Among veterans, an enduring debate exists over, “What is the best war movie?” That question is harder than trigonometry to answer. How does anyone pick only one? This is my list of the top war movies: the definitive top 10 war movies of all time.
Picking a favorite is nearly impossible. Also just as difficult as picking the “best” war movie, or even several of the top war movies, especially as a military Veteran. With that in mind, luckily right now, since I am making the rules, I don’t have to pick only one. Or two. Or even three.
The military has a love/hate relationship with Hollywood. Hollywood has a love/hate relationship with the military. Hollywood usually gets it wrong, there is often a spin, or at other times, a seemingly political agenda. Yet at the same time, they love the amount of money that war movies deposit into their corporate bank accounts. Quite often, the war movies that civilians and the critics shape praise on are movies that veterans mock and scorn (Hurt Locker) At times, however, Hollywood gets it right. Some of the top war movies tell amazing stories about incredible people and events.
Top War Movies Criteria
The criteria for this list are based on a few factors. It is important to consider the overall artistic, production, and historical values. The storytelling must be compelling, the story must be factually accurate, or as historical fiction, it must be historically accurate. Overall critical success is factored into some degree, as well, with consideration for awards. That is not the most important factor, however, as a few highly-awarded films are not on this list.
The Hurt Locker, for example, is not included. Although it was critically acclaimed and well-received in Hollywood, the movie is… ridiculous. It holds the dubious distinction of being the lowest-grossing movie ever to win Best Picture, but it’s a terrible story. I am a Jeremy Renner fan, and I like what they tried to do with the film, and the feel of the film, as the costs of war, are explored at a personal, human level. Yet the events and plot in the movie are far-fetched and implausible. It’s difficult to find it representative of what top war movies should be — or could be. The negative indictment of the Iraq war is not why I do not include it, either.
War is both terrible and awesome at the same time, and I do not discount anyone’s ability or right to speak out against it. If that is the goal, accuracy should also be achieved, or it’s just spin. Or, if the intent is satire, it should be clear that it’s not intended to be “representative” and portrayed as accurate. At the same time, the intent of this list is not jingoist war propaganda, either.
Overall, this list is about the story, the authenticity, and the impact of the movie. Most importantly, it’s about the story told about those who have served, their sacrifices, and their legacy in history.
Top War Movies: Honorable Mentions
Because nailing down ten of the top war movies is still like college-level calculus, a few others are worth considering. These epic movies tell the story of an important piece of history and modern warfare.
The Battle of Britain (1969)
Some of the best dogfights ever filmed in cinematic history happen in The Battle of Britain. The story of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in their desperate struggle to hold off the brutal Nazi Luftwaffe bombing campaign, and potential invasion of the United Kingdom, is nothing less than amazing. Featuring several prominent movie stars such as Sir Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Ian McShane, and Robert Shaw, an all-star cast tells a compelling, heroic story.
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
The largest airborne operation in World War II was not the invasion of D-Day; it was Operation Market Garden. The goal of Operation Market Garden was to seize three key bridges in The Netherlands, in an attempt to break through the Nazi lines and drive towards Germany. As the title alludes, all might not go according to plan, as the Allies run into significant resistance. A Bridge Too Far features several greats including Sean Connery, Sir Michael Caine, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Gene Hackman, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, and James Caan. It was directed by Richard Attenborough, better known to most people as billionaire investor Hammond, in Jurassic Park. The movie was adapted from the book by Cornelius Ryan whose previous book about the Normandy invasion The Longest Day was made into an epic movie that starred virtually everyone in Hollywood, and even featured actors who were participants in the actual invasion.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
I know I am going to catch some serious hell for this one. By not putting in the actual list of the top 1o war movies, I probably have a few full metal jacket rounds heading my way. Hear me out. This movie by legendary director Stanley Kubrick is freaking weird. And yes, that’s why so many people love it. But let’s be honest: it’s almost two different movies. Many people love this movie — but still being honest, they love the first half — the US Marine Corps boot camp portion where R. Lee. Ermey gives one of the most memorable performances in movie history as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. It feels authentic because it is authentic. It seems real because it was real; Ermey was a former drill instructor. This was their goal, and they reached it.
