A ballad, sung in a haunting voice, sets the tone of this classic look at small-unit infantry action in World War II. “It was just a little walk in the warm Italian sun,” goes the voice, “but it wasn’t an easy thing.” The platoon must fight its way to a farmhouse and take it. Included are very young Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, and John Ireland. Another familiar face is Richard Conte, whose wisecracking machine gunner, along with his ammo bearer (George Tyne), almost steals the movie.
The French and Indian War of the mid-18th century does not have a big presence in American films, but this one is a whopper. No, it’s not about the search for the Northwest Passage. The original title of Kenneth Roberts’ novel is misleading, since the Rogers Rangers do not get around to that mission until they’ve undertaken a daring raid on a notorious Native American village. Rogers, played by Spencer Tracy, leads a group of forerunners to the Green Berets in a sweeping, big-color, big-action film.
Settlers on the frontier during the American Revolution had their hands full, working the land, growing crops and raising families. Add into that mix fighting hostile Native Americans and then the British and you have drama and gun smoke galore. They were tough dudes, those colonists, and the two leading this film from the novel by Walter D. Edmonds show what life was like back then in this black-and-white classic.
Adding this one to a “best film” list is a no-brainer. The film is big in scope and action, portraying the events of D-Day and beyond—it’s also long at two hours and 49 minutes—and it’s superbly directed by Steven Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan opens with an uninterrupted, 27-minute portrayal of the action at Omaha Beach, where U.S. troops came under withering fire from machine guns on the bluffs overlooking the beach. While few moments are as intense as the movie’s opening scenes, the action that follows as the troops move inland will undoubtedly hold your attention.
This black-and-white epic from 1941 features Errol Flynn playing the legendary George Armstrong Custer to the hilt, with the stirring music of the 7th Cavalry’s Garryowen in the background. From West Point to the Little Big Horn where he encountered Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Custer is portrayed as gallant and daring in the film. Notable works of history since then reveal a glory-seeking Custer who led his men to their doom. Don’t look for historical accuracy in the film. Just enjoy the show as it offers one of the best portrayals of fighting on the American frontier.
A film that makes almost everybody’s “best” list, this black-and-white classic was released in 1949 and features The Duke, John Wayne, in an iconic role as Marine Sergeant John Stryker. Through training, fighting on Tarawa and onto the famed Pacific battlefield of Iwo Jima, Stryker holds his men’s attention in every scene, and will hold that of viewers like us for decades to come.
In 1944, cinematic technology was far from scaling the heights of color, sound and size we are accustomed to today. We were at war then, with Japan and Germany, and when director Mervyn LeRoy released Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Americans got a taste of something to cheer about. Shot in 35mm and black and white, the film portrays the Jimmy Doolittle raid in accurate and gripping drama, with sequences of film from the actual raid interspersed within the recreation. This is Hollywood in the 1940s at its finest, and the film still stands up as a classic after all these years.
While Band of Brothers and the The Pacific are technically miniseries, each brought feature-film excitement and production quality to television screens that make these series belong on every must-see war film list. Band of Brothers, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, follows a parachute infantry regiment from D-Day through Germany’s defeat. The Pacific focuses on three Marines, one of whom is John Basilone, whose bravery at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima are legendary. Both series have musical scores that are worth collecting themselves
Made in 1951 in black and white, the film version of the classic Stephen Crane novel was directed by John Huston and starred a real-life American hero, Audie Murphy. The baby-faced winner of the Medal of Honor in WWII infantry action, Murphy has the lead role in the story of a regiment of Union soldiers engaging Confederate forces. There is action aplenty in this film along with all the drama the title promises.
Who else but Gary Cooper could have brought to the screen the character of the awkward, religiously dedicated Alvin York who left his native Tennessee hills to become a World War I icon? The 1941 black-and-white movie is renowned as an accurate portrayal of how York used his amazing marksmanship skills and personal courage to shoot his way into America’s history books.
Americans who have forgotten the Korean War get a jolting reminder when they watch this black-and-white classic of our infantry battling Chinese and North Korean forces in the last days of the conflict. Pork Chop Hill is the fight for a small piece of ground that had tremendous significance in settling the war. Gregory Peck is the leader of a cast of virtual unknowns who later became stars themselves. They include Rip Torn, George Peppard and Woody Strode, among others.
This is a stirring adaptation of Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s autobiographical We Were Soldiers Once…And Young. Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Moore, with gravel-voice actor Sam Elliott as his top sergeant, in a moving and action-filled account of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and battling North Vietnam regulars (about 4,000 of them) in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in November of 1965. The film’s somber and engaging musical score rounds out a first-rank portrayal of Americans in action in Vietnam.
