The Ten Greatest War Movies of All Time

Confession: Not a single Myrna Loy film shows up in this list. But we just can’t resist posting this photo of Loy serving coffee to American sailors during World War II. Lucky guys.

Movies about war are ideally suited to the kinetic energy of motion pictures. The eternal themes of love, courage, and loyalty are given full range in the theater of war. Readers will immediately notice the absence of silent films and movies from Hollywood’s golden age. Yes, in spite of our love of classic cinema we are the first to admit that sound and modern special effects have rendered most older war movies tame and stylized.

We have also excluded war movies that treat war as “senseless killing” or set forth a pacifist narrative. As far as Seraphic Secret is concerned, a just war is the only method by which moral states can triumph over evil nations. War is too serious a business to be intellectually castrated by fuzzy minds who traffic in moral equivalence.

We concentrate on movies that feature intense warfare, yet whose narrative line does not neglect the more intimate, personal stories. We have eliminated home-front movies, fantasies of good Nazi soldiers ( Auf Wiedersehen, Das Boot), movies about Holocaust victims, tales of spies, and POW movies, sub-genres that—except for good-Nazi movies, historically suspect and morally loathsome—deserve and will receive ten best lists all their own.

As always, we invite our readers to list their own ten best war movies.

10. The Lighthorsemen, 1985

Beautiful Australian movie shot entirely in South Australia, that takes place during World War I, telling the story of a light horse unit fighting in Ottoman Palestine. The final assault on Beersheva is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The director, Simon Wincer, told me that he was working with very few horses and just used lots of “simple camera tricks” to make the final charge such a tour de force.

 

9. Gettysburg, 1993

This is a long movie, but it’s riveting. The battle of Little Round Top, the furthermost left flank of the entire Federal line, is exquisitely choreographed. When Jeff Daniels, as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, orders his men to fix bayonets a chill runs up your spine. In spite of the bad wigs and even worse beards, a very effective film.

 

8. Duck You Sucker, 1971

Oh gosh, where to begin? This Sergio Leone epic is saddled with the worst title in movie history. Rod Steiger, a lice-ridden Mexican bandit, and James Coburn, a mysterious Irish Republican explosives expert on the run from the British, reluctantly team up and join the Mexican revolution. Enio Morricone’s score will haunt you for days afterwards. A neglected masterpiece.

 

7. Patton, 1970

The opening shot and monologue are, perhaps, the greatest introduction to character and personal narrative ever to be seen in motion picture history. Patton was a bully, an anti-Semite and a braggart, but he was a great field commander. The script and score wisely play up Patton’s mystical side which adds a whole new dimension to this memorable film.  George C. Scott’s performance deservedly won him the Academy Award for Best Actor. He refused to accept it, saying he rejected the idea of such competition among actors.

 

6. Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

One of the first lessons a screenwriter learns is to define heroes by their faults. The script for David Lean’s masterpiece elegantly portrays Lawrence’s emotional struggles with the violence he claims to abhor but in which, ultimately, he delights. His confused sexual identity is on display in several subtle scenes, and his divided allegiances between the British empire and the romanticized desert Arabs is fully rendered. This movie strikes the perfect balance between sweeping epic and intimate portraiture.

 

5. Zulu, 1964

The true—well, sorta—story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 1879, South Africa, where ninety British soldiers fought against several thousand Zulu warriors. At one point a young bugler, lips trembling, asks the tough Sergeant: “Why? Why?” And the Sergeant, stiff-upper lip, as the British used to be, replies, “Because we’re here, lad.” A young and incredibly gifted actor named Michael Caine makes his very first major film appearance as a foppish young officer who becomes a man in the crucible of battle. Zulu’s score by the great John Barry, is one of the most memorable I have ever heard. During the Yom Kippur War I used to hum it to myself to keep up my spirits and remind myself that numbers don’t matter, that in the end discipline, courage and fortitude triumph.

