The Best War Movies of All-Time

One of the first in-depth things I ever wrote here at The End was this look at Saving Private Ryan, shortly before Memorial Day way back in 2007. That was a couple lifetimes ago in internet terms, but I stand by most if not all of what I wrote then (there was a glaring error in character identification pointed out to me in a comment, for example), which basically amounted to “Saving Private Ryan is not a good movie and there are a lot of war movies that are a lot better”. At the end of the essay, I appended a list of 53 war movies from the previous 50 years I had seen that I thought were “better” than Saving Private Ryan: some acknowledged classics (Apocalypse Now, Lawrence of Arabia), some relative obscurities (Hell in the Pacific, Zulu), some controversial picks (Pearl Harbor). A year later I updated the list, this time including all of film history and splitting up the group by conflict (World War I Movies, American Civil War movies, etc). I didn’t do a full ranking of all of them together, but I estimated at that time Saving Private Ryan was about the 100th best war movie of all-time.

Well, this Memorial Day Weekend I feel it’s time for an update. I’m going to break down all the war movies I’ve seen by general category here, with a combined ranked Top 150 list posted over at Letterboxd. I don’t have a strict generic definition of “war movie”, as with every other ranking, I’m just playing it by ear. I’m probably omitting some obvious ones, but as best I can tell, these are the war movies I’ve seen.

World War I:

1. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
2. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
3. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
5. The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, 1930)
4. 7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927)
6. Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933)
7. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)
8. The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
9. Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981)
10. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929)
11. War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)
12. Wings (William Wellman, 1927)
13. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921)
14. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
15. What Price Glory? (Raoul Walsh, 1926)
16. Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941)
17. A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932)
18. The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934)
19. Dark Journey (Victor Saville, 1937)
20. A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004)

The Middle Ages (More or Less):

1. Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
2. Robin and Marian (Richard Lester, 1976)
3. Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
4. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)
5. Culloden (Peter Watkins, 1964)
6. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, 1989)
7. Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981)
8. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944)
9. Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010)
10. The Messenger (Luc Besson, 1999)
11. Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995)
12. Saint Joan (Otto Preminger, 1957)
13. Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005)
14. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991)

The American Civil War:

1. The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)
2. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
3. Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
4. The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951)
5. Band of Angels (Raoul Walsh, 1957)
6. Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989)
7. Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee, 1999)
8. Springfield Rifle (André de Toth, 1952)
9. The Horse Soldiers (John Ford, 1959)
10. Gettysburg (Ronald F. Maxwell, 1993)
11. Shenandoah (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1965)
12. Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915)
13. Gods and Generals (Ronald F. Maxwell, 2003)
14. Virginia City (Michael Curtiz, 1940)
15. Santa Fe Trail (Michael Curtiz, 1940)

American Colonial Wars:

1. Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)
2. The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)
3. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
4. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)
5. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
6. Devil’s Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950)
7. Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960)
8. Northwest Passage (King Vidor, 1940)
9. They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1941)
10. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)
11. Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950)
12. The Last of the Mohicans (George B. Seitz, 1936)
13. Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964)

British Colonial Wars:

1. Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)
2. The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray, 1977)
3. Wee Willie Winkie (John Ford, 1937)
4. Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939)
5. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975)
6. The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939)
7. Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)
8. Khartoum (Basil Dearden, 1966)

French Revolution(s) and Napoleonic Wars:

1. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000)
2. The Black Book (Anthony Mann, 1949)
3. Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003)
4. Orphans of the Storm (DW Griffith, 1921)
5. War and Peace (King Vidor, 1956)

Russian Revolution(s):

1. The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, 1967)
2. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
3. Archangel (Guy Maddin, 1990)
4. Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)
5. The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
6. October (Sergei Eisenstein, 1928)
7. Dr. Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)
8. Prisoner of the Mountains (Sergei Bodrov, 1996)

Irish Revolution(s):

1. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)
2. Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)
3. Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1996)
4. The Informer (John Ford, 1935)
5. The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1936)

World War II in Europe:

1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell & Pressburger, 1943)
3. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, 1980)
4. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
5. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)
6. Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
7. Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
8. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
9. Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)
10. The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)
11. The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964)
12. Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)
13. To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
14. Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970)
15. The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940)
16. Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang, 1943)
17. A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977)
18. Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981)
19. Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wadja, 1958)
20. Kanal (Andrzej Wadja, 1957)
21. Hell is for Heroes (Don Siegel, 1962)
22. The Long Voyage Home (John Ford, 1940)
23. Once Upon a Honeymoon (Leo McCarey, 1942)
24. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)
25. The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls, 1969)
26. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
27. The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967)
28. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)
29. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
30. Passage to Marseille (Michael Curtiz, 1944)
31. Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)
32. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
33. The Story of GI Joe (William Wellman, 1945)
34. The Small Back Room (Powell & Pressburger, 1949)
35. Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder, 1943)
36. This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir, 1943)
37. Battleground (William Wellman, 1949)
38. Fixed Bayonets! (Samuel Fuller, 1951)
39. The Longest Day (Various, 1962)
40. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
41. Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970)
42. Ill Met By Moonlight (Powell & Pressburger, 1957)
43. Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 1940)
44. Sundown (Henry Hathaway, 1941)
45. Judgement at Nuremburg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)
46. A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945)

47. Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel, 1966)
48. Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
49. The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson, 1961)
50. Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953)

51. Europa Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1990)
52. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
53. A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992)
54. Victory (John Huston, 1981)
55. Captain America (Joe Johnston, 2011)
56. Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton, 1968)
57. The Heroes of Telemark (Anthony Mann, 1965)
58. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
59. The Enemy Below (Dick Powell, 1957)
60. Mission to Moscow (Michael Curtiz, 1943)
61. The Hill (Sidney Lumet, 1965)
62. Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943)

World War II in the Pacific:

1. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
2. They Were Expendable (John Ford, 1945)
3. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)
4. Hell in the Pacific (John Boorman, 1968)
5. Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943)
6. The Saga of Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg, 1953)
7. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987)
8. No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
9. The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942)
10. Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
11. Sands of Iwo Jima (Allan Dwan, 1949)

12. Objective: Burma! (Raoul Walsh, 1945)

13. Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951)

14. Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
15. China Girl (Henry Hathaway, 1942)
16. Wake Island (John Farrow, 1942)
17. Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)
18. Beach Red (Cornel Wilde, 1967)
19. Back to Bataan (Edward Dmytryk, 1945)
20. Too Late the Hero (Robert Aldrich, 1970)
21. From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
22. Never So Few (John Sturges, 1959)
23. Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001)

World War II at Home:

1. A Canterbury Tale (Powell & Pressburger, 1944)
2. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
3. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)
4. 49th Parallel (Powell & Pressburger, 1941)
5. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
6. Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942)
7. Northern Pursuit (Raoul Walsh, 1943)
8. The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945)
9. Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)

10. In Harm’s Way (Otto Preminger, 1965)

11. Until They Sail (Robert Wise, 1957)

The Korean War:

1. The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951)
2. Men in War (Anthony Mann, 1957)
3. MASH (Robert Altman, 1970)

Indochina:

1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
2. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)
3. Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990)
4. Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)
5. Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung, 1987)
6. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
7. Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982)
8. China Gate (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
9. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
10. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
11. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
12. The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984)
13. The Quiet American (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1958)
14. Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985)
15. Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978)
16. Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987)
17. Air America (Roger Spottiswoode, 1990)

Latin America:

1. I am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
2. The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986)

3. Predator (John McTeirnan, 1987)
4. Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986)
5. Che (Steven Soderberg, 2008)

6. Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah, 1965)

7. Havana (Sydney Pollack, 1990)
8. The Alamo (John Wayne, 1960)

American Gulf Wars (and Somalia too):

1. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
2. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
3. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)
4. Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999)
5. Courage Under Fire (Edward Zwick, 1996)

French Foreign Legion:

1. Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
2. Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
3. Beau Geste (William Wellman, 1939)

Chinese Wars:

1. Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1995)
2. A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)
3. Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark, 1986)
4. Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
5. Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu, 1967)
6. 7 Women (John Ford, 1966)
7. The Heroic Ones (Chang Cheh, 1970)
8. Red Cliff (John Woo, 2008)
9. The Fate of Lee Khan (King Hu, 1973)
10. Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 1987)
11. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau, 2010)
12. Boxer Rebellion (Chang Cheh, 1976)
13. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Jee-woon, 2008)
14. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933)
15. Bodyguards & Assassins (Teddy Chan, 2009)
16. Sons of the Good Earth (King Hu, 1965)
17. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)

Japanese Wars:

1. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
2. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
3. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Akira Kurosawa, 1945)
4. The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)
5. The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1941)
6. Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Mediterranean/Middle Eastern Wars:

1. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
2. The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
3. Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)
4. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
5. The Spanish Earth (Joris Ivens, 1937)
6. Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)
7. Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954)
8. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
9. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
10. Le petit soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
11. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
12. Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960)
13. Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille, 1934)
14. 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)
15. Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

Fictional Wars:

1. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
2. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
3. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
4. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
5. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
6. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
7. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
8. The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
9. The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1965)
10. No Greater Glory (Frank Borzage, 1934)
11. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983)
12. Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996)
13. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
14. Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986)
15. The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)
16. Princess Mononoke (Hayao MIyazaki, 1998)
17. Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983)
18. Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981)
19. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1993)
20. Red Dawn (John Milius, 1984)
21. Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)
22. Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1935)
23. Les carabiniers (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
24. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
25. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
26. The Siege (Edward Zwick, 1998)
27. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
28. Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996)
29. Dune (David Lynch, 1984)
30. The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984)

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