Strategic Outpost Goes to the Movies
Every summer since 2016, we have dutifully crafted a summer vacation reading list for our loyal readers. But this year, the utterly bizarre yet somehow appealing phenomenon known as Barbenheimer inspired us to do something a bit different. So, for the first time, we present the Strategic Outpost movie list — our highly unscientific picks for some of the best, as well as some of the worst, war movies of all time!
Our selections span the gamut from black comedies to gritty documentaries, with everything in between — including multiple Academy Award winners, alongside a few Razzie nominees as well! Lists like this, of course, are often controversial, and we can already hear you shouting at us for not including your personal most beloved/most hated movies. Though we feel no need to justify our choices (it is our column, after all), we invite you to share your thoughts with us at email@example.com. If we collect enough good suggestions, we might publish a follow-up column consisting of War on the Rocks reader favorites!
Here they are, in no particular order.
Strategic Outpost’s Best War Movies
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Truly the grandaddy of all natsec films, and the be-all and end-all of dark Cold War comedies. With an all-star cast, from George C. Scott to Slim Pickens (with James Earl Jones in his screen debut), and with Peter Sellers playing no fewer than three parts, this wickedly funny take on nuclear Armageddon offers one of our favorite movie lines of all time: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!!!” Just be sure not to drink any fluoridated water, though, in order to protect your precious bodily fluids.
Restrepo (2010). Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize Award for a Documentary, and Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature.
This powerful film from Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington follows the life and losses of an infantry company of U.S. Army paratroopers in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley during their 15-month combat deployment from 2007 to 2008. We show parts of this film in almost every class that we teach, since it unsparingly portrays the world of a modern infantry soldier in (and out of) sustained combat. It beautifully reveals the uncertainty of looming battle, the pain of human losses, and the boredom of days with nothing to do in an austere combat environment. It is both gripping and inspiring — though it’s even harder to watch now, with the bitter knowledge that the suffering shown here was ultimately not enough to keep Afghanistan out of the hands of the enemy these men sacrificed so much to defeat.
Greyhound (2020). Nominated for one Academy Award.
This standout film adapts C.S. Forester’s engrossing novel, The Good Shepherd, about war at sea in the frigid North Atlantic during World War II. Tom Hanks stars as the captain of a Navy destroyer on his first combat mission, leading a convoy of vulnerable merchant ships across storm-tossed seas while a deadly wolf pack of Nazi submarines steadily whittles down his charges and his stamina. Tense and unsparing in its portrait of this deadly but nearly forgotten theater of war, the unremitting demands placed upon a wartime captain at sea have arguably never been better depicted on screen.
The Hunt for Red October (1990). Nominated for three Academy Awards.
Another naval favorite of ours, this adaptation of the Tom Clancy thriller brings a star-studded cast (including Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones, and Sam Neill) to the screen to navigate a nightmare scenario at the height of the Cold War. The perils of undersea combat, revealed through the deadly cat-and-mouse game of submarine warfare between the U.S. and Soviet fleets, have never been more powerfully told. From the hallways of power in Washington to the stormy North Atlantic, this film not only highlights the complex intricacies of Cold War relations between Washington and Moscow, but also sheds more light on just how close to disaster the United States and Soviet Union came during a four-decade conflict that simmered just below the boiling point. But it’s also a lot of fun, and we never get tired of watching Courtney B. Vance as the brilliant sonar operator who figures out where the Red October is heading.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
This powerful film was once described as the “best movie ever made about the Air Force,” and we wholeheartedly agree. It tells the story of combat leadership in the air during the first years of the American strategic bombing campaign in Europe during World War II, where the appalling losses to German fighters and flak meant that only one in four airmen could expect to complete their 25-mission tour. A bomb group suffering heavy casualties is taken over by a hard-charging commander (played by Gregory Peck), who replaces a much-beloved leader fired for not getting results. A classic study in leadership under nearly unimaginable pressure, this movie has long been a part of U.S. Air Force professional development sessions. But it is also a gut-wrenching story about the impossible demands that are often placed upon American combat units in the opening days of a war against a highly capable enemy — making it extremely relevant for those thinking about future conflicts today.
Apocalypse Now (1979). Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The Vietnam War prompted a number of controversial films, which mirrored the polarizing and at times even surreal nature of the war itself. This epic account, which is loosely based upon Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness, is now considered one of the best films ever made. Featuring a standout cast including Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, and a stunningly young Harrison Ford, the film follows a young Army captain on a near-impossible mission upriver deep into Cambodia to kill a renegade American Special Forces officer. Mirroring all of the madness and tragedy of this divisive conflict, this picture delivers a sometimes jarring, but always thought-provoking, interpretation of the war.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
This touching story of soldiers, sailors, and airmen returning in 1945 shreds many of the still-common stereotypes about how easily millions of veterans readjusted to their homes and communities after World War II. It charts the return of three veterans, one of whom is badly disabled, as they navigate their jobs and neighborhoods in a small town that they no longer fit into — while also exploring the difficult adjustments required of those whom they left behind. We’ve known many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who feel that this film perfectly captured their own experiences, despite the difference in decades and in the type of war fought. This brilliant work forcefully reminds us that returning from wars has never been easy — and likely never will be.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
A striking World War II film detailing the brutal experiences of British prisoners of war forced to construct a railway bridge deep in the Burmese jungles to complete the final link in a vital Japanese military supply line. Based on the true story of Allied prisoners compelled to build the Burma railway in 1942–43, this morally complex account challenges our thinking about the role of honor, courage, duty, and leadership in the face of staggering deprivation. With standout performances by stars Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, and Jack Hawkins, the last scene of the film features a memorable line that sadly applies to many military expeditions: “Madness! Madness!”
