For as long as the cinema has existed, man has echoed the great wars and battles of the past with cinematic recreations. They are touchstones of cinematic achievement and technological prowess. Here are ten of the greatest ever made.
In what may well be director Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus, Saving Private Ryan follows a group of several soldiers tasked with locating and rescuing paratrooper Private James Francis Ryan. The film is legendary for its literal and graphic violence, in particular its opening twenty-seven minutes depicting the Omaha beachhead assault of June 6, 1944. In comparison, other war films feel pale when measured against this masterpiece of not only the war genre, but of the entirety of cinema itself.
In the film that cemented Mel Gibson’s career as both an actor and as a director, Braveheart helped redefine the war movie. We follow Sir William Wallace, a 13th century Scottish knight who leads a rebellion against the English in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England. The film is remarkable for its intricate and visceral battle scenes which has influenced every war movie after it. In terms of scope, emotion, drama, and technical prowess, Braveheart is second to none as a cinematic classic.
All Quiet on the Western Front is considered to be one of the greatest early war films. It follows a group of young German soldiers who enlist in the army at the start of World War One. As they face the horrors of war, they become disillusioned with the nationalistic forces that caused both the war, and their recruitment. The film was the first war movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2008, it was ranked the seventh greatest war film of all time by the American Film Institute. It may be eighty years old, but it hasn’t lost any of its power.
Based on director Oliver Stone’s own experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam, Platoon is considered by many to be the definitive film on the entire war. It follows Chris Taylor, a young American soldier who discovers the horrors of war firsthand as he is involved in several firefights and a large battle. But even worse is the internal politics of the platoon, as he must decide between allegiances to one of two conflicting officers. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Platoon is a harrowing look into the most tragic war in American history.
Frequently cited by filmmakers as one of the most influential films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia is a sprawling, four hour epic about World War One in the Middle East. The film is named after its main character, T. E. Lawrence, who is charged with uniting the splintered peoples of the Middle East together in order to fight against the enemies of the British Empire. While the film focuses largely one Lawrence and his emotional struggles, the film has some of the most fantastic battle scenes ever committed to celluloid, including the legendary charge at Aqaba.
Based off the immensely famous book by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind is nothing short of a cultural and cinematic milestone. Winner if 10 Academy Awards, the film told the story of Scarlett O’Hara, the daughter of a plantation owner in the South during the Civil War. Though the film focuses primarily on Scarlett, the film does deal explicitly with the war and how it affected the inhabitants of the South. Coming in at three hours and forty-four minutes, Gone with the Wind redefined the cinematic epic by bringing the Civil War to life.
Not so much a film as a fever dream, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is one of the strangest, most hypnotic, and most disturbing films about the Vietnam War. It follows Captain Benjamin Willard as he is tasked with going up a river in Vietnam in order to execute an AWOL US Army special operation officer named Colonel Kurtz. The film examines the impact of war and how it returns humans to a primal, tribal form. As Willard goes further up the river, the further he delves into the realm his own madness.
One of the most famous films about the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter follows the lives of three Rusyn American soldiers. The film is comprised largely of three different parts. The first shows them before the war, as their friendships grow. The second involves their actual combat tours in Vietnam. The third follows the trio as they try to return to normal lives after they are shattered by the war. Winning several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Deer Hunter is an intense and meditative examination on the mental, physical, and emotional impact of war upon its participants.
Legendary director Stanley Kubrick gave his take on the Vietnam War in his magnificent Full Metal Jacket. The film is divided into two parts. The first part is the more famous one, following a fresh batch of Marine recruits undergoing basic training. One of the recruits, a mentally disturbed man nicknamed Gomer Pyle, loses his mind and kills his psychotic drill instructor before committing suicide. The second part follows the same group of recruits in Vietnam and coming face to face with the hell that is urban combat.
Stanley Kubrick’s World War One film was one of the starkest and most powerful anti-war films ever made. It focused on Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of a regiment of French soldiers who refuse a suicidal order to attack a well-fortified German stronghold. As a result, three soldiers are randomly selected to be executed for charges of cowardice. Dax takes it upon himself to defend the three men, even though their fates are sealed. Featuring some of the most graphic and terrifying recreated war footage of World War One, Paths of Glory is a devastatingly powerful film.