7 Must-Watch War Films for History Buffs

Feb 07, 2023

Statue of man on horse.

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Action, drama, blood and guts. These are the qualities of a great war film, whether it’s fictional or based on historical events. Humans have a strange tendency to glamorize warfare in cinema and all other artforms. But which movies do the most justice to the horrors of battle? Let’s take a look at seven must-watch war films from any era that every history buff should watch.

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now is considered one of the greatest movies of all time, in any genre. Cinema fans will recognize many faces, including Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen. Unlike other war movies that beat you over the head with constant violence, this movie explores more subtle and sadistic kinds of violence, primarily through the rogue Colonel Walter Kurtz.

If you’re looking for a slower war movie with more dramatic scenes than blood and guts, Apocalypse Now is for you. It has plenty of violence, to be sure, but the film’s best moments occur in dimly lit tents when the main characters engage in psychological warfare. It’s some of the best cinematography ever made. Oh yeah, and it uses real dead bodies as props.

2. Platoon (1986)

War films about the Vietnam conflict are especially popular because many viewers participated in the conflict themselves. The movies bring back old memories, both good and bad. Platoon is a shining example, portraying accurate mid-20th century warfare and exploring the group dynamics of a small platoon of American soldiers.

As the movie shows, tensions often rise within our own ranks. Officers have conflicts of interest. Some soldiers turn into bloodthirsty sociopaths, while others become more in-touch with their humanity. It also features a remarkable cast of characters, including Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp and Tom Berenger. 

3. Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Although this film’s main plotline is mostly made up, the surrounding events are 100% real. It follows two fictional characters – a Mohican-raised white man and an English military officer’s daughter – in the real life events of the French and Indian War that took place in 1750s colonial America.

The film’s locations, costume design and battle tactics are all exceptionally accurate for the time period. With an all-time great soundtrack and Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe in the leading roles, this movie is a highly underrated historical drama with action, romance and most importantly, historical accuracy.

4. Gettysburg (1993)

Gettysburg is another film known for its spectacular score and historical accuracy. The four-hour epic covers the three bloodiest days in American history in such great detail that no other war movie can hope to match. 

It’s also famous for giving the North and South favorable dispositions, which some critics did not appreciate. Regardless of your feelings about the Civil War, it pitted brother against brother. Many soldiers had loved ones on the other side of the battlefield, and Gettysburg puts that reality on full display.

Historians have not found any scene that contradicts the battle’s actual events. It should come as no surprise, because the film’s entire crew consisted of massive Civil War buffs. Even the extras would give their input on set, and the producers would listen. It’s historical perfection on the big screen. We challenge you to find an inaccuracy.

5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan is known for its brutal, gut-wrenching depiction of D-Day, the bloodiest engagement of the Second World War. This fateful event took place on the early morning of June 6, 1944 and had an immediate psychological impact on those who participated, as the movie clearly emphasizes.

You will also get to explore other relevant themes of war, including the tense relationship between officer and footsoldier through Tom Hanks’s character and his troops. We also learn small tidbits about each soldier’s background, which emphasizes how tragic and devastating war is for the families back home. It’s not for the faint of heart, so watch with discretion.

6. The Patriot (2000)

The Patriot takes us back to the dawn of the United States, following a fictional English colonist and his family’s struggles throughout the Revolutionary War. Rather than focusing on the northern colonies like most other films depicting this era, the backcountry of South Carolina takes center stage.

Similar to other historical films directed by Mel Gibson (cough cough, Braveheart), the film makes some creative adjustments to make a better storyline. Still, the costume designs, architecture and languages are expertly done. It also explores the different war tactics used by American militias to overcome the massive British army, which history buffs will love.

7. Gladiator (2000)

Gladiator is loosely based on historical events from the ancient Roman empire. It follows the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russel Crowe), a general who loses his family to the empire’s corruption, becomes enslaved and seeks revenge as a gladiator. It’s one of the few war films that dare to explore the unique controlled violence of the gladiatorial games.

Although the story itself is largely fictional, the characters are not. Maximus is loosely based off of the real-life gladiator Marcus Nonius Macrinus. We also see well-known historical figures such as emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), his deranged son Commodus (Joaqin Phoenix), future emperor Lucius Verus and senator Tiberius Gracchus.

Get Some Perspective

War films give viewers much-needed perspective. We civilians take many of our everyday comforts for granted and don’t know what true suffering feels like. Warfare is a terrible thing, but that’s why we must remember it. The soldiers depicted in these films didn’t sacrifice their lives and sanity for nothing.

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Jack Shaw is a senior writer at Modded. Jack is an avid enthusiast for keeping up with personal health and enjoying nature. He has over five years of experience writing in the men's lifestyle niche, and has written extensively on topics of fitness, exploring the outdoors and men's interests. His writings have been featured in SportsEd TV, Love Inc., and Offroad Xtreme among many more publications.