The 54 Best War Movies Of All Time
The greatest military films stir the blood and move the viewer beyond words, leaving an impression that is akin to timeless brotherhood. Certain war movies stand apart and above the others, and belong on every man’s lifetime list of repeat viewings.
Spanning the medieval Dark Ages to the blood soaked juggles of Vietnam, these five films set the standard for the genre. Saving Private Ryan, directed and released by Steven Spielberg in 1998, was rightly nominated for and took home numerous awards. Beginning with the invasion of Normandy during WWII, the film follows a US Army Rangers captain and his squad as they attempt to locate the last-surviving brother of four soldiers.
Apocalypse Now is the crowning achievement of writer, producer, and director Francis Ford Coppola’s career, not merely adapting Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” but transferring it to the Vietnam War. Despite its problematic production the film’s horror-laden tale of the pursuit of a madman continues to find new generations of fans.
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket details the training of U.S. Marines Joker and Pyle as they struggle under the iron fist of their drill instructor, as well as the experiences of those in the Tet Offensive. A wild card of a film, Full Metal Jacket somehow managed to divide critics while unanimously garnering worldwide praise.
Platoon, Oliver Stone’s anti-war drama, introduces us to a platoon of young infantrymen as they brave the hellish jungles of South Vietnam. The cast famously underwent a rigorous regime, which included long marches, nighttime ambushes, minimal sleep routinely disturbed by the firing of blanks, and a severely limited diet. The result? An unforgettable “other side” perspective on the well-known war trope.
Braveheart was by no means a modern military account, nor an entirely accurate one, but it earned a folkloric place among the best war films ever made. A loose biopic of the life of 13th century Scottish rebel William Wallace, the movie’s epic cinematography, unforgettable score, and powerful performances won it the 1995 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Of course, those are just a few of the many Great War movies of all time out there. Below you’ll find my full guide to the top 54 best war movies of all time for men, featuring must watch military films.
From modern day movies like Hacksaw Ridge to classics like Patton, which came out over forty years ago, you’ll find a great mix of manly entertainment. Just keep in mind these are in no particular order, rather there are so many good films out there, it’s truly worth watching them all!
1. 13 Hours
When Islamist militants attacked the American diplomat compound in Libya in 2012, a single security team fought through in an attempt to rescue the people trapped within, including an American ambassador. Michael Bay’s trademark explosive effects take second place to the acts of self-sacrifice and bravery that make this story unforgettable.
The legend of Thermopylae as seen through the eyes of comic genius, Frank Miller–cinematic violence combined with gorgeous cinematography highlights the warrior bond between the celebrated Spartans that stood against the Persian armies in 480 B.C. With a stellar cast and an incredible soundtrack, it became its own legend for graphic novels-turned-movie.
3. A Bridge Too Far
A classic World War II film, released in 1977, details the story of Operation Market Garden–an attempt to break through the German lines in the occupied Netherlands. Directed by the legendary Sir Richard Attenborough, the star-studded cast brilliantly depicts the intended strategy and the aftermath of the things that went wrong.
4. Act Of Valor
One of the most revered counterinsurgency forces in the military, the Navy SEALs are the stars in this film distributed by Relativity Media. When a CIA operative is captured in Costa Rica, SEAL Team Seven is dispatched to rescue her. With genuine Navy SEALs starring in the film and breath-taking action, it’s easy to see why this is a film that inspired many young men to enlist.
5. A Few Good Men
Originally a stage play, this military movie adaptation directed by Rob Reiner follows the dramatic prosecution of two U.S. Marines accused of killing one of their comrades. Untangling the story is the responsibility of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, portrayed by Tom Cruise, and as the investigation and trial continue, more shocking details are discovered.
6. American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood and based off of the celebrated memoir of Chris Kyle, this film follows the life of Chris Kyle as he became the deadliest marksman in the history of the United States military. The toll of the four tours he served in the Iraq War is shown with compelling honesty, and Bradley Cooper’s critically acclaimed portrayal makes this film a poignant reminder of the sacrifices of service.
In 1942, exiled Czechoslovakian soldiers assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS officer stationed in Prague. Directed by Sean Ellis, starring Cillian Murphy and Jaime Dornan, this film pulls no punches in depicting the difficulties involved in assassinating the man who was one of the main architects of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”
8. Apocalypse Now
Nominated for eight Academy Awards and lauded as one of the finest films on the Vietnam War, Francis Ford Coppola’s story–based off of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”–about a Special Forces colonel gone mad and the captain assigned to assassinate him is truly a tense and masterfully enduring classic.
