Published on May 27th, 2013 | by Clint Davis

Top Five: War Movies

In honor of Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to look back on one of the most storied genres of film history–the war movie.  Countless classics have left audiences reeling with stories of heroism from battles throughout history, some true but most are overblown tales of patriotism concocted by studio executives to fire up filmgoers.  In the last forty years, war movies have presented a much more gritty and dystopic view of these conflicts–often leading to better movies overall.  I want to send out a big thank you to all the veterans  who’ve served and, in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice in situations they often didn’t volunteer for.  Here are Overdue Review’s Top Five war movies.

Honorable Mention: The Hurt Locker [2008]

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning take on the Iraq War is tense and dramatic with a breakout performance from its star.  Jeremy Renner has since gone on to blockbuster stardom in The Avengers while maintaining serious acting cred.  His SFC William James is an intense yet fractured kid tasked with dismantling live explosives on the modern battleground–someone many recent veterans can relate to.  Bigelow’s take on the war doesn’t totally damn the conflict like some war movies, but focuses on the often fragile mental state of the young people asked to carry the burden.

The Hurt Locker uses bomb disposal as a metaphor for the volatility of the War in Iraq.


#5: Full Metal Jacket [1987]

Stanley Kubrick’s dehumanizing take on the Vietnam War is full of lasting images that reflect the cold nature of battle.  There isn’t much warmth or pride on display in this film, instead you get a take on how the Armed Forces can turn a diverse group of personalities into a uniform unit of killers in mere weeks.  The film is essentially split in two halves, with the first hour being dominated by R. Lee Ermey’s brilliant performance as a drill instructor from hell–and his relentless assault on the dimwitted Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofio’s classic role).  The second half is slightly less Kubrickian but arguably better as we enter combat with Private James “Joker” Davis as a wartime journalist who attempts to maintain his humanity amid the slaughter.

Full Metal Jacket remains the best take on basic training that’s ever been put to film but its distance from human emotion keeps this from being a masterpiece of the war genre.

R. Lee Ermey’s Golden Globe-nominated performance as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman is equal parts scary and comic.


#4: The Deer Hunter [1978]

Where our previous entry was mostly devoid of feeling, 1978’s Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter is completely focused on it.  Director and co-writer Michael Cimino’s epic is more interested in what happens to a soldier after the conflict is over.  To me, this film is a three-hour Bruce Springsteen song–it takes a group of friends from a small Pennsylvania steel town and ships them off to Vietnam, revealing the awful situations they were put through while also showing us their attempt to reintegrate in civilian life after returning home.  I would call this the most well-acted war film ever made because we don’t see big, heroic sequences with triumphant fanfare underscoring the action–rather these are broken men that are coping with PTSD.

The movie is notable for its controversial Russian Roulette scenes, depicting the hopeless situation these men were in as POWs.  These scenes will be debated endlessly by war history buffs but the raw intensity present in the performances, especially of Christopher Walken (who won an Oscar for the film), make them unforgettable.  The cast is incredible, as Robert De Niro leads supporting performances by Meryl Streep and John Cazale, who had terminal cancer throughout filming and would die before seeing a finished print.  The Deer Hunter won’t thrill you but as a portrait of the human side of war, it’s a must-see.

De Niro plays Russian Roulette in the film’s most infamous scene.


#3: Saving Private Ryan [1998]

The only movie in our Top Five that’s not about the Vietnam War, Steven Spielberg’s epic tale of heroism in World War II will always be a favorite of war film buffs.  Like the war itself, the scale of this movie is downright massive as a group of American soldiers risk their lives trying to rescue a lost paratrooper behind enemy lines in France.  PFC James Ryan’s extraction represents the code of honor in the military–leaving no man behind.  Saving Private Ryan is certainly the most rah-rah of any film on this list but it’s no Yankee Doodle Dandy.  The combat is as intense as anything ever put onscreen and the movie’s opening 30-minutes, depicting the brutal Omaha Beach assault, may be the best opening sequence in history.

Saving Private Ryan’s opening sequence is among the best in film history.


#2: Apocalypse Now [1979]

We know that war is hell, but Francis Ford Coppola found out filmmaking represents its own ring of inferno after spending nearly five years producing his overblown take on the Vietnam War.  Coppola took his crew to the jungles of Cambodia for a nightmarish shoot that resulted in the director having a heart attack, several panic attacks, and nearly killing himself (the production of the movie was chronicled by his wife Eleanor in the fantastic 1991 doc. Hearts of Darkness).  It all resulted in one of the most jaw-dropping war movies ever produced.

John Milius’s script lifts the story from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness, with Martin Sheen playing an exhausted Army lifer tasked with heading up the Nung river to a remote village in North Vietnam where he must kill a legendary U.S. Army Colonel who’s gone rogue.  Sheen’s Capt. Ben Willard has spent three years in Vietnam and is at a mental breaking point as we meet him at the film’s infamous opening–meanwhile Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz is either brilliant or completely mad as he leads an uncivilized tribe like a God among men.  Everything about Apocalypse Now is exaggerated, leading to a sometimes cartoonish take on the war, but few films stick with you like this one when it’s all over.

Robert Duvall delivers the film’s best performance as Lt. Col. Kilgore, the fearless commander who knows “Charlie don’t surf”.


#1: Platoon [1986]

Of the great directors included on this list, Oliver Stone has a huge advantage on them all–he was over there.  Stone was an infantryman in Vietnam, making Platoon as a testament to those he fought alongside.  The whole of this film takes place in the jungle with a trio of young U.S. Army soldiers played by Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Willem Dafoe simply trying to make it out alive.  The men follow orders, witness atrocities, eat rations, and occasionally share a laugh while trudging through “the shit”.

Platoon represents a more gritty and accurate picture of the war than Hollywood had typically produced.  I talked with a Vietnam veteran recently who said of all the movies about that conflict, Platoon was the first time it felt authentic…that’s the only review I need.

The most lasting image of Platoon is certainly a tragic one.

By the way, the gentleman I talked to, Chuck Van Voorhis USMC, said his favorite war film was Good Morning, Vietnam with Robin Williams.  So maybe grit isn’t a necessary ingredient of a great war movie.  What’s your favorite war movie?  Post online at Overdue Review on Facebook and tell us!

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at

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