The 25 Best War Movies Of All Time

It’s been glowingly reviewed by our colleague Drew, but we (as in Jess and Oli) have not yet seen Christopher Nolan‘s “Dunkirk.” You can tell we haven’t seen “Dunkirk” (IMAX OR STFU) because we are still schlepping about in our meatsack bodies and have not ascended to the higher astral plane attained by those who have seen “Dunkirk” (OMG! HANS ZIMMER FTW), a film of such perfection it represents mankind’s crowning achievement to date. Not having yet seen “Dunkirk,” (HARRY STYLES WHO KNEW!?!) we decided to scrabble around in the now-worthless dustheap of irrelevance that is film history for the best War Movies prior to “Dunkirk” (70MM 4EVA), the very existence of which, of course, renders all other movies utterly moot.

As production shingles lock their doors, studios shutter their soundstages and movie stars resignedly fill out application forms for mid-level management positions in recognition that there’s absolutely no point in ever making another film again, and just before The Playlist inevitably becomes a full-time “Dunkirk” appreciation zine (CHRISTOPHER NOLAN! GOAT!!!), this was how we arrived at our list: fractiously. There was much debate, but with some exceptions, we largely tried to avoid films that are primarily prisoner-of-war movies (so no “Stalag 17” or “The Great Escape“), Resistance movies (no “Casablanca” or “The Train“), wartime heist/mission movies (no “The Dirty Dozen“) or Holocaust films (no “Schindler’s List“) as they all felt like they were better candidates for their own separate features. We also confined ourselves to stories from real historical wars, so no sci-fi (sorry, “Starship Troopers” and indeed “War for the Planet of the Apes“). And remember, we’ve already run pieces on Post-War films, Lesser-Seen WWII movies and Resistance Movies, so a few of your favorites may crop up there, if they’re not here.

Lastly, we tried to push against the tendency to focus exclusively on 20th century conflict, and arrived at a list that comprehensively shows we reckon a great war film is almost always a great anti-war film. Here are 25 movies all very much worth your time before you see “Dunkirk” (MVP: EMOTION BUT ALSO SPECTACLE), which we hear is quite good.

Empire of the Sun25. “Empire Of The Sun” (1987)
It goes a little unloved among Spielberg’s filmography in some ways, but to us, “Empire Of The Sun” has aged into one of his very finest films, and as devastating a look at war through the eyes of a child as an American filmmaker has ever made. Channeling his friend David Lean (who was originally meant to direct the project), the director’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s memoir follows young Jamie (Christian Bale in his breakthrough role) from his comfortable life in Shanghai, through Japanese occupation and to an internment camp. Containing some of Spielberg’s most striking imagery (the flash of the Nagasaki bomb, basically every time an airplane appears), it was dismissed as some at the time as childish and sentimental, but there’s a hard edge here that’s new to the director’s work, the film slowly stripping its subject’s innocence away from him in a way that lingers, and the performances (Bale, but also John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson) are some of the best in any Spielberg film.

blank24. “Gallipoli” (1981)
Shining a light on a rarely-filmed element of a relatively rarely-filmed war — Australian troops fighting in Turkey during the First World War — Peter Weir’s film cemented, after “Picnic At Hanging Rock,” his status as one of the most exciting directors around at that point, and deservedly so. It focuses on two young athletes, the idealistic Archy (Mark Lee) and the cynical, unemployed Frank (Mel Gibson), who decide to enlist in the armed forces in 1915 as part of the ANZAC forces (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) to fight in Turkey in the (historically eventually disastrous) campaign of the title. World War I was a conflict of, as famously said at the time, “lions led by donkeys,” with the best and brightest gunned down in the hundreds of thousands following orders by incompetent and out-of-time generals, and few movies have captured that better than Weir here, the slaughter feeling as senseless as anything in “All Quiet On The Western Front” or “Paths Of Glory.” But it’s the central friendship, driven in particular by one of Gibson’s best performances, that leaves such a lump in the throat, particularly in the indelible final sequence.

blank23. “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)
It was strange that Michael Mann, better known for his steely urban modernity, chose to adapt James Fenimore Cooper‘s classic novel of the 1757 French and Indian War. But ‘Mohicans,’ though disparaged as “just” a romance by some (even if it were, what a romance!) has all the hallmarks of his meticulous magnificence, shot by Dante Spinotti, swooningly scored by a cadre of composers, and electrifyingly performed by Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means, Madeleine Stowe and especially Wes Studi as the villain Magua. But it features here because of its scenes of combat, which maybe don’t immediately spring to mind as “warfare,” only because warfare was so different three centuries ago. From the savage, guerilla-style attack on a column of red-clad British troops by a Huron raiding party, to the cannon-smoke and confusion of the fort battle with the French forces, this is a beautifully authentic rendering of distant history that makes you feel entirely immersed in its relatable human stakes.

blank22. “Three Kings” (1999)
Back on its release in 1999, several years before an infinitely more ill-fated and disastrous intervention in Iraq than the conflict it depicted, “Three Kings” looked, from a distance, like a lark, a big-budget throwback to a “Kelly’s Heroes”-type action movie set in the Gulf War in the early 1990s. But David O. Russell, in his studio debut and with what we’d argue is still his best movie, delivered something more prescient and subversive. The shoot for the film, in which George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze play soldiers who go AWOL in search of a bunker of Saddam’s gold, only to end up on a mission to escort a group of anti-regime dissidents to the border, was famously tumultuous, with the director and Clooney coming to blows at one point. But the results are glorious: inventively shot (it might remain DP Newton Thomas Sigel’s finest hour), anarchically funny, sharp in its jabs at American foreign policy, and often quite moving. It’s a rare movie where a ton of disparate parts somehow gel beautifully together.

Saving Private Ryan21. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
There might have been some better war movies (20, by our count), but few have had such a monumental impact on the genre as Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” and more accurately the film’s grisly, unforgettable opening. Spielberg had flirted on the fringes of WW2 before (most notably with “Empire Of The Sun,” as above), but the Omaha Beach sequence was the first time he’d directly tackled a combat sequence in this way, and it was like nothing else you’d ever seen before: in the details (soldiers puking as they prepare for landing), in its shocking level of violence and lack of sentimentality, in its aesthetic, with Janusz Kaminski’s saturated, shutter-speed-altered documentary-style camera capturing the chaos of conflict in a way like few others have done, while still finding a grim poetry among it. The rest of the film is very good too on the whole, with fine performances and several further stand-out sequences, but it’s that opening that is its legacy, influencing virtually every film in the genre to be made since.