Summary

  • War movies often begin with scenes that capture the chaos and brutality of battle, but they can also incorporate drama, suspense, and dark comedy.
  • The greatest opening scenes in war movie history can employ any genre to introduce the film’s premise and foreshadow events.
  • These opening scenes set the tone for the films and explore themes of survival, heroism, the dehumanizing effects of war, and the complexities of the battlefield.

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The greatest opening scenes in war movie history examine warfare from different angles. Typically, the most memorable introductory scenes from war films are the ones that focus on the sheer chaos of a real-world battlefield. However, while many great war films begin with actual fights, this isn’t always the case.

From the most famous and best war movies of all time, to war films that have gone under the radar in recent years, the introductions of these movies come in all shapes and genres. Although their stories primarily tackle the subject of warfare, war movies sometimes begin with doses of drama, suspense, and even dark comedy or surrealism. In fact, though these movies commonly revolve around action and war, the greatest opening scenes in war movie history can employ any genre to introduce its premise, set up the plot, foreshadow events, or subvert viewer expectations.

12 Enemy At The Gates (2001)

Enemy At the Gates

Soviet sniper Vassili Zaitsev displays his skill by hunting a wolf amid the cold and unforgiving Russian winter. After this prelude to the title card, Enemy at the Gates cuts to the chaos of the Battle of Stalingrad during WWII. The desolation and brutality of war are vividly portrayed as Vassili and his fellow soldiers board trains headed for Stalingrad, where they must defend the Soviet Union from the encroaching Nazi forces. However, the soldiers must first survive the Nazis ambushing the Red Army’s deployment. Its stark depiction of war and survival has made Enemy at the Gates’ introduction one of the most influential war movie openings of all time.

Related: All The Times Call Of Duty Has Referenced Enemy At The Gates

11 Glory (1989)

Captain Robert Gould Shaw marches with the Union Army in Glory

As the sun rises, Glory begins with slice-of-life sequences featuring a Union Army camp during the American Civil War. Following scenes of the soldiers cooking their meals and playing baseball to pass the time, Captain Robert Gould Shaw narrates his letter to his mother as he and his fellow Union soldiers march towards the Battle of Antietam. At the actual battle, the camera artfully navigates through the battlefield, immersing viewers in the intensity of the conflict. This scene foreshadows the challenges faced by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first African-American units in the Union Army, as they strive for dignity and equality on the battlefield.

10 1917 (2019)

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman in 1917

The true story-inspired plot of 1917 opens during the calm before the storm. Awoken by their sergeant, British lance corporals Tom Blake and William Schofield walk across the trenches to a meeting with General Erinmore, who gives them a special mission. As explained in 1917‘s opening scenes, the opposing German forces are making a tactical retreat in order to overwhelm the British Devonshire Regiment with artillery. Blake and Schofield are tasked with delivering a message to the said regiment, containing orders to call off the attack in anticipation of the German ambush. This scene sets the stage for Schofield and Blake’s impossible journey to save 1,600 of their fellow combatants.

R Lee Ermey pointing and yelling in Full Metal Jacket

To the tune of Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam,” Full Metal Jacket starts by showing recruits getting their heads shaved before training. At the United States Marine Corps training facility, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman delivers a barrage of insults and remarks to the new recruits. This sets the tone for the harsh and unrelenting training that soldiers undergo before being sent to the Vietnam War. Stanley Kubrick’s masterful direction captures the dehumanizing aspects of military training, highlighting the psychological toll on young recruits. The opening scene foreshadows the film’s exploration of the dehumanizing effects of war, both on the battlefield and within the hearts and minds of those sent to fight.

Related: Was Full Metal Jacket Based On A True Story?

8 Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan: Captain Miller and other men during D-Day 

At the Normandy Cemetery, an American war veteran leads his family to the graves of his fallen comrades – after which Saving Private Ryan abruptly cuts to the battle that took place there in 1944. The succeeding sequences immerse viewers in the sheer brutality and disarray of battle, heightened by the handheld camera work and realistic portrayal of the horrors faced by Allied soldiers as they storm the beaches. The deafening sounds and stark depiction of carnage create an unforgettable cinematic experience. Apart from paying homage to those who fought in one of history’s most pivotal conflicts, this intro has come to shape the style of subsequent war movies.

