Top 50 greatest war films
JEP film critic Tom Ogg selects his top 50 favourite war films
ONLINE streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon UK have made it easier than ever to access thousands of films with the click of a few buttons.
And with some Covid-19 restrictions ongoing, and Cineworld Jersey temporarily closed (although hopefully due to reopen ASAP), there has never been a better time to indulge in watching films in the comfort of your own home.
As such, I’ve been running a series on the JEP's weekly film pages in which, every Saturday, I pick my top 50 must-see films from a particular genre – not necessarily the greatest ever made (although many of them certainly qualify as such), but the ones that I personally most recommend watching.
To date, I have covered crime, comedy, sci-fi, war, romance, horror, action/adventure, film noir, drama, westerns, children’s films, musicals and even so-bad-they're-good films, and you can read my Top 50 War Films list below.
For reasons more to do with OCD than anything else, I never allow the same film to appear in more than one list, thus ET is absent from my top 50 children's films list because it already appears in my top 50 sci-fi films list, and so on.
All films are listed in order of personal preference, and all feedback is welcome, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my choices: firstname.lastname@example.org
TOP 50 WAR FILMS
AH, I love the smell of war films in the morning...
A few quick caveats before we continue: yes, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) is very far from the top spot. When I first compiled this list, it wasn't included at all, such is my dislike for the second half of the film. But then I re-watched it and decided that the opening half-hour is so damn good that it compensates for the faults in the remainder of the film, albeit not quite enough to push it higher than number 32.
Absent entirely is Sam Mendes’ 1917 (2019), which was released last year to considerable acclaim and which was filmed in a way that suggests the entire film was shot in one continuous take – an impressive achievement, but one that I personally found at times akin to being trapped inside a first-person shoot-em-up console game.
Elsewhere, David Ayer’s Fury (2014) has some good stuff in it, but it also has Brad Pitt eating eggs in someone’s house for what feels like 40 minutes, so it didn’t make the list either.
1. Paths of Glory (1957, Stanley Kubrick)
SPARTACUS may well be the best-known collaboration between actor Kirk Douglas and director Stanley Kubrick, but it is Paths of Glory – released three years earlier – that is the better film. In fact, as you can see by its placing on this list, Paths of Glory is my all-time favourite war movie, bar none.
One of the most passionately anti-war war films ever made, Paths of Glory features the late, great Douglas on blistering, career-best form as Colonel Dax, a First World War officer who volunteers to defend three French soldiers facing court marshal for their refusal to take part in a suicidal mission.
The film is as visually stunning as any of Kubrick’s meticulously crafted pictures, with unforgettable tracking shots that follow Colonel Dax, and later George Macready’s cold-hearted General Mireau, as they stride through war-torn trenches.
Yet Paths of Glory also packs real emotional punch, with its injustices guaranteed to leave you feeling every bit as angry as Dax (famously liberal off-screen, Douglas’s righteous fury often feels painfully genuine).
Film fact: The female German singer who performs a nervous rendition of The Faithful Hussar in the film’s final scene (and who moves a crowd of braying French soliders to tears in the process) is Christiane Susanne Harlan – or Christiane Kubrick as she would become the following year. She and Stanley Kubrick remained married until his death in 1999.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
3. Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg)
4. Das Boot (1981, Wolfgang Peterson)
5. Full Metal Jacket (1985, Stanley Kubrick)
6. The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)
7. Kajaki (2014, Paul Katis)
AS a dedicated horror movie fan, I have sat cowering through my fair share of blood, guts and nail-biting tension over the years. Yet I don’t think any film has ever left me squirming in my seat quite like Kajaki.
The debut film of British director Paul Katis, this 2014 war thriller depicts the tragic true-life story of a British battalion who find themselves trapped in the middle of an unmarked minefield while stationed in Afghanistan in 2006.
Aided by a uniformly superb cast, Katis ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree: from the first ear-splitting explosion onwards, the sense that something terrible might happen at any given moment never once dissipates.
Admittedly, the film starts slowly (something which I personally don’t mind, but which I know causes some to lose patience), but stick with it because the extended build-up only adds to the fly-on-the-wall realism as we spend time with the soliders and listen in on them aimlessly chatting and joking with one another; there’s little in the way of profound dialogue, but plenty of authentic swearword-filled banter.
The film is currently available on Netflix, and if you want further evidence of its brilliance, Jeremy Clarkson has called it ‘the best war film ever made’. What further endorsement could you possibly need?
Film fact: For added authenticity, Kajaki was shot on location at Al Kaferin Dam in Jordan, a suitably destitute and sun-ravaged stand-in for rural Afghanistan.
