At War With Movies – A Veteran’s take on war films

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Today being Veterans Day means different things to different folks; for some it’s just a day off of work, but for a select few it’s a day to navigate a few “thanks for your service” gestures on Facebook and perhaps a free Cheeseburger at Shoney’s. Okay, that’s a very small part of it, as those select few will likely do some reflecting on their service, particularly those who are fresh out and those who are still in.  With that in mind, I want to share just a small slice of perspective on how war films portray the warrior and how the warrior feels about those films once their part in the fight is over.

Growing up, I was inundated with the pop culture interpretations of being a Soldier and being at war. It was emulated one way or another in most cartoons of that era; GI Joe, Transformers, Thundercats (The Smurfs?), etc. The war films of that time were focused primarily on either the Vietnam war or WWII, particularly films like PLATOON, FULL METAL JACKET, HAMBURGER HILL, CASUALTIES OF WAR, and some of the more bombastic ones like MISSING IN ACTION, RED DAWN, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.

The 90’s saw a slew of war films from all different eras; BRAVEHEART, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, AIR AMERICA, COURAGE UNDER FIRE, MEMPHIS BELLE, GETTYSBURG, THREE KINGS, etc. With Vietnam films feeling a bit overcooked, Hollywood started to dip its toe into the Gulf War, but much of that changed after September 11th, as the floodgates opened and a whole new genre was born. Films like THE HURT LOCKER, GREEN ZONE, LONE SURVIVOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN showed “modern warfare” with still more from varying conflicts being produced, including WE WERE SOLDIERS, 300, JARHEAD, ENEMY AT THE GATES, FURY etc.

I never planned on being a Soldier in my lifetime. I was in film school, making movies, and planning my big move to L.A. where I’d be the next Tony Scott or Michael Mann. Then, September 11th came and I knew it was the only time I’d ever have in my lifetime to find out if I had what it took. There are more reasons, of course, as there are for many who become Soldiers (or Sailors, Marines, Airmen, etc.) for their nation. And, strangely, at the tail end of the list, was to see just how full of shit Hollywood was in portraying war and warriors. Did they have it right or was it all just a big show?

I served as a paratrooper for 1-501 IN (ABN), an airborne unit in Alaska, deploying to Afghanistan in 03-04 and Iraq in 06-07. The experiences and lessons learned throughout my time in garrison (at home) and at war were varied. I met and lost friends, I bonded as Soldiers bond, I saw beautiful and horrible things, I was blown up, shot at, and spent more time bored than I did exhilarated. Nobody wants to watch a 2-hour movie of Soldiers pulling guard, so my first lesson in how Hollywood translates the wartime experience is that you’re only going to see the “good” parts; blood, guts, shooting, yelling, and fighting. And, that much makes sense for a movie. It’s a storytelling device; show people at their worst and let them fight out of that box. Nobody wants to see a movie about warriors cleaning latrines or doing PT for 120 minutes. Right?

There’s an interesting shift that happens after war, particularly if you’ve been in combat. Many may recall the scene in THE DEER HUNTER when Robert De Niro returns from Vietnam and no longer wants to kill an animal. It represents a change in perspective and that’s what affects those that have seen the worst of it when confronted with how it’s portrayed in entertainment. The cool guy shit isn’t as cool. The badass stuff isn’t as badass. You spend most of your time criticizing everything you see, because now you know the truth, even if you sound like an asshole yelling at his TV who can no longer accept that it’s “just a movie.”

And that’s just for the films that are over the top; the ones that get it right are the hardest (and consequently, the rarest). Those are the ones that punch you in the gut and spin your emotions like a top. You get angry, you get scared, you get antsy; your adrenaline starts pumping again and the only thought you have is that you want to go back. Sound crazy? Yeah, maybe. But there it is. You can take the Soldier out of war, but you can’t take the war out of the Soldier. Maybe that sounds like a cool thing to say. Maybe it’s a curse.

One thing that every Soldier does at war is watch movies. A LOT of movies. There are no bars, clubs, women (for infantry, anyway), no drinking, no drugs, etc. You can eat, sleep, work out, play videogames, and watch movies. Oh, and dodge bullets and explosions. But, mostly, you’ll watch movies. It’s the greatest escape and a lifesaver for most troops. The bootleg trade is massive in Afghanistan & Iraq and I’ll never forget getting a copy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS : RETURN OF THE KING on Christmas Day in 2003, a few days after it’s theatrical release. In between guard shifts I watched that sucker and was in heaven while in hell.

One question I get quite frequently is which war film (or films) I consider to be the best or most accurate. It’s ironic, as finding that answer was a small part of why I started the journey. The war films that take me back are the ones I consider the best. If I’m biting my nails, tapping my feet, staring at the screen like a man obsessed, and putting myself in those men’s shoes, then it’s certainly found that mark. Strangely, the best of them are rarely films. HBO hits the slam-dunk with BAND OF BROTHERS, THE PACIFIC, and for my era, GENERATION KILL, which is perhaps the most underrated, unseen, heartbreaking, and hilarious portrayal of modern combat ever put on film.

The documentary RESTREPO is by far the film that shakes me to my core; it’s so close to home that I can never watch it again. Cinematically, BLACK HAWK DOWN, LONE SURVIVOR (my review here), and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN capture the brotherhood, reality, flaws, confusion, and heroism that arise from the insanity of war. Those two leave me a bit shell shocked when the credits roll. Hollywood rarely nails it, but when they do it leaves a lasting impression (most recently with FURY, which is outstanding…fingers crossed for AMERICAN SNIPER). Watching war films now is a wholly different experience, but it doesn't ruin the films. It just changes them, perhaps for better. Sometimes for the worse. But, I'm glad Hollywood continues to try, if even just to capture any fragment of what it's like to walk in a Soldier's boots.

If you’re looking for a way to honor Veterans or Active Duty troops today, then aside from thanking a Vet or donating to a charity that helps those who need it, I think watching a war film (one of the good ones, that is) is a fitting tribute that preserves their memory, experience, service, and sacrifice. Just make sure to pick a good one!

From everyone at, we give our thanks to all who have served, especially our readers. Feel free to sound off in the comments below with when/where you (or a family member) served and what your favorite war film is below! Show us your war face!

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