Top 50 War Movies (criteria)

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.

Top 50 War Movies Criteria

Top 50 War Movies 10-1

Top 50 War Movies 20-11

Top 50 War Movies 30-21

Top 50 War Movies 40-31

Top 50 War Movies 45-41

Lists

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Top 50 War Movies #45-41

45) The Guns Of Navarone– (Score 46/100)-  I like the movie, as a movie, but there are no real ‘battle’ scenes in it.  It is also a complete work of fiction, and the effects are poor even for the time that it was made.

44) Kelly’s Heroes– (49/100)- I almost left 44 and 45 off the list because they are fictions and contain so little historical truths.  The Dirty Dozen was not included in the list, but it belongs right here with 44 and 45 for the same reasons.  There are also several anachronisms in this particular film.

43) Letters From Iwo Jima (57/100)-  The main problem with this movie as a war movie is its main point.  I know that Eastwood was showing the Japanese point of view with the movie, but that is really the problem that I have with it.  It is simply too different from what I expect in a war movie.

42) The Wild Geese– (57/100)-  This film is generally underrated as a war film.  Its unique depiction of 20th century European imperialism and mercenary attitudes in post WWII Africa is good, and the battle depictions and acting are not terrible.

41) The Battle of the River Plate – (58/100)-  This movie recounts the events that led to the scuttling of the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.  This is one instance in which the actual historical events surrounding the plot help propel a movie that does not have great effects or acting to the point where it is at least watchable.

Top 50 War Movies Criteria

Top 50 War Movies 10-1

Top 50 War Movies 20-11

Top 50 War Movies 30-21

Top 50 War Movies 40-31

Top 50 War Movies 45-41

Lists

 

Top 50 War Movies #40-31

40) Full Metal Jacket– (58/100)- This is not one of my favorite war movies, but on most of the lists I saw, it scored consistently in the top 10.  I honestly thought that I would have it higher, but here it is at number 40.  The movie suffers from what I call “Stripes Syndrome.”  It is almost as if it is two complete movies: one about basic training, and another about Vietnam.  The first part of the movie is gold, but this is not a list about great basic training movies, or An Office and a Gentleman would be on it.  By the time you get to the second half of the movie, all of the compelling stuff has already happened, and you just want it to end.

39) Stalag 17– (59/100)- This is a good movie with a compelling plot and some good acting, but it takes place in a POW camp, and therefore suffers from a lack of battles in the ‘war movie’ department.

38) Where Eagles Dare– (60/100)-  This is another good movie with good acting, but it suffers from the fact that it is a complete work of fiction.  It is, however, considered to be the one of the best of the fictional war movies.

37) Andersonville– (62/100)-  This was a made for TNT depiction of life at the most brutal prison camp in the South during the civil war.  It suffers from many of the same problems that Stalag 17 does, but it is shows a little more of the actual brutality that often accompanied prisoner of war camps.

36) The Bridge on the River Kwai– (63/100)-  This is really more of a character study than an actual depiction of life in a POW camp run by the Japanese during WWII.  It suffers on this list from the same things that hurt Stalag 17 and Andersonville.  Though it has a great cast, there is some pretty bad acting at times in the film.  It is also a fictional work.  It however deserves some respect because of the mold that it broke when it was made and the fact that it won seven Academy Awards.

35)  The Green Berets– (65/100)- I’m not saying that it is a great movie, but what kind of war movie list would this be if it did not have a few John Wayne movies on it.  At least there are a few good battle scenes in it.

34)  Memphis Belle– (65/100)- It is hard to think of Sean Astin as a war hero, but this is really not a bad movie.  It attempts to encapsulate the trials and tribulations of the average bomber crew in the European theatre during WWII.

33) Sink the Bismarck (67-100)- This movie is on par with The Battle of the River Plate as far as the way it was made.  The ships still have that ‘toy’ quality about them.  The reason it scores higher, it the Bismarck was simply an icon and the Graf Spee was not.

32) The Desert Fox– (70/100)- This biography of Rommell is a very good.  It is not big on battles, and suffers here for it.