But the first half of the movie isn’t the entire movie. The second half of the movie, unfortunately, is a bit disjointed. Full Metal Jacket, like other movies about Vietnam, is an indictment of the insanity of it all, and there is validity in that. With that said, and where the story breaks down in the second half, makes it hard to put next to some of these other movies. Hopefully, you’ll forgive me in about 15 seconds.
Creating the list of the top war movies is insanely hard; harder than anyone probably realizes until exploring the exercise. It’s even harder to complete when you keep changing your mind because of so many solid options. The rest of this list is full of incredible stories, Academy Award winners, Best Picture or Best Director winners, and even a few on the list of the AFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time.
10) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Admittedly, it might also fire up a few people to list this stellar movie at #10 on my list of top war movies. The AFI lists it as the 36th best movie ever made, so anyone putting me in their sights would be kinda justified. Starring Willian Holden and Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi for the rest of you), and directed by David Lean — one of the best directors ever, and with two movies on this list and the AFI Greatest 100 list — it’s an amazing (but not true) story. Even more, it won seven Oscars in 1958.
With all that said… Bridge on the River Kwai is at #10 mainly because it might not hold up to the test of time quite as well as some of the other films on this list. The other movies on this list are slightly more compelling, more gripping, perhaps, and feel slightly more real (whether good or bad). Do not get me wrong — this movie could easily occupy any spot higher up on the list, and be completely justified. It’s well worth watching, and Alec Guinness is perfect as the British commanding officer captured by the Japanese in Burma during World War II.
9) Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
It pains me a bit that this movie has not received more attention over the years, both when it was released, and now. Nominated for several Oscars in 2007, including Best Director for Clint Eastwood, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay, the movie tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the point of view of the Japanese. Letters from Iwo Jima is a tale of honor, desperation, loyalty, conflict, leadership, tradition, and a bit of insanity. Ken Watanabe is brilliant as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of the Japanese Imperial Forces defending the island. This was the second of two movies Clint Eastwood filmed at the same time, about the Battle of Iwo Jima. A film from the point of view of the enemy is also refreshing in terms of perspective and gives pause to the viewer to consider their experience and sacrifice, as well.
8) Glory (1989)
This movie tells one of the most “controversial” stories of any movie on this list, and at the same time, one of the most important. Because of that, it’s easy to overlook. Telling stories about World War II is easy. Telling stories about the Civil War is far more difficult, especially about a regiment of black soldiers. Glory did win several awards, including the first Best Actor Oscar for Denzel Washington. It was also the first time I ever saw Morgan Freeman in a movie, and he was spectacular. Even Matthew Broderick, who at that time was better known for his role as “Bueller,” gave a great performance as the young, Northern, aristocratic white commander of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.
Based on a true story, it is as compelling as it is courageous and as emotional as it is inspiring. The sacrifices of the 54th were important, and everyone should know their story.
7) Dunkirk (2017)
Dunkirk is a special movie. It tells an amazing, but relatively unknown story, set amongst the direst of circumstances: the 1940 retreat of British and French forces on the beaches of Dunkirk, France. With the English Channel to their backs, and the German army surrounding them on three sides, 400,000 Allied troops are stranded and need to be evacuated. Knowing a Nazi invasion of the UK is likely, Winston Churchill feared losing the cream of the British Army at Dunkirk if they could not be evacuated. With all of this happening, it portrays the events in a unique and original way. Of course, being written and directed by Christopher Nolan, you can bet it’s anything but conventional. It is subtle and intense, all at the same time. Dunkirk was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 2018, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three.
6) 1917 (2019)
The most recent movie on this list is also one of the most innovative and creative works of cinematic art in movie history. It is also one of two movies on my list of top war movies, from World War I. The winner of three Academy Awards, it was nominated for ten in 2020, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. 1917 is filmed in such a way, that is it presented as one continuous take; there are no cuts in the film, and the camera never stops moving. It is a masterstroke of cinematography, and while highly artistic, it does add to the storytelling, the tension, and the conflict set in the trenches of World War I. The movie feels more intimate and personal. Even with less combat action than other war movies, the emotion, the stakes, and the suspense all remain high. It did win an Oscar for Best Cinematography, for the brilliant work of the continuous take. If you have not yet seen 1917, add it to your list right away.
