The Moving Image: Top Ten War Movies (about Irregular Warfare and Special Operations)

By: Kalev I. Sepp

A "Top Ten" list of motion pictures about Irregular Warfare and Special Operations has an objective similar to reading lists. There are literally thousands of war movies, so it helps to narrow the field, and offer a few titles of particular note to military professionals and students. Also, common viewing creates a basis of discussion, as with common reading of select books.

This Top Ten list has its limitations. All are English-language films, excepting the Italian-made/French-and-Arabic-language La Bataille d'Alger/The Battle of Algiers. This excludes some noteworthy Irregular Warfare movies, like the Peruvian La Boca Del Lobo, the French La 317e Section, and the Russian 9th Company. Also, none are documentaries. They may be historical fiction, or carry the disclaimer, "based on actual events. In every case, a real understanding of the action and context of the films can only be gained by reading serious books on the subject.

Still, there are benefits to movie-watching. Unlike reading a book, viewing a film can be done collectively; there is the opportunity for a
shared experience and common understanding. Cinematography is an art form, and can entertain as well as evoke contemplation of the subjects addressed. The intention of this Top Ten list is to suggest movies that convey a sense of the nature of Irregular Warfare, and the character of Special Operations. For both the professional and the "non-specialist," this feeling might improve their understanding of these kinds of warfare. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words -- which makes each movie, comprised of thousands of images, a visual novel.

Here are this writer's Top Ten movies, in historical order of the wars in which they are set:


In the mid-18th century, a few European regiments and their native allies battle in the primeval wilderness for control of half the North American continent. Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis), a frontiersman and adopted white Mohican, is the consummate irregular warrior. Armed with his tomahawk, knife, and longue carabine (long rifle), he fights a running battle – literally – in the forests of the Hudson Valley with the Hurons and French to save his friends, his tribe, and the woman he loves. Awarded an Oscar.

In post-Civil War Arizona territory, a by-the-book commander of a U.S. cavalry outpost applies conventional tactics and attitude against an unconventional opponent – the Chiricahua Apaches, masters of guerrilla warfare. The story of the arrogant colonel from "back East" (Henry Fonda) who ignores his frontier-savvy officers and sergeants (including John Wayne) is loosely based on Lt. Col. George Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

ZULU (1964)
The year is 1879. A 20,000-man Zulu army armed only with spears massacres 1,300 rifle-bearing British and allied soldiers in a single day at Isandhalwana. 4,000 Zulu warriors then detach to mop up an understrength company of red-coated British infantry at Rourke's Drift. The result surprises both sides. Eleven of the surviving Tommies receive the Victoria Cross – the most ever for a single unit in a single action. Sometimes, irregular warfare can just be a helluva gunfight. (Hint: Fast-forward through the irrelevant scenes of the drunken minister and his daughter; they're completely fictional.)

An Australian counter-guerrilla unit leader applies "Rule 303" against Boer irregulars and spies on the South African veldt in 1902 – as per orders from headquarters. But Lieut. Harry Morant is court-martialed for his tough tactics by his waxed-moustache British superiors, to appease Boer leaders so they'll begin peace talks.The sharply anti-British tone of this Australian film is quite intentional. (Turn on the English subtitles -- the accents of the Aussies, Scots, and Brits in the echo-chamber courtroom scenes make the dialogue almost unintelligible.) Nominated for an Oscar.

An Arabic-speaking Oxford archeologist joins the British Army, and is sent to blow up the Turkish railroads he travelled on when he did field research across the Ottoman Middle East before the Great War of 1914-18. To accomplish this, he leads Arab irregulars in a revolt against their Ottoman masters. The remarkable story of T.E. Lawrence follows this university scholar's rise from observer to adviser to guerrilla army commander, and is enhanced by the spectacular locations in this exceptionally watchable picture. Incidentally, Peter O'Toole was only the fifth choice
for the lead role. Awarded seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

The mission: Form a four-man team, jump into Japanese-occupied Thailand, link up with the "indig," march cross-country, and blow up a railroad bridge. The team leader is an SOE officer, and fluent in the native dialect. One team member escaped from the Japanese POW camp at the bridge site. What could go wrong? Well, almost everything. Perhaps a British colonel (Alec Guinness) collaborating with the Japanese might also prove troublesome.Note: When the movie was released, former Allied prisoners-of-war picketed at theaters in England and Australia, protesting that the movie did not adequately portray Japanese cruelty and atrocities during World War II. Awarded seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

Call it "Stability Operations," "Civil Affairs," "Post-Conflict Reconstruction," or "Transitional Military Authority," the trials of rebuilding communities devastated by war are constant. Major Victor Joppolo is the U.S. military governor of the cratered Sicilian town of Adano in 1943. His newly-liberated townspeople need the coast road to cart in food and water, but the U.S. division commander orders the major to keep the road clear at all times for military convoys.What's more, the Fascisti took the great town bell, a source of civic pride; the citizens want him to replace it -- immediately. And what is this ‘democracy' the major keeps talking about? The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.

