Top 25 War Movies Of All Time
Why are these movies so addicting and highly appealing? Is it because they depict the true horrors of war? Or because it’s a more interesting way of exploring history than merely reading books? No matter what the reason is, here we present the 25 greatest war movies ever made:
25. All Quiet On The Western Front
Release Date: 1979
Director: Delbert Mann
Starring: Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine
Summary: This is a remake of the original film released in 1930 and is based on the book of the same title by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque. The story follows a young German, Paul Baumer who enlists in the German Imperial Army during the WWI along with his other graduating classmates and friends in high school. They initially thought it was going be quite an adventure. They faced so much hardship during the surviving training camp where they were placed under a brutal Corporal. They were eventually placed at the front lines where they were taught plenty of survival skills such as finding food or the best way to take cover.
But excitement and high spirits soon faded when slowly, one-by-one, they get killed – leaving Paul as the sole survivor of their class. There’s tension, feelings of desolation, and plenty of deaths all around.
Release Date: 1993
Director: Joseph Vilsmaier
Starring: Dominique Horwitz, Thomas Kretschmann
Summary: This is a depiction of the historical brutal and bloody Battle of Stalingard. After fighting in North Africa, a platoon of soldiers from the German Army along with their new commander Leutnant Hans von Witzland, were sent to the Eastern Front to participate in the said battle. There, they join a company which led an assault that resulted in heavy casualties. From botched ceasefire to going through the sewers – they underwent various obstacles.
The Battle of Stalingard was a pivotal point in the European Theater of World War II when Germany fought with Soviet Union to take over the city located in Southern Russia. It was widely known as one of the costliest battles fought at the time. The film honestly portrayed the ugly side of modern warfare. The bloody invasion lasted for five months, one week and three days.
23. The Guns of Navarone
Release Date: 1961
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn
Summary: This film is based on the 1957 novel of the same title by Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean. The story follows the British commando team who was sent to cross a German fortress in an occupied Greek territory, past the island of Navarone. There, they needed to destroy the two massive radar-directed superguns – Germany’s display of military strength in a key sea channel.
Aside from preventing 2,000 British soldiers from being rescued and evacuated to a neighboring island, the use of those guns also threatens naval ships from the Allied forces. Aerial bombings have been used to no avail. Those efforts failed miserably. Thus, the Allies had to rely on the highly-skilled men disguised as Greek fishermen to infiltrate the place and complete the mission. They even used a decrepit fishing vessel to cross the Aegean sea.
22. The Dam Busters
Release Date: 1955
Director: Michael Anderson
Starring: Richard Todd, Michael Redgrave
Summary: This war film recreates the dramatic true story of how Royal Air Force No. 617 Squadron attacked the German dams in a daring and imaginative raid. Initially, the whole idea seemed too difficult that it bordered on the impossible. But with the help of an English scientist, design engineer and inventor Barnes Wallis who worked ceaselessly and feverishly, they came up with an ingenious plan to use what would be called ‘bouncing bomb’.
The whole plan centered on the intention of crippling the heavy industry of Germany. The weapon was the work of a genius. It was effective in breaching the Möhne Reservoir and Edersee Dam. And while there was just minimal damage to the Sorpe dam, two hydroelectric power stations were damaged during the operation. The mission succeeded even though eight Lancasters were destroyed and the crews killed.
21. In Harm’s Way
Release Date: 1965
Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda
Summary: The movie depicts the lives of naval officers based in Hawaii after the incident in Pearl Harbor and the consequent involvement of the United States during World War II. US Navy Captain Rockwell ‘Rock’ Torrey is reprimanded and removed from his command of a cruiser as a consequence of two things: ‘throwing away the book’ as he was pursuing an enemy and after a Japanese submarine torpedoed him. However, he gets a second shot at proving himself when he gets promoted into rear admiral and he’s given an assignment that needed the guts he displayed when he was still commanding his heavy cruiser. He immediately went into the planning and execution of a mission aimed at overrunning the Gavabutu island.
The film refused to glamorize the war but instead, showed a realistic and unromantic image of the US Navy officers starting from the evening of December 6, 1941.
20. To Hell And Back
Release Date: 1955
Director: Jesse Hibbs
Starring: Audie Murphy, Marshall Thompson, Charles Drake
Summary: It tells the true story of Audie Murphy – one of the most decorated US Army soldiers of World War II. His experiences during the war and overall military career – this provides a peek into this legendary Texan native. Young Andie grew up in a big but poor household. After their father left them, Andie started working at an early age so he can help his mother feed his eight other siblings. After she died, his siblings were sent to live with an older sister. When US started participating in World War 2, Audie enlisted and sent his GI pay allotment to his family. He was small in stature which is why the Navy, Marines and Army Paratroopers refused to have him. He was eventually accepted as an ordinary infantryman by the Army where he had to undergo basic and infantry training.
