List compiled by Eddie on 09/09/2022
War is far from entertaining but through the medium of film the horrors, the guilt, the trauma but also the triumphs and humanity of various conflicts and life-changing incidents have been able to be bought forward in often stunning ways, providing moviegoers from across the globe access to masterful works of art that once seen can never be forgotten.
Not a list that at all attempts to compile the “Top 10!” war films of all-time, these below films all explore various aspects of wars from across time and are all worthy of one’s time for a multitude of reasons, many of them often examining various aspects of war and its horrors and glories in ways that only film could dare dream to provide.
Leaving a huge collection of other noteworthy war set films off this list, I hope this group of films below can be discovered by willing audiences who are open to experiencing a range of emotions as they are taken on journeys that may not always be enjoyable but are nonetheless worthy of exploration.
Happy reading and happy watching.
Disclaimer – Plot summaries from IMDB
10. No Man’s Land (2001)
Plot – Bosnia and Herzegovina during 1993 at the time of the heaviest fighting between the two warring sides. Two soldiers from opposing sides in the conflict, Nino and Ciki, become trapped in no man’s land, whilst a third soldier becomes a living booby trap.
This Oscar and Golden Globe winning European thriller which is set during the 1993 Bosnia and Herzegovina conflict is one of the more unique war set films you are likely to see. Filled with razor-sharp dialogue and an unpredictable nature that keeps things on edge throughout, No Man’s Land is a forgotten gem that is worthy of a significant new and appreciative audience.
9. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Plot – Three World War II veterans, two of them traumatized or disabled, return home to the American mid-west to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed.
William Wyler’s World War 2 drama that takes place entirely back on home soil after the battlefields of the great war have long since concluded is a resounding success that shattered box office records and hauled in multiple Oscars upon its initial release. Exploring the after-effects that war has on those that survive it, The Best Years of Our Lives is a powerful human-centric drama that has lost none of its power in the years that have passed since it first came into the public eye.
Read my review here.
8. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Plot – Adaptation of James Jones’ autobiographical 1962 novel, focusing on the conflict at Guadalcanal during the second World War.
A ethereal film experience that could only exist under the guidance of legendary but divisive Hollywood recluse Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line harbours one of the 90’s most loaded cast lists as the director returned for the first time since his 1978 film Days of Heaven to deliver a moving, haunting and against the odds beautiful exploration of the World War 2 conflict in the Guadalcanal region.
7. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Plot – A young boy and his little sister struggle to survive in Japan during World War II.
Don’t let the animation fool you, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most devastating and beautiful war films ever produced as Isao Takahata’s Studio Ghibli produced tale of two young siblings caught up in the World War 2 conflict in Japan memorably explores the effects of war through the eyes of children that should never be forced to endure such horrors. Often regarded as one of the most effective films of all-time, if you’ve yet to see Grave of the Firelies you should make time for it, just be very prepared for an emotional roller-coaster.
6. Come and See (1985)
Plot – After finding an old rifle, a young boy joins the Soviet resistance movement against ruthless German forces and experiences the horrors of World War II.
A cult classic born directly out of the Soviet Union, Come and See is in my mind the most horrific and otherworldly war film I have laid witness too as director Elem Klimov follows a young Belarusian boy through a life changing experience in the battlegrounds and surrounds of a World War 2 infected Europe. Tough viewing, Come and See is unlike any other film before or since its release.
5. The Pianist (2002)
Plot – A Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II.
Roman Polanski’s haunting examination of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s true life experiences at the hands of the German Nazi regime is unforgettable Hollywood film-making. Featuring a star making turn from the eventual Oscar winning Adrian Brody, The Pianist is far from easy viewing but it remains one of the most stunning explorations of the World War 2 period committed to screen.
4. 1917 (2019)
Plot – April 6th, 1917. As an infantry battalion assembles to wage war deep in enemy territory, two soldiers are assigned to race against time and deliver a message that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap.
Designed as if it was shot in one continuous take, American Beauty director Sam Mende’s knocked it out of the park with his World War 1 thriller that offers up one of the most unrelenting and polished cinematic experiences of the modern era.
3. Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Plot – An Israeli film director interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to reconstruct his own memories of his term of service in that conflict.
Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman hauntingly explores his own experiences in the 1982 war in Lebanon through the use of a stunning animation format that ensures Waltz with Bashir is unlike anything you’ve seen before. With many moments of unforgettable beauty and moments of equally unsettling horrors, Waltz with Bashir is a small film with big ideas and payoffs making this an Oscar nominated classic you need to track down.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Plot – Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.
In a career littered with classics from many different genres and periods, Steven Spielberg’s World War 2 masterpiece Saving Private Ryan is unquestionably one of the masters greatest feats. Opening with one of the most talked about feature starts of all-time, Spielberg’s film barely pauses for a breathe along its epic runtime but never forgets that its the human stories that matter most with Saving Private Ryan matching cinematic spectacle with heart at all times.
1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Plot – The story of T.E. Lawrence, the English officer who successfully united and led the diverse, often warring, Arab tribes during World War I in order to fight the Turks.
Far from your typical war film, David Lean’s renowned World War 1 epic is the type of Hollywood film-making that would never be seen in today’s day and age with the legendary Hollywood director committing unprecedented time and effort to bring the true life tale of T.E Lawrence’s experiences to life. A stunning near 4 hour long spectacle, Lawrence of Arabia deserves its place amongst the heavyweights of cinematic history.
Honorable Mentions – Schindler’s List, Dunkirk, Son of Saul, Black Hawk Down, The Beast of War, Jarhead, A Hidden Life, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket.
What war films do you consider “must-sees”? Let me and others know in the comments below!
Three titles instantly come to mind that you don’t even give an honourable mention to: Patton, Apocalypse Now and Tora! Tora! Tora!
Having said that, I agree with a lot of your chosen titles
Fantastic picks, this list could’ve easily blown out to way over 20! So many classics.
I tried to pick a few that might not instantly be regarded as war films too 🙂
Wow I’ve only seen two of these, not counting your honourable mentions. I have a bit of watching to do. I really expected to see Hacksaw Ridge on the list, but there are so many great war movies. They were a staple as I grew up and we would consume all the war movies we could get. The Edge of Darkness with Errol Flynn is worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.
I’ve not seen that one mate but will certainly check that out! When I was looking at this list I realised quickly how many great war films there actually are, it’s quite incredible.
That is a good one. Jacob’s Ladder and Johnny Got His Gun are two others that are as disturbing.
That’s a great selection, very singular, picking up from different countries. Well done.
If I’d have to chose other titles, it could have been “Paths of Glory” of course, “Objective Burma!” that I like very much, and “Cross of Iron”. And I have to add a french title to that : 317eme section” from Pierre Shoendoerffer.
I feel like my to watch list is growing by the hour!
Waltz With Bashir and 1917 — excellent choices. I like the honorable mentions too.
I went through many tissues the first time I saw Grave of the Fireflies so many years ago on VHS. Every time I need a good cry, I rewatch it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; I hate when it doesn’t.
I am often surprised by how few people have seen Waltz with Bashir, such a gem.
Grave of the Fireflies on VHS! Now that’s a throwback 🙂
Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Patton, Saving Private Ryan, Midway, there are so many great ones a top ten is almost impossible, so it was refreshing to see your “must see” list compiled in this way. This will be one of my favorite post of all time on any review blog. I’ll close with I’m glad to see No Man’s Land listed, that was an intense experience and a sleeper of sorts, as I’ve not found many people that have seen it.
Thanks Tony! Yep a best of list could’ve just kept extending out. So many fantastic war films of all different types.
Another one I really enjoy from the foreign front is Tangerines, much like No Mans Land not a lot of people have seen it.
The Counterfeiters is a good film set in a concentration camp.
Great pick mate!
Catch 22, The Big Red One, Paths of Glory and the original All Quiet on the Western Front could all sneak in the honourable mentions list. Oh, and The Battle of Algiers, maybe. But it’s a pretty solid top 10.
Some fantastic picks Kirk! Catch 22 is one I have yet to see.
My list would be almost completely different. The pick of the bunch here is Come and See. What a mind-blowing chilling experience.
Mate, one of the most unsettling film experiences I can recall.
While I am at a point where watching War movies is no longer ‘entertainment’, some of the movies are great and harrowing.
However, mate when are you going to review Ran: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ran
I must admit it’s been a while since I have seen Ran mate, and controversially I am not a massive fan!
Just kidding, fair enough. I think for me the last scene of the movie Ran is seared into my brain and that’s why I will always rate it really high
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