A good war movie can transport the viewer to a different time and place that they could never imagine being in. Many of us are lucky to have never experienced war as it truly is, and seeing a well-done film about war can open our eyes to the victory, defeat, and valor that soldiers experience.
Unfortunately, many war films are over-dramatized and action-packed to appeal to the public. Still, there are some movies that strip away the over-production and show war in its true light. These are some of the most brutal and accurate war films, and they’ll transport you to another world.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Everything from the military tactics used by the squad to the costuming in Saving Private Ryan was nearly perfect. The opening scene that showed the storming of Omaha beach was so accurate that some WWII veterans had to be escorted from theatres after watching it.
We’ll admit though that when it comes to the actual plot of the film, there are some inaccuracies. Tom Hanks’ character never actually existed and the plot of saving a mother’s son never happened. Despite the obvious plot issues, the actual action and facts weaved into the script were incredibly accurate.
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
This 2006 war film is one of the few films out of Hollywood that doesn’t follow an American soldier’s point of view. Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima is a companion piece to the Eastwood film Flags of our Fathers, which follows the same battle but from an American perspective.
Letters From Iwo Jima goes to incredible lengths to show the fearlessness of Japanese soldiers in one of the biggest battles of WWII. The film is based on a book by the Japanese General of the battle and some of his direct quotes are even used in the film.
Glory tells the story of Robert Gould Shaw—a privileged white soldier who is put in command of the second all-black Union regiment during the Civil War. The screenplay was based upon letters from Shaw himself that he wrote while in command of the regiment.
The film not only accurately represents race relations at the time, but even the horrors of war that are hung out for everyone to see. Many scenes in Glory show the brutality of combat and how a trip to the field hospital almost certainly resulted in death.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
In 1987, Stanley Kubrick set out to make a film about a platoon of U.S. Marines in the Vietnam War that was as accurate as possible. He began conducting research four years before filming by watching past footage of soldiers, reading Vietnamese newspapers, and studying “hundreds of photographs.” It all came together with Full Metal Jacket.
While the costuming and action scenes were already accurate, they were boosted by the experience actor R. Lee Ermey brought to the film. Ermey was a drill instructor during the Vietnam War who was supposed to be a technical advisor but asked to audition for the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.
We Were Soldiers (2002)
We Were Soldiers is set throughout the three-day Battle of la Drang during the Vietnam War. In particular, it showcases real tactics soldiers used like firing a few rounds of ammunition into a bush to try and flush out enemy soldiers.
Director Randall Wallace set out to make a movie based on a book about the battle written by former U.S. Army General Hal Moore. In the book, Moore complained that “every damn Hollywood movie got it wrong.” Wallace vowed to get it right, and according to Moore, he came pretty close.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Black Hawk Down was based on a non-fiction book by a journalist who was embedded in Somalia when the Battle of Mogadishu happened. While other Hollywood films tend to stylize accounts of war, Black Hawk Down maintains the stripped-down and gritty style. The film expertly showcases the crash of the Black Hawk helicopter and the tactics U.S. soldiers are forced to employ under heavy fire.
While the film tends to ignore the deeper meaning of the story and the politics surrounding the Battle of Mogadishu, it still manages to pay tribute to the soldiers who fought for their lives.
Braveheart isn’t accurate. Yep, we said it. Everything from its blatantly wrong timeline to the use of kilts way before their time, Braveheart is a historically inaccurate mess. One historian remarked how the Battle of Stirling Bridge didn’t even take place on a bridge.
We know there are a lot of people who consider Braveheart to be one of the best movies ever released and we’re not arguing that. All we’re saying is that it left historians in a frenzy. Despite its failings, lead actor and director of the film Mel Gibson said he stands by his decisions to make a “cinematically compelling” story.
Lone Survivor (2013)
Based on the book of the same name, Lone Survivor follows the real-life experience that four Navy SEALs went through while stationed in Afghanistan. The SEALs were put into a life or death scenario after a Taliban attack. While much of the action might seem like it’s dramatized, it all truly did happen.
The SEALs did indeed have to jump down cliffs to escape the Taliban gunfire and Mike Murphy did give his life in order to radio for backup. Even the account of Marcus Luttrell being saved thanks to some friendly villagers is true.
Hamburger Hill (1987)
Hamburger Hill goes largely unnoticed with war films because it was released nine months after Platoon and one month after Full Metal Jacket. Despite the fact it never got a lot of press, the film has gone down for accurately portraying the day-to-day experiences of an average platoon in war. Rather than put the events into a larger frame, the film simply shows the viewer the difficulties of everyday life.
