who the informant was until the final few days of shooting the film). What results is a fascinating game of cat-and-mouse, where Sefton leads the charge to find the betrayer, though he himself has found himself under investigation. Holden has always been a severely underrated actor, but his collaborations with Billy Wilder were certainly standouts (his work in Sunset Blvd. is probably his best). Stalag 17 provided a more cast-focused film, but Holden clearly headlined and held the film together. Doesn’t hurt that it was based on a Broadway play, but completely rewritten by Wilder and screenwriter Edwin Blum.

26. The Big Red One (1980)

Directed by: Samuel Fuller

Conflict: World War II

One of the stranger lifecycles of any film on the list, The Big Red One was cut up drastically upon its first release in 1980, only to be restored and re-released at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, seven years after Samuel Fuller’s death (the restoration is 49 minutes longer). Lee Marvin stars as Sgt. Possum, leading his infantry through North Africa. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Feldwebel Scroeder (Siegfried Rauch), the German “sergeant” of the Nazi regime, who shares a lot of the same code that Possum does, most importantly that soldiers cannot be labeled as “murderers,” but are, in fact, “killers.” They are shown in sharp contract to Private Griff (Mark Hamill), a marksman who doesn’t want to take part in killing anyone until he sees the true horrors of war in a concentration camp. Marvin is phenomenal in the film, delivered a layered performance he doesn’t show too often. The film is about Possum and his conflicting ideals – it begins with him killing a German soldier who was surrendering during World War I, an action he has since lived with and pondered over many a night. As his involvement in World War II is fleshed out, we eventually see that this man, despite his leadership skills, may very well be the last person you want to follow.

25. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Conflict: World War II

More World War II, but this time less a typical war film and more a revenge killing wet dream that is more style than substance (though not by a lot). Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was originally written in 1998, but was delayed when Tarantino was unsatisfied with the ending. Two Kill Bills and half of Grindhouse later, he came back to the project and delivered one of the best films of 2009. To sum it up, Inglourious Basterds is 3+ storylines that intersect. First, a band of Jewish American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) just heading through enemy lines, collecting Nazi scalps. Second, a cinema in Paris is run by a young woman (Mélanie Laurent) who finds herself the object of affection for a Nazi war hero, who convinces her to show a biographical film about his heroism, directed by Joseph Goebbels. The third involves SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the infamous “Jew Hunter,” looking for Jewish countrymen and women in hiding. The three stories eventually intersect at the aforementioned theater in Paris, making for some revisionist history fireworks. I didn’t live through World War II. My parents didn’t even live through World War II. I’m not Jewish. In fact, I’m blonde with blue eyes and white. But, dammit if this movie isn’t an enjoyable watch to see vengeance taken retroactively. Tarantino’s work earned him an Oscar for Original Screenplay, as well as a Supporting Actor win for Waltz. Though it has been criticized for a warped portrayal of a sensitive time period, it’s still a bold work that was Tarantino’s best work in 10+ years. He tried to recapture lightning in a bottle a few years later with Django Unchained, but the impact wasn’t nearly as great.

24. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Conflict: World War II

The good half of Clint Easwtood’s attempt to show the conflicting sides of the Battle of Iwo Jima (the other being the dreadful Flags of Our Fathers), Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of Japanese soldiers during World War II. Headlined by a brilliant performance from Ken Watanabe, the film is almost entirely in Japanese, despite it being an American work. While there are dozens of films made about the great conquest of the villainous Japanese military from the Western world, few have taken the approach to depict what the men of that military went through. Letters from Iwo Jima centers on a few of those men and their struggle to serve their country, predicated on honor and privilege. Private First Class Saigo (Watanabe) feels his side is doomed and it would be insane to continue fighting the American army, only to be disciplined for his “treasonous” thoughts. He sees fellow soldiers executed at the hands of his own commanding officers for feeling the same way. Meanwhile, Saigo begins to learn of the backgrounds of his fellow soldiers, finding more common ground than expected. Eastwood’s bold choice on topic and language at first looked crazy, but the box office proved otherwise, as Letters from Iwo Jima out-earned its English language counterpart greatly, thanks to a better story, better casting, and more skilled moviemaking. It didn’t hurt that American was in the midst of a time when the enemies were getting less and less vilified, thanks to American protest regarding government policies.

