10 Best War Films

By Elliot Zatzki


Apocalypse Now (1979)

Vietnam War
Directed Francis Ford Coppola

Apocalypse NowLoosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella, Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola created one of the most audacious films ever made and arguably the best film of the 1970s with Apocalypse Now. Almost never completed, the movie initially divided critics upon its release yet has rightfully grown stature over the years as a hallucinogenic take on the Vietnam War. At a glance, the film only seems faithful to Heart of Darkness in the sense that certain character names remain the same, yet the film does something even greater: it maintains the tone, if not the setting, of Conrad’s tale while infusing the film with a sense of humor almost too painfully accurate to not label as an absurdist work. Whether watching the 2 ½ hour initial cut or Coppola’s preferred 200-minute edition, Apocalypse Now is a daunting work of art, at once experimental and realistic, and endlessly fascinating until its very last, unsettling shot.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Algerian War
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Battle of AlgiersGillo Pontecorvo’s unconventional depiction of the Algerian War can be described as many things, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Battle of Algiers rests in its nonjudgmental depiction of a highly controversial war. If Pontecorvo’s film was produced today, it would automatically be labeled as an allegory for the Iraq War, simply because of the film’s depiction of a war occupation featuring no heroes of any sort. We are simply left with potentially good people making harmful decisions in the name of winning an occupational conflict. In theory, the film should be soulless, but the documentary-style approach, relatively groundbreaking for its time, keeps the film fast paced as an action movie that raises questions about the sacrifices of integrity made during fierce matters of life and death for the sake of clashing political ideologies. Without The Battle of Algiers, the Cinéma Vérité, nonjudgmental style of films made by directors such as Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass might not exist today, and we certainly would be lacking Gillo Pontecorvo’s energetic, landmark film.

Das Boot (1981)

World War II
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Das BootThere’s a great risk to making a World War II movie featuring Nazis as the main characters. Unless they repent their beliefs or are executed at the end, the odds of making a satisfying World War II movie on Nazis are nil. Wolfgang Petersen broke the mold with his debut, Das Boot (The Boat), initially made as a German television miniseries and re-edited for a theatrical release. The film is nothing short of a masterpiece of tension taking most of its time in a claustrophobic submarine. There are strengths to Das Boot that most great movies deliver (excellent performances, writing, directing, etc.), but the biggest strength may be that Petersen keeps the tension going through a remarkably staged, tense, and unpredictable narrative. It’s a hypnotic tale of madness, infused with irony as much as terror, and the sort of movie that Werner Herzog or Stanley Kubrick would’ve made if one of them thought of the concept first. Which brings us to…

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Cold War
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Dr StrangelovePerhaps the darkest film on the list because it plays out as the lightest, Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar satire about a crazed military figure whom orders a nuclear missile to be fired at the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War should not be funny. Upon its critical release, it was labeled as dangerous, but nearly fifty years later, we are, thankfully, all alive and well and capable of watching this black comedy about important political figures making catastrophically stupid decisions. This 1964 film never cops out in its ruthless depiction of Cold War politics, sinking its teeth into the material like a shark, and the cinema hasn’t seen such a scathing and influential antiwar satire ever since.

Fires on the Plain (1959)

World War II
Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Fires on the Plain There’s no denying the power of Clint Eastwood’s 2006 World War II film, Letters from Iwo Jima, told from the perspective of Japanese soldiers, yet the influence for Eastwood’s film almost certainly arrives from Japanese director Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain. Almost identical to Eastwood’s film in terms of its atmosphere and setting, Ichikawa’s film of Japanese soldiers facing starvation holds up today as a searing indictment of the human condition told through a deliberately poetic tone. There’s been slim publicity for Fires on the Plain in the western world, save for perhaps A.O. Scott’s recommendation on the Chicago-based Ebert and Roeper at the Movies television show a few years back, but nonetheless, Ichikawa’s despairing film deserves a look.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Vietnam War
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Full Metal JacketPossibly overshadowed by the success of Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Platoon, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is less a condemnation of the Vietnam War than a psychological analysis of ordinary men being transformed into trained killers. In this sense, Full Metal Jacket emerges as an antiwar film that can apply to any modern military conflict. At first a black comedy, the film introduces its characters as new recruits facing the caustic Sgt. Hartman only to deliberately delve into less humorous territory. Kubrick’s movies always go for the searing, mind-blowing punch, and Full Metal Jacket, now widely renown as a classic war film, is no exception.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

World War I
Directed by David Lean

Lawrence of ArabiaAt once grandiose and intimate, David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia covers T.E. Lawrence’s experiences during World War I. As with many great films, it’s remarkable how well the film works with the source material. For nearly four hours, Lean’s grandiose epic remains tightly focused without sparing character development and action sequences, yet even after a second viewing, the film remains fascinating in part to Peter O’Toole, who in his first leading performance on film conveys the title character as a multi-faceted figure who transforms into an important figure, both charismatic and intelligent, yet also undeniably flawed.  

