A soldier holding a rifle

A soldier holding a rifle (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels)

When you think of war movies, your brain may scan ones you’ve loved from decades ago until now. Filmmakers have explored the devastating impacts of combat since the earliest days of cinema. Some portray epic heroes and battles, others hallucinated oddness. Either way, there have been many with a variety on our list of best war movies of all time.

In the realm of cinema, war has often served as a gripping backdrop for tales of heroism, sacrifice, and the complex human condition. From the grandiose battlefields of World War II to the gritty trenches of Vietnam, war movies have captivated audiences with their ability to transport us into the heart of conflict. Let us embark on a cinematic journey to unearth the absolute best war movies ever made. Prepare to be immersed in a world where courage clashes with fear, where camaraderie is forged amidst chaos, and where the true cost of war is laid bare on the silver screen.

From timeless classics to modern masterpieces, our exploration encompasses a diverse range of films that have left an indelible mark on the genre. We delve into the works of visionary directors who have skillfully captured the intensity, emotional depth, and moral dilemmas inherent in warfare. Whether it’s the heart-wrenching realism of “Saving Private Ryan,” the poetic beauty of “Apocalypse Now,” or the thought-provoking commentary of “Full Metal Jacket,” each movie on our list has carved its place in the annals of cinematic excellence.

So, grab your popcorn and get ready to embark on an unforgettable cinematic odyssey through the best war movies ever made. StudyFinds visited ten fan websites to find the most legendary titles out there.  If there is a movie that you insist should be on the list, please leave it in the comments below!

Fighter jets
Fighter jets (Photo by UX Gun on Unsplash)

 The List: Best War Movies, According to Film Experts

 

1. “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

George Lucas was open to direct “Apocalypse Now”, but it was Francis Ford Coppola who finally set out to make what was intended to be the ultimate statement about the madness of war. “It was John Milius who first came up with the idea of transposing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to a Vietnam War setting. Milius wrote the first drafts of the screenplay; former war correspondent Michael Herr later added narration. It turned out to be equally about the madness of movie-making. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) hitches a lift on a Navy patrol boat up the Mekong river to Cambodia on a mission to terminate ‘with extreme prejudice’ a certain Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who is reported to have gone native in rather a bad way. But it’s a long journey, and before he confronts the renegade colonel, Willard must first face all manner of trippy imagery, including the American Air Cavalry strafing a Vietnamese village to the sound of amplified Wagner, Robert Duvall declaring that he loves ‘the smell of napalm in the morning’, a riot triggered by frigging bunny-girls, a Californian surfer on LSD and Dennis Hopper as a madly babbling photojournalist,” says The Guardian.

Apocalypse Now Final Cut
“Apocalypse Now” Final Cut

Reviews were mixed, possibly due to its hallucinatory madness, but within a year or so it had established itself as a modern classic. “There’s nothing remotely normal about the film’s take on war; this isn’t a typical tale of us versus them. Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard is sent on a kill mission. It’s up to him to take out the seriously unhinged Colonel Kurtz who’s gone off the deep end. Watching Willard himself try and keep it together amidst Wagnerian helicopter attacks, tigers, Playboy bunnies, and Dennis Hopper’s mental photographer is a pure cinematic delight. It begs the question; who’s really losing their mind here? Sheen or the absolutely mad-as-a-hatter Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando? The casualties of war shown here are the minds of men,” shares Games Radar.

Hollywood had largely steered clear of the war in Vietnam while it was being fought. After the war, directors started making movies based on the war while trying to figure out what the war meant to them personally and to the country. “Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is a surprising stand-out. Surprising, because it is a pretty weird and trippy movie. It’s not based on any historical battles. Instead, Coppola took Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness and set it in Vietnam. It is an epic screed against the futility and absurdity of war,” informs Art of Manliness.

2. Saving Private Ryan” (1998)

Whether it’s an action-packed adventure movie or a gripping historical epic, I think we can agree, 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,” informs Slash Films.

