Hollywood has long had a sort of love hate relationship with its war movies. The industry has never wanted to be seen as glorifying war, but has celebrated heroes real and imagined like Achilles, Sergeant York and Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and more recently British soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation.
War is such a horrifyingly grand undertaking that movies with their slick editing, dramatic music and movie stars can’t help but create a mythic version of war that exists only on celluloid.
Today’s movie industry is much less pro-military and is conflicted about America’s Global War on terrorism. But they haven’t given up entirely on war movies, releasing Zero Dark Thirty in 2012, American Sniper in 2014 and Dunkirk this year. These movies feel smaller and more constrained; it’s been a while since Braveheart and even longer since Apocalypse Now. Here are 15 movies that show war as both terrible and a spectacle to behold.
15. Negative Waves
A war movie that is a comedy is a tricky thing to pull off, but the 1970 Kelly’s Heroes succeeds better than most. It is able to combine genuinely funny characters and scenes with realistic violence and maintain an adventurous tone throughout.
Kelly’s Hero’s features Clint Eastwood as Kelly — the straight man bent on corralling a whacky bunch of characters to help him knock over a German controlled bank far behind enemy lines.
The running theme of the movie and the source of many of the funny scenes is that this band of misfits suddenly becomes a crack military unit when they’re inspired by greed instead of loftier goals. Donald Sutherland almost steals the show and Telly Savalas has a breakout performance as “Oddball,” the tank commander with an endearing sensibility.
14. De Oppresso Liber
De Oppresso Liber, Latin for “free the oppressed,” is the motto of the United States Army Special Forces. The Special Forces are popularly known as the Green Berets because of their distinctive headgear. Legendary actor John Wayne starred in the 1968 release “The Green Berets,” that highlighted the exploits of this storied counterinsurgency unit.
The Green Berets were tasked with helping the South Vietnamese Government fight the Communist insurgents that infiltrated from North Vietnam. The movie portrays the American soldiers and their South Vietnamese as heroes fighting in a just cause — something that most movies Hollywood would later make about the Vietnam War avoid doing.
Some critics accuse it of being jingoistic, though many movie buffs appreciate its lack of cynicism.
13. War of Attrition
Released in 1949, 12 O’Clock High hit theaters only four years after the end of World War II. The life expectancy of B-17 bomber crews who flew their flying fortresses over Germany were notoriously low. 12 O’Clock High confronts this reality and consequences head-on with the steadying force of Gregory Peck’s General Savage.
He concedes that their task is grim and morale is precariously low, but he demands that his men do their jobs or else. The movie takes the cost of war seriously and without losing its ability to entertain its audience that, at the time, was more than eager to watch the Mr. Peck lead his bomber crews to victory over Hitler’s Germany.
Few war movies have been able to combine as effectively the horrors of war with the sense of duty the men sometimes had to rely on to to face those horrors.
12. King of Scots
Although William Wallace’s rebellion was unsuccessful, it showed that England’s brutal hold over the rest of Britain could not hold forever. Mel Gibson directed and starred in 1995’s Braveheart a thrilling and gruesome account of the Scottish noble’s fight to free his lands from English rule.
The movie was very well received by moviegoers and Academy voters who rewarded it with five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Some critics took issue with some of its historical inaccuracies and some in the British media considered it to be “Anglophobic” for its overly negative portrayal of King Edward.
Some in Britain even blamed Braveheart for a rise in anti-English sentiment in Scotland.
11. Space Invaders
H.G Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds started the alien invasion phenomenon that would become such a staple of science fiction literature and movies. Battle Los Angeles, released in 2011, is an effective action movie.
It immerses the audience into the middle of a horrific alien invasion from the point of view of a platoon of Marines led by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz. We don’t learn much about the aliens or their motives and the battle for Los Angeles isn’t over when the credits role.
Many critics were inexplicably harsh toward this solid science fiction-themed war movie, perhaps because it is so unapologetically pro-military in an era when the media is often cynical and even hostile toward it.
10. Highway to Hell
Clint Eastwood stars as Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway in the 1986 release Heartbreak Ridge. Highway whips up a rag tag group of Marines left adrift by their sergeant into fighting shape.
The movie is respectful of Marine Corps history and tradition, but leaves plenty of room for the base commander to be a self-important ass and Highway’s young commanding officer to be an inexperienced bookworm.
Just as the members of the Recon Platoon reach their peak, they are deployed into combat as one of the lead elements in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. The combat scenes are restrained, but their matter of factness lend them a kind of credibility over-the-top action scenes can’t achieve.
9. Old Blood and Guts
Patton was released the same year as Kelly’s Heroes, but these World War II movies could not be any more different. Patton is an epic biopic of America’s most famous and controversial military leader: General George S. Patton.
The movie captures the complexities of Patton’s character which seems to be equal parts pious, profane, pugnacious and prima donna.
Patton the man and Patton the movie straddles the line between grand and grandiose and some critics have speculated that the original tone of the movie was meant to show the general in a much more negative light than in the finished product.
Depending on how one views the military and figures like General Patton, the movie allows for different interpretations of the most colorful American leader of World War II.
