Since the start of Hollywood, war has been given a frequent spotlight in American cinema. (Check out that first Best Picture winner.) Beginning as an ideal form for patriotic propaganda through war epics and pre-matinee PSAs, war in film has since developed into a genre all its own. Within such dire, morally bound climates, plots are driven at rapid-fire pacing by high-stakes action sequences and psychological struggles.
Beyond the American fascination with military heroism and sacrifice, the war film genre has begun to lend us a closer look into the deeper ethical complications of war in itself. While many films focus upon glorification and romanticization, filmmakers have also used the medium’s subjectivity as a deeper, humanized lens to the true atrocities of wartime. Through these stories, we can attempt to gain a closer relationship to a machination that often feels so emotionally distant.
From action-packed reenactments, to moving biographical dramas, commentary-fueled farces, and more, these are the best war movies to stream on Netflix.
1. The Siege of Jadotville
Based upon Declan Powers’s book, The Siege of Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle, this war drama tells the story of an Irish Army unit’s 1961 UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. The Richie Smyth-directed film gained acclaim within the Irish festival circuit.
2. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino’s award-winning alternate history flick, Inglorious Basterds, follows two converging plots to kill Nazi leaders occupying France, forged by Jewish soldiers and a vengeful theatre owner. The blockbuster hit features performances from Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, and Mélanie Laurent.
Christian Bale stars as a late nineteenth century U.S. Army cavalry officer who reluctantly accepts orders to escort a dying Cheyenne chief, played by Wes Studi, from Fort Berringer to his tribal lands in Montana. The two, along with the chief’s family, face the turmoils of the merciless wilderness, and make an unexpected alliance with a young widow, played by Rosamund Pike. Along with its primary cast, the Western features performances from Timothée Chalamet, Jesse Plemons, Scott Wilson, and Adam Beach, among others.
Based on a true story, Defiance tells the story of the three Bielski brothers, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bells. As a family of Polish Jews in WWII, the brothers flee to the forest of their childhood play days, marking the site as their new battleground for rebellion against the Nazis. The Bielskis are soon met by the company of fellow vigilantes, forming a uniquely united coalition.
5. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Set in WWII Germany, this film explores an unlikely friendship between two young boys, Bruno, a Nazi commandant’s son, and Shmuel, a young Jewish boy currently imprisoned. Their friendship unfolds across the barrier of a concentration camp fence, as Bruno progressively becomes aware of the cruel reality taking place on the other side. While moving, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas should not be sought out for much historical accuracy. The film has had its fair share of criticism regarding its clumsy melodramatizations and misrepresentations.
6. Beasts of No Nation
A young boy named Agu is forced into joining a team of rebellion forces to fight in a bloody civil war that has torn his unnamed West African country apart. Idris Elba stars as the charismatic rebel leader, known only as the Commandant, who leads Agu and his fellow soldiers down a dark and violent path.
7. The Dirty Dozen
An impressive ensemble cast—including Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, and Donald Sutherland—united to star in this action classic about a American army major who must lead a team of convicts on a assassination mission during WWII.
8. War Horse
In this Steven Spielberg adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, Joey, a thoroughbred race horse, is pressed into service by the British Army in World War I and thrust into the tragedy of conflict, including the bloody Second Battle of the Somme. The 2011 movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
9. First They Killed My Father
Angelina Jolie directed this drama, based on the true story of Cambodian human rights activist Loung Ung’s childhood experience living under Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s, during which her family was forced into a labor camp by the Communist regime.
10. Outlaw King
Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce, the crowned king of Scotland who is exiled from his country and bands together a team of fellow outlaws to assist him in his efforts to reclaim his throne.
11. The Pianist
Roman Polanski’s WWII drama was partly inspired by his own experience seeking refuge from Nazi-controlled Poland, with Adrien Brody playing the radio pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who attempts to survive the German occupation of Warsaw.
12. War Machine
Brad Pitt plays a tough but wacky U.S. General who is sent to Afghanistan to clean up the military mess following eight years of war. Surrounded by exhausted and disillusioned soldiers, he finds himself up against bureaucratic obstacles in this dark war comedy.