- Great war movies often flop at the box office, but they are important pieces of cinema history. They are often misunderstood initially but later recognized as underrated gems.
- Factors such as the film’s subject matter and the timing of its release can contribute to a movie’s failure. A movie needs to earn twice its budget to be considered successful, and those that don’t are considered bombs.
Must-see war movies that were box office failures include
The Thin Red Line
The 13th Warrior
. These films offer unique perspectives on war and have gained cult followings despite their initial commercial failure.
There are plenty of great war movies that bombed at the box office, and they serve as time capsules of the eras in which they were released. It’s not uncommon for war and anti-war films to be initially misunderstood by audiences, only to be later reassessed as criminally underrated. These movies aren’t perfect, but they also definitely didn’t deserve to fail as hard as they did at the global box office.
However, great movies that bombed in theaters are part and parcel of cinema history, especially in prominent genres like war films. This can be due to any number of factors, including but not limited to what the film is about and the timing of its release. In order to break even, a movie’s gross needs to be twice its overall budget, at which point it’s considered to be somewhat successful. Films with box office earnings that are below or around their respective budgets are bombs. For viewers looking for must-see war movies that went under the radar due to terrible box office, there are a number of great options.
10 The Thin Red Line (1998)
The sole war film among Terrence Malick’s movies, The Thin Red Line grossed $98 million against a budget of $52 million. This was despite the movie featuring actors like Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Cusack, Jared Leto, and John Travolta, and a film score by Hans Zimmer. The movie was also unfavorably compared to Saving Private Ryan, which was released just months prior. Ultimately, The Thin Red Line failed commercially because, even though the action sequences are very well-made, it’s less of a war film and more of a philosophical meditation on the spiritual and environmental ramifications of war. Today, it’s considered one of the greatest anti-war films ever.
9 Stalingrad (1993)
Stalingrad had an estimated $10.7 million budget, which is around the same amount it took in at the box office. The movie chronicles the harrowing journey of German soldiers attempting to desert the Wermacht’s 6th Army during the highly pivotal Battle of Stalingrad, which is what makes it unique among great war movies that bombed at the box office. While Stalingrad is also just one of the many films that tackle the titular World War II battle, this is the only one told mainly from the perspective of Nazi deserters. Although Stalingrad lost money, it has since earned a cult following for its immersive depiction of the horrors of warfare.
8 The 13th Warrior (1999)
The 13th Warrior was produced for somewhere between $85 to $160 million but grossed only $61 million in theaters. Apart from having a secure place alongside must-see war movies that failed during its release, The 13th Warrior is also one of the biggest box office bombs ever. It stars Antonio Banderas as a disgraced Baghdadi court poet exiled to dangerous Western lands, where his life is forever changed after getting forcibly recruited by Norsemen to save a village ravaged by cannibalistic barbarians. The 13th Warrior was lambasted by critics upon release but has since been recognized as one of the first great modern films to popularize Viking culture and themes.
7 G.I. Jane (1997)
The reason why G.I. Jane 2 never happened is that the original movie grossed just $48 million against a $50 million budget. It’s a pity because G.I. Jane is one of the best movies starring Demi Moore, who plays the first woman to pass the 37-week U.S. Navy SEAL training course. At Moore’s insistence, the cast of G.I Jane — including Viggo Mortensen — even underwent real SEAL training in order to portray the experiences of the Navy’s special ops recruits accurately. Apart from featuring the greatest training montage with an actress in action movie history, G.I. Jane offers a feminist story of war that stands the test of time.
6 Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)
Although it features the likes of Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Eva Green, and Jeremy Irons, Kingdom of Heaven failed to recoup its $130 million budget after it grossed just $218 million in theaters. A popular example among great war movies that bombed at the box office, Kingdom of Heaven is about how Sultan Saladin and the Saracens defeated the Templar Knights to take Jerusalem. Similar to most other great war movies that bombed at the box office, Kingdom of Heaven examines the effects of warfare from various sides of the conflict. Set in the distant past, the movie also comments on how war has scarcely changed in the last millennium.
5 War Dogs (2016)
With its overall box office earnings at $86.2 million and its budget of $50 million, War Dogs was a bona fide box office bomb. Loosely based on real events, War Dogs stars Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as gun runners involved in government deals that profit off the first U.S. war in Iraq. This film stands apart from other great war movies that bombed at the box office through its combination of dark humor and social commentary — not surprising for those familiar with War Dogs director Todd Phillips’ filmography. Today, War Dogs remains a damning examination of the modern military industrial complex.
4 Windtalkers (2002)
One of the most underrated Nicolas Cage movies, Windtalkers bagged just $77 million at the box office against a $115 million budget. It was heavily criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of war and for not doing justice to the real story of the Navajo code talkers of World War II. However, despite its imperfections, Windtalkers is also the only war movie that actually depicts the Marine Corps’ Navajo Code Talker Program from the ’40s. While the action is over-the-top and characteristic of director John Woo’s style, Windtalkers remains an entertaining war movie that shines a light on the untold story of America’s Navajo veterans.
3 Hotel Rwanda (2004)
Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo play Rwandan human rights activists Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, which grossed $33.9 million in theaters versus a $17.5 million budget. Few great war movies that disappointed at the box office are as critically acclaimed as Hotel Rwanda, which tells the story of how Paul and Tatiana saved over 1,200 Tutsi and Hulu refugees from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. While it is ultimately a story of hope and courage, Hotel Rwanda is not for the faint of heart, as it is also an unflinching look at the unfolding of the worst war crimes in Rwandan history.
2 Operation Finale (2018)
With its budget landing somewhere between $20 million and $24 million, Operation Finale grossed only $17 million worldwide. Starring Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, and Nick Kroll, Operation Finale is based on the true story of how Israeli Mossad agents captured the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann — a former high-ranking SS Officer who initially escaped lawful prosecution by assuming a false identity to hide in Argentina. A thrilling espionage thriller about the aftermath of the Holocaust, Operation Finale tells the story of the real ’60s Mossad mission that actually inspired spy movies of the 20th century.
1 Jarhead (2005)
Based on former U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford’s true memoir Jarhead, the Jake Gyllenhaal-led movie of the same name had a budget of $72 million but grossed only $97.1 million in theaters. This was due to the movie’s unexpected twist on the war genre. Instead of the horrors of being at the frontline, Jarhead is all about the boredom and isolation experienced by heavily trained and programmed U.S. Marines waiting to be assigned to actual combat. Like other great war movies that bombed at the box office, Jarhead was heavily misunderstood at the time of release. Today, however, it’s celebrated as one of the most accurate movies that tackles contemporary warfare.