The Best War Films Based On True Stories

Best War Films

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A war film based on actual events has a distinct quality to it. Here are some of the finest war films that do it well.

The truth may make a film more frightening, heartbreaking, or uplifting. Many war films have been created throughout the years, but the most powerful ones are generally based on actual events.

These heroic—and sometimes horrifying—stories honour the lives of actual individuals who suffered as a result of war, whether they were fighting on the front lines, navigating the skies, or sitting at a desk.

Risks were taken, sacrifices were made, and only a few individuals survived to tell the tale. These people’s stories have now been told on the big screen.

The finest war movies based on genuine tales and actual events are listed here. How many have you seen?

We Were Soldiers – 2002

Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson plays Lt. Gen. Hal Moore in this Vietnam War film directed by Randall Wallace. Moore commanded a US brigade against Vietnamese soldiers in the La Drang Valley in 1965. The tragic Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1973, was in its midst at the time.

It’s based on Moore and writer Joseph L. Galloway’s best-selling novel. We Were Soldiers Once and Young, released in 1992. Moore’s story—and the atrocities he encountered during combat—are honoured in Wallace’s short but gripping dramatisation.

We Were Soldiers, albeit a touch clumsy at first, rapidly finds its footing to portray an intense narrative of faith in the face of death.

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge

In a combat zone, a pacifist? Talk about a contradiction in terms! Desmond T. Doss, ironically, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for refusing to use or carry firearms during WWII.

Doss was first chastised and mocked for refusing to carry guns, but he gained enormous respect when he saved 75 soldiers in the Battle of Okinawa without firing a single shot.

Mel Gibson’s biographical war drama, directed by Andrew Garfield, features an emotional performance by Andrew Garfield. Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for two Academy Awards and was praised for its tense action sequences and emotional melodrama.


Valkyrie WW2

You’ve undoubtedly heard of Operation Valkyrie, a historical conspiracy involving Nazi officers attempting to assassinate Hitler.

The high-ranking individuals worried for Germany’s future in Hitler’s unsteady hands and intended to seize power via a national emergency. Valkyrie is a political thriller that is likely to delight while also being historically accurate.

Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson appear in the film directed by Bryan Singer. If the promise of one of the most renowned and brutal storylines in history isn’t enough to entice you, the promise of one of the most famous and complex plots in history should.

It’s no surprise to say they failed in their attempt to murder Hitler, but some pretty dramatic events happened in the meanwhile.

American Sniper – 2014

American Sniper

An American sniper named Chris Kyle played Bradley Cooper fought in Iraq on four separate occasions.

It’s a biographical play in the broadest sense, with specific facts altered for dramatic effect. Nonetheless, the basis of the tale is accurate and provides insight into current combat.

Kyle’s PTSD starts to impair his life back home in this Oscar-winning film directed by Clint Eastwood. Kyle is used to the chaos of explosives and firearms in his job as a SEAL sniper, but not regular suburbia life.

It’s a gripping tale of sacrifice, horror, and love that shifts back and forth between the past and present.

The Imitation Game – 2014

enigma coding

The Imitation Game is a study of one of the most significant men in British history, taking a step back from the trenches. Although never having set foot on a battlefield, Alan Turing saved millions of lives.

Turing and his team of English mathematicians only had 24 hours to break the code because the Nazi encryption equipment (known as the Enigma Machine) had settings that changed every day.

This cypher, which the German military used to send secret communications, became the key to defeating Hitler—and only Turing was able to unlock the door.

The strain of deciphering the Enigma code dominates the first half of filmmaker Morten Tyldum’s historical thriller. The second part is a personal look at Turing, who was shunned by many because of his quirky intellect and (at the time, illegal) homosexuality.

The Imitation Game is tragic but inspiring, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley’s powerful performances.

Unbroken – 2014

POWS Japan

After appearing in the British adolescent drama Skins, Jack O’Connell’s most magnificent and gritty performance could be like Louis Zamperini in Unbroken.

Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, follows the Olympic record-holder from boyhood through World War II duty. Zamperini nearly survived 47 days alone in a lifeboat with two crew members after his plane crashed into the Pacific.

But the misfortune doesn’t end there. Zamperini was after that imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp, where Imperial Officer Mutsuhiro Watanabe took a particular interest in him.

