Films have been covering the military and veterans pretty much since the very beginning of the medium, and while hundreds of great movies have been made about wars, conflicts, and battles, many don't do a great job of detailing the true lives of American veterans. More often than not, a veteran isn't the main focus of war films - it's the conflict that gets the top billing in most movies of the genre. Every now and again, though, a movie comes along that truly details the accomplishments of these brave men and women.
That's not to say every soldier, sailor, airman, or marine depicted on the screen is a hero, but for the characters who are played particularly well, it hardly matters. What does matter is that these men and women (whether they are real people, completely fictional, or an amalgamation of several historical figures) sacrificed to fight for what they thought was right. When Hollywood gets these depictions right, the movies stand apart as masterpieces of the genre.
The following depictions of veterans in film are some of the best.
- Photo: Columbia/Revolution
The Battle of Mogadishu was one of the worst firefights the United States Army endured between the two wars in Iraq. The battle involved just 160 soldiers who were sent into Mogadishu, Somalia, to capture Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the self-proclaimed leader of Somalia. The planned operation was supposed to take one hour, but due to the downing of a helicopter, several troops were stuck behind enemy lines and bogged down. The ensuing battle for survival turned into a rescue mission. Ultimately, 18 soldiers were killed, 73 were wounded, and one was captured. That battle was described in a book, and ultimately, the film Black Hawk Down.
The film follows Staff Sergeant Matthew Eversmann, who is given his first command of Ranger Chalk Four when his lieutenant suffers a seizure and is unable to go on the mission. He and his men get stuck in the city after the Black Hawk helicopter Super Six-One is shot down by an RPG. Shortly after this, another Black Hawk helicopter, Super Six-Four, is shot down in the same manner. Eversmann manages to keep his men together while fighting off the thousands of militia that continuously engage them.
Josh Hartnett's portrayal of Eversmann stays true to the book and the soldier himself, who survived the conflict. He eventually went on to complete 20 years of service and retired as a First Sergeant. The movie's depiction of the events may have been embellished and modified for cinematic purposes, but the portrayal of the Army Rangers and Delta Force troops were honorably and respectfully done. Black Hawk Down was a critical success, having won two Academy Awards for best film editing and sound mixing at the 74th Academy Awards.
- Photo: Paramount
There are tons of soldiers in Saving Private Ryan, and the title itself refers to one specifically. Despite the plethora of troops involved in the film, the one who receives the most attention is Tom Hanks' Captain John H. Miller, the commander of the squad of Army Rangers sent to find the titular private. Hanks' portrayal of a schoolteacher thrust into combat is one of the best portrayals of a junior officer in all of film. He follows a noble pursuit, doesn't question his orders despite the fact that they are dangerous and unusual, and when he and his squad finally locate Private Ryan, they don't extract him immediately. Instead, he commands the remaining troops to hold off an offensive so they can protect a bridge.
Hanks' Captain Miller isn't simply a soldier on a battlefield - he's a real human being, and while he leads from the front (as all leaders should), he still suffers from the same difficulties any man on the front lines experiences. His hands shake from time to time, which is a symptom of his body's reaction to the stresses he's undergone in combat. Despite this, he doesn't show any weakness to his men. By the end of the film, his sacrifice ties together the entire storyline, which begins and ends in a veteran's cemetery in France.
Saving Private Ryan is one of the most realistic portrayals of combat ever filmed, and while that adds to the visceral nature of the story, it caused some problems for veterans of actual combat. The VA set up a nationwide toll-free hotline for vets to call in if they felt unsettled after watching the film. At the time, the VA issued a statement that said, "Counselors at VA medical facilities have been asked to prepare to assist veterans who experience emotional trauma as a result of the movie."
The film is a fictional account, but it's based on the story of the Niland brothers, four siblings who served during WWII. Saving Private Ryan was nominated for an impressive 11 Oscars at the 71st Academy Awards. While Hanks was nominated for best actor (his third nomination), that wasn't one of the awards the movie took home. It ended up winning best film editing, cinematography, sound, and sound effects editing, while Steven Spielberg took home his second win for best director.
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Heartbreak Ridge is a fictional story inspired by real-life events related to the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. The title comes from the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in the Korean War, in which Gunnery Sergeant Highway took part and received the Medal of Honor for his actions. Now a much older man who is facing mandatory retirement, the grizzled USMC Korean War veteran is tasked with training a new generation of recruits. They prove much easier to deal with than Highway's new operations officer, an Annapolis graduate who believes he knows more than the MoH recipient training his Marines.
When it comes time for the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit to deploy for the invasion of Grenada, Highway and his men are dropped by helicopter into the water and advance on the beach. They engage in several firefights, and after their radioman is killed, the unit's lieutenant comes up with a plan to use a payphone to make a long-distance call to Camp Lejeune for air support. The trick works, and eventually, Highway leads his men to victory.
Clint Eastwood has never had a hard time portraying a member of the United States Armed Forces, which likely stems from his own time as a soldier during the Korean War, though he didn't serve in the conflict. The film was inspired by the real-life account of Marines using a payphone to call for air support in Grenada, but it's otherwise a fictional story. Eastwood's performance was true-to-life, and the film went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for best sound.
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket tells the story of James T. "Joker" Davis from his entry into basic training at Parris Island, SC, to his time serving in Vietnam. When the film begins, he is a private who garners the attention of his drill instructor by uttering the phrase, "Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?" After this, he's branded "Joker" for the remainder of the film. During basic training, he is put in a position to help and watch over another private who is constantly picked on. That recruit ultimately kills himself and the drill instructor, closing out the first half of the film.
The next scene takes place in Vietnam, where Joker is exposed to the brutality of war. He and his fellow Marines find themselves pinned down by a sniper. After losing several men, Joker manages to shoot the enemy. When it turns out to be a young girl, the horror of war is palpable. Joker maintains a stance on the duality of humankind by wearing a "peace" symbol on his jacket, while his helmet sports the phrase "Born to Kill." That duality is expressed throughout the film, and thanks to Matthew Modine's incredible portrayal of Joker, it's conveyed through his expressions and actions in a way only Kubrick could direct.
Full Metal Jacket is a fictional account of the Tet Offensive, which was a series of battles that took place in early 1968. It was based on the book The Short-Timers, which was adapted by Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford, who wrote the book. The film received a single Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay, and was chosen by the American Film Institute as the 95th choice in their "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills" list.