War is hell. It’s brutal and bloody. It destroys lives, countries, cultures. It shapes our past, our present, our future. And that is why it continues to be the fascination of filmmakers and movie-goers alike. Stories about war reveal the true nature of humanity in its darkest times.
And just because these are dramas often dealing with the military—telling stories of brave soldiers and great victories—these aren’t always flag-waving patriotic films. A war movie can be deeply pacifist, it can be revolutionary, it can be critical of our leaders who bring us into conflict.
Below we run down the 7 greatest war movies ever made. It includes some of the classics along with a few non-traditional choices to widen your expectations of what a war movie can be and do.
Honorable Mention: Captain America
Yes, it borders on the line of Marvel-induced jingoism and it’s a superhero movie that surely doesn’t shine a light on the throes of war like the rest of this list (which is why it’s an HM, not an actual entry). But Captain America, in a lot of ways, encapsulates who we can be and what, ultimately, we hope to not have to be at the same time. It’s still one of Marvel’s greatest outings, and man if ol’ Cap isn’t a great hero to rally around.
Quentin Tarantino is a legend. The director’s revisionist look at World War II brings his pulpy style to “killin’ Nazis.” And like any Tarantino flick, it spares no opportunity for a bit of gore and bloodshed. Lt. Aldo Raine? A legend for-fucking-ever.
This film is a masterful look at the attack on Dunkirk from three different vantage points. Also, as a bonus, it features Harry Styles in his first major acting role, and your boy will make you proud.
I mean, just look at the trailer. This 2019 Best Picture nominee is more of a film about pacifism than it is about the glories of either side of WWI. Shot to look like one continuous take, after watching it, you’ll feel like you spent nearly 2 hours without breathing.
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan dives into the complex ethics of war. When a mother loses three of her four sons in combat, a special mission is developed to go out to save the surviving Private Ryan (Matt Damon) in Normandy before he becomes the final fatality that breaks a family apart. But in doing so, the mission risks the lives of the seven men sent to save him.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic is essentially an epic anti-war film starring the greats: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Martin Sheen. Skewering the pointlessness of the Vietnam War, the film has only gained acclaim as perhaps the best war epic of all time.
The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow’s look at modern-day warfare is a fascinating glimpse into a revamped war genre. With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow became the first and only woman so far to win the Academy Award for Best Director.