Top 10 War Movies

War movies have always been a part of film culture: from the silent propaganda documentaries of the Great War, to today’s films based on the Iraq war, conflict is a constant in cinema. So many films on war have been made that it almost seems like an exhausted subject: until a film like Inglorious Basterds arises and sets the whole machine going again.

So here is my Top Ten rundown of the war films I believe to be the best. Obviously a lot had to be excluded on grounds of genre-crossover: for example, The Great Escape will be featured in my up-coming Top Ten Breakout Movies list instead. So check it out and let me know what you think.

Honourable mentions: The Hill, Hell In The Pacific, The Longest Day, Glory et al.

10.  Cross Of Iron (1977)

Directed by:  Sam Peckinpah

“I believe God is a sadist, but probably doesn’t even know it.”

Portraying WW2 conflicts from an Axis point of view is not common practice in Hollywood; but then Peckinpah has never been one for rules. Following the lives of a hardened German unit as they patrol the Russian Front, Cross Of Iron attempts to reveal the physical and bureaucratic hardships the enemy had to endure.

Cross Of Iron easily reinforces the fact that Peckinpah is an auteur, with its bleak atmosphere, regular uses of experimental techniques and tight performances. Furthermore, the film manages to remove stigma over the characters’ Wehrmacht allegiances: they are simply soldiers struggling to survive an unfair situation.

Trivia: Allegedly, Sam Peckinpah drank four whole bottles of vodka or whisky every day during shooting, while only sleeping 3-4 hours per night.

9.  Come And See (1985)

Directed by:  Elem Klimov

“Death to the fascist bastards!  Make them pay!  Kill them!”

Arguably one of the most important Russian films on WW2, Come And See tells the story of a young Belorussian boy who joins a partisan force fighting the German invaders. Scarred by hardships and atrocities, Florya Gaishun’s (Aleksey Kravchenko) last vestiges of childhood innocence are swept away amidst a tempest of horror and inhumanity.

There are a lot of well-publicised films dedicated to showing the 1940’s conflict in Europe; however the Russian front was debatably more brutal, presenting the perfect canvas to portray the terrors perpetrated by the Nazi’s. As such, this is appealing  territory for a relatively new angle to Hitler’s aggressive expansion.

A slow steady pace that matches Florya’s trudge through a war-torn land effectively captures the spirit-sapping drudgery of war, while events in the last act drives home the terror that Nazi’s so casually wielded. Come And See is a film that requires a degree of effort to watch, though is certainly worthwhile.

Trivia: Actual live ammunition was used in the film. Crazy bastards.

8.  Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Directed by:  Clint Eastwood

“We soldiers dig. We dig all day. This is the hole that we will fight and die in. Am I digging my own grave?”

Another film that adopts an Axis perspective, Letters From Iwo Jima relays the bloody battle to occupy the Pacific island of Iwo Jima: the gateway to Japan. Desperate to prevent the Allied capture of such a strategic position, the Japanese high command orders General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and his men to fight to the death, heralding a bitter struggle for honour and survival.

Much like the Nazi’s, the 1940’s Japanese soldier has often been stereotyped, appearing as fanatical and ruthless, bent on dying for their Emperor. While I don’t dispute this convention, it’s refreshing to see a portrayal that humanizes a previously inhuman enemy cliché. Watanabe’s cultured and likeable character does much to blur the lines between opposing forces, as does the time spent with the regular Japanese troops, who seem as genuinely terrified as their American counterparts.

Equally important is Clint Eastwood’s ability to make, what is in essence a long drawn out battle scene, both interesting and exciting. Empathising with a traditional enemy, to the point where you almost root for their victory, is no mean feat; as such Letters From Iwo Jima simultaneously dispels the myths of war propaganda while paying respect to the bravery of those not previously held in high regard.

Trivia: This was the last foreign language film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.

7.  Das Boot (1981)

Directed by:  Wolfgang Petersen

“Mildew is good for you. It’s the next best thing to fresh lettuce. Be thankful for what grows down here.”

Watching modern day naval flicks like The Hunt For Red October and Crimson Tide, it’s easy to forget how primitive early submarines actually were. Well, sea-obsessed Wolfgang Petersen gives us a stark reminder with Das Boot: a film set within the claustrophobic confines of a German WW2 U-boat.

