There are a lot of war movies out there. A lot of good and bad ones. Saving Private Ryan is legendary, 12 Strong is a new modern favorite, and All Quiet on the Western Front may be the best historical war film in the last two decades. But consider these latter two films and ponder their differences. One is a harrowing account of the horrors of war, and the other is an adaptation of real events, yet looks a lot like a Michael Bay action film. Between the two, which do you think is the more authentic?
It’s no secret that Hollywood glorifies war. When there isn’t over-the-top action, it’s the ideals of brotherhood, courage, and becoming a hero for one’s country. The brave soldiers are essentially superheroes who will gladly run into danger. These traits sell tickets; post-traumatic stress disorder and truth do not. And what’s worse, Hollywood isn’t the only entity profiting off of these lies — the government is, too. Here are 15 action movies that glorify war.
15 Missing in Action (1984)
An icon graces the list. Too bad it’s not part of a better movie. In Missing in Action, Colonel James Braddock is an American officer who was held captive for seven years as a POW in Vietnam. He’s been free for 10 years, but when he learns that others may still be imprisoned, he makes the brave choice to return. After acquiring the evidence he needs, Braddock travels to Thailand to meet up with an old friend who has turned down a dark path. But redemption comes in odd places because the two soon team up to lead a rescue mission against the ruthless General Trau.
A Cheesy War
Cinema has a trend that, when a movie comes out and makes a bunch of money, they will unleash a bunch of copycats to rake in a bunch of money. Missing in Action is a rip-off of the Rambo films, except they’re arguably more fun. Nonetheless, this movie is glorification of war at its finest. The Vietnamese are depicted as slimy and sadistic brutes, there’s unrealistic action and mayhem, the main antagonist is a one-dimensional caricature, and all the arms are oiled. If nothing else, this movie is a stupid fun time like Chuck Norris films are meant to be. However, if one watches this and feels inspired to join the Army, then they are in for a rude awakening. Rent on AppleTV
14 Man of Steel (2013)
Born on the planet Krypton, but sent to Earth for his survival, Clark Kent grows up an outsider to the world in Man of Steel. He’s a man with many gifts that the world is not ready for, but in his journey to find meaning and purpose, he becomes the hero the planet needs. His first real test comes in the form of revenants of his long-destroyed home world, and Clark is the only thing standing in their way. It’s in the darkest hours that heroes are made.
Heroes Standing with Heroes
It’s not just war movies that glorify war. American action films that depict war land on the glorification of these conflicts because there is a market for it. Film studios and the U.S. Department of Defense often work together, which is why they’ve been supporting such movies for a century by providing resources and funding. Man of Steel is one such movie for its portrayal of military characters as take-no-prisoners heroic figures who fight alongside the heroes without question. The studios get the profit, and the U.S. Military gets to look like noble action heroes for the DOD. Stream on Max
13 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Everyone should know Captain America: The First Avenger. Patriots are born in all shapes and sizes, but, noble to the core, Steve Rogers had zero to no chance of getting the chance to fight for his country because he was sickly and could barely keep up with the training. But it wasn’t his physical prowess that his country needed. It was his heart. Through a genetic operation, Steve becomes the soldier that America needs, being catapulted into superstardom as the country’s symbol and earning notoriety on the battlefield as America’s greatest weapon.
The Man You Could Be
Not all superheroes are guilty of shameless glorification, but some significant names are. The guiltiest may arguably be Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve is an American patriot to the core, and the movie makes sure it’s known in almost every scene. He’s a good old boy who wants nothing more than to fight for his country and even gets into fights when it is criticized. He embodies the heroic standards of American heroism while fighting in Germany, painting the war as an action movie of American heroes, diving into the age-old good and evil trope many war films take to promote the military. Stream on Disney+
12 Battleship (2012)
- Release Date
- April 11, 2012
- Peter Berg
Alex Hopper is a grade-A screw-up in Battleship, ruining his life irreparably until his brother gives him a second chance by enlisting him in the U.S. Navy. Even there, he’s still a screw-up, but when it matters most, he becomes a leader. It matters more than ever when an alien armada interrupts the 2012 RIMPAC exercise. Threatening humanity, it’s up to the brave crew of the USS John Paul Jones to make a stand in what will be the decisive battle for the fate of the world.