9. A Thin Red Line
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Terrence Malick’s fictionalized battle in World War II’s Pacific Theater poignantly shows the sacrifice of front-line fighting. Facing not only the dangers of combat but the effects of war on their personal lives, the soldiers of C Company have more to overcome than simply surviving to the next day.
10. Battle Of The Bulge
A 1965 widescreen war epic, this film undertook the daunting task of condensing a month-long battle in World War II into three hours. Directed by Ken Annakin and starring Hollywood heavy-hitters such as Henry Fonda, it received mixed reviews for historical inaccuracies but endures for the cinematic depiction of the major events of the Ardennes Counteroffensive.
11. Beasts Of No Nation
One of the most unsettling aspects of war is the use of child soldiers, and Cary Koji Fukunaga brought to life the story of Agu, a child forced into combat by a rebel faction. Critically acclaimed and painfully honest about the price children pay in war zones, the Netflix film manages to end on a hopeful note while making no attempt to conceal the violence that preceded it.
12. Behind Enemy Lines
John Moore’s depiction of a soldier’s worst nightmare–being stranded amongst hostile forces with rescue days away–was loosely based off of an actual event in 1995. One of Owen Wilson’s rare serious roles, it’s a fast-paced tale of a man’s struggle to survive even when help is days (and miles) away.
13. Black Hawk Down
Untangling the truth from a multitude of conflicting, self-serving stories, Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling–depicted by Academy Award winner Denzel Washington–must face his own traumatic memories. Determining who took what action under fire in the Gulf War creates a tangled, emotional web that puts everyone involved to the test.
14. Courage Under Fire
In 1993, a hundred elite U.S. soldiers went into a marketplace in Mogadishu, Somalia. It was meant to be a quick mission, in and out in under an hour. Ridley Scott’s intense, action-packed film shows what happened when that mission went from a simple retrieval to a two day battle that killed 18 Americans and thousands of Somalis.
15. Crimson Tide
When tensions rise, commanders often make judgement call that must be defended or explained later. Is it possible for two men to be simultaneously right and wrong about the same issue? Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter–played by Denzel Washington–chooses mutiny over obeying his superior’s orders to fire missiles without knowing the entirety of an interrupted radio message.
The last ten days of Adolf Hitler’s war rule were a tumultuous period for the people of Berlin. High-ranking members of the Nazi party committed suicide while German citizens suffered the results of the Soviet advance. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, this movie dares to look at what happened when those in power saw the writing on the wall.
17. Enemy At The Gates
From 1942 to 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad was the setting for a battle between two talented, lethal snipers. Vasily Zaytsev, a legendary Soviet sniper, played a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with Major Erwin. With dazzling cinematography and tension that increases, scene by scene, it’s a fascinating, terrifying war tale that can only end with one man standing.
18. Full Metal Jacket
Following a group of fresh U.S. Marine Corps recruits through basic training and into Vietnam takes a haunting turn when depicted by legendary director Stanley Kubrick. One of the classic films of the 1980s, widely praised for the acting, dialogue and tight plot, it is and has been a must-see since it was initially released.
While a tank may seem impregnable, the close quarters, heat, strain and danger of being consistently under fire leeches away any sense of safety that those who manned the tanks in World War II might have had. Led by Brad Pitt, the star-studded cast directed by David Ayer portrayed eloquently just what it meant to be one of the U.S. tank crews.
The turning point of the Civil War, and one of the bloodiest battles in American history, is followed almost moment-by-moment in this epic 1993 film. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell and based off of the novel “The Killer Angels,” this movie has been lavishly praised for dedication to historical accuracy and phenomenal acting. A must-see for anyone with an interest in the American Civil War.
The first military unit of the Union Army to consist entirely of African-American soldiers, the 1989 epic focuses on the individual characters and the development of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The struggles of both commander and the soldiers under him are powerfully portrayed in this Academy Award-winning war movie.
22. Hacksaw Ridge
Desmond Doss believed killing was wrong. And yet he enlisted for service after the attack on Pearl Harbor and became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. Not for enemy kills, but for courageously rescuing 75 wounded men by himself. Directed by Mel Gibson, this film shows just how the most courageous acts can come from the mildest of men.
23. Hamburger Hill
The battle to control “Hill 937” during the Vietnam War involved heavy casualties on both sides. On the American side, the casualties are depicted as more than just the death of fellow soldiers. Focusing on the wide-spread social effects of the Vietnam War, director John Irvin spared nothing in creating a powerful, compelling narrative.
24. Heartbreak Ridge
Passing wisdom from one generation to another is part of the tradition of experienced soldiers training new recruits. That’s brilliantly depicted by Clint Eastwood in the film set in the Korean War. Balancing the job of directing and acting, the Academy Award-winner creates a moving piece about the price that soldiers pay for devoting their lives to their country.
