The 40 Best War Movies of All Time

War films shed light on the military conflicts of mankind. Some are very modern and staged with many effects, and others tell incisive events in quieter images. This is a list of the 41 most successful war movies that tell us about people who were involved in these bloody conflicts.

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

German factory owner Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrived in Nazi-occupied Krakow in 1939. For Schindler, the most important thing is to do business and live life to the fullest. He associates with the Nazi elite and, thanks to good connections, obtains Jews as cheap labor for his factory.

Schindler is assisted by his accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), who selects over one hundred people to work in the factory. But soon, even Schindler can no longer ignore what is happening around him. As more and more Jews are deported to concentration camps, Schindler creates a list of life with the help of his accountant.

Steven Spielberg’s drama, shot in black and white, is one of the most poignant war films of all time. In harrowing images, it tells how one man became a hero for eternity.

2. Dunkirk (2017)

In May 1940, Allied forces from Britain and France were surrounded by the German Wehrmacht. Around 400.000 soldiers are trapped on the coast of Dunkirk. While the German army is attacking on land and from the air, there are not enough ships available to rescue the trapped soldiers. Hundreds of thousands remain behind and fight for survival. In nearby England, Operation Dynamo prepares for their evacuation. But with time running out, brave British civilians rush toward Dunkirk in their private boats to save the soldiers.

In impressive images, overwhelming civil courage and a tough fight for survival put the viewer in the middle of the action—an award-winning, modern war film.

3. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, suspects are interrogated by the CIA. The young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is presently interrogating the prisoners. Maya disagrees with the torture methods but believes they are necessary to get to the truth. For years, Maya pursues the goal of finding the hideout of al-Qaeda leader Bin Laden. May 2011, a Navy SEAL team is finally dispatched to capture or kill Bin Laden. Nevertheless, Maya is the only one who believes in the success of the mission at this time.

Zero Dark Thirty is a grueling film that raises some moral questions. The character “Maya” is based on a real person. However, director Kathryn Bigelow has repeatedly stressed that Zero Dark Thirty is a feature film, not a documentary.

4. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Tough guys for whom thrill is a drug. He who doubts loses. Make the wrong choices, and you die. U.S. Army bomb disposal team risks their lives every day in Iraq. This war movie shows the everyday life of these American soldiers who, besides defusing bombs, have to fight against invisible enemies. Against suicide bombers who want to take her down with them and snipers who have her constantly in their sights.

The camera is very close, and the viewer feels the adrenaline of the soldiers. Will this operation be the last, or will he get away with it again? A modern feature film shot in a documentary style doesn’t allow the viewer to pause for breath.

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5. Black Hawk Down (2001)

On 03. October 1993, nearly 100 elite soldiers are flown in Black Hawk helicopters to the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Their mission is to capture two of the highest-ranking lieutenants of a renegade warlord. In the middle of the city, the attempted capture resulted in heavy firefights between the U.S. special forces and hundreds of armed Somalis. In the fierce confrontation, two of the Black Hawk helicopters crash. A thrilling fight for survival in Mogadishu’s streets begins for the downed men as their comrades desperately try to rescue them.

Riveting war film starring Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor. Black Hawk Down gives viewers heart palpitations and a claustrophobic feeling.

6. Downfall (2004)

The last days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) as seen through the eyes of his young secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). April 1945, Germany is about to surrender. The Red Army approaches Berlin as Hitler and his last followers meet their fate in the bunker beneath the streets of Berlin. Hitler himself vacillates between optimism and suicidal intent these days. When he and the others are finally dead, the German military must find a way to end the battle in Berlin and lay down their arms in surrender.

An oppressive look at the downfall of Hitler and his followers. Bruno Ganz embodies Hitler fascinatingly and with never-before-seen realism.

7. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is the Hotel Des Milles Collines house manager in Kigali. The four-star hotel caters mainly to wealthy, white guests. Paul is a Hutu and married to Tatiana, a Tutsi. When the genocide of the Tutsi population by the Hutu militia began in April 1994, Paul launched a one-time relief effort. He takes in many Tutsi and moderate Hutu in his hotel to save them from certain death. While the rest of the world stands idly by, Paul manages to save the lives of over 1200 people through his intelligence and negotiating skills.

A war film based on true events. Hotel Rwanda makes the heart race and the blood boil. Don Cheadle is a hero in his role. As viewers, we root for him yet fear for his life every second.

