The Best and Worst War Movies About Veterans

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives movie poster

  Samuel Goldwyn Company

The Best!

The Best Years of Our Lives is a special film. In 1946, deep in the "Patriotic Era" of war films, immediately after the Second World War had concluded, while most war movies were playing up the heroic exploits of the war, this film was the first ever to focus on the damage done to veterans.  (This is all the more special considering that post-traumatic stress disorder isn't really something that was acknowledged in public until the Vietnam war.) The film focuses on three soldiers: a pilot, an infantryman, and a sailor. Each of them returns to their families and have difficulty adjusting to life after the war. One of the men struggles to re-connect with his wife. Another struggles to adapt to a life without arms (he has hooks instead), and the other struggles in a tight post-war job market. The film is dated to modern eyes, and the struggles each of the men deal with are certainly subdued and edited for family viewing (and therefore, not very realistic), but the simple fact that a film focused on these problems before any other film had done so is something quite extraordinary. This movie also won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture.

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Deer Hunter (1977)

A scene from The Deer Hunter

 EMI Films

The Worst!

The Deer Hunter is an overrated war movie, despite its near-universal acclaim. It was the first film to move war movies into a new post-Vietnam era, where the movies stopped heroizing soldiers and the wars, and instead took a somber look to how wars could harm the physical and mental well-being of soldiers. While the storyline of wounded steelworkers returning from Vietnam after being prisoners of war and being addicted to playing Russian roulette is a somewhat absurd one (there are no reports of the Vietcong forcing soldiers to play this deadly game), the theme of post-traumatic stress disorder is an important one. The film does have some great performances from Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and the ever fabulous Meryl Streep. It's too bad everything else about it is so silly.

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Coming Home (1978)

Coming Home movie poster

 Jerome Hellman Productions

The Best!

Coming Home is a moving drama about a paraplegic war veteran (Jon Voight) who falls in love with a soldier's wife (Jane Fonda).  The film deals—movingly and with serious consideration—with many of the issues affecting veterans: disability, the struggle to adapt after the war, tensions over whether to continue to support the war and the difficulty of having spouses left alone on the home front. The film has great performances, a smart script, and is a real tear-jerker. If you're looking for an older film to watch about the war and veterans, this film should be considered as an ideal candidate to spend an afternoon with.

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First Blood (1982)

First Blood movie poster

  Anabasis N.V.

The Best!

First Blood is usually dismissed as a not very serious movie.  This film, after all, is the first in the Rambo franchise, what would become a bloated, absurd, and over the top action series.  In the first of the series though, John Rambo is simply a Vietnam vet (and former Green Beret) who ends up in the wrong town and is picked up by a Sheriff who doesn't want any "long hair hippies" around.  And yes, the film is over the top and absurd with the action, as Rambo busts out of the Sheriff's office and takes to the woods, eventually outfighting the entire National Guard, which is called out to find him.  But if you can ignore all of that silliness, at its heart, the film is about a lonely, sad soldier, dealing with PTSD, who comes home to an America that he doesn't recognize, and that doesn't recognize him. 

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In Country (1989)

In Country movie poster

 Warner Bros

The Worst!

Do you remember this "Vets Returning Home From Vietnam" film starring Bruce Willis?  No? Few do. And that's for a reason. It was a strictly "Made for TV" drama that only briefly made it to the big screen.

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Born on the 4th of July (1989)

Born on the Fourth of July movie poster



The Best!

Oliver Stone's Born on the 4th of July tells the story of Ron Kovic (played wonderfully by Tom Cruise),  a patriotic gung-ho eighteen-year-old who enlisted in the Marines and shipped out to Vietnam. As one might guess, Kovic participates in the murder of civilians, kills a fellow soldier, and is seriously wounded, being forced into a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Viewers should remember this is a true story, and not fiction. The second half of the film focuses on Kovic's evolution to at first being angry with the war protesters, to eventually joining them. The scenes with his family when he comes home drunk are painful to watch, as Kovic, crying, screams that they murdered women and children, as his mother holds her hands over her ears and screams that he's lying, refusing to accept the truth that he needs to share. A powerful film all around.

