Top 10 War Films

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You will notice an anti-war stance with this list. John Wayne is noticeable by his absence! The films have a common mission and that is to tell the truth as the writers and directors see it. Before I receive a deluge of comments on why ‘Saving Private Ryan’ isn’t included, I think that the first 20 minutes are remarkable but the rest of the film is a let down.

10. Paths of Glory

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1957)

The setting is World War I and the plot, adapted from the novel of the same name, is inspired by a true story. Kirk Douglas gives a fine performance as honorable French officer, Colonel Dax. Following the order of a suicidal attack, which ends in failure, the military brass demands that three of the soldiers involved are made examples of. They are put on trial on trumped up charges of cowardice and mutiny, their only hope being Dax, who takes on their defense.

9. MASH

Directed by Robert Altman (1970)

The futility of war, expressed through black humor, is the driving force and the movie is superior to the long running TV series that followed. The surgeons and nurses of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital do the best they can to cope with the constant flow of wounded men from the Korean War. Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper (Elliot Gould) are a great double act. There’s even a song to go with the sound of helicopters. Sing along to ‘Suicide is Painless’.

8. Das Boot

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (1981)

The claustrophobic world of submarine warfare is vividly portrayed in this World War II story, told from the German perspective. Set in 1942, the action takes place on a U-Boat, whose mission is to destroy Allied shipping and block essential supplies from reaching Britain. We are caught up in the rookie crew’s tense world, including being stranded with their air running out. The Captain and much of his crew question the Nazi warlords who sent them to war. There are several versions of the film and it was also presented as a TV mini-series.

7. Born on the Fourth of July

Directed by Oliver Stone (1989)

Based on Ron Kovic’s book of his experiences in the Vietnam War, Oliver Stone and Kovic co-wrote the screenplay. It won the Oscar for Best Director and anyone who says that Tom Cruise can’t act should see this. Kovic is as gung ho patriotic as they come when he enlists in the Marine Corps and can’t wait to ship out to ‘Nam. He comes back paralyzed from the chest down. As he tries to re-build his life, he is faced by terrible conditions in the Vet’s hospital, hostility and indifference. His beliefs are turned upside down and he campaigns against the war and for the rights of servicemen through the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization.

6. Schindler’s List

Directed by Steven Spielberg (1993)

Spielberg reached a new maturity in his adaptation from Thomas Keneally’s book. Filmed in black and white, there is an authentic feel to the story of businessman, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). He opens a factory in occupied Poland and employs Jewish workers as cheap labour. On good terms with German officers, his motive is to simply make a profit. Gradually, he is moved by the plight of the Jewish population and he uses his position to save hundreds of Jews destined for the Concentration Camp. Ralph Fiennes is chilling as SS Officer, Goeth. It won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. The best moment is Schindler’s reaction to a little girl in a red coat.

5.  Full Metal Jacket

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1987)

Another examination of the Vietnam War, this brutal tale follows a squad of US Marines from Boot Camp to the Tet Offensive. Drill Instructor, Sergeant Hartman makes life hell for recruits, particularly for Private Gomer Pyle, who is slow and overweight. The Marines then have to survive street battles in Vietnam, which Kubrick skilfully created on location in England. This movie is like a slap in the face and the closing shots of the marines singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song gives you goose bumps.

4. Oh, What a Lovely War

Directed by Richard Attenborough (1969)

This is the most unusual war movie ever made. Told through the medium of the music hall, it was adapted from a successful stage musical. British soldiers satirize the absurdity of World War I with altered lyrics to popular songs. The life of the working class soldiers are contrasted with the officers and the aristocracy. Jingoistic recruiting (‘We Don’t Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go’) gives way to the disillusionment (‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’). A stellar cast features Lawrence Olivier, John Mills, John Gielgud, and Maggie Smith. The film ends with a shot of row upon row of white crosses.