8. Gladiator (2000)

Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is a successful warlord. The Roman people and the aging Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, adore him. Shortly before his death, the old emperor appoints Maximus as his successor, overriding his own son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). In revenge, Commodus kills Maximus’ family and plans to have him assassinated. Maximus manages to escape but is a broken man. He falls into captivity and eventually becomes a celebrated gladiator. Maximus comes to Rome as a gladiator, and from now on, he has only one goal: to avenge his family and kill Commodus.

Gladiator is a modern filmed historical drama. The great costumes and epic imagery made the film a huge success. Hans Zimmer penned the unforgettable film score.

9. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

This war film follows Desmond T. Doss, a medic in the American forces during the Second World War. Influenced by his childhood, Desmond T. Doss was an opponent of war and abhorred firearms. He is accepted as a medic in the U.S. Army and is present at the Battle of Okinawa. During the battle, he refuses to kill people. But he saves the lives of many of his comrades without firing a shot. He receives the Medal of Honor for his incredible courage and appreciation for human life.

Mel Gibson directed. With Hacksaw Ridge, he shows us how a single person makes an unforgettable impact through extraordinary action in the midst of unbelievable brutality.

10. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

In Nazi-occupied France, Jewish girl Shosanna narrowly escapes an execution that kills her entire family. Years later, she owns a movie theater in Paris and plans to take revenge on Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who ordered the murder of her family at the time.

German war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) showed interest in Shosanna and organized a film screening for the Nazi elite in their cinema. This upcoming event gets the attention of the “Basterds.” The Basterds are a Jewish-American guerrilla unit whose goal is to eliminate influential Nazi leaders. On the night of the film screening, their path crosses with Shosanna’s plans in a fateful way.

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A star-studded, modern Quentin Tarantino war film that fascinates the viewer to the last second with its wit, tragedy, and sometimes very bloody imagery.

11. Killing Fields (1984)

In the years 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge leads a reign of terror over the country of Cambodia. During this time, a friendship develops between American journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran. Shortly before the conquest of the capital Phnom Penh, Dith Pran sends his family abroad. He himself stays behind with Schanberg to report on what is happening.

When the capital is captured, Sydney Schanberg can escape, but Cambodian Dith Pran is forced to stay behind. Experiencing Khmer Rouge terror firsthand, he is taken to a camp but manages to escape with other prisoners. After running through the jungle days, he comes across a Red Cross camp near Thailand and is rescued. In the end, friends Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran embrace while John Lennon’s famous song Imagine is played.

Killing Fields is not one of the war films that captivate with effects or fast cuts. However, he moves his viewers to tears as he takes an intense look at the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.

12. 1917 (2019)

April 1917, the Western Front. Two British soldiers are sent to deliver an urgent message to an isolated regiment. When the message is not received in time, the regiment walks into a trap and is massacred. To get to the regiment, they have to go through enemy territory. Time is of the essence, and the journey is fraught with peril.

1917 is a work of great scope but still of great intimacy. Director Mendes has made a film that feels wholly alive. It is a carefully polished work that does not strive for gritty realism but can completely captivate the viewer.

13. The White Ribbon (2009)

Just before the outbreak of World War I. Eichwald is a farming village in northern Germany where violence, oppression, and incest prevail. The priest rules over his family like a despot and educates his children with a hard hand. For every minor infraction of the rules, they are forced to wear a white ribbon marking them as sinners.

In the course of the film, a series of strange incidents occur: Max, a farmer’s son, destroys his father’s cabbage field, a barn burns down, and the local doctor falls off his horse because unknown people have strung a rope across the road. It seems as if the oppressed, tormented children of the village are rebelling against their tormentors. A young, understanding teacher tries to follow the trail of deeds but must fight fierce resistance.

The film is disturbing, brutal, and direct. The characters are unvarnished by director Michael Haneke. A story of unrelenting oppression that leaves a thick knot in the viewer’s throat.

14. The boat (1981)

In 1942, the German U-boat fleet was embroiled in the Battle of the Atlantic. The goal of the submarines is to destroy British merchant ships. The British ships, however, are accompanied by powerful destroyers that inflict heavy losses on the German U-boat crews.

This war film follows the crew of one such German submarine. It shows how the soldiers maintain their professionalism and try to accomplish their mission with success despite poor odds. At the same time, the men question the intentions of Hitler’s government and try to fit in with the ideology that government represents.

A claustrophobic war film from star director Wolfgang Petersen. Its characters vacillate in the cramped submarine between boredom, filth, and fear of death. A classic that leaves no viewer cold.