"Saving Private Ryan"
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998)

“Saving Private Ryan” asks complex questions about the value of individual lives in a war that takes thousands. “They were called ‘The Greatest Generation’ for a reason and Steven Spielberg’s seminal war flick shows us what it was in awe-inspiring and occasionally slightly awestruck fashion. Reams have been written about its game-changing opening battle scene on Omaha beach, and it remains terrifying to sit through, but the quieter middle section does the heavy lifting: establishing its weary squad of men as disparate, believable characters and unwilling heroes, there to do a job and go home. It pays off in the climactic defense of Ramelle – the Alamo with Nazis – as the characters come into sharp relief in their individual life-or-death struggles,” says Time Out.

The 27-minute landing sequence that opens “Saving Private Ryan” cost $11 million to shoot, with bullets banging, blood splattering, and explosions so loud they’re disorienting. Parade tells us more, “Tom Hanks leads the cast of director Steven Spielberg’s sprawling, star-packed WWII drama, which stages a smaller story—the search to find and safely evacuate a single solder, Private Ryan (Matt Damon)—atop a much larger one, the epic 1944 assault by Allied troops on France’s Omaha Beach.” 

3. Paths of Glory” (1957)

Paths of Glory is one of the darkest anti-war films ever made, mostly because of its vision. “The place is the western front of the first world war, in a section manned by the French army. An attack is decreed by General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and passed on to General Mireau (George Macready) to execute. Everyone knows the attack is doomed because infantry advancing over open ground torn apart by artillery barrages will be cut down by the machine guns in the secure German lines. But when the plan fails, Broulard determines that there must be scapegoats – alleged cowards or malingerers – who betrayed the national purpose. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who led the attack, is charged with picking three victims who will be subject to court martial and firing squad,” informs The Guardian.

Paths of Glory (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
“Paths of Glory” (1957)
The Humphrey Cobb novel on which “Paths Of Glory” is based was published in 1935. At that time, Sidney Howard made a play out of it, but the play flopped. Time Out shares why they are a huge fan, “The top of the top – our No. 1 pick – is the ultimate statement on man’s inhumanity to man. Is it any surprise that it comes from Stanley Kubrick? So much of the director’s filmography was devoted to depicting military folly (and believe us, we toyed with including Barry Lyndon, too). Elevating Paths of Glory above the fray – and every other title – was not its brutal scenes of WWI trench warfare but its scalpel-scarp indictment of the pride that comes with battle.”

Many describe “Paths of Glory” as a patient and solemn look at military structures, hierarchy, and morality in wartime. Movie Web calls the movie, “early remnants of Stanley Kubrick’s formalist, unemotional, and rigid filmmaking genius are on full display in his 1957 classic, Paths of Glory. Setting itself far apart from other American war films.”

4. “Patton” (1970)

Fans say that even if the movie “Patton” had nothing else going for it, the film would likely still succeed thanks to the legendary performance of George C. Scott. “But it’s not all that makes Patton great. Director Franklin J. Schaffner uses Scott’s performance as a linchpin, framing the war narrative through Patton’s bombastic eyes and tireless spirit. The result is a war film unlike any other, one driven by a single unstoppable personality,” says Mental Floss.

Patton Blue-Ray
“Patton” (1970)

 George C. Scott’s five-star performance as WWII General George Patton, who commanded the U.S. Army in the Mediterranean won an Oscar for his role. The movie swept six others. “Patton won Best Picture and Best Director (for Franklin J. Schaffner, who had also directed Planet of the Apes, and would go on to The Boys From Brazil and Papillon). But Scott refused his trophy; he informed the Academy ahead of time that if he happened to win, he would turn it down because he believed that no acting performance should be judged against any other. The opening scene—with Patton addressing his troops in front of a massive American flag backdrop that fills the screen—became a pop-cultural icon,” says Parade.

