When I decided recently to rank my favorite war movies, I went on the internet to see what was out there. I found lots of lists of movies, but most of them were bad. They were either done by an outfit looking to get people to purchase the movies from them, or they were done by people who do not know what a war movie is.
Almost every list I looked at included many movies that simply are not war movies. Gone With the Wind, Schindler’s List, Hotel Rawanda, The African Queen, Forrest Gump, and Casablanca may be movies that took place in a time of war, and whose plots were heavily influenced by war, but they are simply not war movies. And, I am not intending to take anything away from the greatness of these movies. I also realize that I am splitting hairs including some movies and not including others, but I have to draw the line somewhere.
Note: Even though they are some of my favorite movies, Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings are not war movies, and any list of war movies that includes them should be disregarded. I also did not include Ken Burn’s two masterpieces The Civil War and The War because they are simply not movies in the same sense that the other films included in this list are.
One regret that I discovered as I compiled this list is the amount of history changing wars and events that have never been addresses in film. I loved Gladiator, but it is sad when this movie is the best historical depiction of a Roman Legion on film. Where is a great film that deals with the Indian Wars? And the amount of material covering Napoleon and the American Revolution is shamefully light.
I have to make an admission. I have not seen every war movie ever made, and I do not intend to do so. There are also several war movies that I have seen, but cannot remember well enough to comment upon. In both cases, these movies were not included in my list.
That all being said, I took it upon myself to come up with my list of great war movies. I tried to make it a top 50 list, but only came up with 45. You can supply you own additional five to the list if you would like as long as it does not include Pearl Harbor, 300 or Alexander (I just threw up in my mouth).
I attempted to be objective as I compiled the list and came up with a grading system which I found useful. The ten criteria that I used to judge these films were:
1) Acting and Script- A good movie of any genre has a good script and good acting.
2) Effects and battle scenes- I was forgiving when it came to this category due to the time in which the film was made. There was a point where the best effect available was a toy boat in a pool of water. I understand that, but I do expect the maker of the film to at least attempt to recreate the battle scenes. Movies with large battle sequences and graphically accurate depictions of warfare tended to score high in this category. I thought that POW camps could be considered an essential part of war, so I included these movies in this list, but movies like Stalag 17 and The Great Escape suffered in the effects/battle scenes category.
3) Importance- In this category, the film was judged on the importance of the subject matter. Patton, for instance scored very high because he was a seminal figure in the European theatre. Tora! Tora! Tora! also scored well because it told the story of one of the most important battles in World War II
4) Message- I find that many good war movies have a message in them. The Bridge on the Rivier Kwai, Gallipoli, and Braveheart are good examples of this.
5) Accuracy- Accuracy is a must in a good war movie. Nothing hurts my brain more than a director who sacrifices accuracy in order to tell the story the way they want to. Saving Private Ryan lost a couple of points here simply because it is a fiction. It, however, still scored well because it depicted the war well in general and the battles that the central figures were supposed to be in so accurately. The Last of the Mohicans, however, did not do as well because even though the battle scenes were done well, the director unnecessarily changed the story up so much from the book, that it was hardly even recognizable any more even though in the end it was a compelling film. Anachronisms are always a problem. Fortunately, most of these films do not suffer greatly from this.
6) Epic Quality- I love a good epic, and no genre lends itself more to the epic than war movies.
7) Score- One of the most unobserved but pleasingly essential aspects of a great war movie is a great score. I’ll have to be honest, I could not remember the scores of some of these movies. If I could not, I gave them a five in order to be fair, but I thought the fact that I could not remember it, said something. I definitely remember great scores such as those in Gettysburg, Glory, Braveheart, The Great Escape and Master and Commander among others.
8 ) Scope- Was the subject covered well enough? Being a complete work of fiction, including the battle itself hurt a movie like the Guns of Navarone in this category. The Longest Day, on the other hand, covered the subject of D-Day so well, that it would be hard to outdo it.
9) Star Quality- A good war movie usually has great actors in it. Some movies did well because they had a superstar in the lead role. Others did well because of the ensemble in the film.
10) Patriotism- I think a good war movie usually leaves the viewer with patriotic feelings. Movies that depict the military as evil, stupid or apathetic to the plight of soldiers suffered in this category. These included Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Full Metal Jacket.
I hope you enjoy the list, and feel free to comment and disagree (tastefully) with anything I say. Also, if there are any egregious omissions, please feel free to remind me. Enjoy.
I also want to say that I like almost all of these movies, and am somewhat splitting hairs with this list. If there was no redeeming quality in the movie (Pearl Harbor, for example), it would not be in the list in the first place. I think it is fair to say that every movie in the top 25 of this list is a great movie.
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