Greatest War Movies


The Greatest War Movies
Title Screen
Film Title/Year/Director, War-time Setting and Brief Description

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
d. Michael Mann

Colonial North American warfare between British and French (allied with Huron warriors), Upstate NY in 1757, during French and Indian War in the American colonies

This recent adaptation was one in a long line of films based upon James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 "Leatherstocking" book.

The romantic adventure film starred Daniel Day-Lewis as orphaned, Mohican-adopted and raised Nathaniel "Hawkeye" Poe, who led a mission (with the last two Mohicans: Chingachcook (Russell Means) and his son Uncas (Eric Schweig)) -- to rescue headstrong Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice - the two daughters of the fort's British commander Col. Edmund Munro (Maurice Roeves).

The film's major sequences included the Huron ambush and kidnapping of the two women, the French siege of Fort William Henry, the Huron massacre by sadistic and vengeful renegade Magua (Wes Studi) on the British led by Col. Munro as they withdrew from the fort, the escape sequence into a waterfall, and the fight-to-the-deaths between Uncas and Magua, and then between Magua and Chingachcook.

Gettysburg (1993)
d. Ronald Maxwell

The 1863 Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War

Writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell's outstanding and authentic epic (over four hours of history coming alive) was based on Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, recreating the famous, tragic and decisive Civil War battle of July 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Ted Turner's ambitious $20 million film displayed impressive camerawork during the stunning, visceral and bloody battle scenes.

The action was divided up by the three days of battle, featuring Union cavalry commander John Buford (Sam Elliott) on the first day, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), the Union hero of Little Round Top on the second day, and Confederate General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger), Gen. Robert E. Lee's (Martin Sheen) most trusted commander, on the third day.

Faithfulness to history was achieved by shooting on location at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The film was followed by a prequel, Gods and Generals (2003).

Schindler's List (1993)
d. Steven Spielberg

The Holocaust in Europe, during WWII

Spielberg's greatest dramatic, black and white masterpiece was based on a true story (by Thomas Keneally) of an opportunistic Catholic-German businessman and charming womanizer Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson).

Schindler profited from WWII by employing cheap labor from Polish Jews in his Krakow cookware factory during the Third Reich's Holocaust, and provided them refuge from the horrors of the Nazis.

The biopic film also documented the hideous, disturbing evil personified by Nazi Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) - the Plaszow camp commandant, Schindler's relationship with his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) and their list-making to courageously save over 1,000 Jews from the senseless, brutal extermination in Auschwitz.

The film was honored with seven Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture.

Stalingrad (1993, Germ.)
d. Joseph Vilsmaier

Nazi Germany vs. Stalin's Red Army in WWII battles on the Eastern Front, 1942-1943

The German point-of-view anti-war battle drama was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the crucial defeat of the Nazi forces in Stalingrad, Russia, a turning point of WWII. It was the second German film to portray the Battle of Stalingrad, pre-dated by Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever? (1959) (aka Hunde, Wollt Ihr Ewig Leben).

The grim and depressing film told docu-drama style was made by the producers of Das Boot (1981), to authentically portray the loss of two million lives on the Eastern front, when abandoned Nazi troops literally froze and starved to death during the brutal winter.

It followed one German platoon, led by idealistic German officer Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kreischmann), which learned the realities of war as they went to the front lines to assist the Sixth Army, found a bloody stalemate, and progressively lost men during the harsh fighting conditions.

Braveheart (1995)
d. Mel Gibson

The late 13th-century Scottish uprising, the First War of Scottish Independence, led by William Wallace against King Edward I of England at Stirling Bridge, 1297, in Medieval Scotland

Producer-director-actor Mel Gibson's 13th century melodramatic historical war epic won five Academy Awards (from ten nominations), including Best Picture and Best Director.

Although it was often historically inaccurate (faces weren't painted and kilts were not worn by the Scots), Gibson memorably portrayed the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, who victoriously fought against the army of the oppressive and tyrannical King Edward I "Longshanks" (Patrick McGoohan) at Stirling Bridge in 1297.

The central battle sequence was masterfully filmed to increase tension ("Hold...Hold...Hold"). He was spurred to revolt against the monarchy after his secretly-wed wife (Catherine McCormack) was raped and had her throat slit.

However, Wallace was then defeated at the Battle of Falkirk, captured and tried for high treason, and beheaded in a long and sadistic torture scene at the film's conclusion in which he cried out: "Freedom!"

Richard III (1995, UK)
d. Richard Loncraine

A time of Fascist government in 1930s Britain

This melodrama based upon Shakespeare's play of the same name was adapted by actor Ian McKellen; the setting wasn't England of the 1480s but fictional Britain in the late 1930s, a time of modern weaponry (tanks, airplanes, machine guns).

