20 Best War Movies of All Time

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The war genre has provided some of the best movies in cinematic history. Ask any true film fan what their ten favorites are, and, more often than not, a war movie will get a mention. 

But there are reasons for the mass appeal: war movies tick a lot of boxes. Sometimes they’re dramas that tell stories of grief, loss, restoration or redemption. Sometimes they’re action flics that portray a story alongside a good bit of fighting and gore. Sometimes they’re historically accurate movies that show us a story of overcoming the odds or persevering through hardship. 

With all those reasons to watch war films, we’ve pulled together our favorites for your perusal!

1. Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Doctor Zhivago is a classic which stands out above the rest, even if it’ not as widely known as it deserves.

It’s based on Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel of the same name. While it’s seen as more of an epic historical romance than an outright war movie, it has a backdrop of World War I and the Russian Civil War. It stars Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, whose life is altered by the Russian Revolution. It’s one of the finest movies ever made.

2. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Photo Credit: United Artists.

Apocalypse Now is a popular one, and it’s particular brilliance lies in the way it how the mental strain and trauma of war. 

The movie is based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, with the setting changed from late 19th-century Congo to the Vietnam War. It’s about a journey via river from South Vietnam to Cambodia, and it follows Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard on his secret mission to assassinate Marlon Brando’s insane Colonel Kurtz.

3. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Full Metal Jacket is a brilliant Vietnam War movie based on Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel The Short-Timers.

Full Metal Jacket is unique in that it’s two movies in one. The first half is set in a U.S. Marines boot camp in Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, and focuses on the effects of the training on the recruits. The second half is set in Vietnam and follows the recruits after deployment. The movie’s brilliant cast includes Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Baldwin, and R. Lee Ermey.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Saving Private Ryan is a prominent favorite; there are few people who haven’t seen and loved it. Steven Spielberg’s epic boasts an ensemble cast that includes Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, and Ted Danson.

It’s a visceral account of World War II that follows a group of soldiers on a mission to rescue Private James Ryan from the conflict after his three brothers are killed in battle.

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5. Platoon (1986)

Photo Credit: Orion Pictures.

Another movie viewers love is Platoon. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War movie is based on Stone’s experiences participating in the conflict. Its brilliant cast includes Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Johnny Depp, and Tony Todd.

While following a U.S. Army volunteer, the movie focuses on his Platoon Sergeant and Squad Leader arguing over the morality of the platoon and the war itself.

6. Das Boot (1981)

Photo Credit: Bavaria Film.

Das Boot is a West German war movie adapted from Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 German novel. It’s based on Buchheim’s experiences aboard the German submarine U-96 in World War II on a dangerous patrol in the Battle of the Atlantic.

A few moviegoers claim it’s one of the best war movies ever, and one insists it should be watched in German for full effect. Another suggests that, even though it’s depressing, it’s still brilliant.

7. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Lots of cinephiles choose The Deer Hunter. They speak of its superb cast, led by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage, with John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza supporting. However, someone points out it’s very long (over three hours), so watching it in two stints might be advisable.

It’s about three Slavic-American steelworkers (De Niro, Walken, and Savage) whose lives were turned upside after they fought in the Vietnam War. It brilliantly depicts how war can affect those who take part in them.

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8. Come and See (1985)

Photo Credit: Belarusfilm.

“Come and See” is a Soviet film with strong anti-war themes, garnering significant attention in the comments. The movie draws its inspiration from the 1971 novel Khatyn and the 1977 memoir titled I Am from the Fiery Village, where Ales Adamovich, one of the screenplay writers, played a pivotal role. This powerful cinematic work portrays the harrowing ordeals of a young Belarusian boy amidst the backdrop of German occupation during World War II.

Many people describe the movie as a “must-see” and how it harrowingly depicts war for the horror it is. It’s an excellent portrayal of how war affects civilians of the countries caught up in the conflict, and we advise you to make sure you’re ready for this one before you start it.

9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a sweeping war film adapted from Pierre Boulle’s 1952 novel. The story revolves around British POWs in Thailand during World War II, compelled by their Japanese captors to construct the notorious bridge known as the “Death Railway.”

It’s a complex movie that boasts a career-best performance from the legendary Alec Guinness. It’s completely gripping, and every aspect of it is expertly produced.

10. Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960), Kirk Douglas
Photo Credit: Universal International.

Several say Spartacus is among the best war movies ever made. Stanley Kubrick’s epic historical drama is based on Howard Fast’s 1951 novel of the same name. Its iconic cast includes Kirk Douglas (in the eponymous role), Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis.

Spartacus was the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity during the Third Servile War, and the movie revolves around the events of that conflict. The movie has enough historical accuracy to be used in schools, which serves to prove this outstanding production has stood the test of time.

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11. The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Photo Credit: Paramount.

