Top 10 Highest Grossing War Movies

American Sniper
American Sniper. Wikimedia Commons

In a recent article, I wrote how most war films simply don't do that well at the box office.  In this week's article, I review the top ten highest grossing box office performers in the war film genre.  Although these films made money, the very fact that these are the ten highest grossing only further validates the fact that war films don't normally make that much money.  The tenth highest grossing film on this list earned just over $100 million.  Compare that with a superhero movie or science fiction movie, where the tenth highest grossing film is making three times that figure, and one quickly realizes that war movies don't bring audiences streaming into the cinema.  (Figures for this article detail global box office earnings.)

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American Sniper - $547 Million

American Sniper.

This Clint Eastwood drama played it smart, slowly releasing the film into just a few theaters to build word of mouth, before opening the film wide. This slow burn release was accompanied by an incredibly strong marketing campaign that showed intense scenes from the film where sniper Chris Kyle is forced to decide whether to shoot a woman who may or may not be carrying a weapon. And then, of course, there was the resulting controversy after the film opened - as some were outraged by Kyle's purported real-life indifference to taking lives in Iraq. The film became a sort of litmus test for left vs. right, and in doing so, received huge amounts of free publicity, becoming the "talked about" movie of the moment. All of this helped propel American Sniper to be both the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time and the highest grossing war film of all time.

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Saving Private Ryan - $481 Million


This Spielberg film is number two for obvious reasons - everyone's seen it and everyone loves it.  And, it also just happens to be one of the best war films ever made.  (This was the number one grossing war film of all time until American Sniper knocked it out of the top spot.)

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300 - $456 Million


This cartoon-like special effects extravaganza of the Spartans making a last stand against the Persians wowed audiences and made a huge bang at the box office.  Its sequel didn't do nearly as well, suggesting that audiences were mostly enamored with the, at the time, new special effects, which enhanced the on-screen reality, but that this was a one-shot wonder.

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Pearl Harbor - $449 Million

Pearl Habor.

This movie has been pretty much universally panned by both audiences and critics.  (It made my own Worst War Movies list.)  That said, upon its release, audiences simply couldn't hold out against the idea of seeing a big budget rendition of the destruction of Pearl Harbor.  (I will admit to being one of those that was wowed by the trailers and stood in line, only to leave disappointed.)

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Gone With the Wind - $400 Million

Gone With the Wind.

Number five on the list is the Civil War classic, Gone with the Wind.  What's all the more impressive is to consider that this film made most of its money many decades earlier, when the cost of entrance to the cinema was something like a nickel.  Comparatively, speaking, there's simply been nothing to compare the success of this film to in modern times.  If this list used inflation-adjusted figures, this would easily be the number one film.

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Captain America: The First Avenger - $370 Million

Captain America.

Captain America as a war movie?!  Well, yes, he's a superhero but in this film, he's a superhero fighting in the second World War, so that does make this technically also a war film.  And as we all know, superheroes burn up the box office (Captain America is currently the 6th most profitable superhero franchise!)

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Schindler's List - $321 Million

Schindler's List movie poster
Schindler's List movie poster. Amazon

Spielberg...again.  This classic film about the concentration camps of Europe has become required cinematic viewing around the entire world.  It's not just a revered film in the United States, but all throughout the world.  It wasn't the sort of film that burned up screens during the Summer blockbuster season but the weight of the film propelled it to box office riches.

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Inglorious Basterds - $321 Million

Inglorious Basterds. The Weinstein Company

Quentin Tarantino's movie about a covert guerrilla unit of Jews deep behind enemy lines killing Nazis was an instant classic because of you's Tarantino.  It burned up the international box office and is still a heavily referenced film within the cultural zeitgeist to this day. 

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Rambo First Blood Part II - $300 Million


The second in the Rambo series is still the most financially lucrative. In this second of the series, Rambo goes to Vietnam to free prisoners of war. (Also, a little-known fact, is that this movie was written by James Cameron who would go on to direct Avatar.) Released at the height of the Reagan-era 1980s, it connected with audiences at the perfect moment in time. If this same film were released just five years later or earlier, it likely would not have been nearly as successful. (This film made my important war films of the 1980s list due to its cultural impact.)

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Lincoln - $275 Million

Lincoln Movie Poster. Dreamworks

Spielberg again, this time with a political biopic of one of our most famous Presidents.  Interestingly, no studio wanted to back this movie, because they didn't think it would make any money at the box office.  It almost ended up on HBO.  Spielberg though had faith in his film, and for good reason.  He laughed all the way to the bank.