America’s 10 best war movies since WWII

From ‘Apocalypse Now’ to ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ here are the finest accounts of the chaos and the aftermath of going into battle.

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Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent to kill a rogue U.S. officer in Cambodia in “Apocalypse Now.”

American Zeotrope/Miramax

On May 8, 1945, World War II in Europe came to an end. Four months later, in September of 1945, Japan surrendered and the war was finally, thankfully, at long last, over.

In the 75 years since then, Hollywood has made hundreds of movies about war, with several ranking among the greatest films of all time regardless of genre. In our newest “Best Movies” podcast, my co-host Roe Conn and I spotlight 10 of the best American post-war movies released since 1946.

Before we even get to the list: I know. How could we not include “MASH” or “Black Hawk Down” or “In Harm’s Way” or “Born on the Fourth of July” or “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Hurt Locker” or “Patton” or “Three Kings” or “American Sniper” or “From Here to Eternity” or “Inglorious Basterds” or “Casualties of War” or “The Longest Day” or “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Twelve O’Clock High” et al.? You could make a list of 10 films that didn’t make OUR list and it would be just as good. In that same vein, although this is a Top 10 list, there’s very little difference between No. 10 and No. 1. They’re all four-star classics.

10. “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)


Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Columbia Pictures

Kathryn Bigelow’s searing docudrama chronicles the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, as seen mostly through the experiences of Jessica Chastain’s fictional CIA operative. With a brilliant script by the journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker,” “Detroit”) and strong work by the ensemble cast including Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and, in one of his last performances, James Gandolfini, who commands the screen in a brief role as then-CIA director Leon Panetta.

9. “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)


“The Best Years of Our Lives” stars Harold Russell (from left), Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Fredric March and (standing) Hoagy Carmichael.

RKO Radio Pictures

Inspired by a Time magazine article about veterans experiencing PTSD (before that was a term), William Wyler’s heartbreaking yet inspirational drama was decades ahead of its time. It’s the tale of three WWII veterans — a petty officer, a platoon sergeant and a bombardier— who return home to their “normal” lives, which will never be the same. Winner of seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, best actor for Fredric March — and best supporting actor for Harold Russell, a non-actor who had lost both of his hands to the war.

8. “Coming Home” (1978)


Jane Fonda and Jon Voight in “Coming Home.”

United Artists

Released just a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, Hal Ashby’s emotionally gripping classic was a frank and warm and explicit look at the effects of the war on two veterans and a military wife who experiences an awakening. Jon Voight won best actor for his moving performance as paraplegic veteran turned war protester Luke Martin, and Jane Fonda won best actress for her role as Sally Hyde, who is married to a Marine captain (Bruce Dern) but falls in love with Luke. “Coming Home” makes great use of pop and rock music, from six Rolling Stones songs including “Out of Time” and “Sympathy for the Devil” to “Bookends” by Simon & Garfunkel to “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.

7. “Platoon” (1986)


Willem Dafoe (from left), Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger in “Platoon.”

Orion Pictures

Oliver Stone’s response to John Wayne’s “The Green Berets.” Loosely based on Stone’s experiences as a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam, this is an unvarnished, shock-to-the-system look at the chaos and insanity of war. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, and featuring strong work from Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Keith David, Kevin Dillon, John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp.

6. “Full Metal Jacket” (1987)

Stanley Kubrick’s chilling, darkly funny, brutal and unforgettable masterpiece is really two movies in one. The first half walks us through the grueling and ultimately tragic boot camp training on Parris Island, South Carolina, and part two is set during the Tet Offensive. “Full Metal Jacket” was filmed entirely in England, because of course it was Stanley Kubrick, who acquired some 100,000 plastic tropical plants to replicate a jungle setting and purchased tanks from a Belgian Army colonel who was a big Kubrick fan. The late great R. Lee Ermey was originally hired to be a consultant on the film until Kubrick recognized how perfect he’d be as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. 

5. “The Thin Red Line” (1998)


Sean Penn (left center) as Welsh and Nick Nolte (right center) in “The Thin Red Line.”

20th Century Fox

Terrence Malick’s first film in 20 years depicted the Battle of Mount Austen in the Pacific Theater of World War II. This is one of the most stunningly photographed war movies of all time, filled with memorable and haunting images — as well as some poetic, dreamlike interludes. The very nature of most war movies calls for an ensemble cast, and this is one of the best: Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Jared Leto, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson and George Clooney, some in glorified cameos, others in starring roles. Martin Scorsese called this one of the very best films of the 1990s.

4. “Flags of Our Fathers”/“Letters From Iwo Jima” (2006)


Adam Beach (from left), Ryan Phillippe and Jesse Bradford in “Flags of Our Fathers.”


An incredible dual accomplishment from then 76-year-old director Clint Eastwood, who told the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima first from the American point of view and then from the Japanese side. “Flags” is reminiscent of “The Best Years of Our Lives” in that it tells the story of the American soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima coming home, with many of them uncomfortable to say the least at being portrayed as heroes. “Letters” wasn’t the first major film to humanize the enemy, e.g., “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), but it’s arguably the best.

3. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)


Tom Hanks (from left), Matt Damon and Edward Burns in “Saving Private Ryan.”


We’d never seen anything quite like the visceral, bloody, horrific, shocking opening 27-minute sequence depicting the Omaha Beach assault during the Normandy landings, and more than 20 years later, it’s still the standard for epic battle scenes. Near the very end, when Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller tells Matt Damon’s Private Ryan to “earn this,” meaning to live a life worthy of the sacrifices made to save it: chills every time. “Saving Private Ryan” won Oscars for director Steven Spielberg and for the editing, sound and cinematography, but lost to “Shakespeare in Love” for best picture in one of most wrongheaded votes in Academy Awards history.

2. “The Deer Hunter” (1978)


Robert De Niro in “The Deer Hunter.”

Universal Pictures

Michael Cimino gave us an American classic in three acts: the joyous and raucous wedding sequence (which ranks alongside “The Godfather” as the best reception scenes ever), the horrific P.O.W. and Russian Roulette nightmares in Vietnam, and the return home. Brilliant work by Robert De Niro, John Savage, Meryl Streep and best supporting actor winner Christopher Walken.

1. “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

There are some who say Francis Ford Coppola’s best movie isn’t the “Godfather” saga but this sprawling, messy, magnificent, chaotic take on the Vietnam War and what war in general does to a man’s body and mind and heart and soul. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s close. Few movies in motion picture history contain as many unforgettable sequences, as many quotable lines, as many indelible visuals, as “Apocalypse Now.” Once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to listen to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” or the Doors’ “The End” without instantly seeing this movie in your mind.

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