75 War Movies to See before You Die
75 War Movies to See Before You Die might be the title of this article, but many film fans are going to have very different ideas about what qualifies a work as a “war movie.” While some might define a war movie as one in which combat is actually shown, I’ve also extended the definition to include films which use war as the backdrop for their story. I’ve no doubt left out a few here and there, but be sure and check out our other list entitled “25 Military Movies to See Before You Die” prior to sending hate mail and snide comments.
Along with each entry, I’ve also included a link to a relevant site. Be sure to check these out, as you’ll encounter everything from movie review sites to blogs about military history. And the next time you’re looking for something to rent from Netflix , Redbox or Blockbuster, be sure to remember this humble little offering.
War Movies Inspired by Actual Events
1. Patton – George C. Scott got a Best Actor nod for his portrayal of the controversial Word War II General. The opening scene, with Patton addressing the troops in front of a massive American flag, is worth the price of admission alone.
2. Sergeant York – Gary Cooper stars in the story of Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier of World War I.
3. Rescue Dawn – Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a U.S. Navy pilot shot down and captured during the Vietnam War. After being imprisoned, he quickly begins plans for his escape along with his fellow captives. (Note: If you’d like to read how the movie unfairly depicts POW Gene DeBruin, check out this interesting article from Debbie Schlussel.)
4. 300 – The heroic Spartans refuse to yield to the mighty Persian army. What follows is plenty of bloodletting in slow motion, and a hunchback with a really nifty hat.
5. Mongol – This international film tells the story of how Genghis Khan developed into a feared warrior and skilled leader. The first part of a trilogy, the next film in the series (The Great Khan) will be released in 2010.
6. Braveheart – Mel Gibon portrays William Wallace, a Scottish warrior who opposed Edward I of England. The film won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
7. Midway – The Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific Campaign, and this film documents the events surrounding it. Starring Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston.
8. Zulu – Michael Caine appears in his first starring role as Lt. Gonville Bromhead, a British officer fighting Zulus in the Battle of Rorke’s Drift.
9. Valkyrie – Tom Cruise dons an eye patch to play Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a German officer involved in the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolph Hitler.
10. The Pianist – Roman Polanski directed this account of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish-Polish musician living in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Adrien Brody won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Szpilman.
Modern War Movies
11. The Hurt Locker – This modern war movie follows the daily struggles of an American bomb disposal unit stationed in Iraq. Jeremy Renner has drawn praise for his portrayal of a soldier who cheats death on a regular basis.
12. Black Hawk Down – When two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down over the streets of Mogadishu, it takes the combined efforts of U.S. Special Forces to try and get them out safely. If you like modern war movies with plenty of gunfire, then this is the film for you. Also features a great cast.
13. The Beast (1988) – A Russian tank crew navigates the inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan circa 1981.
14. Heartbreak Ridge – Clint Eastwood is great as Gunney Highway in this modern war movie about the invasion of Panama. Mario Van Peebles provides some comic relief as Stitch Jones, “The Ayatollah of Rock N’ Rolla.”
15. Jarhead – A young Marine sniper (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to make sense of war during Operation Desert Shield.
16. Three Kings – George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Spike Jonze and Ice Cube play U.S. soldiers trying to steal a cache of Saddam Hussein’s gold during the 1991 Iraqi Uprising. Bizarre mixture of comedy and the horrors of war.
17. Red Dawn – Communist forces ally together to invade the United States in this 80’sfilm starring Patrick Swayze, Powers Booth, C. Thomas Howell, and many, many more.
18. Waltz with Bashir – A powerful animated documentary about an Israeli filmmaker searching for lost memories about his time serving in the 1982 Lebanon War.
War Movies Set During the American Civil War
19. Glory – Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman star in this tale of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first Civil War units to be comprised of African-American soldiers.
20. Dances with Wolves – Kevin Costner had a major hit with Dances with Wolves, the tale of an Army officer getting to know the ways of the Native American people.
21. How the West Was Won – An epic film which follows four generations of the Prescott family as they slowly migrate towards the Pacific. Huge cast including Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan, Karl Malden, John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart.
22. Gone with the Wind – Based on the bestselling novel, Gone with the Wind is a love story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Clark Gable stars as Rhett Butler, and Vivien Leigh plays Scarlett O’Hara.
23. Gods and Generals – A Civil War film revolving largely around the life of General “Stonewall” Jackson, Gods and Generals features realistic depictions of the battles of Fredericksburg, First Bull Run, and Chancellorsville.
24. Gettysburg – The sequel to Gods and Generals, this film focuses solely on the Battle of Gettysburg. Stars include Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, and Sam Elliott.