Essentially just one long metal tube, the sub is a pretty shocking place to dwell: cramped, noisy and dirty, the crew live in constant fear of being torpedoed and sinking to a lonely grave. Led by the charismatic Capt. Lt. Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jurgen Prochnow), the U-boat’s crew are put through a dangerous and clandestine sea war, where the chances of survival are shockingly slim.

After spending so much close and personal time with the sub’s rugged sailors, it’s difficult not to like them, despite their Nazi Germany allegiances. As they struggle to overcome each potential disaster, you can only feel admiration for anyone brave (and mad) enough to crew this flimsy underwater coffin. And that’s really where Petersen shines: with a constantly tense atmosphere and perpetual risk of destruction, Das Boot is a true nail-biter and one of the best naval films to date.

Trivia: Rutger Hauer was offered the lead role of Capt. Lt. Lehmann-Willenbrock, but turned it down for Blade Runner.

6.  Zulu (1964)

Directed by:  Cy Endfield

“Rourke’s Drift… It’d take an Irishman to give his name to a rotten stinking middle o’ nowhere hole like this.”

Re-enacting the famous Battle of Rourke’s Drift where 139 British infantry held off a Zulu army some 4000 strong, Zulu feeds off old-school patriotism and a natural inclination to support an underdog.

While I personally don’t exhibit much in the way of national fervour, it’s hard not to become immersed in such a one-sided and apparently futile battle. With a third of the troops holed up in the infirmary and a leadership war raging between Lieutenant Chard (Stanley Baker) and Lieutenant Bromhead (Michael Caine), the under-strength Welsh company fight against a seemingly never-ending flood of bloodthirsty enemies. And it is this epic last stand situation, reminiscent of 300, that simultaneously gets the blood up while presenting a swansong to the British Empire’s bygone glory days.

Trivia: Michael Caine was so nervous when he watched the rushes he ended up being sick. He never watched rushes again.

5.  The Thin Red Line (1998)

Directed by:  Terrence Malick

“What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?”

Admittedly not to everyone’s taste, I nevertheless believe this to be Malick’s best film and a surprisingly unique take on warfare. Set around the WW2 pacific conflict of Guadacanal, we follow several different soldiers as they struggle to occupy a Japanese occupied airfield.

What makes The Thin Red Line such a masterpiece is largely down to the exquisite style in which it has been directed. From beautifully framed shots to the painstaking cinematography that compliments the film’s languid pace, The Thin Red Line is a visual treat from start to finish. Character narratives are handled with intelligence: each separate story represents a different viewpoint on the conflict, until they mesh into the nonsensical chaos that is the real face of human warfare. And with striking performances from a host of talent including Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, Elias Koteas, Woody Harrelson and (ahem) Sean Penn, there really isn’t much to dislike about this film.

Trivia: After shooting over 1 million feet of film, the original film cut was almost 6 hours in length.

4.  Film:  Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

Directed by:  Stanley Kubrick

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

Kubrick’s cynical satire on modern warfare is by turns hilarious and terrifying, as a deceptively plausible holocaust premise is presented in the most absurd and unlikely fashion.

Without a doubt, Dr. Strangelove is truly a timeless film. Let’s face it: with the nuclear arms race in full swing and technology proceeding at an astonishing rate, the concept of a ‘defensive’ doomsday device is certainly a possibility (anyone remember Bush’s planned Star Wars attack platform?). Dr. Strangelove’s grim warning about the dangers of disproportionate power is more applicable today than ever before and will probably become more relevant as time goes on.

Deviating from its counterpart Failsafe, Dr. Strangelove’s bizarre comedic approach is pure genius: with the fate of the world being determined by a bunch of childish egotistical politicians advised by an insane evil doctor (a big thumbs up to Peter Sellers), events seem almost too farcical to be believable… until you look at the antics of your own government and the smiles turn to a gasp of horror.

Besides the brilliant narrative and powerful concept, Dr. Strangelove comes with everything else you would expect from a Kubrick film: superb cinematography, excellent performances and dialogue that has proven its longevity in the proceeding years. Dr. Strangelove is a warning to us all.

Trivia: Peter Sellers received 55% of the film’s budget as his fee, amounting to $1 million.

3.  Platoon (1986)

Directed by:  Oliver Stone

“Now, I got no fight with any man who does what he’s told, but when he don’t, the machine breaks down. And when the machine breaks down, we break down. And I ain’t gonna allow that in any of you. Not one.”

