The 35 Best Military Movies of All Time

Movies allow us, in a wonderfully reliable way, to escape for two or three hours into a more exciting, often more pleasant world. On the other hand, they give us the opportunity to make some of the darkest aspects of humanity comprehensible to the uninitiated: War and military films turn the spotlight on armed conflict and its frustratingly diverse consequences. We have collected 40 of the genre’s best and most important representatives!

1st place: Full Metal Jacket

1987, Director: Stanley Kubrick

The penultimate completed film of legendary director Stanley Kubrick is especially known and loved for the first of his two segments: under the bone-headed tutelage of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), prospective U.S. Marines are subjected to minutes of ranting and other humiliations.

Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), disparaged as “Private Paula,” is especially hard hit by the ruthless training he receives at Parris Island… but the true horror of war is yet to come for the main character “Joker” (Matthew Modine) when he is sent to cover Vietnam.

2nd place: Black Hawk Down

2001, Director: Ridley Scott

This military film based on true events deals with an attempt by U.S. Special Forces to arrest important supporters of a notorious warlord in Mogadishu, which has gone hopelessly wrong. In October 1993, the local militia managed to take two Black Hawks out of the sky, whereupon the dispatched rescue squad could only fight its way through the strange, confusing streets of Somalia’s capital with the greatest of difficulty.

Ridley Scott’s star-studded depiction of the events (cast with Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, William Fichtner, Tom Hardy, Orlando Bloom, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, among others) makes the u.S. Army due to close cooperation but nevertheless conveys an oppressively authentic impression of a deadly fiasco.

3rd place: The Hurt Locker

2009, directed by Katheryn Bigelow

This comparatively topical war drama has caused quite a stir because it won six Oscars – including the first directing award given to a woman. The main character is William James, played by Jeremy Renner, who disposes of ordnance for the U.S. Army in Iraq and “locks away his pain.” Highly suspenseful disarming sequences and a fine eye for the addictive effect that the rush of combat can exert distinguish “The Hurt Locker”!

The film’s unsparingly sober depictions clearly set it apart from patriotically colored teachings!

4th place: Top Gun

1986, Director: Tony Scott

Whether you find the barrel-chested ’80s feel of this fly-on-the-wall film merely campy or charming from today’s perspective is probably purely a matter of taste – the commercial success of “Top Gun,” breathtaking action sequences, and an unforgettable soundtrack are, however, beyond doubt!

Tom Cruise embodies the ambitious Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who, along with his partner Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), gets a chance to train at the titular elite fighter school. There, competing with Tom “Iceman” Kazanski (Val Kilmer) is just one of many obstacles the daredevil must overcome.

5th place: Dunkirk

2017, directed by Christopher Nolan

In June of 1940, thousands of British soldiers were encircled in the French town of Dunkerque. Bomber attacks by the German Luftwaffe hamper evacuation attempts, so Operation Dynamo is designed to force a chance for rescue across the English Channel.

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Director Christopher Nolan observes the historical events from three different points of view and follows the efforts on land, air, and sea. In addition to cinema debutant Fionn Whitehead, he is served by seasoned greats (such as Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, or Harry Styles, until then better known as a musician). The desperate race against time is extremely engagingly staged even without a too explicit depiction of violence. This is due in particular to the sometimes downright intimidating soundtrack to the strong images.

6th place: The Longest Day

1962, directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki

To this day, “The Longest Day” remains one of the most elaborate military films of all time, as evidenced by the involvement of no fewer than three directors alone. A trick that serves the most authentic representation possible of all sides involved in the Normandy landings of the Allied forces in the summer of 1944: In each case, in the original language, the viewer looks over the shoulders of the British and U.S. Americans as well as the French and Germans.

The cast includes stars like John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Gert Fröbe, Curd Jürgens and Paul Anka, as well as some real D-Day veterans. One of the last great black-and-white films, which also won two Oscars!

7th place: Saving Private Ryan

1998, Director: Steven Spielberg

More than three decades after “The Longest Day,” star director Steven Spielberg also took on Operation Overlord. With “Saving Private Ryan,” he not only shaped the staging of many upcoming War Films but the general memory of a truly earth-shattering mission: the U.S. landing on Nazi-occupied Omaha Beach at the beginning of the film, along with all the film is portrayed in a number of unsavory details and inevitably burns itself into the memory. And in the process, D-Day is just the beginning for Captain John Miller’s (Tom Hanks) squad, which is tasked with tracking down the last surviving Ryan brother (Matt Damon) behind enemy lines.

