What better way to spend Memorial Day than watching the epics that celebrate the courage of America's armed forces? Now, you could rank them by critic score, by personal favorite or by year of release, but the reason the following movies might just be the best war movies of all time is that they have all achieved outstanding box office success.
These seven movies are the highest grossing American war movies worldwide — which means war movies not involving an American army, such as 300 and Troy, are excluded. Read on for your annual dose of explosions, epic battles, emotional farewells and love, with an extra serving of freedom on top.
7. Black Hawk Down, 2001 — $173 million
Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom star in this R-rated adaptation of Mark Bowden's book of the same name, directed by Ridley Scott. The book itself was based on 1993's Battle of Mogadishu, which saw a US Joint Special Operations Force named the Task Force attempt to retrieve two of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid's lieutenants. But the operation turns to a disaster, and it'll take all the courage of the team to complete the mission.
6. War Horse, 2011 — $177.6 million
Steven Spielberg's War Horse draws on the powerful bond between a young man and his horse, telling the story of World War I as the horse and the boy are separated and reunited again. It stars Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, and will surely make you weep once or twice.
5. The Patriot, 2000 — $215.3 million
The presence of acting genius Heath Ledger alone should be reason enough to watch The Patriot, but it's also the perfect Memorial Day movie. Mel Gibson stars as father and retired soldier in South Carolina in 1776, who tries to stay away from the conflict with the British known as the American Revolution — until his sons get involved and the British attack his plantation. While critic Roger Ebert pointed out the historical inaccuracy of the movie by writing that "none of it has much to do with the historical reality of the Revolutionary War," it's a great epic delivering a balanced mix of action and emotion.
4. Gone With the Wind, 1939 — $393.4 million
If you haven't seen the cult movie Gone With the Wind, it's about time you catch up with the delightful and manipulative Scarlett O'Hara. Set during the American Civil War, Gone with the Wind is more than a love story, as the audience experiences the impact of the war through Scarlett's eyes. It's based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell and boasts an all-star cast including Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard. It was an instant success upon release; plus, if you combine the several re-releases of the movie and adapt the gross to inflation, Gone with the Wind made $3.3 billion in total.
3. Pearl Harbor, 2001 — $449.2 million
Pearl Harbor is another skillful combination of a war tale and a love story that just recently celebrated its 15th birthday. This audience favorite stars Josh Hartnett, Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale as two best friends turned Army Air Corps pilots and a nurse. While it was the first movie to be both nominated at the Academy Awards and the Razzie Awards, which announce what they consider to be the worst movies of the year, this love triangle set just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II still managed to win over the box office.
2. Saving Private Ryan, 1998 — $481.8 million
Steven Spielberg is a master of war movies, having directed two of the movies on this list. Until the release of American Sniper two years ago, Saving Private Ryan was the most successful war movie of all time, and for good reason. The ultimate war movie stars Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore and Vin Diesel, and brings a message of hope to the big screen with the story of Ryan, the last survivor of a fraternity of four fighting in World War II. When he goes missing, the American army decides to set up a team to find him so his mother will see at least one son return home.
1. American Sniper, 2014 — $547.4 million
The highest grossing war movie of all time was also number one at the American box office in 2014, despite its obvious use of a plastic baby. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, it doesn't tackle the everyday life of war so much as it addresses PTSD, as we follow Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle and his struggle with his personal life after the war. The story of Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history — he's got 255 kills to his name, of which 160 were confirmed by the US Department of Defense — can be found in full in his autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History.
Which of these war movies is your favorite? Which ones would you add to the list?