Nothing makes a film more shocking, tragic, or inspiring than the truth. Tons of war movies have been made over the years, but the most hard-hitting ones are usually based on true stories.
These heroic—and oftentimes horrific—tales celebrate the lives of real people who suffered at the hands of war, whether while behind enemy lines, navigating the skies, or even sat at a desk.
Risks were taken, sacrifices were made, and a few people managed to get out on the other side alive. Some of those people eventually had their journeys told on the big screen.
Here are our picks for the best war movies based on true stories and real events. How many of them have you seen?
15. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey
Drama, History, War (2h 19m)
A pacifist in a war zone? Talk about oxymoronic! Ironically, Desmond T. Doss actually won the Congressional Medal of Honor for refusing to use or carry weapons in World War II.
Doss was at first punished and ridiculed for his refusal to bear arms, but later earned a huge amount of respect when he saved 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa without shooting a single bullet.
Andrew Garfield gives an impassioned performance in this biographical war drama directed by Mel Gibson. Hacksaw Ridge won two Oscars and was commended for its punchy combat scenes and emotionally taut melodrama. It's the classic hero's tale.
14. We Were Soldiers (2002)
Directed by Randall Wallace
Starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear
Action, Drama, History (2h 18m)
Randall Wallace directs this Vietnam War movie starring Mel Gibson as Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. Moore was the leader of a US battalion set against Vietnamese troops in La Drang Valley, 1965. Those were the middle days of the disastrous Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955 to 1973.
It's based on the best-selling book by Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway, titled We Were Soldiers Once... and Young and published in 1992. Wallace's violent yet compelling adaptation honors Moore's story and the atrociousness he faced during combat.
Though a little clunky at the start, We Were Soldiers quickly finds its footing to tell an ardent story of faith among death.
13. Valkyrie (2008)
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Carice van Houten
Drama, History, Thriller (2h 1m)
You might have heard of Operation Valkyrie, the historical plot where Nazi officers attempted to take down Hitler themselves.
The group of high-ranking men feared for the future of Germany in Hitler's unstable hands, so they planned to use a national emergency to take control. A political thriller that's sure to entertain, Valkyrie is right on the money in terms of historical accuracy.
Bryan Singer directs the all-star cast featuring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson. If these household names aren't enough to draw you in, the promised thrills of one of the most famous and difficult plots in history should.
It's no spoiler to say they weren't successful in their mission to assassinate Hitler, but some pretty intense stuff went down nonetheless.
12. The Killing Fields (1984)
Directed by Roland Joffé
Starring Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich
Biography, Drama, History (2h 21m)
Most of the war movies on this list are from the POV of soldiers and other military personnel. But in The Killing Fields, we're looking through the lenses of two war journalists: Dith Pran (played by Haing S. Ngor) and Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston).
In the early 70s, Cambodia was in a state of civil war between the national army and the communist Khmer Rouge. Reporting in Phnom Penh was hard enough in a country ravaged by guerrilla warfare, but it was getting out that was the real challenge.
Ngor was cast to play the real-life Cambodian interpreter for The New York Times because of his own experiences during the Cambodian genocide, where he personally escaped being a prisoner-of-war just years before production began!
11. American Sniper (2014)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Action, Biography, Drama (2h 13m)
American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, an American sniper who served in four tours of duty in Iraq.
It's a biographical drama in the looser sense, as some of the facts have been fictionalized for cinematic effect. Still, the core of the story remains true and offers insight into the world of modern warfare.
Clint Eastwood directs this Oscar-winning story, where Kyle's PTSD begins to affect his life back home. As a Navy SEAL sniper, Kyle might be well-adjusted to the chaotic environments of bombs and guns, but not as much when it comes to everyday suburban life.
American Sniper is a powerful story of sacrifice, terror, and love that flip-flops between the past and present day.
10. The Courier (2020)
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan
Drama, History, Thriller (1h 52m)
The Courier is a war movie that doesn't involve any soldiers, trenches, or ballistic armaments. From 1947 to 1991, the Cold War had the world holding its breath on the brink of nuclear destruction.
One unlikely spy candidate? Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), an everyday British businessman who was recruited by MI6. Cumberbatch gets suited and booted for his role as the unassuming engineer who proved his bravery against the KGB.
Wynne had no idea this sort of employment was coming his way. In fact, MI6 had purposefully picked him because he had no spy history, which allowed him to avoid suspicion and detection.
9. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore
Action, Drama, History (2h 24m)
Black Hawk Down recounts the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Just one cog in the broader Somali Civil War, "Black Hawk Down" was the name of a helicopter incident that killed 20 troops and hundreds of civilians.
Journalist Mark Bowden wrote about the events in his 1999 nonfiction book, which Ridley Scott brought to life with a dazzling cast: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Jason Isaacs, Sam Shepard, Tom Hardy, and Orlando Bloom—just to name a few!
Although not 100% accurate, Black Hawk Down is a gritty, bloody, action-packed depiction of the US raid of Mogadishu, which was solid enough to win two Academy Awards.
8. The Imitation Game (2014)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode
Biography, Drama, Thriller (1h 54m)
Taking a step back from gunfire, The Imitation Game is a character study of one the most important figures in British history. Alan Turing may have never step foot on a battlefield, but he still managed to save millions of lives during World War II.
The Nazi cipher device (called the Enigma Machine) had settings that changed every day, which meant that Turing and his team of English mathematicians only had 24 hours to crack the code.
This cipher, which was used by the German military to communicate secret messages, eventually became the key to defeating Hitler—and only Turing was able to open that door.
