40 Best War Movies of All Time, Ranked


The war genre has been prevalent throughout film history, dating back to the silent era and remaining a popular and relevant genre to this day. It speaks to the unfortunately universal nature of war that these stories continue to be told and resonate with viewers and critics alike, given war itself never seems to go away. War movies can cover contemporary conflicts, past wars that are still in living memory for some, and wars that were fought hundreds – or even thousands – of years ago.

Any attempt to rank the greatest war movies of all time naturally needs to cover multiple countries and highlight movies about numerous conflicts. There exist many perspectives on many different wars, and it’s safe to assume that for as long as wars are fought, movies that shed light on war’s horrors – while sometimes acknowledging the sacrifices individuals have made – remain relevant. Here are some of the best war movies of all time, ranked below from great to greatest.

40 ‘Red Angel’ (1966)

Director: Yasuzō Masumura

Though Red Angel does deal with romance quite heavily in parts, it’s hard to call it a full-blown romantic film, at least in the traditional sense, because of just how grim it is. It follows a Japanese nurse working in China during the Sino-Japanese war, finding connections with other troubled individuals – sometimes physically and/or romantically – all the while terrible carnage, bloodshed, and acts of brutality occur around her on a daily basis.

It’s quite shocking just how Red Angel gets when it comes to violence for a film of its age, and given it’s rather soul-shattering to view nowadays, one can only imagine how audiences would’ve reacted in 1966. It’s a tough and brutal movie filled with constant troubling images and sequences of tragedy, but anti-war movies need that sometimes, to drive home the message. And no one could accuse Red Angel of not delivering its anti-war message effectively.

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39 ‘Paisan’ (1946)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Standing as one film within the Italian neorealism movement, Paisan is fascinating from a historical perspective, and as a very immediate World War II movie. After all, it was made just one year on from the conflict in question ending, and it depicts events that took place between 1943 and 1944, all concerning the Allied invasion of Italy as part of the European theater of the war.

Paisan is also structured in an interesting way, comprising half a dozen short stories that all add up to one movie just over two hours long. Like a good many films with this structure, certain segments leave more of an impact than others, but Paisan does shed light on what was then a relatively recent event and feels authentic in a way that not many war movies are able to achieve.

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38 ‘The Burmese Harp’ (1956)

Director: Kon Ichikawa

A movie that’s sadly partially lost, what remains of The Burmese Harp is still remarkably compelling (and it helps that the intact version remains 116 minutes long, while the original cut was a little over 140). It largely takes place in the immediate aftermath of World War II, following a Japanese soldier getting separated from his squad, and deciding to disguise himself as a monk to avoid getting discovered and/or imprisoned.

Much of the film focuses on this solitary soldier, but other scenes are devoted to the other members of his squad and their desperate search to find him. The Burmese Harp unfolds at a slow but steady pace, and while those looking for numerous combat scenes might not find this style of war movie to their liking, those who want a more quiet and understated drama – focused on character – playing out against the backdrop of war might well find a lot to like here.

Watch on Criterion

37 ’20 Days in Mariupol’ (2023)

Director: Mstyslav Chernov

Image via Sundance

Winning an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards, 20 Days in Mariupol sheds light on a very recent conflict that, as of the time of the film’s release, was still ongoing. It centers on a journalist’s experience with covering the early days of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, an event that kicked off an entire war that’s still ongoing as of early 2024.

20 Days in Mariupol is uncompromising in what it’s willing to show, but the unrelenting approach works to drive home the senselessness of the conflict being covered, and the modern-day horrors such an invasion has caused the people of Mariupol. Knowing that it’s just centered on one part of Ukraine makes the film’s content all the more troubling, as there’s only so much that can be shown, and indeed, the death and destruction caused by this new war has spread far beyond just one city.

20 Days in Mariupol

Release Date
January 20, 2023

95 minuntes

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36 ‘Hamburger Hill’ (1987)

Director: John Irvin

Michael Patrick Boatman as Motown, Don Cheadle as Wash, and Courtney B. Vance  as Doc in 'Hamburger Hill'
Image via Paramount Pictures

While Hamburger Hill wasn’t the most well-known Vietnam War movie released during 1987, it is a great – and underrated – one, and did still receive a high level of critical acclaim. Its approach to depicting the war in question is blunt and brutal, following numerous soldiers fighting in one particularly harrowing battle, all in the service of claiming a small piece of land from the enemy.