5) Patton (1970)
I always have been, and I always will be a fan of General George S. Patton. Because of that, from a personal point of view, it’s hard to know where to list this movie within the rankings of the top war movies. Patton tells an amazing story, about an amazing man, during an amazing time. The winner of seven Academy Awards out of the ten it was nominated for in 1971, it definitely ranks among the top war movies and best movies of all time. George C. Scott was probably more like General Patton than Patton like himself was in real life, and he gives one of the most believable performances in movie history. This biopic comes to life and tells the tale of a controversial, simple yet complicated, brilliant warrior.
By all accounts, General Patton was a larger-than-life figure and personality. He was successful in many ways, and even in his time, also not loved or supported by everyone, either. General Patton was born at the perfect moment in history for one of the most important events in history. This movie captures all of that in an unapologetic way. An interesting fact about the critical reviews of the movie is that it was described by some as a pro-war and by others as an anti-war film.
4) Apocalypse Now (1979)
Also on the AFI list of 100 Greatest Movies of All Time at number 30, this movie is as popular as it is weird. To be perfectly candid, I do not love this movie. Understanding that it is a satirical, biting criticism of war and specifically the Vietnam War, I have always found it a bit over the top. Most of the characters are not believable to me, and less with the litmus test of “authenticity” in a top war movie. That said, with an amazing cast and crew, the story is compelling, clever, creative, and unconventional. It wins critical and audience praise, over and over, and is featured on many lists and “best of’s.” There is something about it; like the train wreck, you can’t look away from — while tripping on LSD. Not that I have ever done LSD, but some of the characters in the movie take LSD, to be clear.
Apocalypse Now has also taught me a very valuable lesson about life and my own wartime experiences. I am sure that is also true for many other military veterans. At the beginning of the movie, when Martin Sheen’s character, Special Forces Captain Willard is in his hotel room his thoughts are actually quite profound. “When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” This is extremely prescient and real for many veterans: when you are in a war zone, you want to go home; once you are home, you want to go back to the war zone.
While not my favorite, there is no denying the influence and role of Apocalypse Now in the war genre, and it cannot be omitted from a list of top war movies. Including this film on my list, also allows me to pat myself on the back for my objectivity. Win-win.
3) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This is the second movie on this list of top war movies, from director David Lean. Lawrence of Arabia is also ranked on the AFI list Greatest Films of All Time at #7. Just based on that list, and the cinematic legacy it enjoys, it could likely be ranked at #1. As the Best Picture winner, this movie can, and does, withstand the test of time. It’s a sweeping, stunning, and powerful epic, based on the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British Army officer who successfully unites the warring Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula against the Ottoman Turks of World War I. His role with Arab fighters is part of the direct lineage of working as advisors and fighting with local foreign forces against a common enemy. This is similar to efforts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
With a 3 hour and 48 minute run time, it will probably be one of the longest movies you might ever see. It even has an intermission — a built-in bathroom break, from way back in the day of 1962. This powerful story does stay interesting, however, and it keeps moving. I include this at #3, because of both the historical and cinematic importance, and for its artistic contribution to the war genre. As a biopic, it’s nearly a perfect vehicle for telling the story of an amazing and pivotal event in time. Lawrence as a man was also a fascinating character, who both loved and abhorred his role in the war, and who was brilliant in that role, all at the same time. Peter O’Toole is perfectly cast as Lawrence. It all feels very believable and is deserving of its place in movie history.
2) Black Hawk Down (2001)
To be fair, Black Hawk Down does not have quite as many awards as many of the other movies on this list. It does have several awards, and Ridley Scott was nominated for Best Director. It is also not quite as popular or critically acclaimed as some of the other movies in this list of top war movies. Why do I choose this movie as #2? Because with the criteria of authenticity, realism, and war-time storytelling, this is hands down one of the absolute best.