Hamburger Hill is so accurate that they even nailed the “grunt slang” used by the soldiers and had to put in subtitles. One historian also called the battle scenes “as close as you could ask for.”
84C MoPic (1989)
Released in 1989, 84C MoPic (also known as 84 Charlie MoPic) is a mock documentary that follows the view of a cameraman who is assigned to an LRRP team in Vietnam. It is one of the earliest “found footage” types of films and by all accounts is entirely accurate. Everything from the language used by the soldiers to the faulty weaponry and forms of radio communication is historically correct.
One US Army Iraq War veteran praised 84CMoPic because “there are no distracting subplots, only the immediate fight for survival.” Sometimes the independent films are the most accurate.
While the 1970 film was meant to be a black comedy about the trial and terrors of war, it ended up becoming one of the most accurate and culturally significant war pieces. The film depicts a medical unit stationed in the Korean War but the subtext of the film is criticizing the Vietnam War.
Understandably, there were some inaccuracies with the setting and time period but by all accounts, the daily rituals and antics that the MASH unit used to keep themselves sane were remarkably accurate. A film doesn’t need to be a dramatic war epic to be historically accurate.
Come And See (1985)
Come and See is a Soviet film based on the war crimes committed by Nazi soldiers during the occupation of Belarus in WWII. The film follows a young boy as he grows up in occupied territory and experiences Nazi soldiers throwing grenades at houses for fun and other wartime atrocities.
The film culminates with a scene that’s nearly impossible to watch, as Nazi soldiers burn down an entire village and nearly all of its residents. Those who question the accuracy can find chilling photos and videos of Nazis in WWII doing the exact same thing all across Belarus.
Enemy At The Gates (2001)
This 2001 film also depicts the Battle of Stalingrad but this time, from the Soviet perspective. Enemy at the Gates excels at showcasing the conditions that soldiers and residents of the city had to deal with during the long winter of 1942-43. The film also notably included the perspective of the female soldiers and residents who contributed to the Soviet’s success.
While the film was based on a non-fiction book, it still added plenty of Hollywood drama by including a romantic love story half-way through.
Sergeant York (1941)
One of the oldest films on this list, Sergeant York was released in 1941 and depicts the path of real life WW1 soldier Alvin York. York is one of the most decorated soldiers of WWI after killing 25 German soldiers and capturing 132. The film follows York’s story and was extremely accurate because York was on set to advise.
The film’s accuracy and ability to positively showcase the real horrors of war led to it being the highest-grossing movie of that year. It was also credited to increasing American morale since the U.S. had just entered WWII at the time.
Das Boot (1981)
Das Boot is another German-made film that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war. Set in 1942, the film looks at the crew of a German U-Boat in the Battle for the Atlantic. It portrays a nuanced view of what life was like cooped up in a submarine and remarkably shows the German soldiers struggling to understand the motivations of the Nazi party.
In Germany, Das Boot is considered one of the greatest films about U-Boat service ever made thanks to its realistic and dim portrayal of the characters.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
More than 30 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, American and Japanese filmmakers came together to produce the biographical war drama Tora! Tora! Tora! The film showcases both perspectives of the bombing and used as many historical sets that were available. The film shot scenes of USS destroyers and even recreated an exact model of the aircraft flown by the Japanese.
While the critical reviews for the film weren’t exactly great, Tora! Tora! Tora! has gone down as being so accurate that it is often shown in history classes covering WWII.
Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003)
Set during the height of the Napoleonic Wars in 1805, Master and Commander follows the real-life friendship between a British Royal Navy captain and the ship’s medical surgeon. The film is based on a novel but still includes key historical facts.
While the movie might seem slow-paced, it does a surprising job of accurately showcasing a naval battle in the 19th century. Master and Commander also does a good job at painting a picture of barbaric medical practices as well as the daily life and isolation on a ship.
There are two films titled Stalingrad. One was released in Germany in 1993 and has been called “one of the most accurate war films ever” and one is an over-the-top propaganda film released in Russia in 2013. The one made in Germany is shown through the perspective of its soldiers who dramatically failed after invading the Soviet city.
Stalingrad isn’t shy about including violent scenes of piled-up corpses and images of confused and panicked soldiers. Many people have praised Germany for depicting the losing side of the battle.
Act Of Valor (2012)
While Act of Valor is an entirely fictionalized script about Navy SEALS rescuing a captured CIA agent, the material and action are as accurate as it gets. The filmmakers realized that no actor could really portray or be as physically fit as the characters they wrote, so they employed actual active SEALs to play the lead roles.
