Not every action movie is a warrior movie, but every warrior movie has action in it. Why? Because that's the definition of a warrior: one who defines themselves in battle. The contexts change, but the warrior spirit unites these disparate movies that make up our list of the The Ten Best Warrior Movies of All Time.
10. 300 (dir. Zack Snyder, 2006)
What 300 lacks in brains it makes up for in brawn, and really isn't that what being a warrior is all about? Zack Snyder's film is a love note to Frank Miller's popular graphic novel, which was itself a love note to the Spartan ideals of nobility through combat. A great Persian army is invading Greece, but due to political backstabbing and a strict adherence to religious tradition, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, in a star-making performance) can only send his personal guard of 300 soldiers to defend his lands. With a shrewd strategic choice of battlegrounds, a tiny pass through which Xerxes's armies must funnel themselves, the 300 Spartans manage to not to defeat their enemies, but to hold them off for days on end, providing Greece with the time necessary to prepare for war. The tale of their noble sacrifice – and utter badassery – have lived on in legend ever since, inspiring greatness in future warriors. A simplistic film, but as a celebration of the topic at hand there can be no denying its earnestness and arguably propagandist power.
9. THOR (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
A new entry to the list, since it just came out a month and a half ago, Thor tells the story of a warrior who goes on a journey to discover what he's really fighting for. As Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth of Star Trek is a brash sort, the kind who solves problems by pummeling them with a magic hammer. Director Kenneth Branagh (who has warrior film experience, having directed the fine Henry V) beautifully displays Thor's fighting prowess as he plows his way through an army of Frost Giants before our hero realizes that by following his warrior instincts he became nothing more than a part of the vicious cycle, in which one attack leads to a retaliation, which leads to another retaliation, and so forth. Only by acknowledging that war can only be won by standing down does he become worthy of the weapon that made him so mighty in the first place, and only then does he learn when violence is actually necessary. A warrior needn't solve all his problems through violence, but must be prepared to use violence when absolutely necessary to save the day.
8. GLADIATOR (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)
Ridley Scott's Best Picture-winning brawn-fest Gladiator turned character actor supreme Russell Crowe into a powerful leading man (and an Oscar-winner himself), and it's easy to see why. Crowe dominates this film as a the Roman General Maximus, a man betrayed by Emperor Commodus (the terribly vexed Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself on an unlikely journey. Sold into slavery and finally regaining his glory as Rome's finest gladiator, using his military experience to win unlikely battles against hulking behemoths and man-eating tigers. It's an epic in the classic sense, with larger-than-life characters and larger-than-life problems, but under the ecstatic eye of Scott (whose director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven almost made our list as well) it becomes a thrilling adventure which illustrates the means by which battle is used as a political commodity, both in conquering foreign lands and distracting the populace with blood-soaked entertainment. You know, blood-soaked entertainment like Gladiator.
7. THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is just a little too thoughtful and Hobbit-filled to rank any higher on our list, but that doesn't mean it doesn't rank among the best warrior movies of all time, taken as a whole or individually. Once again we see the need for war balanced with a desire for simpler, peaceful times, but once again it takes the likes of noble warriors like Aragon (Viggo Mortensen), Boromir (Sean Bean), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) to save the day from one epic battle sequence to another. Be it conquering an army of the dead to defending the great Rohan stronghold of Helm's Deep from an unstoppable army of orcs, The Lord of the Rings offers a series of exaltations of the warrior's craft all while reminding us that the purpose of a true warrior is always, in the end, to bring about peace.
6. PREDATOR, PREDATOR 2 AND PREDATORS (dirs. John McTiernan, Stephen Hopkins and Nimrod Antal, 1987, 1990 and 2010)
Warriors aren't always defined by an actual war. The alien race known only as the 'Predators' exemplifies the warrior spirit, even they are kind of dicks about it. What little we've seen of their culture in Predator, Predator 2 and Predators (we are completely ignoring the 'Alien vs.' movies, thank you very much) shows this advanced race to value honor in combat above all things, refusing to fight unarmed combatants even as they take the skulls of their dead home as trophies. When defeated in battle, these noble bastards don't even take revenge on their adversaries… they honor them as worthy opponents. Although they tend to pick on more defenseless species for hunting practice, they fight more fairly than the typical deer hunter, and earn a place in our hearts as monsters with a hint of actual class.
