Xiphos’ Top 12 Modern American War Films

7 Oct


Octoer 07, 2009–

Hello all. I’m here house-bound with the flu and definitely not enjoying it. So, to add a bright bit to the otherwise dreary routine of sneeze, shudder, ache…I’ve got a pretty cool list of war films from internet bud and constant reader Xiphos, who happens to be currently serving as a U.S. Marine. Xi and I have had some entertaining back-and-forths regarding the merits of war films and the Hollywood portrayal of the military. If you even mention a certain Hanks/Spielberg flick you can expect to see the sparks fly.

So, after hearing Xi wax poetic on everything those films get wrong, I invited him back here to give us a peek at movies he thinks get it right. And what a list he’s got. There are a few on here I haven’t seen in years and a few more still that I haven’t seen at all. I think it’s a great list and if you were looking to brush up your war film knowledge, it’s a pretty good place to start. I might have included Patton on there, but then, it isn’t my list. Take it away Xi!


The reason Nathan asked me to do this is because I’ve served in the Armed Forces of the United States for most of my life. First in the U.S. Army and currently I’m a United States Marine. I feel the need to honest here, I’m not a big war movie guy. They just aren’t my thing anymore and have not been for many years if ever.

In order to get this list done, I’ve decided to narrow the focus to films about WW2, Korea, Vietnam and ones that deal with the United States experience. The reason I did this is manifold but here are the two most important:

    1.) I’m lazy and wanted to limit the scope.

    2.) It’s not that I dislike foreign films about war but it’s that I haven’t seen many about warfare from another nation’s point of view. 

Now with the disclaimers out of the way let’s get started, shall we?


BEST OVERALL WAR “MOVIE”:  Band of Brothers (2001)

I know this is a cheat because Band of Brothers was a miniseries but this is my list. I thought this series showed very well what life in a rifle platoon is like, from training through combat to the aftermath. I also thought it had one of the most amazing hours of television ever made with the episode about the medic. I also respect that HBO didn’t mess with the production and demand a love interest or ramp up the story with fake situations or incidents that never happened. They played straight down the line.


1. The Thin Red Line (1998)

 This lyrical, beautifully shot study of men in combat still stuns me every time I watch it. The movie in general is about Army troops on Guadalcanal but what it truly examines is what it means “to serve” in all the various meanings of the word. TTRL hits on a theme that’s going to run through this article many times. I believed that the people on screen were a unit. Every messed up, scared, hyperactive one of them especially Jim Caviezel’s character. I’ve known this guy, the oddball you wouldn’t think was able to do anything right but he’s the guy that carries the weight when things go wrong. All ground forces throughout history have had this guy in their ranks.

2. The Big Red One (1980)

 This movie could easily have been #1 and I look at it like #1A. This movie is Samuel Fuller’s version of the book he wrote with the same name. (Great read.) It chronicled his time as a rifleman in the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One) in WW2. This hard hitting, gripping, gut wrenching movie showed the horror of modern warfare yet it completely humanizes the characters and their actions and everyone on screen seemed like a true person to me and all the characters acted like soldiers. I can’t recommend this movie enough and remember these two words: Lee Marvin. Its no wonder he screamed authentic in his role as the platoon sergeant, he was a combat Marine in World War Two.

3. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

 Technically this isn’t a “combat” movie but it’s probably the single best war movie about the rigors of being in command of men whose job kills them in horrible ways. Gregory Peck is masterful, and I mean absolutely on top of his game, as Brigadier General Frank Savage who assumes command of a “hard luck” B-17 squadron flying endless sorties over Germany in the early part of WW2. This movie is so well made and insightful that all United States military academies and Officer Basic Courses show it as a study in leadership. The air war over Europe was a savage affair and one almost ignored by Hollywood. This movie is one of the few to examine the cost a leader has to pay in sending men to their death every day in flying tombs.

4. The Longest Day (1962)

Pound for pound the BEST movie about the D Day operation on film. It absolutely destroys The Beard’s saccharine infused dreckfest Saving Private Ryan. (More on that insultingly wretched movie later.) Oh sure, the amphibious assault scene was well handled but compared to the actual HUMAN emotion shown in The Longest Day, Ryan was a piffle of a movie.  Due to its run time The Longest Day is another movie that slowly develops which is a hallmark of 60’s and 70’s cinema. We get to know the characters involved a little, even if there are dozens, and we care about what happens to them. This movie is another one that played it straight and didn’t embellish on actual events.

