Veterans Day is a time to pay tribute to those who have served and those who are currently serving whether active duty, Guard, or Reserve. Veterans Day is a time of remembrance and gratitude, but also a time to celebrate.
The American tradition of barbecues, military-themed gatherings, and special events is definitely more often along the celebratory lines of the 4th of July, and watching military themed films on the holiday is definitely part of that experience for many.
There are many lists of must-watch military films, but fewer lists of films that rate movies based on their accuracy about some form of military life. Here’s a list of military films and what you can expect if you view them this Veterans Day, in no particular order.
Please note-this is not an exhaustive or comprehensive list, but if you use this page as inspiration to assemble your own playlist of military movies, your results may be quite interesting. Most, if not all the films in this list are available in one form or another for streaming at the time of this writing.
The Great Escape
Director: John Sturges
Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough
This film is slightly marred (for some) by some technical errors, but there’s much to admire about The Great Escape including its’ all-star cast and some fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia about that casts. The film is based on a true World War Two story about Allied troops attempting to tunnel their way out of a supposedly escape-proof German POW camp.
Several cast members, including Donald Pleasance and Richard Attenborough, were World War Two veterans. Pleasance was an RAF pilot who was shot down and captured by Nazi forces; he offered technical advice to the director on how to make the film more accurate with respect to being a POW.
Charles Bronson, who also stars as one of the tunnel-digging prisoners or war, also offered technical advice on how to realistically portray such tunneling-based on his pre-Hollywood background as a coal miner. Two other actors in the film, Til Kiwe and Hans Reiser, were held in Allied prisoner of War camps!
The Great Escape has a combination of well-informed realism in places, a few technical goofs, and the benefit of true-story source material making this an excellent watch for Veterans Day.
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Oliver Stone is problematic as a Hollywood figure for various reasons, but in 1986 his turn as the writer/director of Platoon left audiences reeling at what was, at the time, considered one of the most combat-realistic films made about the Vietnam War.
In terms of a military-themed film, there are several very true-to-life moments. Including a scene where “Army brass” informs the platoon leaders (and main characters) that while the show “must go on” in the theater of war, the Uniform Code of Military Justice still applies to troops in the field…but perhaps not…until the mission is complete.
As a metaphor for the chaos and madness of certain aspects of the Vietnam conflict, this movie is quite effective.
There are some typical Hollywood goofs in the film including at least one (according to the Internet Movie Database) supposedly American chopper that has the tail markings of the copters used by the Philippine Air Force.
The climactic battle scenes of the film reflect the kinds of chaos known in military circles as the “fog of war” and in that respect the film does a good job. As a film, military-themed or not, Platoon holds its’ own and serves as a conversation starter about the ravages of combat, the breaking point of those who serve in a hostile environment too long, and the socio-political landscape of the times.
Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer
Top Gun works if you simply accept this movie for what it is-an exaggeration of a certain type of military life and a fantasy that just happens to involve fighter pilots and aircraft carriers. The unofficial backstory of this film includes talk of how much certain Navy people hated this film because it seemed to work more as a recruiting tool for the Air Force due to the emphasis on fighter jets. Never mind that those jets belong to the United States Navy!
In the end, the Navy did manage to set up recruiting tables at screenings of this film back in the day, so perhaps the Air Force didn’t get as much “unfair” mileage out of the movie as you might think.
Watching this film with any expectation of military realism will leave you disappointed; Top Gun is, in terms of real-world accuracy for military folks, on a par with something like Return Of The Jedi. Consider that not so much a critique of the movie, but rather…expectation management. It’s the Star Wars of Navy recruitment, to be sure.
P.S. Buzzing the control tower is probably grounds for losing your flight status, at a minimum.
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Starring: Louis Gossett Jr., Jason Gedrick, David Suchet
There are people who watch military films in spite of their inaccuracies. And then there are movies that demand to be seen BECAUSE of their inaccuracies where all things military are concerned, and Iron Eagle is definitely one of them.
This is a military movie the way Dawn Of The Dead was about shopping malls; yes the action take place in and around a military base and features F-16 fighter jets. That’s about as far as it goes where accuracy is concerned. Iron Eagle beat Top Gun to the theaters by few months; as absurd as it may have seen to some military folks at the time, Top Gun took itself a bit more seriously.
Iron Eagle’s sins are many. From the premise that a wet-behind-the-ears civilian youngster could steal an Air Force F-16 and use it to attack locations in another country to the “bottomless” F-16 weaponry on display in the film, Iron Eagle looks at the idea of realism for a second before laughing and pushing it aside in favor of more explosions generated by a kid piloting a fighter jet while listening to his latest mixtape on those clunky 80’s era headphones.
Iron Eagle is a bad movie in the classic bad movie tradition; it is ENTERTAININGLY bad and therefore safe to consider as fun, goofy viewing. Anyone even passingly familiar with Air Force flight ops will have many good laughs over this film, especially all scenes with our young fighter jock hero effortlessly zipping out of the base and into the big blue sky with his stolen F-16, which in this movie has an unlimited supply of ordinance.
And no, unlike Top Gun which actually had the cooperation of the United States military, Iron Eagle got no such consideration, likely due to its’ theme of the unauthorized use of American military hardware to perform a combat run on another nation.