3. All Quiet on the Western Front

Directed by Lewis Milestone (1930)

Another look at the horror of World War I, this time, from a German perspective. It is a visually inventive adaptation from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel and, despite its 1930 release, stands up as a classic today. A class of students are swept away in a wave of enthusiasm to enlist and serve the Fatherland. The boyhood friends are anticipating glory but meet with a harsh reality. Paul (Lew Ayres) is the central character and Kat is the hardened veteran who tries to help the recruits. There are some memorable scenes, such as the butterfly, just out of reach in the trenches, and the ghostly march past of the dead. The film won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

2. Apocalypse Now

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1979)

This surreal trip through the Vietnam War took its inspiration from Joseph Conrad’s book, ‘Heart of Darkness’. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is ordered into the jungle in Cambodia to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Reports have come through that Kurtz, who is AWOL, has gone insane and is commanding a private army. Willard arrives to find that the locals worship Kurtz. This movie is famous for the difficulties encountered in its making. Sheen had a heart attack, severe weather destroyed sets and Coppola had to accommodate an overweight Brando. It’s a wonder it got made at all but the result is a disturbing journey into the dark souls of lost, human beings. ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’.

1. The Thin Red Line

Directed by Terence Malick (1998)

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Unfortunately overshadowed by ‘Saving Private Ryan’, which came out in the same year, this is a masterpiece of cinematography. The slow paced story is based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones and concerns the Battle of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific in World War II. The men from C-Company reveal their personal lives and their different viewpoints, bonding together as their courage and beliefs are tested. It’s strange to describe a war film as poetic and lyrical but this one is. Interspersed with the fighting, there is beauty and compassion. The lesser-known actors are every bit as compelling as stars, such as Sean Penn and Nick Nolte. Written by Anne Iredale


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77 Comments

  1. They're all good films and I love Full Metal Jacket and Apocolypse Now, but the list is very American-centric. Four of the films are about Vietnam and one about US-only action in Guadacanal.

    Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front and Oh What a Lovely War are the more 'balanced' portrayal of the war movie genre.

    Das Boot is a great movie too.

  2. Anne Iredale on

    Thank you Scott. Patton and Glory would probably make it into my Top 20. There were quite a few that just missed the cut – eg 'Platoon'. I addressed the subject of Saving Private Ryan in my introduction. Apart from the first 20 minutes, which was incredibly good, it was not critcally praised and my personal opinion is that the film fell flat after those opening scenes.

    • Wrong! Saving Private Ryan was and is universally critically praised by the overwhelming majority of movie critics. Your credibility is completely shot with that comment.

  3. What about We Were Soldiers, Patton, Band of Brothers(though not technically a movie), and Platoon. I actually found the "slow paced story" of The Thin Red Line kind of boring.

  4. some okay ones here on the list but….! We were soilders, glory, the patriot, platoon, are top ten material. Saving private ryan is a GREAT movie. Band of brothers is an incredible show albeit not a movie. I don't understand your #1.

  5. Thanks for everyone's comments – really appreciate it. My criteria was films that received critical acclaim and not just my personal taste.

    There had to be a cut off point somewhere and I haven't seen every war movie ever made!

    My number 1 will not be to some people's taste but I urge people to give it a go if they haven't seen it. Keep them coming!

    • I'm all about your choice for number 1. In fact, for it's depiction of the human spirit circumnavigating even human nature, it is my number 1, also. Great pick.

        • Wow what a great list, The Thin Red Line is a beautiful and poetic film by the master Terrence Malik so great choice on keeping that while dropping more sentimental war movies like Platoon and Saving Private Ryan. Full Metal Jacket is the antithesis to Platoon in terms of mood so great job having that on there.

        • I have to agree with you guys, The Thin Red Line was an amazing film with some incredibly beautiful moments in it, i think that Band Of Brothers was one of the greatest war films ever made though unfortunatly it is not a movie, i also think that Letters From Iwa Jima should have been up there somewhere.

    • To do a list of war movies considering their critical acclaim is stupid and idiotic! Avatar is critically acclaimed. Dark Knight is acclaimed. Are they good movies?

      A war list without Idi i Smotri on 1,2 or 3 is a worthless list!

  6. Saving Private Ryan needs to be on that list. It has a great plot, the best scene in the history of movies (D-Day), top notch actors (Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper), priceless characters like Private Jackson, and an outstanding director whom included amazing effects, even though it was made 10 years ago. C'mon

  7. I agree with the above poster who thought The Thin Red Line was boring. I've tried watching it twice and both times I fell asleep. Great cinematography, but I wouldn't include it in my own top ten list. (I couldn't put it a top 100, actually) To each his own, though.

