The 10 ‘Manliest’ War Movies, picked by a veteran

Ah, when men were men and the sheep ran scared! Esquire recently ran a “10 Manliest War Movies” which I thought was a bit lacking; but it was by a movie critic not a veteran, so forgiveness. I wouldn’t even put The Green Berets in the top 25, and I’m a former Green Beret. Also, maybe I’m more of a realist as you’ll see by perusing my own rather dark list. It’s only my opinion and I’m open to your suggestions as there is not right or wrong in this. I also have some honorable mentions. And my memory isn’t what it used to be as Cool Gus and I go into our gray years. The movies are listed in no particular order

Blackhawk Down: The most recent. Having served with people who were there, this one hits close to home. While some Hollywood elements were thrown in, I really liked Mark Bowden’s book on which it is based. He told both sides of the battle, while the movie really only showed one. Still, it shows the confusion and ferocity of modern warfare. And the bravery of the American soldier. Seriously. Rangers are the finest light infantry in the world.

Saving Private Ryan: The brutal opening shocked people and that’s what should be done. Too many movies glorify combat, when the reality is a messy, bloody, melee of confusion and chaos. Dying soldiers do curse, cry out for their mother, and, most especially, don’t want to die. 

cross-of-iron-posterCross of Iron: Classic. The Eastern Front was unbelievably brutal. Read The Forgotten Soldier just to get a glimpse.

The Odd Angry Shot: Most people have never heard of this movie, a 1979 Australian movie about the SAS in Vietnam (Who Dares Wins!). I found it showed the numbing mundaneness along with the terrifying moments of war. Some of our favorite sayings were: “Hurry up and wait” and “Prepare to prepare”. I throw it in just to have something obscure on the list.

Breaker Morant: Another Australian movie. Must like Paths of Glory (below), it focuses on the waste, the betrayal and the darkness of war. And the politics that kill people. The Boer War was where the concentration camp was invented, by the way. By the British. Just saying.

Zulu: I just had to put this in here. The sound of the Zulu’s in the distance, like a freight train approaching, sends chills down your spine. And the ending, with both sides saluting the other is epic. I write a lot about Shaka Zulu and the way he built his incredible army in my Atlantis series.

Das Boot: Classic. I don’t know how those guys stayed sane on those U-Boats; they mostly didn’t stay alive. They had an unbelievably high casualty rate: 82%. The greatness of humans is we can endure almost anything; that is also our Achilles Heel when that anything is war.

Band of Brothers: Technically not a movie but the mini-series showed the great arc from training, through the end of World War II, from the point of view of the men of Easy Company in the 101st Airborne.

The Pacific was confusing, but perhaps showed the trauma of war more deeply. Most Americans don’t realize that those Marines on Guadalcanal were abandoned for a while and could have been annihilated. And the Navy (my father fought in the Navy in WWII) suffered terrible losses.Do you recognize Mr. Robot?

Letters from Iwo Jima: Yes, the enemy are people too. We want to dehumanize our enemies, but maybe if we all treated each other as people, we wouldn’t be so quick to go to war. Old men and women declare wars and young men and women die in them.

Go Tell the Spartans: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” Burt Lancaster’s character has a costly affair with a superior’s wife and ends up in Vietnam in 1964. It’s downhill from there. 

paths-of-gloryPaths Of Glory: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Stanley Kubrick made this movie and it is devastating about the futility and waste of war. As shattering as Gallipoli.

Honorable Mentions- Ken Burns: The Civil War: Technically not a war movie, but a spectacular mini-series about our bloodiest conflict. It was a West Point war (55 of the 60 major battles had West Pointers commanding both sides) and raises the issue I explore in my Duty, Honor, Country trilogy (by the way, 1st book is free right now): which is more important: Honor or loyalty? I know my answer.

Courage Under Fire—about a brave woman. So not manly? The book was better, because in the book, Denzel Washington’s character was more of a coward in combat, so his investigation was a way for him to try to find out what had been lacking in him that the heroine had.

All Quiet on the Western Front. Classic.

Kelly’s Heroes—the boys loved this movie

Platoon Full Metal Jacket Apocalypse Now—we all want to go a little Kurtz now and then. Seriously—if you’re going to fight a war, you’ve got to go all the way.

Bridge on the River Kwai—just for the whistling. But also how the concept of duty can get perverted. I’d throw King Rat in too.

Dirty Dozen

Catch-22 You think it’s over the top. It’s not really.

The Guns of Navarone Just cause.

Big Red One Lee Marvin made some classic war movies.

A Bridge Too Far—every soldier needs to know this story. I followed the assault path while on Reforger with the 1st Cavalry Division and people still remembered the sacrifice of the Allies. And the Dutch War College did war game the exact operation before the war and concluded it would fail. And the Allies did it anyway.

