The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once opined, “War is the father of us all.”
It’s certainly the father of so many of humanity’s most indelible legends, tales, and stories. In ancient times, Greeks memorized and recited theIliad, while Hindus did likewise with the Bhagavad GitaWith the rise of books, young men read legends of gallant knights and warriors, and recountings of the great battles of history. In the early 20th century, war stories shifted to film and have become a go-to cinematic theme ever since.
The enduring pervasiveness of war-themed narratives is no surprise. War has everything you need for a compelling story: action, high stakes, conflict, suspense, uncertainty, and tension. There’s good and evil; heroism and villainy; moral triumphs and ethical failures. The chaotic nature of war allows a storyteller to explore human nature in profound and nuanced ways. War tests people, bringing out the best and worst in them. It’s ennobling and debasing; romantic and banal; meaningful and hollow. War is the most human of activities.
For the last century, filmmakers have made hundreds and hundreds of war-themed movies, with each capturing the above qualities more or less deftly, with greater or lesser artistic ability.
One can easily compile a list of 50+ great war movies, entries that are worthy of viewing and decently good. But most people aren’t going to watch dozens and dozens of such flicks. So what war movies really constitute the best of the best? Below, we’ve distilled down the candidates to what is the true, must-watch cream of the crop.
Such lists are, of course, always subject to vigorous debate, but, if you don’t like ours, you can blow it out your barracks bag, fill out a T.S. slip, and send it to your mom.
What Makes a War Movie, a War Movie?
Before we get into the list, let’s take a moment for definitions.
Here are three criteria we used for classifying a movie as a “war movie” for the purposes of this list:
A story primarily connected to battle in some way. For a war movie to be a war movie, its plot needed to be centrally connected to the military man’s experience on the battlefield. There are movies that have war as a backdrop (CasablancaFrom Here to EternitySchindler’s List), and movies about soldiers returning home from war (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter,Coming Home), and while these settings and themes are worthy of exploration, since they’re not directly about the “fight” of war, they weren’t considered for this list.
Fictionalized accounts of real events. There are stories of completely imaginary wars (Starship Troopers), and straight-up documentaries of actual events (RestrepoThey Shall Not Grow Old), but movies included in this list are solely of the fictionalized-versions-of-things-that-did-historically-happen variety.
Single movie. Who doesn’t love the Band of Brothers miniseries? But for this list, only feature-length movies were included.
So to be classified as a “war movie” for consideration for inclusion, a film had to be based in/around combat zones, a fictionalized history, and a single film.
The 10 Best War Movies of All-Time
Saving Private Ryan
From the jump, Saving Private Ryan immerses the viewer in the tension and horrors of the Allied invasion of Europe. Tom Hanks plays an Army captain who leads a small squad that is tasked with finding and sending home a soldier who’s lost all three of his brothers in the war. While the movie’s battle scenes are compelling, the story, and the underlying question it poses, is even more so: Why risk the lives of several men just to save one?
The end scene will leave you crying like a baby, with a newfound respect for the brave men who sacrificed everything for our freedoms.
The Great Escape