War is hell. Unless of course it’s Oscar season. Then, war movies like The Hurt Locker are awesome! In the over 90-year history of the Academy Awards, 16 war movies have won Best Picture at the Oscars. Compare that to Musicals that won Best Picture (10), Comedies (7) Westerns (4) and finally Fantasy (1), and you can clearly see that the Academy shines brightly on people getting gored or blown to smithereens set to dramatic music.
And I’m no better. My favorite movie is Apocalypse Now. I, like many other people, must seemingly love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like…Oscar bait. That said, some war movies are better than others, and I aim to inform you of which of the Best Picture winning war flicks you might want to check out, and which ones you might want to leave in the trenches. A-ten-hut!
16. Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Directed by William Wyler, who also directed Ben-Hur and the far superior war movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, this turkey, I mean, romantic war drama, is about a housewife (played by Greer Garson, who won Best Actress) who is left at home while the men in her life go off to war. But she handles it all bravely.
It’s not that Mrs. Miniver is bad. It’s just that it’s boring and also feels like propaganda. It won in 1943 and beat Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which is just no.
15. The English Patient (1996)
Speaking of boring, the movie that Elaine from Seinfeld hates, The English Patient is an exercise in tedium. Directed by Anthony Minghella, who also won Best Director, and starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, and Willem Dafoe, this film is about a horribly burned cartographer (Fiennes) who tells his story to a nurse about a romance he had prior to World War II.
I have tried to watch this movie twice and fell asleep both times. Visually, it looks nice, but this is much more of a romance movie than a war film, which is fine. It’s just not for me. Or Elaine, apparently. It famously beat Fargo in 1997, which is just plain wrong.
14. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is the highest grossing movie of all time, and I couldn’t tell you why. Directed by Victor Fleming, who also directed The Wizard of Oz, this epic romance stars a massive cast including Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, and Hattie McDaniel, who is the first black person to ever win an Academy Award. It takes place during the Civil War on the side of the losers. Yes, the losers.
I find Gone With the Wind to be bloated and boring. And I don’t even care about the racism. I just care that it’s too long. Plus, Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most annoying characters in cinema history. It beat both The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach in 1940 and shouldn’t have beaten either.
13. Patton (1970)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who won and accepted his Best Director award, and starring George C. Scott who DIDN’T accept his Best Actor award, Patton is a biographical film about the famous general, George S. Patton. And George C. Scott is great in the role! It’s just the rest of the movie that’s super lackluster.
We get that great opening scene with the speech in front of the flag, but the rest of the film falls flat. I do like that it doesn’t lionize Patton, but I feel like the rest of the cast around George C. Scott might as well have been cardboard cutouts. It beat the far better war movie, MASH in 1971.
12. Braveheart (1995)
Notorious for its historical inaccuracies, Braveheart was directed by and stars Mel Gibson. He won Best Director, but wasn’t even nominated for his performance as Scottish Warrior, William Wallace.
Braveheart is a very violent film about the Scots vs. the King of England. It’s brought to you by the same man who would later make the story of Christ a splatterfest. The battles are cool in this one, but it just feels like something’s missing, story-wise. It beat Apollo 13 and Babe in 1996, and I would have given it to Babe.
11. Wings (1927)
The first film to ever win Best Picture (and the only silent film to win), Wings is about two pilots in WWI who start out as rivals, but eventually become friends... to tragic results.
This was also the only year that TWO movies won Best Picture, the other being Sunrise. I like Wings because the story is competent, and the aerial battles are pretty impressive, but there’s a love story shoved in that feels unnecessary. Sunrise is the far better film.
10. Platoon (1986)
Oliver Stone’s Vietnam film starring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe and many others is about the war itself, but also about the men fighting it, and whether it was right or wrong. The answer isn’t entirely clear.
Platoon is a fine film that is very morose, but I just can’t shake the feeling that there are far better Vietnam movies, including Oliver Stone’s own follow-up, Born on the Fourth of July. The Academy Awards in 1987 were pretty weak though, so Platoon deserved the win.
9. The Hurt Locker (2009)
The first movie to have a woman (Kathryn Bigelow) win Best Director, The Hurt Locker, which stars Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, is about bomb disposers in the Iraq War. It is the last war movie to win Best Picture.