    It's amazing you left off The Longest Day; it even has John Wayne in it along with a galaxy of stars. I would have added several more Wayne films, In Harm's Way and Sands of Iwo Jima among them. Being a Texan, having The Alamo on the list would be a necessary thing.

  8. You say you didnt mention Saving Pvt Ryan because you feel that the movie didn't deliver…..if that is the case, how come you put Thin red line as #1, the movie is boring as hell, and its mostly about a mopping up operation after the main thing had been fought….SPR deserves to be #1 not only because of its quality but because of its significance to American culture.

  9. Different strokes for different folks, but I agree 110% with A Thin Red Line as being a much more substantial film then Saving Private Hunting… I mean Ryan.

  10. Other than my minor "objections", I thought it a good list, too and agree with most of the choices. I enjoy this site, enjoy the diff. opinions stated in such a pleasant way. Regards!

  11. You missed Gallipoli (starring Mel Gibson), one of the best WWI films ever made. If you haven't seen it, you should. Also worth a mention: Breaker Morant (set during the Boer War). These two rank in the top 10 Australian movies of all time.

  12. After seeing what is picked as # 1 gives new meaning to " it's in the eye of the beholder. " Thin Red Line doesn't make my cut if we push the list out to Top 20.

    For me the best of the best: ( not in any order )

    Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Platoon,

    Patriot, Sands of Iwo Jima, Glory, Black Hawk Down, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler's List just to name a few. All of these films received critical reviews and were seen by huge audiences all over the world..

  13. The foreign film 'Come and See' by Elem Klimov is a Russian film set against the background of fighting in Belarus against the Germans in WWII. This is by far the best WWII movie I have seen and easily overtakes the other movies in this list as #1. It's easy to find this movie online complete with subtitles or English dubs.

    A must see if you're a war movie buff. It's unapologetic and moving.

  14. This is my ad hoc list. Kinda in historical order.

    1. Excalibur

    2. The Patriot

    3. Gods and Generals, Ride With The Devil, Outlaw Josie Wales

    4. The Rough Riders ( made for TV on TNT )

    5. Breaker Morant

    6. Gallipoli

    7. All Quiet On The Western Front

    8. The Lost Battalion ( made for TV on A&E )

    9. 12:00 O'clock High

    10. The Longest Day , Battleground, The Big Red One, & Patton

    11. Guadalcanal Diary

    12. Pork Chop Hill

    13. The Odd Angry Shot ( Austrian Vietnam movie) [ A very good film. A must see if you can find.]

    14. We Were Soldiers, Full Metal Jacket

    15. Blackhawk Down

  15. for all of those saying thin red line is boring, TRL is a much deeper movie than saving private ryan, a wars movie shouldn´t just be about how much blood is spilled and how much action, i agree Saving private ryan is a better action movie, but TRL exploits the mentality of the people who lived that experience, the pysical war was over the moment the war ended, but the war in their heads i believe never ended, and that´s the deeper part of this whole phenomenon we call war, which is a side we rarely see, if you want to see action watch a sylvester stallone film or star wars

  16. L. Steven Beene II on

    What? Is this a list of Top 10 War movies protesting war, or where all the leaders are crazy and only the anti-hero is sane?

    Where is the film celebrating a warrior overcoming the enemy (not misguided higher-ups on your own side), standing with his comrades and overcoming (and not the idea of "war, what is it good for, absolutely nothing"), or heroic battles and triumph?

    It's like the anti-war list.

  17. I agree with everyone about Saving Private Ryan. To not be Top 3 is arguable within one's own choice but to not have it be in the Top 10? I'm not sure what your argument is for the "critical acclaim." SPR won the oscar for Best Director, Best Effects, Best Editing, and Best Sound. And was nominated for Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Screenplay, Best Picture, and a few other categories. By the way the winner for Best Picture was sadly Shakespeare in Love that year. However, I have also never felt more of a desire to "join up" in the military as I did when watching Blackhawk Down. It pulls at all kinds of emotions the first time that you watch it and makes you wish that you could have done something to help. At least it did in my case.