Directed by Sam Mendes, this film–based off of Anthony Swofford’s memoir–follows a new U.S. Marine Corp recruit through basic training into his service during Operation Desert Shield in the Gulf War. Highlighting the indoctrination involved in military training and the way it affects civilian life after military service, the film became an instant classic.
26. Kelly’s Heroes
Not every military movie set in a war has to be a drama. This 1970 war comedy focuses on a group of American soldiers in World War II who abandon their mission to attempt robbing a bank located behind enemy lines. With iconic actors such as Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland, it’s no surprise that this film has been rated one of the best war movies of all time.
27. Lone Survivor
Although war forces many people to take sides, there are instances of people risking their lives in order to help anyone in need, regardless of who they fight for. Peter Berg’s fictionalized depiction of one such instance–Operation Red Wings during the Afghanistan War–shows the power of personal conviction in the face of overwhelming odds.
The 1970s were a decade filled with a wry view of the world, and this is poignantly clear in the hit black war comedy. Inspiring a comedy series that ran for eleven years, it has remained on numerous film lists as one of the 100 top American movies of all time since its release. Combining black humor with wartime wisdom and a few zany laughs, it is a classic that’s earned its place.
U.S. General George S. Patton was a legendary figure that inspires men and women today. Released in 1970 and winning seven Academy Awards, the biographical film pulls no punches in depicting the remarkable military mind that drove the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine in World War II. From inspirational speeches to the man’s personal idiosyncrasies, Frankin J. Schaffner’s film is both true to form and cinematic.
30. Pearl Harbor
Michael Bay’s 2001 film looking at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor focused on the people involved, not simply the historical event itself. The horror and impact of war is felt on an individual basis and here is all the valor, courage, fear and pain involved in every minute of a surprise attack that kicked off the U.S.’s entry into World War II.
The first of Oliver Stone’s film trilogy about the Vietnam War, this 1986 classic starring Charlie Sheen and Willam Defoe has a distinctly different angle. Based on Oliver Stone’s experiences in the Vietnam War, this Academy Award-winning film looks at the traumatic effects that not only created a change in how Oliver Stone viewed the world, but an entire generation.
32. Sands Of Iwo Jima
A classic 1949 film directed by Allan Dwan, starring “the Duke” himself–the iconic flag raising that took place on February 23, 1945 has been immortalized in photography, sculpture and other forms of art. Including this soldier-focused film with John Wayne taking center stage as the grizzled Sergeant John M. Stryker.
33. Saving Private Ryan
The cost of warfare is powerfully shown in every frame of Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic focused on the rescue of Private James Francis Ryan. Renowned for gritty, realistic war scenes and one of the most intense military movie openings in history, this film was added to the National Film Registry less than twenty years after its release in 1998.
1970 wasn’t the only year with war comedies. Released in 1981, this Ivan Reitman film starring Bill Murray focuses on a man that’s lost everything and takes refuge in the Army. His approach to life translates into a series of increasingly ridiculous events that culminates in an unlikely hero emerging.
35. Tae Guk Gi
Released in 2004, this South Korean film takes a different view of the Korean War. Following the experiences of two brothers forcibly drafted into the war and directed by Kang Je-gyu, it illustrates the losses that were felt on both sides of the war. Each brother is affected differently by their experiences, and the bond between them is tested to the limit as they’re forced to serve their country.
Thousands of wars have broken out throughout history and many of them are overlooked in favor of those that grab the media. Released in 2013, this focuses on the war in Abkhazia and one man struggling to keep the peace between two wounded soldiers from either side of the conflict that he’s given refuge beneath his roof.
37. Tears Of The Sun
Directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Bruce Willis as Lieutenant A.K. Waters, this 2003 film is another that highlights the dangerous situations and specific missions that Navy SEALs are sent into. With Monica Bellucci as a doctor captured by rebel soldiers and a musical score by Hans Zimmer, it has a phenomenal appeal for any viewer.
38. The Bridge On The River Kwai
A 1957 film by David Lean, this fictional story won seven Academy Awards. Focusing on POWs under Japanese control, the story takes a surprising turn. When the prisoners plot to sabotage a bridge they’re being forced to build, it’s entirely understandable from any view. But one man has a different idea and it stems from a source that the other POWs only realize much later.
39. The Desert Fox
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel has a legend today largely due to this 1951 film starring James Mason and Jessica Tandy. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the significance is far beyond the mastery of the film. Utilized as propaganda to repair relations between the British, the U.S. and West Germany after World War II, it took on entirely new importance.
