Best Modern War Movies

Saturday, September 5, 2009 at 9:41 am

The best modern war movies are few and far between, mainly because we haven’t seen anything of the magnitude of World War II in recent times. While that’s a bummer for the movie industry, I doubt anyone of draft age is going to be complaining. In compiling this list of the best modern war movies, I used the following criteria:

The events depicted must take place post-Vietnam.
The film can be about the actual war, the consequences of the war, or use a specific war as a backdrop.
Smaller military engagements and fictional battles can also be included.

If you haven’t seen the following films, I’d highly recommend them to fans of war movies. Some may be difficult to find, but you can always remedy that by joining an online movie rental site like Netflix.

Black Hawk Down – Based on a book about the Battle of Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down tells about a combined mission between Army Rangers, Delta Force soldiers and the Special Operations Aviation Regiment to capture a Somali warlord. Things go haywire when two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down, and the planned one-hour mission stretches into 15 hours with over 1000 casualties. Tons of gunplay and an all-star cast which includes Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Piven, Tom Hardy and Ewen Bremner.

Jarhead – Based on the Gulf War memoirs of Marine Anthony Swofford, this Sam Mendes film tells of Swofford’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) time during Operation Desert Shield as a sniper. Battling boredom and friendly fire, he and his spotter desperately try to get a kill before the fighting is over. An interesting look at the psychological toll which war takes on soldiers.

Stop-Loss – Staff Sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe) returns home from the Iraq War and expects to be discharged, but he’s assigned to return to Iraq as part of the military’s stop-loss policy (in which enlisted men can be kept past the term of their enlistment). He promptly goes AWOL and tries to work out the horrors of war which he experienced. Also starring Channing Tatum, Abbie Cornish, Timothy Olyphant and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame – Considered a classic of modern Serbian cinema, the film tells the story of how the Bosnian War came to be and what life was like in the former Yugoslavia. This was the first Serbian film to show the Serb side involved in ethnic cleansing and war atrocities.

Savior – Produced by Oliver Stone and starring Dennis Quaid, Savior tells the story of an American mercenary serving during the Bosnian War. After watching friends die over the years, he’s become hardened to the horrors of war, but a pregnant young woman shocks him back to his senses. As atrocities occur all around them, the mercenary tries to get the woman and her newborn child to a United Nations safe zone. Hardly an uplifting film, but when has war ever been uplifting?

Three Kings – A group of American soldiers (George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze) attempt to steal Kuwaiti gold bullion from the bunkers of Saddam Hussein. Part comedy, drama, and war movie, the soldiers must eventually end up helping a group of Shia rebels who were encouraged to rebel against Hussein by the U.S. only to later be abandoned and face execution.

Behind Enemy Lines – Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson) is a hotshot pilot shot down over Serb-held territory during the Bosnian War. Gene Hackman is his gruff commanding officer who doesn’t believe in leaving any of his men behind. As Burnett tries to outrun the pursuing Serb soldiers (and an especially tenacious sniper), he encounters many of the horrible events brought about by the fighting. This one is hardly high art, but it’s a good way to get the casual viewer interested in the events of the Bosnian War. Afterwards, try to get them to watch a movie like No Man’s Land or Pretty Village, Pretty Flame.

Hotel Rwanda – Considered by many to be the “African Schindler’s List,” Hotel Rwanda follows hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) as he tries to save his family and thousands of refugees from military forces bent on ethnic cleansing. Nick Nolte has perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, as he plays a U.N. peacekeeper shamefully explaining to Paul why his forces can’t take direct action.

Salvador – Oliver Stone directs James Woods in this story of a journalist desperate for a big story. He makes his way down to El Salvador and covers the Salvadoran Civil War, dodging death squads and unfriendly military leaders at every turn. James Belushi gives a fine performance as his burned-out pal who goes native.

No Man’s Land – A dark Bosnian comedy/drama about two soldiers from opposite sides who find themselves trapped together in a trench in no man’s land. Another soldier, meanwhile, wakes to discover that enemy troops have buried a land mine beneath his body. Received the 2001 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Heartbreak Ridge – Culminating in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Heartbreak Ridge tells the story of Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway (Clint Eastwood), a veteran Marine who’s nearing the mandatory age for retirement. Charged with whipping a group of misfits into shape, he must deal with the likes of Stitch Jones (Mario Van Peebles), the self-proclaimed “Ayatollah of Rock ‘n Rolla.”

Crimson Tide – Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman star in this submarine drama which takes place in 1995. During a period of unrest in Russia, the Captain of a nuclear submarine (Hackman) receives a partial message which he believes is an order to fire their warheads. His second-in-command (Washington) is not so sure, however, and suggests that they hold off to receive confirmation. Thus begins a battle of wills between the two men and the rest of the crew. Look for Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini before they were stars.

In the Valley of Elah – Based on actual events, In the Valley of Elah follows a father (Tommy Lee Jones) as he searches for the truth about what happened to his son, an Iraq War veteran who was murdered stateside. Also starring Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron.

The Beast – During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Russian tank becomes separated from its unit and stranded in a dead end valley. George Dzundza plays the ruthless tank commander, and Jason Patric is the more sympathetic tank driver. As the tank heads though the valley, they are pursued by an Afghan leader (Steven Bauer) seeking revenge for the death of his kinsman.

Shake Hands with the Devil – This Canadian film is based on the book by Romeo Dallaire entitled Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. The film follows Dallaire’s life through the time of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and shows how his pleas of aid to the United Nations were ultimately ignored.

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So that’s my list of the best modern war movies. If you enjoyed it, I might also suggest a couple of our previous articles: 25 Military Movies to See Before You Die and 75 War Movies to See Before You Die. Some of the films listed above are repeated on these lists, but you’ll also find a ton of movies dealing with the Vietnam War, World War II, World War I, and any other military conflict that you might imagine.

Also recommended:

This entry was posted on Saturday, September 5th, 2009 at 9:41 am and is filed under Good Movies, Movie Megalists. 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.

52 Responses to “Best Modern War Movies”

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October 22, 2012


Thanks for the suggestions, Pvt. There are some good titles in your post.

January 5, 2013


How about Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Act of Valor? They were awesome, and I loved Black Hawk Down. Getting ready to watch Hurt Locker or Saving Private Ryan. Like a BOSS peeps!

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