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The greatest American war hero movies ever

The greatest American war hero movies ever

As America gears up to celebrate its 242nd birthday, it's important to pay tribute to the people who made the United States what it is today. While Americans can read about notable battles through historical documents, books, and newspapers, there’s nothing like being able to see and hear the incredible efforts that have contributed to the creation of America. That’s why war movies are so valuable: they often give the viewer a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of true patriotism and the sacrifices American heroes have made for their homeland.

In honor of Independence Day
the holiday, not the movieStacker ranked the greatest American war hero movies ever. These are the women and men of Hollywood who have stepped into the shoes of the greatest heroes in American historyboth real and fictional, and made audiences proud to be Americans. Using IMDb user rankings, this list contains war movies that were produced in English and received at least 5,000 votes. In the case of any ties in user rankings, the higher slot was given to the film that had more total votes. Read on to see how many Spielberg war films landed on the list and which two Kubrick classics made it to the top five.

RELATED STORY: Click here to see the most popular war movies of all time

#45. In Harm's Way

IMDb user rating: 7.4
IMDb user votes: 6,974
Release year: 1965
Director: Otto Preminger

Major macho men John Wayne and Kirk Douglas topline this tale of post-World War II revenge. A Navy officer (Wayne) goes after the Japanese during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but finds himself rebuked for breaking protocol. After being promoted to Rear Admiral, Wayne’s character finds redemption in his revenge on the Japanese in the South Pacific. The last black-and-white John Wayne film, “In Harm’s Way” was nominated for an Academy Award for its exquisite cinematography.

#44. Father Goose

IMDb user rating: 7.4
IMDb user votes: 8,329
Release year: 1964
Director: Ralph Nelson

A World War II aircraft spotter finds himself in an unexpectedly paternal role while stationed on a remote island with a school teacher and her seven pupils. Cary Grant plays the lead opposite Leslie Caron in this wartime love story that won the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1965.

#43. Little Boy

IMDb user rating: 7.4
IMDb user votes: 20,169
Release year: 2015
Director: Alejandro Monteverde

Little Boy” tells the story of a Pepper Busbee, a child living in World War II-era California who is dealing with his father going off to war, alongside the ensuing rise of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. After his dad deploys, the boy befriends a Japanese man named Hashimoto and learns the true power of humanity. Emma Watson, Kevin James, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (“The Man in the High Castle”) star in the film, which didn’t rate highly with professional critics.

#42. Mudbound

IMDb user rating: 7.4
IMDb user votes: 26,622
Release year: 2017
Director: Dee Rees

This Netflix movie is as much about racism as it is about war. When an African-American soldier returns to his rural Mississippi home, he finds that his service isn’t enough to break through the color barrier in the Jim Crow South. Nominated for four Academy Awards and two Golden Globes, “Mudbound” gave singer Mary J. Blige the most celebrated acting role of her career.

#41. Lincoln

IMDb user rating: 7.4
IMDb user votes: 219,759
Release year: 2012
Director: Steven Spielberg

One of America’s most beloved presidents gets the Spielberg treatment in this sprawling two-and-a-half-hour biopic that tracks Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during the final days of the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar for his work as the commander in chief; the rest of the cast featured big names including Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.

#40. Friendly Persuasion

IMDb user rating: 7.5
IMDb user votes: 5,529
Release year: 1956
Director: William Wyler

Mid-century heartthrob Gary Cooper led the way in this tale of a pacifist Quaker family drawn into the drama of the Civil War. Although the script was penned by Michael Wilson, it was released without a screenwriting credit because the writer was under investigation by Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Affairs Committee. Regardless, Wilson was still nominated for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

#39. Battleground

IMDb user rating: 7.5
IMDb user votes: 5,811
Release year: 1949
Director: William A. Wellman

Known as one of the first significant war movies released after World War II, “Battleground” follows an Army airborne division as its soldiers get trapped during the Siege of Bastogne—a major element of the Battle of the Bulge. Van Johnson gets star billing in the film that went on to receive a number of Academy Award nominations, including victories for black-and-white cinematography and writing.

#38. Tora! Tora! Tora!

IMDb user rating: 7.5
IMDb user votes: 27,819
Release year: 1970
Directors: Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, Toshio Masuda

The attack on Pearl Harbor gets told from both sides in “Tora! Tora! Tora!” The title of the film is based on the Japanese word for achieving a total surprise victory. Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was originally supposed to direct the Japanese scenes of the film, but was replaced by Fukasaku and Masuda just two weeks into shooting.

