10 Obscure War Movies You Haven't Seen (But Should)

As a history teacher, I'm always looking for that perfect video segment that will augment my lectures or book readings. I'd love to develop a course titled: The History of War and its Aftermath Through Visual Media, although the reality is, I usually only show about two hours worth of clips in a whole semester. So I'm always on the lookout for the best bang for the buck (no pun intended). Consequently, I've become a bit of a war movie buff.

It is kind of twisted to be a war movie fan, but there is at least value in understanding our shared history (whereas horror movies and raunchy romcoms don't really add anything to our psyche).

While there are many "big budget" movies like Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now that routinely show up on these lists, I'm going to assume you've seen those and focus on some lesser known classics.

10. Saints and Soldiers (2003): If watching the entirety of Band of Brothers is not on your horizon (though it should be), than this low budget movie should be viewed to comprehend the privation of the Battle of the Bulge. D-Day gets all the press, but the Bulge had some of the ugliest carnage Americans (and Germans) saw in WWII. No great theatrical scenes, but plenty of good moments with decent characters.

9. The Bridge at Ramagen (1969): I'm not a fan of the barrage of pro-war movies of the late 50s, early 60s that starred actors like John Wayne and colored everything America did in the phoniness of technicolor (although Wayne was surprisingly human in Sands of Iwo Jima). Ramagen focuses on the rush to get to Berlin.  The US knew that whoever got to Berlin would control the future of Germany; as the Soviets unsympathetically threw huge numbers of soldiers into Nazi machine guns, the more cautious Americans were slowed by the Nazis blowing up their own bridges. What makes this movie memorable, is the sarcastic and almost unpatriotic tone of lead actor George Segal, as he tries to come to terms with losing soldiers at the end of a long war for a stupid German bridge.

8. The Lost Battalion (2001): It's very hard to find a good WWI movie.  Gallipoli, with a young Mel Gibson is okay if you want to see the insanity of sending soldier after soldier into obvious machine gun death, but for me, this A&E movie starring Ricky Schroder, is actually fairly well conceived. America got into WWI fairly late, and this shows how ill prepared our "cavalry mentality" was in fighting the new mechanized style of warfare. Schroder's battalion gets separated on a hill in the Argonne Forest, and fights off wave after wave of enemy soldiers after being mostly abandoned, and... well, you can finish it yourself.

7. Defiance (2008): James Bond, er, rather Daniel Craig shows that being Jewish during WWII doesn't equate a death in striped holocaust clothing. As the title alludes, this movie is about Jewish Belarusians holding out in the forest and fighting a guerrilla war against the Nazi invaders. While not as touching as Schindler's List, or as emotionally draining as the Pianist or Life is Beautiful, it does show a different side of the human will to survive; a side many of my students always ask: Why didn't the Jews fight back? Well, some did.

6.  The Big Red One (1980): An autobiographical account of the 1st Infantry in WWII (hence the titular One), by director Sam Fuller, and starring an old Lee Marvin and a young Mark Hamill. The heavily edited movie has moments of visual brilliance and scenes of "what were they thinking?" If you do watch it, watch the extended version and just sacrifice a whole night. It isn't Hollywood at all, instead focusing on the conflict of humanity that war forces on soldiers. Some great scenes, but more about the characters.

5. Stalingrad (1993):  Good luck finding this movie, as it is a rarity, yet it shouldn't be.  If you don't know your military history, know this: Hitler was obsessed with two Soviet cities: Leningrad and Stalingrad. The Nazis basically had Moscow on the verge of capitulation, but abandoned the siege on the capitol to focus on those other two famous name-sake cities. It probably cost Germany the war. As it was, Stalingrad was some of the fiercest and most harrowing examples of the depravity of war, and this film doesn't water down the filth (even though it was filmed by a German crew).

4. Stalag 17 (1953): What!? You have an escape from prison camp movie and it isn't Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, or Rambo II (kidding)? Yes. While those movie have some great scenes and great acting (minus Stallone), I prefer the intrigue of this black and white goodie.  William Holden plays a self-serving POW only out to better his own situation in the barracks through unscrupulous dealings with Nazi guards. Needless to say, he isn't too popular with his "own" people. And when an escape plan is outed, Holden's character is suspected. This movie has humor, suspense, and will keep you guessing until the end.  For those needing their movies in glorified HD, the best escape scene I've ever seen is the finale of The Great Raid (a true story as well).

3.  Joyeux Noël (2005): If you need your war movies to have heart, this one is for you. Based on the real story of German and French/Scottish soldiers who called a momentary "truce" for Christmas Eve in WWI, and ended up exchanging gifts and playing a game of soccer on No Man's Land. All the participating soldiers and officers, of course, were later admonished and forced into suicide like missions by idiotic generals. Ah, WWI: where duty, honor, and stupidity were more important than human life. At least the ground soldiers had some heart.

2. Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War (2004):  Not a movie about Americans exactly, but one of the few movies that captures the complexity and idiocy of the Korean War. Often called the "forgotten war" in the US, this movie focuses on two normal shoe shining South Korean brothers who are forced to enlist and fight off the North Koreans (and communism). It's gritty, sad, uplifting, questioning, and beautiful. It's the anti-Saving Private Ryan of war movies. Yet equally as effective in its message.

1. Europa, Europa (1990):  Less a war movie, than a movie about survival (although there are action sequences that are first rate throughout). The movie follows a young Jewish boy who loses his family and has to pretend to be Russian first, and then later, a Nazi (even rising up the ranks in the Hitler youth). Shows some gut-wrenching scenes of the Waffen SS burning entire villages inside a church building, and the young boy being manipulated into doing horrible acts against his conscious (yet willing to do them in order to survive). This movie deals with the atrocities of the second world war in a humanistic way that hasn't been captured in any other movie. And, it's based on a real story.

What did I miss? Let me know.  I haven't seen 'em all (but nearly).


  1. My heart hurts over war (I'm pretty much a full blown hippy), but I do enjoy a good war movie. History interests me tremendously, and the wartime movies that are based on true stories really intrigue me. I've never heard of any of the movies on your list, but there are two I'm going to have to check out: Joyeux Noël and Europa, Europa. Some of the other ones sounded pretty good too, but I have to watch them sparingly...that darn bleeding heart part of me can only take so much before I need to recharge with a slew of feel-good movies. :)

    1. If you have a bleeding heart, than Europa, Europa is not the one to see. Very difficult viewing. I agree about war...which is why most of the movies were from WWII, which is one of the few justified wars we've been in. I've seen all the 'Nam movies, and they're just too ambiguous to actually "enjoy". The only really enjoyable movie on the list was Stalag 17.

  2. Just watched TBAR and enjoyed it very much.. Thanks for the tip. Another good obscure war movie is with a blonde Marlon Brando... The Young Lions. WWII and the struggle to get home.