  18. Roger Henslee on

    Kudos on picking a couple of almost forgotten movies – "All Quiet On The Western Front" & "Paths Of Glory"

    . Conversely, several can scarcely be called "War Movies". If movies like "Born On The Fourth Of July" and "Schindler's List" are considered as war movies why not "From Here To Eternity"(nominated for 13 Oscars, won 8) and "The Best Years Of Our Lives (7 Oscars)"? If critical acclaim" is really a criteria those two must be included as well as "Patton" (7 Oscars) and "Saving Private Ryan" (5 Oscars).

    "The Thin Red Line" would not make my top 100 much less number one. I've never been able to watch it all the way through – too dull and phony.

  19. Just want to make a point about 'critical acclaim'. The Oscars are not my idea of critical acclaim. The industry gives awards for lots of different reasons. Sometimes they reflect what respected critics think (in the UK that would be Mark Kermode or Peter Bradshaw) and sometimes they don't. When I refer to 'critical acclaim', I do not mean the Oscars but I understand that is the criteria for a lot of people.

  20. Although they have been mentioned in earlier posts I would have to include "Breaker Morant" (incredibly well done) and "Glory" (Denzel Washington in one of his greatest roles IMO). Also would include "The Great Escape" (what an all-star cast they recruited for that one…excellent movie. My wife hates war movies and she loved that one so that should tell you something). Great list BTW. I just found this site and will be coming back in the future 🙂

  21. Did anyone commenting on this issue see Bridge Over The River Kwai? In my opinion, not only trhe greatest war movie ever made but one of the best movies ever made, regardless of genre.

    • Armand. I put it into my blog for this list. It is #13 of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 greatest movies of all time. Just the fact the Sir Alec Guinness and William Holden star in this movie makes it worthwhile to watch. Thumbs up to you !!

  22. How does Full Metal Jacket beat out Apocalypse Now for best Vietnam movie of all time, but ranks lower in overall war movies?

    And not having Saving Private Ryan or Platoon on this list is ridiculous.

    Its completely subjective obviously, but The Hurt Locker was far superior to A Thin Red Line, which I found boring and slow.

    Empire of the Sun deserves a look, as well as Black Hawk Down. Kudos for including M*A*S*H though!

  23. Brian Beamer on

    Saving Private Ryan should be on there somewhere – but then again, I also like Grave of the Fireflies and Dr. Strangleove, so don’t take my word for it.

  24. My first thought was Life is Beautiful. But, I guess that it’s not exactly a war movie since half of it is about the love of the two parents. But, you have to admit that the scenes in the concentration camp are kind of heartbreaking. Of course, it’s in Italian but, that’s what subtitles are for. 😛
    Also, I’m pretty sure this list was made before The Hurt Locker, but I really hope that it would be included on a more recent list.

  25. I would have to put “Gallipoli” in the top ten starring Mel Gibson and the disasterous attack of the Australians trying to battle with the Turkish Army. The other one that I would put on the list is “Operation Burma” starring Errol Flynn. Its about a battalion of Americans trying to destroy a Japanese radar system during World War II and get caught by the Japanese who surrounded them and then put them through hell. And how could you ever forget “The Bridge On The River Kwai” starring Sir Alec Guinness and William Holden. The American Film Institute voted that movie #13 as the top 100 greatest movies ever made. That is a timeless movie to say the least. Also, “Stalag 17” also with William Holden about a group of American soldiers in a German POW camp. That movie was the inspiration for the television show “Hogan’s Heroes”

  26. When I saw “Operation Burma” mentioned, I couldn’t help but smile a lot. My father was in Burma with British Special Forces (SOE Force 136) in 1944-45 and when he saw this film on his return to India in a cinema, alongwith a crowd of other returned vets from various British units, a riot broke out and the cinema was nearly trashed !

    Merrill’s Marauders – yes, they were there and their work was respected, but this fanciful tale Errol Flynn and a bunch of Hollywood US paratroopers taking the credit for ops in Burma was just too much to stomach.