15. Enemy at the Gates (2001)

In the winter of 1942, the capture of Stalingrad by Hitler’s troops threatens to bring down all of Russia. German and Russian soldiers fight for every meter and house in Stalingrad, leaving behind only ruins. The Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law) aims at every German soldier. He precisely shoots several soldiers, which leads to a decline in morale among the Germans.

The Russian officer Danilov pushes Vassili on and on. Vassili is sent to restore hope to his countrymen by destroying German soldiers. Until finally, Vassili feels that he can no longer fulfill his expectations. And while he and Danilov fall in love with the same girl, master sniper König (Ed Harris) is finally sent from Germany to take out Vassili.

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The film is based on actual events but is mainly an entertaining war movie with interesting characters and a thrillingly staged game of cat and mouse.

16. American Sniper (2014)

American Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) saves countless lives on the battlefield with his precision and becomes a legend. When he returns home to his wife and children after four years of war service, he realizes that the memories of the war won’t let go of him. The film shows the portrait of a man who, after years of intense soldiering, tries to lead a normal life again.

The traumatic aftermath of war on the psyche of soldiers is depicted through intense imagery in this war film.

17. The Pianist (2002)

Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto and a thousand other Jews in 1940. When Szpilman is to be taken to a concentration camp, he manages to escape with the help of a Jewish policeman. From now on, Szpilman is on the run and saves himself from hiding place to hiding place. The lonely musician is discovered among the rubble of a house by a German officer (Thomas Kretschmann) shortly before the war’s end in bombed-out Warsaw. The officer decides not to assassinate Szpilman.

The Pianist contains quiet, haunting scenes that will remain unforgettable to the viewer. For example, when Szpilman is left alone at the train station among the suitcases of deported Jews lying around. Or when he wanders half-starved and desperate through the ruins of Warsaw, always looking for something to eat.

18. Last Samurai (2003)

Captain Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a cynical veteran of the American Civil War. He was once a brave soldier and a man of honor. However, the cruel execution of the Indians has marked him forever. In the 1870s, the disillusioned Algren was hired by the Japanese emperor. The emperor wants to build his army on the western model.

When Algren reaches Japan, he notices that greed and self-interest are also gaining importance in this culture. This thought has brought the people of the American West to the brink of extinction. Only in the samurai culture did Algren recognize brave warriors’ traditional code of honor, which also made him a warrior at that time.

A culture between tradition and modernity. In this visually stunning drama, Tom Cruise takes viewers on a heartbreaking journey of honor and duty.

19. 300 (2006)

In the battle of Thermopylae, 480 v. Chr., King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads 300 Spartans against Xerxes and his mighty Persian army. Leonidas and his warriors die, but their courage remains unforgotten. Their passion spreads among the Greek tribes like wildfire. The Greek peoples then united against the Persians and went to battle.

300 is a visual stunner, war film, and fantasy adventure all at once. The film impresses with its colorful design and takes the viewer into a fascinating world of heroism and brutal violence.

20. Fury (2014)

In April 1945, the Allies launched the all-important attack on the Nazi regime. The battle-hardened sergeant nicknamed Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands the five-man crew of a Sherman tank. The troops are both outnumbered and under-equipped with weapons. Under these heavy conditions, Wardaddy and his men fight behind enemy lines, trying to hit Nazi Germany right in the heart…

As a grim tank commander, Brad Pitt must make tough decisions as he and his crew fought through war-torn Germany in April 1945.

21. We Were Soldiers (2002)

November 1965 marks the first time heavy fighting occurs between the People’s Army of Vietnam and U.S. forces. With 400 soldiers, the American army is severely outnumbered by the Vietnamese. The mission resembles a suicide mission. Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) tries to bring the situation under control through tactically clever moves. But soon, it’s just a matter of bare survival, and the men must take cover in the surrounding jungle.

The drama shows brave soldiers, full of heroism and fear of death, whose families at home fear for their survival, just as we viewers do.

22. The Imitation Game (2014)

23. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

24. Braveheart (1995)

25. Allied (2016)

26. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

27. Jarhead (2005)

28. Casablanca (1942)

29. The Keeping Room (2014)

30. Band of Brothers – We Were Like Brothers (2001)

31. Phoenix (2014)

32. Darkest Hour (2017)

33. Glory (1989)

34. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

35. Apocalypse Now (1979)

36. Valkyrie (2008)

37. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

38. Top Gun (1986)

39. The Great Escape (1963)

40. Pearl Harbor (2001)

Many of these war movies punch us in the stomach and make us wonder why people are so cruel to each other. But we also learn through them that there is always more than one perspective on events.

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