8. Zulu (1964, Sy Endfield)
9. Gallipoli (1981, Peter Weir)
10. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean)
11. Black Book (2006, Paul Verhoeven)
12. The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich)
13. Cross of Iron (1977, Sam Peckinpah)
14. The Pianist (2002, Roman Polanski)
15. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
16. Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone)
17. Went the Day Well? (1942, Alberto Cavalcanti)
18. The Great Escape (1963, John Sturges)
19. Hamburger Hill (1987, John Irvin)
20. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone)
21. Salvador (1986, Oliver Stone)
22. The Guns of Navarone (1961, J Lee Thompson)
23. The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow)
24. Lebanon (2009, Samuel Maoz)
25. The Keep (1983, Michael Mann)
DIRECTOR Michael Mann is best known for slick crime epics such as Heat (1995) and Miami Vice (2006). However, his filmography is far more eclectic than the casual filmgoer might assume, as aptly demonstrated by this Nazi-themed war film cum gothic fantasy-horror.
A true one-of-a-kind, The Keep centres on a team of German soldiers who have commandeered an uninhabited citadel in Romania on the orders of Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow, who will be familiar to many as the sympathetic sea captain in Das Boot). Unfortunately for Woermann and his men, the ancient building harbours Radu Molasa, an otherworldly being even more deadly and destructive than the Nazis themselves.
The Keep certainly isn’t a typical war film (some might question whether it is really a war film at all), but despite a tortuously troubled production and the occasional ropey special effect, the film remains compulsive cult viewing, with a cast of soon-to-be-famous thesps (Ian McKellen, Scott Glenn, Gabriel Byrne) and a synth-heavy soundtrack courtesy of Tangerine Dream.
Film fact: Throughout shooting, Michael Mann repeatedly changed his mind as to how Radu Molasa should appear on-screen, hence why the look of the creature is often different from one scene to the next. Personally, I like the red-eyed model version of Radu that glides into view surrounded by clouds of smoke and gives Ian McKellen the willies.
26. The Dam Busters (1955, Michael Anderson)
27. Patton (1970, Franklin J Schaffner)
28. Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)
29. Flags of Our Fathers (2006, Clint Eastwood)
30. The Wild Geese (1978, Andrew V McLaglen)
31. The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton and Bernhard Wicki)
32. Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)
HANG on... Saving Private Ryan appearing only at a lowly 32 on the list? Some mistake, surely?
Well, no, I'm afraid not (feel free to calmly and reasonably express disagreement in a well-considered adult manner in the Facebook comments section).
Sure, the first 30 minutes of Steven Spielberg's war epic ranks as among the most phenomenal achievements in the history of war films. Set during the infamous Omaha Beach landing of 1944, the sequence is surely the most brutal, gruelling, unflinching depiction of the horrors of war ever committed to celluloid.
Unfortunately, much of the good work accomplished in this first half-hour, and in the scenes that directly follow it, is completely undone by the final hour of the film, which utterly contradicts the message of its unforgiving opening salvo.
Suddenly, war isn’t a nightmarish, incomprehensible vision of hell on earth – rather, it has profound meaning and order and rationality and everything will be just fine as long as Matt Damon is alive and well and can regale us all with some homely anecdotes.
I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call Saving Private Ryan ‘a detestable piece of s***’, which is how screenwriter William Goldman once described it (he referred to the film's home stretch as 'fifty minutes of phony manipulative s***'), but I would say it is probably the most overrated film of Spielberg’s career (Spielberg has made far weaker films, but they are generally acknowledged as being flawed, whereas Ryan is frequently held up as one of his crowning achievements).
As a film, Saving Private Ryan is worse than many of those further down this list. Its appearance above them is solely due to its astonishing Omaha Beach scenes, which really are unsurpassed in the annals of war cinema. Without this sequence, Saving Private Ryan's standing as a great war film would be shakier than Tom Hanks' hands after a spot of combat.
Film fact: Oh, and another thing: if the old guy at the start of the film is supposed to be elderly Matt Damon, then how can he have a flashback to Omaha Beach when his character wasn’t even there?
33. Ice Cold in Alex (1958, J Lee Thompson)
34. Braveheart (1995, Mel Gibson)
35. ’71 (2014, Yann Demange)
36. Downfall (2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel)
37. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006, Clint Eastwood)
38. Empire of the Sun (1987, Steven Spielberg)
39. Where Eagles Dare (1968, Brian G Hutton)
40. Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan)
41. Wings (1927, William A Wellman)
42. Kelly’s Heroes (1970, Brian G Hutton)
43. Bat*21 (1988, Peter Markle)
YES, I know we’re all sick to death of hearing about bloody bats, but fear not, this based-on-fact Vietnam-set actioner is entirely free of disease-ridden winged mammals.