The Longest Day—a bloated star studded movie (look for Sean Connery in a minor role) but it was the Longest Day. Just read an In Memoriam posting from the West Point Association of Graduates about a West Pointer who was a battalion commander in the 101st and jumped in; and they’ve never found his body. That’s real.

Hurt Locker: Loved the ending. Exactly the way I feel every time I go in the supermarket. Seriously. Ask my wife.

Live, Die, Repeat: The Edge of Tomorrow and Aliens. Just cause. “We’re all gonna die!” “What was he thinking?” Not

Braveheart—spare me. Walked out on it when the guy behind us giggled every time someone’s head got splattered. And I like how Mel Gibson aged faster that she did. And didn’t Scotland just vote against what these guys in skirts fought for?

The Green Berets—John Wayne doesn’t hook up before he jumps. Enough said. This is definitely not a complete list. And I’m lacking some movies about earlier wars.

Drums Along The Mohawk just jumped into my brain. And Last of the Mohicans!

Let’s hear your suggestions and what’s special about them!  

33 Comments

  1. I absolutely LOVE the Last of the Mohicans. It might also have to do that I went to a camp for like 12 years called Camp Chingachgook that is located on Pilot Knob Road in Lake George, NY and much of the Camp’s history is rooted in this history. One of the boats was named Uncas. It was interesting to go to camp there because there was so much Native American History, but we also had a sense of military as we were woken to revelry every morning and sang taps every night before bed. The location of the camp does have an enormous amount of history, and it was talked about at various camp fires and assemblies. Lake George has always kind of been my “safe place” and my most fondest memories are of Camp Chinigachgook and I’ve watched that movie like a million times!

  2. I don’t watch many war movies, and the ones listed in your top 10 I’ve not seen. Guns of Navarone, Kelly’s Heroes, Dirty Dozen, Full Metal Jacket and probably the last 20 mins. of Bridge on the River Kwai (You’re right, should watch just for the whistling, remember playing that song when in high school band — band director was retired Army band director.) is pretty much it except for The Horse Soldiers no telling how many times (hubby is a Duke fan). I read Catch-22 at about age 12 and thought the story was unique — had four uncles and several cousins in WWII in Europe — but have never seen the movie and am not sure the story could be transferred from the book to film to my satisfaction.

    I simply cannot watch war movies. I am too tender-hearted and cannot stand to watch a small force be brutally murdered by a larger force just because it can be done. (I avoid watching most westerns on the same basis.)

    I also believe that the only connection most of the time between a war movie and the actual event is that the reality is in no way portrayed honestly in the movie.

  3. I love your near inclusion of Drums along the Mohawk, a great film from Hollywood’s banner year of 1939.

  4. Thank you for your service, Bob!

    Question: What about “We Were Soldiers”?

  5. My favorite on your list is Blackhawk Down with Zulu a close second. As for John, c’mon Bob, he didn’t a parachute!

  6. Loved Breaker Morant. An in high school our French class went to see The Longest Day as the characters spoke in their native language. Later as a college instructor, went with some students to see Das Boot in German with subtitles (you can tell the native speakers as they laugh before you finish reading the subtitles). How about the old TV series Combat?

    As a history teacher, Braveheart was terrible. Could list many things that were not authentic (as a writer of historical novels, I try for authenticity not necessarily totaly accurate). Only part that rang true was when Edward I tipped his son’s male lover out the window – don’t know if he really did that, but it was in character.

    By the way, my dad fought in the Pacific and helped build the air strip on Guam. He didn’t talk about his service, but we watched every old war movie that was on TV.

  7. Gallipoli, 1981 movie starring Mel Gibson. I think you haven’t seen it, or it would be on the list.

  8. Patton is still a favorite of mine. The world seemed to hate Gettysburg, but I love it if for nothing other than Chamberlain. I also loved Midway. Maybe I just like bloated Hollywood movies in general. I’ll throw in the two man cast movie called Hell in the Pacific, just to break the cycle.

  9. 300. Even my squeamish wife loved it.

  10. We Were Soldiers, Company of Heroes, Seal Team Six

  11. The Duke and the little boy watching the sun set in the East China seek, from Nha Trang, brought a snicker, but the general audience had no idea.
    I still like the movie. I, too, once wore a Green Beret and I like almost everything John Wayne did.

  12. I have so many. Adding to your list, The Patriot, In Harm’s Way, Windtalkers, Flags of Our Fathers, Fury, The Monuments Men, Fly Boys, Act of Valor, Lone Survivor (I especially loved that Lutrell was in the movie).