Aliens Not Guaranteed
In terms of military and combat glorification, this one is self-explanatory. Battleship is based on the popular children’s board game, which had about as much to do with aliens as this movie has to do with the game, so there’s no reason for this Michael Bay-produced flop full of explosions and bad CGI. And like most Michael Bay movies, the stereotypical American spirit is on full display with a cast playing navy officers and veterans making a stand at sea in over-the-top gunfights. The Navy usually doesn’t get as much love when it comes to war movies, but this one is given the full treatment here. This could be a stupid-fun movie to enjoy for the 4th of July, but not if you’re looking for a reason to enlist in the Navy. Rent on AppleTV
11 Transformers (2007)
In this Michael Bay classic, Sam Witwicki is a bumbling high-school student with basic aspirations, whose fate is changed forever with the purchase of a car. All he wanted was to get the girl of his dreams and have a great high school experience. Unfortunately, there happens to be a massive conflict between two races of alien robots that soon spills onto Earth, with Sam right at the center. Before long, American forces must pick a side, leading to a climactic battle for the world.
Standing with Giants
A lot has been said about 2007’s Transformers, one topic of which is the depiction of military forces. As stated above, the DOD will sometimes fund and contribute to productions to have the military depicted in a positive and heroic light, and this film is no different. Captain Lennox’s team is attacked by the Decepticons early on, pulling them into the fight with the Autobots and fighting alongside them in the final battle, even dealing heavy damage despite their inferior weapons. The same occurs throughout most of the franchise films, at times depicting humans as being as big a threat to the Decepticons as the Autobots. Fortunately, the most recent Transformers films have abandoned such pandering.
10 Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
A few years after Rambo: First Blood, John Rambo still sits in jail until his friend Colonel Sam Trautman gives him a chance at freedom. The price: return to the place he swore never to return to — Vietnam. Tasked with collecting evidence that the Viet Cong are still holding American POWs hostage, Rambo agrees to the mission, only to find himself betrayed and abandoned by the very people who sent him back. But there are still prisoners who need him, and Rambo will not leave a man behind.
Rambo: First Blood Part II was a complete U-turn from its predecessor, which was an intense character study on a traumatized soldier who fought a war rejected by the American people. Even today, it’s still impactful for its anti-war message and in-depth look at the real costs of war. However, its sequel completely turns its back on those messages in favor of glorious violence and action.
Not only was it a turn from the original story, but the reactions to the film were also reversed, understandably. Real-life veterans protested the film, per LA Times, saying that Rambo could bring war and imploring younger audiences to not take inspiration from the film to enlist in the military, citing that real combat is nothing like what they see. Stream on Paramount+
9 Pearl Harbor (2001)
Childhood friends, Rafe and Danny, become Army Air Corps pilots together and meet nurse Evelyn during their medical exams in Pearl Harbor. Rafe and Evelyn fall madly in love in just a short time, but their story comes to an abrupt halt when Rafe gets shot down behind enemy lines. In their grief, Danny and Evelyn fall for one another, but that only makes things more complicated when Rafe returns after having been presumed dead. But before the three can figure things out and come to terms with their changing lives, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in what would later become known as the day that lives in infamy.
Heavily Commercialized History
What hasn’t been said about this Pearl Harbor? First off, Michael Bay’s career started as a commercial director, something that oddly enough transferred into his film direction with the egregious product placement and quick cuts. It’s not the wisest combination to mix commercial directing with a war movie because the result is an over-the-top commercial for America and Patriotism.
Bay himself has said that he directs movies for teenage boys, and, frankly, it shows here. Hot nurses, bar fights, and big explosions pack out this three-hour-long epic, and never have there been more shots of the flowing American flag in one movie, but maybe cool explosions shouldn’t be the highlight for a movie about one of the darkest days in American history. Stream on Max
8 12 Strong (2018)
- Release Date
- January 16, 2018
- Warner Bros.
Mitch Nelson was moving into a new home with his family when news broke of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Anxious to fight back, Mitch volunteers to ship to Afghanistan to launch the first counterattack. Teaming up with the Northern Alliance, his team faces staggering odds, but it’s not the American way to back down from a fight, even if they must do it on horseback. This is the story of the brave men who risked it all when the world turned upside down.
