Marine Movies That Best Represent What It’s Like to Be a Leatherneck

Photo Credits: 1. Zayne / Warner Bros. / MovieStillsDB 2. Carlito / Republic Pictures / MovieStillsDB

Each branch of the US military carries its own unique history, skills and protocols. However, out of all of them, the Marine Corps is widely regarded as one of the most elite groups in the world. Often the first on the ground, Marines perform a range of highly-sophisticated operations, so it’s no surprise a number of movies have been made about them.

The following list of films are the best Hollywood representations of what it’s like to serve in the Marine Corps.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in 'Born on the Fourth of July'
Born on the Fourth of July, 1989. (Photo Credit: GLOWWORM / Universal Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

Based on the best-selling autobiography by veteran Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July follows an idealistic young Marine who starts to feel betrayed and neglected by the country he served, after becoming paralyzed while on his second tour in Vietnam.

Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, returns home and is forced to navigate the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He battles with depression and drug addiction before becoming an anti-war activist. Directed by Oliver Stone, the film received huge accolades from critics upon its release in 1989 and earned Cruise his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

The real-life Kovic was so impressed with how Cruise handled the role that he gave him his Bronze Star.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman in 'Full Metal Jacket'
Full Metal Jacket, 1987. (Photo Credit: Pineapples101 / Warner Bros. / MovieStillsDB)

Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is a visceral depiction of the Vietnam War. It’s told through the eyes of a US Marine, who first undergoes a brutal training process before experiencing the horrific events that occurred during the Tet Offensive.

The movie begins by following a platoon of Marines as they undergo boot camp training under the strict Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, played by veteran R. Lee Ermey. The second half follows Pvt. J.T. “Joker” Davis, a reporter with Stars and Stripes tasked with covering Vietnam, as he slowly becomes desensitized to the violence of the conflict.

Jarhead (2005)

Jake Gyllenhaal as Lance Cpl. Anthony Swofford in 'Jarhead'
 Jarhead, 2005. (Photo Credit: Kevlar21 / Universal Studios / MovieStillsDB)

Jarhead is based on the true story of US Marine sniper Anthony Swofford during Operation Desert Storm, and explores the psychological effects that come with fighting a war, as Swofford struggles to cope with boredom and isolation.

Film critic Owen Gleiberman captured the complex nature of the movie, writing in a 2005 review, “Jarhead isn’t overtly political, yet by evoking the almost surreal futility of men whose lust for victory through action is dashed, at every turn, by the tactics, terrain, and morality of the war they’re in, it sets up a powerfully resonant echo of the one we’re in today.”

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker and Martin Milner as Sgt. John M. Stryker, Pfc. Peter T. Conway, Pfc. Al J. Thomas and Pvt. Mike McHugh in 'Sands of Iwo Jima'
Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949. (Photo Credit: bigpix / Republic Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

John Wayne stars in one of his most iconic roles as Marine Sgt. John M. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima. Stryker is hated and feared by his men, who regard him as a cold-hearted sadist. However, all that changes once they touch the sand of Iwo Jima and begin to see what made Stryker a battle-hardened leader.

Wayne is captivating and explosive in what is widely considered one of the best World War II and Marine movies ever released, earning a number of Academy Award nominations, including for Best Actor.

A Few Good Men (1992)

Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak as Lt. Daniel Kaffee, Lt. Cmdr. JoAnne Galloway and Lt. Sam Weinberg in 'A Few Good Men'
A Few Good Men, 1992. (Photo Credit: murraymomo / Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

While this Marine movie doesn’t take place on the battlefield, A Few Good Men is still just as action-packed. US Navy lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffe is given his first real trial, defending two Marines accused of murdering a colleague at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.

The film is based on the play of the same name by Aaron Sorkin. Over the course of its 138 minutes, it follows one man’s fight to keep his honor while another searches for the truth.

Flying Leathernecks (1951)

Robert Ryan and John Wayne as Capt. Carl "Griff" Griffin and Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby
Flying Leathernecks, 1951. (Photo Credit: Film Publicity Archive / United Archives / Getty Images)

Flying Leathernecks takes place in the lead-up to the Guadalcanal Campaign. John Wayne’s Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby takes control of a squadron of Marine aviators. There’s just one problem: his pilots are young, undisciplined and disobedient. Kirby must train his men before they make the grave mistake of putting their fellow Marines in the line of fire.

See Vought F4U Corsairs, kamikaze attacks and dramatic explosions in this classic war film!

Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Clint Eastwood as Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway in 'Heartbreak Ridge'
Heartbreak Ridge, 1986. (Photo Credit: Zayne / Warner Bros. / MovieStillsDB)

Directed, produced and starring Clint Eastwood, Heartbreak Ridge follows Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway after he’s given a reconnaissance platoon of rowdy, spoiled and undisciplined men in the lead-up to the American invasion of Grenada in 1983. Despite push back for his unorthodox training methods, Highway’s platoon begins to build morale and comes out of the ensuing battle victorious.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Still from 'Flags of Our Fathers'
Flags of Our Fathers, 2006. (Photo Credit: butchielad / DreamWorks Pictures / Warner Bros. / MovieStillsDB)

Flags of Our Fathers is a more modern retelling of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Following three characters who were inspired by the real Marines who raised the American flag over Iwo Jima – as famously captured in one of the most iconic images of WWII – the movie peels back the many layers of trauma felt by those who survived the war.

Though the three Marines are deemed national heroes and paraded around the United States to promote the sale of war bonds, they’re haunted by the memories of what they witnessed in the bloody battle. Will they ever be able to put their trauma behind them?

The Pacific (2010)

Still from 'The Pacific'
The Pacific, 2010. (Photo Credit: HBO / DreamWorks Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

More from us: The Seven Most Heartbreaking Deaths in Military Movies

While not technically a movie, HBO’s The Pacific explores the experiences of Marines serving in the Pacific Theater during the Second Wold War. The series features the 1st Marine Divison’s battles in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal and Okinawa, and is based on the memoirs of US Marines Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie.

If you enjoyed Band of Brothers, then you will love this series!

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast

linkedin.com/in/elisabethcedwards