The critical acclaim and box office success that accompanied the release of American Sniper, as well as the other impressive war films out in 2014, including Fury, Unbroken, and even The Imitation Game immediately begs the question of where these all fit into the unofficial pantheon of the greatest war movies ever — which of course prompts the question of which, exactly, are the best war movies ever.
“The best war movies are, at least to some extent, anti-war movies,” says Craig Detweiler, filmmaker, author, and director of The Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University. “They show us the pain and struggle on the battlefield in a way that makes us consider the high cost of engaging in battle. A bad war movie is dishonest about the hidden costs of war, whether that’s the personal cost to soldiers or the national costs to governments. War is something that should never be romanticized.”
That shift away from romanticizing war has dovetailed with a rise in a subgenre of war movies — which, for lack of a better term can be dubbed “the coming-home film,” — that chronicle the lingering effects of war on those who fight it, on their families and on their communities. This genre is highlighted by films like Hal Ashby’s aptly titled triumph Coming Home, and The Deer Hunter (both made in 1978), Born on the Fourth of July, and more recent films like The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah — and, now, American Sniper. The genre grew stronger in the wake of the Vietnam War, but traces its roots back to 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
The most successful of these coming-home movies share a common thread with the best of the larger genre of war movies — defined here as films that center on the overwhelming combat and the conditions surrounding it.
“The best [war] films also figure out a way to be about a specific person in a specific time and place, and they don’t try to tell a bigger statement,” says Detweiler. “They just ground it in a particular character and the choices they make.”
Here, our list of the most daring, important, heartbreaking, and entertaining films.