#37. Lone Survivor

IMDb user rating: 7.5
IMDb user votes: 234,658
Release year: 2013
Director: Peter Berg

Based on a nonfiction war memoir, “Lone Survivor” tells the true story of an American Navy SEAL unit who infiltrates Afghanistan to capture a Taliban leader, but winds up surrounded and has to escape against all odds. As the title suggests, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) becomes the lone survivor of the mission, thanks to help from an Afghani local.

#36. Sahara

IMDb user rating: 7.6
IMDb user votes: 6,891
Release year: 1943
Director: Zoltan Korda

Humphrey Bogart stars as an American tank commander charged with fighting Nazis in Libya during World War II. Not to be confused with the 2005 Matthew McConaughey film or its 1995 made-for-TV remake starring Jim Belushi, this “Sahara” came out nearly 11 months after Bogart’s iconic performance in another war film set in North Africa: “Casablanca.”

#35. T

IMDb user rating: 7.6
IMDb user votes: 8,481
Release year: 1957
Director: Dick Powell

It’s an underwater battle for international glory as American actor Robert Mitchum goes head-to-head with German star Curt Jurgens in this submarine drama. Based on a book by Denys Rayner, this cat-and-mouse tale details an American destroyer ship on the hunt for a German U-boat.

#34. MASH

IMDb user rating: 7.6
IMDb user votes: 60,941
Release year: 1970
Director: Robert Altman

One of the most celebrated war films of all time, this dark comedy won the top award at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and was a box office smash for 20th Century Fox. Donald Sutherland, Sally Kellerman, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall, and Tom Skerritt led the all-star cast—and the film’s TV adaptation famously became one of the most popular programs of the 1970s.

#33. The Thin Red Line

IMDb user rating: 7.6
IMDb user votes: 154,224
Release year: 1998
Director: Terrence Malick

At nearly three hours long, Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’s autobiography takes viewers deep into the South Pacific’s Guadalcanal Campaign in World War II. Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Jim Caviezel starred, with smaller parts played by George Clooney, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson. “The Thin Red Line” marked Malick’s first return to film since 1978’s “Days of Heaven” and he wound up with Academy Award nominations for both writing and directing.

#32. Fury

IMDb user rating: 7.6
IMDb user votes: 359,084
Release year: 2014
Director: David Ayer

Brad Pitt leads an ensemble cast in this World War II drama about a U.S. tank unit deep in Nazi territory during the final days of the war. Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Logan Lerman, and Michael Peña round out the tank’s crew.

#31. The Hurt Locker

IMDb user rating: 7.6
IMDb user votes: 374,374
Release year: 2008
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

The Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow made history when she became the first female director to ever win the Academy Award for Best Director in 2010. The film also won for Best Picture and made lead actor Jeremy Renner a bona fide star. “The Hurt Locker” is about a bomb squad soldier in the Iraq War who breaks from standard Army protocol in bomb-diffusing situations, alienating himself from his fellow soldiers.

#30. Wings

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 9,459
Release year: 1927
Directors: William A. Wellman, Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast

One of the earliest war movies in history, “Wings” became the very first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. 1920s mega-star Clara Bow played the love interest of two air combat pilots (Richard Arlen and Buddy Rogers) in World War I. The film impressed audiences for its unbelievable aerial sequences, a major feat for the earlier days of cinematic technical prowess. Gary Cooper played a small role in the film, which led to him becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

#29. The Sand Pebbles

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 11,505
Release year: 1966
Director: Robert Wise

While most war movies of the '60s focus on the two World Wars, “The Sand Pebbles” went a completely different direction. Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough star as Navy men on a gunboat in 1926 China, members of a crew sent to rescue a group of missionaries on the Yangtze River. Nominated for Best Picture at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes, the film was a huge commercial and critical success.

#28. Gettysburg

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 23,549
Release year: 1993
Director: Ron Maxwell

This Civil War film about the famous North-South battle in Gettysburg, Pa. lasted a whopping 4 hours and 31 minutes. Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, and Martin Sheen led the cast of what was originally supposed to be a cable TV mini-series. A prequel, “Gods and Generals,” also written and directed by Ron Maxwell, was released in 2003 with some of the cast reprising their roles from the original film.

