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 violent 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 war. 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.
There are some huge historical inaccuracies in the plot of Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks’s character didn’t exist. Neither did Private Ryan himself. Also, most of the battles depicted in the film and the mission to save the last son of a bereaved mother never happened (because it would have been a waste of valuable resources).
That said, director Steven Spielberg wove in an incredible amount of historical fact into the narrative thread. The small squad’s tactics, the military garb, and the soldiers’ dynamic were all spot on. What’s more, the film’s assaultive opening scene — a recreation of the storming of Omaha beach on D-Day — was so accurate that WWII veterans had to be escorted from theaters after witnessing the footage.
In 2006, a Clint Eastwood film called Flags of our Fathers was supposed to get all the Oscar acclaim… then, it was completely overshadowed by Eastwood’s other World War II film from the same year, Letters from Iwo Jima, a remarkably accurate portrayal of one of the fiercest confrontations of the war.
Told from the Japanese perspective, Iwo Jima goes to great lengths to show the fearlessness of the Japanese soldiers and the thoughtful, brilliant man at head of the army. Played by Ken Watanabe, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is shown with such reverence that even his real life quotes are incorporated into the movie.
The Mel Gibson-directed film We Were Soldiers is strikingly accurate (remember, it was directed by Mel Gibson) in its portrayal of the muddled mess that was the Vietnam War. It's set over the course of the Battle of la Drang, a three-day conflict in November of 1965 that was the largest battle in the Vietnam War at the time. As seen through the eyes of both the combatants and the families they left at home, We Were Soldiers is an exceptionally true-to-life film from top to bottom.
From the tactics used in the field, such as firing a few rounds into a bush to flush out hidden enemy soldiers, to the fact that Sam Elliott’s Sargent Plumley only carried a handgun into battle (because by the time he’d need a rifle there’d be several just lying on the ground) is portrayed with a close eye on history.
One might call Ridley Scott’s exhausting masterpiece Black Hawk Down a stripped-down slice of history. Though it does little to expand on the deeper context of the battle at the center of the movie, its moment-to-moment portrayal of the real-life horror facing the soldiers in Mogadishu is unparalleled in its accuracy.
The crash and subsequent peril faced by the Rangers is filmed with the utmost adherence to history, as are the tactics employed by both field command and the soldiers still suffering under heavy fire. Though it largely foregoes the politics surrounding the battle, the film’s real goal is to pay tribute to the heroes who gave their lives and to the lucky few who came out the other side of the grinder. In that goal, Black Hawk Down is exceptionally successful.