The other day, a friend asked me what war movies I thought had the most realistic depictions of war and combat. Obviously, no movie is ever going to get war “right.” And anyways how do you define “accurate” for something as huge and complicated as war? Individuals experiences can be wildly different, and their memories of war change over time too so depending on when you ask someone about their experiences in war, you’ll probably get a very different answer. Memory and experience are really interesting topics, but I’ll have to save that for another day.
Anyways, since today is Memorial Day, I figured it couldn’t hurt to post my list online as a helpful resource for anyone looking to watch films and TV shows that I think do a better job than most depicting warfare and the experience of soldiers in major American wars. All photos are taken from Google Image searches of the films. Oh, and nothing here is in any particular order.
–The Crossing (2000)
–Cold Mountain (2003)
-Ken Burn’s “The Civil War” (1990)
UPDATE: Looking back at this post 4 years later, I’ve changed my mind about including Ken Burn’s Civil War Documentary on this list. It certainly has some great information and is presented in a visceral way that sticks with you, but so many historians have raised concerns and after some reflection I agree with them that the history presented in this documentary distorts the realities of the Civil War. Its depictions of combat and military strategy during the war do not hold up to criticism from historians.
The best criticism I’ve read on the documentary’s military history is Gary Gallagher’s 1996 essay “How Familiarity Bred Success: Military Campaigns adn Leaders in Ken Burn’s Civil War,” where he writes: “the Burns approach is an utterly conventional one that leaves the viewer with a skewed sense of the war’s military dimensions.” The essay was published in “Ken Burn’s The Civil War: The Historians Respond” (ed. Robert Toplin) which I highly recommend to anyone looking to learn more. Also recommend Keri Leigh Merrit’s “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary” and Ella Starkman-Hynes’ “A Mistaken Form of Trust: Ken Burns’ The Civil War at Thirty” for more general criticism of the documentary.
World War I
–All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
World War II
–Band of Brothers (2001)
–Saving Private Ryan (1998)
–The Thin Red Line (1998)
–Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)
–Battle of Britain (1969)
–Cross of Iron (1977)
–We Were Soldiers (2002)
–Full Metal Jacket (1987)
–M*A*S*H* (1972-1983) (The 70’s movie is good too but I like the TV show best!)
As a bonus, here are a few American wars books that I really like. Books are usually better than movies!
1776 by David MuCollough, 2005
We Were Soldiers Once…and Young by Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway, 1992
Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin, edited by James Martin, 2012
The “Good” War by Studs Terkel, 1984.
Imperial Grunts by Robert Kaplan, 2005
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, 1895
American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People by T.H. Breen, 2011
Medal of Honor Heroes by Colonel Red Reeder, 1965