The film began in a time of civil war between the houses of York (Richard III's side) and Lancaster; the film opened with a tank crashing through the war-room headquarters of reigning King Henry VI (Edward Jewesbury) and his troops, where the king was murdered by hunchbacked and limping, treacherous and power-lusting Richard III (McKellen) of Gloucester. He then delivered the ''winter of our discontent'' victory speech into a microphone and finished the monologue at a bathroom urinal.

He pitted himself against his enthroned brother King Edward IV (John Wood), and schemed to persuade the King to murder younger brother Duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) as a traitor, and murder his two nephews (Edward's sons) in order to ascend to kingship himself and be crowned King of England in an elaborate Nazi-like ceremony, with parallels easily made between Richard III and Adolf Hitler.

The battle of Bosworth field was transferred to an abandoned power station fought with tanks and machine guns (Richard's famed speech: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" was delivered as his Jeep stalled in the mud on the battlefield).

He refused to be captured at the end and fell to his fiery death, to the tune of I'm Sitting on the Top of the World

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
d. Steven Spielberg

WWII, including the bloody Omaha beach invasion on D-Day in June 1944

Steven Spielberg's R-rated war epic opened, in its first half-hour, with the brutal, uncompromising, and graphically-realistic depiction of the landing at bloody Omaha Beach on D-Day (June 6, 1944).

The film's aftermath, based loosely on a true story, revolved around the rescue of a downed paratrooper in the French countryside, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers had recently been killed in action, by a group commanded by veteran Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks in an Oscar-nominated role).

The film was a critical and box office smash, and brought Spielberg his second Best Director Oscar (his first was for his other World War II era film, Schindler's List (1993)).

The Thin Red Line (1998)
d. Terrence Malick

The Battle for Guadalcanal in the South Pacific during WWII

Writer/director Terrence Malick demonstrated his extraordinary film-making talent (after an absence of 20 years) with an ethereal, visually compelling re-make of the 1964 film of James Jones' 1962 novel about the WWII attack on the strategic island of Guadalcanal.

Although the exceptional, well-received wartime film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, it came away empty-handed.

It told about a C-Company group of soldiers, including introspective Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) and cynical, fatalistic First Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), who were engaged to fight at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific against the Japanese.

Their struggle to hold the island, take a machine gun-filled bunker, and survive the bloody conflict were echoed in the narrated internal monologues of Witt's thoughts, heard in philosophizing voice-over (for example: "This great evil. Where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from?").

Tigerland (2000)
d. Joel Schumacher

Bootcamp in Louisiana during Vietnam War era, 1971

This gritty film depicted Advanced Infantry Training at a boot camp in Louisiana for inexperienced Vietnam-bound recruits called Fort Polk, infamously known as Tigerland since it simulated a SE Asian jungle.

It portrayed the brutalization of the young trainees in their final week before being shipped overseas, including a stubborn, defiant and rebellious ("smart-alec") Texan named Roland Bozz (Colin Farrell) who was drafted into the Army and opposed the war.

During the simulated training (using live ammunition), he proved his leadership abilities, although he continued to maintain his attitude of using his "X-ray eyes for loopholes."

Black Hawk Down (2001)
d. Ridley Scott

The Somalian mission in October, 1993 - a disastrous assault on the capital city of Mogadishu

Ridley Scott's suspenseful and compelling war film, based on Mark Bowden's 1999 book, recreated the bloody events surrounding the tragic and ill-fated October 1993 American ground-force siege of the civil war-torn Somalian city of Mogadishu.

It told about a failed helicopter mission, when a Black Hawk helicopter (in the elite Delta Force of US Army Rangers) was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade from Somali militia, resulting in a 15-hour catastrophic firefight with 19 American and countless other Somalian deaths.

The action-filled war film was relentlessly exciting and gripping, and won two Oscars for Best Sound and Best Film Editing.

The Pianist (2002)
d. Roman Polanski

The Holocaust, 1939-1944

Exiled Best Director-winning Roman Polanski's film won a Best Actor Oscar for lead actor Adrien Brody, who portrayed the harrowing ordeal of survival for Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman (based on his written memoirs) during the years of the Holocaust.

When WWII broke out in Poland in 1939 and the Nazis began occupation, his work for a Warsaw radio station ended abruptly and the rights of tormented Polish Jews rapidly deteriorated as they were systematically exterminated.

He witnessed the atrocities while in hiding in various buildings and apartments, including the put-down of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.

