Each year, a handful of new films take to the big screen to showcase the greatest warriors and innovations spawned in wartime. From Top Gun (1986) to Netflix’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), submarines, aircraft and epic battles are usually in the spotlight, but rarely does the complex history of tanks make it to Hollywood. We’re highlighting the features that have been made with a list of 10 tank movies that best show the intimate and challenging way of life beneath the hatch.
The dire conditions at the end of World War II were tackled in 2014’s Fury, a “grim, macho tank drama” written and directed by David Ayer. Set in April 1945, battle-hardened Don “Wardaddy” Collier, portrayed by Brad Pitt, leads his five-man M4A2E8 Sherman crew on a risky mission behind enemy lines.
Tasked with penetrating deep within German territory, Fury‘s crew faces an onslaught of attacks throughout the film. Scenes oscillate between expansive battlefields and the cramped interior of the tank; the visceral, bloody nature of Fury certainly lives up to its name.
The tank scenes are well-researched and generally accurate, minus a few inconsistencies. For example, when a Panzerfaust hit the fighting compartment, only a single man was killed. In reality, the strike would have been fatal for all those within the tank.
Battle of the Bulge (1965)
Battle of the Bulge (1965), starring Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw and Charles Bronson, depicts Germany’s last stand at the end of the Second World War. However, unlike Fury, viewers see both sides of the conflict.
The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front, as well as the largest and most deadly fought by the United States. The film shows the offensive through the eyes of American intelligence officer Lt. Col. Kiley (Fonda) and German Panzer Commander Col. Hessler (Shaw).
Like many war films, Battle of the Bulge misses a few historical details, and there are mistakes that overshadow the story. An example of this is the misrepresentation of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, which was more densely-wooded in real life. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower denounced the film because of its historical inaccuracies.
If you’re looking for accuracy, Battle of the Bulge may not be for you, but its visceral imagery and epic battle scenes make it one of the best tank movies ever released.
Russian film T-34 (2018) follows an SS-Panzerdivision T-34, manned by a Red Army tank commander and his crew who’ve become prisoners of war (POWs). As the movie progresses, they plan an epic escape from the German prison in which they’ve been held for three years.
T-34 showcases several real tanks, including an authentic T-34 from WWII. It was restored and brought back to combat status specifically for the film and was even repainted in 1941 “winter forest” camouflage.
The film was a huge success in Russia, with local media giving it the unofficial nickname of “The Fast and the Furious on tanks.” For a foreign language movie, T-34 is an authentic and visceral take on the Soviet experience during the Second World War.
Patton (1970) tells the story of one of the most famous tank commanders and military leaders in history: Gen. George S. Patton. The film follows Patton’s military career throughout the Second World War, from the North Africa Campaign through to the fall of Germany in 1945.
George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton balances the storied general’s accomplishments with his many faults. Known for being insubordinate and stubborn, his short temper ultimately stopped him from becoming the leading American general during Operation Overlord – a role that was ultimately given to Eisenhower.
This movie was one of the first to accurately show audiences the realities of tank warfare, with dozens of real ones exchanging blows… Basically, Patton was the first to recreate an entire tank battle during production.
One of the few movies on this list to not be set during WWII, Lebanon (2009) rose to international acclaim for its gripping depiction of the First Lebanon War. The film takes place almost entirely inside a tank, with the only glimpse of the outside world occurring through the gunsight – transporting viewers into the real-life, claustrophobic experience of tank personnel.
Writer and director Samuel Maoz served as a tank gunner in a four-man crew during the original conflict and admitted to killing a man while on-duty. He translated his own experiences from the war to the movie, bringing with it a realistic take not many can. Lebanon‘s one drawback, however, is it’s one-sided approach to the war, focusing solely on the Israeli experience.
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Tanks, epic explosions, Clint Eastwood and German gold – Kelly’s Heroes (1970) has it all. Eastwood plays Sgt. First Class Kelly, the leader of a platoon that’s captured German Col. Dankhopf (David Hurst) as a POW. Kelly gets the German drunk and convinces him to reveal a secret mission to transport $16 million in gold to a base in France. Determined to claim the riches for himself, the sergeant and a handful of soldiers daringly enter enemy territory in search of the treasure.
While far from being historically accurate, being loosely based on the Allied search for hidden German gold toward the end of the Second World War, Kelly’s Heroes is a film that captures viewers’ attention almost immediately. It features realistic reactions to learning the potential treasure is guarded by much-feared German Tiger tanks (in the film painted Soviet T-34s), and while Eastwood may have had mixed feelings about it, we feel it’s a film that holds its own.
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
A Bridge Too Far (1977), starring Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins and James Caan, tells the story of Operation Market Garden, a mixed-outcome campaign devised by the Allies to hasten the end of the Second World War. The aim was to push through Belgium and the Netherlands to Germany, along the way securing a bridgehead over the Rhine.
Spearheaded by several American airborne divisions that were backed by the British and Polish, Operation Market Garden relied on bridges to relieve paratroopers and advance toward the town of Arnhem in the Netherlands. Nearly everything that could go wrong did, and poor intelligence, overzealous commanders and unrelenting German resistance kept the Allies from reaching Arnhem – the bridge too far. They did, however, liberate a number of Dutch cities and towns.
Overall, A Bridge Too Far is among the most historically accurate tank movies on this list, therefore earning its title as one of the best. However, if we were to pick at it, our one complaint would be its overly-positive depiction of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the result of director Richard Attenborough not wanting to negatively portray the military leader in any way.
The Beast of War (1988)
The Beast of War (1988) follows a T-55 tank crew in a rare glimpse of the Soviet perspective of the Soviet-Afghan War. The tank crew finds themselves lost in the mountains with a less-than-capable commander, and eventually become locked in an intense battle against Mujahideen guerrilla fighters.
The epic plot and gritty visuals have made The Beast a cult favorite, despite it underperforming in theaters upon its release. The film also features an authentic Soviet T-55 that was captured by the Israeli Defence Forces during the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan (1998) is one of the most renowned war films in recent history, so we’d be wrong to not include it on our list of the best tank movies. It has something for everyone, especially those interested in tanks, featuring a Tiger I on the chassis of a Soviet T-34 and two Marder III tank destroyers built on the chassis of a Panzer tank.
The film’s finale is an epic battle between a Tiger tank and a handful of soldiers, an exhilarating and suspenseful scene that truly shows why tanks are among an army’s biggest assets on the battlefield. While there are a few inaccuracies, Saving Private Ryan is one of the most immersive depictions of WWII, from the weaponry to the horrifying experiences of soldiers on D-Day.
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Sahara (1943) takes viewers away from the Western Front and delivers them to Libya for an entirely different WWII experience. Following the fall of Tobruk, US Army Sgt. Joe Gunn (Bogart) leads his tank crew into the Sahara Desert, where they soon run out of their most valuable commodity: water.
Gunn and his men stumble upon an ancient well, and with the Germans close behind, they decide to stay and defend the site. Outgunned and outnumbered, the underdog group must face their enemies head-on with devastating consequences.
Sahara makes a number of references to the actions in Tobruk during the middle part of 1942, when the British received the newly-produced American M3 Stuart, which wound up performing poorly in the region, as well as in North Africa and on the Eastern Front.
Not only is the storyline suspenseful and packed with action, Bogart’s acting perfectly captures the turmoil faced by soldiers who disliked the war, but continued to courageously serve.