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These Great War Films Cover Everything From Heroism and Sacrifice to the Futility of War

A little girl in a red coat walks in front of soldiers in the film 'Schindler's List'

Arguably, war films have evolved from the flag-waving propaganda pieces of yesteryear to complex explorations of the human condition under the most extreme circumstances. Moreover, I appreciate that these films can rally a diverse audience thanks to their compelling narratives, and they often spark important conversations about heroism, sacrifice, and the futility of conflict. 

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War films can challenge perceptions, influence political discourse, and sometimes even shape public policy. They remind us that while war is as old as time, its lessons are always worth revisiting if only to ensure that the horrors depicted on screen remain there, even though, time and again, this hope has proven futile. Regardless, these top war films have enlightened us on many aspects of warfare.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore in 'Saving Private Ryan'
(DreamWorks Pictures)

Saving Private Ryan, directed by the cinematic maestro Steven Spielberg, kicks off with the D-Day invasion – a harrowingly realistic sequence, you’d be forgiven for ducking under your seat. Spielberg doesn’t just show us war; he plunges us into the maelstrom of Omaha Beach, where bullets whiz and lives end in a heartbeat. 

Then there’s Tom Hanks, playing Captain John Miller with the weight of a man burdened by the enormity of his mission: to find and bring home Private James Ryan, played by a fresh-faced Matt Damon. The ensemble cast, including the likes of Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi, brings to life soldiers who aren’t just fighting Nazis but also grappling with the cost of a single life versus many.

Glory (1989)

Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington in 'Glory'
(Tri-Star Pictures)

Directed by Edward Zwick, Glory is a blazing tribute to the bravery of the first African-American regiment in the American Civil War. Matthew Broderick sheds his Ferris Bueller charm to step into the shoes of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, leading his men into battle and the annals of history.

Denzel Washington also gives a commanding performance as Private Trip, a man who personifies the ferocious spirit of a people suppressed for far too long. Morgan Freeman’s Sergeant Major John Rawlins is the unifying force of this squad, exuding such authority that his men would follow him into a cyclone.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Publicity still 'The Hurt Locker'
(Summit Entertainment)

This high-octane, nail-biting exploration of the bomb-disposal boys in Iraq follows Jeremy Renner’s character as Sergeant William James, the daredevil bomb technician who treats explosives like pesky puzzles from a Sunday newspaper. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker isn’t about the glory of war but the sweat, the grit, and the sheer will it takes to survive in a landscape where every piece of trash could be your last hello. 

Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty play Renner’s squadmates, each delivering solid performances. The cinematography is so intimate that you’re practically inside the bomb suit with Renner, feeling every heartbeat and muffled breath. 

The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)

Laurence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr in 'The Tuskegee Airmen'

The Tuskegee Airmen is a piercing narrative on race and determination. Laurence Fishburne leads the charge as Hannibal Lee, a man who’s not just a pilot; he’s a trailblazer in the sky, challenging both German fighters and the prejudices of his own country. Director Robert Markowitz isn’t just telling a war story; he’s painting a portrait of heroes who fought two battles – one against external enemies and another against internal bigotry. 

The movie tactfully juggles the adrenaline of aerial combat with the gravity of racial discrimination, never letting you forget the real enemy is often not in the skies but on the ground. With a supporting cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr. and Malcolm-Jamal Warner, The Tuskegee Airmen breathes life into a forgotten period of American history. 

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Brad Pitt in 'Inglourious Basterds'
(The Weinstein Company)

Quentin Tarantino’s ambitious foray into World War II is less a historical recount and more a fantastical revenge epic splashed with his signature style. Inglourious Basterds comes complete with linguistic acrobatics, over-the-top violence, and a revisionist history as bold as a brushstroke of bright red on a beige canvas.