 

4. The Winter War, 1989

A spectacular Finnish movie that tells the story of the hundred day Winter War fought by Finland against the Soviet Union from November 30, 1939 to March 13, 1940. It was the Winter War that convinced Hitler that invading Russia would be a cake walk.This epic details how ill-equipped, inept, and poorly led Soviet troops repeatedly flung themselves against brave and determined Finnish soldiers posted in thin lines across a massive front. Fighting in bitter, subzero weather, the story is told through the multiple story lines of a single squad composed of farmers, school teachers and village merchants, intensely patriotic men whose lives in a harsh, isolated land breeds first-rate soldiers. The overwhelming strength of the Soviet Union in men and armaments seemed to doom the Finns to a fast and bloody defeat. But the Finns are a stubborn people whose resistance should rank with greatest last stands in military history.

Based on a classic, Hemingwayesque novel of the same name by Antti Tuuri, the central character, Martti Hakala, is a member of the 23rd Infantry regiment, an easy-going farmer who likes nothing better than plowing the fertile earth. The battle scenes are huge and impressively choreographed with waves of screaming Soviet soldiers charging frontally—flank attacks are way too subtle for the Soviet bear—into pitifully narrow Finnish lines. It takes a while for non-Finnish viewers to identify all the supporting characters, but soon enough the individual soldiers become distinct. Family life is lovingly rendered. The sturdy women who wait anxiously for their men to return are blessedly unglamorous. The film has a nicely understated heroic yet gritty quality that correctly views war as abrupt bursts of blood drenched chaos and soul-shattering fear. This is a classic war film that deserves a wide international audience.

 

3. Come and See, 1985

The Nazi occupation of  Byeloruss was particularly savage. In this Soviet film, Florian, a naive teenager anxious to join the partisans, and Glasha, a village beauty, end up together, wandering a landscape that resembles hell on earth. Every frame of this film thunders with powerful, unforgettable images. The almost medieval world of the peasants is in stark contrast to the mechanized death brought by the Nazis. There are moments of lyricism that are just overwhelming. In a rain drenched forest, Glasha stands on a log and dances the Charleston. The title comes from  The Apocalypse of John:

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.

 

2. Ride With the Devil, 1999

A brilliant Civil War movie about the merciless bushwacker warfare on the Kansas-Missouri border. A near perfect screen adaptation by James Shamus based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell. Vivid and touching performances by Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Brandis and Jewel. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, as a psychotic bushwhacker, nearly steals the show with an over-the-top performance—is he playing the character sorta gay?—that shouldn’t work but does. The massacre of Lawrence, Kansas is a harrowing, extended sequence you will not soon forget. A major box office flop, Ride With the Devil will eventually be recognized as a timeless masterpiece.

 

1. Seven Samurai, 1954

Director Akira Kurosawa’s epic, the greatest movie ever made, speaks directly about the moral imperative of a just war.

The Seven Samurai takes place in medieval Japan, a time when bandits—the terrorists of their time—roamed the land looting, raping and killing defenseless farmers.

Seven down-at-the-heels Samurai warriors are hired to defend one poor village. The Samurai do not negotiate with the bandits. They do not try and appease them. Nor do they ponder the root causes of banditry. The Samurai set strategy and kill the bandits. One by one.

Every true warrior understands there is no deterrence and no freedom without the disproportionate use of force.

The climactic battle in the rain, where mud, blood and tears mix, is perhaps, the finest choreographed battle scene ever staged.

Every skilled director in Hollywood studies this masterpiece and tries—without success—to emulate Kurosawa’s cinematic style. We all stand in Akira Kurosawa’s shadow. This is the film that compelled me to become a screenwriter.

If you love movies but have not seen The Seven Samurai, you are without oxygen.

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22 Comments

  1. sennacherib
    Posted September 17, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    And the Sergeant, stiff-upper lip, as the British used to be, replies, “Because we’re here, lad.” Doesn’t he add “and nobody else”? I do guarantee that is a universal thought for all soldiers from all ages.