Utilising his own personal experience of the Vietnam War, Oliver Stone inducts us into a beleaguered US infantry platoon as they endure the horrors of jungle warfare. With two warring sergeants splitting the men’s loyalty, naïve recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) soon discovers the ethical dilemmas of a war he volunteered for, while to trying to preserve the remnants of the man he once was.

Certainly a more bombastic approach to the notorious conflict, Platoon aims to highlight the awful experience of a regular soldier fighting against the Viet Cong. From this point of view, Platoon is a pretty rounded account: the sparse moments of camaraderie, gruelling daily slog through tropical vegetation and breakdowns in the chain of command are all underpinned by a constant threat of VC ambushes. And since it’s Oliver Stone at the helm, there’s plenty of gunfire, explosions and epic combat set pieces to bring home the chaos of it all.

While other films like Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line attempt a broader perspective on warfare as a whole, Platoon excels in making war a far more personal affair, giving a voice to the humble GI that had to endure so much for a conflict flawed from the outset.

Trivia: To get the cast in character, Stone put them through a 14 day boot camp, which featured a military ration diet, night watch rotations, lack of showers, plus regular detonation of explosives to deprive them of sleep.

2.  Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Directed by:  Stanley Kubrick

“These are great days we’re living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we’re gonna miss not having anyone around that’s worth shooting.”

Mirroring the intimacy of Platoon, Full Metal Jacket follows a group of US marine recruits training for the frontlines of Vietnam. Their bootcamp is made hell by the fire breathing Sargeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) and made worse by the provocations of Private Pyle. But when they reach the war, a whole new nightmare awaits.

As with most Kubrick films, there are strong subtexts at play here, which largely contribute to its excellence. Foremost is the comprehensive view on how the process of war completely dehumanizes a person. Initially seen in the mental decline and subsequent meltdown of Private Pyle, the later events surrounding a VC sniper, show how circumstance, mental and behavioural conditioning and a deluded sense of moral justification can lead a person to commit horrendous acts. Another concept touched upon is how war journalism is basically a propaganda tool. Instructed to only write articles that imply America is winning the war, there is a certain irony at play: after enduring the hell of training and the frontlines, war journalist Private Joker is forced to write articles that endorse the conflict, which in turn will probably encourage others to join the atrocious struggle he has now become embroiled in.

Without a doubt an anti-war movie, Full Metal Jacket scorns the impressionability of patriotism, the biased nature of war reporting and crucially, how war really is absolutely good for nothing. And all of this is executed with the expected Kubrick finesse that effortlessly flaunts progressive cinematography, stellar performances and a narrative that can only make you stop and think.

Trivia: A scene cut from the film featured soldiers playing football with a human head.

1.  Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by:  Francis Ford Coppola

“I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.”

For me, this is the definitive war movie and Coppola’s best. Loosely based on the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Apocalypse Now charts Captain Ben Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey up the Nyung river during the Vietnam war to kill the supposedly insane rogue colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

As with the book, Apocalypse Now is a story of madness, gradually manifesting due to surroundings, isolation and conflicting moral standpoints. Coppola crucially deviates from literature however, with the introduction of war as a backdrop. Used as a catalyst for both Kurtz and Willard’s fraying mental health, it also achieves a deprecating view on the Vietnam War itself: from the relative calm of Army HQ in Saigon, Willard’s travels takes him to raucous boozed up parties, Vietnamese villages getting torched, frontline positions turned into chaotic charnel houses and finally a sinister cult formed around a madman gone native. By the time Willard finally reaches his quarry, the lines between them are so blurred that the concept of hero and villain cease to hold meaning.

With such an expansive journey, epic proportions are required: to this end, Coppola is both diligent and effective. The sets are generally pretty big and plush, with entire helicopter squadrons raining fire on villages and firefights over huge bridge structures. The careful pacing and long running time (153 mins) allows for a naturally extensive overview that never feels rushed or sluggish. And both Sheen and Brando give astoundingly convincing performances of men who are losing their minds.

Basically, the film is near flawless. It demonises war, portrays its effects on man and forms a study of mental decay. Shot beautifully, acted brilliantly and directed with masterful skill, Apocalypse Now is the benchmark war films should aspire to.

Trivia: George Lucas was initially set to direct the film adapted from John Milius’ screenplay. When potential exec producer Coppola tried to sign the project to Warner Brothers, the deal fell through and the film was ditched. By the time Coppola was powerful enough to get the movie made (he had just made The Godfather), Lucas had gone off to make Star Wars, while Milius didn’t fancy directing. So Coppola, thankfully, stepped in and created Apocalypse Now. 

