Perfect Pieces of War: Movies That Got Military Service Right

Nobody who hasn’t served in the military (and I have not) knows what service is really like. Nobody who hasn’t fought in war knows what combat is really like. (Though military men generally report that Rudyard Kipling is the one civilian who got closest on both counts.) For the rest of us, a book, film, or TV series is the closest we’ll ever come to having some dim understanding of what military service — in war or peace — means.

But which ones get it right? Which movies came nearest to the unattainable ideal? Military vet. John Renehan, writing for Word & Film, argues that no one movie gets everything right, but that certain movies absolutely nail specific pieces of the experience of war:

To be in the armed services is to spend time in a parallel universe that leaves its stamp on you permanently, whether you were in for three years or twenty. […] No movie gets all of it right, but some of them get little parts of it perfect.

Best Depiction of Boot Camp: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Best Depiction of Boot Camp: Full Metal Jacket (1987) “An obvious choice, sure, but it hasn’t been topped. [R. Lee] Ermey did something that no one had tried before: He took the timeworn, fundamentally ridiculous role of the screaming drill instructor and played it with a straight face instead of as a cartoon caricature. He understood that drill sergeants are regular sergeants playing a character, and he played his character that way. The result was funny and terrifying and totally convincing.”

Best Soldiers: Black Hawk Down (2001)

Best Soldiers: Black Hawk Down (2001) “[T]he only modern war movie I can think of in which the American soldiers seem like soldiers, not like actors trying too hard to ‘do soldier.’ Single best example: the two young Rangers covering a lonely street corner who realize that the convoy has left them behind and belatedly debate among themselves what to do, finally making their bickering way across the city to safety. ‘Humvees ain’t coming back, dude.’ That’s soldiers.”

Perfect Moment of Dark Military Humor: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Perfect Moment of Dark Military Humor: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) This movie perfectly captured “the dry, black sense of humor military people develop in order to cope with the scary, dangerous, and generally absurd situations they routinely find themselves in. As the Navy SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty are flying through the night in overloaded, barely airworthy helicopters on their way to Usama bin Laden’s compound, one operator looks at the others and shouts, ‘How many of us have been in a helicopter crash?’ Everyone in the copter raises his hand, and the guy nods his head with false optimism. ‘So we’re good!’ he shouts. That’s military humor right there.”

Writers, directors, and actors who haven’t served can’t really know what it’s like to serve. But biographies, first-hand accounts, and well-informed technical advisors can make sure your fiction feels as much like fact as possible. In the end, it’s a matter of respect: respect for the audience and respect for the long line of veterans who’ve come before.

Renehan lists six other movies that exactly nailed specific pieces of military service, including the Best War Film Ever Made. You can read them all At The Link!

12 thoughts on “Perfect Pieces of War: Movies That Got Military Service Right

  1. For me, one of the truest military moments I’ve seen was in Act of Valor. Two Navy seals are standing on a carrier deck, talking about what they are going to do after the job is over–even though the job they’re going to will involve firefights and people killing and being killed. But the truth of it was that most soldiers, even Seals, see what they do as a job, and they all look forward to their time off.

  2. ““[T]he only modern war movie I can think of in which the American soldiers seem like soldiers, not like actors trying too hard to ‘do soldier.’”

    Try ‘Act of Valor’…it has actual soldiers acting like actual soldiers.

  3. George MacDonald Fraser, who served as an enlisted infantryman in combat and postwar as an officer in a Highland Regiment, once wrote that Shakespeare got it dead on in Henry V. He recounted a conversation with his sergeant, who was convinced that Shakespeare had served and had seen combat because of that play.

  4. R Lee Ermey got it right because he WAS a drill instructor. You are correct, D.I.’s play a role, but everything that rang true with Ermey was based on having done it in real life… with confidence and over the top bravado… just like real D.I.’s do. I guess your focus was on relatively modern stuff, but there are several WWII movies where they go a lot of it right on.

  5. Agree with SGTYork about Act of Valor what they did in the movie only could come from actually training for thousands of hours which an actor could never hope to duplicate. Maybe it doesn’t ‘count’ per se as they were actual SEALS?

  6. Best Movie that showed the relationship between the “officers” and the “rankers”: Master and Commander. Whoever did the writing for that movie really nailed it when it came to the incompetent and hesitant midshipman that the crew despised.

    It is still that way today and I saw it many times in the helicopter community. Nothing drives enlisted men crazier than a weak officer who refuses to make a firm decision on his own.

  7. For me it was Tears of the Sun. Not only were the tactics they used legit (especially that break from contact at the end) it also showed a lot of the frustration when dealing with having to sit and watch terrible things happen and not being allowed to do anything about them.

  8. While not a fan of the general message per se, my father who fought in the Pacific in WWII told me that the battle/jungle scenes in Platoon were very much like what his unit experienced in the Philippeans. Minus all the infighting and squabbling. They were much more focused on the enemy without (IJA) rather than within.

  9. Twelve O’Clock High: The way a CO that likes his troops too much burns out
    The one thing I never see in any movie is the perpetual card game:Hearts, Spades, Poker, something was always going on

  10. The vast majority of the extras in BHD were Rangers (375 RGR RGT). Many of them from B. CO, the company which did the fighting on 3-4 OCT 1993. Some even had speaking roles.

  11. ‘So we’re good!’

    I was laughing. My wife says what’s so funny? I tell her the story.

    She still wants to know what’s funny.

  12. I think the TV series M.A.S.H. showed the day-to-day life of the military very well in all its forms. I served in the Navy during peacetime on the first combat ship in Hawaii to be retro-fitted to take on female sailers. The absolute boredom and the crazy shenanigens that service people cook up to pass the time was captured beautifully in the TV series. And of course, there are the personal relationships which developed between the sexes when you put them on a boat and sent them out to sea…

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