If anything, the accuracy in Act of Valor was detrimental. Since they didn’t employ real actors, the acting was seen to be sub-par. Still, its accuracy led one movie critic to suggest the film should be considered a “hybrid of documentary and fiction.”
The Great Escape (1963)
One of the most iconic war films in Hollywood is also one of the most accurate. While historical accuracy wasn’t exactly praised at the time that didn’t stop The Great Escape from staying true to the time period and characters. Many of the characters were composites of real people, it was shot in authentic German settings, and there was indeed a tunnel dug to escape.
The movie does paint a more Americanized picture of the escape. The escape was largely planned by British and Canadian personnel, and the three escapees were actually Norwegian and Dutch.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
The 2006 war film is an adapted version of a documentary. It is based on the true story of a German-American pilot, Dieter Dengler, who was captured during the Vietnam War. The film follows Dengler as he is captured, tortured, imprisoned, and eventually escapes.
Rescue Dawn was praised for the lengths it went to in order to portray the day-in-day-out suffering in the camp. The film does change minor facts like Dengler’s accent and the number of men imprisoned in the camp. It also understates some of the worst torture experienced by Dengler, likely in order to receive a PG-13 rating.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, and none other than Jon Bon Jovi, U-571 is supposed to tell the heroic tale of U.S. soldiers capturing an Enigma coding machine from a German submarine in WW2. The only problem is, that never happened.
Well, it did, but it was British soldiers from the HMS Bulldog who did it. And they did it months before the U.S. had even entered the war. Thanks to the glaring inaccuracy, the film endured a lot of criticism for the U.S. downplaying the role of the Allied forces in WW2.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jarhead won tons of award for its portrayal of the psychological struggles that U.S. troops went through in the first Gulf War. Despite its success, many ex-Marines spoke out against their portrayal in the film. One Marine said that the physical and mental abuse was “rare and taken out of context.”
Jarhead was so controversial that even the Marine Corps office of Public Affairs released an official statement saying that the portrayal of the Marines was “inaccurate” and not a “reasonable interpretation of military life.”
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Where do we even start with Pearl Harbor? Directed by Michael Bay, this film about one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil strayed way too much for reality. First off, the focus is on a love story and the Pearl Harbor attacks are more like a plot device. Not only is the plot inaccurate, but Bay used modern ships instead of disguising them for the time period. And yes, because it was Michael Bay, there were way too many explosions.
It may have had an all-star cast including Ben Affleck, Jon Voight, and Alec Baldwin but Pearl Harbor was so bad when it came to accuracy that it won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture.
Windtalkers had the potential to be really good. It was one of the first films to highlight the importance of the Navajo code talkers in WW2 and how imperative they were to the U.S. keeping their secrets out of enemy hands. Unfortunately, it ended up being a movie about the very white character played by Nicolas Cage protecting a Navajo code talker and it was riddled with inaccuracies.
Film critic Roger Ebert blasted the film for putting the Navajo in a supporting role and for hiding the actual dialogue behind “battlefrield cliches.”
Alexander was supposed to be Oliver Stone’s biggest and best war and history epic. He set out to make a film about one of history’s most prolific warriors. Instead, we got a watered-down version of history that relied on the biggest names in Hollywood at the time.
When it comes down to inaccuracies, Stone passed over anything he could to focus on the romance. Major wars were skipped entirely like they were no big deal, and sometimes an entire decade-long war was presented as a single battle.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
The critics can’t seem to agree about Kathryn Bigelow’s film about an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in the Iraq War. On the one hand, critics have called the film intelligent and that it showed a different side of men actually taking pleasure in war.
On the other hand, veterans of EOD teams have said the actual way the team completes their missions is completely absurd. Some even said the film made it seem like EOD teams are “adrenaline junkies with no self-discipline.” Whether the film is completely accurate or not, it’s still gone down as one of the best war films in history.
Red Tails (2012)
Red Tails centers on the Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first African-American fighter squadron is the U.S. military and served in WW2. Much like Windtalkers, Red Tails had the potential to be an excellent representation of a WW2 squadron that doesn’t get much recognition. Instead, it got white-washed and ended up seeming patronizing.
All the exploits in the film are fictionalized but shown in a way to make them seem like the real exploits. One criticism that they couldn’t ignore was that Red Tails showed the unit commander at a desk job when in reality he flew many bombing raids.
Ridley Scott tried really, really hard to make his epic film about the Roman empire accurate. Before he even began work on Gladiator, Scott hired a team of historians to help write the script. He made changes along the way through which led some of the team members to quit.