5. Battle of the Bulge (1965)

 This lushly shot leisurely paced movie about command and combat in a pivotal battle in WW2 is a genuine labor of love. The movie is told from both sides of the conflict. The movie is based on the real life exploits of the 2nd Armored Division smashing back of the German 2nd Panzer advance at the Battle of Celles and showed the sacrifice those brave tankers made against a superior armed foe. The movie does a good job showing just how confusing and out of control combat can be for everybody, generals and privates alike.

6. Pork Chop Hill (1959)

 Based on historian S.L.A. Marshall’s book (interesting book) it features another standout performance by Gregory Peck as a lieutenant in charge of a platoon of men defending a worthless piece of real estate in the waning days of the Korean War. I’m going to use a quote from Variety I found and it sums this movie up perfectly: “Pork Chop Hill is a grim, utterly realistic story that drives home both the irony of war and the courage men can summon to die in a cause which they don’t understand…”


7. War Hunt (1962)

 Not many have heard of this movie but it featured Robert Redford’s debut performance as the moral counter force to John Saxon’s character. Saxon, who is totally mesmerizing in this movie, is a death lover that war has taken over completely. Saxon’s character enjoys long walks at night with a knife in order to kill enemy soldiers and goes out on solo patrols to kill after the Korean War cease fire went into effect. Redford acts as a counter balance and an example of morality that has to be present in the human soul during war. This movie is probably best known for Saxon’s death dance over an enemy he killed. I think the movie should be remembered for the moral juxtaposition of the main characters because on some level they both are operating on a morality they see as right and proper. I believe these two characters are the template Oliver Stone used for the Barnes and Elias characters in Platoon.

8. The Steel Helmet (1951)

Samuel Fuller yet again nails combat. The Steel Helmet has realistic, ultra violent combat scenes especially for 1951. The actors seemed like soldiers and not actors “acting” like soldiers. I think the familiar and comforting cliché of the “grizzled cigar smoking platoon sergeant” was  created in this movie. According to my research, this movie was made on a budget $103,000 but looks like it cost 10 times that amount.

9. Go Tell the Spartans (1978)

Based on Daniel Ford’s 1967 book Incident at Muc Wa: A Novel of War in Southeast Asia (I have not read this book but hope to remedy that situation soon) and tells the story of a group of American Army advisers sent to a lonely deserted village in 1964 to defend it against the Viet Cong. Burt Lancaster, who went into his own pocket for $150,000 dollars to help finish this ultra low budget movie, is amazing as Army Major Asa Baker. He’s a combat weary, three war veteran, obeying orders he knows he can’t carry out. He’s saddled with a hand full mostly green American advisers and ultra reluctant Vietnamese soldiers. This movie shows how the lives of fighting men are gambled at the hands of idiotic civilian and military administrators because they are blinded by their mistaken belief in how smart they are. Go Tell the Spartans was envisioned, created and embraced as an “anti-war” film. I see it as a movie about what a fickle mistress the concept of duty and honor can be.

10. We Were Soldiers (2002):

Based on retired Lt. General Hal G. Moore’s and Joseph L. Galloway’s book We Were Soldiers Once…And Young (excellent, excellent book) about the battle of the Ia Drang valley in 1965. Both Moore and Galloway were at the Ia Drang in 1965, Moore as Commanding officer of the the First Battalion 7th Cavalry and Galloway as a reporter along for the ride. The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major combat operation in the Vietnam War and more importantly it was the first to use helicopters in a large scale combat operation. The Ia Drang was supposed to be a show case operation of helicopters in combat. All the 1-7 had to do is set down, do a large scale sweep of the area and get out. No muss, no fuss, no bother. In reality the operation wasn’t like that at all due to the fact that they set down right on top of an entire North Vietnamese Army division. If the 7th Cavalry were overrun or pushed off the Landing Zone it might have ruined the helicopter as a battlefield tool.

This is an exceptional movie about men in combat and the incredible things they can accomplish under dire circumstances. Also, good lord, the musical choices were amazing especially when the surviving members of 1-7 are issued the order to fix bayonets and take out the NVA headquarters. The order to “fix bayonets” is not one an Infantryman wants to hear. It means your options have dwindled to exactly zero. We Were Soldiers played things straight and did not embellish.

11. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

 C’mon, you didn’t think I would get through this without mentioning a Marine movie, now did you? This is Stanley Kubrick’s best and most complete movie in my opinion because the source material is amazing. Read the book if you get a chance. Every thing about this movie is right and rings so true that it hurts. It has real people, real emotions and realistic depictions of combat in an urban environment. It also has Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, ’nuff said.