“I am Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, your senior drill instructor. From now on, you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be ‘sir!’ Do you maggots understand that?” From the moment he appears on the screen and screams those words at a bunch of recruits, R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman becomes an American icon. The movie itself, following Marine recruits through training and into action in Vietnam, is now a classic. Director Stanley Kubrick—with films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus and Paths of Glory—is now a legendary filmmaker. Perhaps in the long run, his greatest achievement will be recognized as this story of young Marines that was destined to capture the minds and hearts of millions.
Their battlefields were high in the sky over Germany. The crews flying B17 missions in daylight in the early days of World War II experienced losses that can only be described as horrific. How much can such men take? When do they become so beaten up that they can barely function? Answering that question is the subject of this black-and-white classic of American aircrews in the 8th Air Force, the first Americans to actually fight the Nazi forces in Germany. Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger lead the star cast that makes this big and historically significant production one of the finest WWII films ever made.
Glory earns its stripes as a top war movie through production values that make the action scenes the most intense of any Civil War film. The film tells the story of the first formal unit of the Union Army to be made up entirely of African-American men. Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a private in the unit as it faces overwhelming odds in battle. The musical score by James Horner is a worthy collectible, and the film itself is available in a Blu-ray version with a director’s commentary and its deleted scenes restored.
The Panther jets taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier share the leading role with the actors in this Korean War gem of a movie. William Holden and Fredric March lead, Grace Kelly gets into some shore-leave scenes and the film does complete justice to the gripping suspense author James Michener captured in his original novel. Mickey Rooney is a scene-stealer in his role as a helicopter rescue pilot, and Robert Strauss does the same as he flags the incoming jets aboard their mother carrier. Tough-guy Charles McGraw is superb as the commander of the air group.
James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel set in the French and Indian War is the basis of this 1992 epic film starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Director Michael Mann orchestrates a big and beautiful movie praised by critics and loved by legions of filmgoers. The DVD available today is a must for serious collectors who wish more movies like this one were being made today. As with many other epic films, the musical score, by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, is a collectible in itself.
The Russian nuclear submarine Red October is taken over by a commander who is fed up with the Kremlin war machine and wishes to defect to the United States. That will take some serious maneuvers during the height of the Cold War in the late 1980s, with U.S. naval forces on high alert. Thus, Sean Connery as the Russian defector finds himself and his crew under attack from both Russian subs behind him and a U.S. nuclear sub tracking his every move from the American side. There is high drama here, including one of the best submarine action sequences ever filmed. Released in 1990, Red October was a huge critical and box-office success.
When Clint Eastwood released his film of Chris Kyle’s autobiography in 2014, it was met with critical support and long lines at the box office. The movie was America’s highest grossing film of the year and a smash hit in worldwide distribution. American Sniper’s success can be attributed to Eastwood’s direction, a memorable performance by Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle and a script that tells a story that touches hearts as much as it jolts the nerves with excitement. This film’s a winner in every way and will be around for a long time to tell the story of what our troops faced in Iraq.
There is a surefire formula for drama and action at work in Lone Survivor—soldiers are caught behind enemy lines. Those words are the spark of many stories and films, but in Lone Survivor they hit home with unusual force. First, this is no story conjured up by an imaginative writer. It really happened in Afghanistan, during a Navy SEAL raid that went wrong. Marcus Luttrell, the only member of the group to make it out alive, detailed the experience in the book he wrote with Patrick Robinson. The book was a bestseller after its release in 2007. The movie was released in 2013 and stars Mark Wahlberg playing Luttrell. Director Peter Berg cleverly weaves gripping scenes into the story portraying SEAL training, life in a forward base and a tribute to the courage and sacrifices made by SEALs in Afghanistan.
Any list claiming to be the “best” is bound to come under fire for not including a reader’s favorites. That obstacle has not stopped us from charging ahead with the choices we think should be called America’s all-time best war movies.
- RELATED STORY: The Best Wartime Firearms That Appeared in Movies
The 20 films named for this listing of were chosen to show American troops in action in land, sea and air operations in all wars—from the Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, by confining the films here to American forces, many classic war movies do not make our listings—films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Paths of Glory, to name only two.
- RELATED STORY: 32 of the Greatest Military Quotes of All Time
These 20 films are highlighted here with brief previews. Perhaps in these 20 you’ll find a couple you’ve missed over the years. Or, if they’re familiar, perhaps you’ll be inspired to watch them again. That’s not too hard to do today, with DVDs and TV streaming services offering just about every title in the history of film.
Scroll through the gallery above and see what hits made our list of the top 20 American war movies of all time.
The all new MBT-2S two-stage triggers from LaRue Tactical were made out of solid...
by Tactical-Life / Nov 9, 2015