This mega-post is a combination of several lists from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces, to give you ideas for new movies you can seek out and enjoy. Outside of being judged the best of their narrow genre, the movies themselves are not ranked; they are divided by branch of service and presented in chronological order.
Top Army Flicks
Given that it’s the largest branch of the armed forces, it should come as no surprise that the Army leads the services in appearances on the silver screen. Even with so many options available, some films inevitably rise to the top.
SERGEANT YORK (1941)
Gary Cooper stars as Alvin York, who initially tried to avoid World War I by applying for conscientious objector status. After his request was denied, he went on to become the most decorated soldier of the war and earned the Medal of Honor for capturing 132 German soldiers in a single attack. Sergeant York was nominated for an impressive 11 Academy Awards, winning two: Best Actor for Gary Cooper and Best Film Editing.
THE LONGEST DAY (1962)
Running just shy of three hours, the story of the D-day invasion at Normandy nearly lives up to its title. The all-star cast included Eddie Albert, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne. The producers used actual participants from both sides of the battle as set consultants, and the film’s characters speak their lines in their own languages (with on-screen subtitles), lending the film a sense of authenticity. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it took home awards for Best Special Effects and Best Black-and-White Cinematography.
THE GREEN BERETS (1968)
At the height of the Vietnam War, John Wayne turned down a chance to star in the ensemble film The Dirty Dozen and instead chose to create a stylized tribute to the troops fighting overseas at the time. The Green Berets is significant for its portrayal of troops in a war without defined front lines and its stance against the antiwar movement of the 1960s. However, it was not the critics’ favorite. The film wasn’t nominated for any major awards, but it let Oliver Stone direct Platoon as a counterpoint twenty years later.
The film tells the story of irascible General George S. Patton -famously portrayed by George C. Scott- and his legendary campaigns in World War II. “The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans,” says General Patton, standing on stage in front of a giant American flag in the memorable five-minute opening monologue. The movie won critics over, too, despite the antiwar sentiment that was raging across the country due to the Vietnam War. Patton was nominated for 10 Oscars and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Actor honors for Scott -whose disapproval of competition among actors led him to refuse the award; he was the first actor to do so.
The Korean War is often referred to as “the Forgotten War,” but it’s not for Hollywood’s lack of trying. Director Robert Altman’s comedy about a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) during that conflict combined the reality of war with the dark humor that naturally accompanies troops in battle. The combination turned the film, which starred Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Elliot Gould, and Robert Duvall, into a runaway hit. MASH was nominated for five Academy Awards, and won for Best Screenplay. The film launched one of the most popular television shows in American history, which ran for eleven seasons.
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Widely regarded by critics and industry insiders as one of the greatest movies ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s tale of a soldier sent deep into Vietnam to track down and assassinate a rogue Special Forces colonel continues to resonate decades after its release. Based on Joseph Conrad's equally brooding novel Heart of Darkness, it features Martin Sheen (who had a heart attack during filming) as Captain Benjamin Willard, who is on the hunt for Colonel Walter Kurtz, famously portrayed by Marlin Brando. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, the film earned Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. Apocalypse Now Redux was released in 2001 with nearly an hour of additional footage.
The film tells the gripping story of an Army platoon in Vietnam as seen from the perspective of its newest member, Private Curtis Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen. Platoon’s realism and conflicted look at the war made it a sensation among aging Vietnam War veterans. This brutal honesty is generally credited to the wartime experiences of writer/director Oliver Stone, who was an infantryman in Vietnam, and resulted in eight Oscar nominations, winning for Best Director, Best Picture, Film Editing, and Best Sound.
Glory recounts the experiences of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first all-black regiments in the Union army of the Civil War. The 54th was led by white officers, including regimental commander Captain Robert Gould Shaw, portrayed by Matthew Broderick. The film takes liberties with some of the history but does an otherwise impressive job of depicting the initial attempts at integrating the military during the Civil War. The film won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Denzel Washington), Sound Mixing, and Cinematography.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
Director Steven Spielberg fires every round in his magazine in this gritty World War II drama about a team of soldiers sent to find a missing paratrooper -and bring him home alive- after all three of his brothers were killed in the war. The cast is led by Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller and Matt Damon as Private James Francis Ryan. Generally remembered for its brutal opening scenes of the D-day landings at Omaha Beach, Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five, including Best Director.
BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)
The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu was a brutal fight in the heart of Somalia. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film shows how a Special Operations team comprised of Delta Force soldiers and Army Rangers undertook a mission to snatch a pair of Somali men from the city; the mission devolved into brutal chaos, especially after one of the team’s Black Hawk helicopters was taken out by a rocket-propelled grenade. The film is loud and bloody, a gritty portrayal of a battle that killed as many as 1,500 people and wounded up to 4,000. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it took home Oscars for Best Editing and Best Sound.
Top Navy Flicks
Be sure to pack these ten Navy movies into your bag before you head off on that long sea voyage to distant shores.
THE FIGHTING SEABEES (1944)
John Wayne stars as Wedge Donovan in this dramatized retelling of the origin of the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalions (CBs, or “Seabees”) during World War II. The Duke and his newly trained fighting Seabees work to hold off the Japanese, but will their efforts be enough? Amid all the training and fighting, Donovan develops a romantic interest in war correspondent Constance Chesley (Susan Hayward). The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music but lost to Since You Went Away, another film that used World War II as a backdrop.
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)
Following up on the success of The Fighting Seabees, John Wayne returned the following year alongside Donna Reed and Robert Montgomery for this story of tiny torpedo patrol boats taking on the massive Japanese fleet in World War II. Considered by many to be one of the Duke’s finest performances, the film was nominated for a pair of Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Special Effects, but won no Oscars.
MISTER ROBERTS (1955)
After six years as a Broadway smash, Mister Roberts hit the big screen with Henry Fonda reprising his Tony-winning role as Lieutenant Doug Roberts, whose assignment to the USS Reluctant during World War II provides moments of both humor and drama as the ship seemingly misses out on the war. The film’s all-star cast, which includes James Cagney and Jack Lemmon, was movie gold. Mister Roberts was nominated for three Academy Awards, with Lemmon winning his first Oscar, for Best Supporting actor.
THE CAINE MUTINY (1954)
Based on Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, this movie stars Humphrey Bogart as the eccentric and disliked Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg of the fictitious destroyer/minesweeper Caine during World War II. After the unstable Queeg is relieved of his command by two of the ship’s officers, the officers are later court-martialed for mutiny on the high seas. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but didn’t win in any category -partially because of the competition, which included Marlon Brando’s classic On the Waterfront, which was named Best Picture.
TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970)
This epic retelling of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a combined effort by American and Japanese filmmakers and actors, told from both sides’ point of view. Although most of the cast were relative unknowns, a notable exception is Jason Robards, who would later win two Academy Awards. One famous line in the movie gave rise to the idea that the Japanese had “awakened a sleeping giant.” These days, historians argue over whether the statement was historical fact or an enduring Hollywood invention. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards in technical categories, and won for Best Special Visual Effects.
Exactly six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese navy remained undefeated and apparently invincible. Then came the Battle of Midway, a tiny atoll situated between Hawaii and Japan, which proved to be a resounding loss for the Japanese forces. The turning point of World War II combat in the Pacific made for a great movie with an all-star cast which included Charleton Heston, Henry Fonda, and James Coburn. Critics were less impressed, however, and the film was not nominated for any major awards.
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (1982)
Richard Gere stars as Zack Mayo, a loner who ends up in the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School with aspirations of becoming a pilot. But first he must survive his stern drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley, portrayed by Louis Gossett Jr. The drama unfolds through a tale of love and loss as Mayo struggles to find his place under Foley’s relentless pressure. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Gossett earning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes hit “Up Where We Belong” winning for Best Original Song.
TOP GUN (1986)
Tom Cruise stars as Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a hot shot fighter pilot who takes his “need for speed” to the U.S. Naval Fighter Weapons School, better known as “Top Gun,” where he falls in love with civilian instructor Charlotte Blackwood, played by Kelly McGillis. Although it has often been criticized as campy and overacted, the film was such a hit with audiences that the Navy set up recruiting booths in many theaters to capitalize on the crowds. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Take My Breath Away,” performed by Berlin.
THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990)
Author Tom Clancy may be well known these days, but it was this 1984 novel that put him on the map. Six years later, the book was turned into a film starring Sean Connery as Soviet navy Captain Marko Ramius, who attempts to defect to the United States with the USSR’s most advanced ballistic missile submarine. Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst determined to help Ramius succeed. Though well-received by the public, the film was panned by critics. Nevertheless, it won one of the three Oscars for which it was nominated, Best Sound Effects Editing.
