Audiences have an affinity for guns, explosions and heroic death scenes: the first two are cool, the last can be very cathartic, and whether or not we like to admit it we all need a good cry once in a while. War movies tend to make use of all three, and as a result the genre has always been a big box office draw. Whether making good use of a patriotic upswing or creating a vicarious outlet for those who haven’t experience—and don’t really want to experience—warfare, war films can be crowd-pleasers. The following ten movies are the most successful of their kind.
10. Apocalypse Now: $150,000,000
Though lengthy—almost three hours—and rife with brutality and moral horror, Francis Ford Coppola’s searing psychological war drama was a box office success in the year of its release and remains one to this day. Featuring career-making performances from Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper, not to mention the vaguely omnipresent Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now was originally released to three theatres in 1979: one in Hollywood, one in New York City, and one in Toronto. Within a couple months it was showing at several hundred locations, according to Peter Cowie’s 1990 biography of Coppola. The film enjoyed a “second life” of sorts in 2001 when Coppola edited and released Apocalypse Now Redux, a significantly longer (202 minute) version of the film, which during a limited release earned over $12 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo.
9. Black Hawk Down: $172,989,651
Based on the non-fiction account of the Battle of Mogadishu by journalist Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down featured an ensemble cast with such names as Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom and—a rarity for modern war films—was produced partially in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Defense. Black Hawk Down was one of the first mainstream war films to depict a post-Vietnam conflict and, like Saving Private Ryan before it, attempted to portray battle in a gritty, realistic fashion. However, the film was criticized by Somali nationals as well as outlets like The New York Times for its one-dimensional portrayal of the Somali militia involved in the conflict. Nonetheless, Black Hawk Down was a financial success, grossing almost twice its $92 million budget. The success of its theatrical run in early 2002 could be contributed to patriotic fervour following 9/11.
8. War Horse: $177,584,879
Though it’s rarer to see a World War I movie than one set in World War II or Vietnam, the genre has a fairly rich history: All Quiet on the Western Front, was the third film to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Paths of Glory—Stanley Kubrick’s fourth movie—was one of the most famous anti-war films of its time. War Horse is among the latest in this niche category. The movie, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo as well as Nick Stafford’s later stage play, follows the journey of an English teenager who enlists in the army to seek out his horse, who has been taken by the cavalry. It was director Steven Spielberg’s return to the war film genre, his last entry having been Saving Private Ryan, and made its $66 million budget almost three times over after being released to theatres on Christmas 2011.
7. Valkyrie: $200,276,784
Though perhaps not a war film in the traditional sense, being more a taut political thriller, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie nevertheless fits into the genre well for its examination of the upper echelons of the Nazi Party in the latter days of World War II. A true-to-life tale, Valkyrie focuses on Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), a wounded German Wehrmacht officer who, along with several other army officers, attempted to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944. Though it was plagued by several delays—and though Cruise’s practice of Scientology was not well-received by the German community, according to Reuters—the film was a substantial box office success upon its eventual release on Christmas 2008, earning over $200 million, more than twice its budget—which was either $75 or $80 million, depending on your source.
6. Braveheart: $210,409,945
Braveheart, directed by and starring that controversial Aussie-American Mel Gibson, might be an odd duck on this list for some as its setting, medieval Scotland, doesn’t exactly bring “war movie” to mind. But make no mistake; this epic is a more brutal portrayal of war than some of the other entries in this piece. Depicting the life of Scottish revolutionary William Wallace, Braveheart was a critical success, winning several of the top awards at that year’s Oscars ceremony, including Best Picture and Best Director, though historians critiqued the film’s portrayal of several of its figures. But qualms about historical accuracy have never really affected filmgoers, and Braveheart went on to earn over $210 million in theatres—close to three times its $72 million budget.
5. The Patriot: $215,294,342
More for the Gibson-lovers: from the same director-producer duo, Roland Emmerich-Dean Devlin, that brought the world Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow comes The Patriot, a historical drama depicting the Revolutionary War, centering on a landowner (Gibson) who finds himself pulled into the conflict and eventually fighting for his future country’s freedom—very much an American Braveheart. In spite of its patriotic content, however, The Patriot was not as popular in the U.S. as distributor Columbia Pictures had hoped: its domestic box office earnings barely made back the film’s $110 million budget. Ironically, foreign receipts helped to bring it up to the $215.3 million it now sits at. As with Braveheart, The Patriot was criticized for historical inaccuracies, chief among them the depiction of atrocities by the British that had no basis in reality, according to Salon and The Washington Post.
4. Inglourious Basterds: $321,455,689
Quentin Tarantino brought his witty, hyper-violent style to the war film genre with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt as the commander of a squad of Jewish-American soldiers sent into Nazi-occupied France in order to wage guerilla warfare against the Germans. Surprisingly, for such a box office success—it grossed over four times its $75 million budget—only a third of it was in English, with the remaining two thirds being spoken in subtitled French and German (not entirely accurate: there is a memorable scene containing some horribly spoken Italian). Tarantino’s twisted take on World War II helped Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz and French actress Mélanie Laurent achieve international recognition, with the former winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of conniving SS officer Hans Landa. As with many of the films on this list, however, it was not free from controversy, with critics at Tablet and Galus Australis maligning what they felt to be a shallow portrayal of the movie’s Jewish characters.
3. Pearl Harbor: $449,220,945
Director Michael Bay’s lone war movie, depicting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the ensuing Doolittle Raid, didn’t fare well with the critics upon the film’s release in May of 2001: Roger Ebert gave it one and a half stars out of four; A.O. Scott of The New York Times criticized its dialogue and delivery; Desson Howe of The Washington Post said it was more a tribute to action thrillers like Top Gun than an accurate portrayal of war. And of course, its detractors also pointed out the films many historical inaccuracies, among them portraying the Japanese as deliberately targeting a U.S. Naval hospital. Nevertheless, it made nearly $450 million to its $140 million budget, so Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace might not have taken the complaints to heart.
2. 300 : $456,068,181
While 300 is technically based on the actual Battle of Thermopylae that occurred in 480BC, it’s more an adaptation of comic book creator Frank Miller’s hyper-stylized depiction of the battle in his original graphic novel of the same name. Directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Man of Steel), starring Gerard Butler and filmed mostly in front of blue screens in Montreal, 300 is the story of Spartan King Leonidas’ attempt to defend his country from the Persian army with a force of just 300 men. The film took its visual cues heavily from its source material, and consequently the Spartans are portrayed as oiled-up man’s men and the Persians are, well, less Persian and more demonic, understandably earning the ire of many Iranians. These criticisms were not enough to deter filmgoers, however, and it was an astounding box office smash, earning over seven times its $65 million budget.
1. Saving Private Ryan: $481,840,909
Steven Spielberg’s second and final entry on this list was fairly revolutionary upon its release in 1998 for its depiction of combat in World War II as a bloody, Hellish affair: by comparison, World War II films of the ’40s through the ’60s tended to romanticize the conflict. Praise was specifically directed at its opening D-Day sequence, a cacophonic 20-minute-long battle scene that was one of the harshest portrayals of war to date. Its cast wasn’t necessarily an all-star one; excepting Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, most of the ensemble consisted of character actors, though several, like Vin Diesel, Bryan Cranston and Paul Giamatti, would go on to become big names in their own right. As with 300, Saving Private Ryan ultimately made nearly seven times its budget back in theatres.