What are the films that you grew up watching? The ones your dad drooled over on a wet Sunday afternoon? Exactly, war films – or perhaps Westerns, but that’s for another time.
War films, and by that we mean those motion pictures that - generally - favour action sequences over narrative (for that reason there was no place for Schindler’s List, The Pianist etc) are a formative experience for young boys. Their depiction of heroism, friendship and adventure speak to our hardwired sense of magical escapades and vicarious thrills and spills.
The reality of war, of course, is completely different, which is why the war films that we learn to love and cherish differ over time. But, no matter what your vantage point, we can all agree that a brilliant war film is one to rave about uncontrollably.
Here are the best 30 ever made. No arguments. Unless you want to chip in below of course…
The Great Escape - 1963
The Great Escape is not the best war film, nor is it the most controversial. It doesn’t posit any explicit sentiment about the virtue of war, either pro or anti. It is, however, the most iconic war film extant. With a star-studded cast, headed by Steve McQueen (his character Hilts is cool enough to air condition hell), it displays the bravery, camaraderie and heroism that we associate with soldiers just making the best of brutal conditions.
Saving Private Ryan - 1998
Upon its release, much was made of the opening 27-minute sequence depicting the Normandy Landings of June 1944. Veterans commented on its chilling and horrific authenticity. Thankfully, the rest of the film more than holds its own. The tale of a group of soldiers led by Tom Hanks trying to find the remaining Ryan sibling (Matt Damon) is both potently original and enthralling. Steven Spielberg’s film more than ‘earns’ its plaudits.
Platoon - 1986
The first casualty of war is innocence. Following his tour of duty in Vietnam, filmmaker Oliver Stone knew this as well as anyone. His directorial masterpiece is this, his vision of war as opposed to the gung-ho, All-American propaganda disseminated in flicks like The Green Berets. Charlie Sheen excels as Chris Taylor, the initially naïve solider who vacillates between the opposing tactics of Sergeants Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe). Stone’s use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings is one of the most memorable scenes in movie history.
Casualties of War - 1989
Released just after Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War was somewhat passed over upon release – maybe because the sight of Michael J Fox in a ‘Nam movie jarred somewhat. In the intervening years however, the reputation of this harrowing film and Fox’s performance in it, have only grown. Fox’s Max Eriksson is presented as the good soldier to Sean Penn’s masterly evil one. The contrast is measured perfectly, and some of the scenes are some of the most graphic and haunting ever committed to celluloid. A spellbinding film.
Three Kings - 1999
War is a serious business; it’s also a recipe for a certain brand of sardonic humour – gallows humour if you will. This is the essence of David O. Russell’s majestic Three Kings. Starring George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze, it focuses on three soldiers’ attempts to steal hidden Kuwaiti gold during the 1991 conflict against Saddam Hussein. Utilising lo-fi experimental techniques alongside a powerful script laced with satire, this was rightly hailed upon release as a powerful addition to the ranks of anti-war movies.
Inglorious Basterds - 2009
After the mixed reviews he received for his Kill Bill double bill and Death Proof, some thought Quentin Tarantino finished. The rousing Inglorious Basterds soon scoffed that idea. Typically fast-paced, daft and infectious, the film tells the story of two plots to wipe out the Nazi leadership in World War II. Brad Pitt was the nominal star, but Christopher Waltz steals the show with his portrayal of the vainglorious and sadistic Colonel Landa.
Twelve O’Clock High - 1949
Released just four years after hostilities ceased in Europe, Twelve O’Clock High captures the manic intensity of the airmen who flew daylight-bombing missions over Germany in 1942. It features a bravura performance from the reliably superb Gregory Peck as Brigadier General Frank Savage, a man charged with reassembling the dishevelled 918th Heavy Bombardment Group.
In Which We Serve - 1942
In Which We Serve is a classic example of patriotic wartime propaganda – released with backing from the Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Information. Directed (with assistance from David Lean), starring and conceived by Noel Coward, this tale of heroism on-board a British ship, HMS Torrin (based upon HMS Kelly) during the early skirmishes of World War II. Also stars John Mills, Celia Johnson and, in his first starring role, Richard Attenborough.
