War Films Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The following films are important in the study of military history.

The following films are important in the study of military history. They are selected for their value in representing the conflict and/or the period in question, and they are arranged in roughly chronological subsections, within which they are arranged alphabetically by title. An * (asterisk) denotes a foreign production; a ^ (caret) denotes a television production.

Ancient GreeceAlexander

Released: 2004

Alexander the Great began his conquest of the known world in 334 b.c.e. His Asian campaign, which pitted his Macedonian army against Persians, Bactrians, Scythians, and East Indians, lasted until 326 b.c.e. Unfortunately, of the myriad battles and sieges he fought, Alexander depicts only two: Gaugamela, Battle of (2210 b.c.e.) Gaugamela (331 b.c.e. ) and Hydaspes River, Battle of (326 b.c.e.) Hydaspes River (326 b.c.e. ). The decision to emphasize Alexander’s personal life robs the film of much of its value as a war film; however, there are few other films about the campaigns of Alexander. The film is successful in accurately portraying the scale of the massive Battle of Gaugamela, arguably Alexander’s most important victory, while close-up shots are excellent in portraying the Macedonian Phalanx;Macedonian phalanx in battle, as well as the extent to which Alexander relied on his cavalry.Alexander (film) Greece;films about

The 300 Spartans

Released: 1962

In 480 b.c.e., during the Second Greco-Persian War, three hundred Spartan warriors under King Leonidas held off the advancing Persian army of Xerxes at the Thermopylae, Battle of (480 b.c.e.)Battle of Thermopylae (480 b.c.e.). While much older than the more recent release of 300 (2006), The 300 Spartans is much more objective in its portrayal of both the battle and the two armies involved (although neither film makes mention of the Spartan enslavement of the Helots, while at the same time depicting the battle as one of freedom versus slavery). The more recent film has a better depiction of phalanx warfare, as well as an explanation of the Spartan agoge and warrior culture, but its depiction of the Persians as beasts and demons makes The 300 Spartans a better choice.300 Spartans, The (film)[three hundred spartans]

Ancient RomeSpartacus <b>and</b> Gladiator

Released: 1960 and 2000 respectively

Taken together, these films provide an accurate depiction of the Roman legion and Roman warfare. Though the former is primarily fiction and the latter is based on the Servile War, Third (73-71 b.c.e.)Third Servile War (73-71 b.c.e.), each nicely complements the other. Gladiator’s opening battle scene shows the Roman legion in action up close, while the battle scene at the end of Spartacus shows an absolutely astounding portrayal of legion tactics and maneuvers from a distance. In addition to their depictions of warfare, both go into some detail in portraying the politics of Rome and, of course, the role of Roman blood sports. Which film is superior is a matter of preference.Spartacus (film) Gladiator (film) Rome;films about

Middle Ages and CrusadesAlexander Nevsky*

Released: 1938

The Ice, Battle of the (1242)Battle of the Ice (also known as the Battle of Lake Peipus) took place in 1242. It was fought between the Teutonic KnightsTeutonic Knights and the Republic of Novgorod as part of the northern CrusadesCrusades. Nevsky, AlexanderNevsky, AlexanderAlexander Nevsky led the Novgorod army to victory against the invading Teutons on the frozen lake. The climactic scene comes when the weight of armored knights becomes too much for the ice to bear and the Teutons break through, drowning under the ice. This film, a Soviet production, is not only a masterful piece of Propaganda;film aspropaganda but also one of the first epic war movies. It is a useful film both because of the period it depicts and because of the period that created it.Alexander Nevsky (film) Middle Ages;films about


Released: 1995

Mel Gibson’s film about the life of William Wallace is both a blessing and a curse. Historically speaking, Braveheart is plagued with many significant inaccuracies, something Gibson acknowledged as necessary in order to enhance cinematic value; however, Braveheart’s numerous battle scenes Stirling Bridge, Battle of () Falkirk, Battle of (1298) Bannockburn, Battle of (1314) (Stirling Bridge, 1297; Falkirk, 1298; and Bannockburn, 1314) are massive, intense, and thoroughly engaging. They also provide a depiction of a major turning point in military history: the use of Pikes pikes by infantry to defeat charging cavalry. Braveheart is a good visual supplement for study of the Scottish Wars of Independence Scottish Wars of Independence.Braveheart (film)

Henry V

Released: 1989

On Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415, Henry VHenry V (king of England)[Henry 05]Henry V of England took the field against a French army twice as large and made up of mounted knights, yet at the end of the day the English had won a decisive victory. The Agincourt, Battle of (1415)Battle of Agincourt, as it is known, is one of the most important battles in history because it demonstrated that, armed with Longbowslongbows, peasant infantry could defeat cavalry, thus threatening the social hierarchy of Europe. The entire film traces the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and the battle’s significance. Though the battle scene is only a fraction of the film, it aptly depicts the impact of both the longbow and the thick mud that covered the field and hindered the French against their lighter-armored opponents. Because the film is based on Shakespeare’s play and follows it closely, the language will be difficult to follow for some. Kenneth Branaugh (Henry V) and his fellow actors, however, bring both language and action to life.Henry V (film)[Henry 05 film]

Kingdom of Heaven

Released: 2005

Beginning in 1095, the Crusades;films aboutCrusades served as a centuries-spanning source of conflict between Christian and Muslim. In 1187, SaladinSaladin (sultan of Egypt and Syria)Saladin the Saracen laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, which was defended by an army under the command of Balian of IbelinBalian of IbelinBalian of Ibelin. Kingdom of Heaven tells of Balian’s rise to the status of noble and Crusader, his journey to the Holy Land, and his unsuccessful defense of Jerusalem. The film provides a nice visual portrayal of medieval warfare, especially siegecraft, and reveals some of the complex politics involved in the governance of the Crusader states.Kingdom of Heaven (film)

The Messenger

Released: 1999Messenger, The (film)

Joan of Joan of ArcJoan of ArcArc is one of the most famous individuals in French history. Her victory at Orléans, Battle of (1429)Orléans in 1429 marked a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453)Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France. The Messenger not only provides a brief but adequate background to the Hundred Years’ War, along with good visuals for medieval warfare and siegecraft (particularly the use of the Culverins culverin), but also explores Joan’s mentality, visions, and belief that she was chosen by God to push the English out of France.

Feudal JapanThe Last Samurai

Released: 2003Japan;films aboutLast Samurai, The (film)

This film isSamurai;films abouta double-edged sword. On one side, it is an excellent portrayal of the Japanese transition from feudal warfare and weapons to those of the modern age, intermixing the social, military, and political consequences of the transition. The film’s portrayal of the Bushidō (Japanese warrior code)Japanese warrior code of bushidō and its many battle scenes are tremendous; however, the portrayal of the opposing sides is too skewed (as in The Patriot). The Japanese samurai and peasants are shown to have had a perfect life until those awful, modernizing Western nations came along. However, if one can look past the revisionist history, the film has a lot to offer.


Released: 1985Ran (film)

Ran Japan;medieval is an excellent film for bringing feudal Japanese warfare to life. The film offers excellent visuals, both in its epic battle scenes and in its beautiful costumes. The battle scenes, though sometimes gory to the point of being comedic, accurately depict the formations, tactics, and weapons of the Japanese warlords, in particular their use of the Harquebuses;Japanese harquebus. The introduction of Firearms;Japanese firearms is a pivotal point in military history, and the film shows why. Ran is also useful in depicting the Samurai;films about samurai warrior code of Bushidō (Japanese warrior code) bushidō. The film’s only real drawback is that it is based on William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605-1606) and therefore is not historically based.

Thirty Years’ WarAlatriste

Released: 2006

In the most expensive Spanish-language production to date, based on the series of novels by Aventuras del Capitán Alatriste, Las (Pérez-Reverte)Arturo Pérez-Reverte Las aventuras del Capitán Alatriste (1997-2006; the adventures of Captain Alatriste), a quarter century of the seventeenth century Spanish Empire and religious wars are depicted, including the Rocroi, Battle of (1643) Battle of Rocroi (1643).Alatriste (film) Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);films

The Last Valley

Released: 1970Last Valley, The (film)

Despite its enormous importance to history, the Thirty Years’ War remains a scantly used setting for war films. The Last Valley is one of the few existing films to be set during the war, and although there are no epic battle scenes, the film provides a good visual context for the viewer and does contain one battle scene, which provides a basic depiction of seventeenth century warfare. Additionally, the complexity of the political and religious aspects of the war, especially religious zeal, are nicely conveyed through the interaction and dialogue of the characters.