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger
American cinema of this time period did not focus on darker themes in quite the same way its’ counterparts in Germany, France, Italy, and elsewhere did; the Hollywood of this era was still interested in a certain kind of cinematic artifice, which is one reason why Stalag 17 is so important as a military-themed film.
The Allied prisoners of war in this film are bored, cynical, and a bit more ruthless than some of their cinematic contemporaries from movies past-Billy Wilder is definitely asking the right questions about what life could be like behind the barbed wire. Add to this the fact that the movie is a hybrid comedy/thriller and you have a fairly unique setup for Veterans Day viewing.
That makes Stalag 17 a milestone introduction to a more realistic portrayal of the world. Another cast of then-important names including William Holden and Otto Preminger (who is also known for directing a slew of unique films that often pushed similar boundaries) make this a good watch if you’re fascinated by classic Hollywood and the changes it began to go through post-World War Two.
Black Hawk Down
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore
A compelling look at what happens when your mission planning doesn’t go as expected. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down focuses on the real-life chaos of the American mission in Somalia to capture or kill warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Some reviewers and military writers note that this film gives the faintest glimpse into the political, social, and economic causes of the unrest in Somalia, favoring an up-close look at what the experience of going on a combat mission there might entail.
If Scott’s goal were to definitively explain why the United States and NATO were involved in the area, the film would be an utter failure; the director’s intent (judging strictly by the film alone, not by interviews with cast or crew) seems to be to put the viewer right in the center of a specific mission gone wrong. The reasons they are there don’t matter (in context of the film as a whole) as much as the conditions these American troops endured while serving their country.
Black Hawk Down pulls no visual punches-an emergency battlefield surgery scene is intense and difficult to watch; it’s the sort of visceral approach Ridley Scott has built an entire career out of-put your characters in an enclosed, claustrophobic space and let them deal with aggression, an unseen enemy, and few good options for escape. Sound familiar? See his other films (especially Alien) and you’ll find some common themes at work.
There seems to be a degree of technical accuracy in Black Hawk Down missing in some other efforts; the movie’s technical goofs are more about continuity errors (a disappearing and reappearing set of gloves in one scene) and technical issues (on-screen helmets and other gear being just a tad too modern for the era they are depicted being used in) rather than taking liberties with military culture.
This is a strong film, but definitely not one you’ll want to screen on Veterans Day if your intention is to keep things lighthearted. (Stalag 17 or The Great Escape are far better for that purpose.)
A Few Good Men
Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Pollak
Courtroom films usually go one of two ways-they are either quite entertaining, or the total opposite. This military-themed courtroom movie runs strong on drama, makes a political statement or two, and doesn’t offend too much on the technical side but for a couple of notable exceptions including the fact that the Tom Cruise character would NOT, on a professional level, be able to throw his character’s smarmy weight around as a junior officer without serious pushback from his superiors.
And if you can get past the idea that junior counsel, as played by Cruise, could be the lead prosecutor on a case involving a command-level officer, A Few Good Men plays surprisingly well. Military folks grow weary of having to turn a blind eye to inaccuracies Hollywood seems to inject into all films about military life.
But if you go into the movie expecting something more akin to director Otto Preminger’s Anatomy Of A Murder starring Jimmy Stewart (a courtroom drama with the same level of cynicism and response to that cynicism as A Few Good Men) rather than a technically accurate military picture, it’s possible to enjoy the film more. Ignore the military goofs if you can, enjoy the chemistry between Cruise, Pollak, and Moore.
The Thin Red Line
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte
There are some on Veterans Day who won’t like this film. It is not a straightforward military picture although it is set during World War Two at Guadalcanal and tells the story of one soldier’s experiences there. The storytelling is more unconventional. It succeeds at what it’s doing, but if you aren’t along for the ride the film may leave you feeling unconvinced of its’ merits.
The film puts a lot of emphasis on the inner dialog of its’ various characters, making The Thin Red Line more of a meditation on the personal cost of war rather than something focusing on events, outcomes, or narratives associated with the war itself.
There is a visual poetry to this film, but its’ real strength lies in examining the inner conflicts of those who fight, from the highest ranking to the most inexperienced newcomer. This is a production that takes exception to the concept of war in general, without dehumanizing the troops who participate.
And that’s the real strength of The Thin Red Line; the notion that everyone suffers in their own way on the battlefield, regardless of the outcome of the war itself. Not everyone will have the patience for this two hour and 50 minute damn-near-existential journey, but for those interested in a very different approach to the war film genre, this is worth a screening.
If you are looking for a movie to set the mood for a barbecue or family gathering on Veterans Day, this might not be the best title to start with, but it has its’ rewards.
The Caine Mutiny
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Starring: Fred MacMurray, Humphrey Bogart, Tom Tully
A Navy courtroom drama that will surprise some not used to seeing Humphrey Bogart playing anything but a hard-boiled private detective. This is a sold, effective film that basically made A Few Good Men possible-consider this the source code for the Tom Cruise film, but know that it’s definitely a product of its’ 1950s era.
Bogart shines as a Navy Captain who may or may not be starting to crack under pressure; how his subordinates dealt with the situation makes for a good look at the nuances of leadership and what it takes to lead. By today’s standards the film may seem a little slow, but it’s definitely worth a watch. Dramatic, but not grim and featuring strong performances by the entire cast.