Some glaring inaccuracies include the “fantasy helmets” worn by the soldiers in the film or the fact that Commodus never actually murdered his father, which is the main plot point that kicks off the film.
The Patriot (2000)
Another Mel Gibson movie, another film filled with historical inaccuracies. The biggest inaccuracy from Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot is the main character himself. Benjamin Martin is supposed to be a noble everyday man who fights for both the Crown, then for America in the Revolutionary War.
The real person Martin was based on, Francis Marion, was a brutal slave owner. Not only did the film fail to mention that but it also completely disregarded slavery as a whole which many critics called a “complete whitewashing of history.”
The Green Berets (1968)
This Vietnam War epic is based on the 1965 fictional book by Robin Moore. The plot features John Wayne asana anti-Communist, pro-Vietnam War fighter. The film was produced at a time when anti-Vietnam War sentiment was rampant. Because of this, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave the film crew full cooperation of the U.S. military for filming.
Despite their full cooperation, The Green Berets still failed with historical accuracy. Many critics felt that the film tried to depict a complex war in the outdated “cowboys and Indians” form.
Set during World War 1, Flyboys is about a group of young men who become fighter pilots and end up in aerial dogfights in France. While each character is based on a real person from the Lafayette Flying Crops squadron, the actual military techniques and equipment are highly inaccurate.
For example, the aircrafts used in filming weren’t available at any time during the first World War. They also painted the planes red to differentiate them from other background planes, but that would have never happened in real life.
The Battle Of The Bulge (1965)
Made in 1965, this Warner Bros. film was meant to be an interpretation of the famous 1945 WW2 Battle of the Bulge. The biggest inaccuracy of the film comes from the tanks. Aside from the fact the tanks and equipment of the Allied and Axis forces are wrong, the maneuvers are also entirely incorrect.
In many of the battle scenes, the tanks advance over flat terrain that isn’t snow covered and it’s a beautiful sunny day. In reality, they were advancing through the Ardennes forest and the terrain was very difficult.
One of the latest epic war films walked away with tons of awards and also was generally well received by critics when it came to historical accuracy. Unfortunately, there were some glaring problems that not even Christopher Nolan could avoid.
Kenneth Branagh’s character, in particular, was criticized for being a composite character. It was hard for many people to believe that Branagh could direct the evacuation by himself simply by standing on the edge of a ship. Dunkirk also left out the imperative role of the French, African, and Indian soldiers.
Starring Laurence Olivier as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Inchon is meant to depict the Battle of Inchon, which was believed to be the turning point in the Korean War. While there were high hopes for the film (considering it received $30 million in funding) it fell flat after a series of unfortunate events.
We’re talking bad producing, bad acting, and at one point even using cardboard cut-outs as extras. People even went so far as to call the film a worse version of The Green Berets. Yikes.
The Last Samurai (2003)
While many critics called The Last Samurai “good intentioned” the story of a U.S. regiment captain who helped Westernize the Japanese samurai forces in the 19th century falls flat historically. While the costumes and dialogue are surprisingly accurate, the plot line isn’t.
For example, at one point Tom Cruise’s character teaches the Japanese how to shoot muskets but at the time, the Japanese would have already been well-versed shooting rifles. The film also portrayed the samurai as noblemen fighting for “the greater good” when in reality, they were more like the American mafia.
If you want to know just how bad this American Revolution War film really is, it prompted Al Pachino to quit acting for four years. The plot essentially follows a fur trapper who unwillingly gets tangled up in the Revolutionary War when his son becomes a drummer boy.
The film not only had terrible dialogue and character development but it botched all historical accuracy when it came to the war. The costumes, geography, and plot are inaccurate and filled with cliches. They even messed up the details of the Battle of Yorktown.
The Red Baron (1971)
Also titled Von Richthofen and Brown, this 1971 film focuses on the conflict between two fighter pilots in WW1 who face off against each other. While the film uses the real names and biographies of people who were involved, the rest is entirely fictionalized and—qutie honestly—butchered.
Thanks to a small budget and a bad script, The Red Baron wasn’t able to show off the aerial accuracy it was trying present. To make things worse, someone actually died while shooting the film.
The Finest Hour (1991)
This 1991 film is set during the Gulf War but probably would have done better if they’d gone away with anything war-related. The plot centers around two Navy SEALs who are best friends but after a woman comes between them, “it takes a war to bring them back together.”
Understandably, many people criticized the film for making light of the Gulf War and following a terrible cliche. Because the movie cares more about the romance than the war, nearly every military detail is inaccurate. On the bright side, it features Rob Lowe in a ridiculous mustache.