English Civil WarsCromwell

Released: 1970English Civil Wars (1642-1651);films aboutCromwell (film)

England is locked in civil war. Forces loyal to King Charles I fight against the armies of Parliament, led by Cromwell, OliverCromwell, OliverOliver Cromwell. This film covers the entirety of the war, from its earliest causes clear through to the execution of Charles and beginning of the Interregnum. Its numerous battle scenes are impressive both in scale and in detail, showing the pike-and-shot tactics of the time period. The largest battle scene depicts the Naseby, Battle of (1645)Battle of Naseby (1645) and the Loyalist defeat at the hands of the New Model Army (another important aspect of the war that is treated in adequate detail in the film).

French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War)The Last of the Mohicans

Released: 1992 French and Indian War (1754-1763);films aboutSeven Years’ War (1756-1763);films aboutNative Americans;films aboutLast of the Mohicans, The (film)

Based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans is set during the Seven Years’ War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). The plot is set in the American colonies and revolves around the successful French Fort William Henry, Siege of (1757) siege of Fort William Henry (1757) and the subsequent massacre of the retreating British troops by some of France’s Indian allies. Containing battle and siege scenes, The Last of the Mohicans vividly portrays colonial-era warfare. The ambush scene near the end of the film is especially useful in illustrating the differences between the unconventional tactics employed by the Indians and their effectiveness against traditional European-style fighting. The only drawback is that it covers only the war in the colonies when the war was truly global.

American RevolutionApril Morning

Released: 1988American Revolution (1775-1783);films aboutApril Morning (film)

The film adaptation of Fast, HowardFast, HowardHoward Fast’s novel, this better-than-average portrayal of the beginning of the war depicts a boy’s coming-of-age as the colonists stand up to the British on Lexington Green.

Drums Along the Mohawk

Released: 1939Drums Along the Mohawk (film)

Newlyweds settle in the Mohawk Valley just as the revolution is erupting, and the young husband goes off to war; the film ends on a bright note with the birth of a new nation. Though a fictionalized and sentimental chronicle, this classic, directed by John Ford, offers a rich depiction of frontier life during the war. Props had to be made from scratch, and many are true to historic detail. Flintlock muskets, however, were those actually used during the era–the prop department tracked them down in Ethiopia, where they had been used to fight the Italians during World War II.

John Adams^

Released: 2008John Adams (miniseries)

Based on the book by David McCullough, this acclaimed biographical television miniseries (HBO) chronicles Adams’s role as Founding Father, including the Revolutionary War period, beginning with the Boston Massacre.

Johnny Tremain

Released: 1957Johnny Tremain (film)

The first adaptation of Esther Forbes’s novel portrays the beginning of the American Revolution from the perspective of a young man whose views on the war change as he evolves into a revolutionary. Emphasizes the human perspectives on the war, from both sides.

The Patriot

Released: 2000Patriot, The (film)

As a film about the course and causes of the American Revolution (1775-1783), The Patriot falls flat. It is too critical of the British, too praising of the colonists, too focused on the southern theater of war, and too idealistic in its depiction of race relations and slavery. However, the film is accurate in its portrayal of the military aspects of the war, particularly the difficulties of the Continental Army in maintaining adequate numbers and discipline. While the character of Benjamin Martin is so perfect that he is unbelievable, he is loosely modeled after the real soldier Francis Marion. Additionally, the scenes of the Camden, Battle of (1780) Battles of Camden (1780) and Guilford Courthouse, Battle of (1781) Guilford Courthouse (1781) are excellent portrayals of the traditional close-order formations and tactics used by European armies in the colonial era. The Camden scene also shows how cavalry are effectively used to break a wavering line and run down the fleeing troops.


Released: 19721776 (film)[seventeen seventy six]

The film version of the stage musical, depicting the Founding Fathers and America’s first congress.

Napoleonic WarsMaster and Commander

Released: 2003Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);films aboutMaster and Commander (film)

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Master and Commander explores the Naval warfare;films about war at sea with a twist; it is the British vessel that is at a disadvantage in size and armament and must rely on the skill and wit of its crew to defeat the French. Although the story is fictional, it is excellent in its portrayal of naval warfare in the Napoleonic era, as well as depicting and explaining every aspect of life at sea, from ship conditions and nautical terminology (for example, why speed at sea is measured in knots) to maritime medicine and class distinction.

Voyna i mir (war and peace)

Released: 1967Voyna i mir (film)

In 1812, Napoleon led his Grande Armée into Russia; it returned later that year in pieces. Both the United States and the Soviet Union produced epic films based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), but the 1956 American version, in limiting the film’s duration (though it is still more than three hours long), also limits its depiction of key battles such as those at Austerlitz and Borodino. The 1967 Soviet version requires a full day to watch, but it is more comprehensive and detailed in explaining the history behind Napoleon’s fatal invasion of Russia and allows the story of the breaking of Napoleon to be told by the country that broke him.


Released: 1970Waterloo (film)

The Waterloo, Battle of (1815)last battle of the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo (1815) pitted the French under Napoleon against the British and Prussians under the Wellington, duke ofWellington, duke of (Arthur Wellesley)duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley) and Blücher, Gebhard Leberecht vonBlücher, Gebhard Leberecht vonGebhard Leberecht von Blücher. The film begins with Napoleon’s return from exile and ends almost immediately after the battle. The first hour sets the stage for the battle. The remaining half of the film is devoted entirely to the battle itself and presents it on a scale that is worthy of its subject. Waterloo is fantastic for showing the battle on a remarkable scale (using twenty thousand extras to flesh out the armies); one particular scene beautifully shows the use of the infantry square as a defense against cavalry.

Texas War of IndependenceThe Alamo

Released: 2004Alamo, The (film) Texas War of Independence (1835-1836);films about

In 1836, Santa Anna, Antonio López deSanta Anna, Antonio López deAntonio López de Santa Anna’s Mexican army besieged the tiny garrison of Texans and Tejanos at the Alamo. Although the battle ended in defeat for the defenders, it has become a famous battle in Texas and American history as a symbol of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. A 1960 version starring John Wayne remained the only film dedicated to the Alamo for more than forty years; however, the film’s length, gross inaccuracies and exaggerations, and the fact that the climactic battle scene occupied only a small portion of the film’s three-hour duration makes Ron Howard’s 2004 release a better choice, though not perfect. Additionally, Howard’s version carries the story through to the pivotal Battle of San Jacinto (1836).

American Indian WarsGeronimo^

Released: 1993Native Americans;films aboutAmerican Indians;films aboutGeronimo (film)

With the Louisiana Purchase (1803)Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and victory in the Mexican War (1846-1848)Mexican War in 1848, the United States achieved its dream of stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific; however, as settlers moved west, the conflict with the Indian tribes–a conflict that began with initial colonization–flared up again. During the Indian Wars, no Indian warrior became more notorious than the Apache warrior Geronimo. Many films and documentaries have been made about Geronimo; famously, the 1962 version starring Chuck Connors as Geronimo had no Native Americans in the cast. This 1993 television release did feature Native Americans and offers the best explanation for Geronimo’s motivations and actions.

The Opium WarsLin Tze-hsu (the opium war)

Released: 1959Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860);films aboutLin Tze-hsu (film)[Lin Tzehsu]

This film depicts the events leading up to, and the initial stages of, the conflict between Great Britain and imperial China known as the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860)First Opium War (1839-1842) and is a valuable tool for three reasons: First, it was the only feature film about the Opium War for nearly fifty years (until the release of Yapian zhanzheng in 1997); second, it is a Chinese film and thus tells the story from a non-Western perspective; third and most important, the film was made shortly after the communist takeover of China and is a blatantly anti-West, anticapitalist, and anti-imperialist Propaganda;film as propaganda film, ending on a victorious note for the Chinese and not mentioning the eventual British victory. The film is useful in teaching about the time it was made, the time it portrays, and the concept that history, particularly military history, can be written differently depending on one’s perspective.

