33 Of The Most Epic War Movies Of All Time

Published December 16, 2021
Updated December 20, 2021

From military dramas like "Saving Private Ryan" to Hollywood blockbusters like "The Last Samurai," these war movies capture the true ravages of battle.

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33 Of The Most Epic War Movies Of All Time
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War has long been a defining trait of humanity, but it was only a little over a century ago that we began immortalizing our battles onscreen. War movies have since become a genre of their own, and while some films take creative liberty with history, some of the best war movies are harrowingly realistic.

Among the war movies based on true stories, Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Vietnam drama Full Metal Jacket and Steven Spielberg's 1998 film Saving Private Ryan rank high for their attention to detail and reality.

For example, in Full Metal Jacket, the director based the film on real Marine Corp correspondent Gustav Hasford's novel The Short-Timers. Kubrick also hired war reporter Michael Herr to help him with the script, and the writer described the job as "one phone call lasting three years."

War movies like Full Metal Jacket brought the real-life traumas of battle to the general American public. Kubrick's film specifically showed how young men seem to be molded into killing machines and stripped of their identities in favor of cartoonish nicknames. Narratively, the film brought viewers from basic training to the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

Living in England and afraid of airplane travel, Kubrick shot the boot camp scenes at a British Territorial Army base. A soon-to-be-demolished gasworks on the Thames River was transformed into war-torn Vietnam.

"It's not pro-war or anti-war," said Kubrick. "It's just the way things are."

A peer and admirer of Kubrick's attention to detail, Steven Spielberg crafted the military movie Saving Private Ryan with accuracy in mind, too. Today, it is considered one of the best world war II movies based on true events.

Rob Citino, the senior historian at the World War II National Museum, said the war movie "has become a kind of exemplar ... of what it means to generate realism in Hollywood."

On the surface, the film followed the character of Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) as he leads a platoon of GIs to rescue a soldier whose siblings have all been killed in combat. Historically, the film explores an actual military policy called "Sole-Surviving Son," which stipulated that no family could lose all their children in war and instead, the remaining child would be sent home.

In the case of Spielberg's war movie, the real rescue of Sergeant Fritz Niland is fictionalized as the rescue of Private Ryan (played by Matt Damon).

Spielberg had cast real amputees to portray wounded soldiers, all of whom were dressed in authentic military garb. Released on July 24, 1998, the film's grim recreation of the D-Day landings at Normandy left audiences aghast. For the former Chief of Military History at the US Military Academy, Saving Private Ryan was without equal when it came to war movies based on true stories.

"I often find that it's hard enough to figure out what your own guys are doing, let alone find out what the enemy is doing," said Kevin Farrell. "That ambiguity, that chaos, I think comes across very well in the film, but most especially with the landing on the beach."

After learning about the best war movies in cinema history, check out 44 of the best historical movies. Next, take a look at 25 of the best horror movies ever made.

Marco Margaritoff
A staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff has also published work at outlets including People, VICE, and Complex, covering everything from film to finance to technology. He holds dual bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a master's degree from New York University.