Top 10 Best Films about War

“There is no such thing as an anti-war film.” This quote is often attributed to Francois Truffaut, the famed French filmmaker and film critic. That’s because this indelible genre has persisted since the first images were placed on film. War has been the subject of fascination in the first blockbuster (The Birth of a Nation) to the first Best Picture Oscar Winner (Wings) to even beyond Earth (Star Wars). Ken Burns even told the entire history of the Civil War through the use of still images and a fiddle.

Cinema loves war because there are not greater narrative stakes than death. Thus, it cinema can never present a war that is entirely negative. War on film is a subject of fascination and fetishizing. From our comfy couch or theater chair, we find war shocking, awful and exciting. In the coming months, new war films will try to make its mark in the canon of the great war films. Mel Gibson is trying to resuscitate his career through Hacksaw Ridge and rumor has it that Brangelina broke up while Brad Pitt was filming Allied.

In celebration of war movies, here is a subjective list of the best war films of all time. This eclectic group of films within this genre range from impressionistic art to bleakly dark comedy to an ode to exploitation.

Agree or disagree with the list, please comment below.

10. Jarhead: Its imperfect, messy and sometimes repetitive which was exactly how the First Gulf War felt. Jarhead is not afraid to have all the army machismo without any of the fighting. Based on the bestselling memoir by Anthony Swofford, Jarhead is all about the boredom that comes with combat. In between the testosterone filled fighting and training, there is a lot of down time in the middle of some Middle Eastern desert. At one point, the whole group of men watch in awe, singing along to Ride of the Valkyries while watching Apocalypse Now. The satire of that film never hits them because that is their perception of what war should be. That is much different than the isolation they face and that makes them stir-crazy. Not many war films would focus on boredom above all else.

9. Saving Private Ryan: Spielberg is Spielberg. The Omaha Beach scene is shot with visceral intensity not seen in any other war film. The humanism of the quest to save one man is a classic Spielbergian trope. And Tom Hanks will always be the perfect analogue as the everyday American. There is not much to add to this film that has not already been said better elsewhere.  

8. Ivan’s Childhood: Andrei Tarkovsky is in the pantheon of the great world filmmakers. From his very first film in Ivan’s Childhood, he already had a penchant for painterly visuals. While Truffaut may be right in his comments about anti-war films, Tarkovsky would probably disagree. Here war is seen through a child’s eye as little Ivan sees World War II through disjointed flashbacks. Vengeance becomes his calling as Tarkovsky shoots Ivan in one of his most famous images as daggers from a bombed out house seems to be shooting into him. Not bad when you have filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski cite this film as influencing them.

7. Inglorious Basterds: For someone who is famous for their violence and dialogue, Tarantino is best with his silences and what is not said. He perfected this technique of storytelling in his revisionist WWII film, Inglorious Basterds. That is what makes the film so rich. Tarantino layers every character, motivation and dialogue with motives and meanings that would make Stanislavski proud. This film is Tarantino’s magnum opus as he combined everything that has been successful in his previous films to make one satisfying film that literally goes out in a blaze of glory. Plus, this film introduced to a wide audience Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender. That is a win for everyone.

6. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: Is it cheating to include a Cold War film on the list? To be fair, Dr. Strangelove does have a nuclear holocaust in it. When something is as scary as the possibility that a nuclear war could happen at any time, it is up to a clown to diffuse the tension by laughing at the danger. Kubrick’s collaboration with Peter Sellers is the perfect clown for the perfect time. Here Sellers plays three characters including the title character, a German scientist confined to a wheel chair whose elaborate plan to save mankind is a 10 to 1 female to male ratio in a giant mineshaft. And remember, “There’s no fighting in here, this is the war room.”

5. Devils on the Door Step: Not many actor/filmmaker/writer can have their film banned from China and eventually appear in the newest Star Wars spin-off. The Chinese filmmaker Jiang Wen is probably the only person that can fit that specific detail on his resume. The film that was banned from screening in China is Devils on the Doorstep. Set in the Second Sino-Japanese War (that’s during WWII) during the Japanese occupation of China, two Japanese soldiers fall into the hands of a group of villagers. The film’s nuanced and funny handling of a complex issue of Chinese identity and passivity is what got this film banned. Wen explores the origins of fear that continue to persist the coloring of how the Chinese view the Japanese to this day. Due to the film’s controversy, the film, although not widely seen, has become a cult classic. Jiang Wen, however, continues to be one of the most dynamic filmmakers today.

4. Paths of Glory: This is the second Kubrick film on the list and plays out like The Crucible during WWI. It would actually make a great double feature with Devils on the Door Step. The film follows the trial of three soldiers blamed for the failure of their commanding officer. Paths of Glory starring the very anti-McCarthy, Kirk Douglas is a satire on the sham of a public inquisition that was the Red Scare in the 1950’s. In both films, war is depicted as a dehumanizing force that changes all who contacts it. This will not be the last time Kubrick explores these themes in war. Not on the list is Full Metal Jacket, a more famous Kubrick war film that would go on to explore themes of dehumanization in war.

3. The Bridge on the River Kwai: Released the same year as Paths of Glory and way more successful is the David Lean classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. It is often cited as a prime example of Hollywood’s Golden Age and one of the greatest films of all time and there is a good reason why. Set during WWII, the film explores POWs to the Japanese as the POWs are forced to construct a bridge for the Japanese. The problem is that Alec Guinness, one of the prisoners, begin to grow fond of the Japanese, and more importantly grow pride in the work that he was producing. Lean, of course, creates a beautiful picture along with one of the most memorable soundtracks of all time that will have you whistling. This is a film about psychological trauma from someone who cannot admit it. And as a viewer, you are seduced to the mission and to the characters who are supposed to be doing something that benefits the enemy. This world is madness.

2. Apocalypse Now: Once again, another great double feature. While The Bridge on the River Kwai is about madness, the 50’s could not show madness like the one that Martin Sheen goes through in Apocalypse Now. This adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a scarily dark and cynical film that fits into the atmosphere of its era and the war it is depicting. The film is so great that the making of the film is considered a great in documentary filmmaking. Francis Ford Coppola’s filmmaking was not a direct depiction of Vietnam but rather a tonal poem of Vietnam. It is a film about war that, as seen earlier with Jarhead, is a celebration of what it abhors the most. That paradox is enough for anyone to scream, “The horror, the horror.”

1. The Battle of Algiers: There is no scene I think about more than the terrorist bombing scene. We see the scene twice. One through the perspective of the terrorist. The other from the perspective of everyday people just going through normal things that would soon be interrupted by a bomb. It is this nature of multiple perspectives that have made Gillo Pontecorvo’s depiction of The Algerian War the best war film of all time. The film takes a neutral view at two sides of a conflict. Radically, one of the sides happen to be a terrorist group in the National Liberation Front, who committed terrorist bombings and guerilla warfare. The film for a long time was shown to the military as a way to quell possible insurgent uprisings as it has been deemed accurate in its depiction of the rise of a terrorist organization. In order to get the realism, Pontecovo shoots the film like it was a newsreel or a documentary. Thus the visceral impact of each scene reverberates through the psyche.  

The Battle of Algiers is the greatest war movie of all time.