Weapons of Laugh Destruction: The Top 10 Greatest War Comedies

War. Huh. Yeah. What is it good for? Well, if 70s Motown Funk Master Edwin Starr is to be believed: absolutely nothing. Yes, at first glance combining the horrors of war with fart jokes and prat falls hardly seems like the best idea, but if Hollywood has taught us anything it’s that it can take even the most unlikely of concepts and somehow make them work. Enter the war comedy: that rare cinematic sub-genre which blends both heavy weaponry and hilarity. Of course, the war comedy was been K.I.A. for a number of years now, but if the following list — and the recent box office smash Tropic Thunder — are any indication, it seems you can’t keep a good soldier down for long. So grab your M-16 and whoopee cushion and lock and load as Film Junk presents…


10. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)
If John Wayne demonstrated anything during the Cold War it’s that the only way to deal with a no-good dirty Commie is to wrap an American flag around your size-nine combat boot and shove it straight up Ivan’s ass. Of course, the alternative is Norman Jewison’s Academy-Award nominated flick The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming; a comedic look at Cold War era Soviet-American relations. Starring comedy legends Carl Reiner and Jonathan Winters along with a show-stealing performance from Oscar-Winner Alan Arkin, the film follows a group of bungling Russian sailors who find themselves in a world of trouble after their nuclear submarine runs aground near a sleepy New England town. With misunderstandings, machine guns and plenty of mutually assured laughs, The Russians Are Coming remains a classic of the genre; proof that despite their oppressive vodka-fuelled policies and soul-crushing Siberian gulags, those wacky Soviets weren’t really so bad after all.

9. Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
For most Americans, Vietnam is remembered as a senseless war marked by perpetual bloodshed and suffering. Conversely, Robin Williams is remembered as a senseless comedian whose perpetual hairiness could give Chewbacca a run for his money. Okay, so the two hardly seem like an ideal match, yet like the very best war comedies Good Morning Vietnam somehow manages to combine frenetic humour with the historical realities of war. Williams stars as a shock jock radio DJ who is sent to Vietnam to spin records for U.S. Army Radio in Saigon. Along the way he faces censorship, landmines and Vietcong sympathizers, overcoming adversity and boosting troop morale with a combination of his acerbic wit and good old fashioned American rock n’ roll. Of course, after being subjected to Robin Williams spastic performance in RV, even Charlie would probably end up swallowing a live grenade.

8. No Man’s Land (2001)
Yes, nothing screams “hilarious” quite like a little ethnic cleansing. Okay, so the subject matter dark is a little on the dark side, but this clever and underrated foreign film does deliver a few laughs – along with a biting polemic against war in general. Written and directed by Academy Award-winning Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanović, No Man’s Land follows a Bosnian and a Serb who are caught in the trenches between enemy lines during the height of the Balkan conflict. Natural enemies, the two are soon being shot at by their own troops, confronted by a bevy of dimwitted and useless UN peacekeepers and soon become the star attraction in a media feeding frenzy. As the two men struggle to survive the situation, the story moves from the absurd to the tragic and back again. While leaning more heavily on drama than humour, No Man’s Land still has a few chuckles along the way, pointing out the sheer absurdity of war and why Bosnia had the dubious distinction of being the Club Med of genocidal combat zones during the 90s.

7. Wag the Dog (1997)
When it comes to an inept bureaucracy, sex scandals and cadres of rich and powerful jackasses it’s hard to say which is more fucked up: Hollywood or the U.S. Government. In director Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog however, the two institutions are crammed together into one single hilarious war comedy that brings to light the sheer insanity of both Los Angeles and Washington. Based on Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero, the film stars Robert De Niro as a spin doctor who enlists the aid of a Hollywood producer (played by Dustin Hoffman) after a Presidential sex scandal comes to light. The plan: distract the American public by creating a fake MTV-style war with the unassuming nation of Albania. Also starring Anne Heche, Denis Leary, William H. Macy, Woody Harrelson and Willie “I Ain’t Gonna Pay My Taxes No More” Nelson, the film points out the senselessness of war, the shallow nature of Hollywood and of course, the U.S. government’s manipulation of the mass media. With a script written by screenwriting legends David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, Wag the Dog is a spot-on send up of American culture; a film that makes war seem almost rational next to the idea of Big Willy getting the world’s sloppiest and most publicized Presidential hummer.

6. Life is Beautiful (1997)
Okay, so the last time Hollywood decided to combine Nazi prison camps and slapstick comedy audiences were subjected to the television hit known as Hogan’s Heroes. And while Life is Beautiful has plenty of Nazis, concentration camps and a slew of comic gags, don’t expect any cameos from Colonel Klink. Instead this tear-jerker of an Academy Award-winning film follows a bumbling Italian Jew who uses his sense of humour to spare his son from the atrocities of the Holocaust. Written by and staring Italian national treasure Roberto Benigni (who won an Oscar for his performance in the film), Life is Beautiful remains an inspirational masterpiece and an emotionally evocative exploration of the horrors inflicted on the Jewish people during the Second World War. The film also proves that, Colonel Klink aside, there is absolutely NOTHING funny about Nazis.

5. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Sure, some may argue that it’s not a true war comedy per se, but that’s just because those people are giant, smelly vaginas who can’t appreciate the genius of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron “West Wing” Sorkin. Yes, Charlie Wilson’s War is the quintessential war comedy delivering a heartfelt political message with a Cold War historical reality that is so ridiculous you can’t help but laugh. Fresh off his role in The Da Vinci Code, the film stars a thankfully mulletless Tom Hanks as drunken, womanizing Texas congressman Charlie Wilson. With the help of a right-wing Republican heiress (played by Julia Roberts) and a sarcastic CIA operative (the always amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman) Charlie decides to wage a one-man covert war, funneling weapons and aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the tumultuous Soviet invasion of the late 70s. Interestingly enough, the film isn’t Nichols first foray into the war comedy as he originally directed the big screen adaptation of Catch-22 (a movie which sadly, did not make our top 10 list). Combine Nichols eye with Aaron Sorkin’s skill at blending tragedy and humour and Charlie Wilson’s War delivers a political message with plenty of laughs – a timely film considering that most American’s knowledge of Afghan-U.S. comes from Rambo 3 (which despite what George W. Bush would have us believe, is not an action docudrama).

4. Tropic Thunder (2008)
Like a cruise missile of pure, laser-guided satire, Tropic Thunder has almost single-handedly revitalized the war comedy with an explosive blend of action and low-brow potty humour. With a solid script from Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, the film delivers plenty of laughs, blasting everything from greedy Hollywood executives to blow hard celebrities. The plot follows a group of pampered A-list celebrities who are cast in the most expensive Vietnam war movie ever made. Unfortunately, when the stars egos begin to interfere with production, the director drops the helpless actors into the jungle where the oblivious celebrities soon run afoul of a drug dealing army. Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black, the film also features a show stealing performance from Tom Cruise that almost redeems him after years of couch jumping and Scientologistical rants. What’s more, considering Ben Stiller’s last film was the cinematic war crime known as The Heartbreak Kid, Tropic Thunder delivers a one-two punch that’ll have you once again loving both Stiller AND the smell of napalm in the morning.

3. M.A.S.H. (1970)
Long before M.A.S.H. cemented its place in the annals of American television history, legendary director Robert Altman brought M.A.S.H. to the big screen and to this day the film remains one of the greatest war comedies of all-time. Based on a novel of the same name, the film stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as Captains Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Trapper” John McIntyre respectively; a pair of hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Army surgeons who find themselves enlisted during the height of the Korean War. Like the television show it spawned, Altman’s film blends humour with the tragedies and senseless of war as we follow Hawkeye and Trapper John’s exploits in both the surgery room and the nurses tent. Brilliantly directed, and with an Academy-Award winning script from legendary screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., M.A.S.H is a masterpiece of American cinema — a movie that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you’ll want to roll around in your skivvies with Hotlips Hoolahan.

2. Three Kings (1999)
Written and directed by ill-tempered filmmaker David O. Russell, Three Kings remains a classic of the war comedy genre. The film stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze as a group of down on their luck U.S. soldiers who decide to steal a secret stash of Saddam’s gold during the first Gulf War. Of course, the plan runs into a few snags, including roadside bombs, angry U.S. officials and trigger-happy members of Saddam’s elite Republic Guard. With a potent blend of action, comedy and a surprisingly poignant anti-war message, Three Kings hits all the right marks. Sadly, if George W. Bush and Saddam had only watched Three Kings together — and perhaps shared a box of juji fruits — things in Iraq today might be radically different.

1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
To some it’s considered Stanley Kubrick’s most ambitious film, to others its best known as Peter Sellers’ most brilliant performance. Regardless of your take on it, there’s little doubt that Dr. Strangelove is hands down the greatest war comedy of all time. Loosely based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, the script was adapted by screenwriting master Terry Southern and Kubrick himself, both of whom decided to ditch the serious tone of the original novel for over the top black comedy. Starring Peter Sellers (who plays three roles in the film including the titular, phantom-limb-afflicted Dr. Strangelove) and George C. Scott, the plot centers around escalating Cold War tensions after a mentally unstable U.S. General launches a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union. Of course, events spiral out of control on both sides culminating in the legendary ending in which country singer Slim Pickens gleefully rides an armed A-Bomb into mushroom cloud oblivion. Hilariously satirical, brilliantly written and directed, and featuring one of the greatest comedic performances of all time, Dr. Strangelove remains relevant even in today’s post Cold War climate. Yes, Kubrick’s masterpiece — like all the war comedies on our list — is a film which has the balls to suggest that all of the endless death, destruction and horror of war can be overcome with nothing more than a good old fashioned fart joke.

