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The greatest war movies ever — Blog

How does Lone Survivor stack up against the Top 10 War Films?

The Peter Berg-helmed, Mark Wahlberg-starring Lone Survivor is a damn good film, but factual inaccuracies aside, is it one of the best war films ever? Not by a long shot, writes Dean Williams.


While Lone Survivor combines all the elements of a great war movie — a stirring soundtrack, suitable amounts of blood and gore and a cast that could pass off as National Guard reservists — it isn’t quite THE great war movie. Watch the following 10 films and you’ll understand why. WARNING: SPOILERS!

The Great Escape

OK, so maybe this is not, strictly speaking, a war film. But it is set during a war, and does involve soldiers, so there! This 1963 classic had more stars in it than the Milky Way, but that just added to its excellence.

The Great Escape is about a group of Allied PoWs attempting to make a daring escape from a German prison camp towards the end of the Second World War.

Featuring Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, James Garner et al there’s enough star wattage to power the Oscars, but more importantly it’s a bloody riveting film. The scene towards the end where McQueen’s ‘The Cooler King’ makes a last ditch attempt to escape the Jerries by attempting to jump a barbed wire fence on a motorcycle is one of the most iconic in film history. Plus who can forget the theme tune, timeless.

The Great Escape is a film for the ages and hasn’t dated one bit, 51 years after it was first released.


Unfortunately, too few films linger with you years after you’ve watched them, but Platoon is certainly one of them. There have been myriad of films made on the Vietnam War, some good, some horrible, but most of them have been mediocre…unsure of whether to draw and quarter the Americans or succumb to jingoism. Thankfully, Oliver Stone has no such qualms. He not so much decided to torture America, as he turned up to the event with a mini-guilottine and a grin.

Platoon is a scathing indictment of the American involvement in Vietnam, but it is also a damn fine film. It’s the film that proves Charlie Sheen can act. It’s a film that proves Tom Berenger is one vicious cat. Above all, it’s a film that proves that falling on your knees while in your death throes makes for a cinematic masterstroke.

The scene where Charlie Sheen watches helplessly from a helicopter as Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias is gunned down by the Viet Cong, is a masterpiece. Add to that Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings playing its melancholy tribute to the fallen and what you’ve got is a scene that not only epitomizes the horror of war but its inherent futility.


Few Allied World War 2 generals were as divisive as US General George S. Patton, and even fewer were as effective. Playing him was a legacy-defining performance by George C. Scott, and as it turned out, an Oscar-winning one.

Patton’s abrasive nature and natural dislike for politicians and armchair warriors made him a complex though imminently filmable character, and Scott picked him apart and put him together with the skill of a man who truly knows how to live in the skin of his characters.

Patton was secretly reviled by his less efficient and far less ambitious colleagues, and respected by many of his German counterparts, most notably Erwin Rommel (in this case the respect was mutual). But Patton was a bruiser, personified by his lines: “There’s only one proper way for a professional soldier to die: the last bullet of the last battle of the last war.” Patton was a military genius, George C Scott proved it took a cinematic one to do him justice.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

There has never been a better partnership between director and cinematographer than David Lean and Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter). On, The Bridge on the River Kwai, however, Lean didn’t have Young’s services. This time the Director of Photography was Jack Hildyard, but that didn’t stop Lean from creating a seminal piece of work, right up there with his best.

Like most war films in the 50s and 60s, Kwai was star studded, with the likes of William Holden, and Alec Guinness at the vanguard of a slew of impressive acting talent. But Lean’s take on the group of Allied PoWs in a Japanese camp forced to build a rail bridge over the river Kwai was to humanize, not only the prisoners, but their keepers as well.

Brilliantly shot in the jungles of Sri Lanka (doubling up for Burma), Kwai travels at a brisk pace, with Guinness and Sessue Hayakava delivering pitch perfect performances. The film, which is based on true events, is long (nearly three hours), but Lean and company make every minute count.

The Deer Hunter

Any film that stars Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken can’t be bad…The Deer Hunter is brilliant.

Directed by Michael Cimino —a superbly talented director, whose entire legacy was undone by the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate — The Deer Hunter focuses on a group of friends sent off to fight in Vietnam and their lives after their tours of duty end.

