If there's one thing we can all agree about the military, it's that they kick ass. It's their job after all. Regardless of the conflict and the politics that may surround it, the military (in all its forms) are the men and women we trust to swoop in and save the day. Battleship may be the most recent example of military kick-assery on screen, but before you check out the Blu-ray release on August 28, check these other great examples of the military proving their might on-screen.
Starship Troopers (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel about man’s conflict with an invading species of giant insects is on the recommended reading list for several military organizations, so many felt betrayed by Paul Verhoeven’s revisionist take on the material that plays up the propaganda for a satirical dig at American jingoism. But he accomplished that feat by playing the action straight. The team of impossibly good-looking heroes is glorified in every frame of Starship Troopers, and ultimately overcomes the alien threat through good old-fashioned ass-kicking on an interplanetary scale. Exciting action filmmaking, just not the kind some of us wanted to see.
Transformers (dir. Michael Bay, 2007)
Director Michael Bay actually made an honest to god war movie, but since that movie was Pearl Harbor we’ll focus our attentions on Transformers, the first in a series of sci-fi action spectacles that frequently resort to what can only be called military porn. The story is ostensibly about a young boy who befriends his robot car and saves the world, but Bay’s attentions are clearly focused on a team of soldiers who, over the course of three films, kick as much robo-alien ass as their iconic co-stars. The films are a mess, but it’s easy to see why military boosters love them.
The Patriot (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2000)
Calling Roland Emmerich’s American Revolution spectacular “historically inaccurate” is like calling an M1 Abrams tank a car. That’s not what The Patriot is all about though. It’s a rousingly produced bit of pro-America nonsense that glorifies colonial warfare like no other film has. Mel Gibson stars as an American colonialist forced into guerilla warfare with the British after they massacre his family. Jason Isaacs plays a gloriously over the top villain whom Gibson engages in a climactic battle sequence that really is a wonder to behold. If you can avoid feeling insulted, you’ll be impressed by the power of the American ideal and the might of the first American military. If you can’t, well, that’s okay too.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (dir. Peter Weir, 2003)
You know that other countries have militaries too, right? In this acclaimed adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved novel series, Russell Crowe stars as Captain Jack Aubrey of the British Royal Navy, on a mission to rid the ocean of French pirates in the Napoleonic Wars. Director Peter Weir allows for quiet moments between the crew, but the discipline and bravado of the military is always on display, particularly in some of the finest open water action sequences yet filmed. The crew of the H.M.S Surprise aren’t just fine sailors, they’re incredible soldiers who overcome all odds and kick some serious French ass. As Americans, you might be able to appreciate that.
Heartbreak Ridge (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1986)
Clint Eastwood directed and starred in this impressive and underappreciated military movie about the U.S. Invasion of Grenada in 1983. Eastwood plays Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, whose last assignment before retirement finds him commanding a platoon completely lacking in discipline. Highway’s unconventional methods and secret record as a war hero eventually whip the men into fighting shape, even though they are considered a lost cause, and together they overcome all odds and an oppressive Operations Officer (Everett McGill) to become an elite force and heroes of the conflict. Fine drama, and a fine appreciation of the military spirit.
Hell is for Heroes (dir. Don Siegel, 1962)
There are lots of great World War II movies, most of them display the strength of the American military in all its glory. Hell is for Heroes is a little different, in that it focuses on the ingenuity of the soldiers involved as they struggle to hold the line against the Nazis, in this case without any resources and only a few men. Steve McQueen leads a cast that also includes James Coburn, Bob Newhart and Bobby Darin, and they’re all stellar as a group of regular guys who, for 48 hours, have to be the smartest soldiers in the world in order to survive. And it culminates in one of our favorite, ass-kicking action sequences in war movie history. Hell is for Heroes isn’t the best known World War II movie, but it’s one of the best.
Top Gun (dir. Tony Scott, 1986)
The late Tony Scott directed this pop culture masterpiece about a renegade flyboy who learns discipline the hard way, finally accepting his place in the team dynamic just in time for the high-flying aerial dogfight conclusion. Scott’s depiction of the Air Force as a macho boys club was so alluring that recruitment in the U.S. Navy skyrocketed as much as 500% after its release. Lots of movies about the military kick ass, but Top Gun may be the only one with hard data to back it up.
Glory (dir. Edward Zwick, 1989)
Edward Zwick’s sweeping epic Glory earned critical appreciation and a handful of Oscars for its impressive tale of heroism in the Civil War, and raised a few eyebrows for finally telling the story of the first all-black military company, played by such remarkable actors as Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Andre Braugher. So it was pretty weird and arguably insulting that he told the story from the perspective of their white commander, played by an arguably miscast Matthew Broderick. But the strength of the film lies in its dedication to the nobility and character of the volunteer army, and the powerful depiction of the battles that redefined a nation.
Letters from Iwo Jima (dir. Clint Eastwood, 2006)
It’s rare to tell a war movie from the enemy’s perspective, but that’s just what Clint Eastwood did with this Oscar-nominated film about the Japanese side of The Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. The devastating motion picture successfully creates empathy for America’s opposition by portraying the American army as a terrifying and unstoppable force of power. The U.S. soldiers don’t just arrive on the beach, they emerge from the skyline like a hurricane of firepower, generating a palpable terror in the film’s protagonists and a jaw-dropping sense of our own might in the audience. Eastwood’s Japanese characters are sympathetic to even the most dedicated patriot, and although he caves in to unnecessary schmaltz in the last few minutes, his film carries a weight that few war movies ever gain.
Black Hawk Down (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001)
Probably the most ass-kicking-est military movie ever made, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down divorces itself from almost all the politics surrounding the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and gets right down in the firefight with its soldiers, who risk life and limb to save a crashed Black Hawk helicopter in the middle of a war zone. Scott’s impeccable ensemble cast and near-perfect editing make the sprawling battle easy to follow in even the most chaotic moments, and the tenacity and fearlessness of the soldiers involved could inspire even the most pacifist of audience members. It’s the most rousing war movie of our time, and one of the best ever made.
Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by Universal.