Crimean WarThe Charge of the Light Brigade

Released: 1968Crimean War (1853-1856);films aboutCharge of the Light Brigade, The (film)

Far superior to the 1936 Hollywood production of the same name (in terms of both historical accuracy and overall presentation), this film portrays the disastrous British cavalry attack known as the Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place at the Balaclava, Battle of (1854)Battle of Balaclava (1854) during the Crimean War, in which the British charged a fortified Russian artillery position, suffering casualties of nearly 50 percent. The battle, and the characters best associated with it (Lord Cardigan and Lord Raglan in particular), are wonderfully brought to life. The only drawbacks to the film are its abrupt ending, which comes just moments after the attack, and the numerous Monty Python-esque animation scenes that harm the film’s authority by making it appear comic.

American Civil WarThe Birth of a Nation

Released: 1915American Civil War (1861-1865);films aboutBirth of a Nation, The (film)

D. W. Griffith’s epic film about the reconstructed South and the origins of the Ku Klux KlanKu Klux Klan is as impressive as it is controversial. The impressiveness of the opening battle scene is rivaled only by the film’s gross misrepresentations of the Klan’s heroism and the beastliness of the freed slaves. This film is included on the list because of its impact at the time of its release more than its representation of war. The Birth of a Nation was a film that affected society at the time of its release by rewriting history. It stands today as an example of the power that film has to influence the course of history as well as our remembrance of it.

The Civil War^

Released: 1990Civil War, The (documentary series)

Perhaps the definitive Civil War documentary, Burns, KenBurns, KenKen Burns’s meticulous compilation of documents, photographs, traditional music, letters, and history brings the full extent of the war–from battles to personal stories to impact on Native Americans–alive using primary sources. Nine parts comprise hours of historical detail on the seemingingly endless course of the war, humanized and brought to life.


Released: 1993Gettysburg (film)

The Gettysburg, Battle of (1863)Battle of Gettysburg (1863) was the largest battle of the Civil War. Gettysburg devotes four hours entirely to the battle, from the initial skirmish just west of Gettysburg to Robert E. Lee’s exclamation, “It’s all my fault.” The attention to detail and historical accuracy makes this an excellent film for anyone interested in the subject, though it is rather lengthy; however, several key events in the battle (the defense of Little Round Top and Pickett’s charge, for example) receive special attention and round out the film nicely.


Released: 1989Glory (film)

After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1863)Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Union Army allowed African Americans to join the Union fight in the American Civil War (1861-1865). The first all-black unit in the army was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts RegimentFifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment under the command of Colonel Shaw, Robert GouldShaw, Robert GouldRobert Gould Shaw. Beginning with a scene of the Antietam, Battle of (1862)Battle of Antietam (1862), Glory tells the story of the Fifty-fourth from its creation to its brave but disastrous attack on Fort Wagner. Not only is the film’s subject significant, but its battle scenes illustrate the ferocity of Civil War combat, especially hand-to-hand fighting. The film also clearly explains that although the North allowed blacks in the military, there was still much racial tension between blacks and Northern whites.

Gone with the Wind

Released: 1939Gone with the Wind (film)

In terms of its contribution to film history, Gone with the Wind, America’s first epic in color and the most popular film in American history, is a masterpiece. In regard to historical representation, the film is both a blessing and a curse. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel of the same name, Gone with the Wind is the perfect film for depicting white society in the antebellum South; however, its portrayal of slavery and the causes and conduct of the Civil War is highly skewed. Like The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind is an excellent example of how film can rewrite the past, and its popularity reveals the extent to which the rewriting of history can be accepted.

Zulu WarZulu

Released: 1964Zulu War (1879);films aboutZulu (film)

After Africa;films aboutthe disastrous defeat at Isandhlwana, Battle of (1879)Isandhlwana (1879), the British troops in southern Africa braced for a final knockout blow at the small outpost of Rorke’s Drift, Battle of (1879)Rorke’s Drift. Over the course of two days (January 22-23, 1879), the small garrison of around 150 British successfully held off an army of more than four thousand Zulu. In making his argument for a “western way of war,” Victor Davis Hansen pointed to the Battle of Rorke’s Drift as an example of superior discipline in battle. The entire film, but in particular the last battle scene, does an excellent job of showing how discipline, especially the efforts of sergeants and other noncommissioned officers to keep the soldiers from breaking and fleeing, contributed to the British victory.

Boer War“Breaker” Morant*

Released: 1980Boer Wars (1880-1902);films about“Breaker” Morant (film)[Breaker Morant]

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British Empire went to war against Dutch farmers (Boers) in the southern tip of Africa. Because the Boers could not fight toe-to-toe with the British Army, the (second) Boer War (1899-1902) was an unconventional war and required the British to adopt unorthodox tactics in order to defeat the Dutch Kommandos. “Breaker” Morant is based on a true story and, though focusing on a court-martial (meaning the majority of the film is courtroom drama), the events leading up to the courtroom are told in flashbacks that display very well the aspects of the war that made it so unconventional.

Russian Revolution and Civil WarBattleship Potemkin

Released: 1925, as Bronenosets Potyomkin (film) Bronenosets Potyomkin*Battleship Potemkin (film)

In the wake of their disastrous defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russo Japanese War]Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), there was a great deal of social unrest through the Russian Empire. In 1905, sailors aboard the battleship Potemkin rebelled at the horrible conditions they were forced to endure. Director Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government in 1925 to make the film (known in the United States as Battleship Potemkin) as a Propaganda;film as propaganda film. Not only is the film an excellent piece of Soviet propaganda; it also is considered a masterpiece. The scene on the Odessa Steps is considered a landmark scene in the history of film.

Dr. Zhivago

Released: 1965Dr. Zhivago (film)[Doctor Zhivago]

In the last years of World War I, the Russian people revolted against the czar. Following the collapse of the monarchy and withdrawal from World War I, Russia sank into a brutal civil war pitting the Reds (Bolsheviks) against the Whites (Mensheviks), with the majority of the population caught in the middle. Doctor Zhivago, though focusing primarily on a love story rather than political and social events, provides an excellent representation of life in Russia during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Viewers will draw the most from the film if they brush up on early twentieth century Russian history, but even without that effort, the film has much to offer.

World War IAll Quiet on the Western Front

Released: 1930, 1979 (television)World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];films aboutAll Quiet on the Western Front (film)

Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s famous war novel Im Westen nichts Neues (1929), All Quiet on the Western Front is the classic World War I film. Depicting the fighting between the French and the Germans from the German viewpoint, the film not only shows the brutality of trench warfare but also illustrates the patriotic fervor that led millions of young men on both sides to enlist, as well as the disparity between what the German home front was being told and the actual situation. Of the two versions, each has its advantages. The original version follows the novel more precisely and is a film classic, but color film and improved special effects make the 1979 version better for providing a visual of trench warfare on the western front.


Released: 1981Gallipoli (film)

In 1915, the British attempted to break the deadlock of trench warfare in Europe and knock the newly entered Turkey;World War I[World War 01]Turkey out of the war in a single stroke. Soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army CorpsAustralian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) assaulted the Turkish positions at Gallipoli in an attempt to wrest control of the Dardanelles away from Turkey. The film is a bit slow at the beginning but does an excellent job of showing the impossibility of trench warfare and the catastrophic Battle of Gallipoli (1915-1916).

Hell’s Angels

Released: 1930Hell’s Angels (film)[Hells Angels]

Considering the film’s age, Hell’s Angels is a remarkable film. Though incredibly exepensive, director Howard Hughes captured some amazing aerial footage in his filming of Great War dogfights. Most of the scenes involving aircraft are shot with real planes, not models, giving the film enhanced authority and authenticity. The film also illustrates the Zeppelin raids over London, a topic often left out of World War I lectures. The accompanying love story does little to enhance the film, but viewers who stick it out to the end will get to witness a wide-shot aerial battle between the British Royal Flying Corps and the infamous Red Baron’s Flying Circus.

Joyeux Noël* (merry Christmas)

Released: 2005Joyeux Noël (film)[Joyeux Noel]

One of the most remarkable events of World War I took place on Christmas Eve, 1914. The British, French, and German troops in one section of the front put down their weapons and fraternized with the enemy. The Christmas Truce (1914)Christmas Truce, as it was called, witnessed soldiers who only a day before were shooting at each other now sharing family pictures, exchanging gifts, and even kicking around a soccer ball. When news of the unofficial truce reached respective headquarters, it was quickly ended and fighting resumed. The Christmas Truce was never repeated. Joyeux Noël was a collaborative effort of German, French, and British filmmakers to bring to the screen an excellent portrayal of one of the most curious and positive events of the war.

