From patriotic films and public service announcements to retellings of historical events, the subject of war in cinema has evolved into a genre of its own and is now an important artistic expression of people and politics. But why are war movies so popular among viewers, filmmakers, and critics alike? It’s not because anyone wants to see the atrocities that wars bring with them but because we want to see the story behind the scenes and be somewhere we haven’t been or learn something that no one should ever have to experience directly in real life.
Most of the time, war movies gain popularity among fans not just for the heroism or the glorified portrayal of events but for the atmosphere they create. War movies, as grim as they might be, are a way of turning the most horrific acts of human society into a compelling and immersive work of art. It recreates history for future generations and evokes empathy, pushing us to be better as a species. Stories of war make its machinations more humanized for us, bring us closer to things we often distance ourselves from, and give us a different perspective.
This genre of movies has a very special place in filmmaking and finds fans across all categories. So, we did some digging and found these titles that you cannot miss. Here’s a list of the best war movies you can watch on Netflix right now. In this list, there are heroic sacrifices, psychological struggles, political conspiracies, historical events, and more. Whether you are a history buff or just eager to learn about the past, these Netflix war movies are sure to fulfill all your entertainment goals.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writer: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Christian Marquand, Aurore Clément, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper
If you have seen the original classic Apocalypse Now, then this should be your follow-up. And if you haven’t, then this should be on the top of your classic war movies list. This epic psychological war film is considered to be one of the best works of award-winning filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. In 1979, Coppola made Apocalypse Now, and then 22 years later, he released an extended version titled Apocalypse Now Redux. This 2001 movie is technically a re-edit of Apocalypse Now, which includes about 50 minutes of additional material that was not there in the original version.
Set during the Vietnam War, the plot follows the journey of U.S. Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) from South Vietnam to Cambodia on the Nung River. Willard is sent on a mission to take out Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a rebel officer of the Army Special Forces, who is accused of murder and is also considered to have lost his mind. What follows is an intense interaction between the two men and a mind game that would leave you with a lot of questions. Suspenseful and cerebral, Apocalypse Now is nothing like all the other war movies you would have seen before and it’s a major cultural milestone in cinematic history.
Director: David Michôd
Writer: David Michôd and Joel Edgerton
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Tom Glynn-Carney, Lily-Rose Depp, Thomasin McKenzie, Robert Pattinson, and Ben Mendelsohn.
Though based on and made as an epic, The King is technically a movie about a historical war. The story is based on William Shakespeare’s Henriad. Adapted from three different plays about Henry IV and Henry V, the plot focuses on Henry V, the eldest son of King Henry IV of England. The prince is an emotionally distant and disenchanted individual, who experiences a turnaround of life and character after his father’s death. Henry must navigate his emotions, royal politics, and the adversaries that his father left behind and become the rightful king that his kingdom expects him to be.
The tone of The King is very classic Shakespearean, as you would imagine. While there’s no constant sword-crossing, there are a couple of significant and historical battles which are quite brutal and make this movie fit well into the war genre.
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman
There are the usual stories of Vietnam war vets and then there’s Da 5 Bloods. An acclaimed and still underrated movie, to say the least, Da 5 Bloods is a powerful story that would be hard to forget if you watch it once.
Co-written and directed by Spike Lee, the movie follows a group of black Vietnam veterans who reunite in Vietnam after years to search for the remains of their squad leader and a buried treasure they had left behind when they were serving in the war. You may not look at it as a “war story” per se, but this is war-adjacent and shows enough of the struggle and trauma that wars bring to people, even if it’s years later. While the journey of these old war vets reconnecting with their past is very emotional, the performances are the real delight. Also, Chadwick Boseman’s work is something to look out for.
Director: Edward Zwick
Writer: Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick
Cast: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein
Based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec, this movie follows the true story of three Polish Jewish brothers, who saved and recruited Jews in Belarus during World War II. The plot revolves around the events of 1941, in Nazi-occupied Poland.
When the parents of the Bielski family are killed, the four brothers manage to survive and flee to the nearby forest. What was once their childhood playground, turns into a battleground, where they vow to avenge their parent’s death. The Bielski brothers, Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George Mackay), meet fellow survivors and join hands with them, forming a rebellion group with one goal: to wipe out as many Nazis as they can.
First They Killed My Father
Director: Angelina Jolie
Writer: Loung Ung, Angelina Jolie
Cast: Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheata Sveng, Dara Heng, Kimhak Mun
Loung Ung, a Cambodian-American author and human rights activist, penned her personal experience as a little girl during the Khmer Rouge regime in her book First They Killed My Father. The eponymous movie is a cinematic recount of the same incidents that took place in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War. When Ung was seven years old, her parents and siblings were sent to labor camps and she was forced into training as a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer-language biographical historical thriller, directed by Angelina Jolie, explores the traumatic events in Ung and her family’s life in the camps and how she and some of her siblings manage to escape and eventually reunite.
