25 best war movies of all time

Written by:
April 20, 2021
Omni Zoetrope

25 best war movies of all time

Here's the thing about war: it's always been around. Historians believe the first war took place in Mesopotamia in 2,700 B.C. In fact, of the past 3,400 years, humans have been at peace for only 268.

This is all to say that for millennia, there has been a fascination with war—both the waging of it and the recounting of its stories. Since the start of civilization, people have engaged in war and recounted conflicts through oral, visual, and written storytelling. The 20th century saw this type of storytelling evolve into motion pictures. In fact, one of the earliest films ever made, 1915’s “Birth of a Nation,” was about the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction. Even before making that controversial film, director D.W. Griffith had made numerous one-reelers centered on the events of the Civil War.

While some war films emphasize the inhumanity of battle, others focus on the valiant heroes carrying out their patriotic duties. There are also films that take another approach by focusing on how war can influence the lives of civilians or soldiers who’ve returned home. When taken as a whole, the genre leaves no psychological or physical stone unturned. In other words, if it’s been done in battle, it’s probably been reproduced on screen.

Stacker compiled data on all war movies to come up with a Stacker score—a weighted index split evenly between IMDb and Metacritic scores. To qualify, the film had to be listed as “war” on IMDb, have a Metascore, and have at least 2,500 votes. Ties were broken by Metascore, and further ties were broken by votes. Every film on the list has been considered according to the cinematic history and development of the genre. Click through to see which films made the cut.

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25 best war movies of all time

Here's the thing about war: it's always been around. Historians believe the first war took place in Mesopotamia in 2,700 B.C. In fact, of the past 3,400 years, humans have been at peace for only 268.

This is all to say that for millennia, there has been a fascination with war—both the waging of it and the recounting of its stories. Since the start of civilization, people have engaged in war and recounted conflicts through oral, visual, and written storytelling. The 20th century saw this type of storytelling evolve into motion pictures. In fact, one of the earliest films ever made, 1915’s “Birth of a Nation,” was about the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction. Even before making that controversial film, director D.W. Griffith had made numerous one-reelers centered on the events of the Civil War.

While some war films emphasize the inhumanity of battle, others focus on the valiant heroes carrying out their patriotic duties. There are also films that take another approach by focusing on how war can influence the lives of civilians or soldiers who’ve returned home. When taken as a whole, the genre leaves no psychological or physical stone unturned. In other words, if it’s been done in battle, it’s probably been reproduced on screen.

Stacker compiled data on all war movies to come up with a Stacker score—a weighted index split evenly between IMDb and Metacritic scores. To qualify, the film had to be listed as “war” on IMDb, have a Metascore, and have at least 2,500 votes. Ties were broken by Metascore, and further ties were broken by votes. Every film on the list has been considered according to the cinematic history and development of the genre. Click through to see which films made the cut.

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#25. The African Queen (1951)

- Director: John Huston
- Stacker score: 91
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Runtime: 105 min

Starring Hollywood icons Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, “The African Queen” takes place in Eastern Africa, telling the story of a disgruntled riverboat captain named Charlie Allnut. After World War I breaks out, a British woman named Rose Sayer persuades Allnut to convert his boat into a military vessel. Together, they embark on the seemingly impossible quest to take out a huge German warship.

#24. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

- Director: Kathryn Bigelow
- Stacker score: 91
- Metascore: 95
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Runtime: 157 min

From Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow comes the all-too-real story of the decade-long search and killing of Osama bin Laden following the September 11 attacks. The film was released to critical acclaim but was criticized for a few inaccuracies. For example, in the film the Pakistani nationals are speaking Arabic when the national language of Pakistan is Urdu.

#23. Le Petit Soldat (1963)

- Director: Jean-Luc Godard
- Stacker score: 91
- Metascore: 97
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Runtime: 88 min

A riveting and gut-wrenching story, "Le Petit Soldat" (The Little Soldier) is a story about a French intelligence officer caught between two political groups during the Algerian War. He's ordered to pull off an assassination to prove he isn't a double agent. The film was made in 1960 but was not released until 1963. It was banned in France for three years because it was "uncomfortably forthright" about the war, according to Nicholas Elliott of The Criterion Collection.

#22. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

- Director: John Huston
- Stacker score: 91
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 129 min

Michael Caine and Sean Connery star in this movie (based on the book of the same name) about the adventures of two English military officers stationed in India. Weary of military life, the companions visit Kafiristan, a land where they are celebrated as rulers by the people. John Huston wanted to make the film as a young child, originally envisioning Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as the leads.

