The 25 best war movies

Tanks for the memories

Many films take a very casual attitude towards violence. The average viewer has seen piles of bodies, hundreds of severed limbs, and more rounds-per-minute than they could ever comprehend. However, the act of war is still (mostly) handled with extreme care by the movie business. And while violent conflict itself is a horrific thing, some of the most beautiful stories committed to cinema have focused on it.

We've rounded up a collection of the 25 best war movies ever. It's not all about bullets and blood, though, as many of these films use their subject matter to tell some amazing human stories. Of course, some of them really are about bullets and blood, so... enjoy those too!

25. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Before he became the Avengers' archer Jeremy Renner took on the role of a conflict vet, tasked with leading a explosive ordnance disposal team in Iraq. Not the most tantalising job offer, but that's the pull of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winner. Despite the constant danger, for guys like Sergeant First Class William James war is a drug. He's content in the thick of it. Even when he ventures way off task, getting both he and his squad into horrible scenarios (discovering children surgically implanted with bombs), there's a sense that he's exactly where he wants to be. This is a bracing and honest look at what war does to soldiers.

24. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Studio Ghibli has a gift for transforming somewhat harsh subject matters into lush, playful movies. The Japanese animation house outdoes itself with this stunning story, a bleak reminder that it's children who suffer the most from warfare. The use of animation achieves a power that live-action probably wouldn't have matched, as the movie follows Seita and Setsuko, two kids orphaned after American bombers destroy their hometown. Heralded by many as one of the most moving anti-war films, it's a true tear-jerker from start to finish.

23. Stalag 17 (1953)

Two American prisoners attempt an escape from a Luftwaffe prison camp during World War II. Stalag 17 opens as they're caught and shot dead by Germans, prompting their remaining comrades to wonder; who snitched? Based on a Broadway play, this comedy drama slowly cooks in the stifling boredom of the American barracks, a perfect place to let prisoners' suspicions fester and for dark wit to surface. As the group of airmen tries to figure out who is the mole, they hatch a new escape plan. The film marks one of director Billy Wilder's last offerings before he switched to (mostly) comedies. You can tell he's itching to truly make that leap; the script is a very funny response to the cabin fever of these servicemen.

22. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 left close to a million dead. Amidst that senseless loss of life, around 1,000 people were saved by the heroic efforts of a hotel owner, Paul Rusesabagina played here by Don Cheadle. The brutality of the militia is a daily reality for Paul and his family, and it's up to him to placate those leaders while keeping his hotel open as a safe haven for refugees. A damning expose of the U.N.’s ineffectual presence, here's a rare Hollywood film in which the African characters take charge.

21. The Killing Fields (1984)

Based on the experiences of two journalists during the era in which the Vietnamese communist forces, the Khmer Rouge, entered Cambodia and instigated a war with the Cambodian national army. Sam Waterson and John Malkovich play Schanberg and Rockoff, a couple of Americans who team up with local Cambodian reporter Dith Pran to capture the truth behind Pol Pot's savage regime. This is a brutal and stirring piece of filmmaking, inspired by an article written by the real Schanberg and Pran. The title refers to a number of fields where the bodies of a million Cambodians remain, after being killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge. That term was coined by Dith Pran, who saw those fields with his own eyes.

20. Salvador (1986)

Way before James Woods became the butt of several Family Guy cutaways he made some powerful movies. Salvador is probably his finest, directed with grit, grime, and a distinctly anti-US angle by Oliver Stone. Woods still plays the type of character you'd expect though; starting out as hedonistic, cynical jackass photojournalist Richard Boyle who slowly becomes less self-involved after he and his buddy (Jim Belushi) head to El Salvador. It's only once the pair arrive, eager freelance their way through the civil war, that they themselves become involved in the horrors of conflict. Things get real for Boyle when American border officers turn back his girlfriend Maria (Elpedia Carillo), condemning her to an uncertain future.

19. Spartacus (1960)

Stanley Kubrick knew how to crank out an epic. His riff on the gladiatorial arena, penned by Dalton Trumbo, is the swords ‘n’ sandals flick. It's a sprawling effort that tells of a lowly slave, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), who rebels against his owner and leads a revolt. What drives Spartacus to lead that charge? Is it being forced to fight as a gladiator, or seeing his missus Varinia (Jean Simmons) bought by corrupt Roman Crassus (Laurence Olivier)? It's emotional stuff, but not as eye-watering as its most memorable scene, showing the solidarity amongst slaves, as everyone claims to be their leader: “I'm Spartacus!”

18. Downfall (2004)

Even dictators have their bad days, but humanising Hitler (while far from excusing him) makes his crimes all the greater. Downfall takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to the Fuhrer's final ten days, told through the point-of-view of his secretary. In fact, it's the real life Traudi Junge whose voice is heard opening the movie. Much was made of how the film paints a realistic portrait of a monstrous man, who displayed kindness to his staff while seconds later utter contempt for millions he sent to their deaths. It's a near-perfect piece of filmmaking, thanks to Bruno Ganz eerily-precise depiction of Hitler. 

17. All Quiet on The Western Front (1930)

Boredom, hunger and the ever-present threat of sudden death transform an episodic story into Hollywood's definitive account of trench warfare. The original film from 1930 is the role for which actor Lew Ayers is best known, as German soldier Paul Bumer. One of several schoolboys convinced by their patriotic schoolteacher to enlist in the army, he and his friends come to learn that doing your bit for your country means sacrificing everything.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gem is GR+'s west coast entertainment news reporter. She’s a bit obsessed with all things Aliens and Terminator.
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