War has been one of film's most traversed subjects over its decades of history. The compulsion is no surprise–the stakes of war are unlike anything else humanity can experience. These war movies will remind viewers of the sacrifices and the bravery that has been called upon in each conflict. From classics like Saving Private Ryan to lesser-known but vital contributions like Tae Guk Gi, the greatest war movies will leave you with a sense of exhilaration and gratitude for those who have served.
Based off of the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, this movie travels through different fronts of the First World War as a horse named Joey is passed from person to person. First belonging to a young English boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the horse is sold to the British Army, under the watch of Captain James Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). As the horse is taken by Germans, lost through France, and reclaimed by the British, audiences are treated to the vast perspectives within the devastation of war.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Based on the 1952 novel by Pierre Boulle, the film follows British prisoners of war during World War II. While in captivity of the Japanese forces, the POWs are ordered to construct a bridge that will link Bangkok to Rangoon. But as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) pushes back against both his captors and his own men, the Allied forces have their own dangerous plans in store for this bridge. This film artfully captures the madness and machinations of wartime.
Courage Under Fire
This film centers around the contributions and objections to women’s efforts in war. Lieutenant Colonel Serling (Denzel Washington), relegated to desk work after a lethal accident during battle, is tasked with deciding whether or not Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) is deserving of a posthumous Medal of Honor. In his investigations, Serling receives conflicting accounts from the praising medic, Andrew Ilario (Matt Damon), and the criticizing Staff Sergeant John Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips). But is this as simple as deciding whether or not Walden was a hero or a coward, or is there something more scandalous in play?
Black Hawk Down
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Mark Bowden, this film’s large ensemble cast features Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, and Tom Hardy. A group of 160 American soldiers are sent into Somalia with orders to capture a pair of lieutenants under the command of a brutal warlord. But their mission devolves into a battle which overwhelms them with heavy fire and losses.
Flags of Our Fathers
This film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is based on the book of the same name by James Bradley and Ron Powers. It follows the six American men who rose their nation’s flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Through unexpectedly harsh conditions, the men fight to gain ground and turn the tides of the war against Japan. Once the battle was over, the men would continue to struggle to regain a sense of normalcy for years to come.
This movie also has a companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the story from the Japanese perspective.
Set during the American Revolution, this epic historical war film depicts the brutality of war during the country’s earliest days. The film follows Benjamin Martin, a farmer who was once a celebrated war hero. When war begins to brew in the colonies, Benjamin urges pacifism, in hopes that he can avoid another traumatizing conflict. However, when his son joins the fight against the British, and is subsequently captured, Benjamin is forced to give up his ideals in hopes of saving his family.
The Red Badge of Courage
Based on Stephen Crane's novel of the same name,The Red Badge of Courage follows Henry Fleming, a young Union soldier fighting in the Civil War. The 1951 film opens as Henry runs away from the battlefield during a bloody fight. After he returns to his fellow soldiers, he learns the Union won the battle and, plagued by guilt, lies about his (lack of) involvement. Henry vows to redeem himself in the next battle. It isn’t long before his unit finds themselves in yet another skirmish, but this time Henry–desperate to redeem himself—plunges headfirst into the fires of war.
Related: 9 Best Civil War Movies
This thought-provoking historical drama about President Abraham Lincoln is one of Steven Spielberg’s finest achievements. Opening in 1865 near the conclusion of the Civil War, the film focuses on Lincoln’s uneasiness about the aftermath of the bloody conflict. Although he believes that a Union victory is inevitable, he’s concerned about how the Thirteenth Amendment—which would abolish slavery in the United States—will be ratified by the other states. This film captures the tensions of post-Civil War America as it explores Lincoln's motivations and actions during presidency.
Related: 11 Books About Abraham Lincoln
This heartwarming 2005 film captures a historical moment of peace during the first year of World War I. After Europe is hurled into bloody chaos in 1914, troops from Germany, France, and Scotland are at each other’s throats. With the upcoming holiday season approaching, the troops experience a momentary change of heart, prompting military leaders to issue a brief truce. The film captures these small moments of humanity as soldiers from opposing sides exchange gifts and sing carols from across trenches.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name, All Quiet on the Western Front is a 1930 anti-war film set during World War I. The film follows the harrowing experiences of a group of German soldiers who continuously find themselves in mortal danger. The film was praised for its incredibly realistic portrayal of trench life during World War I, in addition to deeply emotional moments that resonated with anti-war advocates. Despite its age–or perhaps because of its near contemporaneousness with the war–this movie is an enduring cinematic masterpiece worth a watch.
Based on the life and actions of Oskar Schindler, Schindler’s List is truly a classic of World War II film history. With World War II on the horizon in Germany, Nazi soldiers begin to round up Jewish citizens all over the country to place them in concentration camps, marking the initiation of the Holocaust. Oskar sees this as an opportunity to make a profit when he begins to offer a safe haven for Jewish families seeking refuge from the Nazis. However, when Oskar learns of the cruelties the Nazis are unleashing upon the Jewish prisoners, he sheds his initial opportunistic view and vows to save as many innocent lives as he can.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino, this World War II revenge flick follows a young woman named Shoshanna. Shoshanna's family was brutally murdered by Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) as she watched. Now, in the midst of outright war, Shoshanna has joined the French Resistance and teams up with American Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to take down the German Army. Aldo and his men are accompanied by Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress and spy who has valuable connections to the party. Given that Inglourious Basterds is a Tarantino film, you can safely expect to see plenty of blood, violence, and action.
