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The 10 Greatest American War Movies

A masterpiece film for every major war involving the United States of America

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Apocalypse Now!
Apocalypse Now! (United Artists)

    The war film has been around since the earliest days of cinema. In America alone, films like All Quiet on the Western Front have chronicled the human experiences of battle for nearly a century now, attempting to capture something which can never be truly understood except by those who have lived it and lived to tell those stories after the fact. While some films favor the chronicling of battle, and others take a more human approach to the effects of war and its aftermath, the war film is a unique genre in that it has often come to inform the ways in which civilians and servicemen alike understand the purpose and functions of domestic and international conflict. For better and worse, they play a role in informing how history is understood and digested by people from all walks of life.

    The tradition of American war stories, pro- and anti-war alike, is a long one full of films both celebratory and nihilistic, hopeful and cynical. Yet the presence of a major war story has also moved us to consider the domestic end of war filmmaking and the ways in which so many different international conflicts have been captured on film over the years. From savagely dark comedies to stirring testaments in favor of the indomitable American spirit, directors have captured the unimaginable in many unique ways. To that effect, we’d like you to join us on a journey through some of the most essential war films, classic and recent alike, about some of the most unfortunate conflicts of the last century and well beyond.

    There’s no one right way to tell a war story, and in fact, we have 10 on hand.

    –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
    Film Editor


    The American Revolutionary War

    John Adams (2008)

    george washington The 10 Greatest American War Movies

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    Surprisingly, there are very few films revolving around the American Revolutionary War — or rather, the American War of Independence, depending on your preferred nomenclature. But if you’re going to make one, there’s really no better author to draw upon than David McCullough, and that’s precisely why Tom Holland’s HBO miniseries adaptation of John Adams is a must-watch for any cinephiles looking to learn some good, ol’ American history. Like the Pulitzer-winning book it draws upon, the award-winning miniseries is exhaustively comprehensive, capturing not only the trials and triumphs of America’s founding father and second president but the country itself, all spread out over seven lush episodes that have the time to go into great detail.

    Holland’s prestigious direction, which would go on to win him a Best Director Oscar two years later for The King’s Speech, adds an elegance to the proceedings. It’s like watching a moving painting, and it helps that the cast look exactly like their respective roles. (Who knew the great David Morse was a total stand-in for Washington? Ha.) But really, the whole shebang boils down to the dynamic chemistry between Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, who play John and Abigail Adams, respectively. Sure, the political mumbo jumbo with Adams is a pleasure to behold, but those intimate scenes between Giamatti and Linney are exceptional. And while, yes, the miniseries does admittedly deviate from the source material in each episode, it’s still a damn fine adaptation.

    Purple Heart (Honorable Mentions): Look, nobody is ever going to say The Patriot is an accurate representation of the Revolutionary War in America. But very few will argue against it being an absolute blast. Hell, it’s probably Roland Emmerich’s best movie, even despite the fact that it suffers from a gluttonous spell of American nationalism. As Professor Mark Glancy, teacher of film history at Queen Mary, University of London argued: “It’s horrendously inaccurate and attributes crimes committed by the Nazis in the 1940s to the British in the 1770s.” True, but it also has one of the best crying scenes in film history, thanks to Mad Mel Gibson, and Jason Isaacs is a delightful scumbag as Tavington. Damn him. Damn that man!

    –Michael Roffman


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    American Indian Wars

    The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

    mohicans The 10 Greatest American War Movies

    Filmmaker Michael Mann’s career in the ’80s was bathed in neon glitz and excess, starting with the just-plain-awesome Thief, detouring to TV with the Don Johnson-dominated Miami Vice, and ending back on the big screen with Hannibal Lecktor’s debut in Manhunter. It was obvious where Mann was headed as he entered into the next decade: the year 1757? Mann proved he was more than a one-trick pony with his adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a piece of historical fiction laden with action, romance, betrayal, romance, violence, and holy moly romance.

    Is it historically accurate? Let me check my AP History notes…who cares? The fiction-based Mohicans is set in New York during the French & Indian War. After a betrayal by their guide Magua (Wes Studi), British troops are ambushed and slaughtered, leaving only the daughters of a Colonel (Madeleine Stowe, Jodhi May) and one British soldier alive. The reason for their survival? The badass Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his family. A romance ensues amidst the backdrop of war, and with it comes the inevitable nightmares of loss on repeat.

    Mann’s film doesn’t shy away from romanticism, even as it deals with death. This wouldn’t work if the chemistry between Day-Lewis and Stowe wasn’t smoldering as all get-out. The connection resonates immediately, as does the passion later on. Add that to the beautiful scenery (filmed in North Carolina), exciting action set-pieces, a classic score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, and a 10-minute climax with no dialogue, and it’s clear that Mohicans is the best film of its historical period, and one of the best of Mann’s career.

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    Purple Heart: Were you expecting Dances with Wolves to at the very least receive this? Sorry to disappoint, but the runner-up goes to Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. His 1970 western blends together comedy and unbearable tragedy as a 120-year-old Jack Crabb (played by an unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman) tells the story of his life as a young man (played by a recognizable Dustin Hoffman) with the Cheyenne and his many adventures. Penn’s movie tends to go unmentioned when talk of great ’70s films comes up, but that’s more a credit to the time period than it is to unforgivable or deliberate omission. It’s an all-timer from Hoffman and that is certainly saying something.

    –Justin Gerber


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