What are the best military movies? That depends a LOT on the criteria you use to judge them; if you seek accuracy from a Hollywood film (even movies done by people who supposedly know better) you will be left high and dry a great deal of the time, but if it’s entertainment you’re after, there are many films (American and otherwise) to explore.
Best Serious Military Movies
No movie is perfect, and the recommendations made here are not an endorsement of a film’s technical accuracy, historical veracity, or other variables. Our criteria for recommending these films is based on how entertaining they are and how relevant they are to military audiences and their families. Some movies get technical details all wrong, yet still hold up as classics of their genres.
2014’s American Sniper is a Clint Eastwood-directed project starring Bradley Cooper that has garnered some controversy over some of the backstory and its central figure, Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. In real life, Kyle was considered one of the most prodigious marksmen in U.S. military history.
Kyle had more than 250 confirmed kills from his duty in the Iraq War, but came home to PTSD and a major struggle to readjust. The film may or may not suffer from technical accuracy issues related to some of the main antagonists, and there is one particularly painful scene that features an obviously fake infant that some viewers couldn’t get over. In spite of those things, this is a film about the cost of war long after the servicemember’s service commitment ends.
Apocalypse Now is in the top 10 lists of many war film buffs. This 1979 war film about Vietnam was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and features Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, and keep your eyes peeled for a very young Laurence Fishburne. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Harrison Ford in an early role at the start of the film, and Dennis Hopper chews the scenery nicely in the third act.
The strength of this film, and the reason it endures, is not because of historical accuracy or a uniquely original plot; the film is essentially a reboot of the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, but set during Vietnam rather than Jospeh Conrad’s 19th century Congo. The basic plot–searching for an elusive man named Kurtz–was a commentary on racism and colonialism in the Conrad novel; in the hands of Coppola, the film is not about the horror of war so much as the insanity of it.
The real achievement Coppola made with Apocalypse Now is to communicate that madness. Accuracy isn’t the point, but there is a lot of military hardware on display–much of it on loan from the Army of the Philippines which Coppola worked with extensively to make the film. The Philippines double for Vietnam in a wide variety of movies from the 70s through the 90s and beyond but few directors got as involved with the country and its’ armed forces as Coppola did.
Stalag 17 rounds out this brief list of good, serious military movies. Directed by Billy Wilder and starring William Holden, Peter Graves, and Otto Preminger, this World War Two POW film from 1953 features an anti-hero (something of an anomaly for this genre and decade) who tells the story of the deaths of escaping American World War II prisoners and how the remaining prisoners of the German P.O.W. camp deal with a possible collaborator/informer in their midst.
William Holden shows why he was such a formidable presence on American movie screens, and while this is not a contemporary 21st century superhero movie with explosions, shoot-em-ups, and high energy action, it is a very well-made and thought-provoking film.
Space doesn’t allow us to list all the great serious war films, but here is a small list from a variety of eras to help you round out viewing lists:
- Tora! Tora! Tora! (World War Two-era U.S. versus Japan historical drama)
- The Hurt Locker
- The Longest Day (Epic World-War Two film starring Steve McQueen)
- Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
- The Deer Hunter (Christopher Walken in an unforgettable role)
- Master And Commander (ship-to-ship cannon battles and general naval warfare)
- The Sand Pebbles (A Steve McQueen Navy pic set during the Chinese Civil War)
- The Caine Mutiny (Bogart in one of his finest roles)
Military Movies You Can Watch For Laughs
How many military movies were made as comedies in spite of very heavy subject matter? Kelly’s Heroes is one such film, made in the “New American Cinema” era when edgy topics, anti-heroes, and grittier writing began to dominate Hollywood. Kelly’s Heroes is an irreverent World War Two comedy starring Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, and many other famous names.
The plot involves a group of war profiteers looking to steal Nazi treasures. Donald Sutherland has a great turn as a stereotype hippie/space cadet who also happens to command an American tank column.
If the plot of this film sounds familiar, it’s probably because the film Three Kings by director David O. Russell has a similar plot but is set during the Persian Gulf War era. George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze are in good form for this war comedy that takes a serious turn in the middle act that may surprise you.
Director Ivan Reitman wasn’t just responsible for Ghostbusters; he also directed an all-star cast in the very Army-heavy Stripes. Stripes is a great film to watch if you want to see what kinds of roles Bill Murray used to get before his deadpan and very deliberate style in films like Broken Flowers, The Dead Don’t Die, and Lost In Translation.
This is Ghostbusters-era Murray (Ivan Reitman would film that supernatural comedy hit a few years after Stripes) and his performance is just as good.
Some military movies aren’t made as comedies, but their technical errors make them well worth laughing at, according to some reviewers with military experience under their belts. What kinds of films do we mean? G.I. Jane springs to mind, the Ridley Scott-directed film from 1997 starring Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen, and Anne Bancroft.
Some with experience in SEAL teams howl in derision at the SEAL teams training sequences. Films like this often lose points with military audiences because of technical errors like wearing the wrong insignias, patches, or other devices, mismatched gear and uniforms, or in the case of several viewer complaints on IMDB reviewer boards, scenes where frontline troops sweep friendly forces with loaded weapons.
Good Military Movies You Might Not Have Heard Of
The Hill – 1965
Starring Sean Connery, Ossie Davis, Ian Hendry
Directed by Sidney Lumet
The Hill is a jaw-dropping classic of British cinema set in a British World War Two disciplinary camp for UK soldiers who have either deserted, were found guilty of disobeying orders, or other disciplinary problems. Sean Connery plays a Staff Sergeant sent to the prison camp after disobeying direct orders to run his squad through what was essentially a suicide mission; he arrives with five other newcomers who encounter a corrupt prison system. This film is similar in tone to the SEAL teams training portion of G.I. Jane, but has a very different message. The performances are top-notch, and Ossie Davis shines in a supporting role that could have earned him an Academy Award if the film had been released in America. Recommended.
Paths Of Glory – 1957
Starring Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Richard Anderson
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Another “refusal to perform suicide missions” film set in World War One; Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, who refuses to command a unit of French troops to continue a suicide mission; the film deals with corruption in military leadership, the call of duty, and the horrors of war. Kubrick had not yet directed the films Americans would most associate him with at the time of Paths of Glory, but this film fits in nicely with the director’s other big films such as 2001: A Space Odessy and The Shining, which both explore other aspects of human nature, duty, and how things break down on a human level during times of conflict.
Das Boot – 1981
Starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann
Directed by Wolfgang Peterson
What was it like to be a member of a German submarine crew during World War Two? This film is all about life on board such a vessel, underway and on a wartime footing. It’s easy to assume what life was like in wartime Germany, but this film shows a very human side of the conflict and some American reviewers note that Das Boot is one of the few films about submarine warfare to hold fast to technical details; military fans of the film posting on the Internet Movie Database consistenly review the film’s technical accuracy as being top-notch.
You might be tempted to pass this movie by given that the protagonists are Germans fighting for their country in World War Two which is completely understandable…until you’ve seen the film. There are few cinematic statements about the horror and futility of war that work as well as this 1981 feature.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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