#27. From Here to Eternity

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 37,743
Release year: 1953
Director: Fred Zinnemann

The second James Jones story to make the listsee #33, “From Here to Eternity” starred Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra as soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the months before the Pearl Harbor attack. It ended up winning eight Oscars in 1954 and has since been added to the National Film Registry for its tremendous cultural significance. It was Sinatra’s only Academy Award win for his acting work.

#26. Kelly's Heroes

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 39,347
Release year: 1970
Director: Brian G. Hutton

Is it a war movie or a heist film? Both. “Kelly’s Heroes” tells the story of U.S. soldiers who sneak past enemy lines in order to steal millions of dollars worth of Nazi gold. Clint Eastwood leads the charge in this war comedy that also stars Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, and Donald Sutherland in his World War II comedy of 1970the first was “MASH”.


#25. Where Eagles Dare

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 45,127
Release year: 1968
Director: Brian G. Hutton

The second Brian G. Hutton-directed picture to make the list, “Where Eagles Dare” stars Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton as an American soldier and his British counterpart. The pair are tasked with the rescue of a U.S. military commander who’s being held in a fortress by Nazis. The film received a positive review in The New York Times from reviewer Vincent Canby.

#24. Black Hawk Down

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 324,822
Release year: 2001
Director: Ridley Scott

The evolution of “Black Hawk Down” is fairly extensive. It began as a 29-part series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, became a best-selling book by Mark Bowden, and then a Ridley Scott movie. The story follows a 1993 raid in Somalia as Army Rangers attempt to capture two rogue militia commanders, with Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor leading an impressive ensemble cast.

#23. The Last Samurai

IMDb user rating: 7.7
IMDb user votes: 352,851
Release year: 2003
Director: Edward Zwick

In “The Last Samurai,” Tom Cruise plays an American ex-Army captain who travels to Japan to help train soldiers—and winds up in the middle of a samurai insurrection against the new emperor. Thanks mainly to foreign sales, the film was a box office success. Japanese actor Ken Watanabe was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in the film.

#22. Twelve O'Clock High

IMDb user rating: 7.8
IMDb user votes: 11,063
Release year: 1949
Director: Henry King

Adapted from a 1948 novel, “Twelve O’Clock High” stars Gregory Peck as a no-nonsense Army general who leads a group of bomber pilots to victory over the Axis forces in Germany and France. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards—Peck was nominated for Best Actor, but it was co-star Dean Jagger who took home a statue for Best Supporting Actor.

#21. Sergeant York

IMDb user rating: 7.8
IMDb user votes: 13,502
Release year: 1941
Director: Howard Hawks

Gary Cooper leads in this tale of an incredible sniper, Alvin C. York, who becomes a World War I hero when his marksmanship forces a German platoon to surrender. Cooper’s acclaimed performance not only won the Oscar for Best Actorand earned 11 total nominations including Best Pictureit led to the American Film Institute naming York as the 35th greatest hero in American film history.

#20. Mister Roberts

IMDb user rating: 7.8
IMDb user votes: 13,855
Release year: 1955
Directors: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, Joshua Logan

With one of the most notable war movie casts in history, it seems like “Mister Roberts” was always destined for greatness: It was originally a book, then a play, and became a TV series after the success of the film. Henry Fonda plays Doug Roberts, a Navy cargo ship lieutenant stationed far from the action of World War II, who takes care of his crew while trying to get transferred to an active postaway from the overbearing commander of his ship. James Cagney plays the hated captain, William Powell plays the ship’s doctor in his final cinematic role, and Jack Lemmon earned an Oscar for his work as a reluctant sailor.

#19. The Caine Mutiny

IMDb user rating: 7.8
IMDb user votes: 21,778
Release year: 1954
Director: Edward Dmytryk

Herman Wouk won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Caine Mutiny,” a play that soon became this Hollywood adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, Van Johnson, and Fred MacMurray. An Oscar-nomination magnet, the film details the contentious events aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer and the court-martial that occurs after the mutiny. Adding to its legacy, world-class actor Michael Caine actually took his stage name from the film.

