The 20 Greatest War Films Of All Time

It's hard to reckon with the consequences of war, but great films have explored the devastating impacts of combat since the earliest days of cinema. War footage was shown in early movie houses in the form of newsreels and propaganda films, and the gripping images became etched in the minds of many filmmakers.

Cinema has looked to many historical conflicts for inspiration. Historical epics that told grandiose stories have used large budgets to bring these larger-than-life stories and characters to life. Not every war film aims for accuracy; while some have been praised by historians and veterans as authentic, others aim for a more crowd-pleasing approach, or change historical details for dramatic effect.

Not every war film focuses on soldiers, either. Some explore the effects a conflict has on the civilian population. Others star journalists, politicians, children, or medical personnel. War films have the ability to spotlight stories that are largely unknown, or cover well-known topics from a more diverse perspective. A war film doesn't have to be about a real conflict, either — some imagine entirely fictional events. With all of that being said, here are the 20 best war movies of all time.

Platoon

Oliver Stone's personal involvement in Vietnam inspired many of his films, which largely center on anti-war themes. Stone developed a reputation as one of the most politically outspoken filmmakers of the '80s, and he broke boundaries with projects that criticized American policies and questioned the established facts of history. After dabbling in horror early in his career, Stone broke out in 1986 with two incendiary war films. While "Salvador" is a classic in its own right, Stone's Best Picture-winner "Platoon" is one of the definitive accounts of the dehumanizing effects that militarism has on both soldiers and civilians.

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a stand-in for Stone himself, as Chris volunteers to join a U.S. Army platoon to gain worldly experience before realizing how extreme war can be. Chris serves under Sergeant Alias (Willem Dafoe), who encourages friendship amongst the men and warns them against harming the native Vietnamese population. Alias' tenderness is a counterpoint to the cynical, brutal tactics of Sergeant Elias (Tom Berenger), a hardened veteran willing to destroy entire villages and massacre families.

"Platoon" explores how even Chris' friends, who think of themselves as noble, can be spurred into violent action under Elias' influence. The shocking death of Alias is a heartbreaking moment that solidified Stone's reputation as a storyteller who pulls no punches.

Saving Private Ryan

Whether it's an action-packed adventure movie or a gripping historical epic, few filmmakers create spectacles like Steven Spielberg. Spielberg had longed to tell the story of the Normandy Invasion as a tribute to his father's service in World War II, and while he had told World War II stories with "1941," "Empire of the Sun," and "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" is the first of his films that took place in the thick of combat. The opening sequence in which American soldiers storm Omaha Beach is one of the most gripping, violent, and emotional combat sequences ever committed to film.

"Saving Private Ryan" asks complex questions about the value of individual lives in a war that takes thousands. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad are ordered to travel deep into enemy territory in order to rescue Private James Ryan (Matt Damon); all three of Ryan's brothers were killed in action. Miller is reluctant to take the mission, skeptical about its importance and wary of the threat it poses to his men. Hanks is phenomenal, showing Miller's reluctance, despite his empathy for Ryan. Damon is equally powerful, as Ryan commits to stay at his post even after he learns the terrible news about his family.

"Saving Private Ryan" is undeniably patriotic, but it doesn't disrespect veterans with overblown sentiment. The framing device, in which an older Ryan reflects on his experiences with Miller, creates a profound statement about how the lasting wounds of war don't heal.

Full Metal Jacket

Stanley Kubrick's subversive approach to familiar genres was perfectly suited to the Vietnam era, and "Full Metal Jacket" is among the most devastating anti-war films ever made. Using a brilliant bifurcated structure, Kubrick brought the dehumanizing effects of militarism to the screen, incorporating shocking imagery and dark humor to show how seemingly honorable people can develop an aptitude for violence.

The first half of "Full Metal Jacket" focuses on the brutal training process that a squad of new recruits endure under their strict drill sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey). Hartman subjects the men to rigorous physical tasks and demeans them with cruel insults. Gradually, the initially empathetic Private Joker (Matthew Modine) grows hardened and begins to emulate his superior's behavior. Vincent D'Onofrio delivers the film's most powerful performance as the sensitive Private Lawrence, who is singled out by Hartman and relentlessly bullied. Lawrence's breakdown is difficult to watch, and when his squad is unwilling to aid him, it marks a key moment in the loss of the soldiers' humanity. Joker grapples with his instincts to care for Lawrence, who he knows will struggle in actual combat.

