Military War Movies and TV Shows

Depictions of War in Movies and Shows

Items On This Page
Movies Reflecting History
Movie Mistakes
Summaries Of Movies
Movie Listing

Hollywood is not the only movie place in the world and many firms have produced some memorable "War" movies over the years. There are movies that are gripping from start to finish and some where only parts of it are actually good and the rest is forgettable. The same is true for television shows. "Combat", "Black Sheep Squadron" and "12 O'Clock High" are three that come to mind that aired in the US depicting World War 2. More recent wars had TV shows for it like M.A.S.H for the Korean war and "China Beach" for Vietnam War, "The Unit" for terrorist fighting. Two movies about the US involvement in Iraq include "The Three Kings" for the 1993 Gulf War and "the Hurt Locker" for the 2003 Iraq War.

One of my college classes in the 1980s was "Movies: Mirror on America". This course showed movies from the earliest 1900 movie (that survived) "Man in the Moon" till Star Wars. You viewed the movies in the context of when they were made to see how the values of America (according to the movie producers) are reflected in the movie. The only movie we saw that was filmed during WWII was "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943, Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, Harry Morgan; produced by Henry Morgan) However, this movie was very allegorical to the question of punishment toward the Italians, Germans and Japanese after the war is over. The basic message that it forcefully showed was not to rush to judgment on people till all the facts are in. Today filmmakers consult military experts and try to make their movies as historically accurate as possible. Even video and browser MMORPG game designers do research to ensure accuracy in war and combat related games.

The general opinion of this era of American movies is that there are very few good movies produced during the war. Yes, there are exceptions (Casablanca, A Walk In The Sun), but overall, most movies made during WW-II were written and filmed to lift morale and provide escapist topics for the movie going public. They made them fast so the movie studios did not have the luxury of spending lots of time trying to get it "just right." Two of the more notable movies trying to get the look and feel right was the movie "Saving Private Ryan" - they rented real WW II era German and American vehicles and equipment from private citizens in Europe and "Band of Brothers" where they accurately protrayed the equipment and most of the conversations of the era. Course even in both of those movies some scenes were not combat accurate due to the needs of movie making - you just don't walk along a ridge line in middle of the day behind enemy lines.

A book that you can purchase that has basic info on a few thousand (?) war movies is Brassey's Guide To War Films. Not all inclusive, but does list many of the worlds war movies. Some entries only have the barest facts, others have a paragraph about that movie.

Movies Do not Always Reflect History

One of my online flying friends posed these questions after watching the Michael Bay movie "Pearl Harbor" right after it came out. My comments are in italics.

How did two kids start an airplane by turning a switch ? Was it electric ?
Electric starters were new and novel but only before 1925 or so. Electric starters on WACO were common by 1935. To be pilots by 1940 they had to have two years of college before joining the Army Air Corps which would place it 1938 when they began pilot training at 20 years of age. But a backwoods crop duster would not have the most current plane in 1930-32 so it is unlikely they could.

Where are the hills at Mitchell Field?
Hollywood films where it can and thus a flat existing WWIIish airbase stood in for it.

Why was a Navy nurse giving eye tests to army pilots ?
It was common to pool service personnel and detach people back and forth where the needs were. The military back then had no spares of equipment or people. Uncommon but it happened.

If he couldn't read 20-20 what was he doing flying?
He was dyslexic - he would mix up the letters in words that he did read. Thus, trying to read the letters in sequence he would fail but reading words would be no problem. Memorizing the eye chart got around the problem. Roland Fisher, who flew nightfighters in the UK, was color blind but got into the RCAF since he actually memorized the eye chart and thus passed every exam.

At the R.A.F. field, why were all the Spitfires coded RF M ? Wouldn't that be confusing?
There are squadron IDs and aircraft IDs. RF would be the squadron and the M the aircraft ID. I think they just used the same stencil over and over again to ease production.

