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The Best (and Worst) War Movies of All Time

There is something about the horror, bravery, tragedy, and excitement of combat that has inspires filmmakers and put butts in the seats.

The Hurt Locker

There is something about the horror, bravery, tragedy, and excitement of combat that has inspired filmmakers and put butts in the seats.

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Best War Movie Ever: Black Hawk Down (2001)

Ridley Scott directs our generation's equivalent of The Longest Day, rendering the details of the battle of Mogadishu in full bloody glory and chaos. The emotions take a back seat during the action, but that makes the brief lulls harder to watch as the Rangers and special forces personnel try to fight off an entire city. Violent, slick, well-crafted, and almost devoid of political diatribe, Black Hawk Down is the only must-see war movie on this list.

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Best Antiwar Movie Ever: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

An antiwar movie must not skewer one war but all wars. This one takes a scythe to the idea of a professional soldier. Here we start with the forging of gung ho Marines, the brutal training of battlefield predators. It takes the rest of this movie to show this ethos stripped to its core—an untrained teenage girl can kill just as well. Stanley Kubrick's war movie is staggering, violent, and effective.

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Worst War Movie Ever: Inchon (1981)

Michael Bay can breathe easy: His odious Pearl Harbor (2001) is not the worst war movie ever made. That dubious distinction belongs to Inchon a debacle set in the Korean War. None other than Sir Laurence Olivier stars as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and he mails it in as the general who concocted the amphibious operation that turned the Korean War back to the U.N.-backed allies' favor (briefly.) The movie was funded largely by Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church. His $30 million didn't help what turned into a doomed film. Actors died. Moon demanded reedits. Cardboard cutouts were used as special effects. It's so bad that you can't even rent it. Luckily for the curious or the masochistic, the full movie can be found on YouTube.

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Best Revolutionary War Movie: The Crossing (2000)

Jeff Daniels brings intense life to George Washington and his daring, desperate raid on Trenton on December 26, 1776. If real generals focus on logistics, then real-war movies should as well. The raid entailed crossing a river in silence and attacking Hessian troops under the British flag. The enemies were not only the German mercenaries on the other side but also the timetable, the loading of boats, and the personalities of the rebel leaders. Watching Washington harness, harangue, and hector all the historical figures into action is a pleasure. Without clumsy exposition and flag-waving, the stakes of the event are made clear. All this from a made-for-TV movie.

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Worst Revolutionary War Movie: Revolution (1985)

This stinker prompted Al Pacino to quit movies for four years. To watch it is to understand why. His accent sounds like a Brooklyn butcher who found a time machine and dropped into . . . well, some version of the past. Whatever is on screen is not the American Revolution. The film botched costumes, geography, and details of critical battles, including Yorktown. The plot is ludicrous, and cancerous with cliches. Watch the trailer if you don't believe me.

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Best War of 1812 Movie: The Buccaneer (1958)

There are not a lot of movies about the War of 1812. Of the thin field, The Buccaneer rises to the top—not because of accuracy but because it is undeniably fun to watch Charlton Heston's portrayal of future president Andrew Jackson, as well as Yul Brenner's flamboyant pirate Jean Lafitte. The plot focuses on a true event: Jackson's recruitment of this criminal to supply weapons and fight the British in the 1814 Battle of New Orleans. (Lafitte did so, despite the fact that Americans burned his pirate colony to the ground, for a pardon for his theft and fencing operations.) The Americans win—spoiler alert!—and Lafitte is shown sailing away. But what the film never says is that he's ultimately bound for modern-day Galveston, where he continues his criminal ways, allies with Spain, and attacks U.S. shipping. Watch for the campy scenes of the pirate kingdom, some spirited verbal dueling between main characters and their underlings, and a song from Lafitte that, oddly, jibes with what historians know about him.

