Choose any 10 classic war films, and you’ll find they all have one thing in common: humanity. The war itself may take place in modern times or among the great empires of antiquity. But, the story always focuses on the shared humanity of soldiers and victims alike, using war to reveal the eternal tragedy of the human condition.
“All Quiet on the Western Front.” Movies were barely out of their infancy, and World War I only a recent memory, when this classic war film debuted in 1930. A German soldier learns the folly of war in the trenches of the Western Front. “All Quiet” was also one of the first anti-war films ever made.
“The Best Years of Our Lives.“ One of the best films about World War II actually takes place after the last shot has been fired. Returning soldiers Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell find it difficult to adjust to life on the home front after the rigors of war. The film won numerous awards, and Russell collected an unprecedented two Oscars for his role as an amputee.
“The Longest Day.” Hollywood made many war films during and after World War II. In 1962, virtually the entire industry joined forces to present this version of the Normandy Invasion. John Wayne, no stranger to WWII film sets, heads an all-star cast of paratroopers and infantrymen.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Director David Lean’s war picture is as famous as his other masterpiece, “Lawrence of Arabia.” British prisoners of war are forced to build a bridge for the enemy during World War II. The film won numerous awards, including the 1957 Oscar for Best Picture.
“Patton.” General George S. Patton was a maverick whose approach to WWII combat made him a legendary figure. Likewise, the 1970 film used the new absence of studio censorship to make a war movie unlike any seen before. Director Franklin Schaffner and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola won Oscars, as did star George C. Scott.
“Apocalypse Now.” Coppola turned to another war, Vietnam, for his own legendary masterpiece. Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando headline a film as revolutionary as anything Stanley Kubrick ever made. The film is now hailed as a classic, but was controversial when released in 1979 to an America that wasn’t ready to face its latest war.
“Platoon.” Seven years later, in 1986, Americans were finally ready for a film that showed the ugly face of the Vietnam War. Soldier Charlie Sheen faces the horror in the first of a long line of 1980s films that explored the conflict in Southeast Asia. Director Oliver Stone received one of the film’s four Oscars.
“Henry V.” War was no less hellish in ancient times, as the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt proves. Kenneth Branagh’s first Shakespearean film catapulted the 29 year-old writer-director-star to worldwide fame. Branagh’s rousing rendition of the “band of Brothers” speech is still a draw to this day.
“Glory.” The American Civil War set the scene for “Birth of a Nation,” the first epic war movie. Seventy-five years later, it set the scene for this film, about an all-black Union regiment. The film won numerous awards, including Denzel Washington’s first Oscar.
“Saving Private Ryan.” Fifty years after it happened, Steven Spielberg gave the Normandy Invasion the cinematic presentation it deserved. The battlefield drama starring Tom Hanks launched a new wave of war films, including the glorious Hanks-Spielberg TV miniseries “Band on Brothers.” But the story itself is almost an anticlimax after the emotionally draining 27-minute Invasion experience.