Instead, Bat*21 stars Gene Hackman as Iceal Hambleton, a US colonel who finds himself stranded in hostile territory in the dying days of the Vietnam War, and who has to rely on his military training to survive long enough to be located and rescued by Danny Glover’s Captain Bartholomew Clark.
An underrated gem with some expertly crafted suspense scenes by director Peter Markle and a typically magnetic turn by the ever-watchable Hackman.
Film fact: The screenwriters took a fair few liberties with the truth. In reality, many servicemen lost their lives during attempts to rescue Hambleton, something which isn’t immediately obvious upon watching the film.
44. The Last Hunter (1980, Antonio Margheriti)
THIS is very much a case where a film appears on my list not because it’s a classic (it isn’t), but simply because I really like it.
Directed by Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti, The Last Hunter was intended as a rather shameless attempt to capitalise on the recent success of Michael Cimino’s Oscar-nabbing The Deer Hunter.
In truth, however, the film has none of that film’s moody earnestness and is instead far more reminiscent of gung-ho capers like The Great Escape and The Wild Geese, with British actor David Warbeck (who often appeared in Italian exploitation pictures during this period) playing a brave soldier who ventures behind enemy lines in Vietnam in order to destroy a radio tower transmitting anti-US propaganda.
The resultant film is ludicrously gory, endlessly derivative, gloriously un-PC and often plain barking mad – and I absolutely love every second of it!
Film fact: The Last Hunter was shot in the Philippines on many of the same locations used for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now the previous year.
45. The Eagle Has Landed (1976, John Sturges)
46. Casualties of War (1989, Brian De Palma)
47. Hacksaw Ridge (2016, Mel Gibson)
THE film that re-established Mel Gibson as a directorial powerhouse after several years spent in Hollywood’s doghouse, Hacksaw Ridge tells the true-life tale of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a combat medic in the Second World War, and the first ever pacifist to receive the Medal of Honour for heroism on the battlefield.
A ‘conscientious co-operator’ and trainee medic, the youthful Doss at first angers his fellow soldiers and superiors by refusing to even hold a weapon, let alone fire one, but later proves his worth on the battlefield by single-handedly saving the lives of dozens of wounded soldiers.
As with Braveheart (see number 34), director Gibson offers a curious blend of old-fashioned filmmaking, ripe melodrama and extreme graphic violence, with the latter coming to the fore in the second half of the film as the action moves to Okinawa, the Japanese island where the infamous Battle of Okinawa raged for 82 days in 1945 – and where Doss and his battalion find themselves unceremoniously thrown into grisly battle.
This being a Mel Gibson film, the camera doesn’t hold back from showing the atrocities of war in unflinching detail, with the battlefield depicted as a sea of mud-soaked intestines and maggot-ridden body parts. It is over this macabre terrain that the fighting takes place and the result is the most unrelentingly grisly big-screen combat since Tom Hanks and co landed on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan – honestly, you can almost feel the heat from the flame-throwers as unfortunate soldiers are roasted alive.
The film just about remains grounded, however, thanks to Garfield's winning performance as the dorky, devoted Doss. In lesser hands, the character’s Bible-thumping morality could have quickly become grating, but the Brit actor plays it just right, leavening Doss’s sanctimony with a likeable aw-shucks goofiness. Even as he dodges severed limbs and flying entrails on the battlefield.
Film fact: Desmond Doss himself appears at the end of the film, albeit via archive footage (he died in 2006, aged 87). According to Gibson, Doss’s son attended the films premiere and was moved to tears by Garfield’s portrayal of his late father.
48. Heartbreak Ridge (1986, Clint Eastwood)
49. Three Kings (1999, David O Russell)
50. The Blockhouse (1973, Clive Rees)
'THERE was nothing he couldn’t do.'
So said the late, great Richard Attenborough of the even later, even greater Peter Sellers – and he was right.
Although best-remembered as a hilarious comedian and an almost eerily gifted character actor (and worst-remembered as an unhinged lunatic), Sellers was also an exceptional straight actor. Sadly, many of his finest performances remain either misunderstood or unseen, among which is his moving turn in Clive Rees' obscure The Blockhouse.
A despairingly downbeat war-drama, the film tells the true-life story of a group of labourers who find themselves trapped inside an underground bunker during the Second World War. Sellers’ performance as former French teacher Rouquet is superb, with none of Clouseau's comedy mangled-français. The final scene in particular – in which Rouquet resigns himself to his inevitable fate – is quietly heartbreaking.
Film fact: The Blockhouse was filmed almost entirely in Guernsey. No wonder the cast look so authentically traumatised...
* If you enjoyed this list, be sure to read my other top 50 film lists on the Features page of the Jersey Evening Post website
Sorry, we are not accepting comments on this article.