Weekend Roundtable: Best War Movies

As we head into another long holiday weekend (yes, the blog will be closed on Monday), Memorial Day seems like a good opportunity to watch some classic war movies. In this week’s Roundtable, we’ll offer our suggestions for some of the best.

Shannon Nutt

For me, the film that best embodies both the heroism and sacrifice of war is 1989’s ‘Glory‘. The movie tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first all-black regiment of soldiers in both the Union Army and in American history. Unlike many other war movies, the men aren’t just fighting for their country; they’re fighting for their own personal liberty, which makes their story even more engaging. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of a Union private, and both Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick are great here as well. Although it only covers one small aspect of the Civil War, I can’t think of a better American film on the War between the States than ‘Glory’.

Mike Attebery

It’s more of a sidelines-of-war story, but ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai‘ is hard to beat. So many great characters. A glimpse at the idiocy of war, and the ultimate folly of seemingly important work. That ending! They don’t get any better or more iconic than this one.

Junie Ray

Made almost 70 years ago, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives‘ explores the deep emotional and social challenges of veterans returning from WWII. This movie deservedly won 7 Academy Awards. As was the fashion of the time, the stories and dialog are direct without irony or sarcasm. Unspoken emotion and pain still found plenty of places to hide – in silence, in anger, in alcohol. The film is still amazingly relevant, as the challenges faced by the characters are the same faced by our veterans today. The technologies of war may change over time, but the hearts of men do not.

Daniel Hirshleifer

It doesn’t get mentioned as often as the heavy hitters of the genre, but a little piece of my heart will always belong to ‘The Guns of Navarone‘. Fairly light for a war film, ‘The Guns of Navarone’ rides on the back of its memorable characterizations. Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn all shine in career-highlight performances. The film has more of an adventure feel, and doesn’t spend much time moralizing about the folly of war. Instead, it simply gives these characters a goal and lets them get to it. By keeping the scope small (which isn’t to say that the movie itself feels small), we’re allowed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Luke Hickman

I was 17-years-old when ‘Saving Private Ryan‘ opened, but even then I was aware of the necessity of large screens and loud top-notch sound for certain movies. A few days after it opened, I traveled 45 minutes from my desert hometown to see it at the biggest screen in the area, which happened to be the AMC 30 at the Ontario Mills mall in Southern California. A friend and I made the mid-week morning journey to see it together. When we got there, I was surprised to see that we were the only youngsters there. Without exaggeration, everyone else in the theater – of which there were probably 20 or 30 other couples – were old enough to remember World War II.

The film itself completely pulled me in. The opening beach sequence nearly put me into shock. Throughout the picture, I experienced the heavy emotions and loss that the characters went through. As the closing credits ran, nobody moved. Once all the tears had dried up, I mustered up the courage to look around the theater. I’ve never seen so many aged men sobbing in my life. Many of them were being tightly held in the arms of their wives. It was obvious that much of what they saw in the movie rang true. What an amazing and unforgettable moviegoing experience.

M. Enois Duarte

A long-time favorite war movie of mine is Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon‘. Although other movies dealing with Vietnam had been released prior to this 1980s classic, this particular masterpiece was the first told by an actual veteran of the war and loosely based on real-life experiences. Ingeniously, Stone structured the narrative like a modern-day Greek allegory, situating his main character – the innocent and inexperienced Chris Taylor – between the battle of good versus evil. The landscape serves not only as a literal war against the Viet Cong but also as a metaphorical battle for the psychological and emotional battle of one’s moral integrity.

Brian Hoss

A Bridge Too Far‘ is a World War II epic that succeeds as microcosm for the entire war while presenting a balance between enjoyable, popcorn entertainment and the very somber consequences of a righteous but nevertheless misguided offensive. The film is packed with stars, but amazingly unlike the work of many other ensemble casts, what’s on screen is scene after scene of compelling narrative. Of course, so much went on behind the film – what it took to get it made, to stage all of the airborne footage, how it dealt with an ambitious but disastrous Allied offensive – that you the sense that the everyone on screen is working together to accomplish something. That fear of failure pervading the characters makes it incredibly difficult not to root the good guys in spite of the fated conclusion.

