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There’s often the sense that Oscar voters prefer historical dramas and/or biopics more than various other genres, and it’s fairly widely discussed how Oscar voters seem especially hesitant to award genre movies (poor, poor horror). The action genre is another that’s not awarded super often, given that of 90+ titles, there are eight Best Picture winners that could be described as action movies, or have one of their genres regarded as “action.”
That is an important thing to note, here: none of these winners are straightforward, “pure” action movies in the sense that something like Die Hard or The Raid will tend to be labeled as an action movie, first and foremost. They fit within various genres (more often than not, “drama” is one), but at least contain enough exciting or intense set pieces to also function as action movies, to some extent. These eight Best Picture winners are ranked below, starting with the good and ending with the great.
8 ‘Wings’ (1927)
Director: William A. Wellman
Wings is predominantly a war melodrama with a love triangle-centered premise, though it has enough action sequences to also fall within the action genre. It was also the first movie to win Best Picture at the first Academy Awards ceremony, even if it didn’t necessarily set a precedent for action-heavy movies to win that award often. It also won alongside another 1927 release, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, with Wings getting “Outstanding Picture” and the latter getting the unique and soon-to-be-retired award of “Unique and Artistic Picture.”
Taking place during World War I, and following two US Air Corps fighter pilots who both love the same woman, it’s the dogfighting sequences in Wings that ultimately prove most impressive when the film’s watched today. That’s not to disparage the romantic or more drama-centered elements; they’re still good for their time, but the action and spectacle are most impressive here. Oscar voters probably agreed, given the more subdued and grounded Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans got the arguably more niche award that year.
7 ‘Braveheart’ (1995)
Director: Mel Gibson
Though the golden age of the epic arguably coincided with the Golden Age of Hollywood (or at least the tail-end of it; say the 1950s and ’60s), large-scale epics were quite well-represented at the Oscars throughout the 1990s. Things started with the epic Western Dances with Wolves winning at the start of the decade, and James Cameron’s Titanic winning towards the end of the decade. In between was another Best Picture winner with big production values: Braveheart.
It’s a film about revenge and rebellion that might not have action scenes show up with the frequency they do in full-blooded action movies, but there is still quite a lot of grisly combat to be found in Braveheart. It’s not the most even or well-balanced Best Picture winner of this kind, but it largely satisfies by telling a gripping story and featuring intense, emotional action. As far as movies that hover around the three-hour mark go, it’s probably up there with the quickest feeling.
- Release Date
- March 14, 1995
- Mel Gibson , james robinson , Sean Lawlor , Sandy Nelson , James Cosmo , Sean McGinley
6 ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)
Director: William Wyler
The biggest Oscar success of 1959 was Ben-Hur, which was arguably the gold standard of what a truly epic movie could be before Lawrence of Arabia three years later, though that one’s not really an action movie. Ben-Hur does revel in its exciting set pieces a little more, and considering its climactic chariot race is one of the most celebrated action sequences of all time, it kind of earns the right to be considered an action film for that alone.
Like Braveheart some three-and-a-half decades later, Ben-Hur is also an epic set many years ago, and with a central premise that sees its hero out for revenge. Taking place on what was at the time an unprecedented scale, Ben-Hur is deservedly held up as one of the greatest films of its decade, and it was so ambitious and expansive that those qualities are still easy to appreciate, even when the film is watched today.
- Release Date
- November 18, 1959
- William Wyler
- Charlton Heston , Jack Hawkins , Haya Harareet , Stephen Boyd , Hugh Griffith , Martha Scott
- 212 minutes
5 ‘Platoon’ (1986)
Director: Oliver Stone
Platoon is an interesting war film to break down genre-wise, because while it does contain a good deal of combat sequences, they’re not entertaining in the way most action scenes in other movies are. When fighting goes down in Platoon, it’s supposed to make the audience feel uneasy and nervous, rather than excited. Perhaps the same could be said about Saving Private Ryan, though there, the intense and harrowing action is less frequent (mainly reserved for the opening and climactic scenes).
