The war genre has been prevalent throughout film history, dating back to the silent era and remaining a popular and relevant genre to this day. It speaks to the unfortunately universal nature of war that these stories continue to be told and resonate with viewers and critics alike, given war itself never seems to go away. War movies can cover contemporary conflicts, past wars that are still in living memory for some, and wars that were fought hundreds – or even thousands – of years ago.
Any attempt to rank the greatest war movies of all time naturally needs to cover multiple countries and highlight movies about numerous conflicts. There exist many perspectives on many different wars, and it’s safe to assume that for as long as wars are fought, movies that shed light on war’s horrors – while sometimes acknowledging the sacrifices individuals have made – remain relevant. Here are some of the genre’s all-timers, ranked below from great to greatest.
25 ‘Gallipoli’ (1981)
Directed by groundbreaking Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, Gallipoli is a crushingly sad World War I movie about idealistic young men signing up for a conflict they don’t understand. It centers on two runners who become friends, and enlist in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps together, expecting overseas combat to feel like an adventure.
Instead, it ends up as anything but, as they’re sent to the Gallipoli peninsula, where they find themselves at a distinct disadvantage against Turkish forces who were defending the area. It effectively shows how the young were able to be fooled and then exploited by the old, showing in painful, heartbreaking detail how war efficiently destroys young lives.
24 ‘Wings’ (1927)
Wings holds a great deal of historical significance, as it was the first movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards… sort of, because the first Academy Awards stands out for having awarded two trophies that were Best Picture equivalents (the other winner was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), which it never did again.
This war film centers on the then quite recent First World War (then called The Great War), with a story about two pilots who are both in love with the same woman. It effectively combines romance/melodrama with exciting action sequences, with the various dogfights still holding up and proving impressive to look at to this day.
23 ‘Dunkirk’ (2017)
Best-known for his Dark Knight trilogy and mind-bending action/thriller films, Dunkirk represented something of a change of pace for filmmaker Christopher Nolan. This 2017 movie retains the feel of a great thriller, to some extent, but is undeniably a war movie, albeit one with a unique structure and style.
It tells the story of how Allied forces were successfully evacuated from the harbor of Dunkirk early in World War II, doing so from multiple perspectives that allow viewers to feel the enormity of the historical event. Additionally, different perspectives play out at different speeds, covering slightly different periods of time, which does give the film a distinctly “Nolan” feel, given his love of bending time and space within his films.
22 ‘Glory’ (1989)
Out of all the movies that cover the American Civil War, Glory is arguably the most famous, and possibly the best. It centers on an all-Black volunteer company fighting for the North, adding an extra level of emotion to the story about such a conflict, seeing as slavery of Black people in America was a key issue as to why the war was fought in the first place.
The film can be criticized to a degree for having a white protagonist centering the overall story, with such an approach being less likely if Glory – or something like it –was made today. It does at least remain compelling and easy to get invested in, and serves as a great showcase for Black actors, especially Denzel Washington, who won his first Oscar for his role in the film.
21 ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2008)
While The Hurt Locker premiered in 2008, it didn’t get a wide release until 2009, and ended up winning Best Picture at the Oscars for that year. It’s set during the Iraq War, and centers on a group of people in a bomb squad unit, following their intensely dangerous role that sees them defusing explosives.
It manages to be an extreme nail-biter of a movie, and one that feels genuine, authentic, and unpredictable, like a bomb could (quite literally) go off at any moment. It also presents the troubling idea of combat being an adrenaline rush for certain personality types, and war attracting said people, even though at the end of the day, it’s an objectively terrifying and deadly experience.
20 ‘Napoleon’ (1927)
There are plenty of movies about Napoleon Bonaparte, though none can claim to be as epic in scope as 1927’s Napoleon. This film runs for a staggering five-and-a-half hours, and despite such a length, only covers a small portion of Napoleon’s overall eventful life, as this was originally planned to be one entry in a six-film series.
Director Abel Gance was never able to realize this full project, but his 1927 film still stands as a monumental achievement, and ultimately the Napoleon Bonaparte movie that others exist in the shadows of. For those who don’t mind their war movies long, dense, and without spoken dialogue, this classic of the silent era is a must-watch.
19 ‘Patton’ (1970)
George C. Scott alone makes Patton worth watching. His lead performance as the title character, General George S. Patton, is one of the greatest of the 1970s, with Scott commanding the screen and chewing all the scenery in sight, with such an approach necessary for a person who was, by many accounts, larger than life.
