21 War Movies Celebrating the Virtue of Sacrifice – Brett McCracken

The sacrifices we celebrate on holidays like Memorial Day have become increasingly incomprehensible in the secular West. Why would anyone sacrifice his life for something beyond himself? It makes little sense if death is final and absolute. In a materialist world, to die is naturally feared above all things, and anything mortally risky—however chivalrous or dutiful—is deemed foolish.

Honoring sacrifice does makes sense in the context of belief in eternal life, however. If we believe the creedal words “I am not my own” and that there is life beyond this life, then what is it to die? To be cut down in the prime of life in service of some cause (even a questionable cause) may still be undesirable, but it becomes more tolerable, or even honorable.

Humans can suppress, but never quite escape, our God-given knowledge that there’s something more than this life. Perhaps that’s why mainstream audiences are so stirred by war movies that depict soldiers in the line of duty, willing to courageously pay the ultimate price. They capture the beautiful valor and “into the fray” grit that comes more naturally when we anchor our lives in truths and hopes beyond this world.

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite war films released in the last 50 years. I’ve listed the movies below—which represent nine different wars—in chronological order of when the events they depict took place. Though my selections are no doubt informed by my American nationality, the themes they explore are universal and needn’t be viewed only through a patriotic lens. Pick a few you haven’t seen and add them to your viewing queue. Enjoy!

The Last of the Mohicans (French and Indian War)

Michael Mann’s 1992 epic, loosely based on James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, may be melodramatic at times, but it’s the sort of sweeping wartime romance Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. Visually and musically stunning, and unabashedly chivalric, The Last of the Mohicans may be one of the last of its kind. Available to rent. Rated R.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Napoleonic Wars)

Peter Weir’s 2003 adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s novel ranks in my top 10 all-time favorite films. It has everything: battle action, intimate character development, tragic loss, beautiful cinematography, and epic incorporation of classical music from the likes of Mozart, Bach, and Vaughan Williams. Watch on Tubi. Rated PG-13.

Ride with the Devil (American Civil War)

Ang Lee’s 1999 film, adapted from the novel Woe to Live On, explores a neglected front of the Civil War: the Kansas-Missouri border war. Interesting as a historical narrative—with one big action showpiece, Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence—the film also handles explorations of morality, duty, and race with nuance and dimension uncommon in the genre. Available to rent. Rated R.

Glory (American Civil War)

This powerful 1989 movie, directed by Edward Zwick, tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the earliest African American regiments in the Union Army. Featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Denzel Washington, the movie is a crucial addition to the canon of Civil War cinema. Watch on Hulu. Rated R.

Gallipoli (World War I)

The second Peter Weir film on this list, Gallipoli (1981) stars a young Mel Gibson as a soldier in the Australian army who, along with his friend Archy (Mark Lee), takes part in the Gallipoli campaign. The film explores themes of friendship, sacrifice, loss of innocence, and Australian identity. Watch on Kanopy or rent. Rated PG.

1917 (World War I)

Unfolding in one highly engrossing, two-hour continuous shot, this brilliant film from Sam Mendes isn’t just a showy technical feat—it’s also a film that captures the beauty of duty and simple obedience, “of saying ‘yes’ to something costly and hard, simply because an authority above you gives the order.” Available to rent. Rated R.

All Quiet on the Western Front (World War I)

This 2022 Oscar-winning German film adapts Erich Remarque’s classic novel for the Netflix generation. In some ways this is a shame, because a smartphone-size screen is no place for the painterly beauty and visceral power of such a cinematic (if excessively violent) epic. Watch on Netflix. Rated R.

Dunkirk (World War II)

Christopher Nolan’s trademark editing style (cross-cutting, time-manipulation, and ever-more-tightly spiraling narrative threads) is deployed to magnificent effect in this rousing British epic about Operation Dynamo. Among its many merits, the 2017 film viscerally captures the beauty of unmerited grace and boasts an incredibly memorable—and effective—score by Hans Zimmer. Watch on Hulu. Rated PG-13.