La Grande Illusion*

Released: 1937Grande Illusion, La (film)

Jean Renoir’s classic Antiwar filmsantiwar film is set in World War I. Though there are no battle scenes, the film still portrays the brutal reality of war through the terrible toll it extracts from those who fight it, showing that the “grand illusion” is that war is noble and glorious. Like many other films in this list, La Grande Illusion has been included because of what it says about the time in which it was produced more than about the time depicted in the film. In 1937, Fascist aggression was pushing Europe toward war. Renoir’s film was a reminder of what happened the last time Europe went to war.

Lawrence of Arabia

Released: 1962Lawrence of Arabia (film)

Taking Turkey;World War I[World War 01]Arabs;World War I[World War 01]place in the Middle East during World War I, this film, though long (four hours), brings to life one of the most dynamic and controversial figures of the time period. Lawrence of Arabia is a biography of the wartime career of British officer Lawrence, T. E.Lawrence, T. E. Thomas E. Lawrence. Not only does it depict the guerrilla-style desert warfare between the British, with their Arab allies, and the Turks, but it also explores Lawrence’s attempts at fostering Arab nationalism. The Turkish front was not the decisive theater in the war, but the impact of Lawrence’s actions remains today.

Sergeant York

Released: 1941Sergeant York (film)

Alvin York, AlvinYork, AlvinYork fought with the U.S. Army in the trenches of World War I and distinguished himself by becoming a highly decorated war hero despite being a pacifist and conscientious objector. His most notable achievement (and the climactic scene of the film) was his single-handed capture of 132 German soldiers. Sergeant York is an excellent film, not only because of its subject matter but also because it is a good example of film as Propaganda;film as propaganda. The film was produced in 1941, just when the United States was faced with the possibility of fighting another war in Europe but before Pearl Harbor tipped the scales in favor of intervention. The film portrays a quiet, simple man, wanting only to live in peace but forced to take up arms in defense of freedom.

Spanish Civil WarLand and Freedom

Released: 1995Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);films aboutLand and Freedom (film)

This film is a collaborative effort between the United Kingdom and Spain and depicts the civil war that erupted in Spain between 1936 and 1939. The war was one of political ideology (primarily fascist vs. communist) and as such was incredibly brutal. Not only does the film excellently portray the hatred between the two groups; it also brilliantly illustrates the divisions and dissension within the loyalist force (those opposing Generalissimo Francisco Franco), which contributed a great deal to Franco’s eventual victory. It also includes the International Brigades, another crucial aspect of the Spanish Civil War, by centering the story on the life of a British communist who goes to Spain to fight.

World War IIAction in the North Atlantic

Released: 1943World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];films aboutAction in the North Atlantic (film)

Despite its enormous importance to the war effort, the task of the U.S. Merchant Marine, U.S.Merchant Marine in keeping Britain and the Soviet Union supplied with arms and equipment seldom receives much attention in war films. This film, however, is wholly devoted to the perilous journey across the Submarines;films aboutsubmarine-infested Atlantic Ocean. By 1943, the Atlantic, Battle of the (1943)Battle of the Atlantic was just beginning to turn in favor of the Allies. Action in the North Atlantic, though propagandistic, does a good job of showing the various aspects of the war at sea: secrecy, submarines, the convoy system, depth charges, and liberty ships. It is excellent for showing Submarines;films about antisubmarine warfare.

Band of Brothers^

Released: 2001Band of Brothers (film)

Based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers was an HBO miniseries about the exploits of the 101st Airborne Division[one hundred first] 101st Airborne Division in World War II from basic training to shortly after the war ended. The 101st took part in almost every major battle in the European theater, including Normandy, Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge. The series was enormously successful and is an excellent source because of its comprehensiveness, historical accuracy, and riveting presentation of the use of Paratroopers paratroopers in modern warfare.


Released: 1943Bataan (film)

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was just a part of a massive offensive in the South Pacific that included an attack on the American-controlled Philippines;World War II[World War 02]Philippine islands in 1942. The outnumbered and outgunned garrison retreated to the Bataan Peninsula, where they fought a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful struggle. This was one of the first wartime films made by the United States, and although telling a story with an unhappy ending, Bataan was made to encourage Americans to continue the fight, even when things looked bleak.

Battle of Britain

Released: 1969Battle of Britain (film)

The Britain, Battle of (1940)Battle of Britain (1940) was one of the pivotal battles of World War II. The Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe battled for aerial supremacy over the English Channel. Battle of Britain is a stunning film that not only provides excellent visuals of World War II-era aerial combat but also explains other important aspects of the battle, such as the role of radar and the international squadrons that supplemented the Royal Air Force. (For an excellent film retelling the Battle of Britain from the viewpoint of one of these international squadrons, see the Czech production, 2001’s Dark Blue World). In addition, the film also portrays the devastation of the Blitz, Germany’s switch from military to civilian targets.

Battle of the Bulge

Released: 1965Battle of the Bulge (film)

In the winter of 1944, Germany launched a massive attack Operation Wacht am Rhein(Operation Wacht am Rhein) against the Allies in Western Europe, hoping to turn the tide. The attack faltered and instead of moving the entire front it only pushed through in the center, creating a large bulge, hence the name. The end of the film contains a large Tanks;films abouttank-battle scene that does a good job of showing tank combat. Another important part of the battle, and the film, is the German use of spies to disrupt Allied transportation and communication during the offensive.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Released: 1946Best Years of Our Lives, The (film)

This Psychological effects of warDemobilizationVeteransfilm begins after the war has already ended, so there are no battle scenes, and almost no “action,” yet it is a valuable “war film” because it addresses one of the most important aspects of any war: when Johnny comes marching home. This film tells the story of three different returning soldiers (one Army, one Navy, one Air Force) and shows the trials and difficulties that each has, both physically and mentally, when they try to integrate back into society. Demobilization is an important part of any war, and this is one of the few films devoted entirely to it.

Bridge on the River Kwai

Released: 1957Bridge on the River Kwai (film)

Prisoner-of-war Prisoners of war;films about(POW) films are an essential part of World War II. For the Pacific theater (World War II);films aboutPacific theater, Bridge on the River Kwai and Great Raid, The (film) The Great Raid (2005) focus on POW camps, while Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (film) Empire of the Sun (1987) looks at civilian internment camps. Of these, Bridge on the River Kwai is the best choice, not only because of its good depiction of the brutality of Japanese POW camps but also because of its excellent portrayal of how concepts of right and wrong can be severely skewed in wartime (as exemplified by Alec Guiness’s character, who initially resists the Japanese attempts to put POWs to work and unwittingly ends up fully cooperating in the end).

A Bridge Too Far

Released: 1977Bridge Too Far, A (film)

After the successful D-day landings, Field Marshall Montgomery, Bernard LawMontgomery, Bernard LawBernard Law Montgomery concocted Operation Market Garden (1944)Operation Market Garden, a plan that, if successful, would end the war by Christmas of 1944. The plan was for American and British Paratroopersparatroopers to capture strategic bridges across the major rivers in the Netherlands, paving the way for an invasion of Germany. A Bridge Too Far, based on the book by journalist Cornelius Ryan, is an excellent retelling of the event and includes both the Allied and German perspective. It is one of the standards of World War II films.

<i>The Burmese Harp</i>*

Released: 1956, as Biruma no tategoto (film) Biruma no tategotoBurmese Harp, The (film)

Based on Takeyama, MichioTakeyama, MichioMichio Takeyama’s novel, The Burmese Harp begins in the last days of fighting between the British and Japan;World War II[World War 02] Japanese in World War II. The film is important, not because of the time period it depicts but because of the time period in which it was produced. The film was made shortly after the American occupation ended and portrays the war in Asia from the Japanese perspective. It makes a very clear distinction between the “warmongers” in the army and the majority of Japanese soldiers, who did not want to fight. It is a film that works hard to reverse the warrior image that the Japanese constructed during the war.


