The Best War Movies on Netflix
Some of these titles are action-packed, and some bring on the tears.
War is hell -- but war movies can be pretty damn entertaining. Some of the military films below make you reflect, some make you cry, and others will just plop you right in the middle of the action. But they have one thing in common: They're all available to stream on Netflix. So strap in, soldier, and get bingeing.
Beasts of No Nation (2015)
True Detective Season 1 director Cary Fukunaga's wartime drama is not a movie you put on in the background. Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name, this visceral character study tracks a preadolescent Agu (Abraham Attah) after he's recruited to be a child soldier in an African civil war (its specifics are left purposely ambiguous). Lorded over by a gruff commander (Idris Elba), the movie is loud, tender, and violent -- a coming-of-age story in which the characters may not live to come of age.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
Historical events often appear differently through the eyes of a child. For some, events are especially devastating, while others may be privileged enough to be ignorant to what’s really unfolding around them. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the latter sort of story, following the experience of 8-year-old Bruno in Nazi-occupied Germany. The film, adapted from John Boyne’s novel, follows the innocent friendship between Bruno, who happens to be the son of a concentration camp commander, and a young Jewish boy held captive in the camp, and the unexpected consequences of their relationship. The fictional period piece is a heartbreaking look at youth’s naivety in times of crisis at the hands of adults, and the humanity that exists in everyone.
Though most war films are inspired by historical events -- positioning itself at a certain point in time or focusing on a specific battle -- the smaller stories based on real individuals can feel all the more dramatic. Frequent war film director Edward Zwick’s Defiance brings to life the Bielski brothers, a group of Belarusian Jews who led thousands of Jewish refugees through the German-occupied Naliboki Forest to safety from Nazi persecution. Like most World War II survival stories, the film is extremely grave in its brutal depiction of living off the land in a war zone, though their unwavering determination will leave you breathless.
First They Killed My Father (2017)
Angelina Jolie is a full-on humanitarian filmmaker these days. Not her first foray in directing a war movie, First They Killed My Father is maybe the most intense; it's based off a memoir of the same name written by Loung Ung, a friend of Jolie's who lived through the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule of Cambodia from 1975 until her escape from the country in 1980. It's a sad, empathetic story of the atrocities following the Cambodian Civil War that hardly gets enough attention in the West.
This Western may as well be your dad's favorite movie, even if he has yet to see it. The year is 1892 and an Army captain (Christian Bale) is assigned to return a former Native American enemy (Wes Studi) back to his people. From Black Mass director Scott Cooper, the movie has a bit of The Searchers blood pumping through its brooding veins; during his mission, the captain encounters a woman (Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike) who lost her entire family to a vicious Indian attack, who lights up the existing friction between the white man and the Native American. Bleak and germane, Hostiles is no Dances With Wolves.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The first of Quentin Tarantino's revisionist history flicks, Inglourious Basterds is a rollicking revenge picture that envisions a group of Jewish renegades plotting to take down the Nazi leadership in occupied Paris in 1944. While the film isn't quite as cohesive as other Tarantino works, it might be his most entertaining, with scenes of high-tension verbal sparring and scalp-smashing mayhem, all erupting when Tarantino's band of vigilantes (led by Brad Pitt's drawling lieutenant, Aldo Raine) gun down their German rivals in a blaze of glory.
"Jarhead" is slang for the marines, or, as the jarheads themselves see it in this Gulf War movie from Sam Mendes, it's what you call sorry suckers who get lost along the way and are left to bear the brunt of combat even long after they return home. The wartime malaise film is inspired by Anthony Swofford's memoir of the same name, and he's played by a very jacked Jake Gyllenhaal, focusing on his personal journey struggling to accept what life in the corps is like and eventually losing sight of what life is like outside of it. Jarhead is bleak and brutal, but cut with moments of levity, Gyllenhaal's solid character study is ample evidence of how the war and Desert Storm operation was muddled and misunderstood at the time, and still years later.
Outlaw King (2018)
Chris Pine portrays Robert the Bruce, a famous Scottish rebel in this gritty period piece. Robert -- who showed up as a character in another gritty period piece about a Scottish rebel, Braveheart -- does as most rebels do and defies the King of England, igniting a battle over the ultimate fate of Scottish FREEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOMMMMMM. The movie sparked a bit of buzz when it premiered at Toronto Film Festival, mostly because it features full-frontal nudity from Pine (don't get too excited, it's brief), but also because critics found it so boring that Netflix decided to cut 20 minutes from the film before its release. The result meanders less, and it's by no means an action-packed saga, but if you're into medieval history and a gritty Pine, you may as well charge towards the Scottish highlands when there's nothing else to watch.
The Patriot (2000)
God bless America! Roland Emmerich's Revolutionary War film may not be the most historically accurate, but he manages to turn the moment that's taught in every history classroom year after year into a blockbuster that's melodramatic and red-blooded. The film stars Mel Gibson as a colonist who joins the war after his son (Heath Ledger) ends up caught in the fighting. If you're looking for Hollywood's grandest take on the dawn of the country, this is it.
The Pianist (2002)
In 2003, Adrien Brody became the youngest person ever to take home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish pianist fighting for survival in Warsaw at the dawn of World War II, in The Pianist. The autobiographical film directed by Roman Polanski (who also took home the prize for Best Director) documents the true life story of Szpilman who grew up in a privileged family and refused to believe the Nazi occupation would grow big enough to affect him and his loved ones, until the threat proves to be all too real. With precision, Brody nails this challenging role that sees an unavoidable travesty unfold before his eyes, and the granular, though extensive, effects it had on one individual.
In Shadow, the visually stunning action epic from Hero and House of Flying Daggers wuxia master Zhang Yimou, parasols are more than helpful sun-blockers: They can be turned into deadly weapons, shooting boomerang-like blades of steel at oncoming attackers and transforming into protective sleds for traveling through the slick streets. These devices are one of many imaginative leaps made in telling this Shakespearean saga of palace intrigue, vengeance, and secret doppelgangers set in China's Three Kingdoms period. This is a martial arts epic where the dense plotting is as tricky as the often balletic fight scenes. If the battles in Game of Thrones left you frustrated, Shadow provides a thrilling alternative.
The Siege of Jadotville (2016)
Do not look to this Netflix original movie for a compelling examination of the Irish military's 1961 efforts to hold strong against an incursion from the recently seceded State of Katanga. The Congolese war conflict is well-documented in historical documents. Do look to The Siege of Jadotville for visceral action cut from the classic man-on-a-mission cloth. Fifty Shades of Grey and The Fall star Jamie Dornan is a regular Gary Cooper as the leader of this unprepared crew, and his work in the heat of battle makes this movie part throwback, part direct-to-DVD-style spectacle.
War Horse (2011)
An emotional tale of a boy… and, you guessed it, his horse. This Spielberg-directed drama is adapted from the popular play and novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, chronicling the journey of a young man and his thoroughbred's experiences in war once his lifelong companion is sold off to the British army at the onset of WWI. The period piece garnered six deserving Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, as the Saving Private Ryan filmmaker highlights his experience for telling war stories, culminating into an epic in the purest sense.
War Machine (2017)
Not every war film has to be a depressing tale. War Machine, for one, is a satirical look at power-hungry personalities in the military and politics. In the Netflix original, Brad Pitt stars as overly proud general Glen McMahon tasked with "cleaning up" the situation in Afghanistan -- despite working with a team of uninterested, exhausted soldiers and politicians who just want to get the hell out of there. As unfunny the endless war in Afghanistan is, coming from the producers of The Big Short, War Machine does a snarky job of illustrating the ridiculousness of the eight-year-long war.
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