Top 10 War Movies

Ten War Movies Showcasing American History

Lancaster Bomber aircraft
Sean Gladwell / Getty Images

America has been involved in numerous wars throughout the years from the American Revolution to the War in Afghanistan. Every year new movies come out about these wars, helping illuminate, glorify, and attempt to explain the reasons for and the costs of armed conflict. 

These 10 war movies are excellent examples of films based on events from America's past. Their subject matter ranges from the Civil War to the search for Osama bin Laden. While many of these picks take some dramatic license in the telling of their stories, all of them are fascinating pieces of cinematic escape. 

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Saving Private Ryan

D-Day Landing During World War II
Bird's-eye view of landing craft, barrage balloons, and allied troops landing in Normandy, France on D-Day. U.S. Maritime Commission photo / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

An accurate portrayal of the rigors of war, "Saving Private Ryan" was as instant classic that most people would argue is the most accurate war movie ever created. The film chronicles the mission of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men to find Private Ryan (Matt Damon) following the World War II invasion of Normandy. The movie is loosely based on the Niland Brothers. When it was thought that three of the four brothers were killed during World War II, the fourth, Frederick Niland was sent home to his mother as the sole survivor. 

1998, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns.

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Three Confederate prisoners taken at the Battle of Gettysburg, July, 1863.
Three Confederate prisoners taken at the Battle of Gettysburg, July, 1863. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B8171-2288 DLC

"Gettysburg" is the classic Civil War movie detailing arguably the most important battle in American History. This movie is based on the even better novel, "The Killer Angels" written by Michael Shaara. Jeff Daniels is amazing as Joshua Chamberlain. While at over four hours in length, the movie is quite long, it is quite historically accurate. It also does a good job of giving a balanced view of both the Union and Confederate sides of the battle. 

1993, Directed by Ron Maxwell, starring Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Stephen Lang.

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Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., in 1943
Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., in 1943. Public Domain / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

"Patton" includes the classic portrayal by George C. Scott of the controversial World War II general George S. Patton. He was one of the most interesting figures of the World War II era and was instrumental in the U.S. victory in Europe. The movie portrays the controversial figure of Patton as a complex and flawed character, tough but well-loved by his men.

1970, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by Francis Ford Coppola, starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden, and Stephen Young

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Sands of Iwo Jima

American landing craft and armoured vehicles on a beach during the Battle of Iwo Jima, February 1945.
American landing craft and armoured vehicles on a beach during the Battle of Iwo Jima, February 1945. FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The "Sands of Iwo Jima" is a John Wayne classic in which he was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of Sgt. Stryker in the Pacific theatre during World War II. The movie illustrates the U.S. Marines at their finest, island hopping through the Pacific to assault Iwo Jima during World War II. As John Wayne quotes from the movie: "Life is tough, but it's tougher if you're stupid."

1949, directed by Alan Dwan, starring John Wayne, John Agar, and Adele Mara.

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Robert Gould Shaw - Civil War Colonel who led the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Army that is featured in the movie Glory.
Robert Gould Shaw - Civil War Colonel who led the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Army that is featured in the movie Glory. Public Domain

"Glory" is a Civil War movie that chronicles the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts. This African American unit fought bravely in an effort to win freedom for themselves and all slaves. The final battle is heroic and poignant. However, there are some historical inaccuracies. For example, the regiment was freedmen. 

1989, directed by Edward Zwick, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes

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Hamburger Hill

Operation Rolling Thunder - Bombing Resumes in Vietnam
Operation Rolling Thunder - Bombing Resumes in Vietnam. Photograph VA061405, No Date, George H. Kelling Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University.

"Hamburger Hill" is the true story of the 101st Airborne's fight to gain a hill in Vietnam. This movie is considered to be one of the best movies about the war in Vietnam.

1989, directed by John Irvin, starring Anthony Barille, Michael Boatman, and Don Cheadle

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Tora! Tora! Tora!

USS Missouri - Site of the Japanese Surrender Ending World War II
The Japanese surrender ceremony that officially ended World War II occurred on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

A classic World War II movie focusing on the war in the Pacific. It is unique in that it shows both perspectives (Japanese and American) of the war, and had two directors, a wildly successful collaboration between American and Japanese film staff. An amazing cast subtitles for Japanese and German sections, and brutally honest about the failings and successes of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

1970, directed by Richard Fleischer and Kinji Fukasaku, starring Martin Balsam, So Yamamura, Jason Robards, and Tatsuya Mihashi

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Black Hawk Down

Army Rangers at Night
Army Rangers at Night. They were involved in the incident covered in the movie Black Hawk Down. Public Domain / Army Photo

A true story of the Army Rangers in action in Somalia, "Black Hawk Down" highlights the courage of the U.S. forces and the complexities of modern warfare.

2001, directed by Ridley Scott, starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan MacGregor, Tom Sizemore

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The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men
The Monuments Men. Hachette Book Group

"The Monuments Men" is a film dedicated to the American, French, and British forces who went into enemy territory during the last days of World War II in an effort to save and recover artworks stolen by the Nazis. Heartbreaking view of other costs or war.

2014, directed by George Clooney, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray.

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Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty.

A film chronicling the 10-year search for the al-Qaeda terrorist Osama bin Laden, "Zero Dark Thirty" had a stunning tour de force by Jessica Chastain and was said to be based in part on documents released by the Barack Obama administration concerning the successful raid.

2012, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt.