War is a rough subject that's very hard to fully grasp if you haven't been there. With that being said, the world of cinema has managed to get the horrors and humor of war right a handful of times, according to the accounts of actual veterans who were actually present for the conflict. Is that all it takes to create one of the best war movies?
Realism is important, of course, but it may not mean a ton if a movie itself isn't a must-watch drama that civilians and those curious are looking to years in the future to understand just how grizzly these conflicts can be. The following are a list of films that hit that mark of best war movies in terms of realism and quality, listed in chronological order.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Arguably the most famous war movie on the list, Francis Ford Coppola's tale of a Vietnam soldier tasked with terminating a rogue officer "with extreme prejudice." The story starts off pretty standardly, and slowly devolves into something much darker and different as the film goes on. This has led to some criticism from veterans, many of whom say the first third of the movie is a far more realistic depiction of war than the parts after. Still, the early stuff seems to be spot on and this is, of course, an enduring movie.
Part of this is due to Francis Ford Coppola's vision, which was to adapt the famous 1899 novella Heart of Darkness into a story about Vietnam. Luckily, the film's engaging story and iconic moments have made it a classic amongst war movie aficionados and certainly a contender for the best war movie of all time.
Das Boot (1981)
Das Boot was a German drama that was based on the novel of the same name and the efforts of a real German submarine, the U-96. The movie was created using a mock-up replica of the actual ship, in an effort to effectively capture the mixture of inaction and action German submariners went through during WWII.
Though the novel's author criticized Das Boot for its glorification of war (the book was meant to be anti-war), American and German audiences responded well to the movie. That's likely thanks in no small part to this best war movie's painstaking recreation of the boat, which was also rented by Steven Spielberg during production for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
There are several great films about the Vietnam War, although Platoon tends to stand out as one of the leaders of the pack in terms of realism. This "best war movie" is often mentioned by Vietnam veterans of one of the most accurate depictions of the war, thanks in no small part to its Vietnam veteran director, Oliver Stone.
Unlike other popular war movies like Apocalypse Now, Stone's screenplay meshes his experience with the accounts of other Marines who were in the conflict. The result was a graphic and powerful performances by talented actors and a depiction of war that won't soon be forgotten. It's even hard to find a criticism on inaccuracies it shows, which speaks both to its realism and quality as one of the best war movies.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
When one thinks of the best war movies, Saving Private Ryan may and definitely should be at the top of the list. The Omaha landing sequence is frequently referenced as one of the most accurate war scenes of WW2 in cinematic history which, quite frankly, is a terrifying thought. What's more impressive is the scene did not get a storyboard, and Steven Spielberg opted instead to direct his camera toward more spontaneous moments.
There are a few less factual parts of the tale, but Steven Spielberg explained that he let realism fall by the wayside for a couple of scenes for dramatic effect, to better speak to the emotion of the story. Perhaps more so than any other entry on this list, Saving Private Ryan walks the line between fact and fiction the best.
Black Hawk Down (2002)
Black Hawk Down is Ridley Scott's telling of The Battle of Mogadishu with an all-star cast that includes the likes of Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, and Tom Hardy. The story follows three special forces units, all tasked with capturing Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Things go south, and result in an event that ended in the death of 1000 Somali and 19 American soldiers.
While Black Hawk Down is often lauded as one of the best war movies for its accurate combat depictions, it has found criticism for being a fairly one-sided account of the conflict. In reality American soldiers were aided by Malaysian and Pakistani forces, neither of which are represented in the movie. Additionally, Somali advocacy groups have noted the depiction of Somalis in the film is inaccurate, and it's worth noting no Somalis were cast in the film.
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers is a more modern film that chronicles the Vietnam War, and specifically, the Battle of la Drang. It's spot as one of the best war movies is backed by the numerous efforts made to maintain realism and recall the events of Hal Moore's memoir We Were Soldiers Once... And Young.
For all the movie gets right, it does bend the truth in showing the final charge by American forces. There was no such event, and the North Vietnamese were not destroyed. It's one of the big glaring differences, but for the most part, the rest are simply details that seem trimmed for the sake of shortening the story. Perhaps if a TV series was made, the full depiction of events could be brought to life.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Speaking of atypical depictions of war, Hacksaw Ridge tells the mostly true account of Desmond Doss, who went through his service in WW2 without a weapon. Despite his lack of a firearm, Doss saved numerous lives in The Battle of Okinawa at the cost of severe injuries that inevitably affected the rest of his life.
Surprisingly, the factual inaccuracies of Hacksaw Ridge are not on the field of battle, but in the stories outside of Desmond Doss' service. Doss' wife didn't become a nurse until after the war, and the family fight that encouraged him to never use a weapon was between his uncle and father, not his father and mother. Doss was never actually court martial-ed, but was threatened many times. It makes for a great story nonetheless, hence its place on the list.
There are plenty of great war movies and plenty of other realistic war movies out there, so if there are any that have been left off the list that deserve mention for an exceptional mix of quality and realism, drop it down in the comments below. We're always looking to add to our binge-watching lists anyway.