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The 20 greatest war films ever made

BY Farhana Gani

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

The 20 greatest war films ever made

These war films are some of the greatest made, but they don't just deal with the battle between good and evil; they face the reality of war, the politics and the humans at the centre of the violence. Here is a run-down of the 20 greatest war films of all time.

Let the battle for the greatest war films of all time commence!

A quick straw poll came up with the films featured below. But as soon as we compiled our list, there was controversy! There were shout-outs for other favourites. What about Doctor Zhivago or War and Peace? What about Saving Private Ryan, Jarhead or The Pianist? The Killing Fields or Empire of the Sun? The Dam Busters or The Great Escape? Dr Strangelove? What did we miss, and what would be your all-time wartime favourite?



20. From Here to Eternity(1953)

Fred Zinnemen directs Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra as soldiers stationed in Hawaii, and Deborah Kerr is the sultry love interest as the Japanese prepare a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.




19. Hope and Glory (1987)

John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical film focuses on a young boy caught up in the London Blitz, exploring the ruins of bombed houses, wrecked relationships, the fortitude of women, and how it feels when Hitler blows up your school.


18. In Harm’s Way (1965)

Otto Preminger revisits Pearl Harbor. John Wayne and Kirk Douglas star as naval officers with a second chance to fight back against the Japanese, who are plotting a new advance on Hawaii.


17. The Guns of Navarone (1961)

A British Army unit led by Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn are on a mission to destroy a German fortress that commands a key sea channel in occupied Greek waters.


16. Platoon (1986)

Oliver Stone directs Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe in the first—and arguably strongest—in his trilogy of films about the moral crises of the Vietnam War, in which Stone served as an infantryman.


15. Downfall (2004)

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s epic portrayal of the final ten days of Hitler’s rule over Germany, holed up and isolated in his bunker in East Prussia. Adapted from a variety of sources including the memoirs of Hitler’s last secretary Traudl Junge.



14. Schindler’s List (1993)

Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed interpretation of Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark. A fictionalised account of how German businessman Oskar Schindler saved the lives of over a thousand Jewish refugees by giving them work in his factories. Winner of seven Oscars (out of twelve nominations) including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.



13. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Considered one of the first true screen depictions of the extreme mental and physical stress of war, Lewis Millstone’s powerful film is an adaptation of a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of WWI. Stars Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim and John Wray.


11. Das Boot (1981)

Masterful cinematic storytelling by Wolfgang Petersen depicting the travails of the crew of a WWII German U-boat. The original version of this film released in 1981 has been usurped in most critics’ eyes by 1997’s 209-minute director’s cut. In 1985 an uncut version (293 minutes) was released and shown as a TV miniseries.


10. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick takes on the Vietnam War and its dehumanising effects on a platoon of US Marines in training and during the infamous Tet Offensive. The impressive ensemble cast includes Matthew Modine, Vincent d’Onofrio, R Lee Ermey and Adam Baldwin.


9. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Produced and directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a screenplay by Mark Boal, based on his experiences embedded as a journalist with the US Army in Iraq. Jeremy Renner stars as a maverick sergeant in charge of a bomb disposal unit.



8. Catch-22 (1970)

Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry adapt the best-selling Joseph Heller novel. With Alan Arkin as Yossarian, an air-force captain desperate to be certified insane in order to stop flying WWII bombing missions.



7. Zulu (1964)

Cy Endfield’s depiction of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War stars Stanley Baker (who co-produced), and introduces Michael Caine in his first major screen role. It is also notable for casting future South African parliamentarian Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi as his own real-life great-grandfather King Cetshwayo.


6. Gone With the Wind (1939)

The American Civil War melodrama had a difficult birth, with filming delayed for two years as producer David O. Selznick gambled on landing Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler, resulting in his immortal pairing with Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.


5. M*A*S*H (1970)

Robert Altman directs and Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Sally Kellerman star as medical personnel stationed at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, in the film that inspired a wildly popular TV franchise.


4. Casablanca (1942)

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman smoulder and sizzle as an American expat Rick and his former lover Ilsa. During a chance meeting in occupied Morocco, Rick outsmarts everyone (including the alluring Ilsa). In a memorable and famouse scene, the French out-sing the Germans.


3. Paths of Glory (1957)

Stanley Kubrick writes and directs, and Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the commanding officer of French soldiers. When his soldiers in the WWI trenches refuse to continue on their suicidal mission, Dax defends against the charge of cowardice.


2. The Thin Red Line (1998)

Director Terence Malick returned to filmmaking after a two-decade absence to make his masterpiece about the Guadalcanal Campaign: the first WWII offensive by Allied Forces against Japan. Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel and Nick Nolte lead the ensemble cast.


1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s free adaptation relocates Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia. Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard tracks down Marlon Brando’s renegade megalomaniac colonel Kurtz, with Robert Duvall and Frederick Forrest in support. A devastating and vital body-blow to received notions of combat, civilisation and justice.

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