The Top 10 War Movies of All Time


Last year we had a debate on the top ten law movies of all time. Despite the sniping, we actually had a fair amount of agreement. So this year, we just offer a straight up list, with commentary but no debate. At the end, we offer our pick for the worst ever for good measure.

But what are the criteria? There are different kinds of war movies, some large in scale, others intimate, some anti-war others glorifying it - how to decide? Our list includes some of all of these, and our approach has been simply to select great movies that have as their subject various aspects of war. It was a very difficult task whittling the list down to 10, and many fantastic movies were left on the cutting room floor.

No. 1. - The Thin Red Line: A surprising choice for many no doubt, but this is a movie that at once captures the horror, the insanity, and pointlessness of war, while at the same time managing to beautifully and subtly explore the deeper philosophical questions of whether war is an aberration of nature, or just another manifestation of it. A brilliant movie, nominated for a best-picture Oscar, which ultimately lost to one of our pics for worst war movies ever.

No. 2. - Apocalypse Now: This really doesn't need much explanation. The brilliant remake of Conrad's Heart of Darkness continues to be a classic, long after the Vietnam war obsession has faded. We'll leave aside the debate over which is better, the original, or Redux.

No. 3. - Dr. Strangelove: Stanley Kubrick's classic Cold War movie, in which Peter Sellers plays three different characters, and George C. Scott (see Patton below), plays the hard-drinking, hard-loving general ready for war with the Ruskies. The movie is a brilliant satire on the logic behind nuclear deterrence and mutual assured destruction, still very relevant today.

No. 4. - Das Boot: The best navy movie ever. Gritty, realistic, and utterly compelling, managing to capture the futility of war while at the same time the heroism and character of some of its combatants. Has to be seen in the original German with subtitles.

No. 5. - Bridge on the River Kwai: The great prisoner of war movie, with Alec Guinness playing the British General leading the allied prisoners in the building of a bridge for the Japanese over a river in Northern Thailand (the remnants of the camp can still be visited), and loses his bearings in the process.

No. 6. - The Deer Hunter: a dark film about a group of blue-collar lads from Pittsburgh whose lives are changed for ever by Vietnam, this is a haunting film, with outstanding performances by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage. The film was said to have spawned a spate of deaths caused by playing Russian roulette.

No. 7. - Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence: Yes, another Japanese prisoner of war camp movie - but a very different one, with musicians David Bowie and Sakamoto Ryuichi playing the leads, supported by Beat Takeshi and Tom Conti. A strange film that has become something of a cult classic, the movie explores the cultural differences between the protagonists, and tries to reveal the fallacy of the preconceived notions on both sides; all beautifully directed by Oshima, set to the haunting music of Sakamoto.

No. 8. - Patton: A straightforward and fairly flattering movie of General Patton and his campaigns in World War II, which is nonetheless a fascinating account of the general and how he approached the fighting of the war, with George C. Scott filling every frame: "You don't win wars by dying for your country; you win wars by making the other poor son of a bitch die for his!"

No. 9. - Henry V: Shakespeare's play was always a patriotic war piece, and Lawrence Olivier's version during World War II was a same-faced attempt to rally the nation. But Kenneth Branagh's version is nothing short of brilliant, and the rendition of the famous battle of Agincourt is actually made with a view to getting the history right. While watching it is hard not to go galloping off to storm the breach oneself.

No. 10. - Gandhi: Yes, a strange pick for a list of war movies - but the film masterfully recounts how Gandhi, played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley, mounted a campaign to wage a conflict with the British for independence, while choosing to do so through non-violent means. His success, where violence would surely have failed in the short run, of course suggests the alternatives to war, and so is in that sense a movie about war and conflict.

Ok, there will be outrage at some of the great movies not listed. Among the contenders that we fought over: Letters from Iwo Jima, Platoon, ZuluBlack Hawk DownMaster and Commander, Galippoli, All's Quiet on the Western Front, Lawrence of Arabia, Cross of Iron, A Bridge Too Far, RanStalingradThe Dogs of War (rumour has it that Fredrick Forsythe funded a mercenary war in Africa in order to research the book), The Last of the Mohicans, The Hurt Locker (already reviewed by us earlier), Crimson Tide, The Battle of Algiers (which was shown at the White House at the outset of the torture debate, and apparently entirely misunderstood by the Bush Administration); and we could go on.Some others have already appeared on our Top 10 Law Movies, including Paths of Glory and Breaker Morant.

Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which has its moments, but ultimately never seems to know what it is trying to say. Schindler's List is a movie that similarly has wonderful moments, and remains complicated until the end, when Spielberg just has to have his Disney moment - and blows the whole thing.

The worst? Saving Private Ryan - a movie that starts out as an anti-war film but ends up glorifying it as a human activity that ultimately ennobles the men that fight it. A schizophrenic movie that is beautifully made but fatally flawed. Yet it beat out A Thin Red Line for best picture. Go figure.
- Gamma.


War Movie Buff said...

If you want to be taken seriously, you need to avoid ridiculously indefensible statements like "Saving Private Ryan" is the worst war movie. I can live with your mistaken belief that "Thin Red Line" is better than SPR. You are not the only one to be fooled by Malick's pretentious directing. (See my review at "") However, to go off the deep end with your condemnation of a masterpiece means you are simply trying to provoke people. If SPR is glorifying war, why do most of the main characters end up dead including the Jewish soldier knifed in a brutal scene by a Nazi?
The list is actually quite good, other than your conclusion.

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