Josh Zyber

I can’t think of another movie that better captures the chaos, confusion and madness of war than Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece ‘Apocalypse Now‘. At the end of its notoriously troubled production, the director famously stated: “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It’s crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.” Considering the results, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Whichever version you favor (I personally think that the original 1979 theatrical cut is still the artistically superior film, though I’ve come to appreciate the longer ‘Redux’ version as a different film with different intentions), ‘Apocalypse Now’ is more than just a war movie. It’s a movie about the very heart of the human soul, and the ease with which darkness can consume it. It’s brilliant.

What are your picks for some of the best war movies to watch this Memorial Day weekend? Share them in the Comments below.


  1. shawn

    Ever since I saw The Best Years Of Our Lives in high school it’s been my favorite movie. It has aged extremely well, like you said because it still is relevant today.

    My other favorite war film would be The Hill with Sean Connery.

  2. Chris B

    The Thin Red Line is a fantastic film. From the incredibly immersive cinematography, to Hans Zimmer’s haunting score and one of the most impressive casts ever assembled. Not to metion it’s one of the best looking and sounding BD available, I absolutely love it.

    I’m also a big fan of The Deer Hunter, specifically for the reason it attempts to show not only the horrors of war but the aftershocks left on the soldiers and their loved ones long after the fighting is over.

    I still think Sam Memdes’ Jarhead is criminally underrated, it’s a glimpse into the frustration of those trained for combat and then forced to wait, and wait, and wait. Peter Saarsgard gives a fantastic performance, while Jake Gyllenhall and Jaimie Foxx are solid as always. Oh hell, Chris Cooper is awesome to in a small but memorable role.

    The Great Escape is one of the greatest movies ever made, period.

    • skinnyb37

      Jarhead was awesome. I was in the Navy during Papa Bush’s war, but had many Marine/Army friends that “played in the sandbox”…this movie did a great job telling the tale…

      • Chris B

        I love that movie, I think it’s one of the most flat-out entertaning films of the last 10 years. It grabs you and doesn’t let go…

        The scene near the end when Saarsgard loses it on that general and starts screaming at him is so powerful, it chokes me up everytime. He’s one of the best actors of his generation.

  3. Paul J Anderson

    Another vote for The Best Years of Our Lives. The film is literally timeless. Everything about it excels. The screenplay…the acting…the pace. Every time I watch it I am so drawn in to the characters and the story, that the epic 168 minute run time just flows along. WIlliam Wyler directed some classic and great films that encompassed just about all genres (Ben Hur, Mrs. Miniver, The Big Country, Funny Girl, Roman Holiday…), but this one is his masterpiece as far as I am concerned.

    Recently watched The Deer Hunter after a long lapse, and I have to agree with Chris B above. The film is still incredibly powerful. It annoys the shit out of me that many critics who originally lauded the film when it was released have gone back and recanted some of their glowing reviews, mainly because Cimino’s career nose dived after his follow up film, Heaven’s Gate, almost destroyed UA and tanked at the box office. Gimme a break.

  4. skinnyb37

    Wow…all great movies. Think I would have to add Midway. Aside from the cheesy love story (sorry…it was too much) and the questionable accuracies, this movie was awesome. This was a movie I had on LaserDisc back in my Navy days and we watched it so often, I think the disc warped. Seeing it later on TV (the unedited version, which was much longer than my LD version) made me love it all the more.

    But so many of these other films deserve consideration…sigh…I always watch so many war movies over this weekend, think I’m gonna have to go through all of these.

  5. Bill

    Three I’d like to cite:

    1. Pork Chop Hill – The forgotten Korean War was not lacking in heroism
    2. Twelve O’clock High – Pressures of command have never been better portrayed
    3. The Blue Max – Honour and the lack of it. (Thank you Twilight Time)

  6. Alex

    Huge fan of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. It’s not a war movie in the traditional sense, it’s told through the eyes of an eight year old English boy who views the war with a sense of childlike wonder. It’s at turns tragic and heartwarming, but most of all, it always rings true.