23. Three Kings (1999)

Directed by: David O. Russell

Conflict: Persian Gulf War

It’s more a post-war film than a war movie, but it still qualifies. Plus, it’s a great effort from a typically overly idiosyncratic director. Three Kings stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube as military soldiers in Iraq cleaning up the final bits of the Persian Gulf War. While on another humdrum mission to collect surrendering Iraqi soldiers, they uncover what appears to be a map to bunkers that contain stolen gold. The next day, they travel under government cease fire without incident to find the gold, only to uncover a hidden insurgence of anti-Saddam soldiers who turned on their own Iraqi army. This leads to more difficulty, as they attempt to rescue these men, only to be split up and captured themselves. What results is a surprisingly fresh take on a war that seemed commonplace. While films like Jarhead pointed to the Gulf War being a waste of time, Three Kings turned the tables into something that criticized American foreign policy and interrogation techniques long before Guantanamo Bay and the second war in the Persian Gulf. Russell had yet to blossom into a mainstream, Academy-adored director and screenwriter and this felt like the film that began pushing him that direction. In a filmography that includes risky films like I Heart Huckabees and Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings is the movie that bridges the gap between those strange outings to the more mainstream audience pandering films like American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook (the latter I actually really like; the former not so much). But, it’s still a war movie. And a pretty damn good one.

22. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Directed by: Robert Aldrich

Conflict: World War II

I suppose to start, it’ll be fun to just list every person in this crazy film about 12 army convicts being used as commandos to just wreak havoc and raid German troops: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, George Kennedy, Telly Savalas, and Donald Sutherland. It’s told in three separated acts – recruiting the crew, training them, and carrying out the mission at a chateau. Some war movies are subtlety anti-war. Some are discussions on the male psyche and the difficulty of dealing with the horrors of war. Then there’s The Dirty Dozen, based on E.M. Nathanson’s novel of the same name, which is just a thrilling ride with some of the most despicable protagonists they could dig up. The post alone has the tagling “Train Them! Excite Them! Arm Them! Then turn them loose on the Nazis!” Five of the 12 have been sentenced to death by hanging. Five of them have been sentenced to at least 20 years hard labor (whatever that means). Two will be imprisoned. Their sentences have been agreed to be lightened if they participate, so why not? So, in the end, who needs subtlety and analysis when you can just blow up the Nazis? It’s crazy, but it’s a lot of fun.

21. Sergeant York (1941)

Directed by: Howard Hawks

Conflict: World War I

Gary Cooper’s Oscar winning performance was as Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldier of World War I, made during the early involvement of the United States in World War II. It was the highest grossing film of 1941, telling the story of a York, who grew up in backwoods Tennessee. After getting struck by lightning, he decides to put his drinking and fighting days behind him, only to get drafted into the military. After his superiors learn of his shooting skills, they promote him and send him to Europe to attack during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Eventually, York is the only man left in his platoon who hasn’t been killed or wounded, but manages to take an officer captive and ends up forcing over 100 men to surrender. For his act, he wins the Medal of Honor and gets a grand homecoming. Sergeant York is a borderline exploitation film, driving home the idea of religion and “leaving it in God’s hands,” but in a way that is relatively melodramatic and preachy. Still, Cooper’s performance is inspirational; it didn’t hurt the film’s box office that the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred while it was in theaters. It drove up enlistment, thanks to its patriotic themes – even a man who refuses to fight will pick up a rifle when the time calls for it. Especially if his Bible flips to the perfect verse when the wind hits it just right.

20. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Conflict: Boer War, World War I, World War II

The only film on the list that spans multiple wars is also probably the least battle-focused film on the list. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is told through an extended flashback, following Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) as he rises through the ranks of the British military from war to war. The flashback is in response to younger soldiers viewing him as an out-of-touch elderly officer who has no idea what it takes to be a military man in the current time. Colonel Blimp is a fascinating retrospective style film that goes through various stages of the same man’s life, highlighting important friendships, romances, and conflicts that shaped who he has become. Think Forrest Gump without all the saccharine melodrama and quirky historical cameos. Directed by the filmmaking team of Powell and Pressburger, Colonel Blimp is insightful in terms of how war has changed in 40 years, how the British military has evolved, and how some of the old techniques and personalities are still necessary, even when the world has turned to larger weapons and greater battles. Of all the films on the list, it’s probably the most focused on the changes in style and the ongoing jettisoning of honor during wartime. Most importantly, it demonstrates how important an amazing mustache is as a commanding officer.

