Yes, they’ve got big guns, even bigger explosions, and more scenes of heroism than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s back catalogue, but this isn’t really why war films are so important to cinema. These things sell movie stubs, sure, but films surrounding orchestrated conflict depict humanity at its most raw, at its most vulnerable, and serve as important reflections on history.
War can be seen from many perspectives and comes in many forms, which is why we’ve toiled away to collect the greatest war pictures 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.
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 on film. 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. After all, as the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Here are the best war movies that remind us what not to repeat.
What are the best War movies?
- Saving Private Ryan
- Apocalypse Now
- Full Metal Jacket
- Letters From Iwo Jima
- The Thin Red Line
- Hurt Locker
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. It is a film that changed war movies forever.
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. 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.
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.
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 heart 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.
THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
There’s George Clooney and John Travolta, John Cusack, Sean Penn and 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 the fleeting nature of them is another way Malick wants to show 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.
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 ageing 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.
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.
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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.
The most recent film in this collection, Sam Mendes’ WWI drama, 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, 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.
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.
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.
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