When it comes to the exploration and depiction of war, there’s no shortage of films. And no wonder: war films have the ability to delve into the deepest, darkest parts of humanity, while sometimes also offering hope for what is on the horizon. Of course, some of the best war films also sit with us well after the closing credits, offering a glimpse of what many veterans are unable to speak of following their own experiences on the ground, in the air or on the water.
War movies also offer historical context to important world events, giving us an idea of people’s mindsets and attitudes, not to mention the cultural impacts of such events at the time they went down. And while some films may controversially glamorize or gloss over some of the important nuances of such stories, the best war movies make a viewer really feel a war and understand the overall experience of it.
In that vein, we’ve procured 20 titles for suggested viewing this Veterans Day. These films span all of the important wars, from the World Wars to the Vietnam War and any international wars worth mentioning. Feel like we’ve missed an important film? Chime in with your suggestions in the comments, below.
1. Apocalypse Now, 1979
If you’ve seen any of director Francis Ford Coppola’s work in this Oscar-nominated film, odds are you still have some of the haunting imagery — a ceiling fan, that swamp — burned inside your brain. The story follows an army captain and his descent into madness during the Vietnam War and is widely considered one of the most popular (if not one of the best) war films ever made. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brandon and Robert Duvall star.
2. Saving Private Ryan, 1998
BEST CONTEMPORARY CLASSIC
As it turns out, Steven Spielberg isn’t just a family-friendly director. He helms this haunting take on World War II that specifically traces a group of U.S. soldiers as they go behind enemy lines following the Normandy Landings. There, their mission is to retrieve and bring home a paratrooper whose brother has been killed in action. Spielberg took home a Best Directing Oscar, while lead Tom Hanks received a Best Lead Actor nod. Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Ted Danson and Paul Giamatti also star.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930
Although this classic and influential flick has been remade in the years since, none of the new editions are quite as impactful as this Oscar-winning original from director Lewis Milestone. He and actor Lew Ayres perfectly capture the innocent enthusiasm of young soldiers willing to fight for their country in the first world war, along with the harsh toll such horrors took on generations of men in real life.
4. Schindler’s List, 1993
Steven Spielberg’s hot take on German-occupied Poland during World War II made a household name out of hero Oskar Schindler. Although Liam Neeson certainly contributed too, thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn as the character. He didn’t win, but the film went on to win Best Picture and Best Director that year, solidifying its place as one of the best war films of all time.
5. Casablanca, 1942
Here’s looking at you, kid. Yes, romance is at the center of this classic Oscar-winning tale starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman, but director Michael Curtiz also injected it with plenty of war-set drama. That definitely earns it a spot on this list. When an ex-pat American café owner encounters his former lover and her fugitive husband, he must decide whether he will help them escape the Nazis in French Morocco.
6. Platoon, 1986
BEST GOOD VS EVIL
Director Oliver Stone got down and dirty in order to examine what it was really like to be a foot soldier in Vietnam, and the result is this star-studded affair that deals with an infantry rifle platoon of 30 and their daily grind during that horrific time. It’s as much a story of good versus evil as it is an examination of the brutality of war. Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp are all among the notable cast, and Stone took home the Oscar that year for best director.
7. The Hurt Locker, 2008
BEST IRAQ WAR
Director Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to ever win Best Director at the Oscars for this Iraq War offering. The story of a sergeant who takes over the direction of a highly trained bomb disposal team, only to recklessly endanger their lives, stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes.
8. Full Metal Jacket, 1987
BEST VIETNAM WAR
Stanley Kubrick tackled the Vietnam War in this timely (and sometimes comedic) take on the dehumanizing effects of war. The story tracks an 18-year-old marine recruit and follows his journey from boot camp, all the way to his participation in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. It stars Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D’Onofrio and Adam Baldwin, among others.
