10 The Bridge on the River KwaiThe lavish production that launched Lean into the big league is grand, grown-up and full of eye-popping set pieces and moral complexity.
9 The Dirty Dozen
Robert Aldrich, 1967
Real-life former marine Lee Marvin has to mould 12 convicted murderers into a crack unit to assassinate a slew of SS officers. Entertaining sparring leads to a dark climax.
8 The Great Escape
John Sturges, 1963
The POW escape movie is a subgenre all of its own – and this, inspired by a real breakout, is the most celebrated example. No matter how many times you see it, you always will Steve McQueen not to plough his motorbike into that fence.
7 Where Eagles Dare
Brian G Hutton, 1968
Richard Burton’s British major joins forces with Clint Eastwood’s US lieutenant and takes on pretty much the entire Wehrmacht. Proof that Allied soldiers were not only better than their Axis counterparts, they were also better looking.
Michael Curtiz, 1942
Casablanca’s chief battleground is one of hearts rather than guns, but it’s also emphatically a war movie, playing out in a Vichy-controlled territory. Bogey! Bergman! That bar! That song! And, above all, that screenplay.
5 Ice Cold in Alex
J Lee Thompson, 1958
The uninitiated may dismiss this as just another Fifties three-cheers-for-Blighty war flick, but it is far more sophisticated: less a tale of Brits v Germans than of man v the elements.
4 Schindler’s List
Steven Spielberg, 1993
At once a great achievement and a desperately upsetting picture to watch, Spielberg’s adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s historical novel Schindler’s Ark cuts directly to the heart of the Nazis’ poisonous ideology.
3 The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick, 1998
This came out just months after Saving Private Ryan and, while like Spielberg’s film it doesn’t shrink from depicting the terrors and frustrations of war, it at times makes a virtue of reining in the gore and has near-spiritual moments.
2 Das Boot
Wolfgang Petersen, 1981
Petersen’s best film, this tale of 42 submariners trying to sink as much Allied shipping as possible while staying alive is riveting: tense, sweaty and full of robust gallows humour, with liberal and expert use of Steadicam to convey the grim claustrophobia of living in a metal box that could so easily become a coffin.
1 Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg, 1998
No film-maker has ever plunged the audience into the nowhere-to-hide horror of battle as Spielberg does in the opening 25 minutes with his meticulous depiction of the D‑Day landings on Omaha Beach. His refusal to show us the same gruesome episode twice means we never have the luxury of developing any psychological resistance. It’s a terrifying spectacle and a magnificent tribute to the men who did it for real.