8. Good Does Not Always Triumph
Director Francis Ford Coppola famously said of Apocalypse Now, “my film is not a movie; it’s not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” Hyperbole aside, Apocalypse Now, released in 1979, is a great movie. Though probably not a great movie about the Vietnam War.
The movie’s great cast, memorable lines and their slow decent into darkness all make for a very watchable experience. However, it makes the war feel like some kind of gruesome, exhilarating carnival ride you don’t want to stop. This was not the experience of most veterans.
Apocalypse Now has gained legendary status, but so has the sordid tale of its production as documented in 1991’s Hearts of Darkness.
7. Avenge Me!
The Cold War is a distant memory for many, but in 1984 Red Dawn’s depiction of a Soviet invasion of the American heartland did not seem farfetched. A group of high school students turned guerrilla fighters take their Wolverine mascot as their name to resist the occupation.
The movie features a host of young talents that went on to be stars including Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and veterans Powers Boothe and Harry Dean Stanton. Ahead of its time, Red Dawn anticipates the YA craze that would hit 20 years later with The Hunger Games and Twilight series.
The movie strikes an effective balance between heartfelt moments between the kids and the harsh realities of waging a bloody insurgency.
6. Kings of the Desert
George Clooney first played a Special Forces officer in 1997’s The Peacemaker. The second time was in Three Kings. Released in 1999, it depicts a small band of U.S. soldiers trying to make the most of an opportunity in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.
Like Kelly’s Heroes this is also a black comedy that satirizes the military and sends its unlikely heroes hunting for gold behind enemy lines. Clooney and his gang run into complications however as the plight of refugees loom larger than the promise of an easy score. A strong supporting cast that includes Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube.
The movie takes a clumsy turn near the end when it tries to critique America’s policy in the Middle East as Wahlberg’s character is force-fed oil by his Iraqi captors.
5. Flying Crates
It took a special kind of person to volunteer to be a pilot in World War I. The biplanes of the era were somewhat rickety and unreliable. They offered little protection from enemy fire. After some initial resistance, the stalemate of trench warfare forced the belligerents to see the potential of air power.
With their silk scarfs blowing jauntily in the wind, Errol Flynn and David Niven embody the daring of the glamorous flyers in the 1938 release The Dawn Patrol. This movie, while relatively lighthearted does not entirely sidestep the realities of war.
It also explores the pressures of command as Flynn’s character struggles with going from pilot to leader who must send brave men to their deaths.
4. Finding the Disappeared One
Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden was sometimes referred to as a “disappeared one” or someone who is out of reach never to be found. That was before Operation Neptune’s Spear was launched into Pakistan on 5 May 2011 and he was found living in a walled compound in Abbottobad.
Zero Dark Thirty, released in 2012 is a docudrama about the decade-long CIA hunt for Bin Laden that culminated in a 40 minute Navy SEAL operation that left the terrorist leader and several of his followers dead.
Interestingly, the original script for the movie was about how the hunt had been a failure, but when Bin laden was killed the script was rewritten. This is an engaging thriller with Jessica Chastain in the role of a driven and uncompromising CIA analyst who refused to give up.
For most viewers, however, the highlight is the SEAL raid shown through the green tinge of night vision goggles as the operators stalk their prey.
3. The Cold War Below
Tom Clancy’s 1984 Cold War novel The Hunt for Red October was a bestseller that launched his prolific literary career. Of course it was also the basis for the hit 1990 movie adaptation starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.
The movie was released a year after the historic 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union itself. A thrilling adventure, it showcased an all-star cast that included Scott Glenn, Sam Neil, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry and Fred Thompson.
It’s fun to watch Connery embody a Soviet submarine commander with a full Scottish brogue — it works. The Hunt for Red October is an impressive submarine movie in the tradition of the 1958 Run Silent, Run Deep, and remains a highly watchable movie.
2. Nothing Takes Five Minutes
“Nothing takes five minutes.” So said an Army Ranger Colonel to an optimistic Delta Force operator in the 2001 release Blackhawk Down. Time was critical because every second it took to secure the Somali warlords were seconds that exposed the low and slow flying Blackhawk helicopters to deadly ground fire.
The daytime raid launched without armor support depicted in the movie seems destined to fail. But at the time, it was considered one more routine snatch and grab operation.
When two of the helicopters are shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, the raid becomes a desperate struggle to hold out against hundreds of enemy fighters until reinforcements can help pull the soldiers out of the kill zone.
In addition to Tom Sizemore, who played the Ranger Colonel, the talented cast includes Josh Hartnett, Ewen McGregor, Eric Bana and William Fichtner.
1. Screaming Eagles
The above photograph shows General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, talking with troops from the storied 101st Airborne Division known as The Screaming Eagles. It has become an iconic image of World War II and particularly of the Allied amphibious invasion of France on 6 June 1944 popularly known as D-Day.
The 2001 HBO mini-series Band of Brothers follows “E” Easy Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st from boot camp to Normandy and culminating in the seizure of Hitler’s mountaintop redoubt at Berchtesgaden. This ten-hour movie showcases the talent of a large cast that includes Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, Neal McDonough and Donnie Wahlberg. Band of Brothers is an unflinching, but inspiring account of ordinary men who became heroes.