10 Good U.S. Marine Corps Movies – Films Featuring Marines

Friday, November 4, 2011 at 7:22 am

November 10th marks the celebration of USMC Day, a holiday which recognizes the creation of the United States Marine Corps on the same day back in 1775. Since that time, Marines have participated in every conflict involving the United States, and the public’s enduring fascination with these fighting men and women have guaranteed their depiction in all manner of media. Since I have no desire to discuss Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., this article will instead focus on 10 good U.S. Marine Corps movies.

While modern movies frequently show a more unflattering side of military life, films featuring Marines have long been used to impress the citizenry and bolster recruitment. This dates all the way back to 1918’s The Star Spangled Banner, with the USMC providing extras, technical advisors, uniforms, and equipment in exchange for a positive portrayal. It’s been effective, too, as most Americans would list the Marines at the top of their list when it comes to military branches that excel in kicking ass.

If you know someone serving in the Marine Corps, be sure to set a little time aside on November 10th and watch one or more of the movies listed below. Heck, even if you come from a long line of pacifists and draft dodgers, you owe it to yourself to be entertained while receiving a reminder of the sacrifice the few have always made for the many.

If you find yourself sufficiently moved after viewing a few U.S. Marine Corps movies, you might even consider sending a letter or care package to those fighting Devil Dogs currently serving overseas. There are a number of sites that can be of assistance, but AnyMarine specializes in the USMC. Semper Fi!

The Great Santini (1979) – Plenty of readers may only remember Robert Duvall as a crusty coot in films such as Open Range, Get Low, and The Apostle. But even as far back as the 1960s and ‘70s, Duvall was turning in performances filled with seething emotion. The Great Santini is one such film, as Duvall takes on the role of Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meechum, a 1962 Marine Corps pilot, who, lacking a war to fight in, busies himself by butting heads with his family and the military. Standout scenes include a chaotic display in a restaurant, where a spilled can of soup is passed off for vomit ready to be devoured by rowdy Marines, and the famous family basketball game where Meechum loses for the first time to one of his kids (co-star Michael O’Keefe) and doesn’t react gracefully.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) – Considered by many to be the definitive Marine movie, Sands of Iwo Jima stars John Wayne as hardass Sergeant John Stryker. His men detest him for his relentless training regimen, but his tough-as-nails attitude begins to pay off once the soldiers encounter increasingly stiff resistance from the Japanese. The film culminates with the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the iconic flag-raising on Mount Suribachi features the actual flag hoisted following the battle (on loan from the Marine Corps Museum). If you’re wondering why John Wayne is such an American legend, this is as good a place to start as any.

What Price Glory (1952) – Originally intended as a musical, this John Ford comedy (and remake of the 1926 Raoul Walsh silent film and 1924 stage play) stars James Cagney as Captain Flagg, a veteran Marine in charge of front line troops in France during World War I. When old rival Sergeant Quirt (Dan Dailey) is transferred to his unit as the senior non-com, sparks fly as both men compete for the affection of innkeeper’s daughter, Charmaine (the beautiful Corinne Calvet). The laughs may be a little dated, but the heroic depiction of the Marine Corps is still intact, as well as the rousing strains of the Marines’ Hymn.

Heartbreak Ridge (1986) – Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this film about an aging Marine named Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway. With a mandatory retirement looming on the horizon, Highway transfers back to his old Recon unit and is tasked with whipping the slacker soldiers into shape. He must also contend with a superior officer (Everett McGill) obsessed with seeing combat, and a bitter ex-wife (Marsha Mason) who’s dating a Marine-hating bar owner (Bo Svenson). And don’t forget about brash recruit “Stitch” Jones (Mario Van Peebles), a wannabe rock star who proclaims himself the “Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rolla.” Then the invasion of Grenada begins, and Highway gets one more chance to do what he does best…kick ass Marine Corps style. Fans of Eastwood will get exactly what they paid for, plus a lot more one-liners than you might expect from a movie filled with buzzcuts and automatic rifles.

