Memorial to 54th Mass Regiment on Beacon Hill - immortalized in Glory (1989)

Memorial to 54th Mass Regiment on Beacon Hill - immortalized in Glory (1989)

While it’s true that a lot of War films fell into the Epic ballot that AFI sent out, it really should have had its own list. In fact, all War films can be broken down into sub-genre, depending on which war they are depicting.

As the title say, I’m putting forth my list of the top 10 War films. The “Doubled” refers to the fact that so many great war films have been Foreign films and since AFI ignores Foreign films, I’m including a separate top 10 list of War films that are non-English language.

For my scope of what constitutes a War film, it means a film that deals mostly with the aspects of a war itself, mostly on the battlefield (so, no Schindler’s List or other films focusing mostly on the Holocaust, or films that focus on the home front).

The interesting thing is that even though over half the War films I have seen are World War II films, the English language list is much more representative of other wars.

The final note is that in spite of having seen over 140 War films, only two of them do I consider to be truly bad: The Patriot and Pearl Harbor. Utter dreck, both of them. But for the most part, War films are usually well made, and if not too harrowing, decent entertainment.

Honorable Mention: Three Kings (David O. Russell) – 1999

I add this in, not just because it barely misses my list, but because it’s the best film about either of the wars in Iraq so far. The Civil War, WWI, WWII and Vietnam all have films on the list and there are really very few films about the American Revolution.

Honorable Mention: Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott) – 2005

Lost in a year of magnificent films was the only film that truly depicted the Crusades as a war. It is an amazingly underrated film and a brave one at that, for not actually taking sides in the conflict it depicts. It also has one of my all-time favorite quotes, when Balian is told that they can not burn the bodies, for God does not allow it: “God will understand, my lord. And if he doesn’t, then he is not God and we need not worry.”


#10 – Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein) – 1939

A great historical film from the greatest of Russian directors.

#9 – War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk) – 1968

Bondarchuk gave the full 6 hour treatment to the epic novel depicting the Napoleonic Wars, the only film to really give them their due place on screen.

the 1914 Christmas cease-fire as depicted in Joyeaux Noel

the 1914 Christmas cease-fire as depicted in Joyeux Noel

#8 – Joyeux Noel (Christian Carion) – 2005

An amazing thing happened at Christmas in 1914. Both sides stopped fighting. They came out of the trenches and celebrated the holiday together. Then they went back to killing each other. This film depicts that amazing event.

#7 – The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo) – 1966

Because of both the style and the brilliance, you’ll think you’re watching a documentary. You’re not.

#6 – Das Boot (Wolfgang Peterson) – 1982

It’s hard to depict the Nazis with any sympathy and this film is the best at it, perhaps because it places them in the ocean, far away from the atrocities going on back in Germany.

#5 – The Bridge (Bernhard Wicki) – 1959

Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Film at the time, almost impossible to find now. This depicts a group of boys defending their home in the waning days of WWII. Tragically enough, they’re on the wrong side.

#4 – Ivan’s Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky) – 1962

The Russians own four places on this list, perhaps because they have suffered so much in war. Tarkovsky gets a lot of acclaim for Andrei Rublev and Solyaris, but this is his best film.

#3 – Europa, Europa (Angiezscka Holland) – 1990

Along with Red, Ran and Talk to Her, a perfect example of the flaws of the Foreign Film process that the Oscars use (none of these were nominated). It contains a devastating scene where people meet in mid-river; the Poles are swimming west to escape the Russians, the Jews are swimming east to escape the Nazis.

#2 – The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatazov) – 1957

A different kind of war film as it focuses both on the horrendous casualties the Russians were taking during WWII, but also the turmoil at the home front. One of the great overlooked films of all time.

One of the greatest films ever made - Renoir's Grand Illusion

One of the greatest films ever made - Renoir's Grand Illusion

#1 – Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir) – 1938

Grand Illusion is not only the best War film ever made, but also ranks with Sunset Blvd., Rashomon, The Seventh Seal and The Wizard of Oz as one of the greatest films ever made. It shows the brutality and senselessness of war without addicting the viewer to the action that war provides. It analyzes the war that class lines were starting to disintegrate in Europe and how officers and soldiers, formerly a great divide, become closer as country overtakes class.


#10 – The Great Escape (John Sturges) – 1963

This would simply be one of the all time great action films, were it not for the brutal fact of 50 P.O.W.’s being murdered.  In the levels of life of how cool someone is, Steve McQueen in this film is very high on the list.  Top 5.

#9 – Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone) – 1989

Long ago, before U-Turn and the subsequent downturn in the quality of his films, Oliver Stone was a passionate and powerful director.  I have hopes that he will get there again and he won’t find himself in Rob Reiner territory and getting knocked out of the Director’s Project.

#8 – Gallipoli (Peter Weir) – 1981

Just like Oliver Stone used to be a good director, Mel Gibson used to be a good actor.  Long before he became a star and even longer before he became an overrated director, he was the powerful presence in this film.  It’s tragic how many great war films are made from blunders.

#7 – Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) – 1979

Coppola is also veering dangerously close to Reiner territory.  But back in the 70’s, he was the most important director in the industry.

#6 – All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone) – 1930

The studio told Milestone they wanted a happy ending. He said “fine, we’ll have the Germans win the war.” Few movies have so powerfully stood the test of the time as this one has.

#5 – Henry V (Kenneth Branagh) – 1989

Set in the murky depths of the 100 Years War, this is the one English language film on the list that doesn’t involve an American war. With all of human history to take from, most war films focus on the last century.

#4 – Platoon (Oliver Stone) – 1986

“I think McCain’s a very special story because he was never a soldier. He’s said he never saw the results of his own bombing. I saw the damage we did, I saw the corpses, the decay, I smelt the flesh, I saw people who’d been napalmed, people who’d been killed by shrapnel, mutilated. I saw horrible things. McCain was a prisoner and he has a siege mentality. He doesn’t see a balanced portrait of cause and effect.”  Oliver Stone in an interview published this week.

#3 – Glory (Ed Zwick) – 1989

I continue to place this film on the top of my list for 1989.  I still maintain it is a better film that Do the Right Thing.

#2 – Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick) – 1957

Dark and depressing.  Made outside the studio system by a brilliant young director and a committed star, who also produced.

Deserving winner of 7 Academy Awards

Deserving winner of 7 Academy Awards

#1 – Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean) – 1957

Paths of Glory is my number two film in almost every category in 1957 (the best year for film) because while it had Oscar-winning level of direction, acting, writing, cinematography and editing, it also comes up against this film, which just comes out on top in every category.  Still one of the greatest films ever made and one of the few Best Picture winners that deserved every Oscar it got.  It also has the advantage (for me) of starring two of my all-time favorite actors, William Holden, the epitome of cynicism that became the hallmark of my personality, and Alec Guinness who in recent years as I have watched more of his Ealing comedies, has knocked Bogart off the pedestal as my all-time favorite actor.