War films continue to be a popular and respected genre amongst critics and audiences. These films draw attention with their powerful messages of the brutality of war, the camaraderie and friendships amongst fellow soldiers, and the toll conflicts take on humanity.
From Platoon to Grave of the Fireflies, these are some of the most emotional war film endings that push their important messages and leave viewers stunned and heartbroken. Whether these endings feature an anti-war sentiment or a reminder never to forget the fallen, each one of these films tells a story that challenges viewers to wonder what the true motive behind these wars could mean.
10 ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930)
IMDb score: 8.1
This best picture-winning original 1930s version about the first world war follows a German solider named Paul (Lew Ayres) as he witnesses the tragic losses of his comrades and innocence until he meets his inevitable end in the line of duty, with the final shots showing Paul’s unit moving to the front lines in a flashback then fading to a massive cemetery full of graves.
Paul experiences disillusionment and loss throughout the film as everyone he knows is either killed or broken and the harsh realities of warfare squash his original ambitions to become a war hero. It’s a sad story about the needlessness of war and how its results have affected generations.
9 ‘Platoon’ (1986)
IMDb score: 8.1
Platoon shows a harsh and unromanticized depiction of the Vietnam War told through the narration of an American Soldier named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen). It ends with Taylor becoming physically and mentally damaged as he finally leaves the fighting and reflects on how soldiers who’ve survived the war now must teach the world of their struggles and how to never forget the soldiers who didn’t come back.
It becomes emotional for Taylor as he leaves Vietnam haunted by his experiences and wondering if he’ll ever be the same again. This ending statement touches on the real-life crisis of returning veterans who could not talk to their loved ones about their hardships and makes the viewer wonder what would have happened if they were in these soldiers’ shoes.
8 ‘1917’ (2019)
IMDb score: 8.2
1917 follows two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay), as they trek across enemy lines to deliver orders that may save the lives of thousands of fellow soldiers. Ultimately, their mission is a success but at a terrible cost as only Schofield narrowly survives, slumps over a tree in exhaustion and wonders when this dreadful conflict will end and if he’ll even live long enough to see it happen.
This film’s ending touches upon the struggles of British soldiers during ww1 as they desperately tried to survive each dangerous mission and wondered when they would be able to go home. The clever use of a continuous shot throughout the film makes for an immersive experience that sees the lives of these soldiers as they tried to live day to day during this deadly conflicts.
7 ‘Come and See’ (1985)
IMDb score: 8.4
This unflinching Russian anti-war masterpiece tells about the terrifying journey of a young Soviet soldier named Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko) as he goes from being an optimistic recruit to a desensitized former shell of a man. It ends with Flyora as he loses his sanity and becomes lost in a crowd of nameless fellow soldiers as they enter a fierce battle that will likely end in their deaths.
Throughout the story, Flyora changes physically due to his traumatic experiences leading to his hair turning completely grey and his skin cracking as he loses all resemblance to his former youthful self. It highlights the hopelessness and depravity of war and how many soldiers changed differently due to the harsh nature of these conflicts.
6 ‘The Boat’ (1981)
IMDb score: 8.4
Wolfgang Petersen‘s The Boat tells the harrowing story of the German crew of U-Boat 96 as they brave the deadly waters of the Northern Atlantic. In the end, the crew’s ordeals meet a tragic conclusion; however, when they return to a German port after narrowly surviving their patrol, only for British fighter planes to arrive, destroying the sub and inflicting massive casualties that leave most of the crew dead.
Throughout the film, the crew faces and overcomes impossible odds to survive their mission, encountering many dangers that make the audience sympathize with a few of their struggles. To end in tragedy just as they returned home to what they believed was safety is both heartwrenching and made to represent the futility of war.
5 ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940)
IMDb score: 8.4
This comedic drama sees the great Charles Chaplin playing an innocent Jewish Barber as he impersonates a warmongering dictator who concludes the story by delivering an inspiring and uplifting speech about the good of humanity and the harms of dictatorships.
The film came out two years after the start of the second world war and addressed the negative sentiment towards Fascism and the thought of another European conflict. The ending speech by Chaplin warned viewers about the dangers of giving in to evil leaders and how to become better as a society without such people.
4 ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957)
IMDb score: 8.4
Paths of Glory sees Kirk Douglas‘ French Colonel Dax as he tries and failes to save the lives of three supposed deserters during the terrible trench battles of the first world war. The film concludes with Dax feeling defeated and frustrated with the ones running the war effort, and he walks past a saloon full of his battle-fatigued soldiers as they listen and shed tears to a young German girl’s beautiful singing.
The German girl and her singing represents innocence as she sings to these men with a beautiful but sad tone that causes them to become emotional as they know some or most of them won’t be returning from their next engagement. It’s a powerful ending that expresses the hopelessness many soldiers felt during their time, and it tries not to sugarcoat the fact that wars cast a large shadow of misery on those who fought them.
3 ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
IMDb score: 8.5
Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Benjamin Willard’s (Martin Sheen) personal descent into madness as he and his boat crew trek the dark jungles of Vietnam to find and kill the rogue Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Once Willard succeeds in killing Kurtz in the end, he leaves horrified about his actions, and Kurtz’s dying words echo through his mind as he slips deeper into his insanity.
It’s a thought-provoking ending that lets the audience wonder what will become of Willard’s fate and whether he is too far gone. Is Willard becoming the new Kurtz? Will he ever leave the jungle? All these ideas make for a problematic ending that leaves the audience thinking about what the film’s director intended to mean.
2 ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988)
IMDb score: 8.5
This heartbreaking animated tale told through the perspective of Japan’s side during World War II, talks about the civilian loss of life during the conflict as it follows two orphaned siblings, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), as their attempts at surviving on their own after Japan’s defeat ends in tragedy and the two reunite in the afterlife.
It’s a depressing conclusion that strays away from traditional happier endings involving child protagonists. It also addresses a crucial aspect of global conflicts, as even the people not directly involved can still get deeply affected by its actions. Showing children affected by war hammers in the film’s message of how innocent people are always unavoidable casualties because of conflict.
1 ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)
IMDb score: 8.6
In this great Steven Spielberg war epic, the ending sees an older Private Ryan (Harrison Young) standing over and saluting the grave of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) as he contemplates if he achieved Miller’s dying wishes of earning the life given to him since Miller and most of his teammates have sacrificed their own.
This conclusion speaks about the sacrifices these brave soldiers made during World War II and how their actions shaped future generations to experience times of peace in ways they never could. It’s a poignant message about the appreciation of life and how to never forget about the ones who’ve made these experiences a reality.
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