Nothing makes a war movie pop like its soundtrack. Films that are scored by famous composers stay with us forever. Hans Zimmer did “Black Hawk Down,” “Saving Private Ryan,” was scored by John Williams, and of course, the most famous war film score ever, Maurice Jarre’s work for the WWI epic “Lawrence of Arabia.”
But not every war movie needs to be scored. There are a few movies where a well-placed pop song is an epic use of screen time. When a director uses a “needle drop,” it can push the scene into something unforgettable.
1. “What A Wonderful World” from “Good Morning Vietnam”
In a movie full of great music and memorable scenes, how do you even choose the most poignant? Barry Levinson’s 1987 film juxtaposes Louis Armstrong’s classic song with imagery of the men fighting the war, the civilians caught in the middle, and the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime.
2. “Danger Zone” from “Top Gun”
No opening sequence starts a movie better than the song that keeps Kenny Loggins in the money to this day. The Navy even used this movie as recruiting tool, with a full 90 percent of applicants reporting that they’d seen “Top Gun” the year it came out.
3. “The End” from “Apocalypse Now”
Did I say “Top Gun” has the best opening scene song? It has to compete with the first shots of “Apocalypse Now,” featuring the Doors’ “The End”.
4. “Tracks of My Tears” from “Platoon”
Charlie Sheen gives us a stark vision of his future, jamming with his friends to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ 1965 hit, smoking all manner of things while knocking back a few beers. This scene is just as iconic as the Sgt. Elias death scene or the end of the movie, where Sheen’s character looks back on his tour.
5. “Surfin’ Bird” from “Full Metal Jacket”
Sure there are many great musical moments in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 classic Vietnam War film. “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs playing when Joker and Rafterman meet Animal Mother is the start of something beautiful, not to mention the other iconic music scene that bridges the basic training and war sequences.
The Trashmen’s 1963 song “Surfin’ Bird” dominates as the Americans push the NVA back from Hué City.
6. “Do Wah Diddy” from “Stripes”
I think the YouTube commenter Brian Buchanan said it best about this scene from the Bill Murray and Harold Ramis comedy “Stripes” — “Funny scene, but these two morons would be doing push up ’til they died.”
7. “Dream Lover” from “Hot Shots”
Yeah, “Hot Shots” isn’t a real war movie in the sense that anything really happened but you can say that about “The Hurt Locker” too. Even so, I’ll never forget when Topper Harley sees Ramada Rodham Hayman for the first time.
“I was really impressed with the way you handled that stallion. You know, when I saw you dig your heels into his sides, tighten up the reigns, and break his spirit, I never wanted to be a horse so much in my life.”
8. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” from “Top Gun”
If this movie and Kenny Loggins prompted a bunch of people to join the Navy, I wonder how many late-80s women had to put up with guys singing to them in bars until the fall of Communism.
9. “Sgt. Mackenzie” from “We Were Soldiers”
While not technically a pop song, this song was written about the singer’s grandfather’s service in WWI and is undeniably awesome. Awesome. Awesome.