When I was a kid, I would curl up on the couch on Saturdays and watch war movies on TNT. I would spend a lot of afternoons tuning into things like The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and Twelve O'Clock High.

Those movies really formed a lot of the way I feel about the world, in a weird and interesting way.

War is hell, it's easily the worst thing that can happen within the confines humanity, ever. But it happens, and as filmmakers, we have a responsibility to tell those hard stories to help cope with the harsh realities it renders.

Today, I want to get into the best war movies of all time, dig into their history, tropes, and see what we can learn from all these stories.

Let's dive in.

What Defines a War Movie?

War movies are films primarily set in the context of armed conflict, often focusing on the battles, strategies, and experiences of soldiers and civilians.

They can span various subgenres, including historical, action, thrillers, and even comedies.

What Are the Tropes of War Movies?

What Are the Tropes of War Movies?The Dirty DozenCredit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

War movies have lots of things in common across the genres they can be mashed up against. Let's take a look at a few of them.

  • The Hero's Journey: A soldier's transformation from innocence to experience.
  • Band of Brothers: The camaraderie and bonds formed among soldiers.
  • Anti-War Sentiment: The futility and horrors of war.
  • The Lost Cause: The tragedy of fighting for a doomed cause.
  • Shell Shock/PTSD: The psychological trauma of war.

The History of War Movies

The History of War Movies



The war movie genre has evolved significantly over time, reflecting changing attitudes towards conflict, advancements in filmmaking technology, and a deeper understanding of the psychological impact of war.

Here's a glimpse into its fascinating history.

Early Beginnings (1900s - 1920s):

The earliest war films were often short documentaries or fictionalized accounts of battles, serving as propaganda tools to boost morale and support for ongoing wars. Examples include Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898) and The Battle of the Somme (1916).

These films often depicted heroic soldiers and glorified the idea of fighting for one's country.

The Golden Age (1930s - 1950s):

The 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of classic war films that tackled more complex themes. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) offered a stark and unflinching portrayal of the horrors of World War I, while Casablanca (1942) blended romance and espionage against the backdrop of World War II.

This era also saw a shift towards more realistic depictions of combat and the human cost of war.

The Vietnam Era (1960s - 1970s):

The Vietnam War sparked a wave of controversial and introspective war films that challenged the patriotic narratives of earlier decades. Apocalypse Now (1979) delved into the psychological darkness of war, while MASH (1970) used satire to critique the military-industrial complex.

This period saw a rise in anti-war sentiments in cinema, reflecting the growing disillusionment with the conflict.

Modern Era (1980s - Present):

Contemporary war films continue to explore a wide range of themes, from the experiences of individual soldiers in Saving Private Ryan (1998) to the moral complexities of war in The Hurt Locker (2008).

Technological advancements have allowed for more immersive and visceral depictions of combat, while the rise of independent cinema has enabled filmmakers from diverse backgrounds to share their unique perspectives on war.

Global War Movies

Global War Movies

Das Boot


While Hollywood has dominated the war film genre, many other countries have produced powerful and critically acclaimed war films that offer unique cultural and historical perspectives.

War movies aren't exclusive to Hollywood. Many countries have produced powerful films reflecting their own war experiences:

  • Japan:Grave of the Fireflies (1988), an animated film about two siblings struggling to survive in World War II.
  • Germany:Das Boot (1981), a claustrophobic submarine thriller set during World War II.
  • Russia:Come and See (1985), a harrowing depiction of a young boy's experiences during the Nazi occupation of Belarus.
  • France:The Grand Illusion (1937), an anti-war film set in a World War I prisoner-of-war camp.