About filmfellahenry
Film reviewer, script writer and occasional painter. Fan of Lumet, Aronofsky and Kubrick, with a good measure of early John Carpenter thrown in. Particularly like post-apocalyptic sci-fi, horror and fantasy film genres.

9 Responses to Top 10 War Movies

  1. steven says:

    interesting list, hard top ten to chose, i like, black hawk down, saving private ryan, inglorious bastards, deer hunter……..an, not sure if they would make the list, 13 assassins, brave heart, grave of the fireflies….but, yeah, good list, i not seen a couple, will have to give them a look🙂

    • filmfellahenry says:

      A very hard top ten to choose. I love war movies and had to exclude so many… Ended up having to be very strict with qualifying criteria and leaned towards those films that made an important and unique statement about war itself (hence films like Inglorious Basterds sadly not making an appearance).

      Thanks for reading Steven!

  2. Mark Walker says:

    No Private Ryan in there Henry? Great list though. I’d have Malick’s The Thin Red Line at number 1. I don’t just believe it to be the best war movie but one of my all time favourites of any genre.

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Arghh… don’t get me started on Saving Private Ryan! It’s not a bad movie, but seemed to sell itself on an outstanding opening, while the rest of the film became a repetitive, weary drudge to a reasonable climax, that nevertheless didn’t live up to Omaha beach. Never understood why so many people love it.

      Now that’s out of my system, kudos for rating The Thin Red Line too! It was one of those that I initially hated, did a re-watch, branded myself an idiot and now love it. I plan to attempt the same with New World, but somehow I don’t think it will work…

      Cheers as always Mark.

      • Mark Walker says:

        I can’t really argue with your reasons on Private Ryan. You’ve pretty much got it spot on but I still did enjoy it, I have to admit. I loved the individual characters and how they met their fate, particularly the scene with Giovanni Ribisi and the one with Adam Goldberg. Two harrowing scenes.
        As for The Thin Red Line, I completely agree. I wasn’t impressed first time either but on a repeat viewing it grew to be a masterpiece in my eyes and I regard it worthy to sit in my top ten favourite film’s. The New World again I agree, I wasn’t impressed but I think I have to give it another chance someday.

  3. Tippi says:

    I can’t believe Saving Private Ryan isn’t on here! That opening sequence alone should earn it a spot on any list. Spielberg has an incredible talent for bringing jarring moments to life and showing new generations that it’s not just a story from their history class.

    • filmfellahenry says:

      While I agree that the opening to SPR was outstanding, I felt the rest of the film became something of a dreary, uninspired slog. It certainly brings home the suffering that soldiers endured during WW2, but then I would argue most war films set within this period do that and often from a far more unique and under-represented angle: case in point being both Cross Of Iron and Letters From Iwo Jima.

      It is for both of these reasons that SPR did not make it into the list.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. WarMovieBlog says:

    Great list, although I have to admit not seeing (yet) a few on there! On SPR, though, I think what makes it a great war movie is that it is a metaphor for everyone. When Miller says “Earn this” to Ryan at his end, he’s not just speaking to Ryan. He’s speaking to every one of us. Sure it gets a bit dreary and carries a few cliches through (the letter for one) to no resolution, but there are so many more metaphors (sounds film-school-y don’t it) in there to take from….

    Have to disagree with Platoon though. It was a great film in 1986, but every time I see it now, it gets more and more dated and cliched, despite inventing many of those cliches. And don’t get me started on “Red Line.”😀

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks for reading! I know what you mean about Platoon – I usually get stick for rating it so highly. However what I like about Platoon is how it’s such a close and personal look at the natural conflicts going on within a unit, without getting bogged down studying the war as a whole. And despite the often bombastic approach Stone uses when showing us the life of a GI grunt, it also deals with an issue still prevalent today: what makes the perfect soldier? Is it the cold-hearted, ruthless Sgt Barnes who will follow an order to the death? Or is there still room for humanity in someone who is basically employed to kill without becoming emotionally damaged? I guess Stone partially answers the question by having the US CO willing to bomb his own men in order to prevent the VC incursion – which is both an oddly reassuring and disturbing thought when you consider that mentality applied to modern warfare.

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