It’s been said that all narrative is a manipulation of the truth. By necessity, the storyteller must choose what to leave out and what receives more attention. War films are no different, typically balancing fact and fiction while keeping the audience engaged and not falling asleep.
Although achieving historical accuracy can be a bridge too far due to budget constraints or available resources, injecting a healthy dose of realism often goes a long way — not to mention box office boffo and determining who goes home with an Oscar. TopTenz now shines a spotlight on military movies that get it right (mostly, anyway).
10. Saving Private Ryan
Ostensibly, this 1993 release is a somewhat formulaic yarn about a group of soldiers with disparate backgrounds from Brooklyn to the backroads of Tennessee, who band together for a critical mission. However, what makes Saving Private Ryan stand out from the glut of similar fare is the ambitious production crafted by the skillful hands of Steven Spielberg.
The mesmerising 20-minute long opening sequence depicts the amphibious landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day and one of the most realistic combat ever recorded on film. If you’ve never seen it — google it right now. Go ahead. We’ll wait. Spielberg clearly did his homework, revealing both the horrors of war and the remarkable courage of American soldiers battling a well-entrenched German Army.
In addition to recreating the graphic blood-splattering, limb-flying frenetic action, the movie also captures the prelude leading up to the battle, such as men experiencing seasickness on the landing craft. Saving Private Ryan deservedly earned global acclaim by critics and audiences alike and thumbs up from several World War II veteran organizations for its unflinching portrayal of men at war.
9. Black Hawk Down
In the annals of military history, the Battle of Mogadishu doesn’t exactly measure up to the weight of the Normandy invasion. But the intense fighting would spawn Black Hawk Down, a riveting movie about the heroic stand by an elite group of heavily outnumbered and out-gunned American soldiers in Somalia.
Inspired by actual events, including the titular crash of two helicopters, director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) showcases his talent for powerful visuals and edge-of-your-seat, gripping drama. Black Hawk Down wastes little time with character arcs, quickly jumping into the perilous operation and the desperate attempt to maintain the U.S. Rangers motto, “Leave No Man Behind.”
Made with the full cooperation of the U.S. military, several Rangers appear in the film. Helicopters from the 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) were also used and piloted by veterans from the actual battle.
8. Full Metal Jacket
According to the United States Department of Defense, boot camp (aka ‘basic training’) prepares recruits “for all elements of service: physical, mental and emotional.” Conveniently, the DOD fails to mention how military drill instructors make life Hell for would-be soldiers — a subject brilliantly recreated by director Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket.
Former Marine Staff Sergeant R. Lee Ermey had been initially hired as a technical advisor for the Vietnam War flick. However, the combat veteran was eventually cast as the abusive, hard-as-nails “Gunnery Sergeant Hartman,” producing some of the film’s more memorable scenes.
Kubrick, known for his meticulous attention to detail and multiple takes, uncharacteristically allowed the novice actor to improvise and re-write his own dialogue. As a result, Ermey’s spot-on performance would garner a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The title of this 2005 biopic refers to a slang term for a US Marine — a moniker that originated from a high collared uniform that gives the appearance of a soldier’s head sticking out of a jar (accentuated by the trademark Marine flattop haircut). Based on the memoir of sniper Anthony Swofford, Jarhead takes place during the Gulf War and focuses on the psychological struggle that some soldiers face while serving Uncle Sam.
Directed by Sam Mendes and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford, the film is a psychological examination of a gung-ho warrior’s mindset as he struggles to cope with boredom, isolation, and insecurity — as well as the very real possibility of being killed 7,000 miles away from home.
Most of the outdoor scenes were shot in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, replicating the extreme desert conditions similar to Iraq. Also, the movie was filmed almost entirely in sequence, revealing the soldiers’ transformation from boot camp to post-deployment.
6. Das Boot
At the beginning of this WWII masterpiece, we’re informed that 40,000 men were sent out on German U-boats, and 30,000 never returned. This somber introduction sets the tone for an anxiety-filled, claustrophobic journey inside U-96 during the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic.