#21. Das Boot (1981)

- Director: Wolfgang Petersen
- Stacker score: 91
- Metascore: 86
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Runtime: 149 min

Beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean patrols the U-96, a German U-boat. The crew lives aboard along with a war reporter, Werner, who watches the banalities of day-to-day life that live alongside the intense periods of conflict. It is based on the true story of Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, who joined the real-life U-96 submarine for the Battle of the Atlantic. "Das Boot" was originally a book about his experiences.

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#20. Persepolis (2007)

- Directors: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
- Stacker score: 92
- Metascore: 90
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 96 min

"Persepolis" started as a graphic novel about co-director Marjane Satrapi's life in Iran and Europe throughout the stages of the Iranian Revolution. The animated film was also written by Satrapi. It was nominated for best animated feature at the Academy Awards but lost to "Ratatouille".

#19. The Pianist (2002)

- Director: Roman Polanski
- Stacker score: 92
- Metascore: 85
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Runtime: 150 min

From an acclaimed memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman came this equally acclaimed 2002 film, which follows a Jewish musician as he struggles to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Playing the lead role was actor Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for his performance.

#18. Patton (1970)

- Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
- Stacker score: 92
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 172 min

Based on the real-life exploits of Gen. George Smith Patton Jr., this film follows the controversial figure throughout the World War II phase of his career. As Patton whips soldiers into shape and leads invasions in Europe against the Nazis, he also exhibits frequent bouts of uncontrollable rage and insubordination. Playing the role to perfection is actor George C. Scott.

#17. Barry Lyndon (1975)

- Director: Stanley Kubrick
- Stacker score: 92
- Metascore: 89
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 185 min

Stanley Kubrick returns to the list with this 1975 film about the misadventures of an 18th-century Irish rogue named Redmond Barry who becomes an unlikely aristocrat after marrying a wealthy woman. Before landing his sweet—albeit somewhat short-lived—gig as the husband to Lady Lyndon, Barry fights for the British Army in the Seven Years’ War, only to abandon his unit. Soon after, he’s enlisted against his will by the Prussian Army and put back on the battlefield.

#16. The Hurt Locker (2008)

- Director: Kathryn Bigelow
- Stacker score: 92
- Metascore: 95
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Runtime: 131 min

In a heart-racing, adrenaline-pumping movie (for which Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for best director), an Iraq War Explosive Ordnance Disposal team is being targeted by insurgents, all the while working to defuse bombs—a task which, the movie shows, can thrill some and torment others. The movie was the first female-directed movie to win best picture.

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#15. Duck Soup (1933)

- Director: Leo McCarey
- Stacker score: 92
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Runtime: 69 min

This iconic Marx Brothers comedy takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country on the brink of collapse due to numerous fiscal failures. In hopes of securing a bailout from the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, Freedonia appoints a man named Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as its leader. However, Firefly turns out to be highly unpredictable in his new role, thereby causing all sorts of farcical—and frequently satirical—disputes with his advisers and enemies alike.

#14. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

- Director: Lewis Milestone
- Stacker score: 92
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 152 min

Widely considered the most violent film of its time, “All Quiet on the Western Front” remains completely uncompromising in its depiction of World War I brutality. Following young German soldiers into the midst of battle, the movie explores themes of drudgery, humanity, and futility—emphasizing confusion over intent and trauma over victory. It’s no surprise that the book upon which the film was based was later banned and burned in Nazi Germany.

#13. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

- Director: William Wyler
- Stacker score: 94
- Metascore: 93
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Runtime: 170 min

While it’s beyond speculation that war can be brutal on the mind and body alike, a soldier’s subsequent return to everyday society is often just as psychologically harrowing. Exploring that premise with both empathy and accuracy is 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” in which three World War II servicemen struggle to readjust to small-town American life. It’s a timeless tale that countless veterans can relate to, regardless of the era.

#12. Dunkirk (2017)

- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Stacker score: 94
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Runtime: 106 min

In 2017, Hollywood’s hottest director turned away from fantasy and science-fiction-based fare to depict a famous World War II event: the evacuation of Allied forces from the French seaport of Dunkirk. The result is a supremely taut war movie that eschews traditional character development to focus primarily on the fight for survival. 

#11. Platoon (1986)

- Director: Oliver Stone
- Stacker score: 94
- Metascore: 92
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 120 min

Iconic filmmaker and Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone covered personal ground when he wrote and directed 1986’s “Platoon,” which is loosely based on his own experiences. In the film, a young soldier (Charlie Sheen) faces conflict on all sides as he fights against a foreign enemy and encounters betrayal within his own unit. The film made over $138 million at the box office and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture.