If he was in the Eagle Sqd. how come he was the only American in it . Flying a Spitfire IX in 1941? They came out in late 1942.
The first Eagle Squadron was formed in Oct of 1940. Prior to that Americans were assigned to whatever unit needed a pilot. There were only 9 Americans in the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Hollywood in this case used the name to evoke the memory of the squadron prior to the actual start of the squadron. Not enough Spitfires are in private hands to fly in a movie. They used what a/c are available: in this case 99.9% of the people don't know the difference between a Spitfire I, V, Vc, IX, XII, XIV, or XXI.

Who was sitting on whose lap in the P-40 sightseeing over Pearl?
Continuity error.

In Dec. 1941, we did not know the Japs had the Zero.
Again, Hollywood using collective conscious memory of people outside the facts. Select few had heard of the Zero but discounted the claims about it as not possible given the Japanese technology. The General public and military flying personnel did not know about it, only people in the intelligence community knew about it.

Recruiting fighter pilots to man the B-25s.

The Doolittle B-25 pilots were not fighter pilots. All were bomber pilots. The B-25's had the tail guns removed and replaced with broomsticks in the states, before they were loaded on the Hornet. They bombed Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, and Yokohama. Each plane carried three 500 lb. demolition bombs and one 500 lb. incendiary cluster. All planes were lost. Eight crewmen were captured, three were beheaded, one died in prison and the other four survived the horrible Japanese POW camps (on a par with the German work camps in brutality and survival rates - 50% of those captured by the Japanese survived - around 30% of those sent to German work camps survived where the policy was to work them to death.)

The B-25's on the Hornet didn't have "package guns" on them. They were add on .50cal guns, that were mounted under the cockpit. I believe the squadrons didn't start those, until a year or so later. And they wouldn't have had them on the Doolittle raid anyway, to save weight. Also some of the ships shown at anchor, in the middle of the bay, during the Pearl Harbor attack were too modern. The sharp bows and superstructures were not like that, on WW II era ships. They used a shot of the USS Bon Homme Richard CVA-31 coming into Pearl, to show the carriers coming back, after the attack. (Thanks to Steve Robinson for this.)

Why did the nurse get the Purple Heart ? Did I miss when she was wounded?
All the nurses at Pearl Harbor were officially awarded Purple Hearts for their work that day and immediately afterwards. A Purple Heart can be awarded "For Military Mertit" without having to receive a wound. As far as I know this is no longer awarded due to other awards having taken its place for merit.

A pilot killed in China, and they carried his body back to Hawaii?
Only in Hollywood - to further the story line.

In the attack on the Army airfield, the pilots in the P-40's were talking to the ground on Walkie-talkies?
Walkie-Talkies were not out of the labs yet if I remember correctly. By 1944 ground personnel could talk to a/c but only if they had a special 80lb unit to lug around, the equipment was bulky. Walkie-Talkies were everywhere but none could talk to an aircraft and everyone carried two spare batteries - plus their range was around 5 miles max.

Three Zeros on the tail of a P-40, and the P-40 gets away on the deck, only in Hollywood.
In the real air combat that day there was a case of two Zeros chasing a P-40 and the P-40 got away - but only by diving through a cloud deck and the Zeros broke off. The Curtis P-40B/C models that were at Pearl could never outturn a Zero in a slow (less than 200 MPH) fight. Claire Chenault proved that P-40s could survive but by fighting on the dive down, make a single pass, zoom away and do it again. In trouble just out dive the A6M2 Zero.

Common Errors seen in Many Military Movies

Movie Mistakes - Top Technical Mistakes Seen in Military Movies

Since the beginning of movie making there has been technical and historical inaccuracies in movies. Some cannot be helped (there are no WW I Zeppelins flying so it is hard to film one, though the Zeppelin Company still exists and does build Zeppelins) while other problems crept in due to unwillingness to pay for the correct piece of gear or to "enhance" the movie.

Here are some of the most obvious that I remember seeing over the years.

Naval Pictures

The crew members in the sub hear the SONAR (ASDIC) pings both COMING and GOING. Sorry, when you are in a sub you can only hear the PINGs that miss you and the PINGS that hit you - you cannot hear the return echo going back to the destroyer!

Torpedoes always seem to be running in 20' of water over a sandy bottom in the middle of the ocean.

