What are the best war movies of all time? War can be seen from many perspectives and comes in many forms, which is why we’ve toiled away to collect the best war movies ever committed to the silver screen. Though so many wonderful films deal with war, this list will be overwhelmed with those rooted in the experiences of real people thrown directly into the most destructive situations.
Yes, they’ve got big guns, even bigger explosions, and more scenes of heroism than even the best Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, but this isn’t really why war films are so important to cinema. These things sell film stubs, sure, but flicks surrounding orchestrated conflict depict humanity at its most raw, at its most vulnerable, and serve as important reflections on history.
Thankfully, most of us will never have to experience combat like the protagonists here do, but that means we’ve all the more to learn from these experiences via some of the best movies ever made. These pictures may thrill us, humble us, and horrify us, but most importantly, they teach us about the world of the past and the world as it is today. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. So here are the best war movies of all time.
15. Paths of Glory (1957)
One of the best Stanley Kubrick movies ever made, Paths of Glory is a masterful anti-war film set during World War 1. Based on the novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, the flick follows the French commanding officer, Colonel Dax (Kurt Douglas), as he defies orders to continue a suicide attack.
Paths of Glory focuses on humanity in times of violence, reminding folks about the value of empathy. Even when Dax’s reputation and character are dragged through the mud after his retreat, we constantly see him as a hero. Needless death and bravado don’t make a brave man. What makes a brave man is facing pressure head-on and protecting lives regardless of personal costs.
14. Das Boot (1981)
Written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot is a Western German war movie that is one of the most claustrophobic and intense dramas in the genre. Set during World War 2, we see a U-96 submarine set out on patrol in the Battle of the Atlantic and meet dire circumstances. The film shows both the thrills of battle, the crews’ visions of grand victory, as well as the stark reality of their situation, which often led to fruitless death.
Das Boot is marvelously shot, taking us through the cramped boats, under the water as missiles are fired, and focusing on the crew first and foremost. Paired with its exciting atmosphere, the film also doesn’t shy away from criticizing the Nazi leaders who used the young man as canon fire after selling a false dream of victory. This is a classic for a reason, so make sure to add it to your watchlist.
13. Glory (1989)
Any flick starring both Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington sounds like a winner. Well, what if we told you that these two stars led a film about one of the first African-American regiments that fought for the Union in the Civil War? That is right, Glory is packed with brilliant performances candid depictions of racism, and is an unwavering classic.
The film follows the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. During the flick, we get to see the group’s formation, life, and valiant actions at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. It’s exciting, heart-breaking, and hands down one of the best American Civil War movies that you’ll ever see.
12. Come and See (1985)
Come and See is not for the faint of heart and is one of the most harrowing and effective films you’ll ever see. The brutality of war and man’s ability to turn into a monster is on full display here, so be warned. However, if you are willing to brave the horror, crawl through the mud, and face the ugly nature of violence, the ’80s movie Come and See is one of the best drama movies you’ll ever witness, and we couldn’t recommend it enough.
Directed by Elem Klimov, Come and See focuses on the Nazi Occupation of Belarus. Throughout the film, we follow the young teen Flyora who decides to join the Belarusian resistance, only to constantly witness the atrocities that the Nazis continually inflict on Eastern Europe. With lingering shots, brutal hyperrealism struggles, and existential surreal sequences, Come and See is a damning poem about the nature of war.
11. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
We couldn’t open this list anywhere but the opening battle scene of Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic. Words hardly scratch the surface of how hard the scene hits. Go seek it out.
Joining a terrified, seasick group of US troops landing on a beach in Normandy, it’s impossible to be prepared for when the carrier door drops.
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Mounted machine guns massacre the young men, with those surviving the initial onslaught only met by a cacophony of explosions, lost limbs, and an unrelenting attack on the senses. It is truly one of the closest experiences we may ever have to being on that beach.
This brutal baptism of fire, bullets, and death is just the intro to a moving story of a group of men trying to save one of their own. This is hands down one of the best Steven Spielberg movies ever, and it changed war films forever.
10. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
Clint Eastwood has tackled several moments of real historical significance from behind the camera, but he has never made something quite as remarkable as Letters.
Forming half of a two-piece release with Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima plays from the perspective of a few Japanese soldiers stationed on the isolated island.
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Taking from the events of the battle, which are shown in short but oppressively loud fragments, and the letters of the men stationed there, Eastwood taps into the hearts of the soldiers, men who are bakers and shopkeepers, and children of parents praying for their kin’s safety.
Flashbacks linger on the small, beautiful humanity that exists around such large, harsh conflict, making the brutality and futility of the conflict all the more painful. It’s an affecting look at the terrible things we make each other do to each other.
9. City of Life and Death (2009)
Oh boy, as you can already tell, when it comes to the best war movies, you have to brace yourself for seeing some traumatic stuff. And City of Life and Death is another entry on our list that doesn’t hold back on exposing how terrible mass violence can be. Directed by Lu Chuan, the film depicts The Nanjing massacre in 1937. It was a six-week period of murder and rape in China during the Second World War.
While the terrible event is mostly unknown in the West, this film isn’t a purely educational endeavor. Instead, it is told from the victims’ perspectives and focuses on the emotional impact over context. Striking imagery propels the sense of collective sorrow against a script that simultaneously celebrates the heroes who stood against all these war crimes. If you are after a World War 2 movie that explores a too often overlooked event, then City of Life and Death is for you.
8. The Thin Red Line (1998)
There’s George Clooney and John Travolta, John Cusack, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, and plenty more big names in this novel-to-screen adaptation, but The Thin Red Line is a war film like no other.