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#10. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

- Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
- Stacker score: 96
- Metascore: 96
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 121 min

This example of Italian neorealist cinema focuses on paratrooper commander Col. Mathieu, who is sent to Algeria to quash uprisings. It is here that he meets Ali la Pointe, an ex-criminal who now leads the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale. The only professional actor in the movie was Jean Martin, who played Col. Mathieu. The rest of the cast was mostly composed of nonprofessional Algerians.

#9. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Stacker score: 96
- Metascore: 91
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Runtime: 169 min

Steven Spielberg opens “Saving Private Ryan” with one of the most harrowing battle scenes in cinematic history, as the Allies invade Normandy Beach (aka D-Day) in 1944 during WWII. What follows is the story of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his unit of seven, who are sent on a quest to retrieve a mother’s only surviving son (Matt Damon). The film won five Academy Awards and earned over $480 million at the worldwide box office. It also exposed young audiences to both the horrors and heroics of WWII, helping them better understand the many sacrifices once made on their country’s behalf.

#8. Gone with the Wind (1939)

- Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor (uncredited), Sam Wood (uncredited)
- Stacker score: 96
- Metascore: 97
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Runtime: 238 min

Chronicling the life of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, “Gone With the Wind” is the historical epic to which most blockbusters still aspire. Filled with lush cinematography and harrowing drama, the film won eight Oscars—out of 13 nominations—in 1940, and it remains the highest-grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation.

"Gone With the Wind" made headlines in June 2020 when HBO Max temporarily removed the title from its streaming library, returning the film with a disclaimer that it "denies the horrors of slavery."

#7. Ran (1985)

- Director: Akira Kurosawa
- Stacker score: 96
- Metascore: 96
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 162 min

When it comes to war films, Akira Kurosawa is a household name. Here he is again on this list with Ran, a reinvented version of William Shakespeare's “King Lear.” It follows Hidetora Ichimonji, a dying warlord who gives up the throne and divides his kingdom among his three sons.

#6. Apocalypse Now (1979)

- Director: Francis Ford Coppola
- Stacker score: 96
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Runtime: 147 min

Updating Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for the modern era, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” stars Martin Sheen as Captain Willard, a seasoned officer struggling to retain his sanity in the midst of the Vietnam War. Willard is approached with a top-secret mission: to track down and assassinate a rogue colonel (Marlon Brando). Making the film took a toll on Coppola, who sank all of his money into the production and suffered an epileptic seizure during the shoot.

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#5. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

- Director: Isao Takahata
- Stacker score: 97
- Metascore: 94
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Runtime: 89 min

Semi-autobiographical in origin, "Grave of the Fireflies" is an animated movie that tells the partially true tale of Seita, a teenager who must take care of his younger sister after an American attack during World War II. It's a tale of survival, sibling love, and the necessity of survival. The author of the original story said that many offers were made to make a live version of the film. However, he felt animation was the only way to convey the devastation with detail while being far enough removed so as to not be traumatic for audiences.

#4. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

- Director: Guillermo del Toro
- Stacker score: 97
- Metascore: 98
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 118 min

The film is set in Spain in 1944, five years after the Spanish Civil War. Director Guillermo del Toro takes audiences on a surrealist fantasy adventure through the eyes of Ofelia. Ofelia's stepfather is the brutal Captain Vidal, who is hunting Spanish rebels fighting against Franco and his regime. Del Toro got the idea for the story from his own doodles in a notebook. He left said notebook in a London taxicab during the production; when the cabbie returned the notebook a few days later, Del Toro tipped the cabbie $900.

#3. Army of Shadows (1969)

- Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
- Stacker score: 98
- Metascore: 99
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Runtime: 145 min

Based on the book by Joseph Kessel, "Army of Shadows" follows the story of Philippe Gerbier, who heads up a French Resistance network. He is betrayed and placed in a Nazi prison camp but eventually escapes and seeks revenge on the informant. The film wasn’t released in America until 2006.

#2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

- Director: David Lean
- Stacker score: 99
- Metascore: 100
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Runtime: 228 min

Based on the true story of T.E. Lawrence, Peter O'Toole plays the lead in this story of an English officer who is assigned to be a liaison between the Arabs and British in their fight against the Turks. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, taking home seven including best picture and best director.

#1. Casablanca (1942)

- Director: Michael Curtiz
- Stacker score: 100
- Metascore: 100
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Runtime: 102 min

This legendary 1942 film sees Humphrey Bogart playing Rick Blaine, an American expatriate and nightclub owner in Casablanca, Morocco. As World War II escalates, Rick provides a haven to refugees as they flee from the Nazis in hopes of making it to America. Things get both complicated and dangerous when a former flame (Ingrid Bergman) shows up in the cafe with her husband and asks Rick for his help.

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