#18. The Longest Day

IMDb user rating: 7.8
IMDb user votes: 47,191
Release year: 1962
Directors: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, Darryl F. Zanuck

There are almost too many stars in the cast of this massive World War II epic, which tells the story of D-Day from both the Allied and Axis perspectives. Richard Burton, Sean Connery, John Wayne, and Robert Mitchum are just a few of the biggest names in the black-and-white classic, which is notorious for its extensive roster of extras and unique storytelling—told from multiple perspectives in native tongues with subtitles.

#17. The Dirty Dozen

IMDb user rating: 7.8
IMDb user votes: 58,778
Release year: 1967
Director: Robert Aldrich

The standard war movie gets a criminal twist in “The Dirty Dozen.” Twelve of the Army’s worst convicts are brought together in World War II, forming a ragtag unit charged with parachuting into a French chateau. Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and John Cassavetes are just a small sampling of the film’s star-studded cast, and it’s been lauded on a number of AFI’s best-of lists—including “America’s Most Heart-Pounding Movies.” 

#16. Glory

IMDb user rating: 7.9
IMDb user votes: 109,840
Release year: 1989
Director: Edward Zwick

Denzel Washington won his first Oscar for his role in this Civil War film about one of the first all-black regiments in American history. Matthew Broderick plays Captain Robert Shaw, a white colonel in charge of a group of black volunteers for the Union Army. The group deals with racism and prejudice within their own army as they fight against the Confederacy and the evils of slavery on the other side. The film enjoyed massive critical success: New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the cast “superior” and correctly predicted that Washington was “on his way to a major screen career.”

#15. To Have and Have Not

IMDb user rating: 8.0
IMDb user votes: 26,401
Release year: 1944
Director: Howard Hawks

Loosely based on the 1937 Ernest Hemingway story, “To Have and Have Not” introduces Lauren Bacall in her film debut as a young American vagabond on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. She meets a charismatic American expat fisherman (Humphrey Bogart) who is helping to smuggle a French resistance fighter onto the island—ultimately getting entangled with the politics of the Nazi-friendly Vichy French government that controls Martinique. While Hemingway wrote the original story on which the film is based, fellow novelist legend William Faulkner got co-screenwriting credit for his work in the movie.

#14. Stalag 17

IMDb user rating: 8.0
IMDb user votes: 46,483
Release year: 1953
Director: Billy Wilder

"Stalag 17" was originally a hit Broadway play, but it found a much wider audience when Billy Wilder turned it into a film starring William Holden. The plot revolves around a group of American pilot prisoners-of-war being held in a German prison camp. Holden won the Academy Award for his role as J.J. Sefton, the camp’s resident wheeler-and-dealer who’s happy to barter with anyone—including the German guards.

#13. Patton

IMDb user rating: 8.0
IMDb user votes: 84,521
Release year: 1970
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

American war hero Gen. George Patton is the subject of this award-winning film that cleaned up at the Oscars in 1971—with statues going to the film for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for George C. Scott’s role as the general. Scott actually rejected the award in one of the Oscars’ biggest scandals. The film follows Patton’s rise to legendary status as he takes on larger and larger military theaters, emerging victorious in all of them.

#12. The Best Years of Our Lives

IMDb user rating: 8.1
IMDb user votes: 50,388
Release year: 1946
Director: William Wyle

Although still a war movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives” tackles the difficulty of soldiers returning to their everyday lives. Myrna Loy and Fredric March topline the cast in a story that tells of the horrors of war—and how soldiers find their way home—by following the struggles of three American servicemen. While the movie was nominated in all of the major categories at the Oscars, it failed to win, but it did secure Best Picture at the 1947 Golden Globes.

#11. The Deer Hunter

IMDb user rating: 8.1
IMDb user votes: 269,925
Release year: 1978
Director: Michael Cimino

The Deer Hunter” is another film about the ravages of war on a soldier’s psyche after the battle is over. This time it’s Vietnam, with Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage playing three deeply scarred men. AFI named it one of the best movies in American history, and Academy Awards voters agreed: They named the movie Best Picture in 1979 and gave Meryl Streep her first Oscar nomination.

#10. Platoon

IMDb user rating: 8.1
IMDb user votes: 334,456
Release year: 1986
Director: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone first made his mark as a major director with this story of an ill-prepared platoon during the Vietnam War. The first of Stone’s Vietnam trilogy“Heaven & Earth” and “Born on the Fourth of July” round out the trio“Platoon” is an anti-war movie that shows the horrific side of combat. The cast features Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, and Charlie Sheen; the movie went on to win Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars. 