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  2. David Foster
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Also, “The Caine Mutiny”…a fine movie, though it leaves out a lot of the book, which I reviewed here:

    http://chicagoboyz.net/archives/43106.html

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  3. David Foster
    Posted September 16, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    “Dark Blue World,” an excellent movie about Czech fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain (which I learned about from you, Robert)

    “The Great Locomotive Chase,” based on the Andrews Raid during the American Civil War…creates a real sense of atmosphere of time and place.

    “Once an Eagle,” a TV series following the lives and carrier of two American officers through WWI and WWII and the years in between.

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  4. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    In an odd, ironic way, Breaker Morant, a good man, resembled Thomas Cromwell and the Nazi war criminals hanged at Nuremberg, may their names be erased, evil men. They were all executed for doing messy jobs that the British were more than happy to see done. The Roosevelt and Churchill administrations were FULL of people who were more than happy to see the Jews exterminated. I’ve heard that part of the reason the British did so little to save the Jews is that the more Jews were murdered by the Nazis, the fewer would be demianding a homeland in Palestine after the war. Also, the trains taking Jews to the death camps took precedence over the trains taking vitally needed supplies to the Wermacht troops.

    In his memoir describing his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Nazis, Night and Fog: A Survivor’s Story by Arne Brun Lie with Robby Robinson, New York : Berkley, 1990, page 239, Arne Brun Lie writes “The Nuremburg trials were sweet, in a way, but they were a circus. They almost made me sympathize with the monsters on trial”

    What if, instead of saying that they were only following orders, the Nazi war criminals had said “We were only being your G-d damned cat’s paws?”

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    • kgbudge
      Posted September 20, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Churchill was, in fact, about the most Judeophilic prime minister Britain has had, and a Gentile advocate of Zionism. This is not to say that there weren’t a great many others in the government who saw things differently, but the reason more wasn’t done for the Jews was that it was difficult to know what more could be done. The Germans actually hindered their own war effort to effect the Holocaust; there was no deterring them, and it’s hard to know how one could forcibly have stopped them, short of somehow winning the war sooner.

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  5. sennacherib
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Okay, okay, I fess up. Mysecret pleasure is Bob Newhart’s telephone scene in “Hell is for Heroes”.

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  6. kishke
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    “Master and Commander” was great.

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  7. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    A really superb one I hate to see left off the list is The Cruel Sea. Jack Hawkins and a superb script; how could it miss?

    You’re absolutely right. Remember the scene where he plows down the men, in the water, because he believes there’s a submarine under them?

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  8. kgbudge
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I think I agree with most of the ones you list that I’ve seen.

    Gettysburg has become a Fourth of July tradition for me, since it happens I first watched it on that holiday. I wince at little at Martin Sheen, but otherwise the casting was excellent and the reenactments superb.

    Patton is another great one.

    Lawrence of Arabia I haven’t seen in a long time. It misrepresents some important episodes, but there are other moments that are very well done.

    Zulu and Seven Samuria I saw on your recommendation and did not regret.

    I would at Twelve O’clock High, as others have, and probably Tora! Tora! Tora!. I know: It comes across like a documentary, and some find it a bit tedious, but the historical accuracy is quite good.

    A really superb one I hate to see left off the list is The Cruel Sea. Jack Hawkins and a superb script; how could it miss?

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  9. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    RUN SILENT RUN DEEP; DESTINATION TOKYO; THE BIG RED ONE; TWO WOMEN; SO PROUDLY WE HAIL; SINCE YOU WENT AWAY; HILL 24 DOESN’T ANSWER; CAST A GIANT SHADOW.

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  10. Bill Brandt
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I always believed that Saving Private Ryan was cheated at the Academy Awards.

    Ditto Michael’s suggestion of 12 O’Clock High. I read that or many years at one of the Service Academies it was used to illustrate effective leadership. I liked We Were Soldiers, too.