This movie is set during the cold war, and it follows Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius as he attempts to defect to America. His submarine is equipped with a “caterpillar drive” that makes them undetectable by passive sonar. Using that, they slip away from the Soviet fleet towards the East coast of the US. But then their caterpillar drive malfunctions and they’re discovered. Both Russia and the United States see the submarine; Russia sends a whole fleet after it, planning to destroy it before the men on board can defect. But the US Government is left wondering whether Russia is about to attack. 

This is a cold war thriller with high suspense, staring Sean Connery as Captian Ramius, and we highly recommend it!

12. The Monuments Men (2014)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The Monuments Men is the true story of a group of men, art professionals and soldiers who were commissioned to recapture the private and public collections of art that the Germans were looting from homes and museums as they retreated near the end of the war. Their task takes them into occupied territory, where the Germans know they’re losing and won’t hesitate to shoot at anyone. 

13. The Book Thief (2013)

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The Book Thief is a deep and emotional story about a young girl living in Munich, Germany during World War II. Liesel never learned to read, and she’s fascinated by books. When your younger brother passes away in front of her, Liesel’s mother takes her to a home in Munich to live with an older couple, with whom she hopes Liesel will be safe. As they teach her to read, Liesel becomes obsessed with reading any book she can, even if she must steal them. 

Words have power, even when their pieces of life that can never be fully put into words, and as the war stretches on and forms Liesel’s childhood, she does everything she can to preserve and remember the people she looses.   

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14. Atonement (2007)

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

In the years leading up to WW II, a young, wealthy girl named Briony sees her older sister and a poor man named Robbie arguing outside. She misinterprets their interaction, and later, when she witnesses her cousin, Lola, being taken advantage of, Briony accuses Robbie. Her accusations land Robbie in prison, and Briony’s sister Cecelia refuses to forgive her for separating her and Robbie. Years later, Robbie is released to fight in WW II, and after he’s wounded in action, he comes home to live with Cecelia. 

Finally, an aged and dying Briony shares about the last book she’s written in her long career. It is the autobiographical account of everything that happened; but with one falsehood. The lie is her attempt to atone for her unforgiveable actions as a child. 

15. Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

This story is set in the French and Indian war of 1757, and follows the story of Lieutenant Colonel Munro and his two daughters. Munro is holding a fort in the wilderness, and his daughters travel with a troop of reinforcements to be with him. On their way, they’re captured by Magua, a member of the Huron tribe who has a grudge against Munro and will do anything to get even. Their journey goes through safety and recapture as the Mohicans and Hawk-Eye strive to rescue Cora and Alice.  

16. Gone With the Wind (1939)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Gone With the Wind is the story of Scarlett O’Hare, and the lengths she’s willing to take first to get her way, and then to simply survive through the turmoil of the American Civil War. Throughout the story, she’s chasing after the man she loves, who has married her cousin instead. Scarlett will do almost anything other than marry the man who’s willing to take her, until at last he agrees to a loveless marriage. When Scarlett is finally ready to recognize who she really loves, will it finally be too late?

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17. Brideshead Revisited (2008)

Photo Credit: Miramax Films.

This story is set during World War II, when Charles Ryder is moving with his army troop to a new location, which he discovers is the manor home Brideshead. Ryder begins to remember the years he spent visiting here; first during college when he became friends with a son of the family, and later when he fell in love with Julia, one of the daughters. The movie recounts his famed career as a painter and his successful marriage, and how both crumbled under the choice to pursue Julia as she sought a divorce from her husband. But Julia’s faith prevents her from continuing to live with Ryder, and gradually, the family’s faith begins to work on Ryder as well. 

18. The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Photo Credit: Sixteen Films.

This film takes place in the Irish War of Independence, and then the Irish Civil War. It follows two brothers who join the Irish Republican Army, but when Britain offers Ireland a treaty, the IRA is divided into those who want to accept and those who refuse; and the two brothers are divided as well. The Wind That Shakes the Barley displays the horrors of a lesser-known war without shying away from its brutal impact on families, friendships, and love. 

19. Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

This movie follows the disturbed and heart-breaking journey of a Polish woman who was imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II, and came to America after the war. She is trying to move on from her past and heal, but the choices she was forced to make during the war haunt her. This film is about the way that people process grief and how choices that became a matter of survival in wartime never really leave us alone. 

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20. Unbroken (2014)

Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures.

Unbroken is the true story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who’d been drafted to fight in World War II. After his airplane engine fails and he lands in the ocean, Louie and one other crew member survive in a raft for nearly a month until they’re captured by the Japanese. In his POW camp, Louie is beaten and abused by one of the worst Japanese war criminals of WWII. Throughout the unbearable circumstances, Louie clings to life until at last, the war is over, and he can return home.

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