War films are a genre of cinema with a complex set of subgenres that include action films, comedies, POW films, propaganda films, and anti-war films. Over the years, countless war films, such as Saving Private Ryan and Section, garnered both critical acclaim and box office success, placing them among the greatest films of all time.
However, while war films like Revelation now and Full Metal Jacket have become integral works of art, there are many other underrated war movies that many people don’t know about. Underperforming at the box office, failing to win any major awards, or simply being forgotten by history, many of the greatest war movies ever made are relatively unknown.
10/10 Captain Conan is virtually unknown to international audiences
Captain Conan is a World War I drama directed by Bertrand Tavernier, one of France’s most prominent post-New Wave filmmakers. Although he was nominated for nine Césars in France, with wins for Best Director and Best Actor, Captain Conan is virtually unknown to the international public.
Captain Conan depicts the exploits of the morally ambiguous military leader Conan during the final months of World War I. Conan’s leadership is based on a “take no prisoners attitude”. Captain Conan delivers a brilliant character study as well as exceptionally well-photographed fight sequences that combine long takes and elaborate follow-up shots.
9/10 A Hidden Life marks a return to form for Terrence Malick
After a string of divisive critical films, A hidden life marked a return to form for Terrence Malick, one of the world’s premier authors. A hidden life is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer and devout Catholic who became a notorious conscientious objector during World War II after refusing to fight for the Nazis.
As is the case with the best works of Malick, A hidden life is a visually poetic and highly spiritual film that examines the relationship between human nature and violence. Malick’s meditative aesthetic lacks mainstream appeal and likely explains the film’s lackluster box office performance.
8/10 The Wind Shaking the Barley is a dark depiction of Irish military conflict
Directed by famous British filmmaker Ken Loach, The wind that shakes the barley is a dark and disturbing war drama that covers both the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. The film centers on the lives of two fictional brothers who fight against the British during the Irish War of Independence but slowly find themselves in opposing factions during the Irish Civil War.
Although it earned Ken Loach his first two Palmes d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The wind that shakes the barley seems to have become an almost forgotten film. The film has less than 85,000 combined user ratings on IMDb and Letterboxd.
7/10 Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence features two of the world’s most famous musicians
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a World War II POW drama directed by radical Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Ōshima. The film stars two of the world’s most famous musicians, British superstar David Bowie and Japanese icon Ryuichi Sakamoto. Famous Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, who at the time was known only as a comedian, also stars in the film.
Ōshima, a very political filmmaker who has never hesitated to criticize Japanese society, based Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence about the real-life experiences of Laurens van der Post, a British Army soldier who was taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a powerful film that demonstrates the moral atrocities committed by all sides in military conflicts.
6/10 Breaker Morant is a landmark Australian new wave film
Set during the Second Boer War, Breaker Morant is based on the 1902 Court Martial of Breaker Morant, a war crimes trial in which several Australian soldiers fighting for the British Army were charged with murdering captured enemy combatants and unarmed civilians.
Although he won ten Australian Film Institute Awards out of thirteen nominations in total, Breaker Morant is not as internationally known as other Australian new wave films such as madmax and Crocodile Dundee. Breaker Morant is a thought-provoking film about higher orders, the death penalty, and the morality of all-out war.
5/10 Sophia Loren won the Oscar for two women
Directed by Vittorio De Sica, figurehead of the neorealist movement in Italy, Two women tells the story of a woman who struggles to protect her daughter from the horrors of World War II. For her leading role, Sophia Loren became the first actress in history to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Non-English speaking role.
Two women is a heartbreaking film that depicts the devastating and heartbreaking toll of war on innocent civilians. Even though Two women is an Oscar-winning film, the film is not as well-known or praised as other De Sica masterpieces such as Bike thieves and Umberto D.
4/10 The Steel Helmet is the first film made about the Korean War.
The steel helmet is a microbudget masterpiece that was made for just over $100,000 and shot in just ten days. Directed by maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller, The steel helmet was the first film made about the Korean War, which hadn’t even reached its year when the film premiered in early 1951.
Fuller was known for his gritty, hard-hitting films that tackled societal issues head-on. The steel helmet not only depicts the horrors of war, but it addresses issues of American racism such as Jim Crow laws and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
3/10 The Burmese Harp is one of the greatest anti-war films ever made
Directed by prolific Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, Burmese harp covers the final days of the Burma Campaign of World War II and its immediate aftermath. One of the main themes of the film is the exploration of Buddhist teachings, which the central character is dedicated to following the catastrophic consequences that Japanese militarism has brought to its people.
In 1985, Ichikawa decided to redo Burmese harp in colour. This version of the film would go on to become the second highest-grossing domestic Japanese film at that time. The financial success of the remake overshadowed the true greatness of the original film.
2/10 The Silence of the Sea reveals humanity in the face of war
the silence of the Sea was the first feature film by Jean-Pierre Melville, godfather of the New Wave. Shot on a tiny budget, the silence of the Sea tells the story of a Frenchman and his niece who are forced to share a residence with a German officer during Nazi-occupied France.
As a sign of protest, the Frenchman and his niece take a vow of silence and refuse to talk to the German officer. However, through one-sided conversations, the German officer gradually reveals himself as a man of culture and intelligence who has begun to struggle with the dilemma of his sense of duty to the evils committed by his country.
1/10 The Human Condition is a monumental cinematic achievement
Directed by former Japanese soldier Masaki Kobayashi, The human condition is a three-part film series about World War II that lasts a total of nine and a half hours. The series follows Kaji’s journey, from his time in Japanese-colonized Manchuria to his imprisonment in a Soviet POW camp.
The human condition is a relentlessly brutal and depressing film series that is immensely critical of the Japanese military. Kobayashi is arguably best known internationally for his samurai films. Hara-kiri and Samurai Rebellion. Although not as popular, The human condition could very well be Kobayashi’s magnum opus, as it is one of the crowning glory of Japanese cinema.
NEXT: Rom-Coms That Bombed But Became Cult Classics