War movies I hate with the intensity of 10 billion suns going supernova at the same time:

1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

 The love for this offensively bad, saccharine filled crap pile is something I will never understand. It’s a lame, cliché filled, badly cast, written, acted and directed movie. It never fails to hit a false note on every level and is so crammed full of BS I thought it should double as a manure farm. All the worst of The Beard’s instincts are on full display in Saving Private Ryan. Yes the amphibious assault scene was top notch but past that there is zero in this movie that’s good. That corny, schmaltz filled wrap around at the beginning and end with old Ryan and his family at the cemetery is so sickly sweet it caused instant onset diabetes in me. I hate this movie.

2. Pearl Harbor (2001)

 Or as I call it, Ben Affleck Fights World War Two by Himself. Hey Mikey Bay, got a moment? Stick to making bad movies about giant robots hitting each other, that’s your forte in this world. Stop insulting the memories of people still alive with movies like Pearl Harbor. I will give you credit where credit is due. The attack sequence with the Kates, Zeros and Bettys flying in over what would become Lost’s filming location was quite beautiful. Past that, your quiver was empty on this movie, more so then usual.

That’s it. I look forward to getting eviscerated in the discussion to follow. Mahalo!

26 Responses to “Xiphos’ Top 12 Modern American War Films”

  1. marcus October 7, 2009 at 8:20 pm #

    Although I wouldn’t classify myself as a well traveled war buff, I have always had a significant interest in the various wars that the US was invovled in. Having had a grandfather who served in Merrill’s Maurauders in WW2 and a uncle who died in Vietnam, I am probably more familiar with the various wars than the average joe. That being said, I have seen nearly every war movie listed above (both good or bad) throughout my lifetime. I absolutely agree with your assessment that Band of Brothers was the best and most realistic (at least according to my grandfather) war film produced yet. And I also agree with your thoughts on some of the worst war movies as well.

  2. Xiphos October 7, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    Jonah the only reason Patton didn’t make the list is becasue they hired that back stabbing scumbag Retired General Omar Bradley as an advisor so I had to exclude it from the list.

  3. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 7, 2009 at 8:50 pm #

    aha! I knew there was a fun reason!

  4. Xiphos October 7, 2009 at 9:24 pm #

    Hey Jonah, which movies have you not seen? I’m going to guess War Hunt and Go tell the Spartans, right? Possibly steel helmet?

  5. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 7, 2009 at 10:09 pm #

    Battle of the Bulge and Pork Chop Hill actually…

  6. Continentalop October 7, 2009 at 10:48 pm #

    Sweet list Xi. My only big disagreement with you is FULL METAL JACKET. First half brilliant, but the second half just looses me (probably do to the combination of the over-the-top events, the perfect teeth on the Viet Cong and PAVN, and finally the fact that they obviously didn’t shoot this anywhere near Asia.

    And I know you excluded all movies that didn’t deal with the US point of view, but I will have to say my personal choice for Best War Movie ever is ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. It is the only War Movie that I can say sends an Anti-War movie that feels honest and is effective.

  7. Nathan Bartlebaugh October 7, 2009 at 10:55 pm #

    Hey Conti,
    I’d agree about All Quiet is the best war film in my opinion. I saw it for the first time in a middle school history class and the experience of that first viewing never really left me. Haunting is as good a word as any, and you are right. Not a single scene of that movie glorifies the war but it is at the same time incredibly respectful of the soldiers fighting it.

  8. Xiphos October 8, 2009 at 3:01 am #

    Conti about Full Metal Jacket. The second half of the movie is tonally different because getting out of boot and into the real everyday Marine Corps and especially a combat units like the ones shown serving in Hue City are as different as night and day. The main reason I put FMJ in the list was the urban combat scenes and the platoon interactions. They rang true for me even though suburban London looks nothing like the Republic of South Vietnam. Plus I wanted a Marine movie on the list and frankly there aren’t to many that I like unfortunantly.

    One of the two reason’s All Quite on the Western fron’t didn’t make the list is becasue I had to figure out how to limit the amount of movies. In about 15 minutes I had like 60 movies and about 50 more waiting to be written down. Even after I winnowed the list down, there were a bunch of movies that lost out due to a coin flip becasue I couldn’t make a choice about which one to use.

    The other reason AQOTWF isn’t on the list is that while I like the book the movie never really worked for me. Its well made and fairly faithful but it didn’t wow me that much. On the other hand I haven’t seen it in like 20 years so maybe its time to watch it again.

