- Published Date
- by Frank Wilkins
It's not surprising that war has been one of the most frequently occurring subjects of movies throughout cinematic history. After all, man has been waging war since the beginning of time. And fortunately for military movie lovers, Hollywood has always found a profit in the shortsightedness of political leaders and the distorted visions of angry little short men with funny mustaches.
In compiling a list of our favorite war movies, it quickly became evident that with such a well-represented genre, it would make more sense to break it into separate categories. Following is a list of the best War/Military movies of all time arranged in groups according to specific military campaigns.
Although the idea of what makes a war movie is subjective, for the purposes of this list it will be defined as a movie that involves soldiers, fighting with military weapons or machinery, military strategy or events that directly lead up to, are affected by, or result from a military-type battle.
American Revolutionary War
The Patriot (2000) - Not a particularly great movie, but in a vastly under-represented genre, it'll do just fine.
The Crossing (2000 TV) -Jeff Daniels is terrific in this made-for-TV dramatization of George Washington's perilous crossing of the Delaware River. Helps demonstrate the importance of the real story behind the now iconic painting.
The American Revolution Boxed DVD Set (1994-A&E) - Another made-for-TV production makes the list. Compelling documentary about the founding of our nation. Particularly interesting is witnessing the dynamic personalities behind our founding fathers.
Liberty! The American Revolution (1997 TV) - Six-hour documentary on the American Revolution, from the passage of the Stamp Act (1765) through the ratification of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights (1789).
American Civil War
Glory (1989) -Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington deliver career performances in this terrific film about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the U.S. Civil War's first all-black volunteer fighting company .
Dances With Wolves (1990) -Winner of 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Need we say more?
Gettysburgh (1993) -Ronald Maxwell directs Tom Berenger (Lt. Gen. James Longstreet), Martin Sheen (Gen. Robert E. Lee), Jeff Daniels (Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain) and Stephen Lang (Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett) in this epic film about the decisive 3-day battle of the U.S. Civil War.
Cold Mountain (2003) -Jude Law and Nicole Kidman star in this Anthony Minghella adaptation of Charles Frazier's popular book.
Gone With the Wind (1939) -Not much need be said about this American movie classic.
Andersonville (1996 TV) -Gives a blistering account of the atrocities that took place in the Confederate Prisoner-of-war camp which saw its population, originally meant to hold 8,000 prisoners, eventually swell to more than 33,000 by war's end.
The Hunley (1999 TV) - The south deployed a submarine during the U.S. Civil War. This is a stirring account of the eventual fate of the manually-propelled ship and her crew.
Ironclads (1991 TV) -A&E Home Video gives us a first hand account of the historic Civil War Naval battle between the ironclads, "Monitor" and "Merrimack."
Birth of a Nation (1915) -Still steeped in controversy to this day, D.W. Griffith's ground-breaking film covers many historical events during and after the U.S Civil War. Was the first film screened in The White House, shown to President Woodrow Wilson.
Ken Burns' Civil War (1990 TV) -This Ken Burns mini-series documentary is one of the most comprehensive documentations of the U.S. Civil War, including accounts leading up to and events that followed the nearly 5-year encounter.
Friendly Persuasion (1956) - Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire star in this William Wyler film about a Quaker family's struggles with leading a non-violent lifestyle during the U.S. Civil War.
World War I
Sergeant York (1941) -Gary Cooper won an Oscar as Alvin P. York in this true story of a Tennessee sharpshooter who was drafted into WWI. The film also won for best editing and had 11 nominations in all.
A Very Long Engagement (2004) -A French language film that stars Audrey Tatou as a lady who searched for her fiance who went missing from the trenches in WWI.
War Horse (2011) - Steven Spielberg directs this boy-and-his-horse story wrapped in a war time tale. Beautiful cinematography from Janusz Kaminski and some truly fascinating scenes of WWI trench warfare.
Gallipoli (1981) - Peter Weir directs Mel Gibson and Mark Lee in this story about two Australian sprinters who were used as messengers in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey during WWI.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) -This timeless David Lean classic stars Alec Guiness and Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence who found glory in the Arabian desert during the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I.