This 2017 Academy Award-winning film from Christopher Nolan depicts the historic Dunkirk evacuation during World War II. When Germany started closing in on France in 1940, hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were in danger of being trapped. Without the help and sacrifice of British and French forces as well as the aid of civilians with ships, the approximately 330,000 troops that safely evacuated Dunkirk would’ve surely met their end. The film itself is a dramatic retelling of this historic moment that follows a group of battle-weary soldiers who are trying to escape France.
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan, perhaps the quintessential war film, takes place during the Invasion of Normandy. Starring Tom Hanks, the film focuses on Captain John Miller, who is forced to enter enemy territory to rescue Private James Ryan after the deaths of each of his three brothers. When Captain Miller begins his perilous mission, he gathers a crew of men who each have their own moment of personal growth as they encounter the true emotional terrors of war. Serving as both a thrilling and moving piece of cinematic history, Saving Private Ryan is definitely a must-watch or re-watch.
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War
This 2004 South Korean war drama offers a raw perspective of the conflict in Korea. The film centers on Jin-tae and Jin-seok, two brothers drafted into the South Korean army during the Korean War. Older brother Jin-tae has always protected his younger brother from harm and wishes to continue doing so on the battlefield. His commander offers him a deal: If Jin-tae promises to take on the most daring missions, the commander will never deploy Jin-seok into a battlefield. This compelling film will leave even the toughest war buff with a tear glistening in their eye.
The Manchurian Candidate
Based on Richard Condon’s novel of the same name, The Manchurian Candidate follows a group of U.S. soldiers who are captured and brainwashed by opposing troops during the Korean War. After they return home from the war, Sergeant Raymond Shaw is praised as a war hero for single-handedly annihilating the enemy and saving two of his fellow troops. But, upon returning to civilian life, Shaw struggles to suppress his urge to kill. When Captain Bennett Marco and soldier Allen Melvin—troops who were also captured alongside Shaw—begin to experience dreams of being captured, they try to piece together their experiences.
The Front Line
The Front Line opens during the negotiations that would bring an end–of sorts–to the Korean War. As the battle-weary troops continue to fight, a South Korean soldier is sent to the front lines to uncover a possible North Korean spy in their ranks. When he arrives at his destination, the soldier is bombarded by gunfire as North and South Korean troops face each other off in another battle. Although the film is definitely filled with thrilling action, at its essence, The Front Line captures the senselessness of war.
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this Vietnam War film follows Benjamin L. Willard, a U.S. captain sent on a mission to execute Walter E. Kurtz, a U.S. Colonel who has seemingly gone insane. As Willard travels upriver towards his destination, he is plagued by various obstacles that threaten his life, as are the troops who accompany him. As he floats deeper into the perilous jungles of Vietnam, Willard learns that other troops were sent on a similar mission, only to wind up joining Kurtz's twisted encampment. Faced with incredible odds, Willard must not only fight Kurtz, but also the perilous environs.
Born on the Fourth of July
Based on the bestselling autobiography by Ron Kovic, this film is a dramatic adaptation of the book of the same name. Born on the Fourth of July centers on Kovic, a man who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. When he enters the fray, he accidentally kills one of his fellow troops while he’s fleeing from enemy shots. Kovic reports the accident but is ignored by his superiors. After Kovic is caught in a firefight and left paralyzed from the chest down, he's sent home to recover and adjust to his life in a wheelchair. As Kovic returns to civilian life, he also undertakes a journey from struggling veteran to anti-war activist.
Related: The 9 Best Vietnam War Movies
Good Morning, Vietnam
Starring Robin Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam follows Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams), a radio comedian tasked with raising U.S. Army morale. When Cronauer begins his broadcasts, he is met with a mixed reception–the troops love his oddball, and often irreverent, pronouncements, but his superiors are frequently disgusted. Nevertheless, Cronauer continues–and meets a young Vietnamese woman who introduces him to the country he's been shipped off to. Based loosely on real-life DJ Adrian Cronauer's experience, Good Morning, Vietnam was one of 1987's most popular and beloved films.
The Hurt Locker
Set during the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker follows an army bomb squad team and their struggles with the stress of war. When the team’s former leader dies in action, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) fills in the position, but it isn’t without growing pains. The reckless Sergeant James is often at odds with his new troops, especially Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). But when they’re called to various missions to help diffuse bombs, the team and the captain have to work together to save lives. The film offers deep insight into the psychological and emotional effects of war on troops. Director Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director with this highly influential war film.
Related: 8 Thought-Provoking Iraq War Books
The Hornet's Nest
This high-stakes documentary comes from Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist Mike Boettcher. The documentary follows Mike and his son Carlos as they accompany a small battalion of U.S. troops on a mission in Afghanistan. What was supposed to be three days of filming ends up becoming a nine-day battle for their lives when the group is cornered by enemy forces. Caught in the middle of crossfire, the father-and-son duo are forced to wait out the fighting, all while filming every moment of their harrowing experience.
Featured still from 'Flags of Our Fathers' via Warner Bros.