Showing combat in a visceral and bloody way, Hamburger Hill ultimately emerges as a strongly anti-war film, as even though there is technically a good deal of “action,” it’s certainly not fun or cathartic to watch. It’s a movie that aims to be as gritty and realistic as non-documentary war films can possibly get, and to that effect, it functions exceptionally well.

Hamburger Hill

Release Date
August 28, 1987

John Irvin

1h 50m

35 ‘Devils on the Doorstep’ (2000)

Director: Jiang Wen

Devils on the Doorstep stands out from the crowd when it comes to war movies, owing to the fact that it has a unique approach to telling a story about prisoners of war, and because it’s both darkly funny and extremely heavy-going. There is a farcical element to the story of townspeople in China asked to hold onto – for unknown reasons – two Japanese soldiers who’ve been taken prisoner, but things take a much darker turn in the final act.

The tonal switch-ups never feel jarring in Devils on the Doorstep, and it’s quite miraculous that it all comes together from a writing perspective, all the while leaving the impact it does. It’s one of the most underrated war movies released in this century so far, and though it can be hard to find as a result, it’s well worth digging out for anyone after something different.

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34 ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008)

Director: Ari Folman

Waltz With Bashir - 2008
Image via Sony Pictures Classics

While Waltz with Bashir could be called a great war documentary, it also feels like a little more than that, thanks to its presentation and surreal use of animation. Director Ari Folman makes himself the subject, with the film set up as him trying to recollect his involvement in a particularly grim event that took place as part of the 1982 Lebanon war, at which time Folman was a young soldier.

Waltz with Bashir looks at a conflict that is still going to this day, feeling like an anti-war movie through and through, though troublingly looking at certain events from the perspective of someone who was on the side of the perpetrators. Some may be turned off the film for this reason, but others may argue Folman is speaking about what he knows, and what he can speak about. The film does also end in a particularly devastating way that drives home the cost of this particular war, and makes clear who its true victims were in a harrowing and hard-to-shake final sequence that incorporates real-life, non-animated archival footage to staggering effect.

Waltz with Bashir

Release Date
June 26, 2008

Ari Folman

Ron Ben-Yishai , Ronny Dayag , Ari Folman , Dror Harazi , Yehezkel Lazarov , Mickey Leon


33 ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ (2020)

Director: Jasmila Žbanić

Standing as one of the best movies of the 2020s so far, Quo Vadis, Aida? is a dramatized retelling of a particularly troubling event that happened within the context of the Bosnian War, which occurred from 1992 to 1995. It centers on a crisis that involved thousands of people seeking shelter at a UN camp after their town was taken over, with the protagonist being a UN translator caught up in it all, both because of her profession and because of her family members being in danger.

It’s a slow build of a movie, having constant tension and a sinking feeling that gets more despairing as Quo Vadis, Aida? builds to a powerful conclusion. It’s one of the bleakest and most harrowing war films in recent memory, proving all the more effective because of the way it highlights the lives of non-combatants, and how everyone can be placed in danger because of a conflict; not just soldiers.

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32 ‘The Human Condition’ (1959-1961)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

The Human Condition III_ A Soldier’s Prayer - 1961
Image via Shochiku

Masaki Kobayashi was a Japanese filmmaker known for making dark, bold, and character-focused movies, with The Human Condition trilogy being his most ambitious and epic undertaking as a director. With three parts released between 1959 and 1961, The Human Condition, as a whole, emerges as a single story that plays out over the course of almost 10 hours, making it rank among the longest war movies of all time.

The story of The Human Condition focuses on a single man named Kaji, who goes from being a conscientious objector to someone who’s forced to become further involved in World War II, with his experiences changing his personality and outlook on life before the audience’s very eyes. It does a great job at presenting the scale of World War II in certain sequences, but it’s most effective in showing the personal toll of war on one young man, indeed exploring the titular human condition in great detail as a result.

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

Release Date
December 14, 1959

Masaki Kobayashi

Tatsuya Nakadai , Michiyo Aratama , Chikage Awashima , Ineko Arima , Keiji Sada , Sô Yamamura , Akira Ishihama , Kôji Nanbara

208 Minutes

Watch on Criterion

31 ‘The Zone of Interest’ (2023)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

The Zone of Interest - 2023 (1)
Image via A24

Though it wasn’t the first movie to explore the banality of evil within the context of war, few films have done such an exploration quite as effectively as The Zone of Interest (and, arguably, no non-documentaries about such a thing have been as powerful). It’s a film about the commandant of Auschwitz and his family living their lives right next to Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp while trying to ignore the horrors of what was happening nearby.