8th place: Patton

1970, directed by Franklin J. Conductor

As its name suggests, this seven-Oscar-winning work is a cinematic reappraisal of George S. Patton’s war years: The George C. Scott first competes with “desert fox” Erwin Rommel (Karl-Michael Vogler) in North Africa, then with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates) in the conquest of Italy, and subsequently plays a decisive role in the liberation of France.

The autobiography, which was also honored by the Academy as Best Picture, is sometimes on the verge of mystification, but Scott, the leading actor, rightly received unanimous critical praise!

9th place: Starship Troopers

1997, Director: Paul Verhoeven

With this future vision, we are dealing with probably the most misunderstood film on our list. Evidence can be brought in that the uncut version of “Starship Troopers” was indexed in Germany until 2017, among other things, due to its supposed glorification of the army – whereby the explicit depiction of violence also played a considerable role.

This observation, however, denies the bitter satirical component with which director Paul Verhoeven sends his fresh-out-of-school main characters into a brutal war against an alien life form: Overdrawn propaganda videos or the service in the military that comes with civil rights make some of the hopeful youngsters around Johnny Rico (Casper van Dien) blindly go to their doom.

Rank 10: The Dirty Dozen

1967, directed by Robert Aldrich

Long before the “Suicide Squad,” Major John Reisman, played by Lee Marvin, assembles a squad of prison inmates with military experience in this novel adaptation, which beckons the prospect of prison relief – at least in exchange for fulfilling a potentially lethal mission behind enemy lines.

Through a hard hand, the twelve headstrong men (played by Charles Bronson, Donald Sutherland, and Telly Savalas, among others) are formed into a unit tasked with storming a chateau in Brittany staffed with high-ranking Nazi officials in preparation for the Allied invasion of France.

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Controversial at the time of its release due to its depiction of violence, the film earned four Oscar nominations!

Rank 11: Apocalpyse Now

1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is tasked with taking out the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The latter is in the jungle of Cambodia in the process of building an army of more deserters. In the course of his unusual assignment, Willard is made abundantly aware of the sometimes absurd side of war – for example, by the maximally hard-boiled Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), who lets his men surf even when shells hit, ponders passionately about the smell of napalm in the morning, and has recognized Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as a means of psychological warfare.

For many critics, one of the most influential and best films of all time!

Rank 12: The Bridge on the River Kwai

1957, directed by David Lean

At the time of the Second World War, a British battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness) was in Japanese captivity. At the behest of Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), they must actively contribute to constructing a bridge that will cross the Mae Nam Khwae Yai River, or Kwai for short.

In order to demonstrate the superiority of his own troops even beyond the war and not to break their morale, Nicholson pushes his men to the maximum performance. Still, thanks to an escaped fellow prisoner, the bridge’s destruction have long been prepared. The irrationality of a sense of honor is a guiding motif of this six-time Oscar-winning classic!

Rank 13: Platoon

1986, directed by Oliver Stone

The also Oscar-winning “Born on 4. July” may have been a little more commercially successful. Still, representative of Oliver Stone’s famous Vietnam trilogy (completed by “Between Heaven and Hell”), this is where it all begins: In “Platoon,” the director and scriptwriter incorporate many of his own experiences in wartime operations, which is why the film has been attested a high degree of authenticity, especially by American critics.

Viewers follow infantry soldier Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who’s initially rather a positive image of the military is subjected to a harsh reality check on the Cambodian border. The winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director!

Rank 14: 300

2006, directed by Zack Snyder

Probably the longest chain of adaptations on this list: Based on the tales of the Greek story writer Herodotus, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley first adapted the Battle of Thermopylae in their graphic novel “300”. This, in turn, served Zack Snyder for his film adaptation, which, thanks to elaborate computer editing, captivates with a unique, comic-book look!

Led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the titular number of proud Spartans set out to halt the advance of the Persians under Great King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). The fact that the film attaches little importance to historical accuracy is a polite understatement – but this does not detract from the entertainment and countless lines worth quoting.

