20 Remarkable War Movies with a Phenomenal Story

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War is a topic that no director should take lightly. Navigating violent conflict, death, and other unavoidable themes in war movies requires deft handling, and the best war movies toe the line between sentimentality and the ugly realities of combat.

The best war movies also have another key ingredient: A strong story to make the audience feel invested in the broader conflict. The harsh realities of war bring out the best and worst in people; it can divide them or bind them more closely together. The greatest films about wars don’t shy away from these realities, but portray them in a way that calls us up towards courage and hope.

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Scene from Apocalypse Now
Photo Credit: Zoetrope Studios.

Director Francis Ford Coppola, who is arguably in the elite director rankings of his generation, has strong source material to rely on with Apocalypse Now. Adapted loosely from the time-tested novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, this film centers around a mysterious Colonel Kurtz embedded deep in Cambodia’s jungles, and a mission sent under the command of Captain Willard to put a stop to Kurtz’s unauthorized actions.

Captain Benjamin Willard must find and kill Kurtz, but the story is not so simple. With several storylines wrapped within the larger mission, Apocalypse Now is, to many, a Top-1 film of all time.

2. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment.

Hacksaw Ridge is a film based on a true story. However, it is one of those based-on-a-true-story films where, by the end, every audience member says, “no chance that is a true story.”

The tale of Seventh-Day Adventist Desmond Doss, a man with a strong desire to serve his country but an unwavering refusal to partake in violence or bear arms, is true. The film is considered a biographical one, and at the end it portrays footage of Doss’s real life. Hacksaw Ridge is a movie that will leave you slack-jawed.

3. Unbroken (2014)

Scene from Unbroken
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

This film is written by the Coen brothers and also based on a true story of World War II. With a story as compelling as Unbroken’s, it’s a movie that would be tough (but possible) to mess up. Fortunately, the producers did the source material justice.

Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini enlists in the American military during WWII, endures a plane crash, then faces life as a prisoner of war. Renowned actor Jack O’Connell puts an already captivating story over the top.

4. Spartacus (2010)

Scene from Spartacus
Photo Credit: Starz.

Spartacus is such an iconic film that “I’m Spartacus” has become a familiar quote to reference for many of us. Whether it’s Gladiator or Spartacus, there is just something about a slave-turned-warrior-turned-leader that both humbles and inspires us. Spartacus’s story is as surprising as it is heart-breaking. After his betrayal and capture, he’s brought to Rome and trained as a gladiator; he complies first in the hope of freeing his wife, and after her death he continues in the hope of making a life by surviving. But when he’s forced to take the life of one of the few people he loves, Spartacus snaps. Or perhaps, it’s then that Spartacus finally becomes himself. 

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5. Paths of Glory (1957)

Scene from Paths of Glory
Photo Credit: Bryna Productions.

Stanley Kubrick’s fourth feature film, Paths of Glory, tells the story of men who refuse to charge into certain death during WWI. The film features Kirk Douglas in the lead role and vividly portrays the madness of World War I trench combat and the challenges of commanding soldiers in wartime. Faced with an impossible fight in which every soldier in font of them died, a single company refuses to leave their trenches, and they face court-marshalling for their insubordination. Paths of Glory represents the brutal reality that sometimes, there is simply no way to survive.

6. The Imitation Game (2014)

Photo Credit: Black Bear.

Like Oppenheimer, this film is about an epic story that developed far behind the front lines. The Enigma machine was the cipher utilized by Germany in WWII. It was thought to be an unbreakable code, and thus the Germans placed a large amount of trust in being able to transmit sensitive information over airways with its encoding. Being able to break this code could mean the difference between success and failure of the war efforts. The Imitation Game won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

7. 1917 (2019)

Scene from 1917
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Sam Mendes’ World War I epic follows two youthful British soldiers tasked with saving a battalion from certain death. The messengers trek through urban rubble, scenic countryside, and uncertainty after uncertainty in this visually-stunning war thriller.

1917 received a Best Picture nomination and won three Oscars for its visual effects and sound mixing. However, the story is a high point, too. Despite the scarcity of dialogue as a narrative tool, Mendes demonstrates his prowess as a captivating visual storyteller.

8. Glory (1989)

Scene from Glory
Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures.

Based on a true story, Glory casts Denzel Washington as an officer fighting for the Federal Army during the Civil War. The story surrounding an all-black volunteer unit is absolutely captivating, and this is even more significant when considering Denzel Washington’s prominent presence in the cast. There are many true stories of segregation and bias around race in the United States wars, and Glory finally tells the story of the courage and valor of a group of people who were fighting not only for ideals, but for their freedom and their families. 

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9. All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Scene from All Quiet on the Western Front
Photo Credit: Amusement Park Films.

The 2022 German film adapted Erich Maria Remarque’s timeless book of the same name. The visual account is of Paul Baumer and his German lads naively signing up to serve in World War I, only to be rudely and repeatedly awakened to the horrifying realities of that conflict. The brutality of the war represented on screen makes for so-awful-you-can’t-look-away cinema. In a telling moment, Paul spends his leave on a visit to his family in the peaceful village where he grew up, and he feels like a foreigner and an outsider to everyone but his mother, who is dying. In a strange way, the movie forces the viewer to think about war, death and peacefulness side by side. 