#9. The General

IMDb user rating: 8.2
IMDb user votes: 66,833
Release year: 1926
Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Back in 1926, Buster Keaton co-wrote and co-directed this Civil War silent film, based on a true story about Union spies who steal a man’s locomotive. The film was based on a memoir about an 1862 raid in Georgia when Northern soldiers commandeered a train. AFI has named the film in many of its “best of” lists, including a nomination on their list of America’s Greatest Movies.

#8. The Great Escape

IMDb user rating: 8.2
IMDb user votes: 194,175
Release year: 1963
Director: John Sturges

While it didn’t pick up any major awards, “The Great Escape” has been recognized as one of the greatest war movies of all time. Set in a German POW camp in Poland, it tells a story of a multinational group of high-level military prisoners that make a concerted effort to escape. Steve McQueen leads the international cast filled with amazing actors like James Garner, James Coburn, and Richard Attenborough.

#7. Gone with the Wind

IMDb user rating: 8.2
IMDb user votes: 250,340
Release year: 1939
Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood

At almost four hours long, “Gone with the Wind” is a sprawling epic film about the downfall of a well-to-do southern family. Set in Georgia during the Civil War, the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel set all kinds of box office records. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh starred in the picture that eventually took home 10 Oscars in 1940, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Actress in a Leading Role. AFI listed it as #6 on a list of best American movies of all time.

#6. Hacksaw Ridge

IMDb user rating: 8.2
IMDb user votes: 321,804
Release year: 2016
Director: Mel Gibson

Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” tells the story of an pacifist American army medic in World War II—who serves without a weapon and vows to never hurt or kill an enemy soldier. Andrew Garfield plays the lead in the movie, which is based on the 2004 documentary “The Conscientious Objector.” While it didn’t win any major awards, the movie was nominated for Best Motion Picture at both the Oscars and Golden Globes.

#5. Full Metal Jacket

IMDb user rating: 8.3
IMDb user votes: 570,689
Release year: 1987
Director: Stanley Kubrick

The penultimate film of Stanley Kubrick’s career, “Full Metal Jacket” details the process of a Marine from boot camp through his combat deployment in Vietnam. As opposed to the war movies of the mid-20th century, this film paints war as an excruciating ordeal that can barely be survived. Matthew Modine stars alongside Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Baldwin, and R. Lee Ermey.

#4. Inglourious Basterds

IMDb user rating: 8.3
IMDb user votes: 1,046,261
Release year: 2009
Directors: Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth

While it’s not rooted in reality, per se, this impactful Quentin Tarantino movie tells the story of a revenge plot against the Nazis with Jewish soldiers taking the lead. Brad Pitt stars, with Christoph Waltz stealing the show as a Nazi colonel trying to stop the soldiers from achieving their goals. The film did extremely well at the box office and earned a variety of Oscar nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and more.

#3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

IMDb user rating: 8.4
IMDb user votes: 394,181
Release year: 1964
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Considered one of the best films of all time, this Kubrick classic is a satire on war and nuclear oblivion—and the only film on this list to focus on the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Peter Sellers and George C. Scott star in the rare comedy of Kubrick’s canon. While it didn’t win any Academy Awards, it was nominated in all of the major categories in 1965.

#2. Apocalypse Now

IMDb user rating: 8.5
IMDb user votes: 517,202
Release year: 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

The cast alone is reason enough to watch this exotically dark war film, with Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and Marlon Brando all taking turns wowing the audience. Coppola had already earned acclaim as the director of “The Godfather,” and “Apocalypse Now” solidified his reputation as an A-list director. Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” but set during the Vietnam War, the film involves an Army captain that’s sent to Cambodia to remove a rogue officer who has taken over a local tribe.

#1. Saving Private Ryan

IMDb user rating: 8.6
IMDb user votes: 1,034,061
Release year: 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg

The second Spielberg film to make the list, “Saving Private Ryan” stars Tom Hanks as the leader of a World War II Army unit on a search and rescue mission. The group—played by an top-notch ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, and Ed Burns—is tasked with going behind enemy lines to save a soldier whose brothers have already lost their lives to the war. The film went on to earn five Academy Awards, including Spielberg’s most recent Best Director honor.