The second half of the movie follows the soldiers during the early stages of the Tet Offensive, during which Joker is assigned to a war correspondent position. The battles themselves are fraught and confusing, as it's unclear to the soldiers which Vietnamese militias are allied with or against them. The film concludes with the striking image of soldiers singing the "Mickey Mouse March" on their patrol.

Barry Lyndon

"Barry Lyndon" is a gorgeous historical epic from Stanley Kubrick that depicts several major conflicts through the eyes of a devious character. Ryan O'Neal stars as the Irish rogue Redmond Barry, who abandons his home in Ireland in the 1750s after a dispute regarding his cousin Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton). Barry desires his relative's hand in marriage and slays a rival suitor in a duel, forcing him to become a fugitive. After a scheming highwayman steals his possessions and humiliates him, Barry decides to avoid attention by joining the British Army to fight in the Seven Years' War.

Barry is an untraditional protagonist, and one who is completely unlikeable. With no loyalty to any nation, Barry is willing to switch his allegiances and deserts his military duty when he sees no personal gain. After shedding his identity and forging a false one, Barry joins the Prussian Army. That he would be fighting the men he was once allied with matters little to Barry. O'Neal gives an incredible performance as the impulsive character; while his actions are reprehensible, he's undeniably a compelling lead for a three-hour film.

With its natural lighting and long takes, "Barry Lyndon" is one of the most meticulously crafted visual achievements of Kubrick's career. "Barry Lyndon" is thrilling even for those who generally don't enjoy costume dramas, as its dark humor and unreliable narration make it undeniably unique.

Apocalypse Now

"Apocalypse Now" was developed by some of the most important filmmakers of the '70s as a response to the situation in Vietnam. Director Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter John Milius, and producer George Lucas adapted Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness" into an examination of the cult of violence that causes soldiers to abandon reason. Production was notoriously troubled, as the shooting dates were extended and the crew met with technical setbacks; never completely satisfied, Coppola released several director's cuts. Although it may have been "cursed," the chaotic journey nonetheless crafted a harrowing cinematic descent into madness.

U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is a Vietnam veteran sent on a covert mission to assassinate the Special Forces Colonel William Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has abandoned his post and leads a rogue army in Cambodia, amassing a loyal following that worships him. Although he suffered a breakdown and had a heart attack during filming, Sheen gives one of his best performances. Willard is initially ambivalent about his task, but gradually begins to shed his values as he travels deeper into the heart of the jungle.

Brando's unveiling during the film's conclusion serves as a nightmarish reflection of the horrors of war. Spewing strained philosophies about the pain of the human condition and praising the Viet Cong for their brutality, Kurtz is one of the most terrifying film characters of all-time.

Bridge on the River Kwai

When released in 1957, "Bridge on the River Kwai" was heralded for its epic scale and thrilling action setpieces. The practical filmmaking is just as impressive today, and the film's themes remain as relevant as ever. "Bridge on the River Kwai" examines the dueling obligations of imprisoned soldiers who want to both serve their country and retain their honor; it's a complex consideration of patriotism that focuses on individual values instead of blind patriotism.

"Bridge on the River Kwai" follows an ensemble of British soldiers who are held as prisoners-of-war at a Japanese camp. They receive orders to surrender, with Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Commander Shears (William Holden) reluctantly agreeing to aid their captors in building a railway bridge. As the men work tirelessly to complete construction, Nicholson develops a productive relationship with the Japanese leadership and becomes engaged with the task. He's infuriated when his men intentionally sabotage production, and Shears begins to question Nicholson's leadership.

After escaping to the nearby jungle, Shears plots to destroy the bridge but finds himself in contention with Nicholson. Driven mad by his commitment to seeing the bridge completed, Nicholson turns against the soldiers under his command. Guinness does a terrific job with Nicholson's slow descent into unreason; at first, he's only trying to make the best of a bad situation, only realizing the harm he caused during the final siege. "Bridge on the River Kwai" took home seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Guinness.

The Deer Hunter

"The Deer Hunter" tells a comprehensive story about what soldiers experience before, during, and after their service in Vietnam, conveyed through the changing relationships between a group of lifelong friends. At over three hours, "The Deer Hunter" takes the time to develop its characters, noting how their personalities change as they accumulate emotional scars. The film was a breakthrough for its sensitive handling of PTSD, and its sequences of torture are often difficult to watch.

Pennsylvania steelworkers Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken) celebrate Steven's wedding before heading to Vietnam. Nick takes the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), and bonds with Mike as they promise to protect each other overseas. The ceremonies conclude with a deer hunt, a recurring symbol that represents the men's affinity for their simple hometown.