19. Stalag 17
Release Date: 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger
Summary: This follows the story of US Army Air Forces who were taken prisoners in a German POW camp located somewhere along the Danube river. In one barracks, the men felt like they were dealing with an informant – very possible just one of their fellow prisoners. Not only did Germans seem to know ahead whenever they’re planning an escape but recently, two men (Manfredi and Johnson) who tried to flee through the tunnels walked straight into a trap after they were shot by guards who were waiting outside the fence.
The tension builds up because the airmen were convinced they already knew who the informant is – Sefton who trades with the German guards (anywhere from eggs to silk blankets) and has several other profitable ventures like running a distillery and organizing mouse races. He also kept convincing others how fruitless and foolish it is to even attempt to escape.
18. Schindler’s List
Release Date: 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fienne
Summary: This tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who becomes an unlikely humanitarian after he saves more than a thousand Jews by employing them in his very own factory during the Holocaust. It was in World War 2 when he arrived in the Krakow Ghetto and since he’s a member of the Nazi Party, he bribed the German armed forces and SS officials so he can acquire a factory and make a fortune by producing enamelware. He hires Jewish workers because their labor is cheap but on the other hand, Jewish Itzhak Stern worked as his accountant but also hired as many people as possible thereby saving them from being killed or sent to concentration camps. Schindler witnesses the shooting and killing of people and it deeply affected him. This is when Schindler started to focus in helping save the Jews.
17. Enemy At The Gates
Release Date: 2001
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Jude Law
Summary: Loosely based on stories shared by sniper and Hero of the Soviet Union Vasily Zaitsev. He started as a shepherd who became a Red Army soldier and ended up on the frontlines during the Battle of Stalingrad on the Eastern Front. He made use of his excellent marksmanship skills which were honed at a very young age thanks to the help of his grandfather and thus, he was able to save Commissar Danilov and himself.
When politician Nikita Khrushchev wanted to improve morale, Danilov who became a senior lieutenant, suggested giving people hope by publishing stories of Zaitsev’s exploits. They aimed to make him someone the masses can idolize so he was made into a national hero and they also used him as a propaganda icon. Zaitsev and Danilov became friends and interestingly enough, they wanted the same girl – Tania.
16. The Patriot
Release Date: 2000
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger
Summary: This depicts the story of a French-Indian War hero and veteran, Benjamin Martin and his role during the American Revolution in 1776. When he was called on to vote on a levy in support for the Continental Army, he abstained. Nevertheless, it was passed and his eldest son Gabriel joined. After two years, Charleston has fallen and Gabriel came home wounded. A British infantry came and arrested him. They also took the African-American free men and women working on Martin’s land captive.
When his second son Thomas tried to free Gabriel, he was shot by Colonel Tavington and killed. As ruthless as he was, it wasn’t enough for Tavington and even went so far as commanded the Martin’s home to be burned. After the threats to his family, Benjamin firmly resolved to work with Gabriel so they can fight the British together.
15. The Thin Red Line
Release Date: 1998
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel
Summary: This is adapted from the 1962 novel of the same title by James Jones. It starts off with US Army Private Witt who went AWOL and lived with some natives in the South Pacific. The First Sergeant of his military unit, Welsh, found and imprisoned him. The C Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division were ordered to participate in the Guadalcanal Campaign (which was the Allied forces’ first major offensive against Japan).
After landing on Guadalcanal and marching towards Hill 210, they found proof of the Japanese presence. There’s a bunker with machine guns at the top which made it difficult to climb the area. The C Company had several attempts at capturing the said hill but failed because they were easily repelled by the gunfire. One of the platoon leaders, Second Lieutenant Whyte, was killed.
14. The Battle of Britain
Release Date: 1969
Director: Guy Hamilton
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Hein Riess
Summary: This film broadly relates to the true event during World War 2, the Battle of Britain. It’s widely considered as the first major campaign which was fought by air forces alone. On June 1940 at the Battle of France, just as the RAF pilots departed, German aircraft carried out a heavy strafing attack. RAF Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding has foreseen the possible invasion of Britain and proceeded to stop aircraft and their crew from leaving for France. This is so they can be utilized to defend Britain. Thus, French civilians couldn’t do anything but watch as German stoops marched in and took control.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill thus declared “what General Weygand called the ‘Battle of France’ is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” The Luftwaffe planned to destroy the Spitfire and Hurrican fighters even before they could take to the sky
13. The Dirty Dozen
Release Date: 1967
Director: Robert Aldrich
Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine
Summary: Based on Erwin “E.M.” Nathanson’s 1965 novel of the same name and inspired by ‘Filthy Thirteen’ (a real-life group from the US Army who participated in the European Theater during World War II), the Allied forces are preparing for their invasion in Normandy as part of the Operation Overlord. Major John Reisman from the Office of Strategic Services is given a top-secret mission. Codenamed Operation Amnesty, he is tasked to personally handpick some of the worst convicts of the US Army. They will be turned into commandos and take on a suicide mission which is to complete the task of airborne infiltration and assault on a château in the city of Rennes which is located in the northwest part of France. A meeting has been set for dozens of high-ranking German officials and they needed to be eliminated to disrupt the chain of command during D-Day.
