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.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
The Mel Gibson-directed film We Were Soldiers is strikingly accurate in its portrayal of 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 clash in Vietnam 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.
- Actors: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein
- Released: 2002
- Directed by: Randall Wallace
- Photo: Sony Pictures Releasing
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.
- Actors: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner
- Released: 2001
- Directed by: Ridley Scott
- Photo: DreamWorks Distribution
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.
- Actors: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel
- Released: 1998
- Directed by: Steven Spielberg
- Photo: Warner Bros.
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: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood
- Released: 1987
- Directed by: Stanley Kubrick