War brings with it many things — pain, anger, anguish, and separation being some of those. While wars are usually associated with winners, but when you think about the net gain, it’s always a loss. Everyone had a story to tell from the world wars but not necessarily every story had war in it. Sometimes it was a love story dying within the war and sometimes it was the painful letter of a soldier, who was unable to send the letter home. Going back to the history to curate a list of the greatest stories ever told during the times of war opened a few scars for us, but it was those stories that emphatically celebrated the feeling that made us what we actually are: humans. With all that said, here is the list of top war movies ever made.
25. Jarhead (2005)
Directed by Sam Mendes, ‘Jarhead’ is based on Anthony Swofford’s eponymous memoir. The film depicts a U.S Army Sniper’s struggle during Gulf War. His obsession to get his first kill causes him a greater amount of psychological damage and eventually, he becomes a victim of boredom and depression. The movie does not contain much graphic images or on-screen combat scenes as it focuses more on the psychological stress a soldier faces during a war.
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24. Dunkirk (2017)
Christopher Nolan‘s staggering cinematic vision led to the creation of one of the finest survival movies of all time, and arguably one of the best war movies of the century, ‘Dunkirk’. The film chronicles the evacuation of the allied soldiers from the town of Dunkirk. It follows a non-linear narrative structure wherein the whole evacuation process is portrayed from three perspectives: land, sea and air. The film is noted for its minimal use of dialogues. Nolan is more objective here in his depiction of the entire event, as he refrains from providing backstories to his characters and trying to evoke sympathy. It’s an incredibly unique cinematic experience.
23. Casualties of War (1989)
One of the most underrated war movies of all time, Brian De Palma‘s ‘Casualties of War’ is a film that must be seen for its raw emotional intensity and deeply affecting performances. The film revolves around a young soldier who fiercely opposes his squad leader when he orders to kidnap an innocent Vietnamese girl. It has an extremely well-written script and an amazing cast that drive the story forward in a way that keeps the viewers engaged throughout. There are several shocking moments in the film that haunt you for a very long time. Also, do not miss out on Sean Penn’s wicked performance as Sgt. Tony Meserve.
22. Atonement (2007)
It is essentially not a war movie but is the story of human repentance set during the WWII. A young girl sees her sister and their housekeeper’s son engaged in a flirtatious moment of intimacy and in jealousy, sets in motion a series of events that ultimately spells doom for the young lovers. Years later, the war represents the tumultuous situation of the mind for the young couple. The sister is now a nurse and her lover gets enlisted as a soldier. At a time when humanity failed to keep its sanity, they keep longing to meet each other. Eventually they meet, well, in real or fiction, that remains the question.
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21. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
A fictional take on an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life blended with Quentin Tarantino‘s quirkiness and immortalized by the performance of Christoph Waltz – that’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ for you. Told in a linear pattern but interlaced with smaller events with perspective to the bigger story that leads to Hitler’s assassination, this is a truly epic tale. From Col. Hans Landa to Shoshana to Fredrick Zoller to First Lt. Aldo Raine, each character is etched so well that you get to know a lot about them. Christoph Waltz won the Academy Award and the BAFTA in the supporting actor segment and the best actor in Cannes for his portrayal of the much hated Col. Hans Landa.
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20. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Steven Spielberg’s third on this list is about the loss of innocence of a kid, during the times of war. A young Jamie gets separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion, and gets caught to join a POW camp. Through sheer hardship, scams and sometimes with pure luck, he manages to exist in the big bad world. Eventually, when he gets the chance to escape, he cannot remember what his parents look like! The movie hits its zenith with the climatic scene of atomic bombing at Nagasaki, which stays with the viewer for a long time. Released to a mixed reaction initially, over the years, this movie has achieved a cult status.