In the film's most memorable scene set in bombed out Warsaw buildings in the war's later years, a chance encounter with a sympathetic German Army Captain Wilm Hosenfeld (Thomas Kretschmann) led to his grand piano rendition of Chopin's Ballad in G Minor for the Nazi leader - who then helped him to survive the final days of the war.

We Were Soldiers (2002)
d. Randall Wallace

Start of the Vietnam War, during the Pleiku Campaign and Battle of La Drang Valley, November 14-16, 1965, the first major battle between outnumbered U.S. troops and the NVA

Randall Wallace's factual tribute film and war-time character study starred Mel Gibson as inspiring Lieut. Colonel Hal Moore. The war film was based on the book We Were Soldiers Once...And Young by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway.

It began with the words: "These are the true events of November, 1965..." to chronicle the US' first major bloody, heroic engagement (part of the Pleiku Campaign) between 450 American troops in the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry regiment and well-armed 2,000 N. Vietnamese regulars in the People's Army (NVA) in late 1965 at the Battle of Landing Zone X-Ray (in the Ia Drang Valley). The conflict was in an area to be called The Valley of Death in South Vietnam's Central Highlands.

The film both emphasized the toll of war on the battlefront and on the homefront, and in its conclusion emphasized how Moore kept his vow to his men in a speech delivered in an outdoor high school football stadium: "That when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together. So help me God."

Downfall (2004, Germ.) (aka Der Untergang)
d. Oscar Hirschbiegel

Adolf Hitler's underground Berlin bunker during last days of WWII, 1945

This realistic German war film was told from the perspective of one of Adolf Hitler's personal secretaries, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara). (She appeared as Herself in opening and closing documentary scenes.) It depicted the last few chaotic days within Hitler's (Bruno Ganz) underground Nazi bunker as the Allied troops advanced on Berlin. Downfall was the first German-speaking Hitler to be portrayed seriously since Nazism was censored in post-war Germany.

The claustrophic, tension-filled last days showed the Fuhrer descending and disintegrating into madness and losing touch with reality as he moved fictional military divisions around on a map, and frequently burst into anger.

His inner circle, including Joseph and Magda Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch) in one harrowing scene, first poisoned their six children before committing suicide. Outside the bunker, SS doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck (Christian Berkel) encountered the despairing chaos of a disintegrating Berlin as children were forced to suicidally fight encroaching Allied forces and elderly German citizens were executed for refusing to keep fighting the doomed battle.

The conclusion featured Junge and young Hitler Youth soldier Peter Kranz (Donevan Gunia) slowly, peacefully walking through Russian troops to safety.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
d. Clint Eastwood

In the Pacific Theatre of WWII, the Battle of Iwo Jima (February 1945), from the US perspective

Clint Eastwood directed two films (released in a 3-month period) based on the pivotal WWII battle over the island of Iwo Jima. This first one was his 26th directed film. (See Eastwood's second film below) It was adapted from the co-authored James Bradley and Ron Powers' non-fictional book Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima.

The story provided details surrounding the iconic and familiar Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Joe Rosenthal on Mount Suribachi called Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima.

The film told of the bloody engagement to take control of the Pacific island from the Japanese, with at least 6,000 Americans dying in the month-long conflict, and the propagandistic efforts of the US media to bolster morale by capitalizing on the three Iwo Jima flag-raisers who survived.

Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) (aka Iōjima Kara No Tegami)
d. Clint Eastwood

In the Pacific Theatre of WWII, the Battle of Iwo Jima (1945), from the Japanese perspective

This was Eastwood's contemplative, bleak second film (See Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Eastwood's first film) which examined the same nihilistic battle from the Japanese perspective.

This bookend film, with Japanese dialogue (requiring subtitles) starred Ken Watanabe as Japanese commander Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi who led the enemy's troops, and who sent letters to his family - the basis for the film.

The complex character study was filmed with desaturated, washed-out color to give it authenticity.

The Hurt Locker (2009)
d. Kathryn Bigelow

On the streets of Baghdad during the Iraq War of the early 21st century (2004)

One of the best and most tense war films in quite a few years, this one was based upon the actual experiences of journalist and Oscar-winning screenwriter/producer Mark Boal.

It was also an historic, notable Best Picture win for Bigelow, the first female Best Director winner.

The fact-based but fictional character study and action-thriller was about Army Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) and his elite team of expert bomb-defusers (Army EOD- Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad), faced with sniper fire and the dangerous detonation of IED bombs during their time in Baghdad.

The Greatest War Movies
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | 1900s-1920s | 1930s | 1940s-1 | 1940s-2 | 1950s
| 1960s-1 | 1960s-2 | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s-now

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