This is not a film for anyone in the thrall of massive military set-pieces, or flag-waving propaganda, rather it is an introspective look into the way the traumas of war can creep into the very marrow of soldiers and their families.

It was also the film that brought Russian Roulette to a whole new generation in what has now become one of the most disturbing and memorable scenes in cinema.

De Niro and Streep are superb, but it is Walken who comes to personify the film’s angst, rage, and eventual supplication to the fact that life’s shit!

Three Kings

The fact that David O. Russell and George Clooney seemed hell-bent on pummeling each other into submission was great marketing for the film, but it didn’t need it.

Three Kings follows three US marines across Iraq during the First Gulf War as they look for gold allegedly stolen from Kuwait by the retreating Iraqis. Needless to say this is not a philanthropic trip, and their quest for riches sees them land in some pretty unsavory situations.

Stripped of most morality, Three Kings is a triumph, with Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube cavorting across the desert in a sort of Western covered with fossil fuel. The astounding photography, crisp dialogue and a speed that verges on breakneck, means Three Kings is definitely one for keeps.

Apocalypse Now

So maybe Apocalypse Now could have been further down the list, but on repeated viewings it does sort of develop a stoner chic, what with portly Marlon Brando mumbling about horrors and a vacant Martin Sheen spending most of his time on a glorified white-water expedition.

But Apocalypse Now is so much more than all that. It’s Francis Ford Coppola’s dark journey through the labyrinth of a human psyche ripped apart by conflict. It picks at the scabs that refuse to heal and then flings them in your face. This is serious stuff.

And while Sheen set the foundation for what his son would eventually do better in Platoon, this is Brando’s film. His oppressive, menacing shadow hangs over this film as he plays Colonel Kurtz, a US marine gone rogue (physically and mentally) in the deepest jungles of Indo-China. But for war junkies, it was the scene with dozens of Hueys racing through the sky to the crescendo of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, that made this film what it has come to be known as: The Vietnam War, as seen by LSD-crazed men sitting through a cyclone (check it out, it’s true).

Full Metal Jacket

Stanley Kubrick should have had three films on this list (this one, Dr Strangelove, and Paths of Glory) but we decided to pick Full Metal Jacket over the others for three reasons.

The first is because it’s, simply put, a very good film. R. Lee Ermey’s vein-popping outbursts as the drill instructor on a base prepping young men to go out and die in Vietnam is just the icing on the cake.

Second, it is the only Matthew Modine film you need to see. His portrayal of Pvt J.T. ‘Joker. Davis is perfect and belied the fact that the rest of his career would be a heap of garbage (whatever anyone says, Married to the Mob and Cutthroat Island a stinking piles).

Third, it’s bloody brutal. You connect so severely with the characters, that watching them die is an inescapably gut-wrenching experience; couple that with Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-sadistic nuances, and you’re in big trouble. This is one of the few films that will never age.

The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick emerged from a 20-year hiatus to give the world his adaptation of James Jones’s classic novel of the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific theatre of World War II. It seems he spent those two decades discovering new ways to freak us out.

Coddled within Malick’s trademark dreamlike cocoon, The Thin Red Line is poignant, harsh, philosophical and tragic all at the same time.

The cast is so big (Clooney, Cusack, Nolte, Penn, Brody, Travolta, etc) that the names and faces meld into one image. The image of man torn between heroism and cowardice; torn between life and death and the dreadful prospect of achieving one while making no attempt at the other.

Like Jones’s other masterpiece, From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line is an epic investigation into what makes us human in times of war, and who better than Terrence Malick to drive it.

The Hurt Locker

If you pitched a film to studies in the 50s and 60s about a mine-sweeper in WWII, you’d have been laughed off the lot. But in the cauldron of the Iraq war with its IEDs and lethal booby traps, bomb detection squads took centrestage.

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker took all the tension of bomb disposal, multiplied it by 10, took that number, stuck it in a rocket and shot it into orbit.

The Hurt Locker is as close as many of us will come to a bomb without wetting ourselves, and thank god for that. Laden with suspense and bolstered by a superb performance from Jeremy Renner, this film could very well be regarded as a masterpiece in the decades to come.

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