In the film's most famous sequence, Mike, Steven, and Nick are held hostage by the Viet Cong and forced to play a game of Russian Roulette. Once they return home, their near-death experiences make it impossible for the men to re-integrate with their community, and cast a shadow over their deer hunts. It's impossible to enjoy their favorite activity when any violence sparks disturbing memories. Walken depicts Nick's obsession with Russian Roulette in heartbreaking detail, and De Niro gives one of his most sensitive performances as Mike tries to help his friends cope.

Born on the Fourth of July

Following the acclaim for "Platoon," Oliver Stone was keen to continue criticizing American involvement in the Vietnam War. With "Born on the Fourth of July," he took a very different approach. While "Platoon" told a fictional story inspired by Stone's experiences, "Born on the Fourth of July" depicts the life of famed antiwar advocate Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise). The film follows Kovic from his childhood and throughout his military service, which left him permanently scarred. A traumatic event in which Kovic witnesses U.S. troops killed by "friendly fire" inspires him to question his dedication to military service for the first time.

In 1989, Cruise was at peak popularity thanks to "Risky Business" and "Top Gun," and "Born on the Fourth of July" showed that he was just as good in weighty, dramatic roles as he was in crowd-pleasing blockbusters. While Cruise seamlessly slips into the role of a Kovic who is beloved by his community in his younger years, he showed his range once Kovic's injuries isolate him. The Vietnam combat sequences are unflinching in their brutality, and Stone uses recurring flashbacks to show Kovic's PTSD.

The use of news footage makes the "Born on the Fourth of July" more authentic, and a beautiful John Williams score gives it the feeling of a grand spectacle. While Stone has been accused of being too preachy, "Born on the Fourth of July" doesn't force-feed morals to the audience; its recreations of Kovic's speeches allow the viewer to create their own interpretations.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Released in 1930, "All Quiet on the Western Front" is one of the earliest war films, and remains one of the best. The pre-code era of Hollywood allowed filmmakers to incorporate controversial elements that were removed from later Hollywood productions, and the massive combat sequences utilize thousands of extras, making "All Quiet on the Western Front" unique among other early war films.

"All Quiet on the Western Front" follows a group of young German men, including Paul Bäumer (Lew Aryes), who are inspired to enlist in the national militia after a speech by Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy). Kantorek waxes poetic about the adventures his students will have in combat and the values that they'll develop, but shortly after their basic training begins, the characters realize that Kantorek's words are misguided. The soldiers are subjected to a brutal training process under Corporal Himmelstoss (John Wray), who only sees them as weapons of destruction.

Politically charged, "All Quiet On The Western Front" explored the perspective of German infantrymen who were unaware of the political forces that forced them to head to the front lines. Given the outcome of the actual conflict, the viewer knows that these men are doomed from the beginning. Due to its criticism of the German government, the film provoked the wrath of the actual Nazi party, which tried to ban it.

Rescue Dawn

Werner Herzog's untraditional approach to filmmaking makes him a fascinating choice to helm a grizzly adventure saga. "Rescue Dawn" tells the true story of German U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) during a combat mission in Laos during the thick of the Vietnam War. Dengler's plane is shot down and he is captured by the Liberation Army, who offer him clemency if he renounces the United States. A steadfast idealist, Dengler refuses, and he's brutally tortured by his captors as they try to break his spirit.

Bale is known for his dramatic physical transformations, and over the course of "Rescue Dawn," he's starved and scarred. Dengler's attempts to escape are even more grueling to watch due to Bale's fractured physical state, and Herzog incorporates elements of body horror to make the violence more sickening. Bale has great chemistry with the actors who play his fellow survivors, particularly Steve Zahn as Lieutenant Duane Miller.

A grim survivalist story, "Rescue Dawn” shows Herzog's ability to capture authentic environments, as he shot much of the film in the Thailand jungles. Herzog often tells stories about characters that descend into madness; "Rescue Dawn" does this too, largely through hallucinatory cinematography. A box office disappointment, "Rescue Dawn" is an underrated entry in the canon of great Vietnam movies.

The Thin Red Line

When "The Thin Red Line" came out, Terrence Malick was known for romantic dramas like "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," and hadn't made a film in 20 years. Any suspicions that the gap was too long or that Malick's romantic sensibilities wouldn't fit the massive scale were soon silenced, however. "The Thin Red Line" is an unflinching ensemble epic strengthened by a brilliant cast. While the violence is starkly realistic, Malick incorporates dreamlike sequences that find moments of beauty within the dark setting.

