10 of the Best War Movies of All Time

Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now | Zoetrope Studios

It’s no wonder there have been so many songs, plays, and books written about war — it’s a fascinating subject, filled with brutality and pain and emotion and spectacular scope. But perhaps no medium is better at capturing the horrifying experience of being at war than film, which allows us to witness the reality of a true or fictionalized account of some bloody conflict with breathtaking immediacy. Nonetheless, a subject as all-encompassing as war takes some know how to get right on film. Luckily, these 10 films managed to do just that in their own unique ways.

1. Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy may be his primary claim to fame, but they’re just about matched in scope and quality by his other magnum opus Apocalypse Now. Coppola, who famously remarked that the film isn’t about Vietnam but “is Vietnam,” went through hell to film this episodic depiction of the institutional insanity of the Vietnam War based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.

The horrifying and sometimes even darkly humorous segments that make up the film are connected by a hallucinatory trip down the river and by thematic undertones of insanity, examining a world where the simple realities of war have taken their toll on everyone, in one way or another.

2. Paths of Glory

World War I was a war fought for little more than imperialist supremacy, pitting the soldiers of one nation against another in bloody battles for obscure political reasons. Paths of Glory is perhaps the greatest film about that conflict because it finds the soldiers’ enemy in the unfeeling officers who needlessly force men to march to their deaths. Stanley Kubrick’s first truly great film is unforgiving in its indictment of the indifference of the upper classes and the nonsensical bureaucracy behind all the bullets and bloodshed. It is too powerful and irrational to be moved even by the fiery idealism of Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax.

3. Saving Private Ryan

There are many inspired moments in Steven Spielberg’s epic war picture Saving Private Ryan, which manages to serve both as an anti-war picture and a fitting tribute to the men who gave their lives in the bloodiest conflict in human history. But nothing can really trump the overwhelming opening moments when Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller navigates the freezing beaches, whizzing bullets, and dropping bodies of the Normandy Invasion, horrifyingly numb to everything happening around him. The rest of the film finds a crew of men sacrificing their lives for the sake of a single one, who the brass has decided is important for symbolic reasons. Spielberg’s film makes an appeal for the equal value of every single soldier storming that beach in the beginning of the movie.

4. Full Metal Jacket

Rather than focusing on simply one aspect of the unjust Vietnam War, Stanley Kubrick — the only director to land two films on this list — splits his Vietnam film into segments. The second half of the film follows the journeys through the city and the jungles of Matthew Modine’s Private Joker, but ultimately seems generic and pales in comparison to the revelatory first half, which takes place entirely at a marine boot camp. The hilarious, yet disturbing verbal abuse of the camp sergeant leads to the psychological unraveling of one underperforming recruit, and the demise of the pair of them, serves as one of the most sobering depictions of the way we dehumanize our soldiers so they might fight for us.

5. Three Kings

Three Kings is a film of excess, overflowing with stylish visual ideas, self-absorbed characters, and inspired bits of tragicomedy that all serve a story about America’s halfhearted involvement in the Middle East. It’s a film that rings all too true. Before we reentered Iraq for the second time, this early film from director David O. Russell showed the political and economic opportunism of the American military and a few individual soldiers who set out in search of wealth but accidentally inspire civilians to rebel against their oppressors, mistakenly believing they have the support of the American would-be liberators. As a blend of humor, action, and fearless social satire, Three Kings is the rare movie about war that manages to be both fun and sobering.

6. M*A*S*H

Before it became one of the most popular television series of all-time, M*A*S*H was an independent film from director Robert Altman that focused on the screwball antics of a medical outpost near the front lines of the Korean War. The off-color humor is all the more cathartic and hilarious in this unlikely setting, as the irreverent pranks of Hawkeye and Trapper, which are always targeted at the superiors unwilling to admit the absurdity of the conflict in which they find themselves, spoke to a feeling of discontent with the powers that be and a weary resignation that was quintessentially ’70s. The gags might be funny, but they exist only to distract from the horrible violence that rears its head now and again to remind the characters of their own mortality.

7. The Grand Illusion

Jean Renoir’s 1937 film looks at World War I through distinctly European eyes, pinpointing the conflict as the point when the European notion of aristocracy finally died. The film focuses on the unlikely economic and historic ties between a group of French soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans and in particular a conflicted commander (Erich von Stroheim) with a soft spot for the privileged classes of any nation. There are plenty of rousing escape sequences to keep the blood pumping throughout the film, but its true power is as a portrait of a moment when history changed course, taking some men along for the future and leaving too many others behind.

8. Grave of the Fireflies

So many films focus on the men in the front lines of war, but few focus on the tragic civilian casualties that war often brings. Perhaps the most effectively tragic portrayal of this from perhaps the ugliest reality of all wars, comes from a Japanese animated film that was marketed as a family picture upon its release in spite of the unadorned tragedy of the tale.

Grave of the Fireflies follows two young siblings who were driven from their home and forced to live with an abusive aunt. They’re finally pushed to living on the streets and struggling for whatever rationed food might help them survive long enough to live through a war they don’t understand, but irreversibly affects their short lives all the same.

9. Platoon

The Vietnam War movie shows a young recruit going through a moral crisis while fighting in the war, which includes being caught between two very different sergeants. It’s an autobiographical film for director, Oliver Stone. The movie is good at pulling people in to experience its emotional story. It won four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing.

10. Glory

This movie shows the first all-black volunteer company in the Civil War. It covers the war, but also the racism that was present in both the Union and the Confederacy. The movie has a lot of talent on its side with actors Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. The movie ended up winning three Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. The movie is stunning, from its cinematography to its tribute to the black soldiers of the time.

Additional reporting by Nicole Weaver.

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