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12 Things That War Movies Actually Get Right

List Rules
Vote up the surprisingly real details from actual warfare that make their way into the movies.

War movies are infamous for taking creative liberties with their action sequences and characterizations. However, there are some war movies, in whole or in parts, that manage to actually get it right. These more realistic war movies rely on research and first-person accounts to shape their narratives, whether they center around being deployed, seeing combat, or grappling with PTSD as a veteran. This doesn't only apply to straightforward war dramas: Some sci-fi and fantasy films do a much better job than expected depicting the ins and outs of warfare.

War movies are also infamous for their many tropes: the tight-knight unit, the fight-or-flight moments, the elaborately adorned generals, and the big-muscled heroes. It turns out that some of these cliches are actually grounded in reality, and the surprising anecdotes from history below prove, yet again, the truth is just as compelling as the fiction it inspires.

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  • There Are Spies Right Under The Enemy's Nose
    Photo: Inglourious Basterds / The Weinstein Company
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    237 VOTES

    There Are Spies Right Under The Enemy's Nose

    The Trope: Spies and moles manage to infiltrate the highest enemy ranks.

    Well, Actually: Spies really are as fearless as they act in movies. The prime example dates back to the Civil War, when a formerly enslaved Black woman named Mary Bowser managed to infiltrate the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Bowser, with the help of a sneaky abolitionist named Elizabeth Van Lew, posed as a servant in order to become a main fixture in Davis's White House.

    Since no one would suspect an enslaved woman to be at the center of an espionage plot, Bowser was able to obtain key intelligence, which she then passed onto the Union Army via Van Lew. Bowser's information proved vital in helping the Union ultimately win the Civil War. She spent decades afterward traveling the country and sharing stories of her exploits.

    Notable Films: The Hunt for Red OctoberInglourious BasterdsTinker Tailor Soldier Spy 

    237 votes
  • Unlikely Alliances Are Formed
    Photo: Glory / TriStar Pictures
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    282 VOTES

    Unlikely Alliances Are Formed

    The Trope: Those caught up in war do whatever it takes to protect themselves and others, even establishing otherwise inconceivable partnerships.

    Well, Actually: This trope adds emotional resonance to war films, but it is very grounded in reality. In the final months of WWII, American and German soldiers forged an unexpected bond and worked together to rescue French prisoners in Austria. These French POWs, who were being held at Schloss Itter, a sub-unit of the Dachau concentration camp, included some of the country's most important politicians and diplomats.

    A German Wehrmacht officer named Josef Gangl covertly met with the closest American unit, which was led by Capt. Jack Lee. With the help of American soldiers and one of their tanks, Gangl was able to defend the castle against the SS officers who wanted to destroy it and dispatch everyone inside. Gangl didn't survive the battle, but his actions saved many lives.

    Notable Films: Schindler's ListGlory

    282 votes
  • People Make Incredible Sacrifices
    Photo: Saving Private Ryan / DreamWorks Pictures
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    202 VOTES

    People Make Incredible Sacrifices

    The Trope: Both soldiers and civilians put themselves in harm's way in order to do what's best for the greater good during a war.

    Well, Actually: The concept of sacrifice is foundational to war movies. While this leads to overlooking the barbarity that can unravel on the battlefield, it's true people make incredible sacrifices during wartime. In 1941, Germans besieged Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, a bustling city with 20 million residents at the time. The siege cut off Russians from food and supplies, leading to mass starvation.

    A group of botanists at the Institute of Plant Industry holed themselves up in the facility in order to protect their most important asset: the largest seed collection in the world. These men knew that future generations of Russians would perish if German soldiers or starving residents gained access to their seed vault. They even refused to eat the seeds themselves, and they perished from hunger one by one.

    While these plant scientists starved, the man responsible for gathering and cultivating these seeds was being held in one of Joseph Stalin's gulags. Nikolai Vavilov took his job very seriously, and his dedication to carefully choosing the best seeds caused the impatient Stalin to imprison him. Like the men who protected the fruits of his labor at all costs, Vavilov also perished from starvation while in the gulag.

    Notable Films: Saving Private RyanSchindler's ListFury

    202 votes
  • There's Always Someone With Unconventional Weapons
    Photo: Predator / 20th Century Fox
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    301 VOTES

    There's Always Someone With Unconventional Weapons

    The Trope: At least one person shows up on the ground with big, bulky, and customized artillery.

    Well, Actually: In Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch gives the alien hunting him a run for its money. From assault rifles modified with grenade launchers to torque bows with exploding arrows, these artillery choices are about as Hollywood as action-packed war movies get. That being said, a British soldier nicknamed "Mad Jack" set the standard for real-life unconventional weaponry long before Dutch in WWII.

    Lt. Col. John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill landed with the rest of the British No. 3 Commando battalion on Vågsøy Island, Norway, just before New Year's Day 1942. After blasting the set of bagpipes he carried with him, Mad Jack threw a grenade at the Nazis occupying the island and ran straight into the fray with a large sword, screaming at the top of his lungs.

    What was his sword of choice? The claymore, a medieval Scottish behemoth. Prior to this display, the British commando applied unique guerilla tactics to his campaigns all over Europe. During the Dunkirk rescue in 1940, Mad Jack became famous for his use of a longbow. He may still hold the record for the most recent soldier to successfully use one in battle. 

    Notable Films: Predator, Overlord

    301 votes
  • Enemies Become Friends
    Photo: Captain America: Civil War / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
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    286 VOTES

    Enemies Become Friends

    The Trope: Rivalry transforms into camaraderie in the midst of battle.

    Well, Actually: "About two minutes before bombs away, immediately in front of us, I saw what appeared to be fantastically beautiful black orchids with vivid crimson centers," American B-17 bomber pilot Charlie Brown later recalled about his December 20, 1943, mission targeting a German aircraft plant near Bremen. Before he knew it, Brown and his men were being bombarded by German fighters and cannons from the ground.

    Brown instructed everyone to retreat toward Britain, but he sensed the end was nigh when he spotted a black German Messerschmitt 109 night fighter approaching him. Instead of attacking, the plane's pilot nodded at the Allied pilots, saluted, and drove away. Brown survived, and it wasn't until 1990 that he discovered the identity of the man who spared his life: Franz Stigler.

    Stigler, an ace pilot, noticed how damaged the Allied planes were, and he felt obligated to give them the chance to reach safety. "You follow the rules of war for you - not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity," Stigler later acknowledged. The two men remained close friends until they both passed in 2008.

    Notable Films: Captain America: The Winter SoldierX-Men: Days of Future Past

    286 votes
  • The One Thing That Is Not Supposed To Happen Always Happens
    Photo: The Hurt Locker / Summit Entertainment
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    179 VOTES

    The One Thing That Is Not Supposed To Happen Always Happens

    The Trope: Unexpected disasters or explosions loom around every corner.

    Well, Actually: No matter how much research, intelligence-gathering, or planning goes into expeditions, one truth of war is to expect the unexpected. During WWI, the British Royal Navy acquired the Carmania, one of the first transatlantic liners equipped with turbines. In September 1914, the Carmania, painted gray and modified into a warship, arrived off the coast of Brazil near Trindade Island. 

    On a mission to flush out German vessels near the island, the Carmania crossed paths with the German warship Cap Trafalgar. By some bizarre twist of fate, the Cap Trafalgar had been altered to look like a pre-war version of the Carmania. What the Germans hoped would make the vessel blend in had the exact opposite effect, and the Carmania decimated its replica.

    Notable Films: Zero Dark Thirty, Black Hawk DownStarship Troopers

    179 votes