Learning About War by Watching Movies

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 

A very successful entrepreneur—a woman, which matters for this story—once told me that starting companies is like childbirth. It’s incredibly painful, but ultimately rewarding, and if anyone could remember it accurately nobody would do it twice.

I’ve wondered sometimes if combat might share a similar characteristic—at least the part about being difficult to recall accurately. It’s an experience so unusual in the course of a human life that it’s hard to remember for sure what happened, let alone describe to those who have never gone through it.

Most Americans get their view of war from movies and popular entertainment (maybe to a lesser extent, books). These necessarily present an incomplete view. You can’t smell the stench or feel the cold or heat; you can’t understand how hard it can be to stay focused for hours on end—even when a lack of focus can prove fatal. Making matters even more difficult is the fact that most movies about war get big details wrong. Talk with a veteran and he or she will gripe about how the lead characters in Pearl Harbor manage to be in nearly every aerial battle of World War II, or how the protagonists in The Hurt Locker charge all over Iraq heedless of any real-life concerns for safety or working with their unit. (Don’t get a veteran started on how rarely movies and TV shows get smaller points correct—like military weapons, uniforms and customs.)

That said, there are quite a few films that do get it right—accurately portraying at least their narrow perspectives on the war. Here are some of the best examples.

1. Band of Brothers


Based on the true story of Easy Company in Europe in World War II, Band of Brothers might just be the best and most accurate war movie—actually an HBO miniseries—ever made. That’s partly because of its length (10 episodes), and partly because it’s based on an exhaustive (if slightly controversial) history by Stephen Ambrose.

(Unfortunately, just about every YouTube video from this miniseries disallows embedding, but if you haven’t seen it, you could do worse than to start with the episode in which the protagonists parachute into France on D-Day.)

2. Saving Private Ryan

This is the first of the big hyper-realistic war movies of the last 20 years or so, and its opening scene on the beaches of Normandy is jarring the first time you see it. That said, the movie does suffer from what you might think of as Titanic syndrome—making up a fake story in the midst of so much real drama.

3. Best Years of Their Lives

This post-World War II movie (1946) tells the story of a group of veterans returning after combat to their homes in a fictional midwestern city. Long before the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” was coined, this film realistically portrayed the sometimes difficult adjustment that veterans faced.

The movie costarred Harold Russell, a real-life Navy veteran who had lost both of his hands in a training accident while on active duty. Russell was given an honorary Academy Award during the 1947 Oscars for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” only to go on during the ceremony to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as well. Thus, he is the only actor in history to win two Oscars for the same role.

4. To Hell and Back

Based on the bestselling autobiography of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II, this 1955 movie actually starred Murphy playing himself. As a result, he had to relive on film all of the exploits, terror, and heroism he’d endured in real life.

5. Letters From Iwo Jima

In 2005-2006, Clinton Eastwood shot two films about Iwo Jima in short succession on location—Flags of Our Fathers, which largely tells the story from the U.S. point of view, and this film, from the Japanese perspective.

6. Generation Kill

Probably the first decent attempt to bring the Iraq War to film, Generation Kill is the based-on-true story of a group of RECON Marines during the invasion, including the realistic touch that the Marines wind up spending their own money on military equipment to have a shot at accomplishing their mission. I also like the fact that the Marines refer to the reporter in their midst only as “reporter”—an experience I had later in the same war.

7. Platoon

Following up on Band of Brothers, this is HBO’s second effort at portraying World War II in a miniseries. It’s a bit challenging to watch if you don’t know the story of the Marines in the Pacific War ahead of time, as it shifts focus among multiple protagonists, but it’s still compelling. (In a life-follows-art moment, an actor colleague of mine had to turn down a role in this film because his reserve unit was called up and he was sent to Iraq.)

8. Black Hawk Down

Filmed pre-9/11, released post-9/11, this film about the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia is nevertheless the best modern war movie so far. It gets the little things right, and where it deviates it’s with good reason, like writing each character’s name on his helmet in Sharpie so the audience can keep all the characters straight.

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