For over a hundred years, numerous actors and actresses have built entire careers off of war films, and several have even garnered critical acclaim to the extent of winning the Academy Award in their respective category.
Whether its biographical or fictional, wartime backdrops never fail to deliver thrills and heartbreak, but now we’re going to look at the ones whose actors managed to outshine both the filmmaker and, in some cases, even the film itself.
And, for what it’s worth: for this list, I won’t be simply analyzing the amount of A-list names from any given cast. I’ll also be factoring in individual name value, individual performances, and on-screen chemistry. Let’s get to it.
10. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Although it’s perhaps the most controversial movie on this list due to its level of violence and number of historical inaccuracies, there’s no denying the name value when it comes to The Dirty Dozen. I mean, they had Jim Brown—just two years after his professional football career ended with the Cleveland Browns, no less.
If that’s not enough, others that make up the titular dozen include Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, and a budding Donald Sutherland.
And those are just the supporting characters. In the starring role, typical anti-hero Lee Marvin shines as Major John Reisman, and this was just two years after he won his Academy Award for Best Actor in Cat Ballou. Pretty much everyone here was at their peak.
9. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
While guys like B.J. Novak and Eli Roth may not be the most recognizable, I’d say that Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender adeptly round out a brilliant supporting cast in this Tarantino war film that’s led by two of the director’s most revered collaborators.
Brad Pitt ushered his fellow thespians to great effect as Aldo the Apache, but the biggest story re: the acting of Inglourious Basterds is without a doubt the Oscar-winning supporting performance by Christoph Waltz.
He was actually the first person to ever win an Oscar for acting in a Tarantino movie. Though several people before him were nominated, it was Christoph’s role as S.S. Colonel Hans Landa that finally brought home the gold. And with good reason, too.
Also: did I mention the cameo from Mike Meyers? No? Well, there you go.
8. Platoon (1986)
The first of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy, Platoon is perhaps the best of the bunch, and that’s in large part due to the standout performances of its talented cast.
Charlie Sheen, Keith David, Forest Whitaker and, wait, who’s that? A young Johnny Depp? Neat! This was only his third on-screen appearance, and while he didn’t have the largest of roles, his name recognition today adds significantly to the caliber of the cast.
Of course, Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger were both nominated at the Academy Awards for best supporting actor, but neither of them walked away with gold. Still, though—two actors in the same category, nominated for the same film? This cast was definitely prepared for war.
7. Glory (1989)
While a majority of the cast members are pretty unrecognizable by modern standards, the main characters are played to wonderful effect by four thespians who were definitely in vogue at the time: Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, and the always pertinent Denzel Washington—for which he won his first Academy Award, one for best supporting actor.
Those are four of the biggest names of the decade. We all know Broderick as the titular Ferris Bueller from the 1986 John Hughes classic, and Cary Elwes rose to prominence with Rob Reiner’s 1987 vehicle, The Princess Bride.
On the other hand, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington were a bit more renowned, both having been nominated at the Academy Awards for best supporting actor in 1987 for their roles in Street Smart and Cry Freedom, respectively.
So, at the time of release, it was clear that these four, young Hollywood stars were great leading roles for the star-studded war film. In hindsight, though, it’s apparent just how talented the cast actually was.
6. Apocalypse Now (1979)
When considering films like The Godfather Part II in 1974 and The Conversation in that same year, Francis Ford Coppola showed there was no one better at crafting casts of iconic characters throughout the 1970s, and there’s no better example of this than Apocalypse Now.
Teaming up once again with collaborator Marlon Brando, the film also stars Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall, with Lawrence Fishbourne and Harrison Ford providing supporting roles. While he played a more minor character, Ford was one of the hottest names in Hollywood at the time after breaking through with Star Wars just two years prior to release.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Marlon Brando was winding down, coming to the tail end of his career, and man, did he go out on top, or what? Throw in those other performances from Sheen, Duvall and Fishbourne, and this award-winning drama more than deserves the number six spot.
5. The Deer Hunter (1978)
In her second ever credited film role, Meryl Streep picked up a nomination at the Academy Awards for best supporting actress. She killed it, she was one of the film’s biggest takeaways, and it wasn’t even a leading role.
Another of the movie’s biggest stars was Christopher Walken, who walked away with gold in the best supporting actor category. Those were two breakout roles from instantly-recognizable names today, but a not-so famous actor who also lent his supporting chops in The Deer Hunter was John Cazale. He appeared in five total movies throughout his career, and they were all nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. This one was his last.
All this talk of supporting roles, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the movie was led to a brilliant degree by none other than Robert De Niro—one of the biggest actors of the seventies whose name still holds tremendous value today. Oh, and, yeah: he also received a nomination.
Three stars, three nominations, and one win. Decent numbers, wouldn’t you say?
4. Black Hawk Down (2001)
I feel like a lot of readers may have been anticipating a higher spot for this film, but that exhibits the amount of cast value that follows.
While no one gained much acclaim in particular for their role in Black Hawk Down, and although a lot of these stars would only become such in the future, this is an honestly shocking cast list to absorb by today’s standards.
Josh Hartnett was a talented young actor at the time of release, and he definitely shined in front of some impressive supporting efforts—Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, and Eric Bana to name a few—but the film also featured appearances from Orlando Bloom, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, and even Tom Hardy in his on-screen debut. Need I say more?
3. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of its variety, Saving Private Ryan has had articles written about its cast for the past fifteen years, and that will likely continue for years to come. There’s Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, of course, and I’m sure you remember Privates Caparzo and “Fish,” played by Vin Diesel and Adam Goldberg, but you might be forgetting the likes of Bryan Cranston, Paul Giamatti, and Nathan Fillion rounding out this star-studded cast.
Pretty much everything about Spielberg’s 97’ epic hits home in some form or fashion, from its clever dialogue to expert camera movements, but perhaps the most impressive element is this famous roster of characters.
2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, this was among Scorsese’s ten favorite films of the 90s, and legendary film critic Gene Siskel regarded it as “the greatest contemporary war movie I’ve seen.”
These impressions were due in large part to an impressive score by Hans Zimmer and brilliant direction under Terrance Mallick. The Thin Red Line shines brightest, however, through a telescopic lens that analyzes its star-studded cast. Led by Sean Penn, supporting roles include future Oscar winners Adrien Brody and George Clooney, along with a myriad of well-known names like Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, John Travolta and Nick Nolte.
Throw in future Academy Award-nominees John C. Reilly and Jared Leto for good measure, and I’d say this cast is armed to the teeth with Hollywood firepower.
1. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Primarily known today for its standout cast, I don’t think I’d have enough space to detail a comprehensive list of the recognizable actors featured in Richard Attenborough’s 1977 epic, even if I dedicated the entire document to this one entry. But I’ll try to make some room.
We’ll start with Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest to ever do it, alongside Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Three British legends. Throw in Robert Redford and Gene Hackman, then top everything off with Laurence Olivier, and that’s six actors who have all won at least one Academy Award throughout their career.
Even by mentioning other names like James Caan and Elliot Gould, I’m still not scratching the cast’s surface. What an overwhelming thought. We’d better wrap things up before I watch this movie again.
Thanks for Reading!
While Three Kings from 1999 has an impressive leading cast of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, and although Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson were at their dynamic best in The Great Escape, those two casts ultimately paled in comparison to the chivalrous efforts of our top ten.
But what do you think? Agree with the list? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!