The Zone of Interest aims to put its viewers in the shoes of some very callous people, nevertheless showing with stomach-churning intensity how human beings are capable of ignoring things that you’d think would bother or upset them. It explores evil in a non-traditional and – some might say – un-cinematic way, but the approach is sure to leave a mark, and results in a film that’s hard to forget, no matter how much some viewers may want to forget it once it’s over.

The Zone of Interest

Release Date
December 15, 2023

Jonathan Glazer

Sandra Hüller , Christian Friedel , Freya Kreutzkam , Max Beck

105 minutes

30 ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946)

Director: William Wyler

Harold Russell and Cathy O'Donnell as Homer Parrish and Wilma Cameron, talking solemnly in The Best Years of Our Lives
Image via RKO Radio Pictures

Perhaps more of a drama film than a traditional war movie, The Best Years of Our Lives is nonetheless compelling and groundbreaking for its time. It was released the year after World War II concluded, and throughout its nearly three-hour runtime, it covers the lives of numerous U.S. veterans returning to life at home after fighting overseas, and the struggles that come with such a period of readjustment.

Its premise means it’s a movie about war that doesn’t feature any combat scenes, centering on the process of recovering from a traumatic event and an exploration of war’s lingering physical and psychological effects for those who survive it. It was likely therapeutic for audiences back in the 1940s and the film still stands up today as a compelling historical document and character-focused post-war drama.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Release Date
May 29, 1947

William Wyler

Myrna Loy , Dana Andrews , Fredric March , Virginia Mayo

170 minutes

29 ‘Grand Illusion’ (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir

Erich von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay in The Grand Illusion
Image via Réalisation d’Art Cinématographique

A French film that takes place during World War I, Grand Illusion is a movie that’s held up staggeringly well for something released well over 80 years ago. It follows a group of French soldiers who are held in a prison camp and then a more high-security facility, the latter of which they then formulate a plan to break free from.

Complications ensue because of the class differences between the men, which still hold relevance, despite them all technically fighting for the same side. It was released shortly before another World War broke out, and uses its premise to explore aspects of life that aren’t just concerned with warfare on a global scale, being a surprisingly deep and thought-provoking movie with a ton to say about how society functions between large-scale wars, too.

The Grand Illusion

Release Date
September 12, 1938

Jean Renoir

Jean Gabin , Dita Parlo , Pierre Fresnay , Erich von Stroheim , Julien Carette , Georges Péclet , Werner Florian , Jean Dasté

113 Minutes

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28 ‘Oppenheimer’ (2023)

Director: Christopher Nolan

J. Robert Oppenheimer examines the Trinity Test, the light of the blast beams through the window
Image via Universal Pictures

Oppenheimer is largely set during World War II and covers periods prior to and following the conflict, yet ultimately stands as a biopic of sorts, centered on its titular character. That man is J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the film is, broadly speaking, about how he developed the world’s first atomic bomb and grappled with the magnitude of his creation after it was used to conclude the Second World War.

The bombs he dedicated much of his life to creating were used to take countless lives in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, done by U.S. forces to make Japan surrender. The film’s certainly a bleak one, with its central character – and thereby the audience – forced to consider how the creation of the atomic bomb has continued to impact lives long after World War II’s conclusion, with the looming threat of another (now nuclear) war being something that could destroy the world.


Release Date
July 21, 2023

180 minutes

27 ‘Rome, Open City’ (1945)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini is one of the most famous Italian filmmakers of all time, and someone who’s held in particularly high regard by the similarly legendary Martin Scorsese. His 1945 film Rome, Open City is arguably his greatest work, being set in 1944 and depicting the Nazi occupation of Rome, particularly regarding clashes between Nazi forces and resistance fighters.

Due to its 1945 release, the film was made almost right after Nazi forces had left Rome, and Rome, Open City manages to feel intensely realistic because of this recency, and the ability to film in parts of the city that still looked the way they had during the war. It’s a gripping and historically significant film and is also notable for giving future director Federico Fellini one of his earliest credits, as he co-wrote the film’s screenplay.