7 Dunkirk (2017)

Fionn Whitehead standing on the beach in Dunkirk

The opening scenes of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk are focused on the British private Tommy, who navigates the streets of Dunkirk under enemy fire. As Tommy follows orders to retreat to the beach while his comrades fall around him, the mostly quiet scene is underscored with urgency and impending doom. The haunting image of German propaganda leaflets falling ominously sets the tone for the perilous situation facing Allied forces. This not only introduces the chaotic reality of the evacuation, but also establishes the film’s unique structure, weaving together land, sea, and air perspectives. It’s a gripping prelude to the larger narrative of survival and solidarity during the Dunkirk evacuation.

6 All Quiet On The Western Front (2022)

 Paul in All Quiet on the Western Front.

An adaptation of the war novel of the same name, All Quiet on the Western Front throws audiences headfirst into the pandemonium of trench warfare. A deep dive into the lives of German recruits during World War I, the movie begins with a young soldier climbing out of the trenches, running his way across the chaotic battlefield, and finally striking an enemy up close with a trench shovel. This is followed by scenes of teenage Germans listening to a patriotic speech at school, getting recruited to serve the Kaiser and the Fatherland. These sequences exemplify the movie’s core themes of wartime indoctrination and the disillusionment of soldiers on the frontline.

Related: Full Breakdown Of All Quiet On The Western Front’s True Story & Events

5 Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Desmond Doss dragging a soldier in Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge begins with a serene image of a cliff, setting the stage for the gripping true story of combat medic Desmond Doss, who is both a Medal of Honor awardee and a conscientious objector in the second World War. It then transitions to the brutal Battle of Okinawa, where slow-motion scenes of chaos and carnage unfold as a voice narrates a passage from the Bible. The visceral intensity of combat is juxtaposed with Doss’s unwavering commitment to saving lives without wielding a weapon, capturing the brutality and humanity of the battlefield. This serves as a compelling introduction to the film’s examination of heroism and the power of pacifism.

4 Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Hans Landa interrogates LaPadite on his dairy farm in Inglourious Basterds

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is director Quentin Tarantino’s favorite scene from his entire filmography. A masterclass in tension and suspense, it features Colonel Hans Landa interrogating a French dairy farmer suspected of harboring Jews. Landa’s charming yet menacing demeanor shines as he explains why he’s come to love being unofficially known as the “Jew Hunter.” The dialogue becomes a psychological chess match, building suspense to a crescendo, and setting the tone for Inglorious Basterds subversive alternate history. Landa’s cunning and the farmer’s desperation create a gripping prologue, establishing the film’s unique narrative and its exploration of wartime resistance.

3 Lord Of War (2005)

The inside of an ammo factors from the perspective of a bullet - as seen in Lord of War.

The introduction of Lord of War is a visually striking montage tracing the life cycle of a bullet. The narrative is framed by the captivating voiceover of protagonist and firearms dealer Yuri Orlov, who presents a chillingly calculated perspective on the global arms trade. The scene stylistically captures the journey of a bullet from its creation to its destructive impact, symbolizing the grim business of war. The film’s dark humor is evident as the charismatic arms dealer reflects on the ubiquity of his product across the world. This juxtaposition of beauty and brutality sets the tone for a thought-provoking exploration of the complex world of international arms trafficking.

2 Apocalypse Now (1979)

Willard in a river in Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now opens with a surreal and mesmerizing scene as Captain Willard grapples with the disorienting effects of war, captured through fragmented imagery and a sense of psychological unraveling. The sound of helicopters and the Doors’ haunting “The End” play in the background as Captain Willard lies in a Saigon hotel room. The room is dimly lit, and the ceiling fan whirs overhead, creating an eerie atmosphere and setting the stage for the film’s exploration of the madness and moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now‘s hypnotic opening scene is just one of the many reasons why it’s one of the most critically acclaimed war films ever made.

1 Black Hawk Down (2001)

Mike Durant in Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down starts with a somber look into the desolation of war. In 1992, civil war has caused a famine in Somalia, which the movie explains through subtitles and darkly realistic imagery. The movie then thrusts viewers into the heart of the action with U.S. Army soldiers preparing for a mission. The atmosphere is tense and the anticipation is palpable as helicopters soar over the war-torn city, capturing the camaraderie and focused determination of the soldiers. The scene serves as a prelude to the harrowing events of the Battle of Mogadishu, as well as Black Hawk Down‘s core themes of courage and patriotism.

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