The Lost Battalion (2001 TV) - Don't let Rick Shroder's name fool you. He's actually very good in this true story of an entire American battalion that became trapped in the Argonne Forest behind enemy lines during WWI.
The African Queen (1951) - Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn star in this classic. Humphrey Bogart won his only acting Oscar for his role as Charlie Allnut.
Wings (1927) -Winner of the very first Best Picture Oscar. Stars Clara Bow and Charles 'Buddy' Rogers. Contains some pretty impressive battle scenes, even considering its age.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) - Won two Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director and was nominated for two more. Lewis Milestone directs Louis Wolheim.
A Farewell to Arms (1932) -A tale of the love between ambulance driver Lt. Henry and Nurse Catherine Barkley during World War I
The Dawn Patrol (1938) -Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone star as British flying aces in World War I. A large portion of the aerial footage for this 1938 version was re-used from the 1930 version of THE DAWN PATROL.
Flyboys (2006) - The story covers the adventures of the Lafayette Escadrille volunteers who fought alongside the French in WWI. Gives the best depiction of what it was like flying the first war planes.
Joyeux Noel (2005) -Tells the story of the day some French and German soldiers dropped their weapons and shared coffee and Christmas carols on Christmas Eve in 1914.
The Blue Max (1966) -George Peppard stars as fighting ace Lt. Bruno Stachel who went on to garner his country's highest medal, The Blue Max.
World War II
The European Front
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007 TV) -Ken Burns does it again! This time he turns his lens to WWII and brings us a 7-part documentary that follows four American towns and how they were affected by residents who fought in the war..
Band of Brothers (2001 TV) -An amazing HBO mini-series adapted from the pages of Stephen E. Ambrose's book of the same name. Tells the story of "E" Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division and follows them from basic training to numerous bloody campaigns throughout the war.
Schindler's List (1993) - Steven Spielberg directs Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley in this heartfelt story of one man who made a difference in the lives of many who were imprisoned in the Nazi death camps during WWII. Won seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Was nominated for five more.
Saving Private Ryan (1998) -Another Steven Spielberg production makes the list. This one won five Academy Awards including Best Director. Was nominated for six more.
The Longest Day (1962) - An epic recreation of what went down on D-Day during WWII. Told from the points-of-view of the allies as well as the Germans.
Patton (1970) -Won a Best Actor Oscar for George C. Scott but he famously turned it down as he thought the Academy Awards were an unfair meat market parade for actor.
Das Boot (1981) - A terrific Wolfgang Peterson claustrophobic WWII German submarine thriller. Little known fact: The submarine models built for Das Boot were later used in the production of Raiders of the Lost Ark
Casablanca (1942) -Not much more to say about this timeless classic.
The Great Escape (1963) -Features an ensemble who's who cast of period leading men: Steve McQueen; James Garner; Richard Attenborough; Charles Bronson; James Coburn; Donald Pleasance; and on and on.
The Guns of Navarone (1961) -Gregory Peck and David Niven star in this thrilling WWII drama about a team of British commandos tasked with destroying the massive German gun that protects a key Greek shipping channel.
Days of Glory (Indigenes) (2006) -Another foreign language film makes out list. This one a French language drama about four North African men who fight alongside the French to liberate Nazi occupied Algeria.
Inglourious Basterds (2009) - Quentin Tarantino direct this loose remake about a roving band of Nazi hunters. Tarantino worked on the script for nearly ten years before he was finally satisfied with it.
Cross of Iron (1977) -James Coburn stars in the Sam Peckinpah directed thriller that takes place on the Russian front during WWII.
World War II
The Pacific Theater
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007 TV) - Ken Burns does it again! This time he turns his lens to WWII and brings us a 7-part documentary that follows four American towns and how they were affected by residents who fought in the war.
