Hollywood adaptations of military life can often fall short when it comes to their accuracy. From over-exaggerated facts, over-the-top explosions and overlooked details, many war films rarely leave audiences speechless. The US Army and Marine Corps tend to get all the Hollywood buzz, meaning it’s rare that the world’s navies get to shine on the big screen. The following films are some of the best Navy-related features to ever grace the big screen.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Based on the novel by Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October (1990) takes place in 1984, at the height of the Cold War. The film follows Soviet Capt. Marko Ramius, portrayed by Sean Connery, who disobeys orders and forces his high-tech submarine Red October to head to the east coast of the United States.
Afraid this rogue vessel might be planning an attack, CIA agent Jack Ryan, played by Alec Baldwin, must decipher Ramius’ motives. While he concludes the Soviet captain intends to defect to the US, the Russians send a second submarine to stop the rogue Red October.
The stunning cinematography and intense plot make The Hunt for Red October one of the most renowned war movies of all time.
Das Boot (1981)
One of the best Navy films ever released was based on the real-life World War II experiences of Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Starting out life as a written account of Buchheim’s service aboard the Kriegsmarine U-boat U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic, it was transformed into a cinematic masterpiece by director Wolfgang Petersen.
To ensure Das Boot (1981) was as authentic as possible, Petersen recruited some of the U-boat’s former crew members as consultants. He also used photos from Buchheim to ensure his replica of U-96 was as authentic-looking as possible. All this, paired with how the film depicts life aboard a submarine, make the movie an instant classic.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Another epic film based on a novel, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) tackles the Napoleonic Wars. Set in 1805, it features British naval Cmdr. Jack Aubrey, played by Russell Crowe, as captain of the HMS Surprise (1796). The frigate is charged with tracking down the Acheron, a French privateer ship sailing to South America, in order to claim the continent for Napoleon.
The movie follows the struggles of Aubrey and his crew as they battle a seemingly endless barrage of attacks from the Acheron. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was nominated for a whopping 10 Oscars at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It ultimately lost to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003).
Crimson Tide (1995)
In Crimson Tide (1995), a tense series of events unfolds aboard the US nuclear missile submarine USS Alabama as an up-and-coming first officer, Denzel Washington‘s Hunter, stages a mutiny to stop Gene Hackman‘s trigger-happy captain from launching missiles without orders.
What follows is a back-and-forth conflict that explores the fragile social order of submarine crewmen. When Hunter takes control of Alabama, some of the crew doubt his skills and begin plotting to regain control – but Hunter always thinks two steps ahead.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! follows both the American and Japanese points of view of the attack on Pearl Harbor. As tensions rise between the US and Japan following a trade embargo, American intelligence struggles to come to terms with the very real possibility of a Japanese attack.
Tora! Tora! Tora! – named for the codeword used by Japanese Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida to launch the infamous attack – was a flop at most American box offices, but became a huge hit in Japan.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Cold War drama K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) tells the true story of Russia’s first nuclear submarine as she malfunctions and quickly descends into nuclear meltdown during her maiden voyage. Starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, the film provides a glimpse at the near-nuclear disaster that almost became reality in 1961 – think Chernobyl, but inside a submarine.
K-19: The Widowmaker received great reviews from American audiences, but the surviving crew members from the real accident wrote several letters to Ford and the film’s director, complaining that many of the details depicted were false.
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by the same name, The Caine Mutiny (1954) follows a mutiny and subsequent trial aboard a fictional US Navy destroyer-minesweeper. The story examines the ethical dilemma of rank and doing what is right.
When a ship’s captain is removed from command by his executive officer following a mutiny, a trial unfolds to convict the mutineers and decipher their motivations, at which time it’s revealed the captain was mentally unstable. Was the mutiny a criminal act or were the mutineers the heroic saviors that foresaw a potentially dangerous situation?
Top Gun (1986)
The classic action flick Top Gun (1986) has soared in popularity since the release of its 2022 sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. The original film provides a fascinating look into naval aviators and the prestigious TOPGUN School.
Not only are the dog fights incredible to watch, but the film also gives audiences a behind-the-scenes look at essential aspects of naval life on and off the aircraft carrier landing strip. If you ever make it to the real-life TOPGUN School, you better avoid quoting the film or you’ll receive a $5.00 fine!
Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)
Two of the biggest actors of their day, Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster star in the epic 1958 film, Run Silent, Run Deep. When the captain of a submarine sunk by the Japanese is given a second chance as a skipper on another, he sets his sights on destroying the vessel responsible for the initial sinking. This winds up putting his crew members in danger.
The film features incredible visuals and epic explosions, making it an instant classic for war movie buffs new and old.
In Harm’s Way (1965)
In Harm’s Way (1965) attempts to show audiences a realistic view of the US Navy, beginning on the night before the attack on Pearl Harbor and continuing through the first year of America’s involvement in World War II.
Starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, In Harm’s Way follows several naval officers and their families who are based in Hawaii. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, Wayne’s Capt. Rock Torrey is charged with tracking down the force responsible and attacking it. The 1965 film was one of the last war epics to be shot in black and white.
The Battle of Midway, one of the greatest battles of the Second World War, comes to life on screen in 1976’s Midway. Considered the turning point of the War in the Pacific, Midway combines naval intelligence with incredible action that come alive on-screen. This is due to its soundtrack, which mimics the physical sensations of engine noise, explosions, crashes and gunfire.
Some of the scenes featured in Midway were actually borrowed from the less popular Tora! Tora! Tora!. The movie was brought to life once more in a 2019 remake by Hollywood’s “Master of Disaster,” Roland Emmerich, who’s also directed the action-packed films Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004).