  27. can someone please explain why the hell mash made it on this list? its a stupid comedy and should never have made it thier are more worthy war movies that diservd that spot and i own the thin red line dvd great movie however its still a gung ho american made film…it does deserve to be on the list but not at number one. saving private ryan will allways be a great movie loved it all the way through aswell as flags of our fathers and letters from iwo jima. i could rant and rave all day about how miss-guided this list is and my father who is a military historian will loose the plot when he see’s this list hahahhowever their are some good movies in much deserved spots on this list.

    War does not decide who wins and looses war decides who is left.

    • M*A*S*H* is not a comedy……….Its a SATIRE. I would say that is the reason for it being on the list. Also, when a movie has a cast with Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Tom Skeritt, John Schuck, Gary Burghoff (who was the only cast member from the movie to be a regular on the TV show as “Radar” O’ Reilly), and Bud Cort. With Robert Altman as Director and Johnny Mandel doing the musical score and is in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies of all time, then I have to agree with this movie being on the list. Watch the movie for 4 reasons. 1). How Major Margaret Hoolihan got her nickname “Hot Lips”, 2). The “fake” suicide scene with actor John Schuck, 3). The Scene of the Women’s showering tent and 4). The Football game at the end of the movie. Now me personally, I am absolutely shocked that the War Movie, “The Bridge On The River Kwai” (1957), starring Sir Alec Guinness, William Holden is not on this list. Just giving you my friendly opinion…….

  28. Horrible list there were many films that deserved to be on this list but didn’t make it because in your book they are not critically acclaimed. Look up Saving Private Ryan, Glory, Platoon, and Black Hawk Down and you will see they are more critically acclaimed than half of these movies. Schindler’s List is the best movie I’ve seen BUT ITS NOT A WAR MOVIE. Born On the Fourth Of July is NOT A WAR MOVIE and even calling it one is similar to calling Forest Gump a war movie. My Media Technology teacher even says its not a war movie. WHAT IS OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR!!!!!! EVEN THE TITLE AND DESCRIPTION PISS ME OFF AND I HAVEN’T EVEN SEEN IT!!!!!!!! Since when do musicals and satires classify as war movies? Why is Thin Red Line on here especially number 1? Thin Red Line was boring, slow, and didn’t show the brotherhood that you thought it did. Worst list I’ve ever seen to be honest. Not trying to be sexist but its funny how every bad war movie list I see is made by a woman.

  29. I CANT BELIVE PLATOON the best war film bar none is not here , also where is black hawk down , sorry u let yourself down there

  30. Your list was cute for someone who seems to have just started watching war movies. Since you are new to it, here are some others you might want to check out (in addition to some already named):

    A Bridge Too Far
    The Longest Day
    Letters from Iwo Jima
    Midway
    The Great Escape
    All Quiet on the Western Front
    Glory
    Gettysburg
    The Bridge on the River Kwai
    The Last of the Mohicans
    Empire of the Sun
    Zulu
    The Killing Fields
    Stalag 17

    • Anne Iredale on

      I’ve seen 12 on your list and I included All Quiet On the Waterfront on my list…could you be any more patronising? But, hey, thanks for your ‘cute’ contribution.

  31. I’m sorry but this list is just piss poor , The Thin Red Line is a boring waste of great actors. By not including Saving Private Ryan your just trying to be to cool for the room. Where’s Platoon , this list stinks and I don’t like it

  32. this is the real deal 1 iron cross 2 born on the 4th of july 3 longest day 4 all quite on the western front 5 appoc now 6 platoon 7 we were soldiers 8 saving private ryan 9 where eagles dare 10 sands of iwo jima

  33. I just didnt like the list at all, without saving private ryan, full metal jacket, the great escape, we were soldiers. These films must be included whatever list u made for war movies ever.

  34. Iris Iredale on

    I’m glad Shaving Ryan’s Privates isn’t on the list as it’s greatly overrated, boring, only involves Americans and gives future generations of children an inaccurate and distorted view of the Second World War, but that said most American war films are very one sided and give the impression that the yanks won the war single handed, even though they never bothered to enter it until 1941, it started in 1939 folks.

    • Anne Iredale on

      Iredale? Are we related? Anyway, I’ve no objections to Saving Private Ryan on “one sided grounds” – it was about an American battle after all.

      • There were many inaccuracies for example the sniper/eye shot scene, but I must say bar the landing craft crew, the opening was pretty amazing. It did show the chaos of war very well!

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