War movies have been a fixture of the cinema since its inception. Similarly, war itself has been a fixture of humanity’s existence since its dawn. Some films contemplate the pointlessness of war, attempting to use incredible levels of violence to suggest that war itself is a horror, something that could never be engaged in. Other films choose to embrace the violence, reveling in it in order to glorify the soldiers participating, usually only on one side or the other.
All war films have the same basic problem, though. Namely, it becomes incredibly difficult to depict violence onscreen without allowing the audience to revel in it. There are very basic human instincts that drive us toward enjoying violence onscreen, even if that is not the intention of those depicting it. Some films on this list manage to walk this fine line, while others are more interested in embracing the lunacy of war, whatever that might entail. Only one thing unites the movies on this list-they all made some money. Let’s take a look at the twenty highest grossing war films of all time.
20. Cold Mountain
Release Date:December 25, 2003
Cold Mountain shows us what soldiers leave behind when they go to war, and the ways in which they can never really get it back even if they make it home. Set during the Civil War, Cold Mountain follows a Southern deserter who leaves the army to return to his wife. Even as he makes the perilous journey home, his wife struggles to keep the farm in tact in a story of love, loss, and whether coming home changes the fact that you left in the first place.
19. 300: Rise of an Empire
Release Date:March 7, 2014
Domestic Gross:$106, 580,051
A sequel to 2007’s 300, Rise of an Empire takes to the sea to tell a different ancient myth. In Greece, a heroic general senses the threat posed by Xerxes of Persia, and so he attempts to unite all of Greece to fight back against the threat of the Persian army. The general must face invasion on both land and sea, and the entirety of Greece hangs in the balance. Rise of an Empire chronicles what living in history feels like, and shows us the impact that single events can have on the rest of time.
18. Black Hawk Down
Release Date:December 18, 2001
In the 21st Century, war is no longer a global event. Instead, it is fought in remote countries, as is the case in Black Hawk Down, a film which follows soldiers who are sent to Somalia in order to destabilize the country and provide humanitarian aid. When their helicopter is brought down, the soldiers are forced to survive amidst heavy gunfire. Black Hawk Down is a story of camaraderie and strength, one about the ways troops must work together if anyone is going to make it home alive.
17. The Last Samurai
Release Date:December 1, 2003
The Last Samurai is a film about the way war is waged. It’s one which takes an American officer sent to modernize the Japanese military, and asks us to question whether this modernization means losing an essential part of Japanese culture. There’s an honor to the samurai culture, one that is often lost in the battles fought today. In its place, we find only destruction, code-less violence that is impersonal and cruel. The Last Samurai examines what happens when the ancient and modern class, and examines what we lose as we progress forward.
16. Doctor Zhivago
Release Date:December 31, 1965
One of the few films on this list that doesn’t depict an American conflict, Doctor Zhivago is a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. This epic, which spans over three hours, focus on the intimate personal lives of a Russian doctor who falls in love with a beautiful woman before being separated from her. When the titular doctor reunites with his long lost love, sparks fly. Zhivago was a hit with critics and audiences, and its epic sweep is something rarely seen onscreen today.
15. The Patriot
Release Date:June 27, 2000
If you’re looking for a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, The Patriot is the movie for you. It’s war is the American Revolution, and it follows a small farmer who is forced into the revolution when the British threaten his land. The Patriot is really a film about pride for a country that was only just being created, and it’s about how that pride can bury itself under your skin. The Patriot is an American movie, and it’s one that’s proud to carry that label. Audiences certainly responded, making the film a resounding box office smash.
Release Date:December 25, 2014
Unbroken is really a universal story. It’s about a single man, an Olympian who is also a pilot in World War II, and also becomes a prisoner of war. It’s a true story, one made all the more remarkable by this fact. The man at the film’s center survived 47 days adrift, and brutal torture at the hands of the Japanese. As a result, Unbroken is an uplifting film just because of its basic plot description. Mankind can recover from anything, and Unbroken proves that to us using a single man.
13. Inglorious Basterds
Release Date:August 21, 2009
The only Quentin Tarantino film which focuses on war, this effort creates some revisionist history. Inglorious Basterds follows the basterds of its title, a group of Jews who hunt down Nazis. Tarantino delights in the narrative of revenge at the film’s center, one which eventually kills Hitler in a fiery movie theater climax. Inglorious Basterds is a delightful precisely because of how little it cares about history, and it’s one that charmed audiences and critics alike upon its release.