As Lt. Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt chews through scenes (and accents) with the enthusiasm of a man who’s not just on a Nazi-hunting mission but also on a quest to out-quip his own shadow. His group of men (and one particularly fearsome woman, played by Mélanie Laurent) are not just soldiers but artists of vengeance.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Ken Watanabe in 'Letters from Iwo Jima'
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a profound, almost poetic meditation on the human side of war, told from a perspective seldom explored in Hollywood: the Japanese soldiers during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Eastwood, swapping his cowboy hat for a director’s chair, crafts a narrative so nuanced and heartfelt that it feels less like a film and more like a series of hauntingly beautiful letters. 

The movie, primarily set in Japanese, stars Ken Watanabe as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, whose dignity and strategic genius are as formidable as the American forces he faces. Watanabe portrays a man torn between duty and despair, making you rethink the term ‘enemy.’ 

Schindler’s List (1993)

Liam Neeson in 'Schindler's List'
(Universal Pictures)

Schindler’s List‘s Steven Spielberg’s masterful and harrowing depiction of the Holocaust is anything but a light watch. It’s like being handed a piece of raw human history – you can’t help but be moved and, at times, utterly devastated. In a career-defining role, Liam Neeson plays Oskar Schindler, a man who’s part enigma, part capitalist, and, eventually, an unlikely humanitarian. 

Neeson brings charisma to Schindler, painting him as a flawed hero, a beacon of hope in a world that’s gone utterly mad. The black-and-white cinematography isn’t just a stylistic choice; it’s a relentless reminder of the stark reality of those times. Each frame is a haunting echo from the past, with the occasional brushstroke of color serving as a poignant reminder of the lost innocence and the staggering human cost of the Holocaust.

Dunkirk (2017)

A large group of soldiers in 'Dunkirk'
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a war film, but not in the way you’d expect. There are no lengthy speeches about heroism, no slow-motion flag-waving, and no time for tearful goodbyes. Instead, Nolan serves up a slice of World War II with the intensity of a ticking time bomb. Dunkirk is a heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat ride that drops you right in the middle of the chaotic evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France. 

The narrative doesn’t just flow; it jumps, skips, and darts across three intertwined timelines – land, sea, and air. Hans Zimmer’s score ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. The sound design is so immersive that you can practically taste the saltwater and feel the spitfires zooming over your head.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

A battle scene from 'Apocalypse Now' (1979)
(United Artists)

Francis Ford Coppola’s movie goes deep into the heart of the darkness of the Vietnam War and then some. Martin Sheen stars as Captain Willard, a man on a mission so secretive that even the jungle seems to be in on it. 

He’s tasked with finding and eliminating the rogue Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando, who’s gone off the deep end in a way only Brando could pull off. Coppola unleashes a cinematic symphony of madness, complete with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as a soundtrack to a helicopter assault. Apocalypse Now blends the horrors of war with a hallucinatory narrative style.

1917 (2019)

George MacKay as Will Schofield in '1917'
(Universal Pictures)

1917, directed by Sam Mendes, is a high-stakes, time-is-of-the-essence, single-shot extravaganza that drags you through the mud, barbed wire, and the heart-wrenching reality of the trenches. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play two British soldiers who must deliver a message across enemy lines to save 1,600 men, including Chapman’s brother, from a deadly trap. It’s like the world’s worst postal service job but with bombs and snipers. 

The cinematography by Roger Deakins is a thing of beauty – if you can call the hellish backdrop of war beautiful, that is. The film is a rollercoaster of tension, punctuated by moments of haunting tranquility. 1917 is a thrilling race against time and a reminder of the unsung heroes who navigated the unfathomable horrors of war with nothing but a message and sheer will.

(featured image: Universal Pictures)

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Faith Katunga
Faith is a freelance journalist with an insatiable curiosity for all aspects of current events, from the global economy and fashion to pop culture and travel. She watches an absurd number of cat videos on Instagram when not reading or writing about what is going on in the world. Faith has written for several publications, including We Got This Covered, Italy Magazine, TheTravel, etc., and holds a master's degree in Fashion Culture and Management.

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