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. These people have now 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?
10. We Were Soldiers (2002)
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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. That was middle days for the disastrous Vietnam War, which lasted 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.
9. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
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 earned a huge amount of respect when he saved 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa—despite not 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.
8. Valkyrie (2008)
You’ve probably heard of Operation Valkyrie—the historical plot where Nazi officers would attempt to take down Hitler himself.
The group of high-ranking men feared for the future of Germany in Hitler’s unstable hands, and 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 anyway.
7. American Sniper (2014)
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 SEAL sniper, Kyle is well adjusted to the chaotic surroundings of bombs and guns, but not everyday suburban life.
It’s a powerful story of sacrifice, terror, and love that flip-flops between the past and present day.
6. The Imitation Game (2014)
Taking a step back from the trenches, 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 the 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.
5. Unbroken (2014)
Of Jack O’Connell’s many brilliant and gritty performances after starring in the British teen show Skins, his best performance might just be as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken.
Directed by Angelina Jolie, Unbroken traces the Olympic record-holder’s life from childhood into 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.
4. The Pianist (2002)
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.
3. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Gene Hackman? 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 cliches 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.
2. Dunkirk (2017)
Christopher Nolan is no stranger to sweeping cinematic visuals. 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, while others an outright miracle.
1. Schindler’s List (1993)
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 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 Goeth.