What are the best war movies of all time? War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Except, maybe, being the basis of some really great cinema. From sweeping soldierly epics to intimate portrayals of life on the brink, war has been the backdrop of many a cinematic success.
We are drawn in by the personal; the safety of being on “the winning side”; the stories of courage and derring-do. We cry at losses and sit in awe at acts of bravery. We lose ourselves in the soundscapes and the landscapes unfolding before us in great war movies.
Whether you prefer huge scale battle scenes, moments of espionage or real moments of history, the vast well of war movies remains a popular and interesting genre. So, what are the best war movies ever made?
What are the best war movies of all time?
- Roma, città aperta
- The Battle of Algiers
- Full Metal Jacket
- Apocalypse Now
- Europa, Europa
- Life is Beautiful
- Schindler’s List
- Quo Vadis, Aida?
10. Roma, città aperta (1945)
Roberto Rossellini’s blazing neo-realist drama was released just over one month after World War II ended in Europe which, in itself, is no small feat. It centres around the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1944 as Resistance leader, Giorgio Manfredi, seeks a way to escape the city. Rossellini follows a myriad of characters as the try to live their lives against a backdrop of Nazi cruelty, bombed out buildings, rationing and Communist resistance parties. It’s full of subterfuge and tension; betrayal and loss. It scooped the Palme d’Or at Cannes and took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. It also launched the international career of Rossellini and his star, Anna Magnani.
9. The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Inspired by the Italian neo-realist works, this 1966 film is vehemently anti-occupation; anti French. Brahim Hadjadj stars as revolutionary hero and former prisoner, Ali La Pointe, as he battles to free his homeland from the embittered French Foreign Legion. Feeling like a documentary, The Battle of Algiers places you in the heart of guerrilla warfare and classroom strategy sessions. It’s unashamed in its moral disgust towards torture, intimidation and civilian murder. At times, it makes for uncomfortable viewing but is an important piece of cinema with regards to a lesser explored chapter of French-Algerian relations.
8. 1917 (2019)
World War I probably gets less screen time than World War II, but director Sam Mendes maximised every second of his “one take” historical drama. Starring George MacKay and Dean- Charles Chapman, 1917 (quite literally) follows two young soldiers on a quest to deliver a message to the British front line. The horrors of trench warfare are laid bare. Thousand of young men, injured or traumatised line the mud-soaked battlegrounds, awaiting their call to go “up and over”. As well as a spectacular piece of cinematography from Sir Roger Deakins, this is a really emotional film that tempers moments of unbearable sound with periods of equally unbearable silence. Thoroughly watchable.
7. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
This 1987 Stanley Kubrick classic reveals the horrific dehumanization process of US troops in the Vietnam War. Famously, R. Lee Ermey was an actual Marine Drill Instructor brought in to play the utterly terrifying Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann. The first of half of the film follows Matthew Modine’s Joker and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pyle as they receive their training; the second half journeys on with them to the escalating disaster that was the American involvement in Vietnam. The performances are superb, demonstrating both the physical and mental effects of serving in war. Strangely, Full Metal Jacket only picked up one Oscar nomination (Best Adapted Screenplay) but is regularly voted one of the best war films of all time.
6. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Can you even write a list of the best war movies without mentioning Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 anti-war epic? What do you begin to talk about? The soundtrack? The cast? The fact that you can practically smell the napalm in the morning? Sheen, Brando, Duvall, Hopper, Fishburne, and the entire cast are all on top form. Everything feels bloated; hyperbolic; sweaty; shameful. War – and the madness and chaos it inflicts – is laid bare in all its disgusting glory. Filming for Apocalypse Now took sixteen months and production veered from bad to worse. It appears that everyone was on drugs. However, the final product is entirely worth it. It’s a cinematic classic, never mind a genre star, and a perfect encapsulation of the tensions of the 1970s.
5. Europa, Europa (1990)
Agnieska Holland’s 1990 drama centres around Sally, a young boy who escaped the clutches of the Holocaust by pretending that he is not Jewish and joining the local Hitler Youth. It sounds utterly fanciful – the stuff of a Hollywood round-table – but it is based on the true story of Solomon Perel. The film flits between Nazi Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union, combining both Sally’s extraordinary personal experience along with the broader narrative of war. Marco Hofschneider is brilliant as Sally, who struggles with giving up his identity to become something he truly reviles – even if it means surviving the war. Europa, Europa won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film and collected an Oscar nomination.
4. Life is Beautiful (1997)
Stand up comedians and the Holocaust are not natural bedfellows. In fact, if anything, it seems utterly distasteful to mention the two together. Yet, Jewish-Italian comedian Roberto Benigni (who wrote, directed and starred in the film) used his skills to tell a different kind of war story. When his character, Guido, and his son Giosué (Giorgio Canterini) are imprisoned in a concentration camp, he creates a “game” in order to help his only child survive. Yes, there are moments of rubber-faced physical comedy, but La Vita è Bella is also home to the most decadent love story and some moments of real, fraught tension. There is also the despair and horror of life in the camp. If you can make it all the way to the end without crying, you need to get your tear ducts tested.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s black and white historical biopic took home seven Oscars. It’s absolutely stunning to look at even if, at times, you cannot bear to watch. It tells the story of Polish factory owner Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and the lives of the many Jews he spared from the Holocaust. Ralph Fiennes is utterly despicable as Amon Goeth. Usually, sweeping American war epics can be a bit cheesy or self-serving but this is anything but. It is tense yet delicate; brutal yet hopeful. It doesn’t whitewash over Schindler’s greed and womanising, instead choosing to demonstrate how absolutely anyone can become a hero. A brilliant film.
2. Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020)
Jasna Djuricic gives an utterly phenomenal performance as the titular Aida in Jasmila Zbanic’s brutal portrayal of the Bosnian war. Aida is a translator at a UN holding camp as the town of Srebrenica is bombed and surrounded by the ruthless Ratko Mladic and his troops. It’s hard to believe that these are events that have happened within living memory. The film is so raw; so painful. It build to its horrific climax through a series of tensions and emotional outbursts. Zbanic never once shies away from the subject matter and never really allows you, the viewer, to catch your breath. It’s also an important film in that it is directed by – and focuses on – a woman. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a truly stunning piece of Balkan cinema.
1. Downfall (2004)
Although Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film (also known as Der Untergang) has become little more than a YouTube parody video for some, Downfall was seen as something shocking on its release. Beloved German actor Bruno Ganz was coming dangerously close to “humanising” Hitler, it was claimed. Because Ganz’s portrayal shows the megalomaniac shaking with Parkinson’s, losing his grip on both the war and reality. It’s not the villain of maniacal speeches and rallies. He’s a loser, trapped in his bunker, surrounded by sycophants. The bunker lends itself perfectly to the claustrophobia and tension of the film. You can seen every bead of sweat; hear every hard swallow. It’s a striking portrayal of a period of history that no film-maker had yet dared to capture. The ultimate exploration of the psychology of those who take us to war – and the consequences of their decisions.
So, there you have it, the best war movies of all time! If you fancy something a little bit lighter, why not check out our list of the best rom-com movies ever made.