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19. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Based on an autobiographical novel penned by Ron Kovic and directed by Oliver Stone, who is a Vietnam veteran himself, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ deals with the after effects of war. Here, Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), volunteers for the War in Vietnam. He ends up doing horrible things, like taking part in the massacre of a village full of unarmed Vietnamese civilians as well as accidentally killing one of his fellow comrades. After being critically wounded in a firefight, Kovic becomes paralyzed and falls victim to PTSD. The title itself is an irony as 4th of July is the independence day of America and on the same day, a soldier was born only to become a disillusioned individual. Here, Kovic’s journey is an example of naive patriotism and the results of it.
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18. The Hurt Locker (2008)
This one is a brilliant portrayal of combat soldiers who disarm bombs, walk the fine line between perils of being in a warfare and need to observe the protocol. ‘The Hurt Locker’ will shake you – not for the cause and consequences of war, but bring you closer to moment-to-moment experiences of soldiers. The movie, set in 2004, in the streets of Baghdad and deserts beyond, shows the struggles, stress and preoccupation that soldiers face while trying to survive. The film is structured extremely well, and it’s an incredibly compelling, complex portrait of the psychology of the soldiers and the moral complications of war.
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17. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
There are no winners in a war, though the only loser is humanity. This is what Clint Eastwood tells through this incredible story. Towards the fag end of the WWII, looking at the impending loss in the hands of the US army, the remaining Imperial Japanese army readies for its final onslaught. The film was well appreciated by critics for its brilliant portrayal of the agony and frustration of the soldiers from both the sides.
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16. Downfall (2004)
Arguably one of the greatest films of the century, ‘Downfall’ chronicles the Battle of Berlin during World War II and focuses on the last days of Adolf Hitler. Bruno Ganz, in one of the most iconic performances in cinema history, portrays Hitler with stunning compassion. It must have been incredibly difficult to empathize or even try and understand the mind of the ruthless dictator, but Ganz brilliantly manages to do so and his performance is, without a doubt, the highlight of the film. The movie has also been parodied several times on the Internet.
15. The Pianist (2002)
Roman Polanski‘s tale of a hurt and punished pianist during the Holocaust mirrors his own, as he is a survivor of the concentration camp. Holocaust brought out the ghastliness and the insufferable pain of the Jews in the concentration camps. ‘The Pianist’ tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist, and depicts his journey to hell and back during the holocaust. Adrien Brody won many accolades including the Academy Award for Best Actor for his titular role.
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14. Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick‘s most emotional cinematic venture is about a group of soldiers who refuse to undertake a lethal mission and is accused of cowardice by a general. The soldiers’ commanding officer then sets out to defend them in a court-martial. It’s sad that the film has gotten buried under several of Kubrick’s other movies, because this one is by far his most humane, touching work. The war scenes are brilliantly crafted and though aesthetically it may not match up to the level of Kubrick’s later works, it still is a very fine film for its time. It is, without a doubt, one of the best anti war movies of all time.
13. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino’s ‘The Deer Hunter’ is one of the earliest attempts by Hollywood to process the traumatic memories of the Vietnam war. It focuses on a trio of Russian-American Steelworkers who get drafted in Vietnam to fight a futile war after one of their friends’ wedding. Driven by inexperience, the trio face horrendous consequences and one of them becomes a victim of PTSD. Packed with visceral imageries, the movie is a detailed portrayal of the war that sacrificed the lives of young lively individuals. Featuring an ensemble cast including Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale and Meryl Streep, the movie is a tight slap to the people who encourage war. In between the beautifully depicted Pennsylvania, the mid section of the film is the horrific depiction of Vietnam, in which the trio witnesses genocide, torture and are forced to participate in the brutal game of Russian Roulette.
It’s a shame that ‘The Deer Hunter’ got overshadowed by several other Vietnam war classics at the time. The film isn’t an accurate depiction of the war and it may have gone overboard with that controversial Russian Roulette scene; but I think the film is much more than that. It’s a devastating look at the lives of ordinary, innocent men with dreams and ambitions, whose lives are torn apart in ways that could never have imagined. The film brilliantly portrays the effects war has had on these young men and how it would go on to haunt them for the rest of their lives. It’s a movie that deserves to be seen for its sincere approach and emotional intensity.