  9. Jarv October 8, 2009 at 3:31 am #

    No love for A Bridge Too Far?

    You actually made SPR sound better than it is. It fucking blows

  10. koutchboom October 8, 2009 at 11:32 am #

    You seen The Hurt Locker yet? Its not really a war movie, but I thought it was a good depiction of mundane military life/instant change to crazy military life.

    Also I think Redacted is a pretty damn good movie, one that nails how military members speak to each other in their down time. No three Kings…ahhh just looked not focused on those wars. Very well, carry on.

  11. koutchboom October 8, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    Also ever seen FTA? Fuck The Army?

  12. Barfy October 8, 2009 at 11:56 am #

    The topic was a good choice for a Top Ten or Top Twelve in Xi’s case. War/combat films aren’t what I would put first in “my” list of must sees thinking of them mostly as guy flicks but I would be missing out on a helluva’ lot of great films. You didn’t include my suggestion of Bridge Over the River Kwai. How many films do you come out of whistling? Not a prerequisite for a movie but still!

  13. Xiphos October 8, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    I’ve never heard of FTA.

  14. Xiphos October 8, 2009 at 1:30 pm #

    Barfy Bridge on the River Kwai was on the orginal list but during the subsequent reorganization of how the article was going to be organized it got lost, along with a bunch of other great movies.

    Now go watch The Big Red One.

  15. koutchboom October 8, 2009 at 1:51 pm #

    Its about those USO anti war shows from the 70s I think, with Donld Southerland and Jane Fonda. Its not very good, but interesting to watch and seeing a bunch of celebes on military bases seeing a song with the lyrics Fuck the army in it.

  16. Xiphos October 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    It probably wasn’t the USO, might be some other group.

  17. M.Blitz October 12, 2009 at 1:28 pm #

    Damn, I’m late to the party! Xi, I love your SPR hate. Gonna have to ask my Dad about War Hunt, he’s got a hard on for Redford.

    Now, help me out. Who was the director that had the quote about it being impossible to make an anti-war film? And did you watch the Generation Kill miniseries?

  18. Xiphos October 12, 2009 at 6:00 pm #


    Is your Pops hard on for Redford a good hard on or bad hard on? Redford gets a bit of pass for because of The Electric Horsemen. Damn I like that movie.I don’t know about that quote Conti might know, he seems to be on point with that sort of info.I have not seen Generation Kill don’t need to.

  19. Barfy October 12, 2009 at 6:50 pm #


    Francois Truffaut.

  20. Xiphos October 12, 2009 at 8:49 pm #

    And Barfy for the win. who knew a Frenchy could say something that smart?

  21. M.Blitz October 13, 2009 at 11:55 am #

    Xi- Dad’s Redford-love is on account of Butch Cassidy, Jeremiah Johnson, All the President’s Men and The Natural.

    As for the quote….Damn, Francois Truffaut? Getting my quotes all mixed up. I keep thinking Samuel Fuller. I thought he said that after seeing Full Metal Jacket?

  22. M.Blitz October 13, 2009 at 11:55 am #

    Generation Kill…me either. I’m curious about it though. The Wire was great.

  23. Xiphos October 13, 2009 at 12:21 pm #


    I was never that much into the wire but I loved Homicide so I figure Simon probably did a good job with Generation Kill.

  24. lord bronco October 15, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    Cool Xi-thanks for the link, seriously.

    I definitely agree with you on number one owing to it’s being based off of a Stephen Ambrose book and for it’s own merits.

    Generation Kill is arguably similar, a based on fact version of Band of Brothers, but transplanted to the the transit into Baghdad during the very beginning of Desert Storm. It features an HBO depiction of a Recon Marine unit very muchly forward deployed. Similar production values and episode format.Highly recommended just like above posted.

    A brand new one is called Tip of the Spear-which came out last Sunday here in the states. A documentary shown on MSNBC, it may or may not feature Marines, but I believe they are Army. Journalists embedded at a forward post near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan. There’s easily 20 minutes of combat footage that is visceral. Perhaps that would be a timely review for AIBN-if I get my act together, I’ll write and post there.

    Thanks again

  25. xiphos0311 October 16, 2009 at 1:39 am #

    Your welcome Bronco. I hope you enjoyed it. I’m currently working my way through another list that is more international and deals with different eras of warfare I have to say its slow going right now. There are so many choices.


  1. 10 more top war films from Xiphos « Cinematropolis - November 9, 2009

    […] month or so ago, I posted Xiphos’ list of his top ten modern American war films from the perspective of a military man and someone personally interested in the history of warfare. […]

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