The greatest wars in history have inspired the best films. War movies not only reflect the artistic impulses of their creators, but also tell the stories of brave soldiers and their experiences during wartime. Most of these films are action-packed, but others can also make you reflect and bring on the tears. We rounded up the 9 most badass war movies ever made, in hopes of teaching us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
When a mother loses three of her four sons in WWII, the US sends troops on a special mission to locate and rescue the sole-surviving son Private Ryan and send him home. Obviously, the mission is fraught with peril and extremely risky for soldiers sent to save him. Matt Damon was cast as Private Ryan because director Steven Spielberg wanted an "unknown actor" with an all-American look. However, Damon won an Oscar in his previous film Good Will Hunting in 1997 before the movie was released.
Christopher Nolan is perhaps best known for his trilogy of Batman films, but his World War II epic Dunkirk is another masterpiece. Dunkirk tells the story of the 1940’s evacuation when Allied soldiers were surrounded by the German Army and stranded on a French beach. The film is a portrait of suffering, bravery, and survival, capturing the spirit of a nation desperately trying to find hope in times of crisis.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
The companion to Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Letters from Iwo Jima depicts the desperation of Japanese soldiers facing inevitable defeat. When word comes down from the Imperial General Headquarters that there’ll be no reinforcements, the soldiers must survive countless acts of courage before dying with honor. For the first time, American filmmakers show the perspective of the opposing side and the sacrifices of Japanese in defending their homeland.
Also known as Der Untergang in German, Downfall recounts the final days of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler at the end of WWII. Lead actor Bruno Ganz, who studied Parkinson's disease patients to prepare for his role, gave a captivating performance comparable to Anthony Hopkins’s in 1981's The Bunker. As the Allies advance on Berlin, he must maintain his role of Führer, making final declarations to his loyalists while struggling with his punishing illness.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List depicts the horrors of the Holocaust in German-occupied Poland during World War II. A member of the Nazi Party, Oskar Schindler ran a factory producing supplies for the German army—meanwhile trying to save Jews from the persecution by turning the factory into a refuge. The film won seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge portrays the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The film is based on the true story of Desmond Doss, an American army medic who refused to raise a gun to the enemy—even if the battle was a close combat fight with heavy weaponry. When the commanding officers ordered a retreat, Doss went in alone to rescue his fellow soldiers.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now depicts the psychological impacts on troops that America's intervention in the Vietnam War could have. Drunk and depressed Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is tasked with the unwanted secret mission to assassinate a Special Forces colonel gone mad in the jungles (played by the incomparable Marlon Brando). The acclaimed war film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, famous for The Godfather (1972) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Despite the extensive challenges in production, the film won two Academy Awards.
Paths of Glory (1957)
One of the greatest films set during World War I, Paths of Glory portrays the inhumanity of the French commanding officers who ordered soldiers to their death. Colonel Dax, played by Kirk Douglas, led his men in a suicidal attack on a German position. When the strategy failed, soldiers were accused of cowardice. The film had a controversial portrayal of the French military, which caused delays in its release in France and several other European countries.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Another WWII classic, Bridge on the River Kwai is set in a Japanese prison camp in Burma and depicts the horrors endured by the Allied POWs forced to build a bridge as part of the “death railway.” The British-American war film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Cinematography, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for its cultural and historical contribution.