Released: 1970Catch-22 (film)[Catch twenty two]

Taking place on the Italian Peninsula in the later years of World War II, Catch-22 is an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel about the American bombing efforts from Italy after the fall of Benito Mussolini. As a sharp criticism of war (Vietnam in particular, with which the film was contemporaneous) and the people who run it, Catch-22 is unconventional and comedic in its portrayal of war and the American military. The absurdity of the characters and events in the film are meant to express the absurdity of war. The very term “catch-22” entered the English vocabulary as a result of Heller’s unorthodox and comedic approach to war criticism.

Das Boot* (the boat)

Released: 1981Boot, Das (film) Das Boot (film)

Whereas Action in the North Atlantic tells the story of the war in the Atlantic from the perspective of the U.S. Merchant Marine, Das Boot shows the war from the view of the German U-boats[U boats] U-boats that hunted Allied ships from beneath the waves. Wolfgang Peterson’s intention was to make an Antiwar films antiwar film that not only showed the terror of war at sea but also drew clear distinctions between Nazis and Germans. It is an excellent film for showing life and combat onboard a Submarines;films about submarine. The more recent U-571 (film)[U five seventy one] U-571 (2000) is another good film for depicting World War II submarine warfare, but its historical inaccuracies make Das Boot a better choice.


Released: 2008Defiance (film)

An important, though often forgotten, aspect of World War II on the eastern front is the role of the Partisanspartisans. Many bands of these guerrilla fighters, composed of Jews, communists, Eastern Europeans, and other groups deemed “undesirable” or “subhuman” by the Nazis, fought against the Germans for the majority of the war. This is an excellent film for depicting the lives and various difficulties of the partisans in World War II.

The Desert Fox

Released: 1951Desert Fox, The (film)

See “Cold War” section below.

The Great Dictator

Released: 1940Great Dictator, The (film)

Charles Chaplain, CharlesChaplain, CharlesChaplin’s personally funded critique of Nazi Germany appeared on the silver screen only one year after the war in Europe officially began but before the United States’ entry. In typical Chaplin style, the film uses slapstick comedy to attack Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and fascism in general. Although there are no battle scenes, the film is an excellent resource for an illustration of Nazi Germany’s foreign and domestic policies through Chaplin’s unique comedic style.

The Great Escape

Released: 1963Great Escape, The (film)

Films about German Prisoners of war;films aboutprisoner-of-war (POW) camps present an interesting problem. Unlike those depicting Japanese camps, the spectrum for films about German camps (outside Holocaust films) ranges from the adventurous, such as Von Ryan’s Express (1965), to the wildly comedic 1960’s television program Hogan’s Heroes. However, the best choice is The Great Escape. Based on real events, the film depicts the attempt of British and American POWs to stage a massive escape. Though the story does not exactly have a happy ending (few of the men actually succeed), The Great Escape is an excellent film for showing life and conditions in a German POW camp.

The Grey Zone

Released: 2001Grey Zone, The (film)

Though not a war film per se, The Grey Zone depicts the Holocaust as the consequence of combining nationalism, modernity, industrialism, and warfare. No list of war films would be complete without at least one film that addresses the Holocaust, and this one–not Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (film) Schindler’s List (1993)–is the best choice. It is based on the Jewish inmates at Auschwitz who helped run the gas chambers and crematoria in exchange for a few months’ stay of execution. It is the best choice because it is as dramatic and graphic as Schindler’s List, but it explores more of the complex issues related to the Holocaust, such as the fine line between collaboration and survival and other moral questions posed by the Holocaust.

Hadashi no Gen* (barefoot Gen)

Released: 1983Hadashi no Gen (film)

On Nuclear weapons and warfare;films aboutAugust 6, 1945, an Enola Gay (bomber) American B-29, Enola Gay, dropped the world’s first Atomic bomb;films about atomic bomb. The Hollywood production Fat Man and Little Boy (film) Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) retells the story of the bomb’s construction, and many other American films allude to the bomb, but to see a film about the impact of the bomb we must turn to Japanese anime. As the only cartoon on the list, Hadashi no Gen lets viewers experience the bomb, and all the devastation that went along with it, from the eyes of those who experienced it. Written by a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan Hiroshima, the film not only depicts the explosion itself (in graphic detail), but also the unforeseen consequences, such as radiation poisoning, nuclear fallout, and the social chaos that resulted from the weapon that ushered in the nuclear age.


Released: 1957Kanal (film)

In 1944, the German army was in retreat. As the advancing Red Army entered Poland, partisans in the city staged a massive uprising, hoping for help from the approaching Soviets. Unfortunately, the Soviets halted outside Warsaw, allowing the Germans time to crush the uprising. Kanal, a Polish production, is the first film about the uprising (not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (1943) Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943). The film depicts the hopelessness of the struggle as well as the determination of the Poles to fight on, even when defeat is inevitable.

Letters from Iwo Jima <b>and</b> Flags of Our Fathers

Released: Both 2006 Letters from Iwo Jima (film) Flags of Our Fathers (film)

Iwo Pacific theater (World War II);films aboutIwo Jima, Battle of (1945)Jima was the bloodiest battle in United States Marine Corps’ history, waged on one of the last islands to be taken before the Japanese mainland could be invaded. Both the attacking Marines and the Japanese defenders fought tenaciously for control of it. In representing this battle on film, director Clint Eastwood made not one but two films, each telling the story of the fight for Iwo Jima, one film for each side. The two versions ought to be viewed as two halves of the same film. The battle scenes are epic and detailed, showing the brutality that characterized the war in the Pacific, but the films’ greatest contribution is that they show both sides of the same story and demonstrate that history depends on viewpoint.

The Longest Day

Released: 1962Longest Day, The (film)

As the film adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book, The Longest Day rests alongside 1969’s Battle of Britain and 1977’s A Bridge Too Far as the classics of epic World War II films. The film tells the story of Operation Overlord (1944) Operation Overlord (the Normandy invasions, or D day (June 6, 1944) D day), the largest amphibious assault in history, from both the Axis and the Allied sides, leaving out very little detail. The film provides an excellent background to the planning and execution of all facets of the operation, including paratroopers, deception tactics, the role of the weather, and the confusion and weakness of the Axis response.

Memphis Belle

Released: 1990Memphis Belle (film)

Beginning in 1942, the United States Army Air Force took part in the air war against Germany by conducting daylight bombing raids using the B-17 bomber[B 17 bomber]B-17 “Flying Fortress.” Memphis Belle, like many war films, is double-edged. Nearly the entire film is devoted to the actual mission, giving viewers a chance to experience every aspect of a daylight mission from takeoff to touchdown. The disadvantage of the film is that while it claims to be based on a true story, the story has been so altered as to leave only the name of the plane as historically accurate. This is an excellent film for showing an example of the air war, but not for telling the story of the Memphis Belle.


Released: 1976Midway (film)

In June of 1942, Midway, Battle of (1942)the Navies;U.S.Navies;JapaneseAmerican and Japanese navies fought a battle in which neither fleet actually saw the other. The entire engagement was a dual between aircraft launched from carriers just off the coast of the island of Midway. The battle resulted in a resounding victory for the United States and critically crippled the Japanese ability to pursue the war in the South Pacific. Midway is entirely devoted to this pivotal battle and reaffirmed what Pearl Harbor demonstrated: that the aircraft carrier was now the king of the seas. Additionally, the film successfully weaves stock footage into the battle scenes, making them more authoritative.


Released: 1970Patton (film)

General Patton, George S.Patton, George S.George S. Patton was one of the most colorful and controversial figures of World War II. Having fought the Axis powers from Africa all the way to Germany, Patton earned a reputation as one of the best generals of the war. Although the film takes a few liberties here and there, Patton brings to life one of the United States’ most famous military figures through the brilliant performance of George C. Scott. The film portrays Patton’s brilliance in combat, his eccentricities off the battlefield, and his personality and ego clashes with Field Marshall Montgomery, Bernard LawMontgomery, Bernard Law Bernard Law Montgomery.

