Documentaries about war have been chronicling the realities of armed conflict since the dawn of the motion picture industry when Thomas Edison’s movie company began producing films on the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Since that time, these war stories have examined the themes of camaraderie, survival, sacrifice, hubris, mankind’s inhumanity, the social upheaval from war on society, and the moral and ethical issues raised by armed conflict. Telling the story of war accurately has been a challenge since the time of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who attempted to chronicle the struggle between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta accurately with as little prejudice as possible. Given the violent and chaotic nature of battle, filming has always been a daunting endeavor for war documentary producers. This was never more so than during the recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq, where filmmakers risked their lives to secretly record the devastation and atrocities committed in those countries.

Stacker compiled user and critic data on all feature-length war documentaries and ranked them according to an indexed Stacker score—an equally weighted blend of IMDb user score and Metascore as of Dec. 14, 2020. To qualify, the story at the center of the film had to be explicitly related to war. Seminal war documentaries such as Ken Burns’ “Civil War” and the British series “The World at War” were not included on this list because they are television series.

The passage of time has allowed for a greater perspective on war and how to tell its story. Historians and documentarians have gained access to more materials, archives, and information from the vanquished nations as well as other participants in the conflicts, providing expanded context and insight into the impact of war on nations. In contrast to many of the documentaries about the two world wars, which were told from the military victors’ viewpoint, the more recent war stories are grittier, more explicit, and draw on the experiences of many people. In documentaries such as “Restrepo,” which takes place in Afghanistan, the soldiers themselves are the narrators of the story.

Documentaries such as “Hearts and Minds” and “No End in Sight” have taken a highly critical look at the decisions and decision-makers in America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq, respectively. Films such as “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which exposed the nature of America’s torture and interrogation practices in Afghanistan, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 80th Academy Awards.

Continue reading for the best war documentaries of all time.

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