The film is super intense, at parts, and an interesting character study. But I would have liked if it had shown more of what life is like after such deadly and traumatic events. It beat Avatar, which was the favorite, but I really would have preferred Inglorious Basterds, or even District 9, over The Hurt Locker.
8. The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
Directed by David Lean and based on a book by Pierre Boulle, who also, oddly enough, wrote the novel, Planet of the Apes, The Bridge on the River Kwai stars Alec Guinness, William Holden, and Jack Hawkins as British POWs, and Sessue Hayakawa as the Japanese colonel who is making them build the eponymous bridge over the River Kwai.
I like the movie, but it has pacing issues. I love that Hayakawa’s character has a ticking clock of his own to get the bridge completed, but I think a lot could have been cut out for a brisker story. The movie beat 12 Angry Men in 1958, which I don’t agree with at all. Lean also won for Best Director, but I’m okay with that. It’s an epic film.
7. From Here to Eternity (1953)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra, this war film takes place in Hawaii right before Pearl Harbor, so there’s a sense of dread throughout the entire movie.
But it’s not full of hopelessness! The characters are all just living their lives, and it’s only the viewer who understands that all of this is about to come to an end soon. It’s a master study on dramatic irony. It beat Shane in 1954, and I can live with that.
6. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Directed by Michael Cimino and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and Meryl Streep, this Vietnam drama is about steel workers who go to 'Nam, and come back different men.
I have heard that war feels like long stretches of boredom that are punctuated with quick bursts of adrenaline-pumping fear, and I feel the same way about this movie. Of course there’s the famous Russian roulette scene, but the rest of the film has glacial pacing. But that ending, though. Wow! It beat Coming Home in 1979, which is another good war drama.
5. All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
The third movie to ever win Best Picture, All Quiet on the Western Front is a powerhouse. Showing the German side in WWI and actually making them sympathetic, Front is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made.
Lewis Milestone won Best Director, and it was well deserved. The men playing soldiers go from fear to disillusionment to hopelessness, sometimes in the very same scene. You’ve likely never heard of any of the films it beat in 1931, because I sure haven’t.
4. Casablanca (1943)
Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca is about an American ex-patriot nightclub owner (Bogart) who reignites with an old flame (Bergman), but still does the right thing, since his former lover has a husband.
Considered the greatest film of all time by some, Casablanca is a great movie with tons of intrigue and romance, but it doesn’t really feel like a war movie, as the war is completely in the backdrop. That’s fine, but I don’t really think of this as a war movie at all. Not even a little. The film beat 9 other movies to win the title, with The Ox-Bow Incident being the only other movie I’ve seen.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s best film is also his most personal. Starring Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, and Caroline Goodall, this Holocaust film explicitly shows the true horrors in the concentration camps, and the people who stepped up to do what was right.
Schindler’s List is another “war” film that doesn’t really feel like a war film, as it shows the often unheard of sufferers from the great war. It earns its tears, and should be forever shown in schools around the world, despite (or maybe because of) its horrors. It beat the also great The Piano in 1994.
2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean won yet again for Lawrence of Arabia, which stars real soldier, T.E. Lawrence, as he banded with other Arab nations to take down the Turks in the desert.
What can be said about Lawrence that hasn’t already been said? Epic in scope, this is the kind of film that is fine on the TV, but would be amazing on the big screen. Plus, instead of focusing on multiple soldiers, the story is much more focused on the life of just one and how his actions created a massive ripple effect. It beat the also great To Kill a Mockingbird in 1963, but come on now. It’s Lawrence of Arabia, one of the greatest movies of all time. It had to win.
1. The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
Interestingly, the director of this film, William Wyler, did both the worst movie on this list, as well as the best. Starring Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives is about three veterans returning from World War II and suffering from then undiagnosed P.T.S.D. The Deer Hunter is kind of like this, too, but that movie’s much less subtle, and the subtlety is what makes this movie a masterpiece.
We get a sense that these are changed men, but they’re struggling to understand that it’s them who’ve changed and not the world itself. It’s powerful stuff, and it even beat It’s a Wonderful Life, which I also love, but not as much as this heavy drama.
War movies will always have a seat at the table (1917, anyone?), as long as Hollywood keeps making them. But what do you think is the greatest war movie to win Best Picture? Sound off in the poll below!
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Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.