5. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s classic movie, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, is almost as well known for its troubled production as it is for the finished product. Historians and veterans can take issue with specific details, but perhaps no war movie better captures the chaos and dread of war. Death lurks around every turn as Special Forces Capt. Willard makes his way upriver toward the confrontation with Col. Kurtz. Marlon Brando’s Kurtz has been criticized as indulgent and over the top, but the performance reveals a shattered ghost of a man who was a war hero in another life. Kurtz embodies the logical conclusion of mass violence as he pontificates on the need to separate oneself from conventional morality to prosecute war as effectively as possible.
4. Gettysburg (1993)
The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 was the turning point of the Civil War, but it came with a terrible price for both North and South. As many as 51,000 Americans were killed or wounded during three days of fighting. This sprawling movie (with a whopping 4-hour, 21-minute run time) explores the most critical battle of the bloody struggle between Confederate and Union forces in such methodical detail that it has the feel of a lavishly produced historical reenactment. The rifles, uniforms, sets and even beards and dialects appear to be accurate to the period. They’re not dwelled upon, but merely presented to the viewer as reality. Documentary films about the Battle of Gettysburg might present more facts and insights for historical perspective, but the drifting smoke and sharp crack of rifle volleys in Gettysburg make the viewer feel as though the actual events are unfolding on the big screen.
3. Black Hawk Down (2001)
The events of Oct. 3 and 4, 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, made headlines at the time, but few civilians could have imagined what the Special Forces troops faced in that battle. Black Hawk Down was critically acclaimed for its meticulous attention to detail and for illuminating a story that is equal parts heroic and tragic. When a Black Hawk helicopter is shot down by militia forces, the Delta Force operators and Rangers realize their lightning-fast raid is devolving into a gruesome battle of attrition in the mean streets of Mogadishu. Exquisite camera work, gritty special effects and excellent casting elevate what could have been an average action movie into a gripping, grunt’s-eye view of modern-day urban combat. Every doorway might be booby trapped, every rooftop could conceal a sniper — this is the violent reality viewers are drawn into as they watch the small force of Americans pinched into an ever-shrinking perimeter by thousands of militiamen. Two high-level militia leaders were captured at the expense of 19 American lives and as many as a thousand Somalis; this is the grim math the soldiers faced as their ammunition ran low and they waited for reinforcements.
2. Centurion (2010)
This British-made film follows the supposed adventures of the Ninth Legion of Rome, which disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the 2nd century. In Centurion, the legion meets its doom fighting barbarians in ancient Britain. The film offers a grim glimpse of bloody hand-to-hand combat where no quarter is asked or given. Centurion is not a sword-and-sandal epic in the tradition of Spartacus or Cleopatra; instead, it’s a dark and unforgiving look at a clash of civilizations at the edge of the known world. Roman professionalism and discipline is pitted against the cunning and ferocity of Pict tribal warriors. The viewer can almost feel the harsh conditions and strange circumstances the Romans and Picts likely encountered, ranging from icy, windswept peaks to ravenous wolves and mysterious women accused of witchcraft.
1. Band of Brothers (2001)
This HBO miniseries tells the tale of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division from the muddy training camps in America to the bloody Normandy coast and finally to Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in Bavaria. World War II movies made during the war and for two decades after were almost all unabashedly patriotic and pro-American entertainment made to celebrate the heroism of U.S. and Allied soldiers and scorn the brutal Axis Powers. Band of Brothers is this to some degree, but it is also a thoughtful, insightful and unflinchingly accurate look at small-unit combat in 1944-45 Europe. The viewer comes to know these storied Screaming Eagles as individuals as they push across Europe fighting in the hedgerows and frozen forests seemingly past the point of human endurance. Some are wounded, some are killed and some are traumatized by the incessant violence. Others manage to make it to Germany in one piece and toast their good fortune with wine taken from Nazi reserves found in the ruins of the vaunted Eagle’s Nest.