Top 13 War Movie Battle Scenes of All Time

Let's be honest, one of the most thrilling aspect of war films are the scenes of battle. Yes, war is hell. Yes, many soldiers die horrible deaths. But yet, there's some part of us as war film buffs that enjoys the visceral experience of seeing a massive battle on-screen. The bloodier the better. I suppose there's a dark part of the human psyche that appreciates carnage (though somehow it's always more exciting when safely viewed from a television set!)  So without further ado, here is a list of some of the best battle scenes of all time.  

01
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Saving Private Ryan - Normandy

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Saving Private Ryan.

The opening of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was shocking for audiences.  It opened with one of the most visceral, realistic, re-enactments of the D-Day Normandy beach landing ever put to film:  The boats churn toward the shore, the soldiers inside vomiting from anxiety, their hands shaking.  And then, as soon as the ramp starts to lower, machine gun fire mows the soldiers down, many of whom jump over the sides of the boat where bullets rip through the water, which is quickly stained crimson with blood.  Many soldiers drown, held down by the weight of their own gear.  And for those who survive and get to the beach, the real battle has just started.

The battle's realism was such that it produces a sort of feeling of awe in all the rest of us for those veterans that lived through it.  And it's one of the reasons that Saving Private Ryan is considered such a cinematic classic and made this list of the top ten war films of all time.

02
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Edge of Tomorrow - Normandy

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Edge of Tomorrow.

Interestingly, another one of the greatest battle scenes of all time, also occurs at Normandy.  Instead of a war movie about Nazis though, this time it's a war movie about aliens.  Edge of Tomorrow pits Tom Cruise against an alien horde and the first battle of the film (actually, the only battle of the film) is epically massive in scope.  The camera pulls back to the sky to reveal miles of thousands of soldiers engaged in fierce fighting, each pixel of the screen moving simultaneously.  It's too much for the eyeballs to take in and absorb.  It's the sort of scene that requires repeated viewing, if only so that your eyes can attempt to focus on a different part of the battle.  After a dozen viewings or so, you'll probably be able to claim that you absorbed at least a quarter of the battle.

03
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Enemy at the Gates - The Battle of Stalingrad

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Enemy at the Gates.

If the Americans had Omaha Beach on the western front, in the east, the Russians had the Battle of Stalingrad, a do or die moment for the Russian country - if they lost Stalingrad, they'd likely lose everything.  What makes the battle of Stalingrad so terrible, and the opening of this film so memorable, is that the soldiers who fought in this war were so poorly equipped that they didn't even have rifles.  The Russian military leadership simply threw bodies into the fight, attempting to achieve victory through a war of attrition, knowing that Mother Russia had an endless supply of poor peasant boys that could be sacrificed for the war effort. The Russian soldiers were considered so disposable that only every other soldier received a rifle, the guy behind him received five bullets and was to pick-up the rifle when the first soldier died.  With the entire town leveled, and artillery falling all around them, the Russian soldiers run into machine gun fire to certain death.

Talk about intense.  And that's just the first five minutes of the film!

Click here to read about the War Movies Dream Team.

04
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Braveheart - The Battle of Falkirk

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Braveheart.

Mel Gibson roars a speech about freedom, his face painted in blue war paint.  The "fight for freedom" speech is usually fairly trite and cringe inducing, but in this film, it's thrilling.  And then the battle starts.  And this is battle at it's most violent, most brutal, and most horrible - old fashioned battle, hand-to-hand with swords and axes.  Whereas most Hollywood films traditionally would show an enemy soldier slashed with a sword and then simply fall to the ground without showing the blood, in Braveheart the limbs go flying, and the blood runs in rivers.  The Battle of Falkirk has never been portrayed so violently on film before.  (Realistic violence in war films is one of my "war film rules.")

Click here for the Most Historically Inaccurate War Films.

05
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The Empire Strikes Back - The Battle of Hoth

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Empire Strikes Back.

The Battle of Hoth, which opens the second film in the Star Wars saga is one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history.  A meagre line of Rebel soldiers dressed against the cold look to the horizon through binoculars to see massive Empire war machines walking towards them.  Add in spaceship fights, a ground war, and hundreds of rushing Arctic gear covered stormtroopers, and you have one of the most thrilling moments in cinema history.  For an early 1980s audience, it was spectacle beyond belief. 

Click here for the Best and Worst Sci-Fi Weapons of War Movies.

06
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We Were Soldiers - The Battle of La Drang

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We Were Soldiers.

Not much needs to be said about this real-life Vietnam battle, except that it involved 400 Calvary soldiers facing off against 4,000 North Vietnamese soldiers...and the U.S. soldiers were ultimately victorious.  The battle, which takes up most of We Were Soldiersis violent and intense, as one might imagine.  Of particular notice is one scene where Mel Gibson's character has to call air strikes at "Danger Close," which is to say, practically on top of his own soldiers who are at risk of being overrun.  When an errant air strikes takes out a squad of his own soldiers, Gibson quickly brushes it off and continues on with the battle.  I'm not sure whether that's sociopathy or courage, but it's certainly a sight to behold.