Despite being subjected to many forms of torture, Zamperini refused to give Watanabe the joy of murdering his spirit, as the title indicates. Unbroken is a wonderfully shot and well-played storey of resilience and compassion in the face of heinous cruelty.

The Pianist – 2002

piano player

In this touching biography of Polish singer Wadysaw Szpilman, Adrien Brody will have you sobbing. The Pianist is based on Szpilman’s memoirs and follows him as he hides in different locations across Warsaw (or what’s left of Warsaw).

Szpilman is torn from his family and lives in continuous fear of being captured, as well as malnutrition and loneliness. Brody’s incredible performance pulls at every heartstring, demonstrating the strength of one person’s resolve to live.

The Holocaust memoir, directed by Roman Polanski, won the Palme d’Or and many Academy Awards at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a significant tale, one of many that must never be forgotten as part of society’s dark past.

A Bridge Too Far – 1977

Nazi Bridges

What do Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Gene Hackman have in common? This remarkable ensemble of acting superstars stars in Richard Attenborough’s 1970s war epic, which follows a joint British and American parachute unit who prepare to cross the highway into Germany.

The Allies, however, misjudged the German resistance. A Bridge Too Far avoids Hollywood stereotypes and the glamorization of conflict, being as genuine as cinematically feasible.

Based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 book, A Bridge Too Far delves into the wins and tactical blunders of the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. In 1962, Ryan authored The Longest Day, which was adapted into an equally epic WWII masterpiece.

Dunkirk – 2017

Normandy beaches

Christopher Nolan is no stranger to stunning visual effects in his films. Dunkirk is a cinematic achievement that transports us to the Battle of Dunkirk over land, sea, and air.

The lack of language allows for a more atmospheric masterpiece, primarily filmed on 65mm IMAX. As Nolan recounts the lives of many soldiers fighting to escape the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940, the air is thick with anxiety and stress.

Some of the prominent stars in Dunkirk include Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Harry Styles. Even though the characters are fictitious, Nolan nails every other historical truth since his novel is based on actual events.

These figures represent the actual soldiers who battled, waited, fled, and died on that fateful day—which some see as World War II’s worst failure. In contrast, others regard it as an incredible miracle.

Schindler’s List – 1993

Jewish Workers

Steven Spielberg directed an iconic cinematic masterpiece, but he did it in the same year as Jurassic Park, the famed blockbuster success! However, Schindler’s List is a departure from Spielberg’s normal fare.

This Holocaust movie honours the heroism of Oskar Schindler, a businessman who rescued 1,200 Jews from extermination camps. Schindler used his status as a wealthy German manufacturer to hire hundreds of Jews to work in his companies.

Spielberg masterfully combines black-and-white photography to portray the historical era and the truly sorrowful themes of a society devoid of pleasure. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes feature as the noble figure and the genuinely annoying and nasty Nazi leader Amon Goeth.

The Great Escape – 1963

POW Camps Germany

A gang of allied forces soldiers imprisoned in a German POW camp plots to escape during World War II. Not only do they want to run away, but they also want to distract German troops attention so that coalition forces can seize control. However, when their plan comes to fruition, they discover that the stakes are considerably greater than they anticipated.

Platoon – 1986

vietnam soldiers together

Chris Taylor, a student, abandons his studies to serve in the Vietnam War. When he reaches the ground, though, his bravery and idealism wane. The troops are turned against one other by a rising clandestine feud between his two staff sergeants, and suddenly all hell breaks free!

Full Metal Jacket – 1987

drill sergeant shouting

What happens when two pals are drafted into the Vietnam War and must undergo training? One takes a diversion, while the other joins the Marine Corps and is sent to work as a journalist in Vietnam. But even he finds himself reporting the Bloody Battle of Hue and ultimately taking part in it. Will he make it until the next day?

Saving Private Ryan – 1998

Soldier shooting pistol

Saving Private Ryan is a dramatic, realistic re-creation of WWII’s D-day invasion and its immediate aftermath, a Spielberg classic. Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his troops are tasked with locating Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) and bringing him back to the United States. Using their expertise from the battles in Italy and North Korea, this close-knit team battles through enemy fire and loss of life to find one man. What makes this movie so enjoyable? Only Spielberg could have crafted the 24-minute Omaha Beach sequence. The scene looked like hell, with the dead of US service members strewn throughout.


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