Green Zone (2010)
Based on a 2006 non-fiction book, Green Zone depicts the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Matt Damon plays U.S. Army Chief Roy Miller who is in charge of figuring out what information is real and what is fake. The problem is the film takes a real account and makes it sound like a conspiracy theory.
What it comes to accuracy, many critics believe that Green Zone used action to hide the failings in the script. Since they were so focused on the action they didn’t make the costumes and action realistic.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
What would a list of war movies be without a mention of 1979’s Apocalypse Now? Produced, directed, and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, the film has an all-star cast including Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, and more. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness but set during the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now is noted for the extensive problems that plagued filming.
Despite all the setbacks, the movie is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 52nd Academy Awards.
Platoon, released in 1986, is the first film of a trilogy of Vietnam War films directed by Oliver Stone. It follows Charlie Sheen as a U.S. Army volunteer serving in Vietnam.
The film received much critical acclaim for the realistic battle sequences as well as for Stone’s directing and screenplay. Many Vietnam Veterans have said that watching Platoon was like reliving the war. In 1998, the American Film Institute placed Platoon at #83 in their “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies” poll.
Cross Of Iron (1977)
Set on the Eastern Front during WWII, Cross of Iron is a war film directed by Sam Peckinpah and featuring James Coburn, James Mason, Maximilian Schell, and David Warner. It highlights the class conflict between an aristocratic Prussian officer who want to win the Iron Cross and a cynical infantry NCO.
The Guardian rated it a B+ for historical accuracy, saying, “Cross of Iron is an atmospheric, unflinching tale of the German retreat, though its sedate pace holds it back from greatness.”
To Hell And Back (1955)
A Technicolor film released in 1955, To Hell and Back stars Audie Murphy as himself, covering his time as a soldier during WWII. Murphy was one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II.
The New York Times praised the movie upon its release. “Gallantry has been glorified more dramatically on film previously but Mr. Murphy, who still seems to be the shy, serious tenderfoot rather than a titan among G. I. heroes, lends stature, credibility and dignity to an autobiography that would be routine and hackneyed without him.”
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
Upon the release of All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930, Variety described it this way: “A harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness that Universal’s ‘Western Front’ becomes at once a money picture.”
The epic pre-Code anti-war film set in WWI was directed by Lewis Milestone and stars Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Ben Alexander, John Wray, and Arnold Lucy. The highly-acclaimed film was the first to win the Academy Awards for both Outstanding Production and Best Director.
Friendly Persuasion (1956)
Starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Richard Eyer, Robert Middleton, and Phyllis Love and adapted from the 1945 novel of the same name, Friendly Persuasion was released to critical acclaim in 1956.
The movie follows a Southern Indiana Quaker family during the American Civil War and highlights the way that the conflict tested their anti-war beliefs. It was among the “Top Ten Films” at the 1956 National Board of Review Awards.
The Longest Day (1962)
Based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction book of the same name, The Longest Day is a 1962 American epic war film covering the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The film’s large international ensemble cast included many cast members that had seen action as servicemen during the war. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck and the movie’s three directors also employed several Axis and Allied military consultants for the movie, which won two Academy Awards and was nominated for three more.
Directed by American screenwriter Cy Endfield, 1964’s Zulu introduces the actor Michael Caine in his first major role. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War.
The film is largely praised for its accuracy, with Endfield even consulting a Zulu tribal historian for information about the attack. Zulu’s legacy has endured; In 2017, critics for Time Out magazine ranked it the 93rd best British film ever.
Stalag 17 (1953)
Stalag 17 is a 1953 comedy-drama war film that follows a group of American airmen being held in a German World War II POW camp and depicts what happens when they begin to suspect that one of their own members is an informant.
It was produced and directed by Billy Wilder, who (along with Edwin Blum) adapted it from the Broadway play of the same name. He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for the film. World War II magazine wrote that “The success of Stalag 17 largely turns on Billy Wilder’s genius in balancing drama, comedy, and realism. Ultimately it is realism that wins out.”
Merrill’s Mauraders (1962)
Released in 1962, Merrill’s Marauders is based on the nonfiction book The Marauders, written by Charlton Ogburn, Jr., and follows the exploits of a long-range penetration jungle warfare unit in the WWII Burma campaign. It stars Jeff Chandler as Frank Merrill, which ended up being his final role.
Directed and co-written by Samuel Fuller, an Army Veteran, and filmed on location in the Philippines, Merrill’s Mauraders received critical acclaim as well as financial success.