Click here for the Best and Worst War Movies about Vietnam.

07
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Last of the Mohicans - Attack on the English Column

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Last of the Mohicans.

Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans is a gritty, violent, intense re-imagining of the little portrayed French and Indian War.  Especially thrilling is the attack on the English column which starts with the British marching in single file through the woods as they do (this is the same Army that engages in battle by forming straight lines and firing).  Then, from the wood line, there is the shriek of Indian war cries and then the massacre begins as the Indians, who feel no need to form orderly rows in order to fight as the British do, decimate the ranks of the orderly queues of British infantry.  The scene is so vivid that it's one of the few battle scenes where you feel as if you were there.  The chaos seems real.  And most importantly, the choreograph of the battle makes sense.  Almost two decades later, this remains one of my favorite battle scenes of all time.

08
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The Pacific - Battle of Iwo Jima

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The Pacific.

The iconic flag raising photograph over Iwo Jima is one of the most famous images of the 20th century.  And we've all heard of the battle, but few films have captured it's ferociousness as well as the HBO mini-series The Pacific.  At the time of the battle, the island has been reduced to mud and rubble, as U.S. Marines charge head first into the yawning mouth of Hell as machine gun fire and mortars explode all around them.  It's also a battle that lasted for an entire month! -- and cost the lives of some 26,000 Marines.  As a former infantry soldier from Afghanistan, I can't imagine experiencing this level of war or combat, and it's the sort of vivid re-enactment that gives me a whole new respect for the veterans of the second World War.

09
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Apocalypse Now - Beach Assault

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Apocalypse Now.
Lieutenant Kilgore (Robert DuVall) explains to Captain Willard (Martin Sheet) that he loves the smell of Napalm in the morning.  As he says this, he begins surfing.  It should be said that behind him, an entire village is being decimated by missiles being shot from Army helicopters.  This is obviously one soldier who's been out in the weeds a bit too long.  (Although this surfing during wartime seems an absurd detail created by Hollywood, it's actually based off a real-life event.)  And so there's the village being destroyed, as helicopters swoop in firing death from above, as the soldiers surf, and all while "Ride of the Valkyries" plays on the soundtrack.  It's one of the most surreal scenes of combat ever recorded on celluloid film.
10
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Lone Survivor - Entire Film

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Lone Survivor.
Lone Survivor is essentially one long giant, intense, super exciting firefight.  The position of the SEALs is discovered at about the film's fifteen minute mark, and from then on out until the movie's end, it's one of the most kinetic, crazy, firefights ever recorded in a war movie.  There's no particular scene that can be picked out over any other, so instead, we simply have to nominate the entire film.
11
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Cold Mountain - Siege of Petersburg

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Cold Mountain.

There's only a single battle scene in Cold Mountain, a great overlooked Civil War movie, and it's a doozy.  The film starts with Jude Law lounging with other Confederate soldiers inside a series of trenches, laughing at the lazy Union soldiers across the field.  Little do they know that, at that very moment, the Union soldiers are climbing out of an underground tunnel that has been dug under the Confederate position...a tunnel packed with dynamite.  The fuse is lit and the entire Confederate position explodes with one of the best special effects I've ever seen in a movie (to try and explain it, the clothes are literally blown off one soldier).  The Union soldiers then charge, thinking they have the advantage, but find themselves at the bottom of a large muddy gulch, unable to climb the hill. The Confederate soldiers manage to regroup and fire at their enemy just below them.  Blood pools in thick currents in the mud, dead bodies are everywhere.  It's a mess.  A glorious, awful, horrible, wonderful, war movie sort of mess.

12
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Hamburger Hill - Hill 937

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In Vietnam, the 101st Airborne was assigned to take a steep hill, which came to be called "Hamburger Hill."  (The name derived from what it turned soldiers into:  Raw meat for the grinder of war.)  It took 10 days and 11 assaults, to take a single hill, less than a kilometer in height.  The hill was covered in mud so thick, that it lathered on the soldiers crawling through it, and the hill was so steep, that at times, it required an almost vertical ascent, with the Vietcong at the top firing down from heavily embedded positions.  The casualties were steep, as you might imagine.  By day 10, the entire hill was turned into a smoking relic, the foliage long blasted away.  It was some of the most intense fighting of the Vietnam war.

13
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Patton - Battle of El Guettar

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Patton.

The Battle of El Guettar in Patton is quite simply, one of the largest, most complicated and expensive battles ever put to celluloid.  The film put two dozen tanks against one another, along with hundreds of soldiers, mortars, artillery, and aircraft.  All of them moving, fighting, and dying, simultaneously.  Usually in films, they use trickery to make you think they are showing you a large battle -- here they seemed to have actually re-created the battle from whole cloth, and then just filmed it.  And best of all, the viewer has the best seat in the house to watch it play out, with Patton on a hillside looking out over an expansive valley.