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Body of War (2007)

Body of War DVD

 Mobilus Media

The Best!

Body of War is a documentary that follows Thomas Young long after he's returned from Iraq.  Young joined the military to serve in Afghanistan, was instead sent to Iraq, and was shot just a couple of weeks into his tour. Now back home, Young is resigned to a wheelchair, has to pee into a bag, and is first-hand witness to his marriage dissolving under the weight of his disabilities. This is a sobering documentary about what some veterans have to deal with for the rest of their lives, long after the rest of us have stopped paying attention to the wars they fought in.

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In the Valley of Elah (2007)

In the Valley of Elah BluRay cover

Warner Bros. 

The Worst!

In the Valley of Elah stars Tommy Lee Jones as the father of a vet who is murdered upon his return from Iraq. Jones' character doesn't accept the Army's story regarding his death and begins to investigate to find out that his son was killed by fellow soldiers. This film is based on the real-life events of a soldier that was killed in Georgia by his teammates, all of whom were suffering from PTSD. ​

Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Jones isn't necessarily the most charismatic actor working today and is seemingly becoming more cranky the older he gets. The film essentially follows Jones, in a perpetually bad mood, as he investigates a low-level cover-up. It's the sort of story that makes for a better magazine article (on which, this film was originally based) than an actual film.

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Stop Loss (2008)

MTV films 

The Worst!

Stop Loss is not a great film. It doesn't get a lot of the military details right, and the drama is a bit by the numbers. But it is, perhaps, the first film to focus on the military's "Stop-Loss" policy, which affected tens of thousands of soldiers and their families.  At the height of the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army didn't have enough soldiers to fund its constant deployments, so they started a policy whereby they simply stopped soldiers from exiting the Army after their enlistment period was over.  For soldiers that had volunteered to fight after 9/11, and then made it out of either Afghanistan or Iraq alive, it was a slap in the face to be told they were being forced to stay in until the Army told them they could leave.  Many of the soldiers who died were stop-lossed soldiers that had survived their first tour, only to die on their second tour.  

This particular film deals with a soldier who decides to go AWOL, feeling that he is unable to face another deployment to Iraq, and for subject matter alone, the film is worth mentioning. Unfortunately, the film isn't very realistic in that a Congressman gets involved, a far-fetched event that would never happen in real life (as literally tens of thousands of soldiers were affected, many of whom reached out to Congress, never to receive a reply.)

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Hurt Locker (2008)

The Hurt Locker

 Voltage Pictures

The Best!

Although Hurt Locker is mostly about combat operations in Iraq with an Explosive Ordinance and Disposal Team (EOD), part of the film is spent on the home front with Sergeant Williams James (Jeremy Renner) returning to spend time with his family, with whom he can't seem to connect. Despite the fact that the film is made up mostly of action scenes in Iraq, one of its most potent moments is when Sergeant James is at a grocery store, tasked with the simple chore of picking up cereal, staring up and down the long aisle packed with different brands and types of cereal. ​At that moment, Sergeant James feels overwhelmed, out of place, and disconnected from civilian life. The next scene shows him back in Iraq, once again defusing bombs, a task which he has become addicted to, despite the danger.

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Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Jacob's Ladder movie poster

 Carolco Pictures

The Best!

This largely overlooked film is hard to classify. On one level, it's a straight parable about a veteran returning from Vietnam while he struggles with PTSD. On another level, it's a horror film about a soldier who might have been used by the government to conduct human experiments on.  While the second premises is a bit silly, creating a horror film out of a Vietnam soldier's PTSD works. The two feed off each other until you can't tell what's real and what's not. It's an oddball film, with some gruesome scenes.