The rest of the film is still solid, of course, with its almost three-hour runtime being used to show the various campaigns and battles the titular character was involved in throughout the Second World War. It’s a somewhat exhausting but comprehensive and well-made film, and for those who like a good old-fashioned war epic, Patton’s easy to recommend.
18 ‘The Steel Helmet’ (1951)
The Korean War is sometimes known as The Forgotten War, and that extends to it not having nearly as many movies made about it as other wars (the long-running TV show, M*A*S*H, is probably the most well-known piece of media about it). It was fought in the early 1950s, and as far as the history books are concerned, it tends to be overshadowed by the preceding Second World War and the subsequent Vietnam War.
This makes The Steel Helmet an essential war movie, as it is set during the Korean War, and gives a valuable insight into a conflict many aren’t too knowledgeable about. It shows a desperate (and casualty-heavy) battle being fought in and around a Buddhist temple during the war, and is surprisingly blunt and harrowing for a film of its age, not to mention radical for being made while the Korean War was still ongoing.
17 ‘The Ascent’ (1977)
The Ascent is certainly one of the most underrated war movies of all time, and up there as one of the best. It’s a stark, downbeat, and icily cold film, effectively making viewers feel the chill of its setting, all the while telling a bleak story about two Soviet soldiers going into German-occupied territory during World War II to try and find supplies.
It’s certainly not an epic war movie, instead choosing to focus on a very personal and small-scale story, but becoming all the more effective as a result. Those who like their war movies action-packed may find themselves restless while watching, but giving yourself over to a unique movie like this will prove rewarding, as it’s a greatly emotional and visually dazzling war movie like no other.
16 ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988)
Easily ranking as one of the greatest anime films of all time, Grave of the Fireflies is well-known for being crushingly sad and brutally effective as an anti-war movie. It centers on two children who become orphans towards the end of World War II, and find themselves alone and needing to fend for themselves in a soon-to-surrender Japan.
Watching such a story play out with adults would be harrowing enough, but seeing the cost of war on the lives of two children makes it even sadder and more disturbing. Grave of the Fireflies is about as far from feel-good as films can get, yet that’s exactly what such a film should aim to do, if it’s to be as effective as possible in highlighting the desolation and misery caused by warfare.
15 ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009)
In 2009, Quentin Tarantino branched out from his usual darkly comedic genre throwbacks – typically paying homage to old crime and action movies – to make a war film. The result was Inglourious Basterds, which follows various characters in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, all offering resistance to the German Army in their own unique ways.
As you’d expect from Tarantino, it’s bold, bloody, and gleefully unpredictable, and it distinguishes itself from many other war movies by ignoring historical accuracy in certain places and instead doing its own thing. It’s unlikely to convince non-believers to begin praying at the church of Tarantino, but those who like his style will inevitably find Inglourious Basterds impactful, tense, and – at times – darkly funny.
14 ‘Come and See’ (1985)
One of the most well-known Russian-language movies of all time, Come and See has a reputation for being one of the most brutal anti-war movies of all time. It follows a young boy named Florya who joins a group of resistance fighters to combat German forces during World War II, only to find himself plunged into a violent and soul-destroying conflict.
Much of Come and See feels like a nightmare put on film, and though it’s not technically the most graphic war film of all time, it might well be the most psychologically devastating. It’s a harsh and uncompromising film, and accurately displays the brutality of what remains the deadliest war in recorded history.
13 ‘Das Boot’ (1981)
Those who have claustrophobia should probably stay away from Das Boot, as it’s absolutely one of the most confined and intense war movies of all time. Much of the film takes place on a German submarine during the Second World War, and since most of the time, the sub’s underwater, characters and viewers alike get very few opportunities for the relief afforded by being outdoors and above sea level.
Those who feel up to it should certainly watch Das Boot, though, as it’s easily one of the best war movies of its decade. Few films are able to provide such a visceral experience, and while it shows the tense and deadly nature of combat while in a submarine, it’s similarly effective at conveying the tedium, boredom, and uncertainty that comes with fighting in a war and taking orders from unseen higher-ups.
12 ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)
The Thin Red Line might not be the most famous World War II movie released in 1998, but it’s arguably the best. It’s a philosophical and introspective war movie, following a large group of U.S. soldiers as they partake in the brutal battle of Guadalcanal, with very few shown to make it to the end credits of this nearly three-hour-long movie.