40. The Dirty Dozen
Directed by Robert Aldrich, based off of a novel by the same name and inspired by real life events, this 1967 war movie follows the creation of the “Dirty Dozen.” A group of convicts recruited by British soldiers are selected to complete what is largely believed to be a suicide mission. With stars like Charles Bronson and Donald Sutherland, it’s no surprise that this film stands on several American Film Institute lists.
41. The Great Escape
A mass escape took place in 1944 from a German POW camp and became the inspiration for the 1963 film directed by John Sturges. With a historical basis and a stellar cast–Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson–it’s spread throughout pop culture and endures as a classic war movie.
42. The Green Berets
Set in Vietnam, this 1968 film directed by John Wayne–who also stars as Colonel Mike Kirby–is very much a piece of the times. With a strong pro-military flavor, filmed during the Vietnam War itself, this classical piece of American cinema is based on a book by Robin Moore. With an old-fashioned perspective on the honor and glory of soldiery and historical significance, it’s a must-see.
43. The Guns Of Navarone
An Allied unit of elite soldiers takes on a German fortress on the Aegean Sea–the simple plot of the 1961 film, directed by J. Lee Thompson, is brought to stellar life by actors like Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn. An Academy Award-winning movie, based on the book “The Guns of Navarone,” it highlights the turning point of 1943 in World War II through amazing special effects and acting.
44. The Hunt For Red October
Released in 1990, based off of the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, this thriller set in the late Cold War combines heart-pounding tension with incredible action. Starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin in lead roles, it plays out plot points in conjunction with stellar underwater combat and fascinating political maneuvering.
45. The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, this 2008 film focused on an Explosive Ordance Disposal team in the Iraq War gives an insightful look into the effects of such a stressful situation. No two soldiers handle it alike, and with the fantastic acting of men such as Jeremy Renner and Guy Pearce, the full range of stress that military service causes is displayed as the plot unfolds.
46. The Longest Day
D-Day–June 6, 1944 was the day that Allied forces landed at Normandy. This 1962 film, winner of two Academy Awards, was designed to give audiences as accurate a view as they could of the operation that began liberating occupied Europe and helped bring about the Allied victory.
47. The Messenger
One of the most difficult jobs in the world is to bring someone the news of their loved one’s passing. This 2009 military film directed by Oren Moverman follows Will Montgomery as he takes on the duties of a casualty notification officer and struggles to balance his support of his alcoholic partner and his interest in a woman he saw through the worst moments of her life.
48. The Patriot
The American Revolution is the basis of the American mythology, but this is no dry history lesson. Follow Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson, through the stealthy attacks on the British that culminate in a face-to-face showdown with the cruel Colonel Tavington, played by Jason Isaacs. An action-packed exploration of what life was like when America broke free of British rule.
49. They Were Expendable
Set during the Battle of the Philippines in World War II, this 1945 film directed by John Ford uses actual events and historical figures while creating a fictional storyline. Starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, it follows the defense of a stragetically important location with the most unlikely equipment.
50. Three Kings
Black comedy at its finest–this David O. Russell film, released in 1991, follows U.S. soldiers as they attempt to steal gold during the middle of the unrest in Iraq that followed the end of the Gulf War. With George Clooney heading the cast and sharp, witty dialogue to carry the characters through an intricately tangled plot, it has earned its critical acclaim.
51. Top Gun
One of the most widely known films from the 1980s, Tony Scott’s action film follows “Maverick” as he trains at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School. Combining breathtaking aerial stunds with a killer soundtrack and stellar acting, this 1986 showpiece has made it onto five of the American Film Institute’s 100 lists.
Directed by Angelina Jolie, this 2014 film follows Louis Zamperini through his horrifying ordeal. After surviving for 47 days on a drifting raft after crashing into the ocean, he was captured and became a POW in World War II. Jack O’Connell’s masterful performance pulls no punches in depicting the horrors of war and the strength of will it took to survive.
53. We Were Soldiers
Released in 2002, this Randall Wallace film, starring Mel Gibson, focuses on the Battle of la Drang that took place in 1965. Another Vietnam War movie, this follows the events of the first major battle between the U.S. Army and the North Vietnamese Army. With realistic combat and amazing cinematography, it has taken its place amongst the classic Vietnam films.
The Navajo code talkers of World War II were vital to the Allies success, especially during the encounters with the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. This 2002 war film, directed by John Woo, follows Navajo code talker Private Been Yahzee and the Sergeant assigned to protect him. With a highlight on the never-broken Navajo code and a focus on a lesser-known aspect of World War II combat, this is a must-see for all war movie enthusiasts.