The Best War Movies of All Time

The Best War Movies of All Time

Apocalypse Now


  • Apocalypse Now (1979): A psychedelic journey into the heart of darkness during the Vietnam War, following Captain Willard on a mission to assassinate a rogue Colonel.
  • Schindler's List (1993): A powerful and harrowing depiction of the Holocaust, showcasing Oskar Schindler's efforts to save Jewish lives from the Nazis.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998): A visceral and unflinching portrayal of the D-Day invasion and the subsequent battles in World War II, as a group of soldiers search for a paratrooper behind enemy lines.
  • The Deer Hunter (1978): An epic and emotional exploration of the Vietnam War's impact on a group of friends from a small Pennsylvania town, focusing on their experiences before, during, and after the war.
  • Platoon (1986): A raw and realistic depiction of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a young soldier, Chris Taylor, caught in a moral conflict between two sergeants.
  • Das Boot (1981): A claustrophobic and intense submarine thriller set during World War II, following the crew of a German U-boat on a dangerous mission.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987): A darkly satirical and disturbing look at the Vietnam War, divided into two parts: the dehumanizing basic training and the brutal urban combat in Hue.
  • Paths of Glory (1957): A powerful anti-war film set during World War I, focusing on a French colonel who defends three soldiers court-martialed for cowardice after refusing to participate in a suicidal attack.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): An epic war drama set during World War II, exploring the themes of honor, duty, and obsession, as British POWs are forced to build a bridge for their Japanese captors.
  • Come and See (1985): A harrowing and unflinching depiction of the atrocities committed during the Nazi occupation of Belarus, seen through the eyes of a young boy who joins the resistance.
  • The Great Escape (1963): A thrilling adventure based on a true story, depicting Allied POWs' elaborate plan to escape a German prison camp during World War II.
  • The Dirty Dozen (1967): A ragtag group of convicted felons are trained for a suicide mission to assassinate German officers behind enemy lines during World War II.
  • Inglourious Basterds (2009): A fictional, alternate history of World War II, where a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as "The Basterds" are tasked with killing Nazis.
  • Letters from Iwo Jima (2006): A companion film to "Flags of Our Fathers," this Japanese-language film tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of Japanese soldiers.
  • Dunkirk (2017): A visceral and immersive experience of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II, told from land, sea, and air perspectives.
  • 1917 (2019): Two young British soldiers are given a seemingly impossible mission to deliver a message that could save their battalion during World War I.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008): An intense drama about a bomb disposal unit in the Iraq War, following their dangerous work and the psychological toll it takes on them.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): A classic anti-war film depicting the disillusionment and trauma experienced by young German soldiers during World War I.
  • Stalag 17 (1953): A cynical POW in a German camp during World War II is suspected of being an informer when two fellow prisoners are killed during an escape attempt.
  • The Grand Illusion (1937): A French anti-war film set during World War I, exploring themes of class, camaraderie, and the futility of war.
  • Battleground (1949): A realistic portrayal of the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, focusing on a group of American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines.
  • Twelve O'Clock High (1949): A drama about a tough U.S. Air Force general who takes command of a demoralized bomber squadron during World War II.
  • Patton (1970): A biographical epic about the controversial General George S. Patton and his leadership during World War II.
  • MAS*H (1970): A satirical black comedy about a group of surgeons and medical staff stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.
  • Cross of Iron (1977): Set on the Eastern Front during World War II, this film follows a German sergeant who clashes with his ambitious superior officer over their differing views on military honor.
  • The Thin Red Line (1998): A philosophical exploration of the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II, focusing on the lives of several soldiers in an American rifle company.
  • Ran (1985): A Japanese epic based on Shakespeare's "King Lear," set in feudal Japan, depicting a warlord's descent into madness as he divides his kingdom among his three sons.
  • Gallipoli (1981): Two young Australian sprinters enlist in the army and are sent to Gallipoli during World War I, where they face the brutal realities of war.
  • Downfall (2004): A German-language film depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker during World War II.
  • The Pianist (2002): A Polish Jewish pianist struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
  • Life is Beautiful (1997): An Italian Jewish man uses his imagination and humor to shield his son from the horrors of their imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp.
  • The Ascent (1977): A Soviet film set during World War II, where two partisans are captured by the Nazis and forced to collaborate with them, leading to a moral dilemma.
  • Black Hawk Down (2001): A dramatic account of the U.S. military's 1993 raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, where a mission to capture warlords turns into a desperate battle for survival.
  • Hamburger Hill (1987): A realistic portrayal of the U.S. Army's assault on Hill 937 during the Vietnam War, highlighting the brutal nature of combat and the human cost of war.
  • The Killing Fields (1984): A journalist and his Cambodian assistant are caught in the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the 1970s.
  • Casualties of War (1989): A group of American soldiers in Vietnam kidnap and rape a young Vietnamese woman, leading to a moral crisis for one of the soldiers.
  • We Were Soldiers (2002): Based on the true story of the first major battle between the U.S. and North Vietnamese forces in the Ia Drang Valley during the Vietnam War.
  • Jarhead (2005): A young Marine's experience in the Gulf War, focusing on the boredom and psychological strain of waiting for combat that never comes.
  • The Big Red One (1980): A group of U.S. Army soldiers, known as "The Big Red One," fight their way through World War II, from North Africa to Sicily and Normandy.
  • Enemy at the Gates (2001): A fictionalized account of the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II, focusing on a duel between a Soviet sniper and a German sharpshooter.
  • A Bridge Too Far (1977): A dramatization of Operation Market Garden, a failed Allied attempt to secure a series of bridges in the Netherlands during World War II.
  • Born on the Fourth of July (1989): Based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran who becomes an anti-war activist.
  • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946): Three World War II veterans struggle to readjust to civilian life after returning home.
  • The Longest Day (1962): An epic depiction of the D-Day invasion from the perspectives of both the Allied and German forces.
  • The Guns of Navarone (1961): A group of Allied commandos are sent on a mission to destroy two massive German guns on a Greek island during World War II.
  • Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970): A Japanese-American co-production detailing the events leading up to and including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962): An epic biographical film about T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who found himself in the middle of a war and became a leader.
  • The Dam Busters (1955): British engineers develop a "bouncing bomb" and train a squadron of Lancaster bombers to destroy German dams during World War II.
  • Memphis Belle (1990): The crew of a B-17 bomber, known as the Memphis Belle, struggles to complete their 25th and final mission over Germany during World War II.
  • Castle Keep (1969): A group of American soldiers during World War II find refuge in a castle occupied by a countess and her retinue, leading to conflicts and a moral dilemma when faced with an impending German attack.
  • Kelly's Heroes (1970): A group of American soldiers in World War II go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines.
  • Where Eagles Dare (1968): A team of Allied commandos is sent on a daring mission to rescue an American general captured by the Nazis in a mountaintop fortress.
  • The Eagle Has Landed (1976): A fictionalized account of a German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill during World War II.
  • The Battle of Britain (1969): An epic depiction of the aerial battle between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe during World War II.
  • 633 Squadron (1964): A British bomber squadron is tasked with destroying a German rocket fuel plant in Norway during World War II.
  • Aces High (1976): British pilots in World War I face the horrors of aerial combat and the loss of their comrades.
  • Flyboys (2006): A group of young Americans volunteer to become fighter pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille, a French air squadron, before the U.S. enters World War I.
  • The Red Baron (2008): A biographical film about Manfred von Richthofen, the legendary German fighter pilot known as the "Red Baron," during World War I.
  • The Blue Max (1966): A German fighter pilot in World War I becomes obsessed with earning the Blue Max, the highest military honor, by any means necessary.
  • Von Richthofen and Brown (1971): Another depiction of Manfred von Richthofen's life and career as a fighter pilot during World War I, focusing on his rivalry with Canadian ace Roy Brown.
  • Hell's Angels (1930): A silent film epic about two brothers who become fighter pilots in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I.
  • Wings (1927): The first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, this silent film tells the story of two young men who become rivals in love and war as fighter pilots during World War I.
  • Sergeant York (1941): A biographical film about Alvin York, a pacifist from Tennessee who becomes a decorated war hero during World War I.
  • The African Queen (1951): A gin-swilling riverboat captain and a prim missionary team up to attack a German gunboat in Africa during World War I.
  • Farewell to Arms (1932): Based on Ernest Hemingway's novel, this film tells the story of an American ambulance driver in Italy during World War I who falls in love with a British nurse.
  • Beneath Hill 60 (2010): An Australian mining engineer leads a team of tunnelers tasked with planting explosives beneath German lines during World War I.
  • Passchendaele (2008): A Canadian soldier fights in the Battle of Passchendaele during World War I and returns home to try to rebuild his life.
  • The Trench (1999): A group of young British soldiers await their deployment to the front lines during the Battle of the Somme in World War I.
  • Journey's End (1930): A British play adapted for the screen, depicting the lives of British officers in the trenches during World War I.
  • The Dawn Patrol (1930): A silent film about British fighter pilots in World War I who face the dangers of combat and the loss of their comrades.
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921): A silent film epic about a family divided by the outbreak of World War I, featuring Rudolph Valentino in his breakout role.
  • J'accuse (1919): A French silent film directed by Abel Gance, depicting the horrors of World War I and the return of dead soldiers to haunt the living.