Jarhead (2005) – Taken from the autobiographical book by U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford, Jarhead details a young soldier’s participation in the Gulf War. Filled with constant waiting, red tape, and the constant paranoia about the fidelity of those left behind, this war is nothing like those depicted in most flag-waving films about the Marines. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the increasingly frustrated Swofford, and he’s joined by a solid supporting cast that includes Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Chris Cooper, Dennis Haysbert, and John Krasinski. If you’re under 40, you may want to start with films like Jarhead and Full Metal Jacket before graduating to more old school flicks like Sands of Iwo Jima and What Price Glory.

Halls of Montezuma (1951) – Shot with the full cooperation of the Marine Corps, this WWII film was filmed on location at Camp Pendleton and uses real combat footage from the Pacific campaign. The gritty action follows a battalion of Marines as they assault a Japanese-held island and are slowly whittled down by both enemy forces and the psychological stress of warfare. Starring Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Karl Malden, Richard Boone, Neville Brand, and Robert Wagner (in his first credited screen role).

Full Metal Jacket (1987) – Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece (one of many) details the horrors of Vietnam on so many levels, but it’s also far more amusing than one might expect. Matthew Modine anchors the narrative as Private “Joker,” a Marine recruit who survives the brutal boot camp run by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey in his star-making role) and graduates to become a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes. Along the way, he encounters fragile and later psychotic soldiers (Vincent D’Onofrio), alarmingly lethal snipers, horny Vietnamese prostitutes, and oblivious superior officers. Realism frequently gets thrown out the window in favor of stylistic choices, but Full Metal Jacket still manages to make its point: War is hell.

Flying Leathernecks (1951) – Robert Ryan is the Marine officer with an attachment to his men, while John Wayne is the newly-transferred commander who places the success of missions over the safety of the soldiers. As their two ideologies constantly clash, the Marines under their command engage in action ranging from the Guadalcanal campaign to the Battle of Okinawa. Wayne is as iconic as ever, and director Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause) manages to strike a delicate balance between the intense war action and tender scenes between Wayne and co-star Janis Carter.

Born of the Fourth of July (1989) – When I think of the Marine Corps, Tom Cruise isn’t the first face that usually pops into my mind. Still, this Oscar-winning Oliver Stone film marks the first of two appearances for Cruise on our list, and it was also the film that elevated him from pretty-boy actor to a thespian to be taken seriously. He stars as Ron Kovic, a real-life Vietnam veteran who returns home in a wheelchair and must confront the incendiary atmosphere of America in the late 1960s, as well as recurring guilt over the accidental killing of a fellow soldier. Cruise deservedly received his first Oscar nomination for the role, as his transformation from clean-cut hunk into disheveled cripple reflects the erosion of the American dream during the Vietnam years.

A Few Good Men (1992) – Sure, it’s not a gritty war movie, but this Oscar-winning blockbuster does slowly unravel a murder mystery behind the high walls of Cuba’s Guantanamo Naval Base. It also boasts a powerhouse cast, including Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Pollak, and J.T. Walsh. The film’s most notable moment comes during the climax, when wet-behind-the-ears lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Cruise) calls no-nonsense Marine Colonel Nathan Jessep (Nicholson) to the witness stand. Thanks to lines written by Aaron Sorkin (based on his own play), Nicholson transcends his leering stereotype and delivers a powderkeg monologue about the frequently unpleasant price of freedom. Oh, and Demi Moore looks damn good in a uniform.

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That concludes our look at 10 good U.S. Marine Corps movies. While these films will resonate more with Americans, cinephiles living elsewhere can still be assured of well-choreographed battle scenes, tales of heroism, and enough square jaws to last a lifetime. And if war movies happen to be your favorite genre, don’t leave before checking out these other articles from Only Good Movies:

This entry was posted on Friday, November 4th, 2011 at 7:22 am and is filed under Good Movies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “10 Good U.S. Marine Corps Movies – Films Featuring Marines”

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February 28, 2012

John Clifton

When I was a teenager, I viewed Full Metal Jacket as a full-on comedy. I watched it again a few years back and not-so much. I’ve always said A Few Good Men was an example of why movies adapted from stage plays just have better screenplays. And ooh-rah!, anyone wanting to see Clint Eastwood in a humorous mood has to watch Heartbreak Ridge: “Here’s to JJ and all the pieces of him we couldn’t find.”

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