12. The Longest Day
Release Date: 1962
Director: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki
Starring: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery
Summary: The storyline follows the points of view from both the German and Allied forces during D-Day invasion in Normandy during World War 2. The entire film follows a docudrama style and features a large ensemble cast. The movie starts with the events prior to D-Day. General Eisenhower, the commander of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, wanted to review all the reports ranging from the bad weather to the possible location of invasion and their consequent response.
Other scenes were about the events during the early hours of June 6, 1944 (the day of the landing operations) – such as the Allied airborne forces leaving for their assigned key locations, a unit of airlanding infantry of the British 6th Airborne Division taking over and holding the Pegasus Bridge, and the counterattacks employed by the US paratroopers.
Release Date: 1976
Director: Jack Smight
Starring: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda
Summary: This is a reenactment of The Battle of Midway which is widely considered as a turning point in the Pacific Theatre during World War 2. Until that time, the Imperial Japanese Navy was undefeated and they also out-numbered the US naval forces by four to one. It was the first battle that heavily used and utilized air power.
The film is divided into two storylines – one that followed the Japanese Chief Strategist Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and the other centered on naval aviators Captain Matt Garth (a senior officer highly involved in the planning and execution phase of the battle) and his son, Thomas (a young pilot in a relationship with an American-born girl whose parents are Japanese immigrants – Haruko Sakura) both of whom are fictional characters. Captain Garth sought the help of a long-time friend in order to investigate the charges filed against the girl’s family.
10. Das Boot
Release Date: 1981
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Summary: This war film is an adaptation of German author and painter Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s novel of the same title released in 1973. It follows a fictional tale of a German U-boat U-96 and its crew told from the viewpoint of a war correspondent, Lt. Werner. He meets the captain, chief engineer and other staff. One other captain who was so drunk, gave a very crude speech which mocked both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. He was able to explore the sense of professionalism the submariners had to maintain and how they’re able to obey and understand the government’s beliefs and ideology.
Although, Werner noticed how ideologically different the new crew men were from the embittered, cynical and hardened veterans. The latter’s tight bond has become pretty obvious when they kept on mocking Werner along with the new crew members.
9. Letters from Iwo Jima
Release Date: 2006
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya
Summary: This film reenacts the ‘Battle of Iwo Jima’ told from the perspective of Japanese soldiers. The five-week major battle is known for being one of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific Theater during World War 2. The mission, called Operation Detachment, aimed to capture the island of Iwo Jima and also to take hold of three Japanese-controlled airfields to allow for American attacks on the main islands thus becoming a launching point for invasion. This made the Japanese desperate to avoid such thing from happening – Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had to make sure the island defenses held up and there were no weak points.
However, he believed they had to strengthen the mountain defenses because the Americans can quickly and easily take over the beaches. There were others who disagreed strongly with his strategy. Because of inadequate nutrition and not-so-sanitary living conditions, many suffered from dysentery and eventually died.
8. Band of Brothers (Not a movie, but a series)
Release Date: 2001
Director: Phil Alden Robinson, Richard Loncraine, Michael Salomon, etc.
Starring: Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg
Summary: This mini-series follows the ‘E’ Easy Company of the US Army, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. It starts from their basic jump training (in Camp Toccoa, Georgia) up until the last days of World War 2 including its participation in major battles in Europe – it details some of their exploits and missions. Stretched out into 10 episodes, they became part of the combat operations during the invasion of Normandy, the unsuccessful military operation of the Allied Forces for the Operation Market Garden, and the fight between the American and German troops in the Siege of Bastogne to name a few.
The main character is Major Richard Winters who worked hard to keep his men safe while accomplishing challenging missions. Based on historic events, the central element is the hurdle each character had to overcome.
7. The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date: 1957
Director: David Lean
Starring: William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness
Summary: Based on the book by French novelist Pierre Boulle, the film depicts the story of British prisoners of war who were ordered by Colonel Saito to construct the Burma-Siam railway bridge regardless of rank – this will connect Bangkok to Rangoon. Initially, the men sabotaged the ‘project’ with every opportunity they could find and they worked as little as possible. When the senior British officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson conducted an inspection, he was surprised by the poor work his men have done.