The Thin Red Line (World War II)

Either my #1 or #2 film of all time, Terrence Malick’s 1998 epic marked his return to filmmaking after a 20-year absence (and starred pretty much every buzzy actor of the late ’90s). Ostensibly an adaptation of James Jones’s 1962 novel about Guadalcanal, the gorgeous-in-every-way masterpiece is actually a spiritual tone poem about the problem of evil, the tragic consequences of sin, and paradise lost. Watch on Hulu. Rated R.

Saving Private Ryan (World War II)

Released the same year (1998) as The Thin Red Line, Steven Spielberg’s triumph has become the definitive cinematic portrayal of D-Day, as well as a genuinely moving (and deeply theological) narrative of soldierly duty, sacrifice, and the illogical arithmetic of grace. Watch on Paramount+. Rated R.

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (World War II)

Clint Eastwood’s two-film cinematic diptych examines the Battle of Iwo Jima from both the American soldier’s perspective (Flags) and the Japanese soldier’s perspective (Letters). The concept of this multiperspective approach is brilliant enough, but the films themselves are also exceptionally good. Watch them both over the course of a weekend. Available to rent. Rated R.

Hacksaw Ridge (World War II)

Mel Gibson’s 2016 film tells the inspiring story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a pacifist combat medic whose heroism in the Battle of Okinawa led to him becoming the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Though brutally violent, the film is thoughtful in its wrestling with the intersection of Christian religion, war, and sacrifice. Watch on Hulu. Rated R.

Devotion (Korean War)

The most recent film on this list, 2022’s Devotion is based on the book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice. The refreshingly virtuous film tells the true story of the first African American naval aviator Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) and his heroic actions in the Korean War. Watch on Paramount+. Rated PG-13.

Rescue Dawn (Vietnam War)

Werner Herzog’s 2006 film tells the story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), the German-American pilot who was the first—and only—American POW to successfully escape from a Laotian prison camp during the Vietnam conflict. But in Herzog’s quirky hands (see Grizzly Man, for example), the film is more than just straightforward history. It’s a fascinating character study and reflection on humanity in harrowing circumstances. Watch on Tubi. Rated PG-13.

We Were Soldiers (Vietnam War)

In contrast to most Vietnam War movies, which lean toward cynicism and nihilism, We Were Soldiers (2002)—directed by Christian filmmaker Randall Wallace—highlights the honor, loyalty, and brotherhood of soldiers, even in a gritty and often senseless war. Watch on Prime Video. Rated R.

Apocalypse Now (Vietnam War)

Loosely inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic will likely forever be considered cinema’s definitive interpretation of the Vietnam War. The film’s use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is among the most memorable deployments of classical music in a movie. Available to purchase. Rated R.

Forrest Gump (Vietnam War)

Robert Zemeckis’s Oscar-winning 1994 film isn’t really a Vietnam film. But the controversial war—and the countercultural foment it inspired—figure prominently in the life of Tom Hanks’s iconic character. Gump’s heroic actions in Vietnam alter the course of his life (and that of Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan) forever. Watch on Prime Video. Rated PG-13.

Black Hawk Down (Somali Civil War)

Ridley Scott brings his gifted action direction to this 2002 film about a bloody but little-remembered fight that claimed the lives of 18 U.S. service members in Mogadishu. Starring a who’s who of aughts-era male actors, the immersive, stressful film struck a chord with audiences when it was released mere months after 9/11. Watch on Netflix. Rated R.

United 93 (War on Terror)

The valiant fighters on this flight on September 11, 2001—arguably the first fight in the 21st-century war on terror—weren’t military combatants. They were citizen soldiers. They weren’t expecting to fight to the death in the skies above Pennsylvania on that Tuesday morning, but they did. And Paul Greengrass’s pulsating chronicle of it is heart-pounding in the best sense. Available to rent. Rated R.

The Hurt Locker (Iraq War)

Set in the second year of the Iraq War, Kathryn Bigelow’s best picture–winning 2008 film is one of the most intense on this list. The heroes of this story have a white-knuckle task: find and destroy improvised explosive devices before they reap carnage and death. Available to rent. Rated R.

Zero Dark Thirty (War on Terror)

Kathryn Bigelow followed The Hurt Locker’s success with this 2012 thriller about the decade-long hunt for, and ultimate killing of, Osama bin Laden. For a generation shaped by the trauma of 9/11, the news we received on May 1, 2011, was cathartic—and so is this film. Watch on Hulu. Rated R.

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