25. The Horse Soldiers – Staring John Wayne and William Holden, The Horse Soldiers tells of Union soldiers who rode hundreds of miles behind enemy lines to cut railroad lines and disrupt the South’s ability to movie troops and supplies.
26. Major Dundee – Richard Harris and Charlton Heston are soldiers on opposite sides of the American Civil War, but they band together to hunt down a band of murderous Apaches.
Foreign War Movies
27. The Wind That Shakes the Barley – Cillian Murphy stars in this film about two brothers fighting in the Irish War for Independence.
28. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War – South Korean film about two brothers who fought in the Korean War.
29. Lawrence of Arabia – The adventures of T.E. Lawrence and his efforts against the Turks during World War I.
30. Stalingrad – A group of young Russian soldiers must fight off the invading Nazis and try to survive starvation and the intense cold. As you might have guessed, this isn’t exactly a cheery war movie.
31. Tora! Tora! Tora! – Joseph Cotton, E.G. Marshall and Martin Balsam star in this film about the events leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
32. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) – This British film documents the disasterous 1854 British Cavalry charge against Russian forces during the Crimean War.
33. El Cid – Charlton Heston portrays the legendary Castilian knight, El Cid. Sophia Loren co-stars.
War Movies Set During the Vietnam War
34. Platoon – Charlie Sheen is a wet-behind-the-ears soldier caught in the middle of a moral struggle between two very different leaders (Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe). The breakthrough film for director Oliver Stone.
35. Casualties of War – Based on the true story of a group of American soldiers who kidnap and rape a young Vietnamese woman, and the soldier who tries to bring them to justice. Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn star.
36. Full Metal Jacket – Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) first endures a sadistic drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey) and then gets shipped off to Vietnam in yet another anti-war film from director Stanley Kubrick.
37. The Green Berets – John Wayne stars in this controversial film which makes a pro-war statement.
38. Born on the Fourth of July – Oliver Stone and Tom Cruise team up to show the horrors of war through the eyes of Ron Kovic, a soldier who returns home in a wheelchair.
39. We Were Soldiers - Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott are a couple of veteran soldiers fighting the Viet Cong forces. The film deals especially with the Battle of Ia Drang, which was the first major action seen by U.S. forces in Vietnam.
40. Uncommon Valor – Years after the Vietnam War, a father puts together a team of mercenaries to rescue his POW son. Features such stars as Gene Hackman and Patrick Swayze.
41. The Deer Hunter – A group of friends enlist to fight in the Vietnam War, but one of their number is left behind as a POW. Best known for the intense Russian Roulette sequence with Christopher Walken and Robert DeNiro.
42. Hamburger Hill – A group of American soldiers are assigned to take a hill during the Vietnam War; an assignment which proves costly to all involved. Based on an actual assault undertaken by the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
43. Apocalypse Now – Martin Sheen plays a soldier sent deep into the jungles to find and eliminate a rogue officer by the name of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Along the way, director Francis Ford Coppola manages to paint of cinematic portrait of madness and despair swirling around the Vietnam War.
Sci-Fi and Fantasy War Movies
44. Troy – Brad Pitt plays the legendary warrior Achilles in this film about the epic battle between the Trojans and the forces of King Agamemnon.
45. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – While most of the film concerns the quest to drop The One Ring into the flames of Mount Doom, the opening features one of the coolest war scenes ever. Elves and humans battle orcs and goblins, and Sauron makes his impressive appearance on the battlefield, knocking opponents in all directions.
46. The Postman – Kevin Costner stars as a post-apocalyptic wanderer who begins passing himself off as a member of the U.S. Postal Service. This manages to inspire hope in those around him, and soon a rebellion is formed against the brutal warlord ruling the region.
47. Starship Troopers – Young men and women from Earth are called into action against “the Bugs,” a vicious arachnid-like race from the planet Klendathu. Based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein.
48. Star Wars – While it often doesn’t seem like a war movie, keep in mind that the whole plot revolves around the rebels trying to overthrow the Imperial forces. This all culminates with a massive assault on the space station known as The Death Star, and the heroic Luke Skywalker gets to “use the force.”
49. Independence Day – When ruthless aliens arrive and begin to conquer Earth, things seem hopeless at first. But thanks to a computer virus engineered by Jeff Goldblum (and an inspiring speech by President Bill Pullman), the forces of the planet are able to fight back and regain the planet.
50. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – While the first film in the franchise mostly featured small-scale battles, this sequel really opens up with the large-scale fantasy conflicts. I got a real kick out of watching giant trolls and vicious orcs engage in battle with the forces of men.