Though he was met with protests, he asked Captain Reeves and Major Hughes to come up with a proper design for the bridge. He wanted to maintain his men’s dignity and morale even though he knew the military value of such construction. Because the initial site was poorly chosen by the Japanese engineers, the ‘new’ bridge was set to be built downstream.
6. Memphis Belle
Release Date: 1990
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Starring: Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Harry Connick Jr.
Summary: This is a fictional version of ‘The Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress” which is a documentary directed by Major William Wyler and released in 1944. It tells the story of a UK-based Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crew who are preparing for their 25th and final bombing mission prior to going back to the US. This will complete their tour of duty before they can go home. In anticipation of this last requirement, they will be interviewed by an army publicist , Lt. Col. Bruce Derringer.
The squadron officers are told that the target is Bremen, Germany. They had to deal with poor weather which caused a delay, harassment by enemy fighter planes and when their escort, the North American P-51 Mustang planes were already low on fuel, the Memphis Belle had to continue alone.
5. Tora! Tora! Tora!
Release Date: 1970
Director: Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda, Kinji Fukasaku
Starring: Martin Balsam, So Yamamura, Joseph Cotten
Summary: The story starts off in the year 1939 when the United States began imposing a trade embargo which in turn, deprived raw materials to the Japanese. Some politicians and officials in the Imperial Japanese Army found an alliance with Italy and Germany and then began preparing for war. If diplomacy should fail, they saw another option in taking control of the Pacific Ocean and that is to hatch plans for a surprise attack by annihilating the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The most important tasks were given to two men: masterminding the whole operation would be the responsibility of Air Staff Officer Minoru Genda while his Naval Academy classmate Mitsuo Fuchida would lead the strike. Meanwhile, the US military intelligence was able to intercept their Purple Code thus allowing them to intercept radio transmissions from the Japanese.
4. Battle of the Bulge
Release Date: 1965
Director: Ken Annakin
Starring: Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan
Summary: This dramatizes the last major counterattack campaign of the German armed forces during World War II. It was launched in the Ardennes forest which is primarily located in Belgium and Luxembourg but also stretches into France and Germany. This happened towards the end of WWII on the Western Front of the European Theatre.
The film begins with Lt. Col. Daniel Kiley who spots a German staff car while flying over the forest on a reconnaissance mission. He went back to the headquarters to warn his superiors about Germany’s plan of launching an all-out offensive attack which Gen. Grey and Col. Pritchard dismissed, thinking that the enemy no longer has the manpower and resources to do so.
Some German soldiers dressed up as US troops and the disguise would help them cause confusion among the Allied forces and also seize important bridges.
3. The Great Escape
Release Date: 1963
Director: John Sturges
Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough
Summary: Based on a true story (and a novel of the same name by author Paul Brickhill), this film dramatizes the mass escape by the British Commonwealth prisoners of war from an ‘escape-proof’ Luftwaffe-run POW camp, the Stalag Luft III. The site wasn’t just highly secured but it made any escape next to impossible if prisoners had to tunnel through the sandy soil. There were also numerous features that discouraged any attempt at escaping and the POWs could even earn incentives if they stopped trying to hatch any plans. At first, there were several tries but none of which were successful. RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett was pinpointed as the chief culprit in organizing escapes. Despite being warned that he will be shot if he attempted again, he organized a plan that will break out 250 prisoners.
Although it’s non-fiction, there were some details changed for the movie.
Release Date: 1970
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden
Summary: This biographical film tells the tale of US Army General George S. Patton who is famous for his command of the Third Army in France and Germany after the amphibious invasion of Normandy. Some parts of the movie also showed Patton’s numerous faults like slapping incidents (when he struck subordinates) and verbal abuse. The vulgarity in his speeches has been removed for the film.
When he was assigned in North Africa to command the US Army II Corps, he became known for being a strict disciplinarian. He was also successful in defeating a German strike during The Battle of El Guettar in World War 2’s Tunisia Campaign. Along with senior British Army officer Bernard Montgomery, they planned what would be known as ‘Operation Husky’ or the invasion of Allied forces in Sicily. Overall, Patton had a different style of leadership than his predecessors.
1. Saving Private Ryan
Release Date: 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
Summary: With its graphic portrayal of war, the film starts off with an intense dramatization of the Allied forces invasion of Normandy. The Omaha Beach aimed at securing the beachhead and the soldiers were met with so many challenges during the assault such as navigation difficulties and strong defenses. The company commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, Captain John H. Miller, was able to survive the landing despite the struggle against German artillery fire and infantry. He then assembled his Rangers to try to bring down the enemy’s defenses.
After it was over, a dead soldier (with an inscribed ‘S. Ryan’ on his uniform, is shown. Apparently, three out of four brothers from the Ryan family died while the fourth one, Private First Class James Francis Ryan was still missing in action. After that, Miller received an order to rescue Ryan and bring him back home.