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26 ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Captain Vidal looking serious in Pan's Labyrinth
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Few filmmakers have attempted to merge the fantasy and war genres within the same movie before, but the legendary Guillermo del Toro is no ordinary filmmaker. Pan’s Labyrinth is his best film in a career filled with great ones, and serves to be an imaginative and dark fairytale and a gruelingly intense war movie at the same time.

Though it takes place in 1944, it’s not a World War II movie, with a focus instead on the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, with the protagonist (a young girl who escapes the horrors of life by retreating into a fantasy world) having a stepfather who fights guerrillas that are against the country’s Francoist dictatorship. It’s equally effective as a war movie, even while primarily being an example of a dark fantasy movie, with the unique approach to genre-blending making it stand among the greatest movies of the 21st century so far.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Release Date
August 25, 2006


25 ‘Gallipoli’ (1981)

Director: Peter Weir


Directed by groundbreaking Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, Gallipoli is a crushingly sad World War I movie about idealistic young men signing up for a conflict they don’t understand. It centers on two runners who become friends, and enlist in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps together, expecting overseas combat to feel like an adventure.

Instead, it ends up as anything but, as they’re sent to the Gallipoli peninsula, where they find themselves at a distinct disadvantage against Turkish forces who were defending the area. It effectively shows how the young were able to be fooled and then exploited by the old, showing in painful, heartbreaking detail how war efficiently destroys young lives.


Release Date
August 7, 1981


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24 ‘Wings’ (1927)

Director: William A. Wellman

Wings (1927)
Image via Paramount Pictures

Wings holds a great deal of historical significance, as it was the first movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards… sort of, because the first Academy Awards stands out for having awarded two trophies that were Best Picture equivalents (the other winner was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), which it never did again.

This war film centers on the then quite recent First World War (then called The Great War), with a story about two pilots who are both in love with the same woman. It effectively combines romance/melodrama with exciting action sequences, with the various dogfights still holding up and proving impressive to look at to this day.

Wings (1927)

William A. Wellman , Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Clara Bow , Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers , Jobyna Ralston , Richard Arlen

144 minutes

23 ‘Dunkirk’ (2017)

Director: Christopher Nolan

A landscape from 'Dunkirk'
Image Via Warner Bros. 

Best-known for his Dark Knight trilogy and mind-bending action/thriller films, Dunkirk represented something of a change of pace for filmmaker Christopher Nolan. This 2017 movie retains the feel of a great thriller movie, to some extent, but is undeniably a war movie, albeit one with a unique structure and style.

It tells the story of how Allied forces were successfully evacuated from the harbor of Dunkirk early in World War II, doing so from multiple perspectives that allow viewers to feel the enormity of the historical event. Additionally, different perspectives play out at different speeds, covering slightly different periods of time, which does give the film a distinctly “Nolan” feel, given his love of bending time and space within his films.


Release Date
July 19, 2017


22 ‘Glory’ (1989)

Director: Edward Zwick

A group of soldiers firing guns in Glory
Image via Tri-Star Pictures

Out of all the movies that cover the American Civil War, Glory is arguably the most famous, and possibly the best. It centers on an all-Black volunteer company fighting for the North, adding an extra level of emotion to the story about such a conflict, seeing as slavery of Black people in America was a key issue as to why the war was fought in the first place.

The film can be criticized to a degree for having a white protagonist centering the overall story, with such an approach being less likely if Glory – or something like it – was made today. It does at least remain compelling and easy to get invested in, and serves as a great showcase for Black actors, especially Denzel Washington, who won his first Oscar for his role in the film.


Release Date
December 15, 1989

Edward Zwick


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21 ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2008)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Image via Summit Entertainment

While The Hurt Locker premiered in 2008, it didn’t get a wide release until 2009 and ended up winning Best Picture at the Oscars for that year. It’s set during the Iraq War, and centers on a group of people in a bomb squad unit, following their intensely dangerous role that sees them defusing explosives.

It manages to be an extreme nail-biter of a movie and one that feels genuine, authentic, and unpredictable like a bomb could (quite literally) go off at any moment. It also presents the troubling idea of combat being an adrenaline rush for certain personality types, and war attracting said people, even though at the end of the day, it’s an objectively terrifying and deadly experience, and one of Kathryn Bigelow‘s very best movies.

The Hurt Locker

Release Date
June 26, 2009



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