CRIMSON TIDE (1995)
If mutiny and nuclear submarines make epic Navy films, does that mean the story of mutiny aboard a nuclear submarine equates to an instant hit? It did for Crimson Tide, which starred Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman as officers aboard the USS Alabama who are ordered to launch their missiles in a preemptive strike on Russia. When their sub loses its communications, Washington and Hackman go toe-to-toe over whether to carry out the order or wait for further guidance. Crimson Tide was nominated for Academy Awards in three technical categories.
Top Air Force Flicks
From dogfighting in the skies over Europe to exploring the depths of space, flying films are a staple of the American cinema. Here are some classics to enjoy from your couch cockpit.
The only silent film to ever win an Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings is the story of two fighter pilots who are in love with the same woman during World War I. The movie stars Clara Bow, Charles Rogers, and Richard Arlen, and features an appearance by rising star Gary Cooper, long before he won an Oscar for his performance in Sergeant York (1941). Despite its historical significance, the movie is not readily available on DVD in the United States, but it has been shown on television. [Ed. note: It is available at YouTube in 16 parts.]
AIR FORCE (1943)
Directed by Howard Hawks, who served with the Army Air Corps during World War II, Air Force tells the story of the crew of the Mary Ann, a B-17 Flying Fortress sent to Hawaii on a routine training flight. When they arrive, they find the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Released just 15 months after the actual attack, the film’s patriotic tone often leads today’s critics to call it a “propaganda movie.” But Air Force managed to garner four Academy Award nominations, and won for Best Film Editing.
TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949)
“A story of twelve men as their women never knew them,” according to the movie posters, Twelve O’Clock High stars Gregory Peck as Brigadier General Frank Savage, who must whip the men of his new bomber unit into shape for combat operations during World War II. One of a spate of war films that focused on the exploits of U.S. aircrews, the film made use of actual combat footage to add to the intensity of its story. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and won for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound.
STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND (1955)
James Stewart stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert “Dutch” Holland of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, and June Allyson plays his wife Sally. The film begins in 1951 when Dutch, who has served with the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, is now a star baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals. However, Dutch’s athletic career is put on hold when he is recalled for active duty in the Air Force, which is now a separate branch of the U.S. armed forces. As Dutch and Sally adjust to their new life in the military, which has changed considerably since the end of World War II, Dutch’s love of flying is rekindled and his life plans are transformed. Strategic Air Command has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the SAC, which can be attributed to Stewart’s own experience as a combat pilot in World War II. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing.
NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS (1958)
In one of his earlier films, Andy Griffith stars as Private Will Stockdale, a country bumpkin who is drafted into the U.S. Air Force and goes on to have one comedic misadventure after another as he tries to adjust to military life. Originally written as a book and set in World War II with the U.S. Army Air Forces, the movie was updated to reflect the peacetime status of the U.S. military in the late 1950s and the Air Force as a separate branch. Don Knotts has a small role in the movie, which was the beginning of a long professional relationship with Griffith.
A GATHERING OF EAGLES (1963)
U.S. Air Force Colonel Jim Caldwell (Rock Hudson) is given the assignment of improving the performance of a B-52 bomber wing that has fallen into a state of disarray. With a newfound sternness that soon alienates those who are under his command -including his wife and best friend- Caldwell shapes the bomber wing into the unit he envisioned when he accepted the assignment. The timing of the film’s release, when the military was falling out of favor with the public, may have influenced its less-than-stellar performance at the box office, but it has since come to be noted for its authentic depiction of the Strategic Air Command. General Curtis LeMay of the U.S. Air Force provided full cooperation with the film’s producers in the hopes that it would rekindle the public’s confidence in the SAC’s ability to effectively manage the country’s nuclear stockpiles. A Gathering of Eagles was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound Effects.
DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
In director Stanley Kubrick’s satirical comedy of the Cold War, delusional Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is intent on attacking the Soviet Union by ordering B-52 bombers to drop their nuclear weapons in retaliation for an attack on the United States. The story of the attack, however, was completely fabricated by Ripper, and the people around him soon realize they’ve been duped -and they need to get the B-52s to abort their mission. Also starring Peter Sellers (in three separate roles) and George C. Scott, Dr. Strangelove is widely regarded as on of the best comedies in film history. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but didn’t take home any Oscars.
THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
Based on the book by Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff contrasts the efforts of military test pilots working to field cutting-edge jets with the work of those selected to launch the United States’ early efforts at space exploration. While Air Force hero Chuck Yeager -played by Sam Shepard- breaks the sound barrier and sets new altitude records and yet is excluded from NASA’s program because he has no college degree, the “Mercury Seven” progress through their grueling, competitive, and often dangerous training as they prepare for the space race. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning on four of the six technical categories for which it was nominated.
THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN (1995)
Who says a made-for-television movie can’t go on the must-see list? The ensemble cast and superb production of HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen is better than many Hollywood films with twice the budget. The story follows the first African American combat pilots as they train and deploy for World War II, eventually earning the respect of their white peers. The cast includes stars such as Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding, Jr, and Andre Braugher. The film was nominated for ten Emmy Wards, and took home three.
Top Marine Flicks
Hollywood has done its part to cement the role of the U.S. Marines as an almost indestructible fighting force -always willing, always able, and always faithful.
TELL IT TO THE MARINES (1926)
In this silent movie that was the first to be produced with the full cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps, Lon Chaney stars as Sergeant Frank O’Hara, who leads his leathernecks on a tour of the Philippines. William Haynes plays Private “Skeet” Burns, an undisciplined recruit looking for a good time and loose women rather than devoting himself to the rigors of the Marine Corps. General Smedley D. Butler served as technical consultant for the film, and the scenes at sea were shot aboard the battleship USS California. Lon Chaney was named an honorary Marine for his performance -the first actor to be given that distinction.
GUNG HO! (1943)
Based on the actual events surrounding the August 1942 raid of Makin Island (now called Butaritari Island) in the Pacific, the film’s plot follows a mishmash group of Marine Corps volunteers as they prepare for and execute their daring mission. Lieutenant Colonel Thorwald (Randolph Scott) worked with Chinese guerrillas prior to the outset of World War II, and now attempts to use the Chinese concept of gung ho, or “work together,” to get all of his Marines on the same page. Although the film has many violent scenes, it provides an example of how Marine Corps soldiers are trained to put the success of their mission above all else.
PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945)
This well-received film recounts the experiences of U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Al Schmid (John Garfield), a hero of the 1942-43 Battle of Guadalcanal. Schmid had been manning a machine gun against the Japanese for several hours when a grenade exploded nearby, blinding him. Even without his sight, Schmid managed to continue firing his machine gun with the help of an injured comrade who served as his “eyes.” Although the battle scenes take up only a small portion of the film’s length, the portrayal of Schmid as a relentless hero helped give the Marine Corps a public identity as a force that never quit under any circumstance. Pride of the Marines was nominated for one Academy Award, for Best Screenplay.
SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949)
This video contains spoilers. (YouTube link)
John Wayne stars as grizzled Marine Sergeant John Stryker, whose training methods are universally despised by his troops until the bullets begin to fly. By the time the man get to the small island known as Iwo Jima, where Japanese forces are dug in and waiting, the reasons for Stryker’s relentlessness become clear. Arguably the most well-known movie to feature the Marine Corps, Sands of Iwo Jima was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a Best Actor nod for the Duke.
HEARTBREAK RIDGE (1986)
This film stars Clint Eastwood as quick-tempered and battle-hardened Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, whose years in the military have left his life in disarray as he nears the end of his career. Assigned to whip a recon platoon into shape, “Gunny” finds himself doing what he does best -leading Marines in combat during the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Though many questioned the accuracy of the events portrayed in the film, Eastwood’s solid performance has kept it on the fan list almost 30 years later. Heartbreak Ridge was nominated for one Academy Award, for Best Sound.
FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
Stanley Kubrick’s vulgar and gritty film about Marines preparing for war and deploying to Vietnam is still a classic. The film catapulted R. Lee Ermey to stardom for his role as loud and unforgiving Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, whose harsh physical and psychological treatment of recruits has become legendary. The Marine Corps wasn’t so impressed, however. The service offered no support for the making of the film, which was shot on location in England. Full Metal Jacket received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, and Ermey received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)
Tom Cruise stars as real-life Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, whose traumatic experiences in the war have left him paralyzed and struggling with his place in the world. In the end, he becomes an outspoken critic of the conflict and the treatment of returning veterans. Directed by Oliver Stone (himself a Vietnam veteran), whose 1986 film Platoon earned an Oscar, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards -including Best Picture and a Best Actor for Cruise- and took home the awards for Best Director and Best Film Editing.