Platoon (1986)

Vietnam War
Directed by Oliver Stone

PlatoonContrary to many films on this list, no one can say that Platoon did not initially receive the recognition it deserved. A critical and commercial success upon its initial release, Platoon would later sweep four Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. Needless to say, Platoon is not underrated, yet twenty-five years later, it’s still a landmark film that understood the Vietnam War as the horrific and misguided conflict that it was. A film that challenges patriotic war movies to the very core, Platoon emerges as a surprisingly sincere film about one soldier being influenced by two Sergeants, one good and another evil. By the end, the film puts the audience through the wringer, yet with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as the film’s unofficial musical score, Platoon delivers a level of emotional power almost too cathartic to handle.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

World War II
Directed by Terrence Malick

The Thin Red Line Lyrical and methodical, The Thin Red Line is exactly the sort of war film one expects from Terrence Malick, the director of Days of Heaven and more recently, The Tree of Life. The film was a significant awards contender during the 1998 awards season and ran against Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan at the Oscars for Best Picture. However, unlike Saving Private Ryan, which delves the audience into its world with the magnificent D-Day battle, The Thin Red Line takes its time. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Malick’s war film got green-lit by a major studio, and while it’s deliberate pacing demands much of the audience for its entire 170-minute running time, The Thin Red Line never becomes anything less than brilliant. A meditation on war set entirely during the Battle of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line serves as a somber tone poem about the relationship between man and nature during wartime. “Beautiful” is not the sort of term one might describe a war movie, but Terrence Malick does just that with flawless cinematography, which, ironically, adds a level of fatalism to this uncompromising film.

Three Kings (1999)

Persian Gulf War
Directed by David O. Russell

Three KingsIndescribable as a genre film, yet undeniably eccentric, David O. Russell melds biting satire and social awareness together into a film that defies labeling. There’s no great approach to labeling Three Kings as a film of any sort of genre, but one thing is for certain: it’s great. For two hours, Russell introduces the audience to three Gulf War soldiers who spend their time screwing around out of sheer boredom. That is, until, they find a treasure map leading to Kuwaiti bullion, and in the process, recognize the significant social problems that American forces seem to be ignoring during the Gulf War itself. The result is a strange antiwar comedy/satire/adventure/drama film that obeys and fulfills the requirements that each of these genres demand. With David O. Russell’s recent critical and commercial success with The Fighter, Three Kings seems as ready as ever for the commercial reception that no one, not even glowing critical reviews, could stir up in 1999.

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Your Comments Please

I’m sure I won’t be the only one thinking a lot have been left off.

Some good films on there, but not too many classics; are they films based on or inspired by real wars or watched by the reviewer?

What about Zulu, Four Feathers, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Alamo, Ran, The Ten Thousand Day War (was a docu chopped up for a mini-series), Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down, Gone with the Wind, Deer Hunter, the Great Escape, Paths of Glory, Sgt York, The Red Baron, Patton, The Longest day, Tora Tora Tora, A Bridge Too Far, Dirty Dozen, Cross of Iron, The Killing Fields, Kelly’s Heroes, The Sand Pebble, Gallipoli, Run Silent Run Deep, Ice Station Zebra, Tin Drum, The Big Red One, Coming Home, Battle of Britain, The Year of Living Dangerously, JSA- Joint Security Area, Night of the Generals, The Green Berets, Dogs of War, The Fighting CeeBees, Rio Lobo, El Cid, Battle of the Bulge, The Horse Soldiers, The Wild Geese, Force 10 from Navarone, Breaker Morant, Hope and Glory, The Dam Busters

Wow I could go on, I think I saw most of these before the age of 16. They use to show more films on tv than they do now unfortunately.

Ted Bryson


How could you miss Cross of Iron?
or Aces High?
or Catch 22 -
or Saving private Ryan - which although flawed has the most amazing opening 20 mins in war movie history.

The genre for three kings is either a heist movie or a gangster film. Its the same genre as Kelly's heroes and Oceans 11...

Very poor article!
3 out of ten.
Could do better - see me after school.

Martin Gooch


Your intern has not watched much cinema, not one Russian film, no French

PS hope you are paying him

Maxim Ford


Where is Patton? It’s hard to imagine a war film about a more intriguing real character or with more memorable lines and imagery and a better performance by its principal actor. It even won the Academy Award for best picture. Even the music lends to the spectacle, horror and thank-god-he-was-on-our-side gut-punch of this brilliant movie.

Steve Berlin


Straight in at #1 should be
"Idi i smotri" :


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About The Author

Elliot Zatzki was an intern at Raindance


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10 Best War Films