Release Date:June 5, 1998
Mulan was part of the second wave of Disney greats of the 1990’s that included the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. It’s a Disney film, sure, but it’s one about war. Mulan follows its titular character as she poses as a man in order to join the Chinese army in her father’s stead. It’s a story about what it means to be a woman, and about the roles they play both in ancient China and today. It would be easy to reduce Mulan’s story to something as simple as “women can fight too,” but that would be a disservice to the film and its story. It’s deeper, smarter, and more complicated than that.
11. Good Morning, Vietnam
Release Date:January 15, 1988
When a comedic radio host is sent to Vietnam to cheer up the troops, he infuriates his superiors with his irreverence. Even as he delights the soldiers, he comes to learn the human cost of war, and begins to question whether his irreverence is misplaced. Good Morning, Vietnam is a movie about the way we feel about war, about how easy it is to let death become number. Chillingly, the film reminds us the humanity at stake every time war is waged, and makes it clear what kind of sacrifices are always made.
10. Lone Survivor
Release Date:December 25, 2013
Set in Afghanistan in 2005, Lone Survivor takes us inside the war on terror from the perspective of four Navy SEALs. These troops are tasked with surveillance and with assassinating a Taliban leader, but after they are spotted they are forced to fight an uphill battle. Out-manned and outgunned, these four SEALs are forced to consider whether an earlier moment of mercy may have cost them their lives.
In this way, Lone Survivor casts a harsh light on the way acts of kindness can have unforeseen consequences. These Navy SEALs spared the man who spotted them, and it cost them immensely. Lone Survivor is about these kind of hard choices. Nothing is easy in times of war, and Lone Survivor knows that.
Release Date:December 24, 1986
Platoon is about crumbling idealism, so it is naturally paired with the war it depicts. Vietnam was a bloody battle, one that left thousands dead and had no clear winner. This was the first time you could watch the carnage on TV, and it became the most controversial war in America’s history. Specifically, Platoon follows a university student who enlists in the war and slowly sees his idealism crushed by the harsh realities of the battles he fights.
Fighting inside his unit creates a parallel of external and internal battles which both suggest just how drastic the toll of the war was on those who fought it. Platoon is about the idea of dying for your country, and it’s a film that dying for your country gets you to the exact same place as dying any other way does. It dissects the idea of honor and war, and leaves you with a feeling of purposeful purposelessness.
8. Rambo: First Blood Part II
Release Date: May 22, 1985
Domestic Gross: $150,415,432
Another film set in Vietnam, this Rambo installment sees the titular character released from jail in order to find American prisoners of war in Vietnam. Though Rambo promises to stay out of the action, he changes his tune when his Viatnamese lover is killed. An eighties action movie if there ever was one, Rambo: First Blood Part II promises intense action and maybe little more, at least upon first inspection.
This film is a product of its setting, though, in that it shows us the chaotic perception Americans had of the war in Vietnam. This was not a war fought on fronts. It was fought in jungles, in small groups, and John Rambo’s skills are perfectly suited to this environment. Rambo is a killing machine, but he’s a figure we once admired for the simple fact that he seemed to understand the chaos, even when so many in America could not.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger
Release Date: July 22, 2011
The only film on this list that also happens to be about a superhero, but it’s one that also takes on the idea of symbols. Captain America is a figure of patriotism, after all, and his story is completely American. The film follows Steve Rogers, a scrawny soldier who’s brave, but is physically incapable of serving his country. When the opportunity arises to change all that, Steve jumps at the chance to prove his worth.
After being transformed into the bulkier Captain America, Steve becomes a symbol of American pride as he fights against the sinister Hydra against the backdrop of World War II. Captain America is the literal embodiment of the American ideal, a retro figure which, at the film’s end, is thrown into a more complicated modern world. His film is wonderful throwback, though, and it more than earns its place on this list.
Release Date:November 9, 2012
Lincoln was a somewhat surprising success, considering its subject matter is not particularly heavy on action. Instead, Lincoln focuses on the famed president’s attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in an incredibly belligerent Congress. Modern parallels abound in the film, one which ultimately works to honor the man for what a great political thinker he was.
