Dads looking for something to watch on television before falling asleep may be the primary demographic for classic war films, but anyone can appreciate the genre’s emphasis on heroism, self-sacrifice, dignity, and duty. The title of “war movie” is simply too broad to be completely pigeonholed; even when dealing with the realities of armed conflict, the films listed below assume a wide variety of tones, perspectives, and even attitudes toward the wars they depict. From the America-first rah-rah propagandizing of WWII documentaries to the soul-sick reflections on the personal rot of Vietnam, take a look at the finest films about soldiers and those who command them currently streaming on Netflix.
Cinema hasn’t given us many images more patriotically stirring than George C. Scott in his full dress uniform, striding before the stars and stripes while delivering a rousing inspirational speech. But one thin layer beneath the perfectly pressed nationalism, there are more complicated, troubling forces at play in this biopic of the celebrated military man. George Patton was an unrivaled strategist and an almost robotically driven soldier, but as portrayed by Scott, he was also a coarse, ruthless man who got in his own way when forced to interact with the higher-ups. He’s a Caesar-type figure, the kind of disciplined savage necessary to win in times of great crisis, but without a place in the civilized society that must follow.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Thirty years after Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick returned to the battlefield a changed man. His work had grown darker, colder, more obsessed with obsession in the intervening decades. The Kubrick stare gets a heavy workout, and the combat sequences are unbearably intense. (One encounter with a young sniper will shred your nerves to ribbons.) At once a condemnation of war and a reproduction of its inhumane conditions, it can stand with the best of Kubrick’s prime.
Hyena Road (2015)
In which Canada takes Afghanistan. This production from our neighbor to the north follows a team of snipers in enemy territory who get caught in the crossfire between a radical freedom fighter known as the Ghost and the local Taliban presence. Director Paul Gross aims to show the war at its most personal, whether it’s an act of revenge or a bid for self-salvation. Gross has the technical chops to make the suspenseful scenes crackle with tension, and his cast of actors (mostly Canadian stalwarts little-known in the U.S.) use their relative anonymity to melt into their roles. We’re still waiting for the real world to tell us whether this film has a happy ending.
The Longest Day (1962)
The title refers to June 6, 1944 — the day Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, turning the tide of World War II. (At least, in the American telling; a Russian one might differ.) Taking great care to capture every moving part in this massive war machine, the film makes use of each minute of its three hours. Even the personnel communicates the staggering scope of this thing: Three different directors were credited, one handling the British and French material, another for the American plot thread, and a third for the Germans. The gigantic ensemble cast contains everyone from John Wayne to Sean Connery to Henry Fonda, too. In every sense of the word, this is the Avengers of war movies.
The Desert Fox (1951)
We don’t know if Nazi officer Erwin Rommel was really part of the covert campaign to assassinate Hitler, and historians have differing opinions on whether he was truly the morally sound dissenter this film makes him out to be. But what we know for sure is that James Mason is in top form as the ambivalent general, bringing his strong-and-silent star image to a story of shrewd courage (however fictionalized it may be). Mason gives one of his classic man’s-man performances, showing the tortured soldier torn between a sense of pragmatic Manichean good and a loyalty to his country and brothers-in-arms. Good myth-making has never been 100 percent accurate.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
It’s the war film as only Quentin Tarantino could do it: filled with era-appropriate pop-culture references (who’s up for a game of Celebrities?) and long, digressive dialogues that jump between languages as freely as they jump between topics. The movie-history magpie refashioned a World War II thriller about a squad of Jewish-American commandos as a revisionist revenge fantasy where towering, jacked mensches tee off on Third Reich skulls, and Hitler goes down in a flaming cinematheque. Definitely the most fun movie about the brutal inhumanity of the European theater, it gives Brad Pitt a role to feast on and introduced American audiences to a eccentric chameleon by the name of Christoph Waltz.
Beasts of No Nation (2015)
The war depicted in this harrowing film from True Detective season-one mastermind Cary Fukunaga has no name, no start or end point. Organized violence is simply a way of life in one of Africa’s more politically turbulent pockets, and gangs like the one headed by a ruthless Idris Elba–played warlord aren’t all that uncommon. But Fukunaga gets us uncommonly close to the action by focusing on one young boy’s forced conscription and moral fall from grace. First-time actor Abraham Attah, playing young Agu with stony strength, puts a face on an issue many Western viewers think of only in the abstract and personifies the heartbreaking loss of innocence all children must face.
A severe, festival-favored international co-production between Germany, Italy, and Austria is the last place you’d expect a viral meme to spin out of, but hey, we live in weird times. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film is so much more than the oft-parodied scene of Adolf Hitler choked with apoplexy in his planning bunker, though; this detail-oriented account of the final ten days of the Third Reich plays like sober, thorough, and yet gripping historical reportage. As the führer collapses into nothingness and handles his impending defeat by dragging as many people down with him as possible, the camera acts as a solemn witness to evil’s last gasp. Three hours of brutality culminating in a gruesome final act littered with corpses, it’s the single most ambitious screen biography of Hitler.
A War (2015)
Tobias Lindholm’s Academy Award nominee is atypical in all the right ways. It’s the rare foreign film to train its crosshairs on the current global war on terror in the Middle East, like a Hurt Locker with Danish accents. It’s really only partly a war movie, though, spending its first half setting up a tragic event which then becomes the subject of the courtroom proceedings that fill the back half. Far more interested in the ethics and ramifications of conflict than the valor it can inspire — the closest thing we get to a hero is a frightened pacifist — Lindholm spares no expense to acknowledge the preciousness and meaning of each life lost on the battlefield. Every bullet counts.
The Five Came Back collection
To accompany their documentary adaptation of Vulture columnist Mark Harris’s book on Golden Age Hollywood directors shooting on the front during World War II, Netflix has added a wide selection of those filmmakers’ nonfiction output during the period. After learning about the great lengths these men went to in order to capture the realities of war, you can check out the fruits of their labor: John Huston inspired Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master with Let There Be Light, his look at the struggles veterans face after returning to the home front; and John Ford played up the red-white-and-blue heroism in his chronicle of The Battle of Midway. But be warned: The anti-Asian bite of Frank Capra’s agitprop flick Know Your Enemy: Japan has not aged quite as well.