Best War Movies

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the best war movies of all time in the gallery below.

Not seeing your favorite movie? It’s probably in a different genre! Check out the full list here.

TV Miniseries

Before we dive into the list of films, it’s important to acknowledge some of the great TV miniseries:

  • “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – John Leekley, Bruce Catton
  • “Gettysburg” (1993) – Ronald F. Maxwell, Ted Turner
  • “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg

Now, on with the list!

30. ‘The Longest Day’ (1962) – Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki

Forget “Sands of Iwo Jima” and “The Green Berets,” John Wayne’s best war flick is this epic, authentic account of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

29. ‘Twelve O’Clock High’ (1949) – Henry King

Gregory Peck plays the hard-as-nails General Frank Savage who takes over a demoralized WWII bomber unit and pushes the pilots beyond what they thought possible.

28. ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967) – Robert Aldrich

Lee Marvin leads a dozen convicted murderers (Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Donald Sutherland and Jim Brown) on a mass assassination mission of Nazi officers in a classic war flick that clearly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

27. ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) – Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino casts Brad Pitt to lead a team of Jewish U.S. soldiers on a revisionist Nazi-killing mission, while Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for his terrifying Jew Hunter villain.

26. ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ (1982) – Taylor Hackford

Louis Gossett Jr. won an Oscar as the strict drill sergeant, while Richard Gere swept Debra Winger off her feet to the Oscar-winning tune “Up Where We Belong.”

25. ‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953) – Fred Zinnemann 

Few moments are as touching as Montgomery Clift playing “Taps” for a fallen Frank Sinatra in this romantic military tale starring Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine and Burt Lancaster, who kisses Deborah Kerr in the waves of Hawaii on the cusp of Pearl Harbor.

24. ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) – Terrence Malick

Breaking a 20-year hiatus after “Days of Heaven” (1978), the elusive Terrence Malick returned for this existential take on World War II’s Guadalcanal based on a book by the same author as “From Here to Eternity.”

23. ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ (1987) – Barry Levinson

“Goooood morning, Vietnam!” Cosmic comedy treat Robin Williams spits improvised fire to kick off this hilariously harrowing tale by filmmaker Barry Levinson about a hyper disc jockey charged with waking up the troops every morning of the Vietnam War.

22. ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989) – Oliver Stone

After winning Best Picture and Best Director for “Platoon,” Oliver Stone won his second Best Director for this account of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), who evolves from all-American boy to paralyzed Vietnam War protester, proving that patriotism comes in many forms.

21. ‘Coming Home’ (1978) – Hal Ashby 

Jane Fonda and Jon Voight both won Academy Awards – the latter also won Best Actor at Cannes — in this tale of a military wife waiting for her husband to return from Vietnam, only to fall for another man who suffered a paralyzing combat injury there.

20. ‘Sergeant York’ (1941) – Howard Hawks 

Long before “Hacksaw Ridge,” Gary Cooper delivered one of his finest performances in the true story of a pacifist who goes to World War I, using his down-home turkey hunting skills to save his platoon.

19. ‘Mrs. Miniver’ (1942) – William Wyler

This Best Picture winner saw Greer Garson keeping her family safe by dousing the lights during nighttime air raids, while the final speech in a bombed out church was so inspiring that it was dropped via leaflets during World War II.

18. ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) – Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan recreated the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk by fracturing the narrative across three overlapping timelines, following an hour in the air with Tom Hardy, a day at sea with Mark Rylance, and a week on shore with Kenneth Branagh.

17. ‘1917’ (2020) – Sam Mendes

After the underrated Desert Storm flick “Jarhead,” Sam Mendes returned to battle with this single-shot masterpiece in the trenches of World War I.

16. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) – Lewis Milestone

The first great “talking” war picture followed a soldier who becomes disillusioned in the trenches of World War I, winning Best Picture and paving the way for the entire genre.

15. Three War Films: ‘A Generation’ (1955) / ‘Kanal’ (1957) / ‘Ashes & Diamonds’ (1958) – Andrzej Wajda

After “A Generation” and “Kanal,” Polish master Andrzej Wajda delivered the crown jewel of his Three War Films trilogy, “Ashes & Diamonds,” following a pair of “cursed soldiers” on the day that Germany surrendered World War II with a powerful scene in a bombed-out church.