31) The Charge of the Light Brigade– (70/100)- The subject is one of the greatest military debacles in history.  The cavalry charges are some of the best to be found on film, but the plot, complete with social commentary tend to make the film tiresome.

Top 50 War Movies Criteria

Top 50 War Movies 10-1

Top 50 War Movies 20-11

Top 50 War Movies 30-21

Top 50 War Movies 40-31

Top 50 War Movies 45-41

Lists

 

Top 50 War Movies #30-21

30) The Patriot– (71/100)- This is a fairly good depiction of the issues and battles that occurred in the Southern part of the Revolutionary War.  The main characters on both sides of the battle appear to be a conglomeration of several people, and this hurts its ranking.  The film is patriotic, but it is not nearly Gibson’s best effort.  It underscores the unfortunate lack of quality Revolutionary War movies.

29) The Sand of Iwo Jima (73/100)- This is the second John Wayne war movie on the list.  It is a fairly good depiction of the events in the battle for Iwo Jima though the characters are made up.  The film gets extra point for establishing the film tradition of the tough, gruff sergeant and placing John Wayne in the role.  It uses actual Pacific theatre battle footage which only makes it more believable.

28) Enemy at the Gates– (73-100)- This is the underrated story of snipers who ruled the broken city of Stalingrad 1942.  It is the story of German and Russian snipers who squared off against each other in an attempt to determine who was the best and deadliest.  Though some of the events are legend or conglomerations, it is very interesting as a war movie, and a nice change from the standard war movie fare.

27) The Tuskegee Airmen– (75/100)- This movie chronicles the story of the only group of black fighter (P51) pilots in the European theatre during WWII.  It, therefore, relates an important story mixing the beginnings of the American civil rights era with a WWII war story.

26) The Great Raid– (76/100)- The book, Ghost Soldiers is a better telling, but the movie is still a compelling retelling of the rescue of soldiers from a prison camp on Luzon.  It flew under the radar a few years ago, but is worth a view.

25) We Were Soldiers– (76-100)- It is clearly more popular to make movies that expose the flaws of the military and America when it comes to Vietnam (see Platoon, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July for good examples).  I find this movie to be a refreshingly patriotic portrayal of the events of that war.  The battle sequences are just scary at times, especially when they fight in the dark.

24) Lawrence Of Arabia (76-100)- This is a true epic.  It tells the true story of a great British officer who took it upon himself to organize the nomadic tribes of the Middle East into a fighting force which eventually drove Turks back to their home land.  It is a little long, and the director takes a few liberties with his audience in this matter for effect.  This is why it is best to watch it on video.  I love Peter O’Toole, but he overacts a little also.  I would like to see this story retold now that films can be made that show the darker side of warfare.

23) The Great Escape– (76-100)- This movie is the best of the POW camp based movies.  It is ‘based’ on a true story, has a stellar cast, and a great score.  It would be even higher on this list if there were some battles in it.

22) Master and Commander– (77/100)- This is the best depiction of life aboard a wooden warship ever made.  It deals with almost every aspect of life aboard a British warship even though it is a fiction.

21) Flags of Our Fathers– (77/100)- The war scenes in this film could have been better, but they were still good.  The fact that most of the movie is about what happened to the ‘flag raisers’ after the battle keeps it down the list.

Top 50 War Movies Criteria

Top 50 War Movies 10-1

Top 50 War Movies 20-11

Top 50 War Movies 30-21

Top 50 War Movies 40-31

Top 50 War Movies 45-41

Lists

 

Top 50 War Movies #20-11

20) The Last of the Mohicans– (78/100)- This is a great movie, but the fact that it is a fiction that varies widely without good reason from the book from which it is derived drives it down the list some.  Still, the graphic examples of siege and Indian battles in pre-Revolutionary War America are superb.  This one uses the whole screen for the battles.  If you rent it, be sure to get it in letterbox, or you’ll have trouble making sense of the battle sequences.

19) Gallipoli– (79-100)- This is an excellent movie about the abortive British invasion of Turkey during WWI.  It is probably the best movie set in WWI, and though the importance of the battle can be called into question, it is an excellent depiction of the true waste of life that was characteristic of armies during the First World War.