5. RED CLIFF (dir. John Woo, 2008)
After a brief and mostly disappointing venture to Hollywood, John Woo made a triumphant return to China with the epic Red Cliff, easily one of the best warrior movies ever made. In Red Cliff, the director of The Killer and Face/Off dramatizes one of the most famous military conflicts in Chinese history, The Battle of Red Cliffs in A.D. 208-209. The greedy General Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang of Farewell My Concubine) declares war on two armies of rebels, who join forces to defeat the greatest army in the continent. Through clever strategy and great warrior spirit they embark on a gigantic military campaign filled with innovative action sequences and more sword clashing than you could shake a stick at, or even a sword. With a fine cast of Chinese all-stars, including Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chen Chang and Wei Zhao, just to name a few, this is the best Hollywood movie John Woo ever made… and Hollywood wasn't even involved.
4. MUSA, a.k.a. THE WARRIOR (dir. Sung-su Kim, 2001)
One of the best action movies to ever come out of Korea (and that's saying a lot), Musa tells the story of a group of Korean diplomats who are betrayed by their Chinese hosts and exiled to the Gobi desert. Forced to walk back home in shame, they find one last chance for redemption and glory when they stumble across a kidnapped Chinese princess (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi) who has been kidnapped by Mongolians. They launch an almost suicide strike against her captors and embark on an epic journey to return the princess to her kingdom. What follows is one of the great underdog action movies, as a tiny band of thirsty warriors fights off the Mongolian hoards in search of victory and honor. Director Sung-su Kim directs Musa with a classical eye, interspersed with moments of ultra-violent modern day bloodshed that makes this movie one of the best (and most under-seen) action movies, let alone warrior movies, ever made.
3. CONAN THE BARBARIAN AND CONAN THE DESTROYER (dirs. John Milius and Richard Fleischer, 1982 and 1984)
The musclebound Conan is one of the great warrior archetypes: strong, silent, violent, and prone to partying heartily. In these adaptations of Robert E. Howard's classic pulp character, Arnold Schwarzenegger (making a name for himself for the first time using his real name) plays an orphaned Cimmerian in the fictional Hyborian Age, growing up as a sideshow attraction battling strange warriors before going into business for himself. The exceptional Conan the Barbarian finds our hero fighting the snake cult that killed his family, falling in and then losing his only love, but the seriously under-appreciated Conan the Destroyer is fine entertainment as well, following our warrior as he fights an evil wizard and later a Lovecraftian God to save a virgin princess from a wicked queen. Swords don't get much broader, and neither do pectoral muscles. Fantastic, adventurous fun.
2. SEVEN SAMURAI (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Akira Kurosawa's landmark achievement Seven Samurai remains one of the most influential movies ever made, forever changing the way action movies are shot, structured and viewed. But it's not a textbook. It's a hell of a lot of fun. A village perpetually robbed by bandits reluctantly decides to hire a group of samurai to defend them, but with only a handful of rice a day to pay them the best they can get are hungry samurai. A group of misfits, wannabes and genuine heroes working on sheer principle team up to defy the odds and hack and slash their way into the history books. Utterly intense, action-packed and filled with more great characters in a single film than Hollywood can seem to muster a year, Seven Samurai is a film about the warrior spirit like no other.
1. THE WARRIORS (dir. Walter Hill, 1979)
Well, duh. Walter Hill's classic piece of low-budget action awesomeness tells the unfortunate story of a metropolitan gang called 'The Warriors,' who are framed for the murder of a Christlike criminal leader. In a desperate trek back to their home turf, where they will be safer (if never safe) they are beset on all sides by every other gang in the city, from the bat-wielding Baseball Furies to the roller-skating Bowery Punks. Like all great warriors, The Warriors are fighters at heart and completely at a loss after their leader falls early in the film. The Warriors demonstrates great irony in celebrating its heroes in retreat, but despite the armies facing off against the heroes in 300, The Lord of the Rings or Red Cliff, no other warriors have ever seemed to have the odds so thoroughly stacked against them. Not as influential as Seven Samurai, but a better 'warrior movie' nonetheless.
What are your favorite warrior movies?