Terrence Malick’s films are full of looking for meaning, and this is no exception. Here, he tells a story of an army company fighting in the Pacific during WWII, yet it is an almost spiritual musing on life and war and so much more.
That long list of stars isn’t just there to make a flashy trailer, either. Their appearances and fleeting nature ways Malick shows the holistic nature of the battle and, mournfully, the interchangeable faces staring back down the crosshairs. Give yourself over to The Thin Red Line; it’s an experience.
7. Ran (1985)
Iconic directors are everywhere you look in this list, and Akira Kurosawa might be the most iconic of the lot. His presence here comes via one of his final films, Ran.
Ran is a relocated retelling of King Lear, the tale of an aging Japanese warlord who divides his empire between his three sons, showing them that if they stand together, they will stand strong. However, in typical Shakespearean form, the allure of power and glory is too much, and the peace is short-lived.
The film earns its inclusion on any greatest war films list through its ambitious, awe-inspiring battle scenes, with swathes of extras charging across huge battlefields, clashing as soldiers and horsemen. The scenes are not only a gorgeous spectacle but also a phenomenal depiction of medieval warfare.
6. Platoon (1986)
Now, after that quick fictional detour, we head back to Vietnam. Director Oliver Stone served in the infantry during the Vietnam War, and Platoon serves as his deeply personal take on the moral choices soldiers have to make when they’re on the ground.
There are excellent performances from Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe, yes, but Stone also provides a complete lack of any glamour to the napalm-streaked combat. The film deals with the lack of any fairness to combat and the true inability to save your own skin. It all adds up to make war, in any context, look like something anyone’s very, very lucky to survive — and continue surviving.
5. 1917 (2019)
The most recent film in this collection, Sam Mendes’ WWI movie, is really quite special. Filmed to run as one unbroken shot, 1917 follows the journey of two young British soldiers told to cross occupied territory — that means No Man’s Land, which means the unknown — with less than 24 hours to save the lives of 1,600 men.
Mendes gives no cuts, no breathers, and no way out from the boys’ task, with much of the film feeling like it’s happening in real-time. It takes us through the mud and blood and makes the viewer feel like this is their odyssey too. Basically, it is one of the best action movies in recent years, so add it to your watch list now!
Based on war stories Mendes’ grandfather told him, 1917 is a small story in the largest of conflicts, gut-punching by showing the soldiers’ desperation and bravery and their constant need to make choices to save lives, but also those to stay who they are.
4. The Hurt Locker (2008)
Unfortunately, modern conflicts are often fought surrounded by civilians, with soldiers drenched in doubt and exposed in the field.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Baghdad-based Best Picture winner brings us into as present a war as possible, following a highly-trained bomb disposal squad during the Iraq War. The film focuses on the dangerously addictive nature of combat without clearly opposing or supporting war as a concept.
It’s a film showing the blurred lines modern soldiers are forced to live within, attempting to act to their truest, which for some is hard every day, whilst others find ways they can thrive.
3. Fury (2014)
When discussing iconic moments in war movies, it’s natural to think of the classics that we have seen earlier in this list. However, there is a more recent and very underrated entry to the war genre that needs to be considered. The climactic scene of David Ayer’s Fury, which sees Brad Pitt and his men desperately defending their immobilized tank, will leave you breathless.
Fury is a film that does not glorify or sugar-coat the horrors of war, instead honing in on the human experience within the grand machine of conflict. David Ayer allows his characters to be vulnerable, confused, and scared, to be reluctant servants in a fight they didn’t start.
The manner in which the film’s pacing peaks and troughs as the soldiers navigate chaotic battlefields and deserted towns on the path to their inevitable conclusion is a stroke of genius. Ayer puts the audience in the heart of the action and on the edge of our seats in one of his best thriller movies to date.
2. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Here we have another of the pantheon of great directors creating a war-based masterpiece. The one-of-a-kind Stanley Kubrick also stepped into the Vietnamese-US conflict for one of his finest works.
Taking a deep look into the mental, physical, and emotional toll the preparation for war takes on young men, Kubrick’s picture is a tense, emotive, and erosive journey following a band of fresh-faced recruits. As the men progress through basic training, they are turned into “minister[s] of death, praying for war.”
It tells of the powerful, all-encompassing nature of learning how to kill and also how to stay alive. Even though much of the film takes place pre-combat, when the men enter the conflict as part of the Marine Corps, no punches are pulled in the reality of the situation they share with so many others. No ifs, buts, or maybes about it. Full Metal Jacket is one of the best war movies around.
1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
From one of the most impactful war scenes of all time, we go straight into another. Get YouTube up and put Rise of the Valkyries on for this paragraph, as we’re talking about Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War classic.
Apocalypse Now has it all and is widely considered to be one of the best movies ever made. It’s a unique aural experience, has second-to-none cinematography, and some truly remarkable combat scenes. That’s not even getting to Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando’s tour-de-force performances.
Plus, that iconic scene, Coppola’s orchestration of a formation of helicopters flying onto the shore like a tsunami sweeping inland, ready to destroy the silence and innocence of the native population below them, is simply cinema history.
There you have it, the best war movies of all time. If you want to dive into some more genres, why not check out our lists of the best Western movies, the best airplane movies, and the best spy movies ever made? Or, for a different kind of war, check out our guides on the Avengers: Secret Wars release date and everything we know about Avatar 3. Alternatively, keep up to date with every major release with our guide to new movies in 2023.