18) God’s and Generals– (80/100)- This prequel to Gettysburg follows the battle career of Stonewall Jackson.  It is not nearly as great a film as Gettysburg, but has some of the best Civil War battle sequences that can be found in film.

17) El Cid– (81/100)- This is another epic made in the 1960s.  It stars Charlton Heston, and recounts the story of a Spaniard, Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid) who succeeded in driving the Moors out of Spain and changing the destiny of Europe.  There are some good battle scenes, and in the end, El Cid, who is dead by this time, is tied to his horse and leads his army to victory.

16) Battle of the Bulge– (81/100)- This fictionalized presentation of one of the most famous battles of WWII would have scored higher if it had stayed truer to history.  It has good acting and battle scenes, but the terrain often does not look like a heavy forest, and there is a distinct lack of snow.  Also, the lack of a mention of Patton in the movie is regrettable.  He should have gotten a little credit.  That being said, it is a very watchable war movie.

15) The Thin Red Line– (81/100)- This movie seems like a compilation of vignettes each of which is extremely well acted.  The battle scenes are also very good.  That being said, the editing and final composition of the movie is very much a hodgepodge.  Also, the artistic sequences are terrible.

14) Kingdom of Heaven (81/100)-  Kingdom of Heaven is a refreshing fictionalized account of the Crusades.  The battles and siege warfare found in this film are superb.  It is also refreshing to find a movie about the Crusades that it fair to all sides.  Neither Christianity nor Islam is the bad guy in this film.  There are both good and bad people on each side, and unfortunately, as in real life there are often more bad people than good.  This movie would have been better received if it had not been released at the height of anger toward the Iraq war.

13) Band of Brothers– (81-100)- HBO’s presentation of Stephen Ambrose’s books could have been done better.  It was clear that producers Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg were most concerned with conveying the every day lives (and deaths) of the soldiers of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne as they moved across Europe during WWII.  It seemed a little tedious at times, but it would be hard to compete with I terms of conveying the experience of WWII frontline soldiers.  Of course, most movies do not have 10 hours plus to play with.

12) The Big Red One– (87/100)- The plot of this movie follows Lee Marvin’s character, the Sergeant from the end of WWI through the end of WWII.  It centers on his platoon as they move from battle to battle.  It also shows many of the issues faced by front line soldiers during WWII.

11) Black Hawk Down– (87/100)- It is hard to find fault with this as a war movie, but it is not for the faint of heart.  It is easily the best war movie set in a time after Vietnam.  I was not thrilled with the score, and the actual event pales in comparison to battles such as Midway, but these are minor criticisms.  I recommend watching the documentary, The Real Story of Black Hawk Down to see how accurate the movie really is.

Top 50 War Movies Criteria

Top 50 War Movies 10-1

Top 50 War Movies 20-11

Top 50 War Movies 30-21

Top 50 War Movies 40-31

Top 50 War Movies 45-41

Lists

 

Top 50 War Movies #10-1

10) Platoon– (87/100)- This is the best movie ever made concerning the War in Vietnam.  This film was written and directed by Oliver Stone, and won the 1986 Academy Award for best picture.  Though it is fictional, it is one of the best portrayals of battle from a soldier’s perspective that can be found.  It shows both the good and the bad side of individual soldiers which is refreshing for something directed by Oliver Stone.

9) Saving Private Ryan– (87/100)- This fictionalized account of a platoon (led by Tom Hanks) on a ‘special mission’ in post D-Day Europe is undeniably the best movie ever made from the soldier’s point of view.  The first twenty minutes of the film recounts the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach from a soldier’s point of view in a way that could not be topped.  Sheer gold.  It has everything, and if it had just been a true story, it may have been #1.

8 ) Patton– (90-100)- Argue with the greatness of this movie,…and fail.  This is a great movie about a great man.  It may not be big on battles, but it makes up for that by exposing us to sheer military genius.

7) Braveheart– (90/100)- This also could have been #1, if it had not taken a little too much license with history.  The battle scenes are unrivaled in medieval genre.  However, having the Battle of Falkirk Bridge without a bridge is more than a slight oversight.  With all of these criticisms, this is still my personal all-time favorite movie.  It’s just not the best ‘war movie.’