Dunkirk (2017). Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
A striking interpretation of the surrounded British army’s miraculous evacuation from France in the face of relentless German assaults in May and June 1940. Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan plays with time to tell the story of the harrowing evacuation through the eyes of three participants during different periods of time: a frightened young soldier on the beach, over the course of a week; a civilian small boat captain sailing to the French coast despite Nazi attacks, over the course of a day; and a determined fighter pilot above, over the course of an hour. By constantly shifting across these three timelines, then bringing them together at the end, Nolan powerfully conveys the stress and fear that must have been in the hearts of every participant in this desperate and remarkable battle. And the incredible score by Hans Zimmer will definitely keep you at the edge of your seat throughout the film.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, 2022).
The classic 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque has been adapted for the big screen twice: the 1930 version, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the 2022 version, which won the Academy Award for Best International Feature. (There was also a TV movie version released in 1979.) There are notable differences between them, as you might expect from the fact that they were made more than 90 years apart. The former is a classic Hollywood movie, featuring well-known American actors, while the latter is a wholly German film that is more authentic in many ways but that controversially changed the ending. Yet both versions tell a gut-wrenching story about the impact of horrific trench warfare on otherwise innocent young men — and both are rightfully seen as among the most enduring and impactful of antiwar films. The war in Ukraine reminds us that these soldiers’ shocking experiences are not relics of history, and will likely endure as long as humans continue to fight.
Few films better sum up high-flying naval aviation culture, first with Cold War dogfights and now a looming conflict against an unnamed peer competitor. Throughout it all, Tom Cruise exemplifies what it means to be a fighter pilot and the ethos of air combat. Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his unmatched skill in gut-wrenching air-to-air dogfighting once again show that “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” — that it is people, not machines, that matter most. Yet today’s stunning advances in AI and unmanned aircraft technology suggest that piloted military aviation may soon be overtaken by high-G dogfights among autonomous machines. But, as Maverick notes to his drone-loving admiral: “Maybe so, sir. But not today.”
Strategic Outpost’s Worst War Movies
Pearl Harbor (2001). Nominated for six Razzies, including Worst Picture.
It takes serious effort to make a movie this bad. Almost every part of the film reeks with painful dialog, cringeworthy cliches, historical inaccuracies, and an utterly ridiculous love triangle. Even assembling the talents of director Michael Bay and actors like Ben Affleck, Cuba Gooding, and Kate Beckinsale wasn’t enough to salvage a truly horrendous script. The only good thing about this film is that one of us got to watch the filming of some flying scenes and meet some of the stars — on the USS Missouri, no less. (The other one of us would have walked out of the theater, but stayed solely because of the air conditioning on a steamy July day in Washington.) If you want to see a decent film on the 1941 surprise Japanese attack, we suggest the 1970 classic Tora! Tora! Tora!
Battleship (2012). Nominated for seven Razzies, including Worst Picture.
Though this movie was inspired by the venerable classic board game of the same name, any resemblance to strategy, tactics, or even just basic entertainment ends there. We’ll never understand why the usually terrific Liam Neeson agreed to be in this stinker. The notion of Transformers meets the U.S. Navy to battle for the future of humanity could have had some potential — but this production missed every opportunity to find it. This film makes us wish we had gone down with the ship.
Starship Troopers (1997). Nominated for one Academy Award.
The Robert Heinlein novel, upon which this movie is supposedly based, is a sci-fi masterpiece that is beloved by many members of the military. But somehow the film manages to twist the original provocative premise that weaves the rights of citizenship, military service, and a stunning vision of future intergalactic warfare into a sophomoric take on everything from future young adults to the character of military training and the nature of combat. Though many viewers applaud the film for providing a “self-aware satire” of military culture, we think it simply does celluloid violence to the brilliant creativity of the original text. If you love good sci-fi, avoid this calamity at all costs.
The Hurt Locker (2008). Winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Few things are guaranteed in a classroom, but this one is a lock: whenever we announce that we’re about to show a scene from this film, every single student with military experience will instantly groan. (Once we explain that the clip shows the boredom of coming home, they will reluctantly concede that that one scene is acceptable.) While movie critics and Academy Award voters hailed the so-called realism of the film, those in the military can’t stand what they see as stunning inaccuracies in the major characters, plot, and general portrayal of the experience of war. We agree. To see what war is truly like, you can’t do better than Restrepo, listed above.
And with that, Strategic Outpost is on vacation until the fall! We hope you enjoy some of these movies (and avoid some of the others) on your summer journeys — even if that trek is simply from the kitchen to the living room! We look forward to your feedback, as always, and your thoughts on those just-gotta-see/-avoid war movies that we didn’t include!
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.), and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Professors of the Practice at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears periodically. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.