Rank 15: Enemy at the Gates

2001, Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Jude Law takes on the role of Vasily Grigorievich Saizew, who actually distinguished himself as a Red Army sniper during World War II and was awarded the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union” for his efforts. In the film, the young shepherd is drafted to the desperate defense of Stalingrad, where he quickly proves his talent for killing at a distance. His quota is so impressive that the Germans dispatch the dreaded Major Koenig (Ed Harris) to the region to put a stop to the successful sniper’s handiwork. A fierce duel breaks out.

At the time of its release, many media outlets criticized the lack of a critical view of the sniper’s work; in the years that followed, however, “Duel” proved to be a crowd favorite.

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Rank 16: Das Boot

1981, director: Wolfgang Petersen

The world’s probably most famous German feature film (six Oscar nominations) deals with the enemy voyages of the U 96. In World War II, the submarine is initially tasked with sinking English merchant ships. Still, instead of a specific mission, the focus is ultimately on the crew’s dynamics: the characters, who in many cases remain nameless, trundle from one turbulent situation to the next in a confined space and face internal tensions. In the longest cut, the extremely lavishly produced drama, which marked the breakthrough in the film business for both Wolfang Petersen and many of the actors, devours an impressive five hours!

Rank 17: All Quiet on the Western Front

1930, Director: Lewis Milestone

By far the oldest entry on this list, it established many of the motifs of subsequent military films: Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name, the plot follows high school student Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), whose teacher truly advertises his supposedly glorious service in the army of the German Reich. When Paul and numerous of his classmates find themselves on the front lines of World War I, however, they discover all too quickly that there is little glamour to the armed conflict.

At the Academy Awards, the film, which was initially controversial in Germany, won the trophies for Best Film and Best Director!

Rank 18: The Deer Hunter

1978, directed by Michael Cimino

At the heart of this five-time Oscar-winning three-hour epic (awards included Best Picture, Best Director, and Christopher Walken for Best Supporting Actor) are the three friends Michael (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Walken), and Steven (John Savage).

Michael Cimino’s anti-war film largely skips the actual battles in Vietnam and instead deals with the aftermath of the gruesome torture the trio endure in captivity. In the film’s most famous scene, the main characters are forced by Vietcong soldiers to play Russian Roulette against each other – the arbitrariness of war at its dramatic peak.

Rank 19: A Few Good Men

1992, directed by Rob Reiner

Unlike the other military films represented here, “A Few Good Men” moves the setting of the conflict to the courtroom: at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay (now known primarily as an internment camp), William Santiago, considered an outsider, is killed after being attacked by two fellow soldiers. Navy lawyers Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) represent them in military tribunals.

In particular, they must investigate the question of whether the two defendants, at the behest of their superiors Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson), might have acted… good acting performances enliven this already thrilling judicial thriller about dubious hierarchies in the military.

20th place: Jarhead

2005, director: Sam Mendes

Before Sam Mendes would turn his attention to World War I years later in “1917,” he adapted Anthony “Swoff” Swofford’s account, published in book form, with “Jarhead.” The latter served in the Second Gulf War on the side of the U.S. Army and is embodied in the film by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Instead of taking a more concrete look at the actual fighting in Iraq, the focus here is on the sometimes grueling monotony of everyday life for the soldiers stationed in the heat of the desert. A somewhat different military film that makes isolation and boredom its main elements without being boring.

Rank 21: The Great Escape

1963, directed by John Sturges

Rank 22: The Patriot

2000, Director: Roland Emmerich

23rd place: We Were Soldiers

2002, directed by Randall Wallace

24th place: Hunt for Red October

1990, directed by John McTiernan

25th place: Lone Survivor

2013, directed by Peter Berg

26th place: Fury

2014, Director: David Ayer

Rank 27: Braveheart

1995, directed by Mel Gibson

28th place: Operation Valkyrie

2008, directed by Bryan Singer

29th place: Pearl Harbor

2001, directed by Michael Bay

30th place: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

2016, director: Michael Bay

31st place: Shooter

2007, Director: Antoine Fuqua

Place 32: The Thin Red Line

1998, Directed by Terrence Malick

33rd place: Courage Under Fire

1996, directed by Edward Zwick

34th place: Glory

1989, directed by Edward Zwick

Rank 35: Heartbreak Ridge

1986, Director: Clint Eastwood

Some of the films here illuminate world-shaking battles, while others are dedicated to gripping individual fates against an almost overwhelming background. Many are based on true events, and some prefer to use fantasy and futuristic ideas instead-but. In all cases, you can consider yourself more than lucky to have witnessed the events shown merely in the safety of your cinema or living room chair!

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