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

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