14. The War Trilogy: ‘Rome Open City’ (1945) / ‘Paisan’ (1946) / ‘Germany Year Zero’ (1948) – Roberto Rossellini

Long before marrying his “Stromboli” star Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini launched the Italian Neorealism movement by using non-actors, real locations and hidden cameras to film actual German soldiers during the Nazi occupation of Rome, winning at Cannes in the first of a trilogy with “Paisan” and “Germany, Year Zero.”

13. ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009) – Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar, using a cinema-verite style to follow an Iraq War bomb squad led by Jeremy Renner, who craves redeployment after returning home to the eerie quiet of the supermarket aisle.

12. ‘M*A*S*H’ (1970) – Robert Altman

Not only did it launch a hit TV series with the most-watched finale ever, Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H” boasted a daring approach of multiple characters spitting jokes over top of each other and bold “Last Supper” imagery of medics operating in the Korean War.

11. ‘Das Boot’ (1981) – Wolfgang Petersen

Wolfgang Petersen brilliantly captured the boredom, thrills, claustrophobia and sheer terror of a German U-boat during World War II, paving the way for Cold War submarine flicks like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Crimson Tide.”

10. ‘Patton’ (1970) – Franklin J. Schaffner 

Francis Ford Coppola penned an Oscar-winning script for Best Actor champ George C. Scott, who inhabits the “blood and guts” World War II general George Patton with a gruff demeanor during his memorable rallying cry in front of a giant American flag.

9. ‘Glory’ (1989) – Edward Zwick

It’s hard to top Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman together in the same movie in this true story about members of the Union Army’s first all-black regiment fighting for their own freedom from slavery during the Civil War. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

8. ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012) – Kathryn Bigelow

While “The Hurt Locker” won the Oscar, “Zero Dark Thirty” will go down as Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece, chronicling the raid on Osama Bin Laden with a deep cast of Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and James Gandolfini.

7. ‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966) – Gillo Pontecorvo

Gillo Pontecorvo’s gritty masterpiece about Algiera’s fight for independence from the French government was so realistic in its portrayal of bloody insurgency that the U.S. military actually screened it for their troops in training for the Iraq War.

6. ‘Platoon’ (1986) – Oliver Stone

After fighting in Vietnam himself, Oliver Stone won Best Picture and Best Director for this anti-war treatise, in which Charlie Sheen is caught between rival officers Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, all set to Samuel Barber’s haunting “Adagio for Strings.”

5. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987) – Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s profound anti-war statement opens with the side-splitting humor of R. Lee Ermey’s military boot camp, then turns on a dime with Private Pyle’s shocking violence and a Nancy Sinatra tune that drops us into the horrific war zone of Vietnam.

4. ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978) – Michael Cimino

Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken star in this war epic divided into three parts: a blue-collar wedding in Pennsylvania, shocking Russian Roulette in Vietnam, and wounded warriors coming home to a juicy subplot: “Who’s the father?”

3. ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946) – William Wyler 

William Wyler’s under-seen masterpiece deserves equal status as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which it beat for Best Picture with an ahead-of-its-time examination of World War II vets returning to small-town America, only to realize their families are irreparably changed.

2. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) – Steven Spielberg

Easily the greatest World War II movie ever made, Steven Spielberg deservedly won his second Best Director Oscar by crafting unforgettable sequences, from the harrowing D-Day invasion, to the suspenseful sniper showdown, to the heartbreaking bridge climax as Tom Hanks tells Matt Damon, “Earn this.” Watch it paired with Stephen Ambrose’s “Band of Brothers,” arguably the greatest TV miniseries ever made.

1. ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) – Francis Ford Coppola

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Francis Ford Coppola adapts Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” through the lens of Vietnam, as Martin Sheen moves upriver to kill Marlon Brando, while Robert Duvall flies helicopters to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in this acid-trip meditation on “the horror” and insanity of war.

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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