  • Matt

    Oooh. Very balsy of you not to include Stripes. Well done job on this list. I enjoyed this post even more than the pot-movies one. Although I think your list may have focused a little too much on the “best” war comedies, instead of the “funniest.” Great list nonetheless. Nothing that I can really disagree with except for maybe for the three movies I haven’t seen yet, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, MASH and Charlie Wilson’s War.

  • I’d lose faith in anyone if they didn’t put Dr. Strangelove at the top.. Not only is it the most classic and by the most celebrated filmmaker it also deserves the slot for being the most entertaining.

    “Oooh. Very balsy of you not to include Stripes.”

    Indeed. I was expecting it to be here.

  • Excellent list Adam. Dr. Strangelove would definitely top my list. However, you left off three of my favorite war comedies, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and The Killing Fields. What gives?

  • :D @ Joel.

  • This post seems like it could have been written by John Campea, and that’s not an endorsement.

    Don’t explain the plot of the movies you list. It ruins the films for people who haven’t seen them.

  • Bryan

    No mention of Top Secret! That movie is hilarious.

  • When that guy in the Killing Fields steps on the land mine when he’s carrying that kid … classic!

  • Why is “The Mouse who Roared” not on here? Dissappointing.

  • Kelly

    How can there be a war comedy list without Kelly’s Heroes? Big mistake there guys!

  • Stripes is the funnier than all of these films (with the possible exception of Strangelove) however, Stripes isn’t really a war movie. It’s a “In the Army” movie. There’s no real war, just “Arrrrrrmy training, Sir” and winnebago with a flamethrower.

  • Matt

    Great list, but what about Catch 22. It was also made in 1970 and was overlooked then too. So, I won’t hold it against you, just one of my favorites.

  • TruthIsPainful

    I see your logic, that these movies are “balls to the wall” hardcore action/drama flicks like Saving Private Ryan. I can appreciate a well directed movie like Charlie Wilson and argue it is not a comedy without being a big smelly vagina (sounds like someone forgot to douche before the big game)

    I like good movies, period. I don’t care about actors, directors, anything except a good freakin’ movie that made me glad I spent 2 hours of my life on and somehow grew as person and not became a waste of space because of it.

  • JackieD

    Don’t think life is beautiful belongs on this list

  • Bwuh

    Someone once described Good Morning Vietnam as 90 minutes of “Robin William telling jokes that clearly aren’t funny then cutting to actors laughing at them”, and they were right.

    Drek like Life is Beautiful makes it and Kelly’s Heroes is nowhere to be seen? This list is horrible.

    And I’ll say it because someone has to: M*A*S*H is a horrible movie loved only by Boomers, and Robert Altman is a horrible director and his overlapping dialog is a worn out gimmick that wasn’t even good to begin with.

  • Dejan

    List is quite good, but I don’t know if you’ve seen Serbian movie “Lepa sela lepo gore” (Pretty Village Pretty Flame – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116860/). It’s one of the best. This is a strong recommendation!

  • Johnny Wong

    What about Hot Shots?

  • Dejan
  • Monsoon

    What about Catch 22? That should be tucked in right above M*A*S*H! Dear God, man, Tropic Thunder? As well, Charlie Wilson’s War is more about policy, and the power of well-placed lobbyists- even one man – to influence that policy. The war itself is an afterthought – more useful as an ironic admonishment and reminder of the We’ll See” parable at the end of the film. Also, what about The Mouse That Roared, and What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?

  • TsengMao

    So “no” to Stripes huh?

    Okay, I can respect that. But you lost me without 1942.

  • david h

    I beleive the list is terrible my list would consist of more like FATHER GOOSE MCHALES NAVY OPERATION PETICOAT KELLYS HEROES AND clint eastwood has enough grit in hamburger hill to make anyone laugh when he tears the earing out of the kids ear to me these movies on the list just dont cut it yhey are more kinda plotless with some half way actors!

  • Tom Bryant

    No Catch 22? Kelly’s Heroes? Operation Petticoat? Ok, so the list is subjective, but NO DUCK SOUP! Or THE GREAT DICTATOR?

    Sorry, but unforgivable, my friend….

  • Nonamecoolguy

    i think that Good morning vietnam should be way higher because its a start to all modern comedies the fact that romance element was well placed but i dont believe the fact that the radio wouldnt inform the troops that theyr numbers will increase but from the side of vietnam conflict its bad because it cuold escalade to a “full sized” war i am getting off track thats is just my thought (i am not from usa or uk so go easy on my bad grammar) (music was awesome too)

  • Madeline Hooper

    how can you leave out La grande vadrouille? Sacrilege!