Sands of Iwo Jima - 1949
The Battle of Iwo Jima in the spring of 1945 has gone down in American folklore, not least because it was the scene for the raising of the stars and stripes on top of Mount Suribachi. Clint Eastwood made a double bill about the battle – Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima – but it’s the John Wayne-starring, Sands of Iwo Jima, that is most fondly remembered.
Full Metal Jacket - 1987
One of Stanley Kubrick’s (many) undoubted masterpieces, Full Metal Jacket is the quintessential war film of two halves. The first segment captures the brutal and often degrading tactics involved in assembling a bunch of soldiers for Vietnam in boot camp, while the second half shows the soldiers in battle during the Tet offensive of 1968. Kubrick achieves the rare feat of tricking the viewer into feeling that they are there with Joker (Matthew Modine), Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) and co…
M*A*S*H - 1970
Not all war films have to focus on the combatants doing the shooting and fighting. The alienating and disorienting qualities of conflict can also be achieved by looking at war from the ancillary cast – in this case the staff of an army hospital in the Korean War (1950-1953). The horror of war provokes the blackest of humour from the likes of Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Tom Skerritt, in this work of pure genius from Robert Altman.
Patton - 1970
George C Scott gives one of the most mesmerising (and frightening) performances in cinematic history in this biopic of the equally enthralling US general, George S Patton. The opening sequence in which the colourful leader gives a typically bombastic speech in front of a elephantine American flag is unforgettable, and the rest of the film follows suit in a non-apologetic fiery manner. Scott was named best actor at the 1971 Oscars but refused to accept it, becoming the first actor to do so.
The Dirty Dozen - 1967
The Dirty Dozen is without question one of the most enjoyable war films. The premise is simple: on the eve of D-Day take a bunch of criminals and train them into a crack killing machine. Lee Marvin oversees this majestic and at times comical transformation. Features an all-star cast including Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Robert Ryan, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine and John Cassavates.
Downfall - 2004
Adolf Hitler isn’t the easiest of cinematic sells; a film depicting his final descent into madness as the Soviet bombs fall around his Berlin bunker, perhaps even less so. It’s to the credit of all involved – but in particular director Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bruno Ganz (as the doomed Fuhrer) – that Downfall was so powerful, and such a stunning success.
The Bridge on the River Kwai - 1957
Alongside The Great Escape and The Dam Busters, The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the most recognisable war films made in the initial period following World War II. Telling the fictional – albeit with some historical parallels - tale of a group of British POWs who are forced to assist the Japanese with the construction of a railway bridge, while unaware there are also plans to blow it up, this is a master class in understated valour. Stars Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins.
The Deer Hunter - 1978
Robert de Niro has starred in his fair share of iconic cinematic scenes. But none – even including his ‘You talkin’ to me’ monologue from Taxi Driver – have the horrific brutality nor the alarming intensity as his Russian Roulette scene from Michael Cimino’s magnificent The Deer Hunter. Focussing on the affects of the Vietnam War on a small steel town in Pennsylvania, this captures the blinding horror of war – and the friendships that must endure during them – superbly.
All Quiet on the Western Front - 1930
The definitive anti-war film, adapted from the archetypal anti-war polemic. Erich Maria Remarque’s unforgettable book about the manifold repulsions of World War I was powerful enough, so to add a film into the mix just increases its effectiveness. Telling the story of a German soldier whose enthusiasm for war is soon sullied and which rapidly turns to disillusionment, this is stirring and haunting stuff.
The Thin Red Line - 1998
Terence Malick’s poignant retelling of James Jones’s authoritative World War II novel was not the first time Jones’s book had been brought to the big screen – there was a lesser-known attempt to film it in 1964. However, given its star-studded cast (Sean Penn, John Cusack, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, Nick Nolte, John Travolta et al – and that’s just those that didn’t end up on the cutting room floor), this is the one that all will remember. No less an authority than critic Gene Siskel called it the greatest contemporary war film he had seen.
Das Boot - 1981
It seems slightly disregarding to tag Das Boot a cult classic, but given that it’s a German film and not a Hollywood blockbuster it will have to do. Das Boot encapsulates the conflicting emotions of wartime service flawlessly: from the excitement and pride to the mind-numbing boredom and fear. Telling the tale of a group of World War II German soldiers upon a U-boat, the claustrophobic qualities of warfare are perfectly served by the setting.