10. Dunkirk (2017)

Scene from Dunkirk
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

When Christopher Nolan adapts a World War II film, you know he will do it right. Dunkirk takes an entirely original approach, weaving three stories within a single movie yet setting those stories on differing timelines. Few war films are as visually stunning or cinematically thought-provoking as Dunkirk. This movie pits courage against fear, loyalty against self-preservation, and manages to showcase a spirit of patriotic and brotherly love in the midst of horror.

11. Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Scene from Life is Beautiful
Photo Credit: Miramax.

An oldie but a goodie, Life Is Beautiful examines the gut-wrenching trauma of the Holocaust through an uncommonly human lens. Without making light of the historical backdrop, director Roberto Benigni examines how a parent might help a child endure such unimaginable conditions without losing their love for life.

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12. Greyhound (2020)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The movie Greyhound follows Commander Krause (Tom Hanks) as he escorts a convoy of 37 ships across the Atlantic during World War II. Most of the relatively short movie is taken up with the fight in the Atlantic as Krause and his convoy are attacked by a pack of German U-boats. Again and again, the U-boats try to slip around the Greyhound’s defenses, and just as often, Commander Krause must make the choice between pursuing the U-boats or rescuing survivors of a ship that’s just been attacked. The movie is a subtle one, but it portrays clearly the heroic actions of a good leader in times of danger.

13. Oppenheimer (2023)

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Odds are everybody’s heard about Oppenheimer in the last six months, but if you haven’t seen it yet, let us try to convince you. Oppenheimer tells the story of one of the developers of the atomic bomb, and the consequences he faced later. In any war, there’s a necessity for developing better weapons and defenses to protect our own countries. But to be the one developing those weapons makes you partially responsible for the destruction and loss of life that follows. Is that weapon justified by the good it brought about even though it also brought about evil? How responsible are the developers of such a weapon for making sure it’s used responsibly in the future? J. Robert Oppenheimer faced those questions and more in this fascinating portrayal.

14. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Saving Private Ryan may be one of the most realistic portrayals of World War II to have been filmed. The movie begins with the storming of Normandy Beach, in which three of the four Ryan brothers are killed. The fourth is reported as missing. Captain Miller and a band of soldiers are sent to find him and send him home, but on their hunt through war-torn France they’re ambushed, betrayed, divided by internal fighting, and one by one their small numbers are cut down until they finally find Ryan. This movie not only looks unflinchingly at the horrors of war, but asks what one life is worth, and what the consequences would be of sacrificing one life for another.

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15. The Great Escape (1963)

Photo Credit: MGM.

There are two movies based off of the original The Great Escape: an animated film Chicken Run, and the light-hearted TV series Hogan’s Heroes. But the movie itself is a hard look at the reality of war and escape. Behind enemy lines, allied prisoners-of-war have only one source of hope: freedom. And in the end when they all escape, will their own stamina and that of their fellow escapees be enough to see them across the front and back home?

16. Braveheart (1995)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

So far most of our war movies have focused on modern wars, but Braveheart goes all the way back to medieval Scotland and England. The movie begins with a short romance that ends in tragedy, and the loss of his bride’s life is what spurs William Wallace (Mel Gibson) to lead the rebellion against Edward I, King of England. The movie traces themes of cruelty and oppression, faithfulness and courage as the Scots fight on even after Wallace’s death.

17. The Monuments Men (2014)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

The Monuments Men takes us back to World War II. This movie focuses less on the brutality and action of war, and instead focuses its attention on one aspect of what the allies were fighting for: their culture, their art and artifacts. As the tide of the war began to turn against the Germans, they focused even more heavily on emptying the museums and confiscating private collections as they retreat. The Monuments Men are a group of soldiers tasked with finding the art where it’s hidden, sometimes behind enemy lines, and reclaiming it for the allied countries they came from. While the movie is about art, their role is in no way a safe one, and they face the hazards of war across Europe in their mission to restore what was taken.

18. Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Photo Credit: Incorporated Television Company.

While nearly all war movies focus on men and the roles they played, war affects more than just soldiers, and this movie is about motherhood in a time of war. Sophie is a war widow with two young children, and after she’s taken to Auschwitz, she’s forced to choose between her two children; only one will be allowed to live. The film tells the story of Sophie’s life in the aftermath of the war, and how her choice haunts her every waking moment.

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19. Schindler’s List (1993)

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

Not all heroes in World War II were soldiers on the front. Oskar Schindler really lived in Krakow, and while his first goal upon moving to the city was to build a factory and make his fortune, the constant fear and terror that characterized life as a Jew eventually sank in. Schindler changed his focus from making money to saving as many of the Jewish people as he could. Over time, with bribery and carefully keeping a good relationship with members of the SS, Schindler was able to save at least 1200 people during the Holocaust.

20. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Photo Credit: Fox 2000 Pictures.

The Thin Red Line is another stunning movie about World War II, this time in the Pacific Theater. But the director, Terrence Malick, uses the setting of war to explore other themes as well, such as the nature of man, and the responses of different characters and personalities to excruciating and impossible situations. Grief and loss, hope and rescue all play a role in this film, and it’s nearly comparable to Apocalypse Now in it’s gravity and humanity.

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