At almost three hours in length, "The Thin Red Line" takes the time to develop each of its characters. Among the most compelling is Private Robert E. Lee Witt (Jim Caviezel), who abandoned his post and joined a Melanisian community. Witt searches for natural beauty after the horrors he's witnessed, but he's captured by an American battalion, whose First Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) prohibits him from rejoining the unit and forces the deserter to carry stretchers. Caviezel's pacifism is sympathetic, but Penn doesn't depict Welsh as a caricature of an overbearing commanding officer.

From Here to Eternity

War films released only shortly after the events they depict are fascinating, as they offer insight on how the public perceives recent tragedies. The 1953 classic "From Here to Eternity" allowed director Fred Zimmerman to reflect on the American consciousness in the days leading up to the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, exploring a more innocent period in which soldiers weren't expecting to be sent into a destructive war.

"From Here to Eternity" follows three soldiers stationed in Hawaii. Former boxer Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) joins the company of Captain Dana Holmes (Phillip Ober), who tries to convince the athlete to join his competitive team. Prewitt refuses, as he's reeling from a recent match in which he wounded a friend; the angered Holmes prepares to court-martial him. Prewitt finds an unlikely ally in Holmes' second-in-command, First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who has his own reasons to fear the Captain; he's secretly sleeping with Holmes' wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr).

The squabbles and melodrama between the soldiers fade following the Pearl Harbor attack; Zimmerman reflects on how momentary strife seems less relevant in the wake of actual tragedy.

The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin is one of the greatest comedians in Hollywood history, and his groundbreaking directorial projects changed the perception of slapstick with their brilliant stunt work and satirical themes. While he was known for his unparalleled physical comedy, Chaplin would explore more serious topics with his later works, all without losing his unique comedic lens. "The Great Dictator" was a brave film that tackled fascism and antisemitism during the early days of World War II; showing these current issues through a comedy of errors allowed Chaplin's message to reach a broad audience.

In "The Great Dictator," Chaplin plays two roles. One is an unnamed barber from a poor Jewish community who is haunted by his service in World War I and has lost many memories. The barber bears a striking resemblance to Chaplin's other character, the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Hynkel is clearly modeled after Adolf Hitler, and leads the persecution of the Jewish ghettos. In order to protect his home, the barber disguises himself as Hynkel and finds a peaceful way to end his regime.

Watching the goofy barber inadvertently impact global events is often hilarious, especially the film's most iconic moment, in which he dances with a globe in Hynkel's office. "The Great Dictator" was Chaplin's first sound film, and it concludes with a stirring monologue criticizing prejudice and hate.

1917

Sam Mendes' "1917" takes a fascinating approach to combat, as it was filmed to create the illusion that it was all shot in one take. While not a new filmmaking technique — it had been previously used in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" and Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu's "Birdman," among others — the continuous tracking shot suits the war epic by detailing both the split-second decisions and the moments of intimacy between soldiers in real-time. While it weaves in and out of key battles, "1917" is first and foremost a mission movie about two novice soldiers tasked with delivering a message that could change the tide of the war.

Will Schofield (George McKay) and Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are part of a British company on the Western Front, and they're ordered by commanding officer General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to travel behind enemy lines. Erinmore fears that if Lieutenant-Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) continues his forward expansion he'll be caught off guard and there will be a massacre. Schofield and Blake plot a course across no-man's land, where they must survive German traps and snipers. While both have seen action before, their isolation presents new challenges.

"1917" never lets up on the tension, and shocking story developments continually change the stakes. McKay and Chapman have great chemistry, and the cameos by Firth, Cumbaerbach, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, and Richard Madden aren't distracting — the actors all establish the situation's gravity, even in brief scenes.

Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott is no stranger to war epics, and while "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down" were acclaimed when first released, his 2005 film "Kingdom of Heaven" received more muted reactions due to its underdeveloped storylines and character relationships. However, Scott's vision had been tampered with. 20th Century Fox forced him to cut 45 minutes from the film. Scott's longer director's cut, released later in 2005, rectified these issues and solidified "Kingdom of Heaven" as one of his most essential films.

Set during the Crusades, "Kingdom of Heaven" follows the French blacksmith Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom), who grieves over his wife's suicide as he reunites with his father (Liam Neeson). Although initially reluctant to embark on his father's quest to visit the Holy Land, Balian is forced to join him after he kills a town priest. Suffering another tragedy when his father dies on the journey, Balian arrives in Jerusalem and attempts to broker a peace agreement between the dying King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the sultan Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Balian falls in love with Baldwin's sister (Eva Green), but after the sickly king dies the peace is shattered, leaving Balian to front the city's defense.