  • Shoulder Arms (1918): A silent comedy starring Charlie Chaplin, featuring his iconic Tramp character as a soldier in the trenches during World War I.
  • The Big Parade (1925): A silent film epic about an American doughboy who falls in love with a French girl during World War I.
  • What Price Glory? (1926): A silent film about two rival U.S. Marines who constantly compete for the same woman, even while serving in the trenches during World War I.
  • The Lost Battalion (2001): Based on the true story of a U.S. battalion that was surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest during World War I.
  • Joyeux Noël (2005): A French film depicting the true story of a Christmas truce between German, French, and Scottish soldiers in the trenches during World War I.
  • A Very Long Engagement (2004): A French film about a young woman who searches for her fiancé, who disappeared during World War I.
  • Westfront 1918 (1930): A German film depicting the brutal realities of trench warfare during World War I.
  • King & Country (1964): A British film set during World War I, where a soldier is court-martialed for desertion and a young officer is assigned to defend him.
  • Oh! What a Lovely War (1969): A British musical satire about World War I, told through a series of songs and sketches.
  • War Horse (2011): A film about a young man who enlists in the army during World War I to find his beloved horse, who has been sold to the cavalry.
  • Regeneration (1997): A film based on Pat Barker's novel, depicting the psychological trauma experienced by British soldiers during World War I and their treatment at Craiglockhart War Hospital.
  • Forbidden Games (1952): A French film set during World War II, where a young girl and boy become friends after her parents are killed in a bombing raid and they are forced to flee to the countryside.
  • Hope and Glory (1987): A British film about a young boy growing up in London during the Blitz in World War II, seen through his innocent eyes.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank (1959): Based on the true story of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who hides from the Nazis with her family in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II.
  • Empire of the Sun (1987): A young British boy is separated from his parents in Shanghai during World War II and finds himself living in a Japanese internment camp.
  • The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008): A young boy living near a concentration camp during World War II befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the fence, unaware of the horrors that lie within.
  • The Counterfeiters (2007): An Austrian film about a Jewish counterfeiter who is forced to work for the Nazis during World War II, in a plan to undermine the British economy.
  • The Boat is Full (1981): A Swiss film about a group of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany who seek asylum in Switzerland during World War II.
  • Europa Europa (1990): A German film based on the true story of Solomon Perel, a Jewish boy who survives the Holocaust by posing as an Aryan German.
  • The Last Metro (1980): A French film set in Nazi-occupied Paris, where a theater company tries to continue operating under the watchful eye of the German authorities.
  • Army of Shadows (1969): A French film about the French Resistance during World War II, focusing on a group of underground fighters and their dangerous missions.
  • Au revoir les enfants (1987): A French film about a young boy in a Catholic boarding school during World War II who befriends a Jewish classmate hiding from the Nazis.
  • The Sorrow and the Pity (1969): A French documentary about collaboration and resistance in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.Shoah (1985): A nine-hour French documentary about the Holocaust, consisting entirely of interviews with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators.
  • In Which We Serve (1942): directed by Noël Coward and David Lean, this "story of a ship", the British destroyer H.M.S. Torrin, is told in flashbacks by survivors as they cling to a life raft.
  • The Night Porter (1974): An Italian film about a former Nazi officer who rekindles a sadomasochistic relationship with a concentration camp survivor years after the war.
  • The Conformist (1970): An Italian film about a man who joins the Fascist party in Italy during World War II and is tasked with assassinating his former professor.
  • Rome, Open City (1945): An Italian neorealist film depicting the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Rome during World War II.
  • Paisan (1946): An Italian neorealist film depicting six episodes of the Allied invasion of Italy during World War II.
  • Germany Year Zero (1948): An Italian neorealist film about a young boy trying to survive in the ruins of Berlin after World War II.
  • The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970): An Italian film about a wealthy Jewish family in Italy who tries to maintain their sheltered life as the threat of Fascism and war looms.
  • The Train (1964): An American film about a French Resistance group attempting to stop a Nazi train carrying stolen art treasures during World War II.
  • Is Paris Burning? (1966): An American film depicting the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation in 1944.
  • The Young Lions (1958): An American film following the lives of three soldiers, two Americans and a German, during World War II.The Bridge at Remagen (1969): An American film about the U.S. Army's attempt to capture a strategic bridge over the Rhine River during World War II.
  • The Longest Day (1962): An epic American film depicting the D-Day invasion from the perspectives of both the Allied and German forces.
  • The Guns of Navarone (1961): An American film about a group of Allied commandos sent to destroy two massive German guns on a Greek island during World War II.

Let me know what you think in the comments.