War Movies Set During World War II
51. The Big Red One – Lee Marvin leads a group of soldiers (including Mark Hamill) from the 1st Infantry Division into battle during World War II. Be sure and watch the restored version, which has a longer running time than the cut version originally shown in theaters.
52. Schindler’s List – A German industrialist saves the lives of numerous Jews during the second World War. Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, while Ralph Fiennes plays SS officer Amon Goth as the epitome of evil.
53. The Great Escape – Of all the war movies set during World War II, this one is a must-see. An all-star cast portray American and British POWs trying to escape from a German prison camp.
54. Saving Private Ryan – After a young man’s brothers are all killed in combat, the Army decides to send him home. But first, he has to be located, which is where Captain Miller’s squad comes in. Intense battle action, especially the opening scene during the D-Day Invasion at Normandy Beach. Stars Tom Hanks, Ed Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, and many more.
55. Downfall – Hitler’s last days inside his bunker are documented, many through the eyes of one of his secretaries. Boy, the guy sure loved his dog.
56. Battle of the Bulge – Robert Shaw plays a German tank commander, while Henry Fonda is a U.S. intelligence officer. Other stars include Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan and Telly Savalas.
57. The Longest Day – When it comes to war movies set during World War II, it doesn’t get more epic than this. Tells the story of the D-Day invasion, and features actors such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum and Sean Connery.
58. A Bridge Too Far – Tells the story of the disastrous Operation Market-Garden during World War II. Stars Sean Connery, James Caan, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier.
59. The Bridge on the River Kwai – British soldiers are captured by the Japanese and forced to build a pivotal bridge. Meanwhile, an escaped prisoner is sent back in with a group of commandoes and assigned to blow up the bridge.
60. The Eagle Has Landed – Michael Caine plays a German soldier assigned to infiltrate the U.K. and assassinate Winston Churchill. Along the way, he gets some assistance from Donald Sutherland as a member of the IRA.
61. Empire of the Sun – Christian Bale is just a little kid in this Steven Spielberg film about life inside a Japanese prison camp during World War II.
62. From Here to Eternity – This film follows the lives of soldiers stationed in Hawaii prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Stars Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra. Famous for the scene with Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach.
63. Battle of Britain – Great flying sequences abound in this film about the RAF’s victory over the Luftwaffe during World War II. Stars Robert Shaw, Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, Ian McShane, and Michael Caine.
64. The Dirty Dozen – A group of rejects and criminals are assembled for a suicide mission into enemy territory. Great cast, starring Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Lee Marvin and many more. A war film which had a great influence on later works.
65. The Great Dictator – Charlie Chaplin makes fun of the Nazis and Adolph Hitler in this hilarious comedy from 1940. This was the first talkie film starring Chapman.
War Movies Set During World War I
66. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)- Considered one of the best war movies set during World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front depicts the horrors of war from the perspective of a young German soldier named Paul Baumer.
67. The Blue Max – The story of an ambitious German pilot (George Peppard) who sets out to shoot down 20 enemy planes and receive the coveted Blue Max award.
68. Johnny Got His Gun – A young man loses his eyes, ears, nose and tongue (not to mention all his limbs) when hit by a shell during the last day of World War I. Trapped within his own body, he reflects on the past and tries to find a way to escape his constant agony. This is about as anti-war as it gets.
69. Gallipoli (1981) – Mel Gibson and his pals from Western Australia take on the Turks during the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI. Directed by Peter Weir, who would later helm The Dead Poet’s Society.
70. Paths of Glory – Kirk Douglas stars and Stanley Kubrick directs this tale of four soldiers unfairly executed for mutiny during World War I. Definitely a war movie with a message.
71. A Farewell to Arms (1932) – Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes star as an American ambulance driver and English Red Cross nurse during the first World War. Based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, it would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
72. The Dawn Patrol (1938) – Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone team up for a WWI film about the Royal Flying Corps. A highly influential film, it helped popularize many of the flying film clichés (pilots wearing white scarves and displaying an unusual sense of honor in the skies).
73. Aces High – The British Royal Flying Corps gets a closer look in this World War One film. Starring Malcolm McDowell and Christopher Plummer. Impressive aerial scenes, especially for 1976.
74. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) – The top film of 1921, it’s also the picture that made Rudolph Valentino a major star. As World War I rages, members of a far-flung family choose sides and try to survive.
75. The Red Baron – A controversial 2008 biopic about the legendary German WWI pilot. Tom Cruise was reportedly a big fan of the film.
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