19. Glory (1989)

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Conflict: American Civil War

The only movie on the list to focus on the American Civil War, Glory is the story of Captain Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) and his promotion among the Union Army to command the Army’s first all-black infantry. While commanding those troops, he learns that any black soldiers found by the Confederacy and their white commanders will be executed on point. Despite this, none of his volunteers leave, all fighting for the collective good. We meet many of the infantry, including central character Trip (Denzel Washington, Oscar winning role), who is the personification previously enslaved African-American men and the guilt a white man has with disciplining and leading these men. In the end, Glory is basically told from a white perspective, but still exposes the internal struggle of the Union Army – they fight for their rights, which includes the abolition of slavery, but they still don’t respect the black soldiers, even denying them basic needs. The American Civil War was about more than slavery, but Glory is the best war film about the injustices in America’s history and the men who fought to correct them.

18. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Conflict: Vietnam War

In a universe full of anti-war films, Full Metal Jacket‘s message often gets lost, if only because it contains two performances far greater than the movie itself. Based on the novel The Short-Timers, the film follows a platoon of Marines through their training and into Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. As usual, Kubrick’s direction tends to feel distant and disconnected, which would normally function well for the topic. But, among dozens of other anti-war films that focus on Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket suffers criticism, due to its somewhat unfair comparisons to other films of the era. A young Vincent D’Onofrio gives an incredible performance as Private Pyle, gaining 70 pounds to his frame to play the slow, incompetent soldier. Opposite him is the aggressively hateful work of R. Lee Emery as Sergeant Hartman, a drill instructor who makes it part of his personal goal to mentally destroy the soldiers, especially Pyle. Most of Emery’s lines were ad libbed, as he drew on his own experience in war times. What results feels like two films – the first half is gripping, as we see the soldiers slowly breaking down under the degradation of Hartman and the endless preparation for warfare; the second half takes us to Vietnam, where the stories get a little shattered and messy. But there are few war movie scenes that will burn themselves into your psyche deeper than Pyle discovered in the bathroom, loading his rifle. Horrifying.

17. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Conflict: World War II

It’s the war film that feels more like a sprawling art film than anything. As you’d expect from Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line is less about the war itself and more about the majesty of the world we fight for and the somewhat pointless endeavors we enact trying to defend it. Malick hadn’t made a film for 20 years and his return came overstuffed with actors galore. Among them, Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Cusasck, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Jared Leto, and more. That doesn’t even include Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, and Mickey Rourke, whose scenes were cut from the 171 minute film. A fictionalized account of the Battle of Mount Austen in the Guadalcanal Campaign, it focuses on the C Company and their struggles during the war. Unlike the other films on the list, Malick’s approach is much less gritty – there’s a stylized beauty with John Toll’s camera that makes even death scenes seem like museum-level art. It doesn’t approach the same anti-war or pro-war rallying cries we see so often in war movies. It may not even have a real stance on the matter. The film grabbed a number of Oscar nominations, but went home empty handed;  war films are supposed to be heavy-handed and deliberate, right? As the alternative, The Thin Red Line, while incredibly weighty and somewhat elitist, refuses to sink into an “easy to digest” category.

16. The Great Escape (1963)

Directed by: John Sturges

Conflict: World War II

Yet another prisoner of war escape movie, The Great Escape is the ruler by which all the others have come to be measured. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, and James Coburn, the film is based on the novel of the same name by Paul Brickhill, which is based on true stories and people. After the Germans have all but used up any resources continuously recapturing Allies POWs who escape from their less secure camps, they move the ones most likely to plot another escape to a new, state-of-the-art high-security prison camp. The commandant is sure no one will get out. After multiple attempts, the POWs finally decide it’s time to settle in. But, sure enough, when they bring in a new prisoner, affectionately called “Big X” (Attenborough), he decides to hatch an epic plan involving all the other POWs, or “every escape artist in Germany.” This involves Ocean’s 11 level planning and three tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry. Despite the incredibly heroic story and the expected results, The Great Escape’s best aspect is the refusal to end on a perfect note. It runs a little long and gets a little wrapped up in itself, but Steve McQueen’s lead performance supported by an incredible cast makes for an exciting look at what men will do to be free.

15. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo

Conflict: Algerian War

It may well have been a documentary, for all we know. Gillo Pontecorvo’s critique of the French government and their manifest destiny style tactics in Algeria was and still is one of the most stark, realistic portrayals of military conflict caught on screen. Filmed entirely in black and white and taking most of its cues from the Italian neo-realism movement (it’s delivered in most parts as newsreel footage), The Battle of Algiers focuses on the period between 1954 and 1957, when guerrilla fighters from Algeria went up against French military paratroopers in an effort to regain ground they had lost. While most depictions of war on this list serve as rallying cries, The Battle of Algiers actually became a model for political movement in the world, thanks to its unflinching portrayals of the assembly of guerrilla troops. The film was banned in France for five years, partly because it was unclear whose side of the fight the film was supporting. The film has been used as a way to help train troops preparing for battle, helping them see how non-traditional enemies may gather their armies. The United States Pentagon even held a screening in 2003, stressing that, in the film, the French technically won, but at what cost? If it takes killing innocents, is there really victory? Despite the outcome of the actual Battle of Algiers, Algeria would go on to win the Algerian War, gaining their independence from France. The Battle of Algiers was and still is almost a handbook on guerrilla warfare and terrorism, but which side is it on?

14. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Conflict: Iraq War

The little movie that took down Avatar, The Hurt Locker was also the first film to win a best director Oscar for a female filmmaker, given to Kathryn Bigelow. While centering on a three man bomb disposal unit in Iraq, the main protagonist is Sgt. First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner. The film is based on the accounts of screenwriter Mark Boal, a freelance journalist stationed with a bomb squad in Iraq for two weeks in Iraq in 2004 (Boal’s screenplay also won an Oscar). James is as skilled at defusing bombs as anyone in the military, but his tactics and devil-may-care attitude tends to rub his fellow soldiers the wrong way, mostly because it puts them in danger. But, as we learn about James, he runs on sheer adrenaline at all times, a man much more comfortable in danger than he is in safety. Renner’s work is magnificent; Bigelow’s direction is tight – not a shot is wasted. Post-release, outside of universal praise from critics, the film did receive some criticism from Iraq War veterans about the inaccuracies, specifically with the lack of structure and command to force James to fall in line. But, again, it’s a movie. The Hurt Locker was never about the structure of the military; it’s more concerned with the addiction to war, despite the fear of death at every turn.

13. M*A*S*H (1970)

Directed by Robert Altman

Conflict: Korean War

Before it became one of the most beloved television shows of all time, M*A*S*H was a brilliantly written, acted, and directed Best Picture nominee. Robert Altman directed a script from Hollywood 10 member Ring Lardner Jr., sent to prison in the 1950’s for defying the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee.  M*A*S*H begins with the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and the new doctors who arrive: “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and “Duke” Forrest (Tom Skerritt). They immediately request a new thoracic surgeon be sent, in the form of “Trapper John” McIntyre (Elliot Gould). From there, just like any other Robert Altman film, it’s heavy on dialogue and surrealism, as we see quite a bit more roughhousing, drug use, and sex than in most military films. Additionally, this was an early effort from Altman, whose filmmaking style is decidedly different than most directors. As a result, Gould and Sutherland spent quite a bit of time trying to get Altman fired (Gould would later apologize). In the end, the style worked, despite the heavy ad-libbing typically found in Altman work. Producers made sure to be as clear as possible that the film was depicting the Korean War, rather than the Vietnam War, as the film is decidedly anti-war altogether. Regardless, M*A*S*H is still one of the greatest black comedies of all time, influencing every other post-1970 war comedy on or off this list.

12. Saving Private Ryan

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Conflict: World War II

It took the world by storm as the most realistic depiction of wartime ever conceived (it’s not, although the Omaha Beach sequence sounds pretty dead on). Saving Private Ryan has gone down in history as one of Steven Spielberg’s most celebrated efforts, mostly because it took World War II and Spielberg-ed it. Beginning during the D-Day Normandy Invasion, the film follows General George Marshall (Tom Hanks) as he assembles a team of six men from his company to find Private First Class James Ryan (Matt Damon), his mother already having lost his three brothers in the war (do they actually do this?). Littered with dozens of skilled actors, Saving Private Ryan starts with a bang and keeps the tempo until the third act, when it becomes the Steven Spielberg crowd pleaser it needs to be. The film grabbed 11 Oscar nominations, winning five, but losing to Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture. It did however win Spielberg another Best Director Oscar, despite some fellow directors criticizing its message (Oliver Stone believed it to directly influence America’s decision to attack Iraq). In the end, Saving Private Ryan is a clean film, suffering from the same issues that many of Spielberg’s other late career films do, but still triumphs as an honest look at a war that, on the surface, made more sense than it did for those involved.

