Best and Worst War Movies About Basic Training

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Ahhh! Basic Training! The Good Memories!

Basic Training.

Basic Training.  It frightens a lot of people away from joining the military, and it unnerves those recruits who have enlisted up until their arrival.  It's awful while going through it, and then immediately afterwards, is considered no big deal.  In the movies, it's either played for laughs (Stripes) or made to appear much more awful than it actually is (Full Metal Jacket).  

Here are the best and worst war movies about the combat training environment, whether its Basic Training or Boot Camp, Officer Candidate School, or Special Forces selection.

Hint:  The basic plot of 90% of these involve a rogue student that does things his own way (not a good idea in the military), and/or a sadist instructor, but the student eventually earns the respect of his peers and instructors to graduate.

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GI Jane (1997)

G.I. Jane.

The Worst!

The first women have already gone through Marine infantry training and, in the future, women will also be allowed to try out for Special Forces roles.  (As a former infantry soldier, I'm fully supportive of this move, provided they don't lower standards.)

But before these headlines, there was , a movie where Demi Moore was the first woman to try out for the elite Navy SEALs (and also battles the evil politician who set her up to fail).  As a film it's fairly entertaining, but only if you can ignore the fact that all facets of the film are fictionalized, made-up, or unrealistic.

In other words, nothing about the SEALs as portrayed in the film is real.  There is not a training camp in Florida.  The SEALs don't rape one another during SERE training.  Delta Force operators don't try out to be SEALs.

And so on and so on and so on.

This is a film premised on the idea of a woman joining an elite combat unit.  It's a real world question.  So why did they make the decision to fictionalize so many parts of the film?

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Tigerland (2000)


The Best!

Private Roland Bozz is very much agains the war in Vietnam.  Furthermore, it's the waning days of the Vietnam war and everyone in the USA knows that the war is pretty much lost.  Consequently, it's a bit disconcerting when Bozz is drafted and sent to "Tigerland," where he'll train as an infantryman before being told by his superiors, that he will absolutely be sent to Vietnam.

Who wants to join the rear end of a losing war?

Tigerland has everything a great movie about Basic Training should have:  Characters unsure whether they made the right decision, the obligatory sadistic drill sergeant, and the rebellious recruit trying to buck the system in a fight that he cannot win.  Whereas other films would have played these same elements for laughs, this film plays it straight for serious drama, and it works.

One of my great overlooked war films.

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Private Benjamin (1980)

Private Benjamin.

The Best!

Oh, how I miss the youthful Goldie Hawn!  Goldie is in top form as a woman who joins the Army after her husband dies during sex (I don't necessarily see the connection between the two, but I digress.)  Goldie is "over-sold" on the Army, like we all were, and tries to quit - she's shocked to find she can't.  In this movie, we get the classic 1970s Army Basic Training environment and a privileged Goldie Hawn who is shocked to find that her uniform doesn't come in colors other than green.

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Stripes (1981)


The Best!

One of the best war comedies ever made!  This film made me laugh out loud throughout.  And I say this in the context of being a very unfunny person who doesn't generally have a sense of humor.  (In most comedies, I barely let out a snicker, much less a full on belly laugh!) 

When their drill sergeant is injured during a training exercise, Bill Murray takes it upon himself to finish training his platoon through to the end of the cycle.  The Basic Training scenes are all pretty standard - the rope climb, the obstacle course, the runs - except, that it's a Basic Training cycle being managed by Bill Murray.  Which, of course, changes everything.

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An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

An Officer and a Gentleman.

The Best! 

If you haven't seen the film, you're probably at least familiar with the ending:  Richard Gere in his Navy dress whites, enters the factory floor and picks up Debra Winger, carrying her off the floor while the factory staff cheer.  Music swells in the background:  Up where we belong!  Where eagles fly!...

Yes, very cheesy.  Very mock inducing.  But also very well done.  And Louis Gossett Jr. plays a heck of a mean Gunnery Sergeant.  Richard Gere is charismatic and has tremendous on-screen presence (this was his glory youthful days.)  The film tells the classic Army training story:  A rebel in military training, fighting against both the system and the drill sergeant.  The drill sergeant, of course, eventually learns to respect the rebel's innate leadership.