Although the movie is a dramatized retelling of the true story, the struggles of Ung and her family as depicted are quite horrific and painful. But at the same time, it also gives a first-person insight into the events of the Vietnam war, parts of which are still unknown to many.
Too Young the Hero
Director: Buzz Kulik
Writer: Calvin Graham, Gary Thomas, David J. Kinghorn
Cast: Ricky Schroder, R. Pickett Bugg, Jon DeVries, Rick Warner, Mary-Louise Parker, Debra Mooney, Ron Shelley, Christopher Dioni, Carl Mueller, Tom Wood, Christopher Curry.
Another war movie based on true events, Too Young the Hero is a fictional retelling of the life of Calvin Graham, who was jailed as a deserter after becoming a WWII hero. Graham is also known to be the youngest American serviceman to serve and fight in WWII.
Set in 1942, this historical war drama film follows a 12-year-old Graham, who joins the United States Navy in Houston. Though he is only 12, he looks older than his age and he forges his mother’s signature to enlist in the navy. After completing basic training, he is assigned to the USS South Dakota to fight the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. But after the war, things take a bad turn when his officers learn the truth about his age and send him to a military prison. The story is told through a series of flashbacks to all the events that led Graham to prison. There are many elements in this movie that makes it a great watch – the story of a young boy doing the most daring thing one could imagine, wanting adventure in his life, a soldier fighting at all costs for his country, and a man fighting for his truth.
Director: David Michôd
Writer: David Michôd
Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Anthony Hayes, Topher Grace, Will Poulter, Tilda Swinton, and Ben Kingsley.
There is nothing humorous about war but sometimes, the best way to understand the most complex and brutal things is to add some humor to them. War Machine is such a movie. The satirical, dark war comedy is set to the backdrop of the Afghanistan war and is based on the non-fiction book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings.
The plot follows madcap four-star U.S General Glen MacMahon, played by Brad Pitt, who is sent to Afghanistan with a mission to end the war. The catch is he can’t request more troops but MacMahon goes ahead and decides to recruit 40,000 additional troops. His decision leads to a series of unpredictable consequences, including press coverage and an exposé that discredits him and jeopardizes his mission. The movie is a dramatized and fictionalized account of the events of Hastings’ book with MacMahon’s character derived from U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal. With its quirky, tongue-in-cheek narrative, this movie is sure to make you look at the whole concept of war in a different way. And of course, there’s a subtle lesson at the end.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Khalid Abdalla, Jason Isaacs
Yet another intriguing war story based on the non-fictional book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Green Zone is one of the most intriguing war thrillers made in recent years. Set during the Iraq war, the plot follows the U.S. Army mission to search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, believed to be hidden in Iraq. Matt Damon plays the role of Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who leads a team to find the said weapons. But instead, they end up discovering some very disturbing information about a bigger, more complicated political and military cover-up than they or anyone would have expected. This movie has a lot of classic war action that beautifully balances with the cerebral elements that will leave you reconsidering a lot of the facts that you thought you knew.
Tears of the Sun
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Alex Lasker, Patrick Cirillo
Cast: Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser, Tom Skerritt
If you want a classic war story, then this is a movie to watch. And Bruce Willis, as always, never disappoints as the action hero at the heart of it all. The movie follows a U.S Navy SEAL team on a rescue mission in Nigeria. Set during the civil war in Nigeria, it centers on Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Willis) who must rescue U.S citizen Dr. Lena Fiore Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) from a hospital in the middle of a jungle. To succeed in his mission, Waters and his team have to fight off the rebels invading the jungle.
A pretty simple and straightforward plot, Tears of the Sun is quite exciting and entertaining, as far as action-thrillers go. And to pique your interest a little more, here’s a bit of trivia: the cast of this movie includes actual refugees living in the United States along with the Lost Boys of Sudan.
The Wolf’s Call
Director: Antonin Baudry
Writer: Antonin Baudry
Cast: François Civil, Omar Sy, Mathieu Kassovitz, Reda Kateb, Paula Beer, Alexis Michalik, Jean-Yves Berteloot, Damien Bonnard
This 2019 movie is a peek into a grittier, darker narrative that many don’t associate French cinema with. The Wolf’s Call, or Le Chant du loup in French, follows the events surrounding the members on board the French submarine Titane. On a rescue mission, they pick up an unidentified sonar contact. Officer Chanteraide, known to have an infallible sense of hearing, must use his skills to track down what appears to be a nuclear threat. But as is the case with most of such incidents, he makes a mistake, putting the mission and his crew at risk. To know what happens next, or whether he saves the day, you have to watch the movie. The Wolf’s Call was highly acclaimed and well-reviewed among fans and critics alike. So, it’s definitely worth a shot.
