The 16 best military movies of all time
From realistic portrayals of combat to comedic satire of thermonuclear warfare, some military-themed movies are a cut above the rest.
Since WATM is headquartered in Hollywood, California and run by military veterans, it makes sense that we would put together a ranking of the best military movies of all time. Whether they include great stories, very quotable lines, intense combat (or all of the above), these 16 movies are what we’d pick as the best military movies.
16. Jarhead (2005)
Plot: Based on former Marine Anthony Swofford’s best-selling 2003 book about his pre-Desert Storm experiences in Saudi Arabia and about his experiences fighting in Kuwait.
Reason to watch: While the main character is a less-than-stellar Marine who often gets in trouble, this film shines in realistically depicting infantry life. The camaraderie, the dumb games, and the sheer boredom grunts experience when they are in a combat zone but not seeing combat is what makes this worth watching.
15. Catch-22 (1970)
Plot: B-25 navigator stationed in North Africa during World War II wrestles with the tragedy, irony, and hypocrisy that surrounds him as the minimum mission requirement continues to rise.
Reason to watch: Early SNL alum Buck Henry adapted Joseph Heller’s classic WW2 novel for an American public that was at odds over the Vietnam War, evidence that it took nearly a decade and a half for the themes to resonate. In spite of the fact that parts of the story are over-the-top, the movie (and even more so the book) are prescriptive. Anyone who’s ever spent any time around the Air Force will recognize the personalities: Careerist buffoons, obtuse general officers, opportunistic (albeit very entrepreneurial) junior officers as well as the folks who are just trying to get the job done without going crazy are all here.
14. Tigerland (2000)
Plot: A group of recruits go through Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana’s infamous Tigerland, last stop before Vietnam for tens of thousands of young men in 1971.
Reason to watch: Colin Farrell gives a wonderful performance as Pvt. Roland Bozz, a misfit draftee soldier who spends most of his Army career getting into trouble. Set during the Vietnam war in 1971, the film is unique in that it never takes the viewer to Vietnam. Instead, the plot follows along with the training of young soldiers before they go overseas, and offers realistic portrayals of soldiers from Bozz, to the idealistic Pvt. Paxton (played by Matthew Davis), to the brutal instructor of Staff Sgt. Thomas (played by James McDonald).
13. Taking Chance (2009)
Plot: Based on real-life events, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a volunteer military escort officer, accompanies the body of 19-year-old Marine Chance Phelps back to his hometown of Dubois, Wyoming.
Reason to watch: While most military movies focus on battle scenes, “Taking Chance” focuses on the part often overlooked: What happens when troops lose their lives in combat. As people in the military know, the belongings are packed and shipped, the body is taken to Dover, and an escort brings them to their final resting place. Actor Kevin Bacon does a superb job of depicting the real-life story of one such escort duty, for Pfc. Chance Phelps.
12. A Few Good Men (1992)
Plot: Neo military lawyer Kaffee defends Marines accused of murder; they contend they were acting under orders.
Reason to watch: It’s a great courtroom drama which explores the question of what is a legal order. When two junior Marines are told to carry out a hazing ritual by their commander, should they have followed it? That’s what a court-martial is to decide, which ultimately ends in an epic shouting match between Navy Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessup (played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson).
11. Patton (1970)
Plot: The World War II phase of the career of the controversial American general, George S. Patton.
Reason to watch: George C. Scott gives a masterful portrayal of the controversial Army general during World War II. The opening speech alone is worth watching, with Patton giving a rousing speech to troops that opens with the line, “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
10. To Hell and Back (1955)
Plot: The true WWII story of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in U.S. history. Based on the autobiography of Audie Murphy who stars as himself in the film.
Reason to watch: Instead of settling for actors trying to recreate battlefield heroics, why not watch the real-life soldier do it? That’s what you’ll see in “To Hell and Back,” the film that follows the life of Audie Murphy, the most-decorated soldier of World War II. Murphy stars as himself in this film, which kicked off a 21-year acting career after his Army service.
9. Das Boot (1981)
Plot: The claustrophobic world of a WWII German U-boat; boredom, filth, and sheer terror.