Abraham Lincoln brought this country back together, and he did it for the good of everyone in the nation. There are few who question the man’s lasting legacy, but Lincoln showed us precisely what kind of many he was, and how saddened we should be by the fact that his life was cut short. Lincoln charmed everyone. In addition to being a critical smash, it also garnered a whopping 12 Oscar nominations.
5. Pearl Harbor
Release Date:May 25, 2001
Following the Titanic mold, Pearl Harbor is a love story that bakes tragedy into its setting. The basic story focuses on a love triangle, one which creates tension by removing one eager American soldier to the front during World War II, even before the United States has entered the war. Even as it tells this story, though, we understand the futility of loving anyone in times of war.
There are no real winners in Pearl Harbor. It’s a tragic story, one that highlights that personal costs of war, even for those who are not directly involved in its waging. The actual Pearl Harbor was an American tragedy, an event which left an entire nation reeling and hungry for revenge. Pearl Harbor captures these feelings by putting a human face on the events, and telling us that every life that was lost was worth something.
4. Gone With the Wind
Release Date:January 17, 1940
This movie is the oldest on this list, and it manages to place incredibly well in spite of that. Gone With the Wind was an unmitigated box office smash when it premiered in 1940, and it has gone on to become an institution for most film lovers. Despite its nearly four hour run time, audiences came to the theaters in droves for the sweeping epic, one which told the story of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. Starting before the Civil War, the film follows Scarlett as she goes through the war and falls in and out of love with Rhett Butler, a man with charisma coming out of every pore.
Gone With the Wind is really a story about endurance, and despite some racist undertones, it has a lasting legacy. If it were to come out today, the film would be the highest grossing of all time, and its placement here speaks to the power it had in 1940, and to the power it still possesses to this day.
Release Date:March 9, 2007
300 is about honor. It’s about soldiers who face certain death and charge forward anyway. The story behind this film was mythic long before it was ever put to screen. 300 chronicles the war between Greece and Persia, one that Greece was losing badly. When the king of Sparta, Greece’s warrior city-state, wages a brutal battle in which he is badly outnumbered, it serves as a rallying cry for Greece as a nation.
There are few stories as well-known as this one. The Spartans were only 300 strong against a Persian army of 10,000, and yet they rode into battle with their heads held high. They faced certain death, and they knew that, but they were proud of where they’d come from and knew that it was a place worth dying for. It’s a simple, inspiring story, one that feels decidedly naive even as it makes your heart swell.
2. Saving Private Ryan
Release Date:July 24, 1998
The second Spielberg entry on this list, Saving Private Ryan chronicles the aftermath of the D-Day invasion as a single troupe is ordered to travel behind enemy lines in order to bring back a single soldier. This film is about the sacrifices these soldiers were willing to make for one another, and the horrors that changed ordinary men into something greater on the front.
Opening with a stunning and mesmerizing depiction of the D-Day invasion, the scenes that follow were ones of horror as each soldier scrambled through the chaos in a basic attempt to stay alive. Saving Private Ryan is perhaps most striking for its sense of realism. These soldiers feel real and tangible, and each lost life is a palpable experience. Saving Private Ryan is an unmitigated masterpiece, a film that’s willing to look at war with both eyes open, unafraid of what might stare back at it.
1. American Sniper
Release Date:December 25, 2014
Telling the story of America’s deadliest sniper, American Sniper follows Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, Sniper is really a story about what happens after the war. Kyle has a tremendous career, taking down dozens of dangerous targets even as he becomes a target for many insurgents himself. Still, it’s the story of what happened to Chris Kyle after he came home that is truly tragic.
Kyle served four tours of duty in Iraq, attempting to keep up a consistent family life whenever he was home. When he comes home for good, he discovers that it’s difficult to truly leave war behind you. Post-traumatic stress disorder affects thousands, and Kyle’s true and highly publicized story reveals exactly the kind of toll it can take. These are people who fight to protect their countries, and they often never recover from the after-effects.
An affecting tale, American Sniper was a surprise smash at the box office, and with good reason. It takes us to the darkest sides of war, and surprises us by revealing that the violence doesn’t end when you come home.