Handsome Heroes on Horses
Even after two decades, Hollywood continues to ride 9/11 for all it’s worth. 12 Strong is loosely based on the book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton about the U.S. Army Special Forces squad sent to Afghanistan immediately following the attacks. However, the movie isn’t honest about the way things played out. The U.S. played an active part in this mission, but the Afghan allies were more active than they were given credit for.
The Americans were shown at the forefront of the operation in all their handsome and heroic glory, rushing headlong into danger in ways that didn’t happen. The most honest war films are truthful to reality and show the true cost of combat. All one has to do is look at the poster to know this isn’t one of them. Rent on AppleTV
7 Lone Survivor (2013)
Lone Survivor follows a group of Navy SEALs on a mission in Afghanistan gone wrong. Deployed to take down a Taliban leader, four soldiers find themselves at an impasse when they are discovered in hiding. Although reluctant, they choose to let him go, but their choice soon leads to an all-out assault by Taliban forces. Only one of the four men makes it out alive. This film is the story of what happened.
It can be argued that Lone Survivor glorifies the soldiers over warfare, but the action is rough and, at times, hard to watch because it’s surprisingly honest. Flesh is torn, bones are shattered against stone, and lives are lost in heart-wrenching, and perhaps even gut-wrenching ways, but it is honest to the horrors of war.
What isn’t honest is the events and facts inflated for the film, such as the firefight in the climax and the number of Taliban the Seals faced in dangerously close to glorifying warfare. The initial attacks, as well as several other key details. The film toes the line between glorifying and honesty for the sake of the story, but is it necessary? Stream on Netflix
6 Top Gun (1986)
Devil-may-care ace-pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchel gets accepted into Miramar’s elite fighter pilot school, where he competes with other pilots for the academy’s top prize. He’ll have to give it all he’s got to win, but he’s too impulsive, and his antics threaten to be more trouble than the Air Force needs. Haunted by the death of his father, Maverick will have to work past his issues to prove himself to his superiors and Charlie, the academy’s no-nonsense astrophysics instructor.
Breaking the Rules
It’s sad to see a classic like Top Gun on this list. Unfortunately, it happens to be one of the most notable offenders. This is the movie that showed the government the potential for recruitment. Top Gun is another teenager’s wet dream, full of oiled guys, girls in tight clothing, fast-as-light planes, and notions of brotherhood. The movie prefaces cowboy antics over camaraderie and duty to solve problems. Maverick is an uncontrollable menace who breaks every rule and gets away with it on account of his skills. These aren’t something recruits would find in the Navy, but that notion doesn’t attract would-be heroes. Stream on Paramount+
5 Red Dawn (1984)
On an ordinary day in the U.S., Soviet troops descend upon the country and land on a football field at a Colorado high school, effectively declaring war. In the ensuing attack, many are killed, and a group of teenagers flees into the mountains. They try their best to survive the frigid winter, but the danger only elevates when they are forced to kill a group of Russian soldiers. From this act, they are incited to fight back with only a handful of inferior weapons. The odds are not in their favor, but with a bit of luck and bravery, they can do anything.
The Great What Could Have Been
Another classic on the list, Red Dawn is redeemable in that it was released during the heightened tensions of the Cold War, and by the fact that it takes place on American soil, so no one can say they are going to other countries to kill their people. This movie is packed with patriotism, which is understandable, given the subject, but it’s still vastly overblown.
This rag-tag group of teenagers almost singlehandedly takes out the soviet army, and the Soviets are almost cartoonish. At the time Red Dawn was released, the Soviets’ invasion was a real possibility, and this movie could have been something of a horror movie if done practically, but it instead pushed the idea that the American spirit could trump any odds. Maybe it can, but pandering is still pandering. Stream on Max
4 Iron Eagle (1986)
- Release Date
- January 17, 1986
- Sidney J. Furie
- Louis Gossett Jr. , Jason Gedrick , David Suchet , Larry B. Scott , Caroline Lagerfelt , Jerry Levine
Casualties are a cost of war, and when Doug’s Air Force Pilot father is shot down by MiGs, a Middle Eastern state, chances of his rescue quickly diminish. Desperate to save him, Doug finds his way to Colonel Chappy, who plans to embark on a mission to save Doug’s father with just two planes piloted by himself and Doug. The only problem is they don’t have access to fighter jets, and Doug can’t hit anything unless he has music playing. They’re an unlikely duo, but sometimes the oddest pairings are the best.
