7 of Steven Spielberg's War Films

Steven Spielberg

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There are certain directors that repeatedly offer the war film genre film after film. One of those directors is Steven Spielberg. However, Spielberg's penchant for sappy sentimentality hasn't always served him well within this genre.

01
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Bridge of Spies

This 2015 film starring Tom Hanks has all the makings of an absorbing smash hit: It's a period drama, it stars Tom Hanks, and it's about a spy trade for a fallen B2 pilot.

02
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Schindler's List

This 1993 Best Picture winner based on the life of Oskar Schindler is a classic of modern cinema. The story is well known: Schindler is an industrialist opportunist in business with the Nazis who develops a conscience and begins protecting the Jews running his factories, even though to continue to do so bankrupts him. 

Filmed in black and white, this was one of the first films to truly show the horrors of what life in the concentration camps was like. It's a difficult film to view because of the horrors that it shows: A psychopathic camp commander that kills camp workers on a whim, children hiding in the bottom of toilet out houses to hide from the Nazis, Jews being gassed in the chambers.

It's a powerful film and represents cinema as both high-end art, and sober history lesson. An almost perfect film in every regard.

03
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Saving Private Ryan

This 1998 film is Spielberg's other masterpiece. A summary of this film is almost unnecessary, but for the one person who hasn't seen it, it follows a squad of Rangers sent into Nazi-controlled Europe to search for and bring back home a Private James Ryan, whose brothers were all killed on a single day of fighting and is the last remaining son within his family.

Although a fictional film, Saving Private Ryan has been rightly praised for its raw and violent depiction of the Normandy D-Day invasion that starts the film. Simultaneously, exciting, thoughtful, and moving, with a perfect cast and top-notch production values, it doesn't get much better than this.

04
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Lincoln

Although this is more a film about the abolition of slavery than a film about the Civil War, itself, the war's context in the back of the film still marks it as a war film (though there are precious few scenes actually depicting battle or war).

It's certainly an interesting film, with a captivating perfect performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, and the political mechanics required to bring about an end to slavery are fascinating, but it has limited entertainment value. (Unlike Saving Private Ryan, which manages to excite and entertain at the same time, Lincoln is more academic achievement.) Which is to say, technically well done and interesting, but it's never going to be the sort of film that creates a long-lasting emotional connection with its audience. (As compared to the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan, which was repeatedly listed by veterans as their favorite film of all time.)

05
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Empire of the Sun

This 1987 film starring a very young Christian Bale is one of Spielberg's least known films. It follows a rich British boy living with his expatriate parents in China, who is separated from them, and later taken to a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War.

Aside from showing a mostly unknown part of the Second World War (the Japanese occupation of China), the film also has some fantastic scenes and the normal excellent production values. But the sum result of this film never added up into the emotional surge that Spielberg's top two films on this list did, and the film has never really connected with a large audience. While a bit under-appreciated, it also is a film that could have been and probably should have been, better than it was.

06
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War Horse

This 2011 film is a complete miss. It's a series of stories set during the first World War that are all interconnected by the horse of the film's title. A horse that ends up fighting in the trenches of the first World War. Beyond the awfulness of two hours where an animal is repeatedly endangered, the film also is Spielberg at his most recklessly sentimental, as each of the separate story strands culminates in the sort of emotionally manipulative ending that Spielberg is criticized for.

07
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1941

 In 1971, Steven Spielberg, the director of such massive hits as JawsRaiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., released a film that, to this day, most audiences haven't even heard of. And for good reason. On its theatrical release posters, it was advertised as an "A Comedy Spectacular!" But there's not a single laugh in this film set in L.A. as panic sets in over the attack on Pearl Harbor. The late John Belushi runs around with a lot of energy attempting to be crazy, but the headache-inducing awfulness of it all negates even a single giggle being released from the viewer.

As this was one of Spielberg's first films, perhaps it can be chalked up to him still learning his craft.