“Patton” should have a spot on this list from its opening sequence alone where the legendary general, gives a no-holds-barred motivational speech to the troops in front of a gigantic American flag. “This biographical film about General George S. Patton is a favorite among war movie buffs… deservedly so. It went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director,” shares Esquire.

5. “The Thin Red Line” (1998)

The 1962 James Jones novel on which “The Thin Red Line” is based, is a story about the Guadalcanal campaign, fought in the Solomon Islands in 1942. “While The Thin Red Line holds a deserved place in the annals of war movies it is rather more a war dreamed of by Terrence Malick than the one actually fought for in reality. For Jones, the ‘thin red line’ came from Kipling and stood for the infantry, but it was also the line that separated the sane from the mad. The author of From Here to Eternity, Jones had actually served at Guadalcanal, but in the preface to his novel, he admits he had created a place of the imagination. In truth, that is the key to Malick’s film which, filmed in Queensland and the Solomon Islands, is as interested in the flora and fauna of the Pacific as it is in the outcome of the combat. So we see American soldiers trying to take a hill, but we see more of the long grass in the wind than we do of the enemy. Beneath it all – the shooting and the talk – there is a sense of the island having been there long before and long after the battle,” states The Guardian.

"The Thin Red Line" (1998)
“The Thin Red Line” (1998)

The standout performance comes from Nick Nolte who plays a ranting colonel whose authority has been questioned. “After being absent from the filmmaking circuit for 20 years, Terrence Malick returned with The Thin Red Line. A lingering, slow-drawl of a war film that shows how mankind’s desire to fight one another devastates nature. Cut down from a much longer version, the finished movie surprised a lot of the cast – who learned in the theatre that their roles were bigger/smaller than expected. It’s the thin red line of the title, which is, according to Malick, what separates the sane from the mad, that’s best brought to life over and over in the performances of its soldiers. In particular? Nick Nolte’s unhinged Colonel; possibly his best-ever role,” shares Games Radar.

Unlike the movie “From Here to Eternity”, which starred Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed, there are no women as characters in “The Thin Red Line”, not even as dream figures in the minds of the soldiers. Slash Films tells us more, “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.”

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About Janelle Davis

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55 Comments

  1. Ralph Wallace says:

    Someone is not doing a very good job!
    Where’s John Wayne’s Green Berets?

    1. Vincent says:

      Good point!

    2. Joe says:

      Love the sarcasm.

      1. Andrew says:

        What kind of list is this? This is someone who is trying to appear deep by picking dystopian directors instead of great movies.

      2. Deep Grunt says:

        Exactly. Says it was done by fans, but I don’t know anybody that rewatched the Thin Red Line. Even Apocalypse Now stretches into the idea that combat is always accompanied by madness.

    3. Thomas Petty says:

      What !!!? Where is “The Longest Day” ?
      And these: Tora Tora Tora….Platoon..
      Kelly’s Heroes…Inglorious Bastards…
      Fury…The Green Berets…Bridge Over
      the River Kwai..Etc. ??????????????

    4. Gordon Smith says:

      The Cruel Sea and The Yangtse Incident should be two classic combat (war) movies that should appear in such lists, but seem to have slipped under the radar

  2. Ron Anderson says:

    5 best “combat” films of all time? Apocalypse Now, Paths of Glory, and even Patton hardly qualify as pure combat films. Call them war movies, but not combat films. If you want a display of upfront and personal combat films, any of these qualify in the Top 5:
    Platoon
    Blackhawk Down
    Lone Survivor
    Hamburger Hill
    Tears of the Sun
    The Outpost
    Pork Chop Hill
    The Bridge At Remagen
    13 Hours

    1. Alfred says:

      This is a better list!