A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)
“You can’t handle the truth!” Colonel Nathan Jessup screams during the famous courtroom scene in this military legal drama that centers on the trial of two Marines charged with killing one of their own in a hazing incident gone bad. Jack Nicholson plays Jessup, a salty Marine officer who is believed to have ordered the attack, while Tom Cruise stars as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, the inexperienced Navy lawyer assigned to defend the Marines. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actor for Nicholson.
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS AND LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006)
When taken together, this pair of films from director Clint Eastwood show one of the bloodiest battles of World War II from all angles. In Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood explores the history surrounding the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the American flag being raised on Mount Suribachi and the men who became national icons for plating it. In Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood attacks the subject again, but this time from the perspective of the Japanese fighters who took heavy losses as they attempted to defend the small island. Flags of Our Fathers was nominated for two Academy Awards and won for Sound Editing, while Letters from Iwo Jima was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, but did not take home any Oscars.
Top Coast Guard Flicks
The smallest branch of the armed forces is also the most overlooked when it comes to movies. That’s not to say that the U.S. Coast Guard isn’t still active in Hollywood. On the contrary, the service plays a primary role in many movies and television shows, but often not as the star. Consider I Am Legend, a 2007 film starring Will Smith as possibly the last man on earth. A Coast Guard aircrew spent nearly a week filming an evacuation scene on the Brooklyn Bridge even as other units worked to ensure that real-life maritime operations were not disrupted during filming. With the Coast Guard playing an active role in everything from from Hurricane Katrina to Operation Iraqi Freedom, there’s bound to be some love left for the service in Hollywood. Until then, here are a handful of the good (and perhaps, not-so-good) to keep your boat afloat.
RUGGED WATER (1925)
Between 1902 and 1943, writer Joseph C. Lincoln penned nearly four dozen works of fiction and poetry, most of them showcasing the stories and people of Cape Cod. One of the most famous for its time was Rugged Water, the story of a life-saving station on the coast and the people who dared to brave the often rugged sea. Written in 1924, it was turned into a silent film the following year, one of six books by Lincoln that made it to the silver screen.
SEA SPOILERS (1936)
Among the seven films John Wayne made in 1936 is Sea Spoilers, in which he stars as the commander of a patrol boat in the waters off Alaska. Nothing to find up there, you say? Tell that to the smugglers and poachers Wayne and company take head-on.
SEA DEVILS (1937)
Ah, those were the days. In its review, the New York Times reported that ushers “tricked out in chief petty officers uniforms” seated guests for the premiere of Sea Devils, a story of iceberg patrols, sea rescues, and a tough old Coastie (Victor McLaglen) who tries to prevent his daughter from falling for a brash coastguardsman (Preston Foster) by pushing her toward a more respectable candidate.
TARS AND SPARS (1946)
Loosely based on the theater production of the same name, which toured across the country to rave reviews, this musical centers on a coastguardsman who has never been to sea. Where does the name come from? “Tar” is a nickname for a sailor, while “SPAR” was a term for a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, one of many such groups created to free men from duty at home during World War II. Sid Caesar, a former Coastie, makes his film debut.
THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953)
In this film based on a story by Ray Bradbury, the beast is a dinosaur freed from a block of ice by an atomic blast. The Coast Guard does all it can to stop the beast, but it’s an Army weapon that brings it down. If it sounds a lot like Godzilla, there’s a reason. Taking a cue from this film, Japanese filmmakers released their movie the next year and the rampaging lizard became a cult hit.
It’s hard to believe a film with Andy Griffith and Walter Matthau could be poorly received, but critics still poke fun today. Perhaps fans of The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock should be happy that Andy’s portrayal of a Coastie wasn’t more popular. It's been said that the stink of Onionhead is what drove Griffith into television.
THE GUARDIAN (2006)
Borrowing a page from the Japanese, Hollywood tried to recreate a blockbuster from Asia that showcased rescue diver trainees from Japan’s Coast Guard. They ended up with The Guardian, starring Kevin Costner as the salty senior chief petty officer and Ashton Kutcher as the youngster trying to get started. It didn’t get much love from the critics, but fans of military movies might be surprised.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!