Five of the Most Realistic Representations of War in Hollywood

Photo Credit: 1. Kupca / MovieStillsDB 2. Hope72 / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: 1. Kupca / MovieStillsDB 2. Hope72 / MovieStillsDB

War films have always seen a high degree of popularity, even while undergoing dramatic changes over the decades. In the early days of cinema – think Vintage Hollywood – war films portrayed the heroism of soldiers and never questioned the motives or reasoning behind a conflict. This has changed in recent years, with the most accurately-depicted scenarios presented by films that look at all aspects of war and military life.

Das Boot (1981)

The 1981 West German film Das Boot is based on a 1973 book by author Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Buchheim, a journalist, spent much of the Second World War onboard a German U-boat – particularly, U-96 – and later wrote about his experiences as the submarine patroled during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Erwin Leder as Obermaschinist Johann in 'Das Boot'
Erwin Leder portrays Obermaschinist Johann in Das Boot, 1981. (Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures / MovieStillsDB)

The film was critically acclaimed and nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Direct and Best Adapted Screenplay. There are two reasons as to how Das Boot so accurately portrayed warfare. Firstly, the set was a recreated model of a 1940s Type VIIC U-boat and, second, rather than show non-stop action, the film lays out the tedium of life at sea. Much of the time, the German sailors are spent waiting for a target before quick bursts of action.

While realistic, not everyone was a fan of the film’s depiction of World War II, including Buchheim, who later argued that it glorified war, whereas his book was clearly anti-war.

M*A*S*H (1970)

Up until 1970, the vast majority of films made about war were somber in tone –  then M*A*S*H debuted in theaters. The movie, which helped launch the careers of Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould and Robert Duvall, focused on the black humor involved in serving overseas. While the doctors in the film were always ready to treat wounded soldiers in Korea, they also spent their downtime playing practical jokes on each other and attempting to sleep with nurses.

Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye Pierce in 'M*A*S*H'
Donald Sutherland portrayed Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce in the film version of M*A*S*H, 1970. (Photo Credit: 20th Century-Fox / Getty Images)

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert wrote of M*A*S*H, “We can take the unusually high gore-level in M*A*S*H because it is originally part of the movie’s logic. If the surgeons didn’t have to face the daily list of maimed and mutilated bodies, none of the rest of their lives would make any sense.”

The movie, of course, went on to inspire an even more famous television show, which ran from 1972-83 and further detailed the efforts of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Also titled M*A*S*H, it is considered by many to be one of the greatest TV series of all time.

Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan earned fame for directing The Dark Knight (Batman) trilogy and 2010’s Inception. In 2017, he brought his filmmaking eye to the war film genre with Dunkirk, where he focused on the chaos and horror of the Dunkirk evacuation from the air, sea and on land.

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy Jensen in 'Dunkirk'
Fionn Whitehead portrayed Tommy Jensen in Dunkirk, 2017. (Photo Credit: massi / MovieStillsDB)

The evacuation of Dunkirk is a famous moment in British WWII history. While the outcome of the event was so surprising that some referred to it as a miracle, Britain’s leaders chose to temper expectations, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill remarking, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

In his film, Nolan captures the heroism of the troops on the ground, largely without the use of dialogue. Such depictions include dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft, as well as the lack of impact the war was having on the population at home. The movie was a massive critical success, becoming the highest-grossing WWII film ever released.

Come and See (1985)

Most war films show battle from the perspective of the combatants. Come and See, a 1985 movie by Soviet filmmakers, takes a different point of view. The anti-war movie wanted to show the perspective of war from the eyes of the children on the ground during WWII – more specifically, the German occupation of Belarus (then Byelorussia).

Aleksei Kravchenko as Flyora Gayshun in 'Come and See'
Aleksei Kravchenko portrayed Flyora Gayshun in Come and See, 1985.(Photo Credit: tony-mosc / MovieStillsDB)

To say Come and See is realistic would be an understatement. According to director Elem Klimov, ambulances had to be on hand during showings due to the subject matter. The film also resonated with those who fought overseas. SFGATE conducted a survey of veterans and 100 percent of those polled felt Come and See portrayed war in a realistic fashion.

Platoon (1986)

Platoon is different than other war movies for a number of reasons. One of the most prominent is that filmmaker and writer Oliver Stone is a Vietnam War veteran who served in the US Army. Despite his admission into Yale University, he enlisted in the Army, viewing it as a rite of passage, and requested combat duty.

Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe in character for 'Platoon'
Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger starred in 1986’s Platoon. (Image via Zayne / MovieStillsDB)

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Platoon follows Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, who enlists to serve in Vietnam and quickly undergoes a transition into adulthood. Stone aimed to depict the war in a way that would adequately show just what those fighting overseas faced. He based the film on his combat experience and those of his fellow soldiers, so it’s no surprise it struck a chord with viewers.

Todd Neikirk

Todd Neikirk is a New Jersey-based politics, entertainment and history writer. His work has been featured in,, and He enjoys sports, politics, comic books, and anything that has to do with history.

When he is not sitting in front of a laptop, Todd enjoys soaking up everything the Jersey Shore has to offer with his wife, two sons and American Foxhound, Wally.