11. Patton (1970)

Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner

Conflict: World War II

It won the Oscar for Best Picture. George C. Scott won the Oscar for Best Actor, but refused to accept it due to his dislike over the idea of acting competitions in general. In the years since, for as many films as George C. Scott has given great performances, there will never be another like Patton. The biographical account of General George S. Patton is famous for its opening sequence, where Scott as Patton addresses the audience directly in front of a massive American flag. From there, it jumps to Patton in action in North Africa, taking command of some demoralized troops and “whipping them into shape” through discipline. We then follow Patton as he moves through North Africa into Sicily, into France, then Germany. Patton is clearly characterized as a respectful man, one who sees how difficult war is on all men, both Allies and enemies. He believes wholeheartedly that he was meant to lead these soldiers to victory, almost in a religious fashion. What’s remarkable about the film and performance is, to this day, side by side photos of George C. Scott and George S. Patton would still throw people for a loop. Scott’s performance is so memorable that he has all but usurped the true identity of Patton, a war hero whose story needed to be told. Patton endures almost 45 years later thanks to a great lead actor, a comparable job directing, and a screenplay written bu Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola.

10. Paths of Glory (1957)

Directed by: Stanley Kurbick

Conflict: World War I

Before Stanley Kubrick grabbed the rights, the source material for Paths of Glory had a long history. The novel, written by Humphrey Cobb, was only a small success in 1935, an account of the true story of a group of French soldiers who decided to stop running a suicidal mission. The book had no title, forcing the publisher to hold a contest to name it. The winner came from the Thomas Gray poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” In the film, Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, a man who doesn’t want to see his soldiers die for nothing anymore and decides to defend them against charges of cowardice in a court-martial. Kubrick’s most talked about anti-war film was Full Metal Jacket, but Paths of Glory surpasses it in terms of true prowess and consistency throughout the running time. In the film, we see commanding officers using their power to deflect blame from themselves, while punishing men who exercise their right to choose not to fight for them, especially in a mission in which is impossible to have success. In true Kubrickian fashion, the results are less than a ray of sunlight, but they serve as a platform for one of Douglas’ finest performances in one of the most decidedly anti-war films on the list. But, unlike many others (Full Metal Jacket included), Paths of Glory never feels like a propaganda film. Its delivery is honest and heartbreaking.

9. Schindler’s List (1993)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Conflict: World War II

In many circles, it would be higher on the list. But, while Steven Spielberg’s brutal portrayal of Nazi Germany is gripping, its focus lies more on the survival of the Holocaust, rather than World War II itself. Schindler’s List is the fictional account of German businessman Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) work to rescue over a thousand Jewish refugees by employing them in his factories. Ben Kingsley stars as Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish accountant, and Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Goeth, in a horrifying brilliant performance. Shot in stark black-and-white cinematography, Schindler’s List is one of Spielberg’s darkest films – a parable of hope in a world of death, starvation, and execution. Spielberg originally tried to push the rights of the film onto other directors, feeling it was too weighty for him. He tried to give it Roman Polanski, who turned it down. He also offered it to Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese, but changed his mind and felt called to the project when Holocaust deniers were getting more press in the early 90’s. The stipulation: Spielberg would be required to make Jurassic Park first (the MCA president knew he wouldn’t be willing to make another film so quickly after completing Schindler’s List).  In addition, Spielberg took no salary for the film. In the end, this haunting work is still one of Spielberg’s best, even if it seemed too big for him at first.

8. La Grande Illusion (1937)

Directed By: Jean Renoir

Conflict: World War I

The first foreign film is grab a Best Picture nomination is also one of quietest anti-war films of all time. La Grande Illusion is directed by the great Jean Renoir, co-writing the script with Charles Spaak, focusing on a small group of French prisoners of war during World War I, trying to figure out a way to escape. Being an aviator during World War I, Renoir actually used his uniform as a costume in the film, lead actor Jean Gabin wearing it for much of the running time. Much like the other prison escape films, the story centers on the differences between the men and the way they manage to find ways to relate to each other. While the world outside may install a pseudo-caste system, in a prison camp, everyone is the same stature. So, men like Maréchal (Babin), a man of modest background, can befriend men like Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a man of ancestry within the ruling class. La Grande Illusion takes its time to clearly develop the character relationships, even within a wartime environment. Major chunks of the film don’t feel like they take place in a war film, but rather, in a character study of how men develop friendships. It’s still widely recognized as one of the greatest foreign language films of all time and one of the great Orson Welles’ most important films; one he would save for eternity.

7. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Directed by: Michael Cimino

Conflict: Vietnam War

The 1978 Best Picture winner was hailed as the greatest American epic since The Godfather, despite some critical attacks on its overall theme and negative depiction of the Vietnamese people. The Deer Hunter starred Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage as three men from a Pennsylvania steelworking town who end up near Saigon during the Vietnam War. The film opens happily with a wedding (involving a young Meryl Streep), only to shift to the horrors of the Vietnam War, one of which is the men being forced to play Russian Roulette by their guards in a POW camp. The controversy about the game and its place within the war was substantial, painting the Vietcong as sadistic in a time when America’s involvement in the war was still heavily questioned, even almost ten years later. Cimino and the actors disagreed, pointing to the insanity of the game serving as a metaphor for war itself: we all have loaded guns and none of us are sure who is going to take one in the head. Beyond the physical pain of war, The Deer Hunter uses Nick (Walken) as a poster child for the psychological damages of war and the way a person’s involvement could severely change his/her outlook on life, regardless of what positives he has to look forward to. It was also the final film with John Cazale, who died not long after filming wrapped, having starred in five films, all five being Best Picture nominations. The Deer Hunter is a stark portrait of the differences (and striking similarities) between the environments of rural America and Vietnam, as well as the toll it takes on a man to risk his life for a lost cause.

6. Platoon (1986)

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Conflict: Vietnam War

Once, Charlie Sheen was an up and coming, talented actor. He was the set piece in Oliver Stone’s semi-autobiographical Platoon, based on his experiences as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. Chris Taylor (Sheen) drops out of college to volunteer for military service, astounded that the only men in the army seemed to be in worse financial shape than him. He’s assigned to Bravo Company, near the Cambodian border, and witnesses immediate mayhem and death when they are attacked by the North Vietnamese Army. From there, we watch as Taylor befriends other soldiers, but watches as the waning enthusiasm for the war and their mission begins to take a toll. His fellow soldiers are killing each other, killing innocent Vietnamese, and seem to have lost any sense or moral justice. Platoon was Stone’s answer to the the pro-war sentiment of films like The Green Berets, as a staunchly anti-war protest film, the first of three Vietnam-themed movies he would direct. Platoon boasts a strong cast, including Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker, and a young Johnny Depp, but still stands as one of the most aggressively anti-war films ever made, a showpiece for its outspoken director that raked in plenty of critical praise and awards, including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Directed by: David Lean

Conflict: World War II

Based on Pierre Boulle’s 1952 French Novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a British production, a fictional account about the construction of a non-existent bridge inspired by the construction of the Burma Railway 1943. Starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, the film took home seven Oscars, including Best Picture. British prisoners are being kept in a Burmese prison camp held by the Japanese and senior officer Nicholson (Guinness). They are informed they must held build a bridge, but, thanks to Geneva Conventions, officers don’t have to do manual labor. When Nicholson learns his soldiers are doing sub-par work, he works hard to ensure that, despite working against their will, they will succeed to constructing a proper bridge. While The Bridge on the River Kwai is not pro-war by any means, it does have a sense of pride and honor when it comes to fulfilling your duty. Performances from Guinness and Holden drive the epic film and David Lean’s typical framing and large scale directing style expands this tale beyond just a bridge in Burma to a more top level view of the war as a whole. This bridge is the example of what the British Army can do when asked to complete a task. In the eyes of Nicholson, the completion of this bridge is a greater achievement than any war victory could be, regardless of its use or who it’s for.

