Hanging over the desk in my office is one of my most valued possessions: a painting by artist William Phillips, “First Boots on the Ground,” depicting the air assault of Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore’s 1-7 Cavalry into LZ X-Ray on November 14, 1965. What became known as the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley left an indelible mark on those who fought there, and Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway shared the story with the rest of the world in their 1992 book, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. I still remember vividly the impression that book left on me, and the painting hanging above my desk is a constant reminder.
So, in 2002, as I sat in Wilson Theater on Fort Campbell for an early screening of Randall Wallace’s film, We Were Soldiers, I had high hopes. For the most part, I felt like the movie stayed true to the book, but then toward the end, it devolved into the Vietnam War’s version of The Patriot. If you can suspend belief long enough to endure the ending, both are good war movies. But they fall short of what I would consider a great war movie.
Hollywood loves to tell a war story. They can tell a good war story, or they can tell a war story good. Those tend to be on opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum. On one end, you find an Oscar darling like The Hurt Locker: a great war story so dissociated from reality that the only scene that resonates with veterans of the Forever Wars takes place in a cereal aisle. On the other end, you find war documentaries so brutally accurate that they trigger a deeply emotional response from all five people who paid to watch it in a theater.
Just the Good – Not the Bad Or the Ugly War Movies
Striking a balance between those extremes is a challenge for any filmmaker, which is probably why it’s so much easier to point out the bad war movies than to agree on the best ones. Iconic films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, and All Quiet on the Western Front are rarities for a reason. They were able to strike that balance, becoming timeless classics in the process. A balance—fortunately for us—that hasn’t proved totally elusive during the past two decades.
Band of Brothers.
The late Stephen Ambrose remains one of the greatest historical storytellers of our time. Adapting one of his books to the screen—large or small—is a monumental undertaking. But that’s exactly what Tom Hanks did in 2001. But the story of Easy Company was too big for a film, so it debuted as an HBO miniseries, weaving in first person accounts throughout the episodes. The end result was something truly remarkable; from Toccoa to the Eagle’s Nest, Band of Brothers is storytelling at its very best.
A documentary that sits firmly on the “tell a story good” end of the spectrum, Restrepo is a “year in the life” film that recounts the 15-month deployment of an American infantry platoon into the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in May 2007. Brilliantly told by journalists Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington, Restrepo is a stark reminder of just how inhospitable a remote combat outpost can be.
What Christopher Nolan did with Inception and The Dark Knight series, he does with the story of the evacuation of British forces from mainland Europe in June 1940. Pulling together three separate narratives and weaving them tightly around the subtly accelerating ticking of a clock, Dunkirk grabs your attention and doesn’t let go again until the final credits roll. If you’re even half-human, the slowly building tension won’t exhale until the very end.
Black Hawk Down.
The memories of Mark Bowden’s 1999 bestseller about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu were still fresh in my mind when Ridley Scott’s film version debuted two years later. The movie was so good, so powerful, that I stayed in my seat—like a lot of others in the theater that day—as the closing credits rolled. From the acting, to the directing, to the film score, Black Hawk Down is the gold standard for contemporary war movies.
Master and Commander.
The film version of the first of Patrick O’Brian’s series of 21 nautical historical novels was already over a decade old before I finally sat down to watch it. Once the final credits rolled, I knew I needed to read the entire series. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the story of H.M.S. Surprise’s pursuit of the French privateer The Acheron is a masterpiece. Above and below decks, the story is infectious: the nobility of service, the loneliness of the sea, and the camaraderie of shipmates.
Letters from Iwo Jima.
The sequel to Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima does something rare in filmmaking—it puts a human face on the enemy. Clint Eastwood is a masterful storyteller, and he deftly paints a human portrait of a desperate and hopeless defense. Everything about this film works perfectly, from the writing, to the directing, to the producing. Watch it once, and it is absolutely unforgettable.
There’s no good way to tell the story of the 2003 invasion of Iraq in a two-hour film, so why try? With Generation Kill, HBO used 470 minutes over seven episodes to bring Evan Wright’s 2004 book about the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion to the small screen. The result is profane, shocking, heartbreaking, and wholly genuine. The characters are immediately recognizable—every military organization has a “Captain America” or an “Encino Man”—and the interaction among them is a trip down memory lane.
Of the various films on the war in Afghanistan, only The Outpost approaches the brutal reality of Restrepo. Documenting the events surrounding the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh in the remote Hindu Kush mountains, the film tells the story of the desperate defense of Combat Outpost Keating that resulted in Medals of Honor for two American personnel. Based on Jake Tapper’s bestselling book, the movie underscores the harsh, lonely conditions of war on the Afghan frontier.
Drawn from personal war stories told to Director Sam Mendes by his grandfather, 1917 takes place after German forces have retreated to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich. The film follows two British soldiers tasked to warn another headquarters to call off a doomed attack and quickly becomes a classic war epic. Shot to appear as one continuous scene, 1917 is another film in which audiences left feeling like they hadn’t breathed in two hours.
Until you’ve had to personally stand before a family member and deliver the tragic news of a loved one’s death, you can’t truly appreciate just how much war sucks. The Messenger might be a forgettable film if not for the grim reality of the task of casualty notification. It’s a thankless task, one that cuts deep into the soul. This is a grim movie, one that is uncomfortable at every turn. And darkly realistic.
Bonus Round: Honorable Mentions
In no certain order, some of the more noteworthy films of the past two decades that didn’t make the cut: Inglorious Basterds, The Siege of Jadotville, Fury, Hotel Rwanda, and everyone’s favorite source of Hitler memes, Downfall. And, because no one can get enough of Tom Cruise’s sick dance moves, Tropic Thunder.