Military Rescue For Kids
Iron Eagle isn’t exactly a classic, and it’s not hard to see why. For starters, Doug was denied admission into the Air Force because of his inability to shoot anything without music, which is an obvious disqualifier, but the notion that he could take part in such a dangerous mission without any formal training is wild. The movie seems to say that it doesn’t take much training to fly a jet.
Even worse, it posits that retaliation is the only way to deal with the enemy and that negotiations are for cowards. The best war films state that the best solutions are the ones with fewer lives lost. Iron Eagle states that the only solution to international matters is to shoot it and ask questions later. Stream on AMC+
3 Behind Enemy Lines (2001)
Fighter navigator Chris Burnett wants out of his career as a fighter pilot because the missions he takes on are only ever reconnaissance, and he never sees any action. He is truly and utterly bored. That all changes when he tries to investigate something odd from the sky, leading to a discovery that results in him being shot down and on the run through war-torn Bosnia. As Burnett fights for his life, Commanding Officer Reigert contends with the politics back home getting in the way of his rescue mission, which forces Burnett to travel even further into danger to survive.
A Call to Arms
A movie by another former commercial director, Behind Enemy Lines was stalled by the 9/11 attacks. But it worked out because this was just the movie the Pentagon needed to get Americans to believe in war again. Among these films’ crimes are the breaking of international diplomacy for the sake of ensuring no man is left behind. And like most pro-America movies, the antagonists are nothing but tropes and stereotypes, being just murderous enough to fit the terrorist aura to get blood boiling.
By the film’s end, Burnett has been under heavy fire and has run back through it for the sake of justice before deciding to remain in active service, promoting the idea that American troops are action heroes with a lust for danger. This message might have been enticing for potential enlistees, but the costs were far too high. Stream on Max
2 Act of Valor (2012)
Act of Valor
- Release Date
- February 24, 2012
- Alexander Asefa , Drea Castro , Jason Cottle , Aurelius DiBarsanti , Timothy Gibbs , Carla Jimenez
When an elite team of Navy SEALs is sent to rescue a kidnapped CIA operative, they could never imagine that it would lead to the globe-spanning hunt that they find themselves on. With each destination, the danger and stakes get higher. But along with defending freedom from terrorism, the SEALs must also balance duty, their family lives, and their loyalty to their teammates. Act of Valor is a pulse-pounding tale of heroism acted by real SEALs to give a reality-based action adventure full of just as much heart as gunfire.
Larger Than Life Valor
Act of Valor is without a doubt one of the most egregious offenders of war-glorifying, and does everything it can to make active combat look like a Call of Duty. To start, it uses the deaths of children to justify the violence that ensues. The innocence of children tends to be a recurring theme in many war movies, as they are seen as the driving force for war in most cases, and allows this film in particular to skip any ethical and moral debates.
Another common theme in war movies is the perpetuation of the warrior ethos. The SEALs are shot in just the right way to make them look like well-oiled killing machines to let audiences live in their shoes vicariously. It touts that being considered dangerous is a badge of honor, but as always, that’s a dangerous message to send to casual viewers. Stream on Max
1 The Green Berets (1968)
The war in Vietnam rages on, and as the troops struggle to survive overseas, the perception of the fighting back home is getting more negative by the day. To get to the truth of the bloodshed, war correspondent George Beckwith accompanies Colonel Mike Kirby and two combined squads into the heart of the conflict. Their mission is to capture a high-level Viet Cong officer and retake their overrun base, but in doing so, Beckwith will see firsthand what the real battle is, and it may just make him question everything he knows to be true.
A Movie of Falsities
Even though The Green Berets is over 50 years old, it holds surprisingly relevant today. John Wayne follows the Donald Trump method of responding to the Vietnam War criticism through vilifying the press and using fake facts. Throughout the film, Wayne’s character slowly turns the naive war correspondent over to the “reality” of the fight by re-educating him on history and showing him the “real” face of communism. He then shows the report that the U.S. is necessary to the war because they are the heroes.
They deliver medicine to the sick and give the homeless shelter, all while protecting them from the savage Viet Cong who only want to steal their freedom. All this is done to justify the U.S.’s presence. Green Berets were made to defend the war, which was costing so many lives, and ultimately failed because they never dissuaded anyone from the truth. Rent on AppleTV