4. Das Boot (1981)

Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen

Conflict: World War II

Long before his terrible remake Poseidon (and three years before The Neverending Story), Wolfgang Petersen delivered one of the most claustrophobic, mercilessly intense war films of all time, despite the fact that almost not hand-to-hand combat even takes place. Told through the eyes of Lt. Werner (Herbert Grönemeyer), he is a war correspondent stationed on the German submarine U-96. He meets his commanders at a French nightclub and the next morning they are off. Werner learns the ins and outs of the boats and begins to identify who is a new soldier and who are the veteran soldiers, who tend to have more hatred of the war and have become disenchanted. New soldiers aren’t welcomed with open arms and, with nothing else to do, receive ridicule from the other soldiers. After a narrow escape from a British destroyer attack, they are met with three days of stormy weather. The harrowing experiences these men go through are graphic – men on fire jumping to safety, major damage to their own ship. We slowly watch as each member of the crew deteriorates, both mentally and physically. Men weren’t meant to be kept in something this small for so long. Unlike most other films on this list, this is a war film told from the eyes of what is typically the enemy. Not too often we see a sympathetic look at the men who fought for the German side of World War II. The men on this U-boat are put through the ringer, only to watch what they have built fall apart. While war films tend to rely on the horrors of war and murder to sustain them, Das Boot relies on the isolation of war, especially in such a setting. Petersen has become a relatively good action director, but nothing had approached the brilliance of this masterpiece.

3. Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein

Conflict: Potemkin Uprising

While it is clearly not a “war,” the conflict portrayed in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is clearly a small part of a much bigger battle against fascism and a regime that did not meet the standards the Russian people deserved. Broken into five acts, this silent films delivers a fictionalized portrayal of the 1905 mutiny that watched the crew of the title battleship rebel against their officers serving the Tsarist regime. We watch as the men are mistreated and begin to fight back. Mn are lined up for insubordination, expecting to be shot, only to see the firing range lower their guns and begin the revolution. They take the ship and sail on to Odessa, where they are met with Tsarist police during one of the most infamous moments in film history on the Odessa steps. Battleship Potemkin may be a propaganda film, but its imagery and power still stands to this day. In the decades since, films have borrowed shots, themes, and moments from the film as a way to demonstrate the lengths men will go to for fair treatment, the role of bystanders in times of war, and the honor men show when they finally decide to do what’s right. It’s Eisenstein at his best – 91 years later, it still strikes a chord.

2. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Conflict: Vietnam War

On most lists about this topic, it’s a foregone conclusion that this film would be at #1.  It’s just short here, but no less defintive and remarkable, even 35 years after its release. Francis Ford Coppola’s uncredited adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s iconic novel Heart of Darkness was co-written by John Milius and Michael Herr, but set it during the Vietnam War. Army captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent down the Nung River in the remote jungles of Cambodia to find Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) to kill him. He has reportedly gone insane and is now commanding a group of indigenous Vietnamese people. He joins a Navy patrol boat team with various other military men, paramount of them being Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who commands an attack helicopter squadron. Eventually, they head down the river, where they are met by a freelance photographer (Dennis Hopper) who is supremely dedicated to Kurtz, whom he believes is a genius. It’s a work of surrealist cinema, based against a very real threat. Somewhere in between the drugs and fighting and surfing, there’s a sense of impending paranoia and isolation, both from Willard and the man he plans to kill. A notoriously difficult film to make, the work was chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which approaches its subject in terms of quality, a clear picture of how insane it may be to create a film about insanity. War is Hell; Apocalypse Now is a glimpse into that inferno.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Directed by: Lewis Milestone

Conflict: World War I

The first film to win both Best Picture and Director was this classic story of young men forced into battle, based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a fiery speech about how important and honorable it is to serve your country during war. The instructor’s class is inspired and, all of them on the verge of manhood, decide to enlist and fight for “the Fatherland,” Germany. The recruits take a train to the warzone, just in time to see absolute chaos and death, one of them being killed before reaching their home base. They are stationed with older soldiers who are not welcoming. They have no food. They are taught how to fight basically on the job. They start having nightmares. Through it all, there is no hope. This defense of “the Fatherland” feels less and less like an honorable act and more like a death sentence. Paul (Lew Ayres) eventually earns a furlough to return home briefly and confronts the man who urged him into battle in the first place. The professor asks him to tell the class what glory it is to fight and die for your country. Paul rejects the request. As Paul says, “It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?” Those words – this movie – began it all. We have pro-war movies. We have anti-war movies. But, most importantly, we have movies about people who are still people, even without a war as the setting. The men and women who go to war are heroes, whether they want to accept it or not, even if they are fighting for something they don’t believe in. All Quiet on the Western Front – an American movie told from a German perspective – was the first attempt to characterize these soldiers as more than gun-toting fighters. They were young men (and women). Some of them may want to serve; some not. That doesn’t make fighting a war for your country any easier.

Scroll to Top