The Hurt Locker - 2008
War films these days tend to be labyrinthine pictures telling a multitude of tales (from the heroism involved to the shocking violence and blood lust). The Hurt Locker is the epitome of this approach. Concerning a bomb disposal team in Iraq, the chaos of war comes to the fore in this spellbinding film from Kathryn Bigelow. Nominated for nine Oscars, it took home an impressive six (including best director and best picture) snazzy doorstops.
Sergeant York - 1941
Gary Cooper is resplendent in this biographical film about the most decorated American of World War I, Alvin York. York’s journey from avowed pacifist to war hero, is told in thrilling style. Cooper took home the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the hillbilly sharpshooter.
Paths of Glory - 1957
The futility of war is thrown into sharp focus in this first commercial success for Stanley Kubrick. Adapted from the acclaimed anti-war novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, it tells the story of one soldier’s attempt to defend his troops after they abandoned a near-suicidal mission in World War I. Critics lauded Kubrick for his cinematography, but it’s the simple story (and a stellar performance from Kirk Douglas) that really stands out.
Apocalypse Now - 1979
The madness, the dizzying nonsense and the pure horror of war captured in one epic film that – almost – reflected the same qualities in its making. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam classic has gone down in cinematic folklore for its protracted production, but nothing can detract from the final film. Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, and, of course, Marlon Brando excel in this quasi-farcical flick about the lunacy of war.
Grand Illusion - 1937
Directed by a titan of French cinema, Jean Renoir, Grand Illusion – or La Grande Illusion to give it its correct Gallic title – is one of the masterpieces of cinema. It ostensibly tells the story of a group of French officers held captive by German soldiers during World War I. Beneath this, however, beats a film about class conflict, the folly of war and the heroism that war will always provoke.
Land And Freedom - 1995
Ken Loach brings the Spanish Civil War to life in this rousing tale of bravery, ideology and love. The vastly underrated Ian Hart plays Liverpudlian socialist David Carr who fired by the cause of the Republican movement in Spain volunteers for service. When in Spain, he encounters the true horror of war, but also the malevolence of Stalin’s Soviet Union towards those who disagreed with the Communist Party’s official line. A shocking and absorbing film.
Henry V - 1944
Released when European fortunes firmly in the ascendancy World War II, Laurence Olivier’s take on William Shakespeare’s classic can be read as one final push for glory against fascism. But it’s much more than overt patriotic propaganda – it’s also a film for all time. Depicting the English victory at Agincourt in the Hundred Years War in 1415, this is Shakespeare and cinema colliding perfectly.
Zulu - 1964
Today, Zulu is best known as the film that catapulted Michael Caine to global stardom. But Zulu is a majestic film in its own right. Depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British and the Zulus in 1879, it unsurprisingly focuses on the seemingly insurmountable odds involved: 150 British soldiers versus 4,000 Zulu combatants. Again, though, the film is much more than the sum of its part. Stanley Baker and Jack Hawkins also excel.
The Dam Busters - 1955
The inspiring Dam Busters march theme and its sometimes-dubious adoption by lesser brain celled football fans means Michael Anderson’s film will never be forgotten. But the film itself would achieve such a standing. Telling the ultimately successful story of how Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb struck at the heart of Germany’s heavy industry, it’s also a sober account of heroism and loss. Stars thespian giant Michael Redgrave and granite-faced Richard Todd.
The Longest Day - 1962
D-Day – 6 June 1944 – will be remembered forever in history. It will also be remembered in cinema, as it’s seen countless films dedicated to the Allied landings in Normandy. The Longest Day tells the story of those intrepid landings from both the British/American and German standpoint. Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Richard Todd, Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery, among others, it is lauded for its grand scale and sympathetic retelling of that day.
Cross of Iron - 1977
James Coburn shines in Sam Peckinpah’s World War II – his sole venture into war films – classic. Coburn plays the doughty working class German Sergeant Rolf Steiner who comes up against the aristocratic ways of Maximilian Schell’s Captain Stransky. The latter covets the Iron Cross, the German military accolade, while Steiner is interested solely in protecting his troops. A conflict within a conflict ensues. An underappreciated gem of a movie.