What are the hallmarks of a great war film? Realism? Unforgettable combat sequences? Memorable dialogue? Powerful performances? Timeless themes? Lasting impact?
Early in my military career I had a supervisor who often used quotes from war movies in everyday conversation and grew frustrated when doing so garnered blank looks. Hence he lent my peers and me stacks of movies (yep, on VHS tape) to help increase our movie IQ. This initial military education spanned genres and included films such as Hamburger Hill, The Green Berets, Force 10 from Navarone, Private Benjamin, Stripes, and others.
I soon learned that certain war films have become ingrained in military culture, and a well-timed movie quote or reference can sometimes communicate a great deal. Years later, I was fortunate to run a war movie series at graduate school, which helped spark discussion on various topics spanning the tactical and strategic levels of war—again, reinforcing the relevance of such films.
Acknowledging the many possible criteria of a “great” film, I'm going to go out on a limb and propose seventeen great war films. To be sure, these choices are highly subjective. They largely reflect my personal preferences, and many will undoubtedly disagree with my picks or will argue I overlooked other deserving films (spoiler alert: I did not include documentaries on this list). But in my opinion the following films successfully encompass diverse aspects of war, they all stand up to multiple viewings, and they all meet my personal threshold of being “great.”
Without further ado, here is my list: