Guts and Glory: Top 10 Heroic War Movies
Once upon a time, the average movie hero didn’t wear capes, tights or electrically powered exoskeletons. Instead, they were ordinary men and women (although admitted Hollywood does focus mostly on men) thrust into real-world combat, relying on their temerity and teamwork to save the day amid brutal (and historically accurate) circumstances. Here are 10 war movies that defined heroism from the front lines.
1. Heartbreak Ridge
Sergeant Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood) must transform a ragtag bunch of jokesters into combat-ready soldiers before they’re shipped out to fight during the U.S.’s invasion of Grenada in 1983. Imagine being tasked with reforming Bill Murray’s screwball unit in Stripes and you’ll get a sense of the nearly impossible task Highway has in front of him. Sarcasm and silliness, though, don’t stand a chance against Tom’s grizzled glowering.
2. Inglourious Basterds
Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to rewrite history while simultaneously satisfying his audience’s desire to see Hitler gunned down. However, it’s not der Führer who poses the biggest challenge for this movie’s plucky protagonists; instead, it’s Christoph Waltz’s exuberantly evil Colonel Landa (a.k.a. the Jew Hunter), who has the power to turn men into quivering bowls of jelly through intense, unnerving interrogation.
3. Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick teaches a master class on wartime heroism and valor in this unconventional battle pic. After receiving orders for a mission that’s doomed to fail, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) stands up to his commanders and their callousness toward the lives of his men. Dark and unforgiving, Paths of Glory illustrates the strength and sacrifice of those who fight for what’s right in the face of authority.
Few images in film history are as iconic as this movie’s titular general (played by George C. Scott) standing larger than life in front of an even larger American flag. Deemed stubborn and insubordinate by his officers, the headstrong Patton nevertheless secures victories across enemy lines while inspiring a keen group of soldiers. In a case of life imitating art, Scott infamously and steadfastly refused to accept the Oscar he won for his performance, later saying that doing so would prevent him from “calling my soul my own.”
5. Saving Private Ryan
Led by Tom Hanks as a teacher-turned-captain, a group of soldiers are ordered to track down a paratrooper (Matt Damon) after his four brothers are killed in action. Star-studded cast aside, Saving Private Ryan is most renowned for its ultra-bloody, 27-minute opening sequence, which offers one of the most harrowing depictions of D-Day ever filmed.
6. The Bridge on the River Kwai
A senior British officer (Alec Guinness) is interned at a Japanese prison camp in WWII and coerced into building a bridge for the enemy. What begins as a testament to the British army’s ingenuity turns into a deadly vanity project that a group of Allied commandos intend to destroy.
7. The Dam Busters
In WWII, the Royal Air Force attacked Germany’s well-protected dams with a “bouncing bomb” designed by renowned British scientist Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave). In recreating this real-life mission, known as Operation Chastise, the movie conveys how the triumphs of war are always tempered by the sobering knowledge that innocent human lives are ruined in the process.
8. The Dirty Dozen
Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) turns G.I. convicts into fearless heroes for a seemingly impossible suicide mission. Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas round out the testosterone-fueled cast in a film that no man can resist.
9. The Great Escape
Underground tunnels, motorcycle jumps, a claustrophobic Charles Bronson as Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski (a.k.a. “Tunnel King”) and Steve McQueen as the rebellious “Cooler King” are just a few reasons why The Great Escape is a bona fide war classic. It’s based on the true story of 76 Allied POWs who escape a high-security WWII stalag and attempt to flee the German Gestapo.
10. Twelve O’Clock High
Gregory Peck stars as Brigadier General Frank Savage, who takes over an American bomber unit that has suffered major losses over Germany and France. Savage boosts the troops’ morale and sharpens their skills, whipping his team into shape and executing successful missions when all others failed. The movie’s an expert lesson on determination in the face of overwhelming odds.
For a different type of heroics, check out our list of 10 invasion movies to see before you die.