    • Alex

      Also, it’s hard not to love The Great Escape. They just don’t make movies with the kind of an ensemble cast anymore. It’s grand, it’s epic, and while the ending is just gut-wrenching, the wild adventure to get there makes it all worthwhile.

      • Alex

        Shout-outs to some Clint Eastwood classics too: Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes. You can even get those in 2-pack on blu-ray.

  7. Paul J Anderson

    Oh, and I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One”. Great, great film.

  8. Scott H

    I have to second the recommendations of Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red Line, Deer Hunter, And Platoon. But I would add Schindler’s List for the extremely powerful performance by Liam Neeson and second I would add Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engadgement for the beautiful cinematography and love story that takes place during WW1. Also how about The Pianist, a great performance by Adrian Brody and and interesting story.

  9. Thulsadoom

    I know very few people have probably seen it, but there was a BBC two-parter called Warriors made in 1999 that I found very effective and moving, and it still stands up amazingly well. I highly recommend it for those who haven’t seen it. I think this and Platoon are my two ‘favourite’ war movies.

    It effectively launched the careers for quite a few well-known British stars. (Matthew Macfadyen, Damian Lewis and Ioan Gruffudd.) Strangely, like a lot of BBC stuff, I was only able to get a foreign import (Dutch, in this case). I had to do the same recently to get BBC’s Wives and Daughter’s on Blu Ray (An excellent period drama I’d rate as good as if not better than the BBC P&P). Even being in the UK, I had to get the Spanish version!

    Here’s the Wikipedia description of Warriors:

    “The series tells the story of a group of British peacekeepers serving in a peacekeeping operation of the UNPROFOR in Vitez, in Bosnia during the Lašva Valley ethnic cleansing in 1993.

    The film emphasises the contradictions of the mandate of the peacekeepers, and the psychological trauma that they sustain while being forced to observe atrocities perpetrated against civilians without being able to intervene, and being subject to deliberate provocations against which they are unable to retaliate.

    The ironic title of the programme is taken from the name of the armoured vehicle used by the British forces, the FV 510 Warrior. When it was released in the United States, the film was re-titled Peacekeepers.”

  10. Robert

    Wow…this is a tough one. So many good choices out there.

    The ones that float to the top for me would be Das Boot and Full Metal Jacket. Both films immerse you deeply into their story, using different and effective methods to do it. Das Boot offers a unique perspective from the German point of view, and spends most of its time on a German submarine. Add in a spectacular soundtrack that makes liberal use of its surround sound and good luck not getting claustrophobia by the end of this long and grueling movie. And the ending…oooh the ending!

    FMJ takes you from the rigors of training for the Vietnam War right into its horrors, using some pretty memorable characters to do it. The movie moves along fairly briskly, and does a great job at building tension in several spectaular set pieces and leaving the viewers with several lasting images, some of them disturbing.

    • Bill

      Agree with Das Boot but have reservations about FMJ. The first hour is riveting as we see the recruits go through an unbelievable boot camp led by a real DI turned into an actor. I shudder sometimes just thinking about it. The second half however is really not much more than the typical Vietnam/Cambodia combat movie with all the usual menacing props, acting, storylines and clichés. It is almost as if the producers put two different movies in one package.

  11. William Henley

    Huh, kind of surprised that no one has mentioned any of my favorites yet.

    My all-time favorite war-movie has got to be Patton. Absolutely brilliant movie.

    The Battle of the Bulge is also an excellent movie. Highly recommend.

    The Patriot is possibly one of my all time favorite movies of all. However, as it and Braveheart are more story based movies, not really sure if it counts.

    Gettysburg and Gods and Generals are also great, but they are mini-series, so not sure if they qualify.

    I also like many of the ancient war movies that took place in Greece and the Roman Empire (ie 300, Alexandrea, and Troy), but as those are almost more mythology now than fact, not really sure if it counts.

    I also love The Last Samurai, but I am not sure how much of that is factual.

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