Several actors throughout Hollywood history have essentially built their careers by acting in films of specific genres such as westerns, horror, and even sports, categories that have been around since basically the dawn of cinema. Another long-lasting genre though is the war category. And yes, plenty of performers have appeared numerous times in the middle of a war zone.
There aren’t many directors who have specialized in this specific genre, though. Which means these actors were ostensibly cast in these different war movies due solely to their abilities to portray their respective archetypes, or at least their competency in the heat of battle. Sometimes, though, they were cast simply because they fit the bill. Nonetheless, these are ten actors who frequently appear in war movies.
Although Eric Bana could be considered among the least-recognizable names on this list — which is definitely saying something — you should without a doubt remember the actor by his face in the picture above. And if not, you’ll undoubtedly know the names of his films: Black Hawk Down (2001) and Troy (2004), for example. Two war films of recent times that went down as some of the biggest releases of their respective years, and the 2000s in general.
But one was far greater in quality than the other. On critical and audience consensus website Rotten Tomatoes, Black Hawk Down holds an approval rating of 77%. You might be thinking: that’s not necessarily a great score, though. But when you account for the 53% approval rating of Troy, it’s clear which Eric Bana war film fans should be pining to watch again.
Among the most popular names on the list for modern audiences, this leader of the Funky Bunch also makes for a great leader of war films. Well, he didn’t lead the cast in Three King (1999) — that role went to George Clooney, and it was without a doubt for the better. They both had a tremendous dynamic along with their fellow costar Ice Cube, and the film is perhaps the funniest one featured throughout this entire list.
However, Mark Wahlberg did star in a film called Lone Survivor (2013), and while the project was far less focused on comedy, it was entertaining and noteworthy nonetheless. In the end, though, Three Kings by writer and director David O. Russell will forever remain the definitive war film of Wahlberg’s career.
There are two significant releases to discuss here with Ralph Fiennes, and they both released in the 1990s: Schindler’s List (1993), and The English Patient (1996). The latter is much more easily classifiable as a war film, but there’s a clear argument for Schindler’s List as well. But either way, these are among the most legendary roles of Ralph Fiennes’ career.
He garnered widespread acclaim for his work in those — in fact, he walked away with Oscar nominations for both. Best Supporting Actor for Schindler’s List, and Best Actor in The English Patient. However, there is one more battle in which Fiennes has taken part, and it went down in The Hurt Locker (2009) by Kathryn Bigelow. Not the largest of roles, but noteworthy nonetheless.
With two starring roles in war films, Sean Penn got to work with two significant directors: the first with Casualties of War (1989) by Brian De Palma, and next with The Thin Red Line (1998) by Terrence Malick. The former is set during the Vietnam War, and it costarred Michael J. Fox. While it was well-received by critics, it wasn’t exactly the most profitable endeavor of the crew’s respective careers.
Meanwhile, The Thin Red Line made a decent amount of money — just under $100 million on a $52 million budget. Not the most impressive numbers either, but its 81% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is definitely positive, and the film garnered plenty of attention in later years to boot thanks to its star-studded cast including other actors like Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, and George Clooney. Truthfully, though: both of these films hold up.
Many consider Glory (1989) by Edward Zwick to be the definitive film about the American Civil War, and even within its star-studded cast, Denzel Washington without a doubt stole the show. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor thanks to his efforts herein as Private Silas Trip, and it will forever rank among the greatest roles of his whole career.
Several years later, Washington played Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling in Courage Under Fire (1996). Also directed by Edward Zwick, this war movie was far less prominent of a release in hindsight when analyzing the pair’s aforementioned Glory, but it still made $100 million and currently holds an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Those are some pretty explosive numbers.
To revoke a prior statement: two prominent modern directors did make multiple war films throughout their career. One was Kathryn Bigelow, and the other was Oliver Stone with his Vietnam War trilogy — Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Heaven & Earth (1993). And in those first two of the unofficial series appeared Willem Dafoe in supporting roles.
In fact, he was nominated for his first Academy Award (one for Best Supporting Actor) thanks to his efforts in Platoon. His work in Born on the Fourth of July was less appreciable than its spiritual predecessor, but there was one more war film Dafoe worth noting: The English Patient (1996). He again appears in a supporting role, and the product helped land Dafoe here at number four.
With perhaps the most underrated film on the list, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2004) features Cillian Murphy in the starring role. And since, he’s appeared in two war movies throughout his career: a main role in Anthropoid from 2016, and a minor part in Dunkirk from 2017.
Of those last two films, the former was a failure while the latter was a hit. Dunkirk made over $500 million on a $150 million budget, while Anthropoid couldn’t even make its $9 million budget back at the box office. Meanwhile, The Wind That Shakes the Barley made $25 million on an $8 million budget, and it holds a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It remains Murphy’s seminal role as a soldier.
Although he’s just well-known for his appearances in westerns like The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Charles Bronson perfectly fits the bill for this list of war movie veterans. The first instance was a starring role, actually, in a film called When Hell Broke Loose (1958). It was essentially a B-movie, though, made by a no-name director with a tiny budget and no theatrical release.
However, Bronson then appeared in a series of war movies via supporting roles: Never So Few (1959), for starters, directed by John Sturges and starring Frank Sinatra. But this was followed by his efforts in both The Great Escape (1963) — also directed by Sturges — and The Dirty Dozen (1967). These were big movies and still are today, and they ultimately solidified Bronson a spot here at number three.