The premise of Platoon is effective in its simplicity. Things take place from the point of view of a young American man fighting in Vietnam, the experience of which continually pushes him to despair and distress. There is action, but it’s not the fun kind, and it’s definitely not the uplifting kind, meaning that Platoon works as an anti-war film that’s unafraid to feature a decent amount of action while trusting that the audience will understand it’s not supposed to be exciting.
- Release Date
- December 19, 1986
- Oliver Stone
4 ‘The French Connection’ (1971)
Director: William Friedkin
An exciting blend of action and crime that established Gene Hackman as a leading man while also being a high point of William Friedkin’s directing career, The French Connection is pretty great overall. It was a film that took the police procedural genre to new heights right at the start of the 1970s, feeling tougher and grittier than just about anything that came before, in turn influencing much of what was to follow in its wake.
It runs for just 104 minutes, and wastes little to no time as a result, simply following a determined detective who’ll go to some extreme lengths to take down a drug-smuggling operation. It’s fast-paced and thrilling, and well-remembered for some of the sustained sequences of action it contains. Most notably, there’s a car chase in the film that still feels like one of the greatest ever shot, and though the rest of the film is still great, The French Connection is worth watching for that one part alone.
3 ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
Director: Ridley Scott
Gladiator is the sole film directed by Ridley Scott to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and it ranks overall as one of his very best. Its plot concerns the villainous son (Joaquin Phoenix) of a Roman emperor betraying his father and claiming leadership for himself, in turn also betraying a revered army general (Russell Crowe). The general’s family is murdered and he himself is sold into slavery, ensuring his one purpose in life is to seek vengeance upon the new Roman emperor.
Action-wise, there’s a fairly big battle early on, to establish the protagonist’s fighting prowess, and then many exciting gladiatorial scenes later on, after the enslaved general is forced to fight for the public’s entertainment. Gladiator is a simple but slick film, and incredibly satisfying, owing to its emotional story and generally entertaining nature. It’s a crowd-pleaser for sure, so there’s a very good chance that you will be entertained.
- Release Date
- May 5, 2000
- 155 minutes
2 ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ (2022)
Directors: Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan
While it stands first and foremost as an ambitious universe-spanning piece of science fiction, Everything Everywhere All at Once also blends genres to perhaps an even greater extent than that title might imply. It’s a comedic and sometimes silly film, it feels like a genuinely moving family drama at other times, it gets quite weird and unsettling in parts, and it has a fast-paced story that’s remarkably action-packed, once the film’s central narrative really kicks into high gear.
Everything Everywhere All at Once’s unlikely hero is a middle-aged Chinese woman (Michelle Yeoh) who becomes involved with a desperate mission to save all the universes in existence, in turn learning about the varied ways her other selves live throughout the multiverse. Even when it’s not showcasing action specifically, the film’s a thrill to watch, but the action sequences and set pieces are indeed fantastic; creative and elaborate, yet always comprehensible, and inevitably in service of the story and the characters wrapped up in it, too.
1 ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (2003)
Director: Peter Jackson
Yes, The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy is, at its core, a fantasy epic, but the only film in the trilogy to win Best Picture, The Return of the King, does contain the most action of all three films. And it makes sense, given this entire movie serves as the climax to an overall story that unfolds over the course of 9+ hours… and it’s closer to 12 hours if you decide to watch all the Extended Editions (and you probably should, if you liked the theatrical cuts).
Battles are fought, sacrifices are made, and victories are well and truly earned throughout this excellent final chapter in Peter Jackson’s acclaimed trilogy. The Lord of the Rings films in general are quite generous when it comes to depicting the novel’s battle sequences in full (for the most part), but it’s The Return of the King that feels most deserving of being called an action movie. So long as you’re okay with it being labeled that way, then it’s hard to dispute the idea that it’s the best action film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars.
NEXT: Every Epic Movie that Won Best Picture at The Oscars, Ranked