The 10 Greatest War Movies of All Time

In some ways, it’s a natural subject for cinema. It has scope. It packs inherent drama. It has all the swagger, the allure, and the blood-spattered spectacle that makes the visual medium so viable. Yet the war film — an indirect derivation of the thriller, action effort, and (sometimes) critical commentary — is often foiled by the very elements it has to cater to. Offer up too much realism and the audience looks away in dismay. Play up the arrogance or the attraction and your motives are questioned. Human conflict is a tricky concept to completely nail down. Some want nothing but the immoral aftermath, never once addressing the equally depraved aspects that brought us to this point. Many crave a helping of clear-cut heroics and villainy, the better to secure their hegemonic/sovereign/patriotic stance.

So coming up with a list of the Greatest War Movies of All Time is tough, especially in light of the divergent approaches taken. Want nothing more than flag waving and enemy annihilation? Go for the ’50s combat conceit, a time when John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Burt Lancaster would steer the stars and stripes course. Or maybe your prefer the ’70s, with its stark cynicism and attempt to grapple with the bigger issues involved. From something as sobering as Schindler’s List to the over the top casting that carries The Longest Day, one’s decision has to balance the message with the media. In that regard — and in recognition of the 24 May release of Platoon on Blu-ray — SE&L offers up its list of the 10 Best looks at human conflict through the ages. Most are decided on the field of battle. But as you can see, not even war’s impact is singular. Sometime, the reach can be very long indeed.

#10: Das Boot

For decades, there were few films made from what could best be referred to as the “enemy’s” perspective. If they were, they didn’t get wide distribution outside their country of origin. So when Wolfgang Peterson’s old school thriller about a German U-boat broke out in 1981, it signaled a trend toward viewing conflict from all sides of the stratagem. Even in its various director’s cut permutations, it remains a singular vision of the everyday/everyman toll of confinement and armed conflict.

#9: The Big Red One

Hollywood renegade Samuel Fuller had seen a great deal of action in WWII as part of the title unit, otherwise known as US First Infantry. From frontline firefights to the liberation of the concentration camp at Falkenau, the filmmaker poured all of his experiences into this hard-nosed slice of Golden Era aggrandizement. Severely cut before making little impact in theaters, it would be several decades — and seven years after his death — before Fuller’s full version was released, to well deserved critical acclaim.

#8: Letters from Iwo Jima

Along with Flag of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood set out to supply a complementary companion piece to pal Stephen Spielberg’s D-Day spectacle. Tackling the bloody Pacific theater, this view from the Japanese front remains a definitive, defiant statement. Arguing for the honor and duty of the Asian fighter, as well as the utter hopelessness of their ultimate cause, Eastwood managed to make death and destruction seem almost poetic. Drawn from the actual title source, it’s a moving and maddening experience.

#7: The Battle of Algiers

Not all wars are fought on vast international battlefields. Some occur within remote regions struggling to survive decades of oppression and persecution. Focusing on the freedom fighters looking to liberate themselves from French Colonization, director Gillo Pontecorvo took the battle to the streets of the Algerian capital, illustrating the often futile approach to eventual liberation. Looking like a documentary and feeling like a shot in the gut, it expertly illustrates the lengths people will go for/against power.

#6: Grand Illusion

At its core, Jean Renoir’s first major masterpiece highlights the class struggles and distinctions among French POWs in World War I. Like his later work of genius, The Rules of the Game, it also exposes the senseless and often ideologically similar politics that drive men to destroy each other. Clearly, Renoir was successful in making his various points. The film was eventually banned in France, and when the Nazis came to power and invaded, they seized all prints and negatives.

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#5: Platoon

Though many might argue with the claim, Oliver Stone’s ode to his time in Vietnam was the first film that actually combined the tenets of a traditional war film with the counterculture perspective that had quickly become the post-’60s norm. While it’s good vs. evil narrative base is a bit too broad to keep things wholly classic, the individual performances and personal point of view from the ex-Vet writer/director maintain the movie’s Hell on Earth ideals.


#4: Saving Private Ryan

For the opening sequence along, this movie deserves every accolade it has ever received. The blood drenched gore of the D-Day landing, envision by one of the Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, stands as a devastating indictment of the sacrifice made by many in the so-called “greatest generation.” Once we get off the battlefield and head into the countryside, the narrative takes a turn toward the slightly more sentimental. Said emotion shift, however, is what makes the ending so endearing.


#3: The Thin Red Line

After being away from cinema for almost 20 years, elusive director Terrence Malick announced he was going to tackle James Jones’ novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal. Instantly, fans frothed over the idea, especially with almost every major Hollywood star (at the time) announcing they wanted to be/were part of it. While few have witnessed the original five hour cut, the released version immediately took its place among the revered war efforts of other great filmmakers (Kubrick, Renoir, etc.). With time, it’s only gotten better.


#2: Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Not all war movies are about actual conflict. Some can be rather “Cold” in their depiction of world events, as is this brilliant Stanley Kubrick satire. Centered around an accidental standoff between American and Russian nuclear forces, we witness the kind of absurd grandstanding and inane political posturing that place the planet in such a precarious situations in the first place. From the fantastic performances to the meaningful messages, this is one of the greatest anti-war films ever.


#1: Apocalypse Now

The shorthand version of the facts are this — multi-Oscar winning filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola took his cast and crew into the Philippine jungle and slowly lost his moviemaking mind. The truth is that, once all the hindrances and heartaches (and attacks) fell away, the auteur was left with this — an amazing masterwork of hallucinogenic war horror. While based — loosely — on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the real portrait was one of man turning on man for reasons beyond the battlefield. Not so much about Vietnam as the irrational reasons for same, it paints its portrait in surreal, sickening swatches.