Released in 1981 and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot is told from a German perspective, revealing the exhilaration, tedium, and dread of being the hunter and the hunted. A full-scale replica of a Type VIIC-class U-boat was built — and later used by Steven Spielberg during the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Interestingly, the film not only imbues an anti-war theme but is also anti-Nazi. For example, an early scene shows a drunken German officer giving a lewd speech at a French bordello in which he mocks Adolf Hitler. Conscripted civilians from occupied territories such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia would especially share this sentiment.
5. Apocalypse Now
Based on Joseph Conrad’s famous novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola’s dark tale of a Vietnam soldier tasked with terminating a rogue officer “with extreme prejudice.” Although elements of the film have been criticized for being overly melodramatic, Coppola nails the overwhelming, chaotic nature of the costly and divisive war.
Apocalypse Now benefits from stellar performances by an all-star cast featuring Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Marlon Brando. In a case of life imitating art, the crisis-plagued production saw cast and crew ensnared by constant turmoil, punctuated by Sheen suffering a heart attack and Coppola threatening to commit suicide.
After winning the prestigious Palm d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, the legendary director had this to say: “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”
Director Sam Mendes makes an encore appearance on our list, this time with 1917, a visually stunning epic set on the Western Front in WWI. Inspired by events experienced by his grandfather, the film recreates the brutal physical conditions soldiers encountered during ‘The Great War.’
Mendes reunites with renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who he had initially collaborated with on Jarhead. Elaborately choreographed camera shots were used to create the effect of the story unfolding in only two long continuous takes, maintaining the perspective of the main characters as they traverse through ‘no man’s land.’
Over 5,000 feet of trenches were dug to highlight the massive scale and defining feature of the conflict. Scores of rats add to the authenticity, seen feasting on rotting corpses — a ghoulish but common occurrence throughout the war.
Stalingrad explores one of the deadliest battles in history, where an estimated 2 million people were killed, wounded, or captured. The German-language movie pulls no punches, revealing the horrendous descent into Hell that served as the turning point of World War II.
The grim setting resembles a dystopian landscape of the once-thriving industrial Russian city, reduced to burning rubble and littered with slaughtered dead bodies. The filmmakers graphically illustrate a battle stripped of politics, ideologies, and military strategies, instead portraying a fight for survival shrouded in hopelessness and carnage.
Unforgettable scenes show those that didn’t die in the fighting later froze to death or committed suicide. Once again, the only real winners are the rats, presented with an endless buffet of human flesh.
On September 16, 1967, a Yale dropout named Bill Stone landed in Vietnam as a PFC grunt attached to a US Army infantry unit. Twenty years later, those experiences earned him an Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture for Platoon. The intense film, which also tackles race and class divide issues, has been widely hailed by war veterans as an accurate depiction of America’s quagmire in Southeast Asia.
While on location in the Philippines, Stone (birth name: Oliver William Stone) insisted on creating an atmosphere reflecting the discomforts of war. The strategy worked — but his boorish behavior would also foment hatred from the cast and crew.
All of the performers were put through a harsh 14-day boot camp before shooting began. The men slept in the jungle, ate only military rations, and weren’t allowed to shower or use toilets. In the closing helicopter scene, Charlie Sheen’s emotional response was genuine, knowing he was soon going back home to the cushier confines of the Hollywood Hills.
1. Come and See
While the spectrum of war films ranges from mindless entertainment to educating the audience about historical events, the power of cinema can also have a deeply profound, emotional impact. Come and See is such a movie.
The film’s title is from the Book of Revelations, referring to the summoning of witnesses to the devastation brought by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Director Elem Klimov juxtaposes the biblical metaphor as a Russian drama about the Nazi occupation of Belarus during WWII.
Thematically, Come and See is a study of human suffering through the eyes of a boy as he witnesses a series of unspeakable atrocities committed by ruthless German soldiers (loosely based on the Dirlewanger Brigade). Disturbing and uncompromising — this is not an easy film to watch — but one that will stay with the viewer long after the final credits.