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Worst War of 1812 Movie: Mutiny (1952)

The War of 1812 was marked by smuggling operations meant to defeat a crippling British blockade. This is the backdrop of Mutiny, a dull ride that even a young Angela Lansbury and her naked shoulder can't save. The plot: a disloyal crew robs a smuggler trying to move $10 million in gold (an outlandish sum for the time; about $260 million today) by sea. The movie is predictable until it becomes entirely absurd at the moment when the drab hero takes to a submersible to reclaim the McGuffin gold from the British. A submersible? Early attempts at underwater attacks failed miserably.

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Best Mexican-American War Movie: One Man's Hero (1999)

You'd think there'd be a good Alamo film to put here, but you'd be wrong. Technically, the Alamo was part of the Texas Revolution, not the Mexican-American war, and there are no good Alamo movies anyway. This lack of competition means that One Man's Hero wins the category. It's not a great movie, but it does tackle an intriguing, true-life subject—Irish Catholics who deserted to fight with Mexico during the war, putting their faith ahead of their adopted nation. The deserters, called San Patricios, were caught and hung. They are still venerated by Mexicans and the Irish.

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Worst Mexican-American War Movie: One Man's Hero (1999)

Now for the bad: One Man's Hero is boring. The battle scenes are few, the love triangle a convoluted mess, and the attempt at making this story into an epic fails entirely. The movie also offers one-dimensional depictions of entire groups of people, a red flag in politically charged movies.

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Best Civil War Movie: Glory (1989)

The best war movies take a little-known battle and tell the audience why it matters. Glory does this and more. The movie details the founding of the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first black regiments in the Union Army, and paints a complex picture of the Civil War and the end of slavery. Abolitionist Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, the best he'll ever be) commands his troops but doesn't understand them. The unit, in turn, is fighting for respect and equality on the battlefield. The usual Hollywood cop-out canard of "soldier fighting for the man next to him" applies here, but even more so—these are men of conviction. They are fighting for something bigger than themselves or their battalion. And when they charge Fort Wagner, facing massive casualties, the 54th do it for the respect and honor of the sacrifice. It's an unusually moving, solid, and impressive feat of filmmaking. And there have never been better Civil War battles put on film.

Runner-Up: Gettysburg (1993)

Great performances by Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee and Tom Berenger as James Longstreet make this a must-see. It's a great sketch of a pivotal moment in time, an effective deconstruction of the battle, and a subtle character study, especially of those on the Confederate side.

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Worst Civil War Movie: Birth of a Nation (1915)

This is an important movie for its technical aspects, and it was one of the earliest epics in filmmaking. This is a loathsome movie for its content. The heroes are the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. It's a silent movie, so viewers are treated to panels like: "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright." And as a war movie, it fails on another level that many ignore: The battle scenes are stolen imagery from World War I, which was going on at the time.

Runner-Up: Gods and Generals (2003)

This movie didn't have the budget to sustain its ambitions, but suffered more from bouts of clumsy exposition from key characters. The only redeeming quality is a great depiction of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

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Best World War I Movie: Lost Battalion (2001)

Another made-for-television movie that hits the target, this film chronicles the true exploits of 500 men who were cut off during an attack on the Meuse-Argonne sector in France, when they succeeded and the other battalion's advances failed. What follows is a grinding portrayal of World War I combat, with some well-placed special effects and beyond-expectations performances (especially from Rick Schroeder.) It's a triumph of good editing over budget. The screenplay suffers from a little too much obvious exposition about the "melting pot" of the battalion's composition, but the movie is still pretty accurate.

Runner-Up: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

A classic, sprawling film that taps into the great game of world politics, the messianic impulses of people riding too close to history, and guerilla warfare in the desert.

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Worst World War I Movie: Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)

The Red Baron versus the guy who shot him down. How could it go so wrong? It makes the awful Flyboys (2006) with James Franco seem like Lawrence of Arabia. Roger Corman directed this wannabe epic of aerial combat, and he got his hands on some cool WWI airplanes from another movie. But the slim budget, clumsy editing, cliched script, and flat acting make this one unfit to fly. Even worse, on-set accidents claimed the life of excellent pilot Charles Boddington and injured several others. (To see Boddington's work in a good movie, try 1966's The Blue Max).