Roma, città aperta (Rome, open city) <b>and</b> L’Armée des ombres (army of shadows)

Released: 1945 and 1969 respectively Armée des ombres, L’ (film)[Armee des ombres] Roma, città aperta (film)[Roma citta aperta]

After the fall of France in 1940, those men and women who continued to resist both the Germans and the Vichy government formed the MaquisMaquis, the Resistance (World War II)French Resistance (World War II)French Resistance. As an important part of World War II, no film list would be complete without a film about the Resistance. This film, which covers the middle war years when the Resistance was small and particularly vulnerable, provides an excellent illustration of the cloak-and-dagger world in which the Maquis had to operate. Like L’Armée des ombres (1969), Open City is a film about the clandestine resistance efforts in occupied Italy. Though not as famous as the Maquis, the Italian Resistance (World War II) Italian Resistance faced many of the same trials and suffered many of the same pains as the French Resistance.

Saving Private Ryan

Released: 1998Saving Private Ryan (film)

Operation D day (June 6, 1944)Operation Overlord (1944)Overlord was the largest amphibious assault in history and involved American, Canadian, and British troops storming the beaches of northern France, guarded by Germans and Ostbattalionen (conscripts from Eastern Europe). To gain a better understanding of the history surrounding the Allied invasion of Normandy, The Longest Day is the best choice, but Saving Private Ryan, through improved special effects, attention to detail, and stripping away of the “sanitized” depictions of war, portrays the battle so vividly and with such intensity that it not only revolutionized battle scenes but also traumatized many war veterans who saw the film.

Since You Went Away

Released: 1944Since You Went Away (film)

Along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Since You Went Away is a film that reminds its audience that war is not just about “over there.” In many ways this film is simply producer David O. Selznik’s Gone with the Wind retold in a World War II setting. The entire film takes place on the home front and shows what civilians, particularly the Families, psychological impact of war on families of soldiers, must go through in wartime. Although romanticized, the film does address issues such as rationing, women in the war industry, recruitment, scrap metal drives, and the pain of receiving a telegram from the War Department.

Sink the Bismark!

Released: 1960Sink the Bismark! (film)

World War II marked the end of the Battleships;GermanNavies;Germanbattleship’s dominance of the seas with the emergence of the Aircraft carriersaircraft carrier; however, the naval war in the Atlantic had few carriers. The German battleship Bismark (battleship) Bismark threatened to devastate the Allied shipping that was keeping Britain in the war; thus, it became important for the British navy to “sink the Bismark.” Sink the Bismark! is an excellent film for showing pre-carrier warfare and illustrating how navies fought before the advent of the aircraft.

So Proudly We Hail! <b>and</b> Cry Havoc

Released: 1943 and 1947 respectively Cry Havoc and So Proudly We Hail! (film)

The Womenwar brought numerous opportunities for women to challenge traditional stereotypes given them by society, both by working in the war industry at home and by serving in the armed forces abroad as nurses. Both films tell the story of army nurses in the Philippines. As the release dates reveal, not only did these films recognize women in the war effort; they also served to encourage more women to do the same. There are not many other films wholly devoted to women’s wartime service; Cry Havoc and So Proudly We Hail! are as essential to any collection of war movies as women’s efforts were to the war itself.


Released: 1993Stalingrad (film)

The Stalingrad, Siege of (1942-1943)Battle of Stalingrad is arguably the decisive battlefield of World War II. It lasted through the winter of 1942-1943 and saw some of the most intense urban combat of the war as the Germans fought the Soviets for control of the gateway to the Caucasus and the city named for Stalin. By February, 1943, the German army at Stalingrad and thus the war in the east were broken. The German production Stalingrad portrays the battle from the perspective of the Germans who fought it and depicts the bloody fighting and horrible conditions under which they fought.

Talvisota* (the winter war)

Released: 1989Talvisota (film)

Shortly after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the Soviet Union used the nonaggression pact with Germany to launch an invasion of FinlandFinland. For the next two years the Finns fought a desperate and little-known war against the Red Army. The Soviets had such superiority in men and matériel that their victory seemed a foregone conclusion, but to the shock and dismay of the Soviets, the Finnish soldiers succeeded in defending their homeland and won the Winter WarWinter War. Talvisota, a Finnish production, is the first and only major film to depict the war and does so splendidly.

The Thin Red Line

Released: 1998Thin Red Line, The (film)

After Pacific theater (World War II)the Battles of Midway and Coral Sea destroyed Japan’s ability to expand its empire, the United States had the task of rolling back Japanese gains in the Pacific. The Island-hopping campaign (World War II)[Island hopping]“Island-Hopping” campaign began with the attack on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Based on James Joyce’s novel, The Thin Red Line depicts the fight for Guadalcanal and not only is an excellent film for portraying the brutality of the war in the Pacific (as well as atrocities committed by both sides) but also addresses the mentality of the men fighting, showing that soldiers are not simply mindless machines.

Thirty Seconds over Tokyo

Released: 1944Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (film)

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States wanted to take some sort of immediate, punitive action against the Japanese. The result was the Doolittle RaidDoolittle Raid, a bombing raid over Tokyo comprising 16 B-25 “Mitchell” bombers, which would attack the city and then fly to safety in unoccupied China. Although ineffective strategically, the Doolittle Raid was a big morale boost for the United States following the shock of December 7. This film adequately depicts the raid’s planning, training, and execution.

To Hell and Back

Released: 1955To Hell and Back (film)

Murphey, AudieMurphey, AudieAudie Murphey was America’s most decorated soldier in World War II and in many respects is to World War II what York, AlvinYork, AlvinAlvin York was to World War I. Murphy rose from private to lieutenant and earned almost every medal the United States had to offer. The film, based on his war autobiography of the same name, follows Murphy’s life from his adolescence through the end of the war. The battle scenes are good, but not spectacular. This movie is included, like Patton and Sergeant York, because of the importance of the individual to American military history.

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Released: 1970Tora! Tora! Tora! (film)

On December 7, 1941, carrier-based planes of the Japanese Navy laid waste to the American fleet at Pearl Harbor attack (1941)Pearl Harbor. Although the more recent film Pearl Harbor (2001) makes use of computer graphics and better special effects to make a much more action-packed battle scene, Tora! Tora! Tora! is by far the better film for explaining the reasoning, planning, and execution of the attack (and the battle scene is well done). As a collaborative effort between the United States and Japan, the film tells the story from both sides objectively and remains the best film made about the “day of infamy.”

The Tuskegee Airmen^

Released: 1995Tuskegee Airmen, The (film)

Along African AmericansTuskegee Airmenwith women, World War II provided the black community with opportunities to challenge social stereotypes. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black fighter pilots in the U.S. Army Air Force; they saw combat in both North Africa and Italy. Although the only nondocumentary film on the subject, The Tuskegee Airmen is an excellent film for showing the trials and difficulties associated with race relations during the war in general, as well as telling the story of America’s first black fighter squadron.

Der Untergang* (the downfall)

Released: 2004Untergang, Der (film)

In the last days of World War II, Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler retreated into his Berlin bunker to lead the futile last-ditch defense of the city. This film, a German production based on accounts by those who lived in the bunker with Hitler during those last days, is an excellent representation of the final days of the Third Reich as well as an illustration of the devastation of urban combat. Because most of the army had been killed or captured, Berlin’s defenses had to be heavily supplemented by the VolkssturmVolkssturm, the militias made up of teenage boys and old men, and the film nicely illustrates the use of those forces.


Released: 2008Valkyrie (film)

In July of 1944, a small group of Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler’s top officers plotted to kill him. Though this event forms a large part of the film The Desert Fox, Valkyrie is devoted entirely to the planning and failed execution of the attempt. The film does a good job of establishing that the officers involved were motivated, not for any moral concerns, but because they thought Hitler was leading the country to ruin militarily. The film also offers a nice contrast to The Desert Fox, because the two illustrate a long-standing debate over the role of Rommel, ErwinRommel, Erwin Erwin Rommel in the assassination attempt. Desert Fox places him at the center, while Valkyrie makes no mention of him at all.

A Walk in the Sun

Released: 1945Walk in the Sun, A (film)

After Italy;World War II[World War 02]defeating the Germans in Africa, the Allies moved on to Sicily and then the Italian Peninsula, where the fighting bogged down in conditions similar to the trenches of World War I (though in Italy the majority of the Axis forces were German). War has been described as “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” and A Walk in the Sun portrays that beautifully. Opening with a brief battle scene when American forces land on the beaches in Italy, the rest of the film is simply “a walk in the sun” until the final battle scene: an assault on a farmhouse occupied by the Germans.