A torpedo hitting a ship causes a fireball (modern occurrence, older movies just had small explosion and then a resulting fire). A torpedo causes a 150 foot water column next to the ship - but no fireball. Most freighter ships do not burn, they just sink with lots of steam coming out of their holds caused by holed steam pipes. Though boilers may explode, that does not cause a fireball! Oil tankers may burn, but even then no fireball occurs as a direct result of a torpedo unless it hits a hold that is empty.

Depth charges exploding next to a sub does not sink it. If a depth charge explodes within 10' of a sub it is gone.

Land Warfare

WW II German armor units most always have American "Patton" tanks and M-3 half tracks. A lot of German equipment was captured but was never used in movies. Some of the newer movies do strive for historical military equipment but almost all working pieces of equipment are privately owned!

British Centurion or Russian T34/85s reworked double as "Tiger I " tanks (T34s were in "Kelly's Hero's).

In many westerns, carbines are 2/3 scale of the real rifles used in the West.

Using dynamite before it was invented. "In 1866 Alfred Nobel successfully mixed nitroglycerin with silica which turned the liquid into a paste. This paste, which could be formed and shaped as desired, made it possible for safe transportation. The new material was patented in 1867 under the name "dynamite." He also invented a blasting cap (detonator) also patented, which could be ignited by lighting a fuse." (Info was found in a news discussion group, aliased e-mail name was author, so unknown.) Watch the Clint Eastwood movie "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly." It is set in the US Civil war in the west - and the only time any large battles were fought there was in 1864 during the Red River Campaign. He uses dynamite to blow up a bridge and of course, it had not been invented yet!

Air Warfare

P-51 Mustangs double as Bf 109s. (Would get away with it if they used the "B" or "C" model and not the "D".) B/C models were misidentified as 109s and shot down by friendly a/c in the war. A C-46 cargo transport was misidentified by a Spitfire pilot as a FW-200 "Condor" and shot down near Ireland during WWII (it was carrying 300 P-38 speed flaps modifications. The next P-38 shipment came by ship and it was sunk by a u-boat!) Sometimes ME-108s are painted up as 109s. The canopy of these aircraft are wrong, but from the side they do look like 109s. They used 108s in "Von Ryan's Express."

Pilots take off their oxygen masks for minutes at a time above 20,000 feet. (You can get away with it for 30 seconds easily, a minute if you can routinely can hold your breath for that long with no effect without going into hypoxia.) American bomber crews, and fighters, always wore oxygen masks above 10,000'. Really needed once above 14,000'. After five minutes without O2 above 18,000 feet you will start to lose consciousness, after 15 minutes you are unconscious, after 30 minutes you are usually dead. This is why all bomber crews did 15 minute intercom checks on all crew members - you can be out for 15 minutes with no harm and if no answer another crew would grab a portable 5 minute bottle to go check on you. In "Red Tails" (2012 movie) they still have pilots taking off their masks at 25,000 feet escorting B-17s. Below 15,000 you can do it as long as you AlSO have a throat mike strapped on so you can still talk on the radio without having to grab the mask. In the Red Tails movie they do have the guy always grabbing his mask in order to talk which is accurate but you would never want to do that while in combat or doing a ground attack - doing so means you do not have you left hand on the throttle and the right on the stick so you will crash!

My Reviews on Some Military Movies




"You're talking about winning the war, and I am talking about winning the war and keeping alive."
" Exactly," Clevinger snapped smugly. "And which do you think is more important?"
" To whom?" Yossarian shot back. "It doesn't make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead."
" I can't think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy."
" The enemy," retorted Yossarian with weighted precision, "is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on."
— from Joseph Heller's book "Catch-22"

Short list of Movies that I have seen and my observations concerning these movies about Military History.

