War is hell to capture authentically on the big screen.
Hollywood keeps trying all the same, both to sell tickets and, in some cases, honor the men and women of the U.S. military who sacrifice so much for their fellow citizens.
Veteran and author Kevin Dennehy assembled a list of films for HollywoodInToto.com that did their level best to replicate the combat experience … as well as those which got that terribly wrong.
Top Five Realistic War Movies
- “Lone Survivor” – This 2013 movie is hard to watch for those of us who served in Afghanistan. You want to scream, “don’t do that, get the hell out of there, and make some freakin’ radio contact!” “Lone Survivor,” based on Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name, portrays the bond of an elite team with a daunting mission – to go deep into enemy territory and identify the bad guy. Things go wrong quickly, but at the end, the viewer is assured that a grain of humanity is left in that goddamn place.
- “Saving Private Ryan” – The gruesome and epic opening scene on Omaha Beach is very realistic. Heads explode, body parts are blown off … heroism, cowardice, barking sergeants, smoke, cold water, heavy fire – it’s all there. After that, unfortunately, some Normandy veterans told me it eroded into a more Hollywood-style production.
- “Blackhawk Down” – This 2001 movie centers around a company of Army Rangers and Delta Force operators during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. It was the largest loss of life for U.S. soldiers in any battle since the Vietnam War. Details such as a fingers getting blown off make this one of the more realistic movies ever made about war.
- “We Were Soldiers” – I think Mel Gibson makes his characters act like the crazy cop Riggs in his “Lethal Weapon” franchise. However, he really pulls it off as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who led his troopers into the terrible Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. One poignant moment in the 2002 movie happens when a young, traumatized soldier, after coming back stateside, pushes a wounded buddy through an airport while travelers look on, their lives not disturbed in any way. Do we see that now after so many years of war?
- “The Hanoi Hilton” – A flop at the box office, this 1987 movie offered a glimpse of what it was like to be a prisoner of war in an infamous, and notorious North Vietnamese prison camp. The captives get tortured, go through hell, break down, but eventually come home with honor. The movie even has a scene with a Jane Fonda-like character who wants the POWs to “come clean” about their war crimes.
Top Five Unrealistic War Movies
- “Three Kings” – If you’re going to risk your ass to go into bad guy country to get treasure, at least keep a couple of gold bars. This isn’t a “Kelley’s Heroes,” feel-good movie as the good guys give up all the gold to save refugees. It portrayed Gulf War-era vets as stupid and insubordinate (George Clooney nails it as a don’t-give-a-damn Special Forces major). Same post-Vietnam, pre-9/11 Hollywood message: the military kills innocent people, is at fault for bad political strategy … and they’re too dumb to know any better.
- “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” – Why am I attacking two 1978 multi-Academy Award-winning films? First, “The Deer Hunter’s” obsession with Russian Roulette is nuts. The character’s uniforms are all jacked up. “Coming Home’s” Bruce Dern is the poster child for the crazed Vietnam Vet stereo type as a Marine officer (who apparently hasn’t gotten a haircut in ages). What’s with 1970s military movies making everyone have hair down to their necks?
- “The Hurt Locker” – Another highly decorated film. What? Six Oscars? While the 2008 movie captured a lot of the stress and tension of battle, the main character was an abrasive jackass who ignored orders and put people in danger. So much so that I really didn’t care if he got greased, to be honest. I was in Iraq when I saw a copy of this movie, and the part where star Jeremy Renner ran off base to downtown Baghdad, hell bent on avenging a friend, armed with just a pistol, was crazy. He would have been killed, if lucky. If not, he would have been captured, and you don’t want to know what they would have done to him. A realistic part occurred when he was back home and his wife made a comment – he tried to say something about it that reminded him of the war, but she blew him off and changed the subject.
- “Platoon” – The 1986 movie won several Academy Awards … so why am I attacking it? Well, you have a bunch of hippies, with gold chains on and smoking pot, walking through the woods, then killing innocent civilians and each other. Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone presents what he believes are ambiguous moral dilemmas that soldiers in combat face. I saw a movie showcasing a bad unit with terrible leaders who would have fired on the spot. Most would still be in prison.
- “The Green Berets” – This 1968 John Wayne movie was a pro-war, anti-left farce that was filmed at Fort Benning, Ga., nowhere near a jungle. You can see pine trees, and the acting stinks. The movie has become a cult classic in Special Forces, where many soldiers have memorized the corny lines over the decades (not so much with the younger generation of Green Berets).
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Kevin Dennehy is author of “The D-Day Assault, A 70th Anniversary Guide to the Normandy Landings” (www.dday70th.com). He is a retired Army National Guard colonel who served as a Special Forces officer in Afghanistan and Iraq.