- Historically accurate war movies gain respect from historians and soldiers for their attention to detail and portrayal of real-life events.
- Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day landing sequence is praised for its intense and realistic depiction, earning praise from veterans for capturing the experience accurately.
- Cold Mountain’s attention to detail, including accurate flags and trench warfare, contributes to its authenticity and makes it more realistic for viewers.
War movies are often judged by their commitment to historical accuracy, and the best war movies can win praise from historians, or even soldiers who lived out the events being depicted on screen. War movies focus on real-life stories more than most other genres, so it’s always interesting to see how well they portray historical events. Some movies don’t pay much attention to the finer details, but inaccurate war movies can often be distracting. Deviations from historical fact can ruin a movie.
The most historically accurate war movies show respect for their subjects as well as their audience. Many movies employ historians to make sure that everything on screen reflects how it would have appeared in the real world. Paying attention to the small details can elevate war movies from generic action romps to deeply affecting and personal stories. Historians and soldiers are quick to denigrate overblown scenes, but if a movie does everything right, then it can earn respect from these critical voices.
10 Saving Private Ryan (1998)
World War II
The memorable D-Day landing sequence has been held up as a prime example of how to film realistic war scenes.
Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece, loaded with intense action scenes which revolutionized the war genre. The memorable D-Day landing sequence has been held up as a prime example of how to film realistic war scenes. Speaking to The Telegraph, military historian Paul Woodage said he had corresponded with many Omaha beach veterans, claiming “They all said it was most realistic in terms of the intensity and increased sensory experience – everything happening around you.” There were some fictionalized aspects of the scene, such as the design of the bunkers, but many veterans have praised how Saving Private Ryan captured the feeling of the landing so accurately.
9 Jarhead (2005)
Most war movies focus on intense action and chaos on the battlefield, but Jarhead has been recognized for its accurate portrayal of the tedious moments waiting for combat to begin. Jarhead is based on a best-selling memoir by Anthony Swofford, but it has a controversial reputation, with many Marines believing it misrepresents the Marine Corps. In an article for Slate, Nathaniel Fick claimed that the movie changed the character of Swofford, and it was a more accurate reflection of his own experiences. Fick provides incredible insight into the mentality of Marines during the Gulf War, and he says Jarhead shows their intense camaraderie very well.
8 Dunkirk (2017)
World War II
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk focuses on the British evacuation of the French seaside town of Dunkirk as German forces were closing in. Tom Hardy plays a Spitfire pilot who provides air cover to the British troops. In a video with Insider, pilot and World War II Air Force expert Lt. Col. Matt Ziemann noted a few minor errors, but praised the accuracy of the scene where the British pilot burns his Spitfire to stop it from falling into enemy hands. He says that enemies would have been interested in the plane so that they could “either reverse engineer it or figure out how to negate the Spitfire’s advantages.”
7 Cold Mountain (2003)
American Civil War
It’s a minor detail that would be ignored by most people watching it, but it helps make the movie more authentic.
The American Civil War was a unique conflict, and many movies fail to capture its essence. Most Civil War movies have some inaccuracies, but Cold Mountain features a faithful reconstruction of the Battle of the Crater at the siege of Petersburg. Historian Dan Snow praised Cold Mountain‘s representation of 19th-century trench warfare, and its use of period-appropriate unit flags. (via History Hit) Cold Mountain has such a keen eye for detail that it features flags belonging to the correct military units that were actually present at the siege of Petersburg. It’s a minor detail that would be ignored by most people watching it, but it helps make the movie more authentic.
6 1917 (2019)
World War I
One of the best World War I movies of all time, Sam Mendes’ 1917 was based on his grandfather’s recollections from his time in the trenches. Mendes was extremely faithful to his grandfather’s descriptions, and the barren, muddy wasteland of 1917 mirrors the real-life conditions of the conflict. (via Smithsonian Magazine) The plot is an unusual mixture of fact and fiction. Mendes’ grandfather told him about the story of a messenger in the trenches when he was a child, but the director expanded the narrative and filled in the gaps with his own creative touches. Even if the plot is fictional, Mendes took care to make 1917 look the part.
5 Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
World War II
Hacksaw Ridge follows the true story of Desmond Doss, an American combat medic who refused to even carry a gun during World War II, as he was a self-proclaimed pacifist. Desmond Doss passed away before ever seeing his story on the big screen, but his son Desmond Jr. was astounded by “the level of accuracy in adhering to the principle of the story in this movie.” (via People) Hacksaw Ridge is also admired for its graphic depiction of war, including a scene where rats feast on human entrails. War movies often try to reflect the harsh conditions on the battlefield, but few are so committed.
4 Alexander (2004)
Alexander the Great’s Conquests
Alexander created one of the most realistic depictions of ancient warfare ever put to film.
Because there is less factual evidence available, most ancient war movies prefer aiming for fantasy rather than historical accuracy. It may have been a commercial failure, but Oliver Stone’s Alexander created one of the most realistic depictions of ancient warfare ever put to film. The movie took the advice of several ancient historians, and the Battle of Gaugamela sequence shows the product of their work. Dr. Roel Konijnendijk from Oxford University stated “in terms of ancient warfare, this is the most accurate depiction that you’ll find anywhere.” (via Inside) He also approved of the movie’s detailed costumes and props.
3 Das Boot (1981)
World War II
The West German movie Das Boot tells the fictional story of the crew of the U-96, a German submarine in World War II. While the events were scripted for dramatic purposes, the movie’s finer details are finely observed. The production used a mock-up of the submarine, which tilted and shook using a hydraulic system. To compliment the realistic sensation of the submarine, the actors were trained as submariners, and weren’t allowed to go out in the sun, so they would retain appropriately pale faces. (via War History Online) This attention to detail makes Das Boot one of the most accurate depictions of war in any movie.
2 All Quiet On The Western Front (2022)
World War I
Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front has been adapted for the big screen before, but Edward Berger’s 2022 version was the first in the German language. Historian Bethany Wyatt approved of All Quiet on the Western Front’s understanding of how German soldiers in World War I would try to find comfort in food, receiving mail, or bleak humor. (via History Extra) Remarque based his novel on his own experiences in the trenches of World War I, so All Quiet on the Western Front is closer to the real thing than other movies which rely purely on research.
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket follows a platoon of U.S. Marines through their boot camp training under the direction of an abusive drill instructor. In a video for GQ, Marine Infantryman James Laporta said that even though the story took place decades before his own experiences, elements were “no different from then to when I went through boot camp in 2006,” especially a scene where the drill instructor scolds a recruit for leaving his footlocker unlocked. R Lee Ermey, who starred in Full Metal Jacket, was a real drill instructor. He was only supposed to provide historical advice for the movie, but Kubrick gave him the role of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.
Sources: The Telegraph, Insider, Slate, People, GQ, War History Online, History Extra, Smithsonian Magazine, History Hit