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Best World War II Movie: Downfall (2004)

The best World War II movie has subtitles and centers on Adolph Hitler. Get over it.

Why pick this over the scores of good World War II movies? Most of the others are exercises in myth-building, most notably the appealing and well-made but worthless Saving Private Ryan. Some try to deconstruct the myth, like the counterculture Kelly's Heroes or The Dirty Dozen. Few films have the guts to immerse a viewer in the war and strip away the context that the future brings.

Downfall centers on several Germans' experiences at the end of the war, including a doctor and a secretary to Hitler. Watching the entire Nazi edifice collapse around them is not satisfying—it's a grand tragedy, epitomized by a Shakespearean performance by Bruno Ganz as Hitler. Equally enthralling are depictions of Eva Braun dancing as the bombs drop, Albert Speer during his last visit to the Fuhrer, and the pathetic, homicidal couple, Magda and Joseph Goebbels. Chilling, absorbing, and entirely of the moment, this flick is enlightening in ways other WWII movies can't touch.

Runner-Up: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

The movie puts a human but mostly unflinching face on the Japanese soldiers facing death at the hands of advancing Marines. Also, the Band of Brothers miniseries from HBO is about as good as it gets in terms of U.S. involvement in the war.

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Worst World War II Movie: Battle of the Bulge (1965)

I never thought Battle of the Bulge was a bad movie until I rewatched it with a more critical eye. It becomes clear why World War II buffs hate the film: The uniforms are wrong; the tanks are wrong. The acting is stolid. The jeeps are modern. The German effort to infiltrate soldiers in fake uniforms is pivotal in the film; in reality it barely worked. (I still like Robert Shaw as the Nazi colonel, though.) Allied bombing of fuel plants—and not ground assaults—choked the Germans' fuel supply. This historic victory of air power is entirely ignored in the movie.

Runner-Up: Pearl Harbor (2001)

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Best Korean War Movie: Pork Chop Hill (1959)

Ordering an attack on a strategically unimportant position is a war movie cliche—it's meant to convey the inhuman calculation that puts real estate over the lives of human beings. It usually doesn't work in movies. The grand exception is Pork Chop Hill, which showcases an attack by American infantry on a hill occupied by North Korean and Chinese troops. The battle happens inch by inch, soldiers crawling and fighting the whole way. The enemy attacks include psychological weapons, such as loudspeakers that tell the assaulting forces they are all doomed to die for no reason. There are peace talks underway, and everyone on the battlefield knows it. The urge to stop advancing puts pressure on the stalwart soldiers, who each reacts in a unique way. The cast is excellent and the direction is tough and unflinching.

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Worst Korean War Movie: MASH (1970)

There are not many movies about the Korean War. So it's annoying that perhaps the most famous one doesn't actually focus on the conflict. MASH riffs on Vietnam while setting the battlefield hospital in Korea. The helicopter, introduced in Korea as a way to get casualties to hospitals, became an icon of the Vietnam War. The tales of cynical, world-weary doctors who misbehave, save lives, and gripe about the folly of war were comments on the war of the time, not the Korean conflict. The movie is much better than the TV show, though, and has an intriguing mix of comedy and bloody surgery. But these positives do not make MASH a great war movie or even a great antiwar movie. Its attitude and willingness to shock the establishment feel stuck in its time.

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Best Vietnam War Movie: Bat 21 (1988)

It's hard to get Vietnam movies right. Go too heavy on the brave men who fought there, and you're a propagandist. Go too far in depicting the horrors of that war, and you're an American flag burner. The best war stories are human stories, and the best of these is Bat 21, starring Danny Glover and Gene Hackman. It's a buddy movie about the pilot of an observation plane and a downed pilot trying to evade capture. It's based on an actual rescue but with a lot dramatic filler added in. The two lead actors carry this movie by establishing a chemistry (via radio) that elevates this above other, better-known Vietnam movies.