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) - The companion to Clint Eastwood's earlier Iwo Jima-centric film, Flags of Our Fathers. Explores that infamous WWII battle from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers who gallantly fought against insurmountable odds.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) - A fascinating dramatization of the Japanese attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. Confirmed to be a very historically accurate recreation of the attack. Contrary to popular belief, its title does not translate as Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!
Empire of the Sun (1987) - Steven Spielberg directs a young Christian Bale in this drama based on J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel. Bale was just thirteen years-old during filming.
From Here to Eternity (1953) - Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra and Deborah Kerr star in this military love story set in 1941 Hawaii. Contains the now famous sex-on-the-beach scene with Kerr and Lancaster.
The Thin Red Line (1998) - Terrence Malick directed adaptation of James Jones' autobiographical novel. The film's original cut was nearly six hours in length but was pared down to just short of three hours for theaters. That's Malick for you.
The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) - A David Lean ensemble drama about British prisoners of war who, when forced to build a Japanese train bridge, must decide whether to construct it to proud British standards or sabotage it towards the war effort.
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) - Pearl Harbor gets the cinematic treatment again, but this time it's the events following the bombing, specifically, The Doolittle Raid in which U.S. planes bombed the Japanese homeland.
Midway (1976) - The turning point of the war in the Pacific gets the dramatic treatment from Jack Smight who directs this ensemble drama starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford and more. Features actual aerial dogfight sequences pulled from vintage news reels.
Flags of Our Fathers (2006) - The companion piece to Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima. This time told from the side of the American attackers, but is mostly centered on the war bond effort.
The Korean Conflict
M*A*S*H (1970) - The movie that spawned the wildly popular 1970's TV show centered on a Korean War field hospital and the doctors that staff it. Stars Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall, Sally Kellerman and more.
MacArthur (1977) - A warts-and-all biopic of Army General and allied commander Douglas MacArthur starring Gregory Peck. The WWII armistice scenes were actually filmed aboard the U.S.S. Missouri where the Japanese signed the surrender ending World War II.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - Brilliant Korean War Communist espionage drama starring Frank Sinatra. Was remade in 2004 by Jonathan Demme, but this is the better of the two.
Pork Chop Hill (1959) - Gregory Peck stars in this brilliant depiction of one of the bloodiest and most significant battles of the Korean War. Featured the film acting debut of Martin Landau.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) - Provides an excellent depiction of Korean war era carrier aviation and aerial combat.
Platoon (1986) - Oliver Stone takes on the Vietnam War in this 1980's anti-war classic. Notice we said "anti-war," not "anti-American." There's a difference.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) - Perhaps the the most realistic Vietnam war movie of all time. Stanley Kubrick powerfully captures the horrors of Marine basic training. Vincent d'Nofrio delivers a career performance.
The Deer Hunter (1978) - Michael Cimino directs Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walkne, John Cazale and Meryl Streep in this blistering account of how the Vietnam war affects the residents of a blue-collar Pennsylvania town.
Apocalypse Now (1979) - Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper. What more can we say?
The Quiet American (2002) - 1952 Saigon. Love clashes with war as the country struggles to free herself from French colonial rule.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989) - Biopic about Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, who after becoming paralyzed in the war, takes an anti-war stance. after Tom Cruise does angry so well.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) - Yes, good war movies can be funny too. Stars Robin Williams as Armed Forces radio DJ Adrian Cronauer.
We Were Soldiers (2002) - Mel Gibson stars as Lt. Col. Hal Moore who leads America into her first battle of the American involvement in Vietnam.
Gardens of Stone (1987) - Little seen, but very realistic Francis Ford Coppola movie about the life of stateside soldiers as the country ramps up for war.
Birdy (1984) - A stirring depiction of the ravages of war on the mind on those soldiers trying to assimilate back into civilian life.
Various Wars, Conflicts and Peacetime Skirmishes
Black Hawk Down (2001)
No Man's Land (2001)
Three Kings (1999)
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Ben Hur (1959)
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Star Wars (1977)
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Generation Kill (2008 TV)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Taking Chance (2009 TV)
The Bedford Incident (1965)
The Bedford Incident (2013)
Lone Survivor (2014)
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