20 Classic War Films That Continue To Touch Our Hearts & Minds

The first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was a war movie. Wings, released in 1927, was a high-flying World War I adventure about two combat pilots who feel the need for speed (not to mention for Clara Bow as the girl next door). For almost a century, Hollywood has saluted the military to honor generations of heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and to spotlight the “good fights” that best represent America’s vision of democracy and freedom.

WINGS, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, Clara Bow, 1927.

Everett Collection

Many Hollywood legends — James Stewart and Clark Gable among them — were actual war heroes. Countless other entertainers distinguished themselves off the battlefield by entertaining the troops or raising money and morale. The Gary Sinise Foundation, started by the actor who portrayed Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, has raised not only millions for vets, first responders and their families, but also awareness of the issues they face on the homefront.

ReMIND begins its Memorial Day celebration with this sampling of classic war movies that continue to thrill, commemorate and inspire

A few good men

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

“You gotta learn right and you gotta learn fast. And any man who doesn’t want to cooperate, I’ll make him wish he had never been born.” John Wayne was tall in the saddle but even taller in uniform as Sgt. Stryker, tasked with turning ragtag recruits into Marines, the Duke was nominated for his first Academy Award.

The D.I. (1957)

“There must be a man under that baby powder.” Jack Webb stars as a tough-as-nails Marine drill instructor who refuses to give up on a coddled private.

Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

HEARTBREAK RIDGE, 1986, (c)Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Everett Collection

“Surrender is not in our creed.” Clint Eastwood is Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway, an old-school Marine pushing mandatory retirement. His unorthodox training methods prepare his undisciplined platoon for the invasion of Grenada.

The Heroes

Sergeant York (1941)

Gary Cooper hit the bull’s-eye with his Oscar-winning performance as Medal of Honor recipient Alvin York, a conscientious objector who became one of World War I’s most decorated soldiers.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Spencer Tracy stars as Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who led the heroic bombing raid on Tokyo following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, Don DeFore, Van Johnson, Robert Walker, 1944

Everett Collection

Patton (1970)

“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” George C. Scott won (and famously refused) the Academy Award for Best Actor for his commanding performance as Patton in this epic biopic cowritten by Francis Ford Coppola.

We Were Soldiers (2002)

“When we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off, and I will leave no one behind.” Mel Gibson stars as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who led the first major land battle in the Vietnam War.

The Tuskegee Airmen (2012)

This HBO production chronicles the exploits of the United States Army Air Corps’ first African-American combat pilots, who overcame racism and segregation to distinguish themselves in World War II.

American Sniper (2014)

The highest-grossing war movie of all time. Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle, a marksman nicknamed “The Legend,” who had 160 confirmed kills during the Iraq War.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Andrew Garfield was nominated for an Academy Award as Desmond Doss, a World War II combat medic who refused to compromise his religious beliefs and carry a gun in battle. President Harry S. Truman awarded Doss the Medal of Honor for rescuing 75 of his fellow soldiers.

HACKSAW RIDGE, Andrew Garfield, 2016. ph: Mark Rogers/ © Lionsgate /Courtesy

Everett Collection

The Missions

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Oscar winner Alec Guinness stars as Col. Nicholson, a British officer locked in a battle of wills with his Japanese captor, with William Holden as an escaped American soldier on a mission to blow up the supply bridge Nicholson’s men are constructing as a matter of honor.

Everett Collection

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

“You slept through The Guns of Navarone?” This recurring joke in the classic Dick Van Dyke Show episode “You’re Under Arrest” is an indication of the high-caliber action in store when a team of commandos (among them Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn) lead an assault on a Nazi-occupied Greek island to destroy the title weaponry.

The Longest Day (1962)

Legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day used three credited directors — for the American, British and German segments, respectively — to tell the story of the D-Day landings at Normandy. The international all-star cast includes John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Sean Connery and … Paul Anka?

The Great Escape (1963)

To harass their German captors, Allied POWs plot an audacious exit from their stalag. Best known for Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jump over a barbed-wire fence (actually performed by stuntman Bud Ekins).

Battle of the Bulge (1965)

A 50-hour clock is ticking for the Germans (led by a tank commander played by Robert Shaw) to mount an all-out operation against the American lines. An intelligence officer (Henry Fonda) must convince superiors of his crackpot hunch that an attack is coming. The film is shown in widescreen Cinerama and directed by Ken Annakin, who co-directed The Longest Day (and whose name George Lucas took for the boy who would be Darth Vader!).

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Lee Marvin leads “the most twisted, antisocial bunch of psychopathic deformities” on a suicide mission behind enemy lines to blow up a Nazi chateau.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

“Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood — in a classic pairing — team up to rescue a captured American general being held by the Germans in the Bavarian Alps.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Matt Damon plays the titular soldier, whose brothers have perished in battle, and whom Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) and company are charged with bringing home.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner stars as Staff Sgt. William James, whose particular set of skills is defusing bombs under enemy fire in Iraq.

Dunkirk (2017)

On land, hundreds of thousands of troops are stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk and await annihilation by the advancing Germans. On the sea, an armada of civilian craft races to rescue as many as they can. In the air, British pilots engage German planes headed toward the tiny French port.

DUNKIRK, 2017. ph: Melinda Sue Gordon/

Warner Bros. Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

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April 2024

Return with us to the year film fans acknowledge as the finest in Hollywood history, 1939.

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