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Wei Li, Zhang Yimou
Cast: Deng Chao, Sun Li, Zheng Kai, Wang Qianyuan, Hu Jun, Guan Xiaotong, Leo Wu, Wang Jingchun
Now, warfare doesn’t always have to involve modern firepower or global political conspiracies. War stories can be epic, poetic, even fantasy-like. Legendary Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou proves it so once again, with this 2018 feature. Titled Ying in Chinese, the wuxia film explores the story of an ambitious general during the Three Kingdom period in China. At the center of the story is Commander Ziyu (Deng Chao), who is determined to achieve victory over his rival kingdom and devises an intricate master plan to that end.
What’s striking in this movie, like most of Yimou’s works, is the narrative and its presentation. While there are some loose references to real, historical events, Shadow hinges more on the mythical, mystical, and theatrical aspects of those legends. Yes, there’s warfare and an abundance of it, but the narrative focuses more on the backstory and the machinations that lead to the actual battles. With the larger-than-life visual display in colors, costumes, and backdrops, this movie is like watching poetry unfold on screen.
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Matthew Orton
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, Haley Lu Richardson
This is technically not about war but rather the aftermath of war and depicts real-life events that ensued following World War II. Set in the 1960s, Operational Finale is based on the hunt for and capture of former SS officer Adolf Eichmann and the plot follows the efforts of Mossad officers.
When the movie picks up, WWII has ended 15 years earlier but there are many Nazi officers and others involved in the Holocaust hiding underground around the world. A team of Israeli intelligence agents is on a hunt for Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), an SS war criminal and Holocaust mastermind who organized the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps. Mossad agents spot him in Argentina and set plans in motion to capture him and bring him to trial. But, as expected, the capture of Eichmann doesn’t go down easily and leads to a whole lot of drama and tension. The narrative is essentially like a spy-thriller set in the ’60s with a lot of suspenseful moments to keep you on the edge of your seat. And the ensemble cast only makes it better. This is a must-watch.
The 12th Man
Director: Harald Zwart
Writer: Petter Skavlan (credited as Alex Boe)
Cast: Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Mads Sjøgård Pettersen, Maria Grazia Di Meo
This Norwegian historical drama-thriller is one of the best European war movies made in recent years. The plot is adapted from the 2001 book Jan Baalsrud and Those Who Saved Him by Tore Haug and Astrid Karlsen Scott. The 12th Man is an inspiring retelling of actual historical events that happened in 1943 in Norway. It follows the story of Norwegian resistance fighter Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) and his heroic cross-country escape from Nazi-occupied Norway.
In a failed Nazi sabotage mission with the Allied forces in Norway, Baalsrud loses 11 of his soldiers and has no choice but to somehow escape the Gestapo. The movie revolves around his flight across Scandinavia and where he eventually ends up. Or not. It’s a gripping story of courage and determination, of one man’s fight to survive the most horrific period of human history.
The Siege of Jadotville
Director: Richie Smyth
Writer: Kevin Brodbin
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Mark Strong, Mikael Persbrandt, Jason O’Mara, Danny Sapani, Michael McElhatton, Guillaume Canet
Based on the 2005 book The Siege of Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle by Declan Power, this action-drama war film explores the Irish Army’s role in a UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. The story is set in 1961 when a small unit of the Irish Army is stationed in the mining town of Jadotville in Congo to hold off the civil war following the death of the Congolese Prime Minister. The unit, led by Connor Cruise O’Brien (Mark Strong) fights the local mercenaries and Katangese forces for five days before Jadotville is sieged. What happens after that is exactly why you need to watch this movie. Highly acclaimed and well-received among fans and critics, The Siege of Jadotville exposes you to the brutality of war and is a reminder of a significant historical event that might otherwise have been forgotten.
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Writer: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cast: Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel “King King” Nii Adom Quaye, Abraham Attah
Award-winning filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga, of No Time to Die and True Detective fame, directed and wrote this war drama movie adapted from the eponymous novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Beasts of No Nation is a war movie in all senses of the phrase, featuring endless battles.