Reason to watch: Nominated for six Oscars, Wolfgang Petersen’s masterpiece film gives a rare look at the fight from the other side during World War II. Tasked with fighting the “Battle of the Atlantic,” the life of a German U-Boat crew is shown in depth here, with an especially brilliant portrayal of the ship’s captain by Jurgen Prochnow.
8. Platoon (1986)
Plot: A young recruit in Vietnam faces a moral crisis when confronted with the horrors of war and the duality of man.
Reason to watch: Told from the perspective of Chris Taylor (played by Charlie Sheen), “Platoon” gives an inside look at what it was like for a grunt on the ground in Vietnam. Besides showing infantry life and all its hardships, the film also boasts incredible performances from Willem Dafoe as Sgt. Elias, and Tom Berenger as Staff Sgt. Barnes. It’s also worth noting that this film had an extra level of realism to it, with its director (Oliver Stone) and military technical advisor (Dale Dye) both having served in Vietnam.
7. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Plot: A young soldier faces profound disillusionment in the soul-destroying horror of World War I.
Reason to watch: Based on the classic book by Erich Maria Remarque, this masterpiece explores the extreme stress, discomfort, and horrors of war that soldiers faced fighting in the trenches of World War I. The film is on many “best film” lists, especially considering its realistic portrayal of warfare. In perhaps the most chilling scene of the movie, the main character of Paul stabs a French soldier, only to find himself trapped in the same hole with him as he dies.
“Why do they never tell us that you are just poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying, and the same agony,” he says. “Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”
6. Flags of our Fathers (2006)
Plot: The life stories of the six men who raised the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima, a turning point in WWII.
Reason to watch: While most people have seen the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima, many don’t know the flag raising happened just days into the battle, when it was not yet clear when the Japanese would be defeated. Three of the six flag raisers would be killed later in the battle, while the remaining three would be brought back to the U.S. to help raise war bonds. This film, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells that story. (You should also check out Eastwood’s telling of the Japanese side, in “Letters from Iwo Jima”).
5. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Plot: An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop.
Reason to watch: While Director Stanley Kubrick offers a hilarious and brutal satire of Cold War tensions, he also provides plenty of insight into political and military leaders and their thinking at the time. This one was years ahead of its time, and it also has some great B-52 crew coordination scenes.
“Mandrake, have you ever seen a Commie drink water?”
4. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Plot: 123 elite U.S. soldiers drop into Somalia to capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord and find themselves in a desperate battle with a large force of heavily-armed Somalis.
Reason to watch: Based on the book by journalist Mark Bowden (which is an absolute must-read), “Black Hawk Down” details the failed attempt to capture a Somali warlord — an operation that should have lasted 15 minutes — that unfortunately does not go according to plan. After two helicopters are shot down, soldiers are shown reacting and adapting to the changing events, often in heroic fashion. From depicting soldiers preparing for a mission, how they respond to irregular warfare, and the actions of Medal of Honor recipients Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, this film is a must-see.
3. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Plot: A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the U.S.-Vietnam War has on his fellow recruits from their brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue.
Reason to watch: “Full Metal Jacket” is really two films in one, with act one depicting a realistic look at Vietnam-era boot camp, and act two showing life for Marines in the battle of Hue City. The performance Marines love — and can perfectly quote — comes from R. Lee Ermey, who plays Drill Instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, a seemingly never ending source of great zingers.
2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Plot: Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.
Reason to watch: Just the first ten minutes with the film’s incredible depiction of the Normandy landings on D-Day in 1944 make this a must-watch. After this sequence, however, there is plenty to stick around for: Tom Hanks wonderful portrayal of Capt. Miller, the banter of soldiers as they search the French countryside, and the heroic “last stand” at a bridge the troops need to keep the Germans away from.
1. We Were Soldiers (2002)
Plot: The story of the first major battle of the American phase of the Vietnam War and the soldiers on both sides that fought it.
Reason to watch: Mel Gibson brilliantly portrays then-Lt. Col. Hal Moore as he leads his unit in the first major battle of the Vietnam war. But there are so many great performances in this film (based on the book “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young”) which opens by saying that “every damn Hollywood movie got it wrong.” From the portrayal of the gruff combat veteran Sgt. Maj. Plumley and pilot and Medal of Honor recipient Bruce Crandall, to the hardship endured at home by the Army wives, this film gets it right.
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