Here's a hard look at how Americans back home in the States don't understand or appreciate the experiences and sacrifices of servicemen returning from distant wars overseas – and their struggles with unemployment, estrangement, substance abuse, nightmares, divorce, and loss of limbs. In 1946. This film is especially for those who imagine the post-World War II years were some sort of "golden age" for returning U.S. combat veterans. Awarded eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

Commissioned by the then-newly independent revolutionary government of Algeria, this film employs a documentary style to tell the victorious rebels' version of their urban insurgency against the French paratroopers and pieds noirs. Some of it is true, some is what the rebels wished was true, and some is pure fabrication – and very well done, in any regard. It is a striking view of urban guerrilla warfare, and masterful propaganda as well. Nominated for three Oscars.

What happens when the major general commanding Task Force Ranger in the cinderblock maze of Mogadishu in 1993 ignores the venerable "Rogers' Rangers Standing Orders" of 1757? – notably, "Don't ever march home the same way; take a different route so you won't be ambushed." This film shows the awful price paid by soldiers when their leaders underestimate irregular opponents – a recurrent fault in U.S. military expeditions. Awarded two Oscars.







Then there are the "Worst War Movies (about Irregular Warfare and Special Operations)." Leading this very large pack, in no particular order:

RAMBO II & III (1985 & 1988)
As embarrassing to U.S. Army Green Berets as Navy SEALs is to Navy SEALs. Rambo III received five Razzie nominations, including Worst Film, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Supporting Actor, and Worst Actor (Sylvester Stallone).

The only movie made about the OSS in World War II, Never So Few is The A-Team without the gripping realism. The lackadaisical performances by the actors (including Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen) give the impression the movie was made in a careless rush, and every scene was shot in one "eh, good enough" take. Hollywood was full of OSS alumni after the war; it's a shame this was the best they could do to tell their story.

A shady financier hires over-the-hill white mercenaries (led by Richard Burton) to rescue an African leader ousted in a coup. The mercs – swell guys all – do one P.T. workout, parachute via free-fall into an unnamed country, slaughter hundreds of blacks with bullets, poison arrows, and cyanide gas, then run for the border with their prize – supporting the apartheid view that only whites can save blacks from themselves. Racist and despicable.

Deplored by all Iraq and Afghanistan EOD veterans for its jarring inaccuracies, particularly the erratic, lone-wolf personality of the team leader – the antithesis of a successful bomb disposal specialist. Awarded six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Like Hurt Locker, deplored by all Air Force officers for the escape-and-evade ineptness of the pilot (comedic actor Owen Wilson) shot down over Bosnia during the NATO "peacekeeping" mission in 1995, and the political flip-floppery of the U.S. and allied commanders (including Gene Hackman) directing the combat-search-and-rescue operation.

This film – very possibly the worst war movie ever made – inspired a drove of Special Forces colonels to believe they could imitate Colonel Mike Kirby (John Wayne), and personally lead each of their group's fifty-plus A-Detachments in combat. Who needs all those company and battalion commanders, anyway?



There's a parallel category to the Irregular Warfare/Special Ops "Worst" movies – which is "Funniest." Most were not intended to be laughable, but they just turned out that way.; Several of note include:

It's not a war movie; it's a "bro-mance." And ooh, such coiffures.

Chuck Norris is so serious it's comical; not to mention Lee Marvin as the Oldest Colonel in the World.


Is an elephant for the village of Dak Nhe like a bell for the town of Adano? Just add Green Berets and a cargo parachute.

G.I. JANE (1997)
Demi Moore, chosen for her femininity (really, they say so in the movie!), guts out a SEAL-ish selection course, then rescues Rangers surrounded in the Libyan desert.Would Jody Foster, the original choice for the lead, have made this believable?

One more reason for lists of this brand of war movies, is to incite readers to challenge the titles presented, and suggest others ("Where is Red Dawn?!" "What about that great 1948 Franco-Norwegian film about the Vemork Heavy Water Raid, Kampen om tungtvannet?"). Such recommendations are gladly welcomed.

About the Author(s): Dr. Kalev I. Sepp is senior lecturer in Defense Analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He earned his Combat Infantryman Badge in the Salvadoran Civil War.

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