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12. Patton (1970)
A foul mouthed, brash, arrogant but battle hardened commander with success — this is the story of US General George S Patton. He was famous for his counterattacking and bold approaches during the war. George C Scott played the titular role, for which he famously refused the academy award for the best actor, making him the first of the two to do so, Marlon Brando being the other for ‘The Godfather’. ‘Patton’ is a biopic and makes a legend out of this American hero who once famously had said: ”No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
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11. The Thin Red Line (1998)
To say that Terrence Malick is a genius will be an understatement and an outright insult to his talent. He’s a visionary, leagues ahead of his contemporaries. ‘The Thin Red Line’ rather finely illustrates this. This movie depicts the battle of Mount Austen during the WWII against the Imperial Japanese. Upon its release, the critics were divided as some stated this as radically self indulgent and for some, it was pure brilliance. But on one thing everyone agreed – ‘Every man fights his own war’.
‘The Thin Red Line’ is easily one of the greatest war movies of all time. Some people might have issues with Malick’s approach here, but for me, it was an incredibly profound experience. Malick tries to delve deep into the psyche of these men who are shattered, broken human beings missing their wives, lovers and mothers, but are forced to suppress their emotions. Like most of Malick’s movies, this one is highly philosophical and replete with some of the most beautiful images you’ll ever seen.
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10. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg’s masterpiece and probably a manual on how to shoot war pieces as evidenced by the opening Normandy beach invasion sequence, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is THE war film you need to watch. A group’s journey to save that one remaining man from a family which already had lost three sons to the war is poignant as well as gritty. It tells you an eternal fact about life that no matter what you do, this life’s once, so you better do everything to earn it.
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9. Platoon (1986)
‘Platoon’ is loosely based on director Oliver Stone’s own experiences during the Vietnam War. The movie is not only a anti-war film but also a social commentary. The story is told from the perspective of a young idealist soldier named Chris Taylor, (Charlie Sheen), who volunteered for the war and is serving under the command of Sgt. Barnes, played by Tom Berenger. Sgt. Barnes and his followers are the true products of war. They do not flinch at torturing innocent civilians, raping young children and killing the old and the disabled. They were drafted because they are the unwanted and were not born with a silver spoon. The village assault scene in the movie is a reference to the infamous Mai Lai Massacre, where U.S Troops indiscriminately killed 300-400 unarmed civilians including men, women, children and infants.
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8. The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)
A classic in every sense, this is a satire on the unrighteousness of human nature using the construction of a bridge as a medium. A British officer, at the cost of his men, helps in building a bridge which will necessarily help the enemy Japanese army move forward but for him, it will serve as a proof of British ingenuity. The moment of despair arrives in the movie where he discovers his own army’s plan to sabotage the bridge by planting explosives. He moves to counter it, only to be thwarted by his men, as the bridge blows to pieces with ‘Madness.. Madness’ echoing all around.
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7. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Every event has two sides of the story to it. Man concocts a version of this truth according to his own philosophies and narrates his story to his subsequent generations. The truth becomes divided and so does history. So we cannot really blame the films for taking sides while narrating its story. In 1966 came a film on the Algerian Revolution against the French Colonialism, called ‘The Battle of Algiers’, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, and it set a benchmark on how history has to be told. Apart from being well directed and well filmed, the essence of this black and white masterpiece lay in its unique storytelling, never giving impetus to one part and never admitting the moral superiority of either one. It shows their reasons and flaws in the same note, telling history like it should be told. Notably, acclaimed Indian filmmaker Mira Nair once said this regarding the film: ”It’s the only film in the world that I wish I had directed.”
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6. The Great Escape (1963)
Based on a real life incident of a mass escape of British prisoners from a German camp, this is a classic tale of dare and adventure. Although the escape ends on a sad note, as almost all escapees except the character of Steve McQueen get caught and killed, it’s historically accurate to the events actually occurred. The way the escape has been plotted with the minute intricacies is a treat to watch. Probably the only movie on this list that has an element of fun added to it, ‘The Great Escape’ is one hell of a ride. Watch out for the scene where the entire German army is chasing after Steve McQueen on a motorcycle, who tries to jump a barbed wire fence.