6) Tora! Tora! Tora!– Many of the movies in the tops six have something in common.  They are very historically accurate, and tell the complete story of a very important battle.   They are definitely epics, have memorable scores and extensive casts full of some of the best actors of their eras.  Tora! Tora! Tora! is a fair example of these.  It was one of the first major Hollywood films that showed a battle from the Japanese perspective (at least their commanders).  The effects reflect the time in which it was made, but respect has to be made to the effort which resulted in building replica, flying examples of Japanese warplanes, some of which are the only such flying examples of these planes still found today.  I’ll take that kind of effort over CG any day.

5) Midway– (92/100)- This movie is a lot like Tora! Tora! Tora!.  The stock battle footage does not always match well with the actual film, but it reflects the era in which it was made (before CG), and shows the director’s reticence to use models that look like toy boats in a movie about aircraft carriers.  It would be hard to determine whether this movie or Tora! Tora! Tora! is better, but I gave the nod to Midway because it was the Pacific equal of D-Day in importance, and it was an American victory.

4) A Bridge Too Far– (92/100)- This is one of the two great war movies based on the two great books by author Cornelius Ryan.  The books are an exhaustive and great read full of asides and first person history.  A Bridge Too Far does a great job of following the book, and it does an admirable job of getting a good deal of the history and issues involved in this huge Allied undertaking across to the viewer.  The battle for the bridge at Arnhem is very realistic, and was done so without the aid of CG.  Check out this cast:  Anthony Hopkins, Michael Caine, Elliot Gould, Sean Connery, James Caan, Dirk Bogarde, Gene Hackman, Ryan O’Neal, Lawrence Olivier, Robert Redford, Maximilian Schell, Liv Ullman, Colin Farrell (odd), John Ratzenberger (even odder), and many others.

3) Glory– (93/100)- This is a great movie that tells the important story of the Fighting 54th, the first black regiment to see combat during the Civil War.  It has a great message, and a great score.  The script and acting are superb, including: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Ewels, and Morgan Freeman.  The movie has the odd ability to point out racial issues in America while at the same time making you feel patriotic.  Simply great.

2) Gettysburg– (95/100)- Easily the best movie that has been made about the Civil War.  It tackles the most important battle of the war by using the novel The Killer Angels, a great work of historical fiction that itself drew heavily on first person accounts of the battle and is very accurate as far as detailing the order and events of the battle.  It has a great score, and a great cast including, Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, Sam Elloit, and C. Thomas Howell.  The battle scenes in the movie are great, and accurately portray the tactical issues facing everyone involved in the conflict.

This movie suffered because it was originally going to be a TNT miniseries.  At some point, the powers that be at the network, decided that it was too big for television, and decided to release it widely as a feature film.  The problem was that many of the battles scenes had already been shot on video, and video does not transfer as well cinematically to film as film does to video.  As a result, the film was passed-over by the Academy.

1) The Longest Day– (95-100)- The first of the great WWII books by Cornelius Ryan to be turned into a movie.  It accurately portrays the entirety of Operation Overlord, also know as D-Day.  The battle is still the greatest sea-born invasion in history, and is one of the most important battles in WWII (possible all of history).  The book itself is a history of the battle, and the movie follows the book very well.  The score is good, as is the cinematography.  The battle scenes considering the time that they were made are great.  Like A Bridge Too Far, the movie does a great job of explaining the big picture strategy of the battle while at the same time focusing on the trials and tribulation of individual soldiers (and heroes) involved in the battle something that a movie like Saving Private Ryan does not accomplish as well.  It would be hard to assemble as great a group of actors outside of Oscar Night as appears in this film.  It includes: John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Rod Streiger, Rober Wagoner, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, Eddie Albert, Sal Mineo, Red Buttons, Paul Anka, and Fabian among others.

 

Feel free to post a comment and to disagree (tastefully) with anything I have here.  I’m sure I left out some very important films so left me know, and I will correct the list, maybe.

Top 50 War Movies Criteria

Top 50 War Movies 10-1

Top 50 War Movies 20-11

Top 50 War Movies 30-21

Top 50 War Movies 40-31

Top 50 War Movies 45-41

Lists