It's all very formulaic - yet, for some reason - it works exceptionally well.  As a cynic of these sorts of movies, I even got a bit misty eyed upon watching it.  And for that alone, I have to mark it as one of the best.

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Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun.

The Best!

This Tom Cruise film is a war movie about aerial combat, but it's also a training movie.  The school Cruise's character attends is, after all, a Top Gun flight school.  The film has all the requisite scenes for a training war film:  The romantic interest in the instructor, the instructor that wants to see him fail, the cocky maverick student who does things his own way and gets by on his high level of skill, the best friend who fails out of the school and provides the film's middle arc an injection of somber drama.  Yes, you may have thought Top Gun was about aerial combat, but it's more a war film

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Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Heartbreak Ridge.

The Best!

Clint Eastwood plays Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway in an iconoclastic role as the ultimate tough guy, assigned back to the field where he's given command of a dysfunctional platoon of screw-ups.  His job is to whip them in shape.  When he arrives, his recruits (of a recon platoon, no less!) are visibly hostile, going so far as to try and fight him.  Slowly, Sergeant Highway gives the platoon confidence, and as their confidence increases, their discipline returns.  Just in time for them to all ship to Grenada, in the only American war film to focus on the very short lived battle.

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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Full Metal Jacket.

The Best!

Full Metal Jacket is one of the most famous Vietnam war films ever made. My original review stated that it was overrated, but given that the first third of the film is consumed by one of the most infamous Basic Training scenes in cinematic history, it definitely deserves inclusion on this list. This is the definitive film of nightmarish Basic Training scenarios, combining both a sadistic drill sergeant, and a very dangerous screw-up, both of which are destined to have a violent collision course with one another. 

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Renaissance Man (1994)

Renaissaince Man.

The Worst!

Danny DeVito stars as an English teacher at an Army base attempting to teach recruits basic literacy.  He has trouble reaching them until he introduces them to...Shakespeare!  I'm not really sure what this film is supposed to be about:  Is it a comedy as we watch the diminutive DeVito teach stupid soldiers?  Is it a "touch your heart" movie as the soldiers learn to read?  Or is it an "annoy the War Movies guide" movie, trying to be everything and nothing all at once.  I think it's the last choice.

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In the Army Now (1994)

In the Army Now.

The Worst!

Pauli Shore joins the Army Reserves to become a water purification specialist.  First stop, Basic Training where we get the obligatory laughs because -- shocker! -- the drill sergeant yells at him when he responds sarcastically.  Or, consider the photo next to this description -- look!  Pauli Shore had to have his hair cut off!  Boy, isn't this funny?!  Basically, this film is an hour and a half of Pauli thinking that being a disciplined, organized soldier is lame.  I wanted to shake my television and scream, "No, Pauli!  We're not lame!  You're lame!" 

An insulting film.

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Men of Honor (2000)

Men of Honor.

The Best!

Although my review of this film was itself poor, the one part of the film I did enjoy were the scenes of training.  Training to be a Navy Diver is difficult business, and as the first African-American, it was made that much more difficult for Carl Brashear.  Consider a program that has a 75% washout rate.  Now consider that this program was made more difficult for Carl than for anyone else, with Carl being given extra tasks, his commanders hoping he'll quit.  Now consider that Carl went through the program in total isolation, with not a single friend, as nobody wanted to partner with "a negro."  Now consider that the course instructor is determined to see him fail.  

When you consider everything that Carl Brashear had to endure, the mind boggles at his level of dedication and discipline.  Carl Brashear is a great sailor, a great man, a great African-American icon, and a great American.  I just wish he had a better film.  But, for its training scenes, it's worth it.

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Jarhead (2005)


The Worst!

Some really like this Sam Mendes film adaptation of the Anthony Swafford book.  However, I do not count myself among them.  Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a Marine training for deployment to the first Gulf War, he and his fellow Marines are disappointed to find the war is over too quickly and that they never got the chance to try their craft.  The entire film seems to rest on the (shocking!) premises that Marines and infantry soldiers want to participate in combat and that they are disappointed when they don't get to!  I presume this is supposed to be a shocking premises to the viewer, but I just considered it as an obvious assumption.  Well, of course infantry soldiers want to be in combat!  Am I missing something about this film?