With numerous war films to choose from, imagine your condition if you were to make a list of top 10 films of all time? We had to go through a similar turmoil to come up with this compilation of the best war movies ever made…
From the American Civil War of 1861 to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars have always provided filmmakers with a fantastic theme to unleash their creativity. Depiction of conflicts, regardless of whether they are between two nations or two tribes, has always been a subject of fascination for the directors and audience alike.
The decade of 1920s marked the release of war films like ‘The Big Parade’ and ‘What Price Glory?’, and since then, the depiction of war on the silver screen has just got better. In fact, movies like ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘Patton’, ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’, ‘Go Tell the Spartans’, ‘Casualties of War’ etc., are considered by many as the best war movies they have ever seen.
Top 10 War Movies of All Time
Over the last few decades, the concept of war movies has successfully created a niche for itself in a society which usually deplores bloodshed. If asked which has been the best war film ever made, every individual has an opinion of his own. Not to forget, all the classics featuring in different war movies list have a loyal fan following of their own. With so many contenders vying for the top spot, it’s very difficult to determine which is the best. Each movie being different, has some or the other exceptional thing about it, and that makes the choice even more difficult. We explored the world of war movies, and came across some brilliant films which we arranged in the list of 10 best war films of all times – that was not really an easy task.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
“Apocalypse Now is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.” – Roger Ebert (American film critic and screenwriter)
Apocalypse Now, an American war film produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is set in the backdrop of Vietnam War. Its storyline follows Benjamin L. Willard, the U.S. Army Captain played by Martin Sheen, in his quest to find and kill Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, who has now turned rogue and operates from a remote jungle in Cambodia. The three-hour version of Apocalypse Now screened at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival got a long thunderous applause alongside the prestigious Cannes Palme d’Or. The film was also nominated for the Academy Award and the Golden Globe, but it lost to Robert Benton’s drama film Kramer vs. Kramer.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
“….it would be madness to miss the thoughtful and compelling The Bridge on the River Kwai. Its belief in humanity is as fresh and as devastating as it was nearly 50 years ago.” – Jason Morgan for Filmcritic (2006)
Based on French novelist Pierre Boulle’s novel by the same name, The Bridge on the River Kwai is set in a Japanese POW camp in Thailand during World War II. The story revolves around the face-off between Lt. Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, and POW camp commandant Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa. It was this film which marked the beginning of director David Lean’s style of long-winded storytelling, which continued in films to come. The Bridge on the River Kwai won as many as seven Academy Awards that year, including that for the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography and the Best Actor (Alec Guinness for his portrayal of Colonel Nicholson). It is also worth a mention that, this is one of those few films of that era which boast of universal critical acclaim.
The Longest Day (1962)
“Darryl F. Zanuck achieves a solid and stunning war epic. From personal vignettes to big battles, it details the first day of the D-Day Landings by the Allies on 6 June 1944.” – Variety (American Weekly)
The Longest Day, a 1962 war film depicting the D-Day invasion of Normandy, is based on the book titled ‘The Longest Day’ by Cornelius Ryan. It was directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Gerd Oswald, Bernhard Wicki and Darryl F. Zanuck (who was also the producer of the movie). Like the long list of directors, the long list of stars of this movie included names like John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery and Curd Jurgens. The fact that it won the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Special Effects, speaks volumes about the realistic depiction of war in The Longest Day. With an estimated budget of around $10 million at that time, it was the most expensive black and white movie ever made.
“…to this day one of Hollywood’s most compelling biographical war pictures.” – James Berardinelli (American online film critic)
A 1970 American biographical war film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton traced the life of U.S. General George S. Patton during World War II. More than the war, this was a film about a person who was known for his heroics and strategies, and his adamant behavior. While the film was critically acclaimed, and went on to win seven Academy Awards – including the Best Picture, it is George Scott’s portrayal of General Patton that the movie is more often remembered for. It was this performance which earned Scott the Academy Award for the Best Actor, which he refused to accept – thus becoming the first actor to reject the same.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
“Saving Private Ryan is a powerful experience. I’m sure a lot of people will weep during it. Spielberg knows how to make audiences weep better than any director since Chaplin in ‘City Lights’.” – Roger Ebert (American film critic and screenwriter)
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan depicted the invasion of Normandy in the World War II. It focused on the search for a paratrooper, Private First Class James Francis Ryan played by Matt Damon, who had gone missing in action in Normandy. The impressive list of stars featuring in this film included actors like Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel and Tom Sizemore. It received a warm reception by the critics, for its realistic battle scenes and noteworthy performances by its ensemble cast. Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, from which it won the award for the Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Editing and Best Director.