It follows a young boy named Agu in a small region in West Africa in the middle of a horrifying civil war. As the war tears his country apart, Agu is forced to join a team of rebels and is trained as a child soldier to fight in the war. The rebel leader takes Agu and his fellow soldiers down a violent and bloody path. Like most of Fukunaga’s works, this story will leave you with a nightmarish feeling, empathizing with the trauma that the young child soldiers experience in such war-torn regions.
Director: Fernando Coimbra
Writer: Chris Roessner
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Logan Marshall-Green, Henry Cavill, Glen Powell, Beau Knapp, Neil Brown Jr., Tommy Flanagan
The story of this movie is taken directly from the personal experiences of its writer, Chris Roessner. Sand Castle revolves around Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult), a young soldier in the United States Army who is stationed in Baghdad during the Iraq War. Ocre is assigned the task of restoring the water supply in a small village but his mission is not as simple as he thought. The events that follow are terrifying and emotional at the same time. With convincing performances by the cast members and a powerful story, this Netflix original movie promises a good watch.
Director: Andreas Prochaska
Writer: Martin Ambrosch, Kurt Mündl
Cast: Florian Teichtmeister, Reinhard Forcher, Michaela Ehrenstein, Eugen Knecht
We all know and have heard of how the First World War started. How about getting deeper into the details of what exactly went down? On June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, were shot during their visit to Sarajevo. Their assassination sparked a chain of events that eventually triggered the four-year war that shook the globe.
This German-Austrian biographical television film lays down the series of incidents leading to and following the assassination of the Archduke. Dr. Leo Pfeffer, an Austrian examining magistrate, is appointed by the authorities to find out who is responsible for the attack. Pfeffer soon finds himself in the middle of shady politicians and their conspiracies. As he tries to dig deeper and gets closer to the facts, he gets drawn into an ugly web of corruption, where it gets difficult for him to draw the line between good and bad.
The movie is not only a retelling of a vital historical event but also lets you look into the machinations of one of the biggest, life-changing events of modern civilization. For all fans of history, war stories or not, Sarajevo is a must-watch.
The Photographer of Mauthausen
Director: Mar Targarona
Writer: Roger Danès, Alfred Pérez Fargas
Cast: Mario Casas, Alain Hernandez, Macarena Gomez, Mac Rodriguez
Another movie based on real-life events, this Spanish historical biography drama retells the true story of Spanish photographer and civil war veteran Francisco Boix during his time at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex in Austria. The movie is centered around Boix (Mario Casas), a prisoner at the Nazi concentration camp in Mauthausen, and his attempts to collect and save photographic evidence of what happens inside the camp. From the horrific treatment of millions of innocent Jews to all the atrocities committed by the Nazi officers, the photographer records it all. Boix and his fellow prisoners risk their lives and do anything to hide the negatives from the officers and other people who would want it all gone.
The Photographer of Mauthausen is a moving story of one man trying to fight for justice and an insight into the dreadful realities of life in those camps.
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Director: Grant Heslov
Writer: Peter Straughan
Cast: George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor
When it comes to winning a war, how far would politicians and bureaucrats go? This movie will show you the extent to which armies are trained to oust their enemies. The Men Who Stare at Goats explores an uncanny, unnatural angle to warfare – the use of psychic powers. Unbelievable, isn’t it?
The movie is a fictionalized account of an actual investigation into the U.S military engaging psychic powers as a weapon, documented in the non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson in 2004. The story is essentially a dark, satirical comedy set against the backdrop of the Iraq War. It follows an Ann Arbor reporter named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who goes to Kuwait to report on the war after his wife leaves him.
With nothing holding him back and also to prove himself to his wife, Bob lands on a story that would change his life and career. He meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a retired U.S Army Special Forces operator, who claims that he was once a part of a unit that trained people to become psychic spies, quite like the Jedis. These spies were skilled with parapsychological abilities like invisibility, remote viewing/sensing, and phasing, among others. It’s strangely intriguing and fascinating and gives an unexpected angle to what we know of war movies. Whether all these things exist for real or not is secondary but as a movie it’s great, complemented by the A-list lead cast.
Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper
Another dark war comedy, War Dogs is one of those war-adjacent movies that will definitely ease the trauma of other intense stories on this list. Adapted from a Rolling Stone article of the same title by Guy Lawson, War Dogs follows two American youngsters and their path to becoming arms dealers.
The movie centers on Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) who get into the business of selling arms to the U.S government for the ongoing Iraq War. They somehow manage to convince the army and land a contract of $300 million to supply ammunition to the Afghan National Army. It’s a story of two friends, and their wild and crazy ride of war, corruption, and ambition. Although based on true events and real characters, the movie is highly dramatized and takes a very satirical look at warfare and the arms trade.