Military Movies to Appreciate or Avoid

By Mark Cantrell 

Most moviegoers who saw The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow's fictionalized account of an explosive ordnance disposal team in Iraq, found it to be a gripping, suspenseful combat movie. The film won six Oscars, including best director for Bigelow, the first woman to win that award, and widely was praised for its depiction of modern warfare. But those accolades came mainly from the civilian press; combat veterans weren't nearly as complimentary.

The inaccuracies, according to veterans, were almost too numerous to count. The main character wears the wrong uniform, goes AWOL and yet somehow makes it back on base with no consequences, and consumes alcohol in a war zone, just to name a few gaffes. But do inaccuracies in military movies really matter? Yes, say veterans, because motion pictures play a large part in forming civilian perceptions of the military. We asked a panel of servicemembers for their favorite and least favorite military-themed movies.

The best

As a 38-year veteran who served in many capacities, including command of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, USA (Ret), is most impressed by films that accurately depict the challenges of effective leadership. Saving Private Ryan tops his list due to its “phenomenal” characterization of what it's like to be part of an offensive, the moral dilemmas soldiers face every day in combat, and the link between soldiers on the battlefield and leaders' requirements at higher levels.

Navy veteran Lindsay McKenna, who served in Vietnam and now writes military romance novels (, gives big props to Zero Dark Thirty, calling it “gritty and real” in its portrayal of what the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) refers to as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” She also notes that the film shows the female CIA analysts behind the scenes and how important they were to the process of finding bin Laden. “Rock it out, ladies!” McKenna adds.

Most people think of Casablanca as a love story, but Gen. Charles Dunlap, USAF (Ret), selects the classic film as his top war movie. Filmed in 1942, when an Allied victory was far from certain, the film became an act of defiance to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. “The scene of Czech patriot Victor Laszlo (played by Paul Henreid) leading the singing of 'La Marseillaise' that drowns out the drinking songs of German officers in Rick's Café Américainmay be the most eye-watering of all of moviedom's war films,” says Dunlap.

Capt. Dale Dye, USMC (Ret), puts The Caine Mutiny at the top of his list, calling it “just a gem of a movie” with some of the most well-developed and factually portrayed military characters. “Every time I watch it,” he says, “I find myself thinking about some of the demented or just plain bad leaders I encountered in uniform.”

The worst

Dye, whose company Warriors Inc. advises movie production companies on military matters, disdains The Boys in Company C: “The concept - or conceit - in the plot of this film just pisses me off,” he says. “So, a Marine rifle company in Vietnam is promised they can avoid combat if they just manage to win a soccer game? Even my friend R. Lee Ermey's participation couldn't save this stinker.”

McKenna has no love for the Rambo series, especially the original. “It was so inaccurate it's embarrassing,” she says. “The treatment of Vietnam POWs is still an open wound for many of us, and this movie was just plain disrespectful of their sacrifices and the torture they endured. Sylvester Stallone should have stayed with his Rocky movies - at least theywere realistic.”

Hertling lumps movies such as RamboKelley's HeroesInglourious Basterds, and Full Metal Jacket into the same category: “All the same genre, made by bad directors who know nothing about the military or true conflict,” he says. While Hertling acknowledges the films are considered classics by some, he says they don't challenge the viewer “and we need to be challenged when we watch war films.” He mentions Apocalypse Now, which starts with a good premise and then expands that view to the absurd, distorting the way Americans view the military.

Dunlap's sole choice for worst war movie is Starship Troopers. The 1959 science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein on which the movie is based was a studious work that touched on the moral and philosophical implications of war. “The filmmakers took a very important and thoughtful book and turned it into a trashy teen movie,” says Dunlap.

Mixed Results

Some movies appear on both our panels' best and worst lists. McKenna is fond of Pearl Harbor because her parents were there during the attack. “My father was a P01 pharmacist's mate at the hospital, and my mother was a civilian working on Ford Island,” she says. “She woke up that Sunday morning to bullets going through her bedroom as a Zero strafed the street. The movie, while a love story, shows the horror experienced by those at the hospital trying to take care of the wounded during the attack. It was very real.”

Dye focuses more on the film's many departures from the real story. “The main problem with this overblown and badly acted bomb (pun intended) is that is has very little to do with Pearl Harbor, or any other significant event during World War II for that matter,” he says. “The film is so riddled with military inaccuracies and credibility gaffes that it's almost impossible for me to watch.”

There is one thing most servicemember movie buffs agree on: If Hollywood directors want to show what military life is really like, all they have to do is ask a servicemember.

The Panel's Picks

Dunlap Dye McKenna Hertling
Casablanca The Caine Mutiny Zero Dark Thirty Saving Private Ryan
The Great Escape From Here to Eternity Das Boot Gettysburg
12 O'Clock High Patton Act of Valor Patton
Breaker Morant The Sand Pebbles Pearl Harbor Courage Under Fire
The Deer Hunter The Steel Helmet Lone Survivor Black Hawk Down
Starship Troopers The Boys in Company C Rambo The Hurt Locker
  Dead Presidents Top Gun Lone Survivor
  Pearl Harbor Red Dawn Apocalypse Now
  U-571 The Green Berets Fury
  Windtalkers Apocalypse Now Kelly's Heroes, Inglorious Basterds, Rambo, Full Metal Jacket