I love a good war movie. Who doesn’t enjoy a grand epic like Lawrence of Arabia or an action-packed biopic like Patton? Films like A Bridge Too Far and Black Hawk Down left us sitting on the edges of our seats, never quite ready for the final credits to roll across the screen. Others, such as The Longest Day and The Deer Hunter, left indelible memories in their wake. Find me a good war movie, and I can watch it again and again, soaking in ever minute.
There’s just something about a really good war movie. And to be honest, really bad ones, too. I remember vividly sitting in an empty movie theater at Half Moon Bay in Saudi Arabia in 1991 to watch a screening of Navy SEALs, the closest thing to R&R you could find during the Gulf War. After weeks of an M-M-M ration cycle, the thought of watching a good war movie with a cheeseburger and fries was pretty exciting. Except it wasn’t good. It was bad. Really bad. I’m talkin’ to you, Charlie Sheen.
Legendary Bad War Movies
Those movies—the really bad ones—are the stuff of legend. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t get annoyed when they see someone on screen doing something no one in uniform would ever do or wearing the uniform—or awards—incorrectly. That’s bad enough. But when you add in poor acting, worse writing, and indifferent directing, you have a recipe for a bad movie that just can’t be topped.
The list of bad war movies is long. A lot of people hate The Green Berets, but I like John Wayne, even in a bad movie. Iron Eagle was just… bad. There’s no way around it. Fire Birds set a standard for bad Nicolas Cage movies. What the Moonies did with Inchon was beyond bad. But Hollywood just keeps pushing out bad war movies with no end in sight. So, what are the worst war movies of the last twenty years? And, more importantly, what makes them so, so bad?
John Woo’s 2002 film was loosely based on the role of Navajo code talkers in World War II. The operative term is “loosely.” And by “loosely” I mean not even close to reality. Here’s a hint: don’t try to tell a Native American war story through the eyes of a fictional white guy. See also: “Nicolas Cage war movies.”
Oliver Stone’s 2004 biopic on Alexander the Great was anything but great. Too long, too slow, and too boring. Fans who expected an epic in the vein of Gladiator were instead treated to an epic flop. When released, the movie spanned 175 minutes of sheer boredom. Not satisfied, Stone later released an even more boring “Ultimate Cut” that came in at 207 minutes. On the upside, this is a great film if you suffer from narcolepsy.
The Hurt Locker
So, how does a film that won six Oscars make this list? Inaccuracies. Lots of them. During a 2019 episode of the Bombshell podcast, I summarized the problem with films like The Hurt Locker: “Hollywood can tell a good story, or it can tell a story good. But it can’t do both.” The Hurt Locker is a great human drama. But, as war movies go, it’s a hot mess.
“Wolverines!!” Sorry, wrong version. The 2012 remake of everyone’s favorite Cold War alternate history film was noteworthy only for being nominated for the Golden Raspberry for “Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-off, or Sequel.” To be fair, that was the high point for the movie.
If The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity had an ugly war baby, it would look like Redacted. The idea with a “found footage” film is that the realism of the footage pulls the audience into the movie; nothing could be further from the truth with Redacted. The source material to make a meaningful film was there—read Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts—but the movie itself is so bad, it’s actually physically painful to watch.
I was really looking forward to Pearl Harbor. I mean, the source material to make an epic war film is there in spades. But somehow, Michael Bay managed to take all of that and produce a three-hour, historically inaccurate war movie centered on a weird love triangle. It’s so bad that it was nominated for more Golden Raspberries than other awards combined.
I devoured Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a phenomenal book that was supposed to be the foundation of Green Zone. Then I watched the movie. Let’s just say that the best thing about Green Zone is that it only lost $6 million at the box office.
The premise of Stealth reads like a bad Silver Age comic book origin story. A robot fighter plane is struck by lightning, becomes self-aware, and eventually develops feelings. So, what starts out as an AI-based Top Gun rip-off just goes from bad to worse. This film has a 12% on Rotten Tomatoes. It takes a special kind of bad to achieve a score that low. In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “Stink. Stank. Stunk.”
Technically, Aloha isn’t really a war movie. It’s a romantic comedy. About the Air Force. With Emma Stone playing an uptight Asian woman—to be fair, a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese—who also happens to be a “hard nosed fighter pilot.” Add in an awkward love triangle, and you’re well on your way to a really bad war movie. What is it about love triangles in contemporary war films? Now I need to go back and re-watch Zero Dark Thirty.
True confession time: I’ve watched Battleship more than once. Not because it’s good, but because it’s so awesomely bad. So bad, in fact, that director Peter Berg lamented that Lone Survivor—the 2013 film that told the story of Operation Red Wings—allowed him to “buy back his reputation” in the wake of Battleship. The only thing this movie is missing is Steven Seagal jumping out of a cake.