Since the first moment humans picked up sharpened sticks and rocks, the art of war has been an undying phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that the men and women who fight on the front lines have often found themselves immortalized on the printed page, and more recently, the big screen. Whether it’s centuries, decades, or only months-old conflicts being adaptedm, Hollywood has turned wartime heroics – and tragedy – into a standalone genre.
Classics like The Big Red One, adventures films with a sense of humor like The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen, or modern stories based on real accounts like Zero Dark Thirty and Lone Survivor show that there will never be a shortage of source material, but a few military-focused films have distinguished themselves from the pack. Whether based on fact or fiction, here is our list of the 5 Best Military Movies of All Time.
Black Hawk Down
Based on the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in which two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in enemy territory, Black Hawk Down follows the hour-long rescue mission that – thanks to some confusion and enemy ambushes – became an overnight siege. Director Ridley Scott’s recreation of the events gave audiences a front row seat to the intense and relentless firefights, and a heartwrenching look at the camaraderie among soldiers that kept the death from skyrocketing.
The battle may have made headlines at home, but Black Hawk Down showed that valour isn’t just something found in the history books, but every military engagement – and that hearing about combat and seeing it up close are two different things.
The drama that took place behind the camera of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is as well-known as that actually captured on film (star Martin Sheen’s heart attack, and Marlon Brando’s refusal to learn the script, for starters), but it’s the movie’s mission to find a renegade colonel in the midst of the Vietnam War that is most remembered. The film’s story isn’t based on any actual event at all, instead an updated version of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel “Heart of Darkness.”
The Vietnam War serves merely as a backdrop for Coppola’s exploration of the horrors even ‘good’ people are capable of, and which war simply makes real. Despite the hurdles for director and cast, an unforgettable script, a star-studded roster of actors, and Coppola’s breathtaking direction ensured its legacy as not just a memorable war movie, but one of the greatest films ever made, period.
Since writer and director Oliver Stone actually served in the Vietnam War, Platoon is one war film that deserves to be singled out from the rest. Based on real battles and soldiers that Stone witnessed firsthand during his tour, the director’s commitment to realism meant putting his cast through actual military training, even launching surprise night time attacks – complete with staged explosions – to leave the performers as fatigued and weary as he had been during the war.
In the end, the film’s focus not on the entire war or its politics, but a single soldier’s coming-of-age and loss of innocence spoke to an entire generation, guaranteeing Platoon’s place among military dramas seeking realism over spectacle.
Full Metal Jacket
“Vietnam can kill me, but it can’t make me care.” The tagline for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket captures the attitude of this war story perfectly, following a platoon of United States Marines from basic training to the heat of battle overseas. Kubrick’s knack for disturbingly dark humor put the insanity of war in the spotlight, revealing how much damage war can inflict even on those who survive it.
As time passed, and the Vietnam War was viewed through a changing lens, the film’s idea that not every war is glorious – or even rational – was picked up by new generations, offering Full Metal Jacket as a counterpoint to every military film before or since.
Saving Private Ryan
A squad of soldiers heading through World War II-era France to find a single private – the titular Ryan – and send him home may sound like a small story, but Saving Private Ryan is a true epic in every sense of the word. Beginning with a monumental re-enactment of the Omaha Beach assault – using more than 1,000 extras to capture the scale and intensity of the D-Day invasion – the 27-minute long sequence was enough to make director Steven Spielberg’s efforts worthwhile.
What followed was a faithful tale of bravery and sacrifice that earned the movie 11 Oscar nominations and 5 wins, and almost immediately ranked it among the greatest war movies ever made. Re-defining the look of an entire global conflict for years to come, the impact of the film on modern cinema, action film-making, and even video games can never truly be quantified.
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