  13. Battle Cry with James Whitmore. Watched it on the local weekend late late show on the RCA console in the living room. Had to sit two feet away to keep the sound from waking up my dad. Something about Whitmore’s voice and the narration mixed in with the battle scenes has stuck with me all these years.
    Second up: The Great Sea Chase with John Wayne and Lana Turner. By traditional score not a manly battle movie but the depth of character of Wayne playing the German merchant marine captain and his sense of duty to return his ship to the homeland he fought for in the previous war struck me. His character despises Hitler and the Nazis yet still he pushes through. Quite the study in character IMHO of course.

  14. Manly movies. Hmm. Not much into manly stuff. For war movies, I’d list Catch-22 and Castle Keep. Nobody ever heard of it, I know, and it’s not happy. One cool thing: Peter
    Falk is in it, but the one-eyed character is played by Burt Lancaster. Funny.

    In my younger life, I spent a lot of time working with nice guys who would slip into that thousand yard stare…and in a while, they’d come back from their mind trip and return to being well-behaved sergeants or warrant officers, and we’d get our work done.

    Oh–almost forgot. I saw Green Berets in the theater at MCRD-SD. The place was full of Marines, and there was lots of laughter. Might as well laugh, because they were all on their way.

    Thank you for your service, Bob Mayer. And thanks to the vets in the comment stream, too.

    • Castle Keep is the horror movie isn’t it? That’s what gave me the idea for Wild Ride which Jenny Crusie and I co-wrote.

      • Horror movie? It was nonsensical, inaccurate, violent, and profoundly sad. It was set in World War II, but it was about all wars, I think. About how it just keeps happening and people keep trying to be people in spite of it, and they fail. So maybe you could call it a horror movie. However, the name is rather generic, so there could be another movie that you’re thinking of. It would be easy to picture vampires and werewolves in the setting of a castle keep. Don’t Look Down was a good book. I haven’t read Wild Ride.

  15. Behind Enemy Lines – the first one with Owen Wilson, once you get past the idea of him playing a serious role for a change. Its a great movie although not strictly a war movie. Love that scene when he hides amongst the bodies in the ditch. Gruesome! Incidentally, I love Zulu too. I lived for a number years in KwaZulu Natal and visited the Isandlwana battlefield, walked the Fugitives Trail (a misnomer if ever there was one – there was no ‘trail’) and spent time at Rorkes Drift. I’ll be very interested in what you write about that one, Bob. I can think of three causes just off the top of my head!

    • Three causes for what? I’ve never walked the terrain so any feedback would be appreciated– I never understood what happened to Custer until I went to Little Big Horn. The second I saw the terrain, I knew

      • Sorry, Bob, I should call them cascade events not causes – the cascade events leading up to the massacre at Isandlwana. Same thing as Custer – hard to understand until I stood on the slopes of Isandlwana and looked across the plain from which the attack came. They didn’t stand a chance! I’ve written a novel (still unpublished but watch this space!) and a short story (available on-line) about the Anglo-Zulu War. I’ve been enjoying the “It Doesn’t Just Happen” books, I’ve got One and Two and eagerly awaiting Three!

  16. Watched The Longest Day last night. Rather, Greg watched it and I had the job of reading subtitles out loud for him — I was proofing/editing manuscript for local author in the meantime. Saw Sean Connery, and a lot of other actors whose faces were familiar but I couldn’t put names to. I think they tried to put too much into one movie — this was a DAY, not a couple of hours; at least there wasn’t overly dramatic scenes as I’ve seen in some movies.

  17. Great list. Glad to see you included non-movies (Band of Brothers, Ken Burns’ Civil War), too. Would also nominate segments from other movies that, while not strictly “war movies” through and through, the war scenes in them are epic: the opening sequence in Gladiator, with the Romans taking on tribesmen in Germania; the Battle of the Crater sequence in Cold Mountain; and the aforementioned night attack on Fort Ticonderoga in Last of the Mohicans. Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil has it’s moments, too. The overall story bogs down a bit, but the combat scenes in Enemy at the Gates are gripping. Last, the acting in the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front seems like overacting by today’s standards, but that long, swooping shot of German troops surging out of their trenches is certainly worth a view.

  18. “84C MoPic” (aka 84 Charlie MoPic) I don’t really know why I liked this movie so much? It’s an obscure “found footage” film (a la blair witch project) shot through the lens of a military specialist (he is nicknamed “MoPic” by the team) who is assigned to an LRRP during the Vietnam War. The actors are not well known, and truthfully… the acting isn’t very good… but the story and the way it’s told really sucked me in. I think I liked it because you get to know the team pretty well by films end. If you haven’t seen or heard of this film… give it a try.

  19. Two of my favorites…
    12 O’Clock High…seems to portray the personal toll war takes on people.

    Von Ryan’s Express…just a fascinating story!

  20. The Boys in Company C, while far from perfect, is interesting for its timing. It was, I believe, the first Vietnam movie to portray the conflict in a negative light.

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