War movies have a long and glorious history in Hollywood. Some of the best movies ever made have dealt with the subject of war. From World War II to Vietnam and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the subject of war and its impact on both soldiers and their families at home has proven to be fertile ground for filmmakers. And war movies are a trend that continues with the release last year of the Brad Pitt vehicle Fury and the upcoming films 13 Minutes and Dad’s Army. So as war movies continue to be made, we take a look at the top 10 best war movies made to date.
10. Glory (1989)
While not perfect, the 1989 movie Glory is a wonderful depiction of an all-black regiment from the northern U.S. that fights for freedom and the scourge of slavery. Starring Matthew Broderick as their commander, and with powerhouse supporting performances from Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, Glory is a movie that stays with you long after the end credits roll. The battle scenes are realistic and compelling, and the relationships among the actors help to humanize the subject matter and make audiences care. Denzel Washington deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as a runaway slave, and the scene where Matthew Broderick has to whip him is heartwrenching.
9. Patton (1970)
Actor George C. Scott gives a towering performance in this 1970 biopic about General George S. Patton, who won several of World War II’s most infamous battles and marched American troops from Northern Africa all the way to Berlin. The movie is a detailed character study that also contains several impressive and perfectly staged battle scenes. And through the speeches that General Patton gives his troops, we get an understanding of the mechanics of war and the viewpoint of senior military commanders. The movie won a total of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Historians also praised this movie for its realism and accuracy concerning General Patton’s various campaigns during World War II.
8. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The most accurate portrayal of the D-Day invasion ever committed to film, Saving Private Ryan shows war in all of its horror and blood. Director Steven Spielberg rightly won the Academy Award for directing this epic movie about a ragtag group of U.S. Army soldiers who must find a lone soldier (Private Ryan) and return him home after his brothers are killed in battle. Tom Hanks plays the Army Captain who leads the soldiers on their mission with a world weariness that will break your heart. And the battle scenes are so realistic and gory that they cause audiences to literally squirm in their seats. No other movie about World War II has shown that conflict in more stark terms and with so much violence. This is one movie that packs a punch.
7. The Big Red One (1980)
Directed by Samuel Fuller, who himself served in World War II, The Big Red One stars Lee Marvin as a character known only as “The Sargent” who leads a small group of American soldiers during the Second World War. While the original movie was gutted and shortened for length by the studio when released in 1980, a reconstructed version of the film is the one to see. With a focus on the soldiers and their relationships to one another, this is an episodic movie that follows the grunts from one incident and situation to another—including delivering a baby in a tank and blowing up a giant Nazi gun on a fortified hill. Co-starring Mark Hammill of Star Wars fame, this is a good war movie to watch as an intimate portrayal of soldiers at the ground level.
6. Das Boot (1981)
Widely regarded as the best submarine movie of all time, 1981’s Das Boot is a tense, claustrophobic and thrilling depiction of life on a German U-boat during World War II. The movie alternates between periods of boredom for the crew to thrilling battles and sheer terror. The underwater camera work is fantastic and viewers get a real sense of what it must have been like to live on a submarine in cramped quarters and with poor hygiene. German actor Jürgen Prochnow is great as the submarine captain, and director Wolfgang Petersen does an admirable job of balancing the reality of working and living on a submarine with heart pounding action sequences. Nominated for six Academy Awards, this is one movie to see.
5. Platoon (1986)
The best movie about troops in the jungles of Vietnam, Platoon uses the attitudes and viewpoints of soldiers in an army platoon to show the divide among Americans who both supported the conflict and opposed it. Actors Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe play dueling sergeants—Berenger supports the war while Dafoe opposes it. And the Platoon is clearly split right down the middle. Fighting amongst themselves as much as with the enemy, the movie explores the attitudes people have towards war and the way in which it dehumanizes people and causes them to give into their basic instincts. A great screenplay and direction from Oliver Stone, who served in Vietnam himself, Platoon features a number of amazing scenes—none more unforgettable than the scene where the soldiers ransack and burn a village.
4. The Hurt Locker (2008)
On the surface, The Hurt Locker is an extremely tense movie about a bomb technician in Iraq who must defuse a number of bombs and improvised explosive devices. Look closer, and The Hurt Locker is an excellent character study that explores the reasons why some people choose to join the military and put themselves in harm’s way. The irony in The Hurt Locker is that the main character, played by actor Jeremy Renner, actually enjoys his job defusing bombs as he feels that he is the very best at it. Less about patriotism and more about personal pride, the main character takes his job extremely seriously and is addicted to the rush he gets from escaping death. This plot point, combined with top level directing by Kathryn Bigelow, make The Hurt Locker the best movie to date about the conflict in Iraq and modern warfare.
3. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Probably the saddest of war movies, The Deer Hunter focuses on a trio of friends who go to Vietnam from a small Pennsylvania town and the devastating effect it has on them and their friends and family at home. Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter takes a look at the impact Vietnam had on communities in the United States. The movie spends little time in Vietnam and instead focuses on the community at home and the people who are impacted when three local boys go off to war. Sprawling, epic and emotional, The Deer Hunter makes a strong point about war’s impact on the home front. Actor Christopher Walken gives the performance of his career as an emotionally scarred veteran, and Robert De Niro has never been better as a deer hunter who has a change of heart after returning home from war. And the Russian roulette scenes will stay with viewers forever.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
The most ambitious of war movies and director Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, Apocalypse Now shows the insanity of war better than any other film, except perhaps the number one entry on this list. Based on novelist Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now follows actor Martin Sheen down a river in Vietnam to the Cambodian border where he has been ordered to kill the unhinged Colonel Kurtz played by actor Marlon Brando. Along the river, Martin Sheen and the crew aboard his boat run into one extreme situation after another, including a group of soldiers who surf while a battle is raging around them, and a USO show that goes horribly wrong. With elaborate staging and imaginative scenes, Apocalypse Now is extreme in every way and makes its point about the craziness of war with a sledgehammer. Certainly one of the most unique war movies ever made, and also one of the most unforgettable, Apocalypse Now is epic filmmaking at its very best.
1. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Perhaps only director Stanley Kubrick could make a more insane and extreme movie about war than Apocalypse Now. And for sheer directorial flourish, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket gets the top spot. Following a group of American marines from boot camp through to their tour of duty in Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket contains one classic scene after another. And this movie really does show the irony, futility and craziness of war. From the peace symbol situated next to the phrase “Born to Kill” on a soldier’s helmet to the dehumanization that occurs during basic training. Controversial when first released, Full Metal Jacket has grown in esteem over the years and is today considered to be a modern classic and one of the best war movies ever made. Like with most of Stanley Kubrick’s films, this one was ahead of its time. Worth watching for the first time or again if you haven’t seen it in a while.