War is a terrible, awe-inspiring monster that’s fascinated filmmakers almost as long as movies have existed. The valor displayed by everyday people and the atrocities visited on our fellow man are all captured in equal measure by war films. It’s a duality that goes to the very core of what it means to be a person. By and large, though, war movies have a tendency to go for scale - or some political message - rather than an accurate portrayal of conflict, and veterans notice. That's a shame, too, because accurate war movies are some of the most fascinating, beautiful films we have.
When done correctly, the very worst parts of humanity can be exalted into some of the most thought-provoking art in the world. Disguising the real terror of war behind a veneer of Hollywood sheen is a disservice to the real men and women who weather the storm in the service of a higher good. The tension of the danger, the brotherhood forged in the thick of battle, the lives laid down to save strangers, even the alienation felt by returning soldiers - they’re all great dramatic fodder in the hands of a talented artist. Here are Hollywood’s most accurate war movies.
When Stanley Kubrick began working on 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, he didn’t want to make an anti-war movie - as so many other directors do. Kubrick wanted to make a film that accurately depicted war. And by all accounts, the legendary filmmaker hit the nail on the head from beginning to end.
Though recent changes in boot camp policy have made the experience slightly less jarring than the training sequences filmed in Full Metal Jacket, at the time they were shown, the constant insults and borderline-savage treatment suffered by recruits was spot-on. Actor R. Lee Ermey was even brought on board because of his extensive military experience as a drill instructor. What’s more, historical experts have also pointed to the film’s near-perfect portrayal of Vietcong tactics and politics.
Actors: Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Adam Baldwin, Matthew Modine, Dorian Harewood, + more
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Based on the story of the 54th Massachusetts, Glory tells the story of Robert Gould Shaw, a privileged young soldier who’s put in command of one of the first all-black regiments commissioned during the Civil War. The narrative is a haunting portrayal of the Civil War, with cringe-inducing scenes that focus on the brutality of the combat and the almost certain death involved in a trip to the field hospital. What’s more, the story is pieced together from Shaw’s own letters written while in command of his regiment.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a single war film that gets everything correct, and though Glory has its share of inaccuracies, everything is in the service of creating a fully-formed picture of the world in which Glory takes place. The result is a powerful film that righteously made the careers of such luminaries as Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington.
Actors: Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, Andre Braugher, Cary Elwes, + more
Directed by: Edward Zwick
A covert mission in Afghanistan leads to disaster when four Navy SEALs are faced with the brute force of a Taliban attack squad in Lone Survivor. Though the spectacle in the film might seem like the stuff of Hollywood glitz, with rare exception, Lone Survivor gets it right.
The men did have to jump down cliffs to escape gun fire. Mike Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch) gave his life to radio for backup. One of the rescue helicopters was shot down on approach. And Marcus Luttrell was saved only through the grace of a village of people who believed that it was proper to not only help loners, but to save them from their enemies.
Actors: Mark Wahlberg, Eric Bana, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, + more
Directed by: Peter Berg
There are two movies called Stalingrad: one a tragic masterpiece from Germany released in 1993, one an over-the-top heroic spectacle film from Russia released in 2013. The German film has been called one of the most accurate war films ever for its attention to detail and focus on the subjective perspectives of soldiers.
In its opening battle, Stalingrad goes from violent images to piles of corpses and vignettes of panicking soldiers unsure of how to behave in the face of mechanized brutality. It calls to the mind the final battle in Saving Private Ryan. The film continues its close focus on the experience of soldiers, and the surreal savagery happening around them, examining survivor's guilt and the lack of valor and heroism on the part of civilians conscripted into military service.
Stalingrad has also been praised for the accuracy with which it recreated the environment of the titular city during the battle, and the ingenuity of choosing to depict soldiers on the losing side of a battle, whose stories often go untold. It features a vast array of accurate period weaponry.
Actors: Thomas Kretschmann, Sylvester Groth, Dana Vávrová, Martin Benrath, Dominique Horwitz, + more
Directed by: Joseph Vilsmaier