Released: 2002Windtalkers (film)

As Navajo code talkersCode talkersthe United States continued to fight the Japanese in the Pacific theater (World War II)Pacific, the American military had problems with maintaining security. Japanese intelligence continually broke American radio codes, severely hampering the American effort. To solve the problem, the United States began using Navajo Indians as radio operators to prevent the Japanese from cracking the code. The code talkers played an important part, not only in winning the war, but also in the advancement of race relations back on the home front, and although Windtalkers is not the best film about the war in the Pacific theater, the subject of its plot makes it an important film.

Cold WarThe Day After^

Released: 1983Cold War (1945-1991);films aboutDay After, The (film)

One of the most controversial films of its day, aired on television, The Day After depicts the grim aftereffects of a Nuclear weapons and warfare;films about nuclear bombing in Lawrence, Kansas, at the height of the antinuclear movement that characterized the Cold War period.

The Desert Fox

Released: 1951Desert Fox, The (film)

Erwin Rommel, ErwinRommel, ErwinRommel led the Afrika KorpsAfrika Korps against the British and Americans in North Africa. Although ultimately failing in Africa, Rommel has became a legend both in German and in British and American history, partly because of his skill as a general, partly because of his supposed involvement in the July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The Desert Fox is included because of the time period it represents, rather than the time it depicts. Produced in 1951, The Desert Fox was an early Cold War film. The Soviet Union replaced Nazi Germany as the arch-enemy of the United States, and divided Germany emerged as the likely battleground for a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. This film is an excellent example of the backpedaling that had to be done to turn former World War II enemies into Cold War allies.

Dr. Strangelove

Released: 1964Dr. Strangelove (film)[Doctor Strangelove]

Although completely fictitious, the context and themes of Dr. Strangelove are completely accurate. Just two years before the film’s release, the United States and the Soviet Union came within inches of Nuclear weapons and warfare;films about nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) Cuban Missile Crisis. This film explores the tension and fears of nuclear holocaust while poking fun at the generals and politicians who ultimately made the decisions that would lead to or avert a nuclear war. In playing on the fear of nuclear attack and the impotency of all but a few to do anything about it, director Stanley Kubrick appropriately subtitled his film Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Fail Safe

Released: 1964Fail Safe (film)

Released Nuclear weapons and warfare;films aboutalmost simultaneously with the classic film Dr. Strangelove (whose director, Stanley Kubrick, is said to have complained to studio executives that the nearly identical story line plagiarized his film–and won first release), Fail Safe is the dead-serious counterpart to Kubrick’s eerie send-up, showing U.S. bombers headed toward Russia after a faulty order to drop the nuclear bomb cannot be reversed. The two can be regarded as complementary treatments of a similar scenario, both released only two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis–but the tone of Fail Safe is unrelentingly grim and chilling.

The Hunt for Red October

Released: 1990Hunt for Red October, The (film)

The Submarines;films aboutstory line of The Hunt for Red October follows a high-ranking Soviet officer’s attempts to defect to the United States and the United States’ attempt to prevent the defection from leading to open war. Like the later production Crimson Tide (film) Crimson Tide (1995), The Hunt for Red October has a wholly fictitious story line, but both films are excellent for showing life on a submarine and portraying modern naval warfare. The much later K-19: The Widowmaker (film)[k nineteen] K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) is also a good submarine film and gives the Soviet perspective in a more historically based setting.

The Missiles of October

Released: 1974Missiles of October, The (docudrama)

This 150-minute docudrama details the events leading up to and during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. It is based on Robert F. Kennedy’s book Thirteen Days (Kennedy, R. F.) Thirteen Days (1969).

Thirteen Days

Released: 2000Thirteen Days (film)

For two weeks in October of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came as close as they ever would come to starting World War III over the Soviet positioning of missiles in Cuba. Thirteen Days tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) Cuban Missile Crisis from the initial discovery of the missile sites to the peaceful resolution and does an excellent job of conveying the tension of the crisis and creating an engaging film without making too many sacrifices to historical accuracy. Although bearing the same title as Robert F. Kennedy’s book, this film is based on the book Kennedy Tapes, The (May and Zelikow) The Kennedy Tapes (1997), by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.

Korean WarThe Bridges at Toko-Ri

Released: 1954Korean War (1950-1953);films aboutBridges at Toko-Ri, The (film)

Although Airpower;Korean WarGermany began experimenting with jet aircraft during World War II, jets did not come into their own until the Korean War five years later. The Bridges at Toko-Ri was the first film in which American moviegoers would have been able to see jets on the silver screen, introducing them to modern aerial combat as well as a detailed depiction of launching and landing jets from Aircraft carriers aircraft carriers. However, being first does not also mean being the best: Top Gun (film) Top Gun (1986) is much better at depicting aerial combat using modern jet aircraft.


Released: 1970M*A*S*H (film)[mash]

Set during the Korean War, M*A*S*H is a unique war film. First, it takes place in a Medical care;Korean War field hospital and portrays the battles waged in the operating room after the battles on the frontline end. Battlefield medicine is an essential part of any war, but M*A*S*H is one of the only films dedicated to it. Second, as a comedy, M*A*S*H belongs to that very small group of films that critique war through humor and satire; third, the film introduces the Helicopters;in film[film] helicopter, a new technology at the time; finally, it is a product and reflection of its time. Written, filmed, and released while the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War, the movie, later to become a long-running television series, can be seen as much as a commentary on Vietnam as a show set in the Korean conflict.

Retreat, Hell! <b>and</b> Pork Chop Hill

Released: 1952 and 1959 respectivelyPork Chop Hill (film) Retreat, Hell! (film)

The Korean War matched U.N. forces (predominantly South Korean and American) against communist North Korea and its Chinese allies. In choosing a film about the experience of American soldiers in combat, the choice is a toss-up between Pork Chop Hill and Retreat, Hell! Historically speaking, Retreat, Hell! is a better film for showing the course of the war from General MacArthur, DouglasMacArthur, Douglas Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon to the Battle at the Chosen Reservoir, but in regard to battle scenes, Pork Chop Hill is the better choice. The best option would be to watch these two together, thus combining the strategic overview with combat close-up.

Taegukgi hwinallimyeo*

Released: 2004 Taegukgi hwinallimyeo (film)

The Korean War pitted the North Koreans and their Chinese allies against United Nations forces consisting of South Koreans, Americans, British, Canadians, and a half dozen other countries. What makes this film so essential is that it portrays the war as a Korean war. Most other major films about the Korean War portray the American effort against the Chinese. This film however, portrays the film as a civil war and does an excellent job, not only in utilizing the filming techniques that made the battle scenes of Saving Private Ryan so surreal but also in making an Antiwar films antiwar statement by emphasizing the brutality of war and showing both North and South Koreans committing atrocities.

Vietnam WarApocalypse Now

Released: 1979Vietnam War (1961-1975);films aboutApocalypse Now (film)

Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition of Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness (Conrad) Heart of Darkness is a scathing criticism of the Vietnam War. As the story develops, the film blurs the line between friend and foe and leaves the viewer questioning the war’s purpose, conduct, and goals. Not only is the film’s message blatant, but the images and script have had a tremendous impact on American popular culture. Even today, people who have never seen the film quote lines from it.

Born on the Fourth of July

Released: 1989Born on the Fourth of July (film)

This film is Oliver Stone’s second Vietnam-based project and, like its predecessor Platoon (1986), is highly critical of the Vietnam War, showing the terrible price that the war extracted from those who fought it. Based on the life of Vietnam veteran Kovic, RonKovic, Ron Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July shows not only the chaos of Vietnam (such as friendly fire and the killing of civilians) but also the chaos the war unleashed at home as the American people turned against the conflict.

The Deer Hunter

Released: 1978Deer Hunter, The (film)

As Psychological effects of warone of the first films to challenge the Vietnam War portrayed in The Green Berets (1968), The Deer Hunter excellently examines the physical and mental impact that the war had on those who fought it. There is only one short combat scene, yet the movie is intensely gory in its depiction of the actions of both American and Vietnamese soldiers, suggesting that in Vietnam there were no “good guys” and no “bad guys,” just a mass of senseless violence characterized by numerous scenes in which people play Russian roulette for money.