One half of director Morten Tyldum's historical drama is tightly packed with the tension of breaking the Enigma code. The other half is an intimate exploration of Turing, who was ostracized by many for his eccentric genius and (illegal at the time) homosexuality.
Tragic yet inspirational, The Imitation Game is carried by Benedict Cumberbatch's poignant performance alongside Keira Knightley.
7. Unbroken (2014)
Directed by Angelina Jolie
Starring Jack O'Connell, Miyavi, Domhnall Gleeson
Action, Biography, Drama (2h 17m)
Of Jack O'Connell's many brilliant and gritty performances after starring in the British teen show Skins, his best showing of them all might just be as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken.
Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken traces the Olympic record-holder's life from childhood to World War II service. When his aircraft crashed into the Pacific, Zamperini narrowly survived 47 days stranded on a lifeboat with two crew members.
But the bad luck doesn't stop there. Zamperini was then held in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, where Imperial Officer Mutsuhiro Watanabe took a particular "liking" to him.
Forced to undergo all sorts of torture, Zamperini—as the title suggests—refused to give Watanabe the satisfaction of killing his spirit. Unbroken is a superbly performed and beautifully filmed tale of strength and humanity in the face of harrowing evil.
6. Platoon (1986)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Drama, War (2h)
Platoon isn't a straight war biopic like some of the other movies on this list. That said, it's such an iconic movie—and pinnacle of the war movie genre—that we had to include it!
Director Oliver Stone, who himself won medals for his service in the Vietnam War, based Platoon on his own military experiences. In opposition to John Wayne's depiction of the Vietnam War in 1968's The Green Berets, Oliver Stone wrote Platoon with accuracy in mind.
Stone took 10 years to get the script to screen, which was brought to life by Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, and Johnny Depp.
Platoon is one of the many award-winning cinematic classics brought to us by Stone after Scarface and Midnight Express. Even if you haven't seen it before, you're sure to recognize the poignant soundtrack as Dafoe famously falls to his knees.
5. The Pianist (2002)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay
Biography, Drama, Music (2h 30m)
Adrien Brody will have you weeping in this heartfelt biography of Polish musician Władysław Szpilman. Adapted from his autobiography, The Pianist follows Szpilman as he hides in various places across Warsaw (or what's left of Warsaw).
Torn from his family, Szpilman suffers under the constant threat of capture and is tormented by starvation and loneliness. Brody's astounding performance tugs at every heartstring there is, showing us the power of one human's will to survive.
The Holocaust memoir, directed by Roman Polanski, won the Palme d'Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival as well as multiple Academy Awards. It's an important story—one of the many that should never be forgotten as part of society's horrifying history.
4. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Starring Sean Connery, Ryan O'Neal, Michael Caine
Drama, History, War (2h 55m)
Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Gene Hackman? Yes, please! This classic ensemble of acting legends star in Richard Attenborough's 1970s war epic that follows a combined British and American paratrooper unit who plan to take the highway into Germany.
Unfortunately for them, the Allies underestimated the German resistance. A Bridge Too Far remains as authentic as cinematically possible, dodging Hollywood clichés and glamorization of war.
Based on the 1974 book by Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far probes into the victories and tactical mistakes made at the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. Ryan also wrote The Longest Day in 1962, which was made into a similarly epic wartime classic.
3. The Great Escape (1963)
Directed by John Sturges
Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough
Adventure, Drama, History (2h 52m)
It's hard to imagine an escape like this one actually taking place, but it did! Of course, a 1960s Hollywood studio was bound to dramatize it—and they made the US involvement larger than it actually was—but it still really happened nonetheless.
In his 1950 book, Paul Brickhill detailed the extraordinary escape of British prisoners of war from a German camp. John Sturges then turned it into this legendary war flick that's (mostly) suitable for the family.
The Great Escape tunes down the horrific realities of war camps to cater to a wider audience, but its strength, soul, and nobility are never lost.
The prisoners plotted their escape for years before tunneling themselves to freedom. Sadly, only 76 of the original 200 made it to the other side alive... and most were recaptured shortly after.
2. Dunkirk (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance
Action, Drama, History (1h 46m)
Christopher Nolan is no stranger to sweeping cinematic visuals, and Dunkirk is a feat of cinematography that takes us on a journey across land, sea, and sky during the Battle of Dunkirk.
Sparse dialogue makes room for a more atmospheric marvel, which was mostly shot on 65mm IMAX. The air is heavy with fear and tension as Nolan documents the lives of various men who are struggling to evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940.
Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Harry Styles are just some of the big names that appear in Dunkirk. Although the characters are fictional, Nolan hits every other historical fact on the head as he bases his story on real-life accounts.
These characters serve as symbols of the real men who fought, waited, escaped, and died on that monumental day—which some consider to be the greatest failure of World War II and others an outright miracle.
1. Schindler's List (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Biography, Drama, History (3h 15m)
Steven Spielberg not only managed to direct an iconic cinematic masterpiece, but did so in the same year that he made the legendary blockbuster hit Jurassic Park! But Schindler's List is a very different story from Spielberg's usual fare.
This Holocaust drama celebrates the efforts of businessman Oskar Schindler, who ultimately saved 1,200 Jews from concentration camps. Using his position as a privileged German industrialist, Schindler employed hundreds of Jewish people to work in his factories.
Spielberg employs an expert use of black-and-white to evoke not only the historical setting, but also the deeply tragic themes of a world stripped of joy. Liam Neeson stars as the heroic figure alongside Ralph Fiennes as the truly infuriating and sadistic Nazi commander Amon Göth.