      1. Tony Schrim says:

        Apocalypse Now is a pathetic movie for such a short list. Disjointed hyperbole. Completely lacking in an statement about war in general or Vietnam in particular. A show off vehicle for a very operated Brando.
        Patton is an equally bad choice. While the person of Patton is eminently more interesting than Brando’s renegade officer and Scott does a much better job with Patton than Brando does with his character,
        Patton hardly qualifies as the best of the best especially given such a short list. Thin Red line is an equally pathetic choice. The people who made this film took great source material and a great cast and turned it all into pathetic drivel.There are so may bad things you van say about this movie but time and space don’t permit.
        Saving Private Ryan on the other hand deserves a space on this list and not just for gritty realism and shocking special effects. One of the reason this movie is such a gem is that it captures the flavor of the time and place it depicts and that is a rate and difficult thing to accomplish
        This movies feels like it was made during World War Two. But even more importantly, it asks and answers morally complex small questions about war in general and this war in particular. This complex moral reflection is noticeably absent in Apocalypse Now, Patton, and Thin Red Line.
        And finally, the gem of the lot: Paths of Glory is everything a war movie needs to be. It is faithful to the essence of it source material which is prescient. One can read or watch Paths of Glory and see the societal rot that spelled quick doom for French in World War Two. So two out of five. And not even an honorable mention for All Quiet on the Western Front-all three versions are better than the clunkers you put on this list

    2. John Pablo says:

      Let’s not forget “The Longest Day”

    3. Joe says:

      Let’s not forget We We’re Soldiers. An epic war movie.

    4. M says:

      The Dirty Dozen.

  3. Golder M sanford says:

    Add my way about 2 japanese soldiers and danger close

  4. Andrew Elia says:

    “there are no women as characters in “The Thin Red Line”, not even as dream figures in the minds of the soldiers.”

    Actually, yes there was. Ben Chaplin’s character(Pvt. Bell) reflected on his marriage and eventually his wife’s infidelity while he was away at war in the movie. Did you even watch this film before ranking it?

  5. Alfred says:

    Blackhawk Down should be on this list!!

    1. Thomas Petty says:

      P.s……Thanks Kamchak for reminding me. Yes, ZULU, A HEART STOPPING BATTLE.

  6. Kamchak says:

    The first four picks r good but the thin red line is not a very good movie IMO. The longest day would have been a better choice. Two classics I’ve always thought were underrated r Zulu and Sink the Bismark

  7. Joseph Violette says:

    Full Metal Jacket?

  8. Joel says:

    Obviously the list isn’t from fans. These are the usual films that so-called movie critics love to spout.
    I agree with Ron with the addition of Midway, 1917, Zulu and Hacksaw Ridge as options on the list.
    My personal favorite are:
    Black Hawk Down
    13 Hours
    Midway
    1917
    Tears of the Sun

  9. Ian Warrington says:

    Obviously non Hollywood/European films don’t count

    1. Sebastian says:

      So biased towards hollywood

  10. Wilfredo Dominguez says:

    Tears of the Sun, for me, it deserves to be on top 3 list

    1. Keith says:

      Awesome Pick!!

  11. Glen says:

    Glory-A true story of the American Civil War.

  12. Coldsteel says:

    Add
    Unknown Soldier
    Cross of Iron

  13. Coldsteel says:

    Add Unknown Soldier and Cross of Iron.

  14. CONELRAD says:

    Any “Best War Movies” list with The Thin Red Line on it can be summarily dismissed.

    1. Andrew says:

      Whole heartedly agreed.

  15. David Emme says:

    Not saying it is the best one but think it should make the top five. Siege At Firebase Gloria.

  16. John Willard says:

    TORA TORA TORA!!

  17. Kenneth Bowman says:

    Band of Brothers real story of EZ Company 101AB

  18. Phil says:

    I agree with Joe We Were Soldiers Once Young one of the best combat films made.

  19. Roy pegram says:

    Patton, paths of glory….maybe, but other three,no

  20. Denis Kelly says:

    How about They Came to Cordura starring Gary Cooper.
    Novel by Glendon Swarthout

    1. Thomas Petty says:

      You gotta be on meth. They Came To Cordura?my mother took me to see that movie , musta been 65 years ago.