War movies have existed for as long as movies themselves have existed. It’s not difficult to see why: from the very beginning, war movies have been able to wow audiences with fiery explosions, large scale battles, and stories of heroism.
That being said, war movies also accurately show us the horror, as well as the humanity (or sometimes the lack thereof) that comes with armed and violent conflict. For those who have never served in combat themselves, watching a realistic war movie is probably the closest they’ll ever get to experiencing what real combat is like.
Here are the top 25 greatest war movies of all time:
The 1998 World War II film is perhaps the most famous war film of all time and is regarded by many as being the most realistic depiction of combat ever committed to the big screen. The film’s first thirty minutes follow the Normandy Landings, and specifically at Omaha Beach. The film then switches to following a squad of American soldiers as they penetrate deep behind enemy lines to search for an American paratrooper named Ryan, who’s three brothers have all been killed in combat.
Full Metal Jacket is a 1987 Vietnam war film that is notable for the performance of R. Lee Ermey as the Drill Sgt. Hartman, who whips a group of army boot camp recruits into shape before they are deployed to Vietnam to see combat. The film was one of the final of famed director Stanley Kubrick, who also directed other famous films such as Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Battle of La Drang in 1965 was the first major engagement between the American and North Vietnamese forces in the Vietnam War. The events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and its immediate aftermath are shown in We Were Soldiers.
Black Hawk Down is a visceral war film released in 2001 that follows the real life stories of U.S. soldiers who fought at the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, 1993. When an hour long operation in the city quickly went wrong when two black hawk helicopters were shot down, a major gunfight took place that extended for over twenty four hours and required thousands of more U.S. troops to be sent in as a rescue force.
Lone Survivor, released in 2014, details Operation Red Wings that occurred in 2005 in Afghanistan. During the battle, four United States Navy SEAL’s found themselves under attack from hundreds of Taliban fighters in the Afghan mountains. The SEAL’s were originally performing a reconnaissance mission, but were spotted by a group of Afghan goat herders. The SEAL’s decided to let the herders go and attempted to escape, but were discovered and overwhelmed by a Taliban force that potentially numbered as highly as two hundred and fifty men. Only one SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, survived the ensuing firefight despite being mortally wounded, and was taken in by an Afghan village who kept him safe from the Taliban until he was rescued later.
Hacksaw Ridge is a 2016 war film that follows the true story of Desmond Doss, a field medic who served in the Pacific Theatre in World War II at the Battle of Okinawa, and refused to carry a firearm of any kind in combat. Doss ended up saving the lives of over seventy five wounded American soldiers while under heavy Japanese fire, and became the only conscientious objector who received the Medal of Honor during the Second World War. The film’s narrative begins with Doss’s early childhood life before following him through boot camp and later serving at Okinawa.
The 2000 film The Patriot is one of the few Hollywood films to focus on the Revolutionary War. While many of the characters in the film are fictional, most of them are also based off of real life people who served in the war. The film follows the exploits of a former French and Indian fighter named Benjamin Martin, who finds himself drawn into the Revolutionary War when one of his sons is killed by the British.
The 1986 anti-war film Platoon is known for being one of the most brutal and realistic Vietnam War films ever made, and one of the first to show the true horrors of the Vietnam War. The film follows a young private in a Vietnam platoon, who finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between the platoon’s two sergeants, who hold a strong grudge for one another.
Fury is a 2014 war film that follows the crew of a Sherman tank during the final days of the European theatre of World War II and the final push of the American forces deep into Nazi Germany. Specifically, it zeroes in on a new recruit who joins an experienced crew as they duel German Tiger tanks and later are forced to hold a crossroads against overwhelming German forces.
The 1970 biographical film follows the story of famed United States General George S. Patton, famous for his twin ivory handled revolvers and his rather unconventional fighting methods, which earned him high amounts of respect from both his fellow generals and his German adversaries alike. Patton commanded the United States 7th Army in the Mediterranean and then the 3rd Army on the Western Front.
A Bridge Too Far is notable for being one of the few war films that showcases an Allied defeat. The 1976 film depicts Operation Market Garden, in which British and American forces launched a paratrooper operation to invade Holland, with the aim being to gain strategic bridges and then launch an invasion of northern Germany to hopefully end the war by Christmas. The battle quickly went wrong and Allied forces were forced to withdraw, marking one of the few defeats the Germans managed to inflict on the Allies in the Western Front of the war.
The 1998 epic war film The Thin Red Line follows the exploits of C Company during the fierce Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II. Although the film is often overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan as they were released in the same year, The Thin Red Line is notable for its all-star cast and lush cinematography that was shot on location.
The 2006 film Letters From Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, is notable for being one of the very few Hollywood productions that is told from perspective of the Japanese forces in World War II. The film was made as a companion piece to Flags of our Fathers, and follows General Kuribayashi as he leads the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific of World War II, and one of the very few battles where total American casualties exceeded the total casualties of the Japanese.
One of the longest movies ever made at over four hours, Gettysburg is a very detailed depiction of the three days of battle at Gettysburg, the most bloody battle ever fought on American soil, and where more American soldiers died than during the entire Vietnam War. The film specifically focuses on the actions of Generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet on the Confederate side, and Colonels James Buford and Joshua Chamberlain on the Union side.
The 1964 film Zulu tells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1979, where just over one hundred British soldiers (many of them wounded and sick), managed to miraculously hold off wave after wave of more than four thousand Zulu warriors. Rorke’s Drift was the second major battle of the Zulu War in the late 1870s. After massacring over one thousand British soldiers at Isandlwana, the Zulu army then swept north towards Rorke’s Drift, who held out for more than twenty four hours of continuous hand-to-hand fighting.
The 2012 thriller war film Zero Dark Thirty details the extensive search for Osama Bin Laden, which began following 9/11 and then continued up to 2011. The movie follows the more than decades long search and culminates with a vivid depiction of the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout that resulted in his death.
Defiance is a 2008 film that tells the real life story of the Jewish Bielski brothers, who fought as partisans against German forces in the eastern European forests during World War II. The brothers ended up gathering over twelve hundred fellow Jews to their cause, and they lived throughout the war in the woods, where they built a school, a hospital, and a nursery despite being under constant German attack.
The 2017 war film Dunkirk depicts the Allied evacuation from the port town from the perspectives of land, sea, and air. The film is unique because the stories are told out of chronological order. The land sequences cover the course of one week, the sea sequences one day, and the air sequences one hour. The three sequences are then interspersed together throughout the film.
Directed by famed director David Lean, the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most famous films of all time and easily the most famous film about World War I. The film follows T.E. Lawrence as he rallies the Arab forces to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The film is notable for its sweeping soundtrack and panoramic vistas of the Arabian desert.