12 Essential War Films

War is hell. And for those of us fortunate enough to have never faced the horrors of war first hand (and for those of us who have), Hollywood has tried to give us a glimpse of that hell on earth. War films have evolved over time, and while the majority of them try subtly – or not so subtly – to take a stance on the validity of historical conflicts, the best ones manage to tap into the core of humanity, and the way killing can affect us all on a very base level.

Here are a dozen essential war films everyone should see at least once. Shout out to close calls here, Tarantinos’ Inglorious Basterds, The Dirty Dozen, and Hamburger Hill.

War Films

12. Born on The Fourth of July (1989) – Oliver Stone’s second film in his unofficial Vietnam Trilogy is less a war film and more an aftermath tale of regret, anger, and desperation, the undercard of jingoism. Tom Cruise is Ron Kovic, an idealistic young soldier who is paralyzed in battle and spends a great deal of the rest of his time back home protesting Vietnam and seething internally (and externally). Stone’s film is powerful and heartbreaking, and put a new face on the horrors of combat.

War Films - Glory

11. Glory (1989) – Civil War films are few and far between, but Ed Zwick’s seminal 1989 film about a platoon of African American soldiers fighting for the North captured the dichotomy of race relations in this particular war. These were soldiers, fighting for a cause, but still had to fight against the establishment to find the respect they deserved. Matthew Broderick worked to shed his Ferris Bueller boyishness here, and Denzel Washington took home a much-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

War Films - The Longest Day

10. The Longest Day (1962) – 36 years before Steven Spielberg revolutionized war films, John Wayne’s The Longest Day told the story of the D-Day invasion from the perspectives of both Americans and Germans. The balance of the film is what allows it to keep its relevance and power. Wayne was never as strong or convincing in his war films as he was in his westerns, but here he is a perfect fit. Keep an eye out for a young Sean Connery as Private Flanagan.

War Films - All Quiet

9. All Quiet on The Western Front (1930) – One of the earliest war films to reach for epic scope, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front still retains some of its power almost 90 years later. It is also a rare look at World War I, which seemed to have been fought thousands of years before WWII given the great differences in combat styles and technology. This is the story of a young man disillusioned by the horrors of war, and is one of those war films from which all others were borne.

War Films - the Hurt Locker

8. The Hurt Locker (2009) – Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner was one of the very early war films examining the Iraq war. Bigelow shed the jingoistic political landscape of the 2000s to show not how war can ruin a person, but consume them entirely. The most telling moment of the film comes at the end, when bomb technician William James (Jeremy Renner), back from the desert, stands in the cereal aisle of a grocery store. He is lost in this world, and only feels at home when he is on the other side of the planet.

War Films - The Deer Hunter

7. The Deer Hunter (1978) – Michael Cimino’s Vietnam saga is perhaps more famous for the controversy surrounding its depiction of the war and the Vietnamese soldiers than it is on a cinematic level. But, when taken more as an allegory – which I feel was the idea all along – The Deer Hunter is a powerful, moving look into the pollution of the human mind from the nihilistic landscape of the battlefield. De Niro shines, and Christopher Walken’s transformation into a near catatonic shell of a human being is undeniably impactful.

War Films - Kwai

6. The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957) – A British soldier (Alec Guinness) agrees to oversee construction of a bridge for his captors, the Japanese military. He is unaware of the allies’ plans to destroy the bridge once it’s complete, setting up a fascinating tale of alliances and bravery in the midst of a somewhat impossible situation. One of David Lean’s greatest achievements, The Bridge on The River Kwai dominated the Oscars, raking in 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture.

War Films - Platoon

5. Platoon (1986) – Oliver Stone’ first foray into Vietnam is his crowning achievement, and a very personal look at the moral corruption that at least played a part in our loss in Asia. The film tells the story of division within a platoon, almost a pro and anti-war division among soldiers. Loaded with great performances form young stars like Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen, it is Tom Berenger who stands tall as the villain, a grizzled man of war who lost sight of his humanity long ago.

War Films - Paths of Glory

4. Paths of Glory (1957) – Hidden in the shadow of Bridge on The River Kwai was one of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest masterworks. It won no awards, was nominated for no awards, but has since become a classic in the genre. Kirk Douglas plays a general who refuses to send his troops into the mouth of certain death. After being accused of cowardice, he and his men must defend their decision. There is no bandying about here, Paths of Glory is an anti-war film, and remains one of the most important of all war films.

War Films - Thin Red Line

3. The Thin Red Line (1998) – Terrence Malick had been absent from Hollywood for over two decades when he gave us The Thin Red Line, a meditative look on the expansive horrors of war on both man and nature. Filled to the edges with extended cameos, the tale of the war in the South Pacific in the middle of WWII is hypnotizing. It also features some of Nick Notle’s finest work, namely the argument he and Elia Koteas have over the phone regarding an assault on a ridge. Powerful stuff.

War Films - Saving Private Ryan

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998) – The Thin Red Line was overshadowed in 1998 by Steven Spielberg’s WWII drama that is both intimate and epic in scope. It begins with the D-Day invasion – easily the most intense 20 minutes ever captured on film – and then gradually devolves into a very personal, small story about a group of men possibly sacrificing themselves to rescue one man whose brothers have all been killed. Saving Private Ryan is a perfectly-executed, well-balanced film, full of some of the greatest performances in the genre.

War Films - Apocalypse Now

1. Apocalypse Now (1979) – Francis Ford Coppola’s journey into the mouth of madness (or the heart of darkness) just about drove him insane as well. Apocalypse Now is not just a film about Vietnam, but a film about insanity. Everyone here is insane, or they are on their way to insanity as they travel down the river to meet their end at the hands of Colonel Kurtz. It’s also one of those rarest of pictures, one that evolves over time and speaks to a different aspect of our own minds depending on when we watch it. The layers are seemingly endless, and the haunting performances unforgettable.



Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.