While the performances aren't properly fleshed out in the theatrical version, Scott's director's cut features Bloom's greatest performance to date; he's constantly pulled in different directions thanks to his simultaneous, conflicting commitments.

Paths of Glory

Stanley Kubrick's World War I drama isn't only one of the greatest war films of all time, but one of the best courtroom dramas, too. "Paths of Glory" questions the sanctity of nobility through a story about men who questioned their orders.

French Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) leads a battalion in an attack on the German stronghold "Anthill," and is ordered by Brigadier General Paul Mireau (George Mcready) to launch an ambitious assault. Dax is skeptical of the assignment, as it poses little strategic value and would only result in a massacre of his troops. During the battle, Dax's men are overwhelmed and retreat. The vengeful Mireau sees this as an obstacle to his ascent within the French Army, and decides to court-martial Dax's troops.

Douglas delivers a gripping performance as he argues for his men's bravery, questioning Mireau's ego and the chain of command. It's not subtle about its anti-war perspective, either — even after all they've endured, Dax's men are forced to return to the front.

Cold Mountain

Both a gripping survival epic and an old-fashioned period romance, Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain" explores the lengths people will go in order to hold on to love during wartime. William Inman (Jude Law) lives in a small North Carolina community and becomes smitten with the local preacher's daughter, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). Although he has little personal interest in the Civil War, North Carolina's secession from the Union forces Inman to enlist. Deserting the army when his forces are massacred, William begins a long quest to return home.

Law and Kidman's chemistry early in the film makes their separation crushing, but "Cold Mountain" also features a memorable supporting cast. Renee Zellweger won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ruby Thewis, Ada's quirky neighbor who cares for her after her father dies. Ruby has an engaging story arc as she struggles to forgive her father Stobrod (Brendan Gleason), who served in the war with William and seeks to reenter his daughter's life.

The Hurt Locker

"The Hurt Locker" is one of Kathryn Bigelow's best films, tackling the complex theme of soldiers' obsessions with near-death experiences. The film follows Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a bomb diffuser for the U.S. Army who is dispatched to Iraq. James' squad is skeptical of him, feeling that he takes unnecessary risks and intentionally puts himself in harm's way. James clashes with Sergeant J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) as they search for their superior officer's killer.

When he returns home between tours, James is unable to adjust to an average life. Renner does an incredible job showing how war is a drug for James, as despite his occasionally playful attitude he's unable to find others who can relate to his experience. The prolonged sequences of James defusing bombs are meticulously staged and anxiety-inducing. "The Hurt Locker" took home six Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Bigelow also became the first female filmmaker to win Best Director.

Braveheart

Mel Gibson's gripping war film is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics, even as it brings the story of Scottish revolutionary William Wallace to the screen for the first time. In addition to directing, Gibson takes the lead role, a Scottish peasant who witnesses the brutal execution of Scottish nobles by the British Army at a young age. Wallace is content to stay out of the conflict, but after a pair of British soldiers murder his secret bride Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack) he frees his town from the oppressive rulers.

Wallace amasses a following among the Scottish lords who join his movement, including Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen). The cruel King Edward "Longshanks" (Patrick McGoohan) hunts him down, but Wallace develops a surprisingly intimate relationship with the French Princess Isabella (Sophia Merceau). Gibson's massive action sequences are brutal and show the overwhelming odds the Scottish rebels faced; the religious imagery used to depict Wallace's final sacrifice makes the conclusion even more emotional.

Black Hawk Down

Ridley Scott's depiction of the 1993 American military operation in Mogadishu is one of the most violent war films ever made, but the brutality is justified — this is a story that avoids sentiment. Rather than clouding the story with politics, Scott takes the time to flesh out each of his characters' perspectives and shows how their opinions change throughout their mission to bring humanitarian supplies to Somalia, during which they're unexpectedly caught behind enemy lines.

Scott delicately balances his ensemble, which includes many of the most prominent young actors of the early 21st century. Josh Hartnett gives the best performance of his career as staff sergeant Matt Eversmann, who is forced to step into a leadership role after his commanding lieutenant is killed. Eversmann scolds his men for mocking the African natives and shows empathy for their plight. The film also features one of Hans Zimmer's most unique scores, as he incorporated traditional African musicians and instruments with his signature sweeping compositions.