Trying to come up with a list of the top 10 war films of all time is a difficult task. There have been a lot of wars, and a lot of great films about those wars. Making my own list, I had to make a lot of difficult decisions.
For instance, I had to remove all documentaries. (You can find my own top 10 list of war documentaries here
.) I also had to remove all films that merely used war as a backdrop or setting. Alas, I could not include such classics as Casablanca
and Dr. Strangelove
. I also chose to not include mini-series, such as Band of Brothers
. Ultimately, I arrived at the following list. It's worth keeping in mind that these lists are subjective, and your own choices may have differed.
Photo © Zoetrope Studios
Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam classic is infamous for its troubled production, which included the film's star Martin Sheen having a heart attack, the destruction of several sets in the Philippines, and Marlon Brando showing up on set severely overweight for his role as the rogue Green Beret Colonel Kurtz. Despite all of this, the eventual film, which followed Sheen's Captain Willard as he travels deep into the jungles of Vietnam on a secret mission to assassinate the crazed Colonel Kurtz, ended up as a classic of modern cinema. Though not a realistic war film, it is perhaps, the most gripping, thought-provoking war film ever made. I've seen it several times now, and each time I'm left after the end credit rolls feeling as I've just been punched in the gut. Not necessarily, pleasant viewing, but then, this is war, after all. It's for all of these reasons that Apocalypse Now earns the top spot.
Photo © Dreamworks
Number two on my list is another Steven Spielberg film. This 1998 film tells the story of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) who's sent across war-torn Europe with a squad of soldiers to find Private Ryan (Matt Damon), a soldier who doesn't yet know that his brothers have been killed, and that he is his family's last surviving son. Opening with a harrowing recreation of the D-Day landing at Normandy, the film is filled with exciting action sequences, an ultra-authentic set design, and solid performances. Most impressive though, is that Saving Private Ryan is the rare film that manages to be both simultaneous moving and thought provoking, while also being immensely entertaining and exciting. Saving Private Ryan
was also voted the favorite film of military veterans.
Photo © United Artists
This 1963 Steve McQueen classic is an escapist classic, and one of the great action films of all time. It follows Steve McQueen, James Garner, and others as they attempt to escape a Nazi prisoner of war camp by going over the wall, tunneling under the camp, and sneaking out the front gate. No deep thinking, just great fun.
Photo © Universal Pictures
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film chronicles the true story of Oskar Schindler, a Polish manufacturer who begins the film as an opportunistic capitalist, but eventually ends up saving some 1,100 Jews by providing them refuge within his factories. Filmed in black and white, the film is powerful – not just because of its tale of human redemption – but also because of its unflinching portrayal of Nazi cruelty and the concentration camps. This is cinema at its best, and is my choice for the fourth best war film of all time.
Photo © Universal Studios
Released in 1930, the film follows a class of young Germans school children who are enticed into enlisting for World War I by a jingoistic high-school teacher that teases them with visions of heroism and appreciation. What they find in the trenches of the war though is death and horror. Perhaps no film since has better summarized the difference between the ideals of war, as imagined by young patriots, and the awful realities that await them. This film’s production date needs to be appreciated; it demonstrated wariness for war that wouldn’t be popularly in vogue within the American cinema for another 50 years. A visionary film that was ahead of its time.
Photo © Tri-Star Pictures
This 1989 film stars Matthew Broderick, and as of yet, not quite famous Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. Telling the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (better known as the first infantry unit to be made up entirely of African-Americans), it follows the black soldiers through Basic Training and into combat as they enter the final days of the Civil War. Paid less than their white counterparts, and fielding sub-standard equipment, these black soldiers nonetheless come to epitomize both heroism and courage. Although it took a fair number of liberties with actual history, it’s nonetheless a moving and powerful film. More importantly, it offers us a glimpse of a little known part of American history, by telling the often over-looked contribution of African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
Photo © United Artists
This 1957 film is one of Stanley Kubrick’s first films. Starring Kirk Douglas, it tells the story of a French commander in the first World War who refused to order his men to commit suicide by way of charging from the trenches straight into enemy fire. When his men are court martialed and charged with cowardice, Kirk Douglas has to defend them in court. The film made my top ten list because it wrestles with one of the great philosophical questions of war: At what point does self-preservation win over obedience to authority?
Photo © Columbia Pictures
David Lean's 1962 film about British Army officer T.E. Lawrence during World War I is the very definition of epic. Epic sets, epic landscapes, sweeping cinematography, a rousing instrumental score, and career defining performances, most notably by Peter O'Toole. Number eight with a bullet.
Photo © Voltage Pictures
This 2008 film by Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy award for Best Picture for its suspenseful and nerve-wracking portrayal of Army Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), an Explosives Ordinance and Disposal (EOD) expert in Iraq. The film was unique in that it was the first to focus on the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), which, for most ground soldiers, has become the dominant enemy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Part action film and part careful character study of a soldier addicted to the intensity of combat, this is an immensely thrilling film. The scenes where James has to defuse bombs are so tightly coiled with tension, that they're difficult to physically watch as a viewer. But even more powerful is the scene where James stares with dumbfounded apathy at an empty cereal aisle in the local grocery store after returning from combat, finding regular life to be a tone too quiet.
Photo © Orion Pictures
In this classic Oliver Stone film and Academy Award winner, Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a new infantry recruit, fresh to the jungles of Vietnam, who quickly finds himself embedded in a platoon that is engaging in war crimes. Ultimately, a tale of moral choice, the film follows Taylor as he's forced to choose between two contrasting platoon sergeants: Sergeant Elias (William Dafoe), the moral good sergeant, and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), the violent psychopath.