War: What is it good for? The answer might depend on who you’re asking, but at the very least, it’s good for directors to turn into movies. Although most wars—especially more recent ones that have not benefitted from the luxury of historical distance—are highly politicized, the basic premise of conflict is truly as old as history itself. The us vs. them rhetoric that is central to the idea of war is crucial to our evolutionary instincts, as the idea of demarcating groups that are friendly or threatening may actually be part of our DNA. As a result, all civilizations have engaged in some form of military warfare to different degrees of success. Modern society has truly excelled in this arena, and since art imitates life, modern cinema has also excelled in depicting it.
To wage a war is to denounce your enemy as an evil that must be crushed and silenced so that you, a force of good, can prevail. This is the basic framework that all armies and their soldiers throughout history have had to work with. Of course, the story is hardly ever as easy as good vs. evil. But war is always an extreme. To engage in modern warfare is to put our emotional sanity on the line in a brave attempt to answer a higher calling for justice or morality, and therefore in that way, as a subject matter, war is a popular premise for directors. When done well, the dramatic situations inherent in battle will tease out some of the most harrowing philosophical questions humanity can face, making for some great cinematic themes.
But just don’t underestimate the basic, action-filled thrill of the explosions, guns, and stunts. These battlegrounds are ripe for suspense and drama, but also damn fun to watch on the most fundamental level. This is probably why some of the best war films ever released double as some of the best straight out movies of all time. With that in mind, here are the best war movies you absolutely need to watch.