It’s tough to make an objective list of the best of anything, especially when it comes to art or media. I obviously can’t make a definitive list of the best war movies for you, but I can make a list of the best ones for me that you should obviously agree with. Just to make it a bit more interesting, there are a few TV shows that bear mentioning as well.
“Generation Kill” holds a special place in my heart. It premiered as an HBO miniseries in July of 2008. I left for boot camp on July 28th, 2008. It was a big deal for me, and it told the story of the United States Marine Corps and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I couldn’t truly appreciate Generation Kill until after being in the Marine Corps for a few years, though.
This is one of the best war movies and TV shows ever made and without question, not just because it’s a great show, but because it portrays the Marine Corps very accurately. It does an amazing job of portraying the culture of the Corps, from the lower enlisted conversations to the upper enlisted’s seemingly insane attention to regulation even in a time of war. It’s a fantastic watch if you want to see what the Marine Corps is all about.
There is lots to love about “1917.” They have a unique storytelling method making the movie look like one long total shot, although it’s not truly one shot (the story does cut to black once). Still, it’s impressively shot, well-acted, and not the type of played-out war story full of glory or hoorah.
“1917” is one of the best war movies because it’s not a huge, epic story. The film follows two lower enlisted men tasked with delivering a message to a Colonel. It’s what happens to the two men along the way that makes it so endearing to me. It’s not over-the-top action or these huge heroics. The men are heroic for sure, but it’s grounded.
Band of Brothers / The Pacific
I’m combining these two for good reason. HBO might as well be the war miniseries channel for me. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg made these two amazing series based on books written by the veterans who were really there, giving these shows a realistic undertone that’s hard to beat. Both of these series do an amazing job of showing the hardship soldiers faced in World War II; the daily fight for survival combined with tons of boredom and the occasional levity.
I have tons of reasons to love these shows. They are well made, well-acted, filmed well, and mix brutality with humor in a realistic way. It shows that glory doesn’t feel all that glorious in the moment. You can’t make a list of the best war movies and TV shows and leave these two off.
I can’t attest to the accuracy of tank warfare in “Fury,” but I can attest to some of the more interesting accuracies of the movie. What “Fury” gets right is the intimacy between men at war. They are a family, but they don’t necessarily always like each other. They are forced to be together, so they work together and bond regardless of their differences.
Fury also gets how it is to be the new guy in a bonded team. Poor Norman gets tasked with being a replacement on a tank of men who’ve been through hell together. He has to earn his place and eventually does.
Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket is a very effective war movie. It completely deconstructs the romance of war and shows that it isn’t a glorious John Wayne movie, but rather a brutal and violent thing. The movie’s first half encompass Marine boot camp accurately, and latter half offers the same degree of honesty about the troop’s deployment to Vietnam. You can’t join the Marine Corps and not watch the boot camp sections over and over again.
It’s pretty dang accurate, minus the assaults. Did it happen in the old Corps? Sure, but it’s gone now and for a good reason. Full Metal Jacket offers you an alternative to the heroic war film. It shows violence, confusion, apathy and doesn’t treat the viewer like an idiot. It’s one of the best war movies, even if it’s very clearly anti-war. After all, war is never a good thing.
Saving Private Ryan
On the flip side of Full Metal Jacket, we have “Saving Private Ryan. This movie gives you the brutality and truth about war. It doesn’t package it into an affair about heroism and honor. However, just as in real life, the men portrayed are often heroic and honorable. At the same time, it shows how the relationships between a squad of men are affected when they’re tasked with carrying out a mission they don’t believe in.
It portrays the struggle of leadership, as well as how hard it is for a new guy to join a squad of experienced soldiers. It wraps up the war experience from a multitude of angles, and while the film focuses on a group of Army Rangers, I think a wide variety of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen can appreciate it. The film’s Omaha Beach opening is a stark reminder of what the men of World War 2 faced. It’s hard to watch, and it should be. It’s easily one of the best war movies and war stories ever told.
Black Hawk Down
“Black Hawk Down” finds a way to combine the on-the-ground stories of dozens of soldiers while telling a story bigger than just the men involved. It’s tough to balance an overhead view of a massive conflict with the stories of the men fighting it, but somehow “Black Hawk Down” pulls it off.
It tells the story of Operation Gothic Serpent and the men involved. They range from a fresh boot PFCs (Privates First Class) to experienced Delta Force operators and pilots of the 160th SOAR. The film is action-packed but doesn’t revel in violence. The mixture of action, horror, brutality, and random levity makes it a realistic war story.
“13 Hours” is one of the best war movies around, even if it doesn’t take place in a war and technically isn’t about the troops. The security force portrayed are all veterans, but are private employees tasked with protecting CIA assets. This film is based on real accounts of events that happened at the CIA Annex and Ambassador’s compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.
It’s a story about a group of men who are dealt a crummy hand and must persevere against all odds. The film is surprisingly well done for a Michael Bay project and shows a team of very different men coming together in defense of each other and the men and women they are tasked to protect. It’s a thrilling film that does a great job of mixing levity, action, and drama.
The Great Escape
Don’t let the modernity of my list of best war movies fool you, there are plenty of classics I like too. One of my favorites is “The Great Escape.” It’s a World War II movie staring actors who’d mostly served in that very war. This includes Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Donald, Richard Attenborough, and many more. They certainly lend a bit of authenticity to the film.
It’s also a bit lighthearted, and you really cheer for the allied forces and their escape plans. It comes off as somewhat mischievous. Although, there are scenes that switch, and the movie becomes deadly serious. The plan goes through, and of the 76 men, 50 die, and only three escape. In the end, you’re asked, “Was it worth it?” It’s up to you to decide.
One of the best war movies in recent history has been “The Outpost.” This movie tells the true story of Combat Outpost Keating in Northern Afghanistan. It’s located in a remote Hindu Kush valley and was often thought of as a death trap. Keating would be the site of the Battle of Kamdesh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Global War on Terror.
“The Outpost” isn’t on the same level as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Full Metal Jacket.” However, this movie stresses me out. My heart raced watching it, especially in the combat scenes. I related to the men at war and to the depiction of the war in Afghanistan. This might have blinded me, but it’s tough not to suggest this film to other OEF vets.
Your Best War Movies
I’ve shared what I think are the best war movies and TV shows, and now I invite you to do the same. There are plenty of choices, and I know I’ve likely left some off the list. If you have suggestions for the next war flick I should watch, drop them below.