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Worst Vietnam War Movie: The Green Berets (1968)

This one was hard—there are so many awful Vietnam movies out there. Many of them are guilt-soaked dirges that slam the war as corrupt, the troops as victims and/or homicidal maniacs, and the enemy as gentle farmers. But The Green Berets, which takes the opposite viewpoint, tops the list. It's a celebration of U.S. Special Forces and is one of the few films that depicts the South Vietnamese forces as anything other than loafers, cowards, and idiots. But the heavy-handedness and cowboys-and-Indians cliches are just too much. When John Wayne's character closes the movie by telling Vietnamese boy Hamchuck: "You're what this thing's all about," any viewer should be ready to throw in the towel. Wayne wanted to create a tribute to the U.S. Special Forces he met during trips to Vietnam, but he missed a central point—overstating your case during a debate can gravely hurt your position.

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Best Persian Gulf War Movie: Jarhead (2005)

People in the military don't like Jarhead, but I did. There was something interesting about watching a Marine go through a war fighting boredom and false expectations more than the enemy. Even highly motivated people can be let down hard by the pace and reality of combat. The film didn't feel urgent or all that meaningful, but it was much better than the book, thanks to director Sam Mendes and good performances all around.

Runner-Up: Live from Baghdad (2002)

Reporter bias is coming through here, but this HBO movie showcases the first big media age war from behind the scenes. Evenhanded and with good acting.

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Worst Persian Gulf War Movie: The Finest Hour (1992)

Navy SEALs at war . . . and they act like teenagers fighting over the love of the same woman. This horrible trope, all too common in war movies, is particularly galling in this worthless film starring Rob Lowe. Just watch the trailer.

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Best Afghanistan War Movie: Lone Survivor (2014)

There's a moment in this movie where a team of SEALs must make a choice: kill prisoners, tie them up and leave them to the elements, or let them go—to almost certainly divulge their position. That's a situation that people face in war, and making the humane choice (as the team did) can be fatal. People are calling Lone Survivor prowar propaganda, but that misses the point. It's true that, at heart, this is a pro-intervention story, complete with friendly Afghans who save the only survivor of the team. But it's also a true story. What many viewers may find uncomfortable is that there are real people in Afghanistan at risk if the U.S. leaves, which is what is happening in Iraq. Ending a war the right way is as important as starting one for the right reasons.

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Worst Afghanistan War Movie: Lions for Lambs (2007)

Another contrived ideological diatribe. Lions for Lambs is as bad as The Green Berets in this regard, but a lot more boring. Robert Redford directed this $35 million effort to prove he's a deep thinker and a man who cannot be fooled by authority. His central tenants of the war on terror come off as preachy and unrealistic, and the soldiers who fight are reduced to sacrificial victims who are tricked into service. Critics hated it, and the AP called it a "box office clunker."

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Best Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Movie: The Hurt Locker (2008)

This is a hard one to endorse. For one thing, there are plenty of inaccuracies that can distract a knowledgeable viewer. But while the details about how an explosive ordnance disposal team go about their work in Iraq may be off, this is still the best movie about the war to date. Why? There are few good movies about the conflict. The tone of the movie is compelling. And the central character shows how people are attracted and addicted to high-tension jobs where serious consequences and high adrenaline morph into a sick need. The movie's best scene is Jeremy Renner's return to civilian life, when he's staring at the endless choices in a supermarket aisle, lost and out of place. That alone puts The Hurt Locker light-years above anything else made about the war.

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Worst Iraq War Movie: Green Zone (2010)

Antiwar sentiments stripped the watchability from many bad movies about Iraq. But someone has to take bottom honors, so I nominate the dull and cringe-worthy Green Zone. The movie takes a reasonable account of the Iraq situation, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, and turns it into conspiracy-theory drivel. The movie maintains that the intelligence used by U.S. troops came from top-down, classified sources that identified a handful of bogus sites that turn out to be playgrounds and such. Stripped of its politics, the movie is generic and dull.

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