“…..a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman’s point of view, and it does not make war look like fun.” – Roger Ebert (American film critic and screenwriter)
Released in 1986, Platoon was the first of director Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war films trilogy – and was eventually followed by Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven & Earth (1993). Its star cast included some of the big names like Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen. The film followed Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, on his tour of duty in Vietnam. Platoon received mix response, in form of grand critical acclamation as well as denouncing for its presentation of violence in the Vietnam War. The movie bagged several prominent awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture at 1986 Awards and Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
“A first-rate action thriller, a vivid evocation of urban warfare in Iraq, a penetrating study of heroism and a showcase for austere technique, terse writing and a trio of brilliant performances.” – Joe Morgenstern (The Wall Street Journal)
One of the more recent American war films, The Hurt Locker followed the story of three-man bomb disposal team, played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, in action during the Iraq War. The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director when she won the coveted Award for this film. The film also went on to bag the honors in five more categories, including the Academy Award for the Best Picture, taking its tally to six Oscars. It was a phenomenal success, considering that The Hurt Locker was pitched against the much-touted Avatar by James Cameroon.
Paths of Glory (1957)
“To a certain extent, this forthright picture has the impact of hard reality, mainly because its frank avowal of agonizing, uncompensated injustice is pursued to the bitter, tragic end.” – Bosley Crowther (The New York Times)
An anti-war film, Paths of Glory was based on Humphrey Cobb’s 1935 novel by the same name. It narrated the story of Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, who, in his capacity as the commanding officer in the French army, refuses to continue a suicidal attack in World War I, and therefore has to face a court-martial. Though the film was not a huge box-office success, it did earn universal critical acclaim for director Stanley Kubrick. Paths of Glory was nominated at the BAFTA for the Best Film category that year, wherein it lost to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
“The Thin Red Line is a movie about creation growing out of destruction, about love where you’d least expect to find it and about angels – especially the fallen kind – who just happen to be men.” – Michael O’Sullivan (Washington Post)
The Thin Red Line is an American war film, directed by Terrence Malick, which revolves around the United States forces in action in the Battle of Mount Austen in World War II. The film marked Malick’s return to the silver screen after a gap of 20 years. Its star cast included some of the big names from Hollywood, including Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Cusack and John Travolta. Even though The Thin Red Line was not able to win an Academy Award, and that despite being nominated in seven categories, it continues to be one of the best war films ever made.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
“…ambitious, sumptuously framed, and frenetic, Black Hawk Down is nonetheless a rare find of a war movie which dares to turn genre convention on its head.” – Empire (film magazine)
Undoubtedly one of the best war movies of the 21st century, Black Hawk Down was directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, along with Scott. The movie, based on Mark Bowden’s novel by the same name, depicts the Battle of Mogadishu – the U.S. efforts to capture the Somali warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and how their plans fall apart when they are met with unexpected resistance. Starring Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor and Eric Bana, the Black Hawk Dawn was a critical as well as a commercial success, grossing $179,823 on the first weekend of its release, and winning the Academy Award for Best Editing and Best Sound for that year.
Bonus: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
In 2006, director Clint Eastwood pulled off an unusual feat by releasing two war films which were the companion pieces (other halves) of each other. The films depicted the Battle for Iwo Jima from the perspective of two nations involved; ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ was made from the American point of view and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ from the Japanese point of view. While both the movies were critically acclaimed, Letters from Iwo Jima performed better than its American companion in terms box-office collections. It also won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing and Golden Globe for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Other than these masterpieces, there also exist several war films which deserve a mention for the brilliant work of art that they are. These include Enemy At The Gates (2000), Pearl Harbor (2001), The Patriot (2001), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and so on. There exist films like the Schindler’s List (1993) and The Deer Hunter (1978) which often feature in different lists of best war films, but don’t belong to the ‘war film’ genre specifically – even though they do have a war in the backdrop.
These were the movies which made a difference owing to their plot, direction, ensemble star cast, realistic depiction of battles, deafening background score, and so on. With war as the subject, half the battle is already won for the director; he simply has to depict the horror of the war and the grief that follows – easier said than done.
Disclaimer: This was purely a list of the best war movies according to us, and we are very well aware of the fact that it might not go down well with everybody. You can share your views, or contribute by rearranging this list/creating your own list of the best war films ever made, and posting it in form of comments. We would surely take a note of your suggestion when we update this list the next time.