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Set during World War II, Christopher Nolan's film chronicled the desperate Dunkirk evacuation of 335,000 Allied soldiers from the titular port in France. The ambitious war movie is segmented into three perspectives that follow a Royal Air Force pilot in the sky, civilians at sea, and troops stranded on Dunkirk. Shot on location with practical effects, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and made more than $500,000,000.Warner Bros. Pictures
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Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Universally praised for its harrowing realism in depicting the Allied invasion of Normandy, Saving Private Ryan employed real amputees to portray wounded soldiers and hundreds of authentic military uniforms. Its narrative of an American platoon rescuing a soldier whose brothers had died in battle was based on real military policy and the true case of Fritz Niland.DreamWorks Pictures
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The Last Samurai (2003)
Edward Zwick's sweeping epic chronicles the transformative journey of Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) from former U.S. Army Captain to active ally of the samurai. Initially tasked to train the newly-formed Imperial Japanese Army to quash rural rebellions, Algren decides to help Japan's last remaining warriors, instead. Remarkably, his character was based on the real-life actions of French officer Jules Brunet, who helped the samurai resist Emperor Meiji's modernization efforts in the 1800s.Warner Bros. Pictures
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Directed by Sam Mendes, the World War I drama was set in the last remaining months of the continent-wide conflict. It depicted two young British soldiers sent across No Man's Land to alert high command of a trap set by German forces. While those two soldiers were fictional creations, their mission was in response to a real military maneuver known as Operation Alberich, which saw the Germans feigning retreat only to lure British troops to their deaths. DreamWorks Pictures
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Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken chronicled the true journey of Louis Zamperini from running in the 1936 Olympics to surviving two years in a Japanese POW camp. The former Olympian had joined the U.S. Army Air Corps only to crash his faulty B-24 bomber into the ocean. Captured and tortured, he was only liberated after Japan's formal surrender in September 1945.Left: Wikimedia Commons; Right: Legendary Entertainment
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Based on the real historical figure of William Wallace, Mel Gibson's Braveheart took certain creative liberties while depicting the Scottish resistance against English rule in the 13th century. While the costumes were inaccurate, for instance, the film accurately captured a desperate group of colonized people fighting for independence. But the real execution of William Wallace was far worse than anything shown onscreen.Icon Entertainment International
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John Frankenheimer's historical drama depicted the brutal conditions of the Confederate Andersonville prison at the height of the Civil War. Loosely based on the diary of Union soldier John Ransom, the Emmy Award-winning TV movie explored the harrowing realities endured by prisoners of war — from meager rations to the deadly consequences of attempting to escape.Gideon Productions
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Pearl Harbor (2001)
For his one and only World War II film, director Michael Bay set his sights on the Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941. Equal parts romantic drama and historical action, the war movie followed two childhood friends into pilot school as the global conflict hit home. While rightfully criticized for its creative liberties, Bay's direction vividly captured how paralyzing Japan's bombing and kamikaze attacks must have been on American troops.Touchstone Pictures
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Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Unlike Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, this 1970 war epic was widely praised for how it detailed the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Universally considered a classic, the film explores Japan's preparations for war, U.S. military intelligence trying to decipher enemy communications, and the tragic catastrophe in Hawaii. Perhaps most admirable was that the film was directed by filmmakers from both countries — with Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku shooting the Japanese segments and Richard Fleischer manning the American portion.Twentieth Century Fox
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Adolf Hitler's suicide on April 30, 1945, marked the end of Nazi Germany. It had been 10 days since his 56th birthday, and the Soviet Union had brought the dictatorship to its knees. Set in the Führer's Berlin bunker in the days before he swallowed cyanide and shot himself, Downfall explored the tragedy of Germany under the Third Reich. From Hitler's terrified secretaries and high-ranking zealots to brainwashed Nazi youths and desperate doctors, the Oscar-nominated war movie is an epic to behold.Constantin Film
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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Desmond Doss had just become an adult when he registered for the World War II draft. Though the Seventh-Day Adventist was revolted by guns, he nonetheless felt an overwhelming urge to aid in the war effort. The conscientious objector signed up to be a medic and found himself on the Okinawa Maeda Escarpment in 1945. The plateau was aptly named "Hacksaw Ridge" as Japanese troops strategically used it to fell U.S. soldiers with abandon. Remarkably, Doss saved the lives of 75 Americans without firing a single shot.Left: Wikimedia Commons; Right: Summit Entertainment
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Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Based on William Craig's 1973 nonfiction book of the same name, Enemy at the Gates chronicles the events surrounding the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942. The film's protagonist, Vasily Zaytsev, is based on a real Soviet sniper who tallied 242 kills in four months.Paramount Pictures
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Set in Nazi-occupied Belarus in August 1941, Edward Zwick's Defiance follows the fictionalized Bielski brothers as they flee the Nazi forces sweeping through Eastern Europe. Determined not to be liquidated, the siblings form a resistance and decide to fight back. Filmed in the Lithuanian wilderness, the war movie explores human resilience in the face of annihilation — and what people will do to retain their dignity. Paramount Vantage
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Schindler's List (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Schindler's List chronicles the unspeakable liquidation of European Jews during World War II by Nazi Germany. The tragic drama follows the real Holocaust hero Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save as many "unwanted" persons as possible by hiring them as workers producing kitchenware in his factory. Armed with the special privilege of the Germans deeming his "business essential to the war effort," Schindler protected 1,200 Jews from extermination.Amblin Entertainment
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Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Spurred by the socio-economic consequences of World War II, the French New Wave movement was defined by portable equipment, fragmented editing, and documentary-like realism. Director Alain Resnais used those then-unorthodox techniques to explore the nuclear aftermath of Hiroshima, crafting a nonlinear romantic drama that chronicles the memories of a couple who met in the Japanese city.Argos Films
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The Thin Red Line (1998)
