War Movies About Wars You Don't Know Anything About

Voting Rules
Vote up the best movies that shed light on lesser-known conflicts.

War movies are both popular and common, but they tend to deal with the same small batch of wars. World War I, World War II, the Civil War, Vietnam, and the Iran/Afghanistan conflicts have all been the basis for numerous films. Many of those films have been great, a few even earning recognition as all-time classics. These wars are frequent cinematic fare because people are familiar with them, so there's a natural interest level.

Of course, there have been many, many other wars over the centuries. Although historically important, the average person doesn't know as much about them as, say, WWII. The following movies are all about wars you've likely heard of, yet probably couldn't explain in much detail if asked. And that's okay - history is vast! How integral the war is to the stories can vary, as does the degree of historical accuracy. Nevertheless, each of them puts a lesser-known war into the spotlight for a few hours.

Photo: The Quiet American / Miramax Films

  • The Somali Civil War began in 1991 when President Siad Barre was overthrown. That left the country without anyone to run it, opening the door for various warlords and nationalist groups to compete for control. This, in turn, created a massive humanitarian crisis that the United States took part in trying to address. The country provided food and supplies to the citizens, while simultaneously attempting to help establish a stable government. During this time, Somali forces shot down three Black Hawk helicopters, leaving the surviving soldiers trapped inside hostile territory where they were under constant attack.

    Those events are dramatically depicted in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, based on the meticulously detailed non-fiction book by Mark Bowden. Much of the film is an extended action sequence showing the soldiers struggling to stay alive. For the most part, it's true to the facts of the incident, although as a movie, it understandably needs to condense certain things. Scott also stages the action in nail-biting ways intended to excite viewers. In other words, Black Hawk Down provides a good general sense of the Battle of Somalia, but does so in a cinematic manner far different than what the brave men who were in that situation faced. 

    351 votes

    Available On:


  • Michael Mann is best known for making intense modern-day crime-themed films like Manhunter, Collateral, and Heat. In 1992, he took a detour from that territory to direct The Last of the Mohicans, based on the classic James Fenimore Cooper novel you were probably forced to read in high school. The story is set during the French and Indian War, which began with a debate over whom the Ohio River valley belonged to, then expanded into who would control different frontier regions. The French Empire was on one side, the British Empire on the other. 

    Daniel Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye, a half-white/half-Native man. He attempts to rescue the daughters of a British colonel, one of whom, Cora (Madeleine Stowe), he falls in love with. This act puts him right in the middle of the raging conflict, which he, his father, and his brother have taken pains to stay out of. The movie is as much a love story as a historical drama, with the French and Indian War providing a backdrop that continually threatens the ability of Hawkeye and Cora to be together. However, Mann does take pains to depict the time period with authenticity.

    302 votes

    Available On:


  • Russell Crowe stars in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a 2003 Peter Weir-directed drama. He's “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a famous and respected captain in the British Navy. His ship is patrolling the coast of Brazil in search of a French war vessel that must be stopped in order to keep the Napoleonic Wars from spreading. The movie is notable not just for Crowe's stirring performance, but also for the intense sea battles Weir stages. Viewers get a good visualization of what that must have been like.

    The Napoleonic Wars stretched on for well over a decade, as the French Empire, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, took on a series of European states in an effort to gain increasing dominance. It ended with the famous Battle of Waterloo, during which Napoleon's army was soundly defeated, leading to his permanent exile. Master and Commander takes place in 1805, the time in which France took on the Third Coalition, comprised of the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and others. Jack Aubrey is part of the Royal Navy, the UK's sea-faring force, and his efforts to find the French ship make him part of that coalition. The film is a mash-up of three Patrick O'Brian novels. Interestingly, The Far Side of the World, the one its story most closely resembles, takes place much later, during the War of 1812. 

    267 votes

    Available On:


  • Clint Eastwood made a lot of Westerns and a lot of cop movies. For an actor with a macho persona, it's somewhat surprising that he didn't make more war movies. He did, however, star in 1986's Heartbreak Ridge. The story revolves around the Invasion of Grenada, a 1983 event during which president Ronald Reagan, concerned about the safety of Americans in that country after Marxists killed the Prime Minister and took control, sent more than 1,000 troops in. Within mere days, Grenada was occupied. 

    Eastwood plays Marine Sgt. Thomas Highway, an about-to-retire veteran assigned to prepare a unit of recruits for the invasion. Much of the movie is character-based, with the gruff Highway trying to whip the men into shape, especially wiseguy Cpl. Stitch Jones (Mario Van Peebles). Hints of humor are found in the way Eastwood plays his famous no-nonsense persona to the hilt in dealing with the others. Later in the picture, we see the men carrying out the formal invasion. Heartbreak Ridge is a bit of a quirky war movie, although that seems appropriate for such a short-lived military action. 

    223 votes

    Available On:

  • The Killing Fields was one of the best-reviewed films of 1984. It's based on the true story of Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), a reporter for the New York Times on the ground covering the Cambodian Civil War. John Malkovich co-stars as Al Rockoff, a photojournalist, and Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, an interpreter who helps them. As the country's situation grows increasingly less stable, Schanberg attempts to help Pran and his family flee, only to have his newfound friend decline, saying he prefers to stay and help get the important reporting out to the world.

    The movie was praised for its effective dramatization of the war, which was a clash between the Communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge and the Kingdom of Cambodia. Because the Khmer Rouge grew so quickly, it was able to create a significant amount of destruction that had the effect of forcing massive numbers of civilians to be displaced. Severe atrocities were commonplace. The Killing Fields captures the horror an American journalist feels in seeing what's going on, in addition to driving home how vital reporting is during such events. 

    Notably, Haing S. Ngor was a doctor who had never acted before making the movie. He hid his profession from the Khmer Rouge, as they had a known bias against intellectuals and professionals. Ngor and his wife additionally spent time in a concentration camp, where she died in childbirth. Because of these factors, his performance in the film is full of passion and dedication. He won the Academy Award for best supporting actor

    153 votes

    Available On:

  • Doctor Zhivago is the 1965 drama about Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and his intense, years-long romance with Lara Guishar (Julie Christie). It transpires against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War, a conflict between the Bolshevik government and forces that were opposed to it and its leader, Vladimir Lenin. Lenin's side was dubbed the Red Army, whereas their opponents were referred to as the White Army, or the whites. The conflict caused turmoil in Russia for several years.

    Directed by David Lean, the film is considered a classic, thanks to its scope, as well as its marriage between the intensity of the war and the intimacy of the central romance. Running a hefty three hours and 17 minutes, Doctor Zhivago takes the time to create a tender, detailed relationship between Yuri and Lara, showing how their union grows and develops. Simultaneously, it gives clear indication of how the turbulence taking place inside Russia impacts them. Some critics accused the movie of portraying the Russian Civil War in a way that benefitted the characters more than actual history, but most agreed that the epic story, superb cinematography, and first-rate performances make it worthwhile. 

    163 votes