9. Gallipoli, 1981
BEST WORLD WAR I
“From a place you never heard of, comes a story you’ll never forget,” promises the original trailer for this Peter Weir-directed tale. The action centers on two Australian sprinters who are sent to fight in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey during World War I. There, they face the brutal realities of war, forever changing their lives. Mel Gibson, Mark Lee, Bill Kerr and Harold Hopkins star.
10. Inglourious Basterds, 2009
Before Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino teamed for Pitt’s award-winning turn in Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood came this Oscar-nominated romp that made a household name out of Christoph Waltz. The film sets the stage in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, where a group of Jewish soldiers (and separately, a theatre owner) plot to assassinate Nazi leaders.
11. The Great Escape, 1963
Steve McQueen led a crew including James Garner, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson in this notable John Sturges-directed flick, whose theme song has become the stuff of many pop culture references over the years. James Clavell’s screenplay follows allied prisoners of war as they plot their “great escape” from a German camp during World War II, leading to one of the most on-the-nose, if not apt, film titles on this list.
12. The Battle of Algiers, 1966
BEST INTERNATIONAL PICK
Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s take on the Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s has been called one of the most important and influential political films ever made. The screen brims with non-professional actors and feels kind of like a documentary, especially thanks to the graphic and violent scenes depicting horrific, true events.
13. Ran, 1985
Director Akira Kurosawa made one of the most epic takes on King Lear (mixed with Japanese history) in this renowned war film, in which a Great Lord decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom amongst his three sons. What he isn’t aware of is how much the new power will corrupt his sons, causing them to turn on one another … and on him.
14. Restrepo, 2010
If you want a better understanding of the firsthand experiences of soldiers on the frontline, this Sundance Film Festival and Academy Award winner is for you. The film follows a platoon in the deadly Korengal Valley in 2007 Afghanistan over the course of a year. The narrative is (interestingly and fittingly) all over the place as the platoon teeters between boredom and fighting, with both ultimately taking their toll.
15. Three Kings, 1999
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube team for this David O. Russell-directed action-comedy that doles out twists, turns and comedic moments alike. Following the Persian Gulf War, four soldiers set out to steal gold that was stolen from Kuwait. But along the way, their mission is derailed when they discover people who are in need of help.
16. The Deer Hunter, 1978
BIGGEST STAR POWER
The acting prowesses of Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken come together in this powerful film from director Michael Cimino, delivering a strong (if not slightly long) film that represents the Rust Belt portion of Americans affected by the brutalities of the Vietnam War. Not only did the film win Best Picture at the Oscars that year, but Walken took home what remains today his only win from the awards show.
17. Waltz With Bashir, 2008
Israeli director Ari Folman comes to terms with his own blacked-out memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and his service in that conflict with this animated doc that made the festival circuit (Toronto, Cannes, New York, Telluride) when it debuted. It was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the Oscars, and to this day remains one of the most gripping and painful animated takes on the war genre in existence.
18. The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957
Aside from delivering one of the biggest ear-worm songs in cinematic history (“Colonel Bogey March”) and taking home seven of its eight Oscar nominations, this David Lean-directed film is both intimate and sweeping. The result is a truly nuanced take on war. The action revolves around British POWs who are forced to build a railway bridge across the river Kwai for Japanese captors in Burma, and stars an impressive cast including William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins.
19. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964
Almost everyone has an image in their heads of character actor Slim Pickens riding that nuclear bomb like a horse, and we have this dark satire to thank for it. Stanley Kubrick pulled out all the stops to tell the story of an insane American general who orders a bombing attack on the Soviet Union, triggering a nuclear war in the process. Not only did the film take home four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director), but it remains one of actor Peter Sellers’ most memorable roles.
20. Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006
Sure, on the surface, Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning foreign film centers on a kid and a whole bunch of mythical creatures that seem inspired by a dark fairy tale. But while childlike fears and wonders certainly play into the movie, this is also a period piece that’s deeply rooted in historic Falangist Spain, five years following the Spanish Civil War. The result is a fantastical, eerie and downright sorrowful story of the realities of war and the true nature of humans. It’s totally worth the watch … if your stomach can handle it.
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