Dien Bien Phu*

Released: 1992Dien Bien Phu (film)

The siege of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu began in March, 1954, and ended two months later. The Viet Minh, with help from communist China, besieged the fortress and slowly strangled it into submission. The battle was significant because it signaled the end of French control in Vietnam, and the beginning of the path toward eventual American involvement. Dien Bien Phu, a French production, is one of the only films available about the battle.

Flight of the Intruder

Released: 1991Flight of the Intruder (film)

Nearly every set in movies about the Vietnam War represents the ground and recounts the war from the standpoint of the men who waded through the jungles and rice paddies. However, Airpower;Vietnamairpower was a big part of the American effort in Vietnam, and thus Flight of the Intruder makes the list to provide a film about the war from the viewpoint of the pilots who flew the air raids always seen in the ground films.

Full Metal Jacket

Released: 1987Full Metal Jacket (film)

Like Platoon (1986), Apocalypse Now (1979), and The Deer Hunter (1978), Stanley Kubrik’s Full Metal Jacket is a classic Antiwar films antiwar, anti-Vietnam film. The film is best known for its first thirty minutes, which are dedicated to depicting life in a marine boot camp, and the breaking down of the individual in order to rebuild him as a killer. The film also contains a scene depicting the Tet Offensive, the massive Viet Cong attack of South Vietnam in January of 1968.

The Green Berets

Released: 1968Green Berets, The (film)

The Green Berets is John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam, pro-American Propaganda;film as propaganda film, released (coincidentally, on July 4) shortly after the Tet Offensive in an attempt to gain support for the war. The film depicts the war as a good war, the Americans as fighting a just cause, and the war itself as harsh but not overly brutal or bloody; there are also clear distinctions between “good guy” and “bad guy.” The war portrayed in The Green Berets is very different from, and is seriously challenged by, almost every Vietnam film that follows.


Released: 1986Platoon (film)

Oliver Stone’s first anti-Vietnam film has become, arguably, the anti-Vietnam film. The film depicts the actions of one platoon in Vietnam and illustrates the myriad conflicts and problems within the army itself, to say nothing of difficulties fighting the enemy–problems such as insubordination, drug addiction, fragging, and atrocities against the Vietnamese, to name a few. Although no specific historical battle is portrayed, the film gives an excellent depiction of the Guerrilla warfare;Vietnam guerrilla tactics that characterized the war, as well as a few scenes showing the elaborate tunnel system that the Viet Cong used with great success.

We Were Soldiers

Released: 2002We Were Soldiers (film)

Near the close of 1965, the United States had its first, and one of the only, pitched battles against North Vietnamese regulars in the Ia Drang, Battle of (1965)Ia Drang Valley. We Were Soldiers is the story of the Ia Drang battle and not only provides an excellent portrayal of the conflict but also highlights the introduction and role of the Helicopters;in film[film] helicopter, a technology that has come to characterize the Vietnam War. This film is also important because it is a reaction against anti-Vietnam films and an attempt to return to the war as portrayed in The Green Berets.

Cambodian Civil WarThe Killing Fields

Released: 1984Cambodia;films aboutKilling Fields, The (film)

As the war in Vietnam intensified, it spilled over into neighboring Cambodia. The communist Khmer RougeKhmer Rouge took over the Cambodian government and began a systematic cleansing of political enemies, intellectuals, and anyone who posed a threat to the regime. A full one-third of the population of Cambodia was killed in the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields.” The Killing Fields is the only feature film to explore Pol PotPol Pot Pol Pot’s murderous regime; thus it is an essential component of any list of films dealing with war.

War of Algerian IndependenceThe Battle of Algiers * (La battaglia di Algeri)

Released: 1966Algeria;films aboutBattle of Algiers, The (film)

The end of colonialism was characterized by war. This film depicts the Algeria;independenceBattle of Algiers, France’s victory in defeating the National Liberation Front and maintaining control of Algeria in the short-term, but ends noting that Algeria eventually gained its independence. The film is an excellent depiction of the terror tactics and atrocities committed on both sides, and it shows just how violent anticolonial struggles could be. The film takes a few historical liberties but overall is historically accurate.

Arab-Israeli ConflictKippur*

Released: 2000Arab-Israeli wars;films aboutKippur (film)

In October of 1973, Egypt and Syria jointly attacked Israel on Yom Kippur War (1973)Yom Kippur. Kippur, an Israeli-French production, is based on the actual experiences of a Helicopters;in film[film] helicopter rescue team as they evacuate the wounded from the battlefield. There are very few films about the Arab-Israeli conflict readily available, and what makes Kippur stand out is its ability to turn the viewer into a participant. The film also contains many long, unbroken scenes that help make the experience real, chaotic, and sometimes necessarily boring, rather than jumping from action to action as many war films do.

Falklands WarAn Ungentlemanly Act^ <b>and</b> Iluminados por el fuego* (blessed by fire)

Released: 1992 and 2005 respectively Ungentlemanly Act, An (film) Iluminados por el fuego (film)

The fight for the Falkland Islands (or the Malvinas, to the Argentineans) began in April of 1982. The war lasted only a few months and ended in a British victory. Each of these films is biased in favor of the country that produced it, but together they paint a good picture of the entire conflict as well as demonstrate that history changes depending on who is telling it. An Ungentlemanly Act focuses primarily on the initial Argentinean invasion. Only the last five minutes of the film address Britain’s counterattack and eventual reconquest of the island. Iluminados por el fuego begins in the midst of the war, after the British returned in force, and carries through to the postwar era.Falkland Islands War (1982);films about

First Gulf WarJarhead

Released: 2005Gulf War (1990-1991);films aboutJarhead (film)

Of the handful of films set in the First Gulf War–including Courage Under Fire (1996) and Three Kings (1999)–Jarhead is the best choice. It follows a unit of Marine snipers from boot camp to the end of the war. There is not much combat, and no epic battle scene caps the film, but that is what makes Jarhead valuable. Battles in the First Gulf War were few and far between, which was good for civilians at home but was torture for Marines trained to fight and kill; Psychological effects of war simply waiting for the unknown was worse than confrontation with a physical enemy. The film also explores the soldier’s anguish over life back home. Jarhead is a new type of war film that focuses primarily on the war within the soldier rather than the soldier within the war.

Yugoslavian Civil WarNo Man’s Land*

Released: 2001Balkans;films aboutYugoslavia;films aboutYugoslavianNo Man’s Land (film)

With the death of TitoTito (Josip Broz)Tito in 1980, Yugoslavia descended into chaos as nationalist sentiment, historical precedent, and religious differences led to brutal conflict between Croats, Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and other ethnic groups. No Man’s Land not only presents an excellent depiction of the violence of the war and the intense hatred between the various sides but also exposes the impotence of the United Nations United Nations to maintain peace and reach a peaceful compromise. The film, telling the story of only a handful of characters fighting over a single trench, provides an allegory for the war.

Somali Civil WarBlack Hawk Down

Released: 2001Somalia;films aboutBlack Hawk Down (film)

In 1993, the United States military staged a small raid in the city of Mogadishu, hoping to capture important figures in the government of Warlord Aidid, Mohamed FarrahAidid, Mohamed FarrahMohamed Farrah Aidid. The raid went smoothly until the local militia shot down a Black Hawk Helicopters;in film[film]helicopter that was providing support for the raid. The rescue mission turned into a two-day battle between a small group of Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers against the entire city militia in what is now known as the Mogadishu, Battle of (1993)Battle of Mogadishu. The film is a graphic and detailed example of late twentieth century warfare.

Rwandan Civil WarHotel Rwanda

Released: 2004Rwanda genocide;films aboutHotel Rwanda (film)

During GenocideRwanda genocideCivil wars;Rwandathe decolonization of Africa, many parts of the continent erupted in violence. One of the most shocking examples occurred in Rwanda, where in 1994 Rwandan Hutus killed one million of their Tutsi compatriots in one hundred days. As demonstrated by The Grey Zone (2001) and The Killing Fields (1984), modern war has made genocide possible. What makes the genocide in Rwanda different (and prompts its inclusion on this list) is that the United Nations United Nations, though pledged to prevent genocide, failed to take adequate measures to stop it.

Film and Warfare

Categories: History