    Oh, and a movie I’ll bet most have forgotten – Defiance with Daniel Craig. Based on a true story of 2 Jewish Brothers in Belarus, to escape the Nazis, fled to the forest and over time had a small town of Jewish refugees in the middle of the forest.

    Two scenes that have stuck with me – The Nazi Patrol and the partisans, who surrounded them, forced the Nazi officer to kneel as they shot him in the head.

    And a funny scene, at least to me, of 2 Jewish old men playing chess in the middle of the forest – and a blizzard. arguing about something existential.

    And a movie not really on a “10 best” list but memorable – Europa, Europa.

    Supposed to be based on a true story of a Jewish boy, whose family was killed during Kristolnacht, fleeing to Poland where he is at first in the Soviet zone and a communist school. When the Nazis invade the Soviet side, he is viewed as a “good Aryan German boy” and adopted by a German field commander, sent back to Berlin to a special Nazi school for “gifted” Hitler Youth…

    Staring Julie Delpy.

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  11. Michael Kennedy
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    I have to put a word in for two war movies that have been largely forgotten, I fear. One is “The Longest Day,” which while it has a couple of kind of corny portrayals like John Wayne not at his best, is historically very accurate. I have spent a week driving around and finding all the locations. Richard Todd played the great hero Major Howard, who led the 6th British Airborne on their glider attack on Pegasus Bridge. Todd was a paratrooper on D-Day but landed in another action.

    The other great war movie, which is widely regarded as a classic in leadership, is “12 o’clock High” with Gregory Peck. The book and movie were written by two screen writers who served in the USAAF and is based on a true story. The unit in the movie is the 918th Group. The group it depicts was the 306th. They multiplied the unit designation by 3.

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  12. Larry
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Looking for something out of the ordinary, try “Red Cliff” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0425637/) and “The Admiral” AKA “Michiel de Ruyter” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2544766/).

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 15, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Larry:

      I’ve seen both movies. I find Red Cliff effective, but at times quite confusing. The Admiral suffers from a saintly protagonist. The best characters in movies (as in all drama) are defined by their faults. Still, it’s a pretty good film, and a surprise from the Dutch who favor small, intimate movies.

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  13. sennacherib
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    The first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia was in a drive in. They were very clever about the intermission coming just after the attack on Aqaba and the crossing of the “Anvil of the Sun”. Customers tore the doors off the snack bar to get in.
    Some of yours are mine, but I would add “We Were Soldiers…….and Young” and if it fits Breaker Morant”.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 14, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Sennacherib:

      Breaker Morant is a fine film, but I would categorize it more as a POW movie, which is another genre entirely. I will do a 10 best POW list.

      We Were Soldiers is a wonderful film. My list is, by necessity, painfully reductive. I just like the other films a bit more.

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      • Miranda Rose Smith
        Posted September 15, 2016 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        I wouldn’t classify BREAKER MORANT as a POW movie. Morant was court martialed, in a Star Cahmber proceeding, and shot, BY HIS OWN SIDE, for doing a necessary, messy job.

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted September 15, 2016 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          Miranda:

          Thanks for the correction. Breaker Morant should be classified as a war time legal drama.

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  14. Wein1950
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I totally expected the countdown to #1 to be Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai.” Having read “How I Married Karen,” I recalled that in Chapter 21 Karen’s inability to lie about her reaction to the movie instantly transformed you from a boy to a man.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 14, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Wein1950:

      You have an amazing memory. Thanks so much.

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  15. Posted September 14, 2016 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Very good.
    Not only do I trust your expertise in deciding such things but – as I have seen four of your pics and, two of them are indeed, in my inexpert opinion, the best war movies made – Lawrence… and Patton – I will now have to see the rest!
    Thank you.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 14, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Moishe3rd:

      Thanks so much for the kind words. Do let me know when you catch up on my list.

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