Movie Listing

Here is a long list of movies. A few in here I have seen but mainly I have not (or even knew about till I searched a movie database):

Movie Title Year Released
2,000 Women 1944
48 Hours 1942
49th Parallel 1941
633 Squadron1964
A Boy, a Girl, and a Dog 1946
A Man From Wyoming 1930
A Voice in the Night 1941
A Yank in Korea 1951
Action in the North Atlantic 1943
Angles One Five 1952
Air Force 1943
Battle of Neretva 1969
Battle Cry 1955
Battle Hymn1957
Captain Corelli's Mandolin 2001
Carve Her Name With Pride 1963?
Charge of the Light Brigade 1938
Cold Mountain 2003
Dark Blue World 2003
Destination Tokyo 1943
Fighter Squadron1948
Flat Top1942
Gasbags 1940
Grand Illusion 1937
Great Guns 1941
Guadalcanal Diary1943
Harts War 2001
Heartbreak 1931
Hearts in Bondage 1936
Hearts of the World 1918
Hell Below 1933
Hell Boats 1970
Hell Divers 1930
Hell in the Heavens 1934
Hell on Earth 1934
Hells Angels 1930
Heroes of the Alamo 1938
Hotel Sahara 1951
How I Won the War 1967
International Squadron 1941
In Harms Way1965
Invasion Quartet 1961
Italiano Brava Gente 1965
Jaccuse 1938
Journey to Shiloh 1968
Jump Into Hell 1955
La Marseillaise 1938
Lad From Our Town 1941
Kelly's Heros 1970
Lost Command 1966
Master and Commander 2003
Mein Kampf - My Crimes 1940
Men Must Fight 1933
Men Without Women 1930
Men Without Women 1930
Men of Yesterday 1936
Men of the Sea 1938
Morocco 1930
Morocco 1930
Mystery Sea Raider 1940
Neutral Port 1940
Night Train to Munich 1940
None But The Brave 1965
North and South 1972?
North of Shanghai 1939
Nurse Edith Cavell 1939
Oh! What a Lovely War 1969
One of our Bombers is Missing 1942
Only the Brave 1980
Operation Petticoat 1959
Pack Up Your Troubles 1940
Parachute Battalion 1941
PT 109 1965
Seas Beneath 1931
Secret Service 1931
Sergeant York 1941
She Goes to War 1929
Shining Through 1994
Sole Survivor 1970
Son of the Morning Star 1991
South Pacific  
Suicide Fleet 1931
Surrender 1931
Suspense 1930
Suspense 1930
Tempest 1928
The African Queen 1952
The Angel Wore Red 1960
The Best Years of Our Lives 1946
The Bridge at Remagen 1969
The Bridges at Toko-Ri 1954
The Case of Sergeant Grischa 1930
The Desert Fox 1951
The Dirty Dozen 1967
The Flemish Farm 1943
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 1921
The Hill 1965
The Hook 1962
The Horse Soldiers 1959
The Hunters 1958
The Immortal Garrison 1956
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness 1958
The Mad Parade 1931
The Man From Morocco 1946
The Man From Yesterday 1932
The Man I Married 1940
The Marines Are Coming 1935
The Marines Are Here 1938
The Marines Fly High 1940
The Patriot 2001
The Pianist2002
The Private Navy of Sgt. OFarrell 1968
The Real Glory 1939
The Rebel 1933
The Road to Glory 1936
The Sea Ghost 1931
The Seventh Survivor 1941
The Shopworn Angel 1928
The Sky Hawk 1929
The Spy in Black 1939
The Starfighters 1964
The Tuskegee Airmen1995
The Thin Red Line 2001
The Windmill 1937
The Woman I Love 1937
The Young Lions 1958
The Young and the Brave 1963
They Dare Not Love 1941
Three Cockeyed Sailors 1940
Thunder Afloat 1939
To the Shores of Hell 1966
Today We Live 1933
Torpedoed! 1937
Two Minutes Silence 1934
Ultimatum 1938
Underground 1941
Wake Island1942
War Correspondent 1932
War Nurse 1930
Which Way to the Front? 1970
Where Eagles Dare  
Who Goes Next? 1938
Windtalkers 2002
Wings 1927
Wings Over Honolulu 1937
Wings for the Eagle 1942
Wings of the Navy 1939
Women Aren't Angels 1942
Women in War 1940
Zulu 1964

TV shows

War Movie Productions

I've noticed that the heyday of war movies and shows are usually 15 to 20 years after a war has ended. Just like the heyday of WW-I movies were in the 1930s. If they had waited to do TV shows about Vietnam in 1995 thru 2000 more would have been done and been successful.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscar winners database.