The 25 best war movies - from Dunkirk to Downfall (and everything in between)

16. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

What’s one man's life worth? That's the staggeringly huge question Steven Spielberg sets out to answer in his blistering 1998 actioner. Its opening sequence never lets up as a US squad hits the beaches of Omaha, aiming to track down the last surviving son of a single American family and return him safely home. The cast assembled here is terrific, with all of them on the top of their game and working together to bring out the best in each other’s performances. There's nothing flashy or glitzy about the harrowing truths of war here, as Tom Hanks' leader pushes his team into the darkest parts of conflict. This is a brutal and totally unflinching dip into wartime violence.

15. The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Russian roulette scene is perhaps what Michael Cimino's Vietnam drama is best known for, a moment that epitomises the utter hopelessness of a man torn apart emotionally by his tour of Vietnam. He's one of three childhood friends, who sign up to serve their country. By focusing as much on the buddies' home lives as well as their combat experiences, Cimino paints a tragic portrait of a blue-collar Pennsylvania community destroyed by war. It's a striking piece of cinema that cuts between their initial excitement and the harsh reality, brought to life by an epic cast that includes Christopher Walken, Robert De Niro, Nick Savage, and Meryl Streep.

14. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Tarantino says the dialogue he's most proud of is spoken during Inglourious Basterds' opening sequence, when the ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) calmly interrogates a French dairy farmer believing that he's harbouring Jewish refugees in his basement. It's testament to Tarantino's confidence that this scene is 15 minutes long - a terrific start to a World War 2 flick that's an action with a giant splat of camp comedy thrown in. The Basterds of the title - led by Brad Pitt's Aldo Raines, a take-no-bullshit Lieutenant who demands his men procure him hundreds of Nazi scalps - are part of the plot, that weaves in a dastardly scheme to take out the Third Reich's highest-ranking officials in a movie theater. Beautifully nutty.

13. Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Petersen's film is really one of a few examples where the term 'epic' can be used with authority. Das Boot runs just a shade under five hours. It's had trimmed theatrical releases, TV miniseries cuts, and extended home video director's edits: all of them pack the same thudding truth. War is hell wherever you are, as a submarine of German sailors face boredom, claustrophobia, and terror under the waves. That terror is boldly presented, as the crew, bound by orders not to take prisoners, watch as the crew of a torpedoed British tanker goes drown. Bleak.

12. The Great Escape (1963)

You know the theme. That uplifting ditty that's drafted into so many movies and TV shows as a way to give authority the finger, without… well, having to literally show it. But The Great Escape gave us much more than that. A fun, heart-warming adventure about a band of allied POWs during World War 2, who are recaptured by the Germans and sent to a high security Stalag in Poland. The film's two leads, Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, rally together a hodgepodge of prisoners to dig three tunnels. The great thing is, nobody is under any illusions about getting home. So why do it? Simply: to piss off the Nazis. You've got to admire their balls.

11. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Regarded as one of the finest World War II movies ever made. Bridge on the River Kwai is a fictional story surrounding the construction of the Burma railway. Alec Guinness stars as a British Colonel who, along with his platoon of men, is forced by the Japanese to construct the bridge. But the Colonel's alliances become unclear as he collaborates with his enforcers, believing the British Army should be remembered for its sterling construction work. A strange turn of events, certainly, and one that's brought to a head by William Holden's American officer who swoops in to try and blow up the bridge. Heart-wrenching stuff.

10. Platoon (1986)

Platoon comes with an added boost of authenticity as writer-director Oliver Stone lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war. Stone was part of the US infantry for 14 months, channeling his experiences into his ensemble flick that follows Charlie Sheen's character as he jacks in his studies to serve his country. It's believed that this is the first Vietnam film to hail directly from someone who saw action. Stone knew himself how conflict rocks the psyche. Likewise, the squalor of jungle warfare has rarely been more palpable, but Stone puts things in perspective in a gruelling scorched earth raid on a Vietnamese village. 

9. Darkest Hour (2017)

There have been many on-screen depictions on Churchill, but Gary Oldman's aces the lot with this 2018 Oscars-contender. Played with a mixture of pompousness, stubbornness, and a necessary sprinkling of humanity (which admittedly runs very saccharine in a couple of scenes), Oldman's Churchill perfectly encapsulates the type of leader that was needed to defy Hitler in WW2. His politically awkward position also gives great background as to why he wasn't retained as Prime Minister after the war - something few movies have managed to explain adequately. This film features no real action, and only focuses on a narrow part of WW2, but it stands firmly as one of the best war movies ever made, thanks to some excellent pacing, heaps of tension, and one of the greatest performances you'll see of a major historical figure.

8. The Pianist (2002)

To fully immerse himself in the character of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, Adrien Brody embraced The Method. He dumped his girlfriend, sold his belongings, gave up his home and lived as the Jewish pianist did during his time in the Warsaw ghetto. That commitment shows on screen, and is likely what earned Brody his Oscar as the inner torment suffered by his character is matched perfectly by his physical transformation. The film is based on a true story, and serves as a stark reminder of the lengths Jewish Europeans had to go to in order to survive.

7. The Thin Red Line (1998)

20 years away from filmmaking and Terrence Malick returned with The Thin Red Line. A lingering, slow-drawl of a war film that shows how mankind's desire to fight one another devastates nature. Cut down from a much, MUCH longer version, the finished movie surprised a lot of the cast who learned in the theater that their roles were bigger/smaller than expected. It's the thin red line of the title, which is according to Malick what separates the sane from the mad, that's best brought to life over and over in the performances of its soldiers. In particular? Nick Nolte's unhinged Colonel; possibly his best-ever role.

6. Paths of Glory (1957)

Kubrick took inspiration from Humphrey Cobb's novel to tell the story of a World War I Colonel who refused to walk his men to certain death. Kirk Douglas is steely as Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of four soldiers sentenced to death, who turns to his pre-war civilian life as a lawyer to defend the men. Along the way he becomes strongly disillusioned with the madness of his superiors, part of Kubrick's strong anti-war sentiment making its way into the main part of the plot. As heavy-handed as that may be, it's the final twang that finds the survivors of Dax's company gathered in a local inn, knocking back the ale, and listening to a local woman sing, that packs the real punch. It's seeing Dax watch his men, eyes brimming with tears in the moment, knowing that they don't have long until the next big push. 

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