This choice is also the most modern film on the list, and so for many people in our generation, it feels the most “real” or identifiable. It also feels extremely relevant, telling the story about US and allied forces working in Somalia in 1993. Although several years before the Global War on terror and September 11th, it’s even more relatable through a modern lens. This event shows both the fallacy of arrogance and poor planning and the superiority of American forces in the fight against overwhelming numbers. A great cast, all of whom when through real military training for their roles, feels both legitimate and authentic. The depiction of the legendary heroics of Delta snipers Shughart and Gordon, both Medal of Honor recipients for their sacrifices during this battle, is extremely moving.
For years, when I am asked for a movie that captures the realism, struggle, brotherhood, and stress of combat, this is always one of two or three top recommends. It’s also better compared to other modern films in production value and quality, acting, and reality. I did not choose Lone Survivor for this list, for example, even though it’s a realistic, good movie telling an important, moving story because at times it feels slightly low budget or lacking. I am a Mark Wahlberg fan much of the time, however, in this case, I think he was miscast as Marcus Luttrell. However, Lone Survivor has probably the best, most realistic battle sounds of any war movie, and one of the most realistic running gunfights in movie history.
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s strong movie telling the heroic story of Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle is also a strong, modern, current war movie, but it’s also lacking a bit. It was also nominated for Best Picture but did have some narrative struggles. The “fake baby scene” also hurts the pace and focus as a huge distraction.
Black Hawk Down does not have any of these struggles. The intensity, the human struggle, and the stakes are kept at a “10” the entire time. With only a few slight tweaks for cinematic storytelling by combining a couple of the Delta Force and Ranger characters, for example, it’s very true to the real events as they really happened from the point of view of the Rangers and Delta Force Operators — real people. It’s frustrating, political, intense, emotional, heroic, and at times, hard to watch. That, my friends, is also the point.
1) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
I fully understand this is “expected” as the number one choice of top war movies. I am aware it’s also perhaps a bit cliché. However, after 100 years of movie history, there is still probably not a better movie that captures the horror, intensity, realism, struggle, fear, pain, heroics, brotherhood, courage, doubt, frustration, speed, coordination, challenges, leadership, and… everything else. It really is “credit where credit is due.” Steven Spielberg and his team made an epic movie. They achieved their goals of the authenticity and the intensity of World War II, D-day, and the “every day” American soldier.
For years, the story and plot itself have been a huge debate amongst movie buffs and military members. I have seen online forums debating Captain Miller’s decision to attack a German machine gun emplacement, for example, diverting his team from their real mission: finding Private Ryan. His decision has dire consequences and is not supported by his men. This adds to the conflict, both internally and externally. This raises the stakes even higher. It contributes to the overall theoretical question that always exists in war: do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or even, the one? This movie explores when it does when it doesn’t. Also, when it’s really hard to decide. And it’s superb.
Saving Private Ryan has also been criticized over the years as being “melodramatic.” That is fair to some degree.
Because it is.
Those who use that criticism against the film, have no idea what they are talking about, nor could they. War is melodramatic. It’s punctuated by extreme, emotional highs, and equally extreme, emotional lows. With that said, what more could this movie offer? Not much, really. Perhaps, if anything, being a true story, rather than highly accurate historical fiction.
Top War Movies
Creating this list of top war movies almost feels like going to battle. It’s even a bit emotionally exhausting. Revisiting and rewatching some of these movies brings that emotion to the surface. That response also reinforces my list and approach: what do these moves make you feel? What do these movies make you think when the end credits start rolling?
These movies are not “happy” movies. They are not “feel good” movies, and they have no happy endings. The good guys don’t always win, and when they do, the cost is high. The cost of war is always high; too high. In the United States of America and for our allies, the cost of all our comforts, all our freedoms, all our goods and bad, highs and lows, our mistakes and our successes, our current anger, and division, have all been paid by thousands and thousands of brave men and women. That is always worth remembering.
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