It’s a movie that frequently cycles between being beautiful and hellish, contrasting the look of the natural area being fought in with the ferocity and bloodshed of the fighting itself. It’s also notable for marking the long-awaited return of Terrence Malick to feature filmmaking, as before 1998, his most recent movie had been 1978’s Days of Heaven.
11 ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ (2006)
In 2006, Clint Eastwood made an ambitious duology: two movies that served to show the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II from two different perspectives. Flags of Our Fathers showed the American side of things, including what happened after the battle was won, while Letters from Iwo Jima focuses on the Japanese Army.
Of the pair, Letters from Iwo Jima is the better film overall, featuring an even more harrowing story while also providing understanding and a degree of empathy toward the Japanese forces that most American-made WWII movies don’t offer. It’s an intense and hard-to-watch film about slowly coming to grips with a battle that one’s army is losing, but emerges as a powerful war movie because of its visceral and uncompromising nature.
10 ‘Platoon’ (1986)
Platoon won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1986, and deservedly so, as it truly was one of the best pictures of that year. Its protagonist (played by Charlie Sheen, somewhat surprisingly) is a young soldier who slowly becomes disillusioned by war while fighting in Vietnam, seeing all his fellow soldiers – and friends – slowly die in combat one by one.
As expected from an Oliver Stone movie, it’s very in-your-face and unwilling to be subtle, but that kind of blunt and aggressive depiction of war ultimately proves effective. Platoon’s disturbing and efficient in showing the terrors of war, using its genuinely hard-to-watch combat scenes to drive home just how physically destructive war can be on (predominantly young) human bodies.
9 ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)
A classic World War II epic that proved to be yet another war movie that won a Best Picture Oscar, The Bridge on the River Kwai remains exciting and powerful more than 60 years on from release. It follows prisoners of war as they construct a bridge for their Japanese captors, all the while intelligence officers work on a plan to destroy the bridge.
It’s a pretty blunt depiction of the uselessness, futility, and unnecessary destruction of war, but it’s super effective, and has the sort of climax that sticks with you long after watching the film. It’s one of those older movies that more than lives up to its reputation, and its lengthy runtime of 161 minutes ends up flying by surprisingly fast.
8 ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957)
The first great movie directed by Stanley Kubrick (he was only 29 when it was released), Paths of Glory also has the distinction of being one of the best World War I movies of all time. It follows a trial where three men are tried as scapegoats for an entire unit’s perceived failure during a trench offensive in 1916.
It’s remarkably confident in its presentation, considering Kubrick’s age, and opens with a harrowing battle sequence that sets the stage for the tense – and ultimately tragic – trial that follows. It’s a harsh condemnation of war and the higher-ups who send young men to die while being able to conveniently hide off the battlefield, not putting themselves in direct danger in the process.
7 ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940)
Charlie Chaplin was an actor/filmmaker who held out on making non-silent films for longer than most, given his two most famous movies of the 1930s – City Lights and Modern Times – were essentially dialogue-free (and remember, the first talkies came out in 1927). The Great Dictator is therefore significant within his filmography as his first true non-silent movie, as well as for being a darker and more dramatic movie than the sorts he’d made before.
While it’s certainly a dramedy and can be very funny at times, the story is overall more serious, as the film aims to satirize Adolf Hitler, who’d built up power throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, taking control of Germany in 1933 and gearing up to commence what would become World War II in the mid to late 1930s. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin doesn’t technically play Hitler, but Dictator Adenoid Hynkel is a clear stand-in. Chaplin ridicules the infamous real-life dictator, but also warns of his dangerous rhetoric and desire for power in more serious ways, too, with The Great Dictator becoming an even darker film when watched post-WWII, with the knowledge of what Hitler himself managed to achieve throughout the 1940s before Germany’s defeat in 1945.
Made exactly 30 years after Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket was Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film, and yet another successful war movie from the great director. Here, Kubrick tackles the Vietnam War instead of the First World War, splitting the film into two halves: one that shows soldiers in boot camp, and the other showing them in Vietnam, facing combat.
It’s remarkable how both halves are equally tense and nightmarish for different reasons, with the terrors of war displayed so viscerally that Full Metal Jacket sometimes feels like a genuine horror movie. Some have felt the two halves are disconnected, but both are instrumental to telling a story of how war dehumanizes and traumatizes, with it being particularly effective in showing that these things can begin at home – during training – and not necessarily only while overseas.