Adapted from James Jones' 1962 novel of the same name, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line dramatizes the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II. With breathtaking cinematography and a cast of Oscar winners, the film depicts the harrowing onslaught endured by C Company troops of the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater. Fox 2000 Pictures
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Apocalypse Now (1979)
Adapted from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now follows a collection of soldiers on foot in war-torn Vietnam in the 1960s. Filmed in the Philippines in what has famously become one of the most grueling productions in cinematic history, the Vietnam War movie followed a U.S. Army Captain tasked to assassinate a decorated colonel who went rogue. A project that saw director Francis Ford Coppola risk financial ruin, the film won two Academy Awards and grossed over $100,000,000, instead.United Artists
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The Hurt Locker (2008)
Preserved in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker chronicles the adrenaline-fueled days of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. While the high-octane action scenes brought audiences to theaters, the movie also introduced many viewers to the harrowing realities of post-traumatic stress disorder endured by American servicemen. Voltage Pictures
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Das Boot (1981)
While many of the best war movies follow soldiers in distant lands, Wolfgang Peterson's claustrophobic thriller was set beneath the surface of the sea during the World War II Battle of the Atlantic. Chronicling the unseen terrors encountered by a German u-boat crew, Das Boot humanizes naval service members of the most fascist regime of the 20th century. Bavaria Film
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Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Many of the best war movies exaggerate the facts in order to provide a captivating narrative. Quentin Tarantino, too, decided to approach World War II from an angle of alternate history with 2009's Inglourious Basterds. The film brought audiences into the fold of a rag-tag team of American soldiers tasked with eradicating Nazi Germany's high command at all costs — and offered a salacious alternative to Adolf Hitler's suicide, to boot.A Band Apart
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The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director David Lean adapted The Bridge on the River Kwai from Pierre Bouelle's 1952 novel. The war movie explores the plight of British POWs who are forced to construct a strategically important bridge by their Japanese captors — as well as their risky efforts to delay its completion to protect their fellow Allies.Horizon Pictures
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The Great Escape (1963)
Directed by John Sturges, The Great Escape portrays Allied soldiers and their death-defying escape attempt from a German POW camp during World War II. Although the desperate American and British prisoners band together in a successful escape, any semblance of safety continues to elude them.The Mirisch Company
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Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Based on the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, Clint Eastwood's historical drama chronicles the conflict from a Japanese perspective. Narratively centered on real-life Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi as portrayed by Ken Watanabe, the tragic war movie depicts his last hopeless stand against invading American troops.Amblin Entertainment
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A Vietnam War veteran himself, director Oliver Stone used his own experiences to craft the 1986 film. With a roster of A-list talent, the movie depicts a U.S. Army volunteer finding himself conflicted about the human atrocities his platoon commits on innocent Vietnamese citizens during the conflict.Hemdale
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The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Following 130 years of French rule over the African nation of Algeria, a group of young Muslim resistance fighters take up arms and rise against the colonial government in their country. Based on the French-Algerian War from 1954 to 1962, The Battle of Algiers was heavily inspired by the French New Wave movement and provided a harrowing documentary-like look into the war-torn capital of Algiers.Casbah Film
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Centered around two men forbidden from enlisting in the Australian Army for being too young, Peter Weir's 1981 drama explores how a sense of patriotic duty can lead to fatal consequences. Depicting a side rarely seen in the genre, Gallipoli chronicles the rigors of a Western boot camp in Egypt — and the siblings' journey to the front lines of World War I.R&R Films
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Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods is centered on a group of aging Vietnam War veterans and friends who return to the Southeast Asian country in search of buried treasure and the remains of a fallen, fellow soldier. With an all-Black cast of esteemed actors and a budget of $35 million, the war movie was released on Netflix to positive reactions — and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score.40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks
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The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Deer Hunter is widely considered one of the greatest American films of all time. Directed by Michael Cimino, the three-hour-long Vietnam War epic transports viewers from the melancholy of being shipped off to war and the torturous ramifications endured by American POWs. It won the Best Picture Oscar at the 51st Academy Awards and was inducted into the Library of Congress in 1996.EMI Productions
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Three Kings (1999)
David O. Russell's satirical black comedy Three Kings starred George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube as the titular U.S. soldiers embarking on a gold heist during the 1991 uprisings in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Arguably the most unconventional Gulf War movie ever made, it's as biting and incisive as it is emotionally weighty.Village Roadshow Pictures
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Black Hawk Down (2001)
Based on journalist Mark Bowden's book of the same name, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down revolves around the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu between the U.S. military and Somalian forces. Based on true events, it depicts the harrowing survival of American soldiers after the downing of two helicopters — and the relentless gunfire that ensued.Columbia Pictures
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War Horse (2011)
Directed by Steven Spielberg, War Horse is set in the British countryside during the outbreak of World War I. It follows a horse owner whose equine friend is sold off to English forces — and his desperate attempt across the battlefields to find him.DreamWorks Pictures
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Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War movie follows a group of American soldiers as they endure the hardships of boot camp and lose their humanity while fighting in Southeast Asia. Famously averse to airplane travel after moving to the United Kingdom, Kubrick decided to film the entire movie in England. While the film opened to lukewarm reception, it has since been praised as one of the best war movies ever made.Harrier Films
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The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Set in the New York area of Lake George during the French and Indian War in 1757, The Last of the Mohicans is a sweeping historical adventure film. Centered on the transport of Colonel Munro's two daughters to Fort William Henry, the movie explores how both the French and British relied on Native American allies during their westward expansion.Morgan Creek Productions
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."
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.