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5. Das Boot (1981)
‘Das Boot’, translated to English as ‘The Boat’, is a story of a German Submarine and its occupiers, on a mission during WWII. More than the actual war, it’s the relationship of the occupiers that takes the centerstage here. Under the sea, within a claustrophobic environment, a group of seamen set out on a venture that goes from bad to worse. Essentially an anti-war movie, ‘Das Boot’ received much recognition for its acute portrayal of the anguish of the sailors on the submarine. It received six nominations at the Academy Awards, which was unprecedented for a foreign movie.
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4. Come and See (1985)
Elem Klimov’s unforgettable classic evokes painful memories of the most horrific crimes ever committed in human history. The film depicts the horrifying realities of war from the point of view of a young boy who has joined the Soviet resistance movement and sets out to fight the German forces. Unlike most World War II movies, ‘Come and See’ is far more objective in its exploration of the brutalities of war and the devastating effects it can have on an innocent soul. Though it is widely regarded as a classic, it’s a shame that the film still remains largely unexplored among cinephiles.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
The Holocaust will probably go down in the history as one of the most cruel decisions of one mad German. But there was another German, who saved over a thousand lives from their fate in the concentration camps and thus established the greatest story about humanity from man to man. Spielberg’s second film on this list is about the life of Oskar Schindler who wanted to take advantage of the ongoing war by appointing POWs in his factory but ended up saving their lives. Technically brilliant, it is highlighted by its black and white cinematography and that scene of the girl in red coat walking down the street.
‘Schindler’s List’, despite its massive critical and commercial success, is still debated by several film historians, directors, critics and cinephiles. Many people have issues with the film’s sentimental tone, and accuse Spielberg of emotional manipulation and simplifying the story to make it look more appealing to a larger audience. While most of the criticisms are valid, I believe ‘Schindler’s List’ is more about the man who saved the thousand lives than about the Holocaust. Like all Spielberg films, humanity is the major theme here, but there are also several violent scenes in the film that depict the brutality of the Nazi rule. One famous example is the controversial shower scene, which is still widely debated, discussed and analyzed by historians and critics.
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2. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Released in the year 1987, this Stanley Kubrick war drama is considered as a classic. Here, Kubrick shows what it takes to become a soldier and a cold ruthless killer. Within every man resides good and evil. Which quality prevails itself is determined by how one is raised and perceives the world. The film shows how soldiers are brainwashed with ideas of right or wrong. By injection of words of propaganda, a moral ambiguity is created within the soldier. Once this takes place, it is the job of the soldier to figure out what he is: a killing machine as he has been trained, or a peace bringer to a war-torn nation?
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1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
The hallucinatory adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, by Francis Ford Coppola, is considered not only as one of the best films of 20th Century but also one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. Martin Sheen portrays Capt. Captain Benjamin. L. Willard, a cynical and battle-hardened soldier, who is tasked to find and kill Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Colonel Kurtz has become a Demi-God for Montagnard troops and is fighting his own war. He is a perfect example of how the hunger for power can make someone go fully insane. During the journey of finding Kurtz, Willard encounters horrific accounts of human slaughter and destruction. The movie does not showcase the war on the battlefield as much as it depicts the war within the human soul.
‘Apocalypse Now’ is a shocking portrait of the darkness of the human soul. Willard’s journey is, in many ways, metaphorical. In a way he’s traveling deep into the darkest corners of his own soul, and when he finally confronts it, he is shocked and utterly devastated. He is unable to come to terms with his own identity. The war scenes are shot brilliantly and although it was made more than 40 years back, the film still comes off as shocking on a purely visual level. Brando is stunning as Colonel Kurtz and nearly steals the show in the final half an hour with a performance that manages to capture the essence of the whole story. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is undoubtedly one of the films that must watch before you die!
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