27 of the most inaccurate war movies of all time
Have you ever wondered if your favorite war movies are historically accurate? We certainly have, and that’s why we compiled some of the greatest war movies ever made to see how they stack up against actual events. Will your favorite war movie pass the test?
Enemy at the Gates
Enemy at the Gates saw Jude Law cast as the legendary (and not so love-deprived) Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev during the Battle of Stalingrad. Stalingrad was about as close to hell as mankind has ever come, and the scenes depicted in the movie show the desperate fighting that took place during the battle. So what’s wrong with that?
While Zaitsev claims to have fought Erwin König (played by Ed Harris) mano a mano, no evidence actually exists of the sniper duel. The film also depicts the fight between the two men as the key to battle, which is absurd, considering the Battle of Stalingrad had millions of combatants, all of whom wish they looked as good as Jude Law in a Russian uniform.
Pearl Harbor is one of those movies where you’d like to say, “nice try,” to the director. But Michael Bay is not the type to show remorse by portraying historical inaccuracies, especially when he could have a bunch of cool explosions and people screaming. However, we draw the line at having to look at Ben Affleck’s frosted tips (in the 1940s) waving in the wind.
In that regard, thank the powers that be that Kate Beckinsale is in the movie. She played a nurse that worked at a hospital that was strafed, but in real life the Japanese attack avoided soft targets like that. At least Bay used the correct Zero fighters for the Japanese attack, as he used incorrect jeeps, guns, and even cigarettes in the movie.
Jarhead is based on a real memoir, and actually receives a lot of praise for its accurate portrayal of the boredom and monotony that can come with combat deployment. In the case of the Gulf War, this can be exacerbated when the army you’re fighting is about as committed as a runaway bride.
Where supporters draw the line is the great lengths the filmmakers went to in order to introduce drama. Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Corporal Anthony Swofford showed that the real battle in the movie was among his fellow Marines, and not the Iraqi enemy. For this reason, many Marines would rather watch Full Metal Jacket.
Battle of the Bulge
This “oldie but goodie” attempts to recreate the events of the Battle of the Bulge. Some critics attack the movie for not having enough bad weather. Well, they probably haven’t seen the movie because the movie got that part right. Where the movie got things wrong, however, was using all historically impossible vehicles in the movie.
Filmmakers portrayed M47 Patton tanks (U.S.) as German King Tigers, then, like a drunk trying his hand at accounting, they used the same tanks painted in U.S. colors! The battle also ended a little differently, but that scene of the Germans abandoning their tanks near the end of the battle is pretty close to accurate.
Did the filmmakers of U-571 even attempt to make this movie historically accurate? This is one of those movies that takes real historical events and then turns them on their head to make a dramatic Hollywood thriller. U-571 was definitely made for an American audience, as the British found no humor in their being omitted from the film.
The reality is, the enigma machine, and its decoding, was a result of the sacrifice made by a lot of brave Poles and Brits. This prompted then Prime Minister of England Tony Blair to condemn the movie, but it still topped box offices in the U.S. and U.K.
Windtalkers is another film that has so much wrong with it it’s tough to even call it a “war movie.” It’s also like U-571 in the sense that it took an awesome true story, mixed it up, and came out like gravy on top of ice cream (honestly, I’d probably eat that).
During WWII the Navajo code talkers ensured that the Japanese never broke the American secret code for radio transmissions (the Americans broke the Japanese code in the wars opening months). In the movie, their job is so important that the Navajo cannot be taken alive, which is unrealistic, as they were never assigned a personal grim reaper, as Nicolas Cage’s character seems to portray.
Red Tails is a film about the amazing Tuskegee Airmen, who were the first all-black aerial unit in US history. Instead of showing us their real-life struggles with racism, Red Tails gives us a watered-down, unrealistic portrayal of serving in a segregated military.
The aerial combat is kind of cool, except that it doesn’t really make many attempts to recreate what actually happened. A movie about the Tuskegee Airmen was made before, and it was called, ahem… Tuskegee Airmen. It made the same false claim that the squadron never lost a bomber to enemy fire, but records indicate they lost as many as 25.
WWI is where aerial combat got its proverbial wings, and Flyboys is an attempt to give us a window into the first dogfights this world ever saw. But if a realistic portrayal of these fights is what you seek then don’t expect Flyboys to be the film that shows them to you.
Aside from the fact that the German planes are the wrong aircraft, the lone military adviser on the set turned out to be a fraud. That’s not a joke, as a British man named Jack Livesey was later arrested for fraud, after fabricating a 20-year military career. Filmmakers might as well have hired Chef Boyardee as a military adviser.
The Green Berets
We love John Wayne movies, but we don’t think it was realistic to cast a 59-year-old as the leader of an elite special forces unit. The Green Berets takes place in Vietnam, and that’s about where the accuracy of the film stops. It was more like Wayne’s “Cowboys and Indians” films and was completely tone-deaf to the times.
The year 1968 was when the public really turned on the war, and the filmmakers thought having the badass actor in Hollywood shoot up the enemy would encourage the public to favor the war. That’s like a steakhouse leading you through a slaughterhouse before dinner.
The Hurt Locker
Just like all of the movies on this list, The Hurt Locker is an amazing movie, full of high drama and action. Veterans of the Iraq War have criticized the movie for that very reason, saying that the main character, played by Jeremy Renner, lacked the discipline of a real bomb disposal squad member.
For obvious reasons, bomb disposal units wait until an area is secure, as there’s already enough danger in taking a crack at diffusing a live bomb. Not only would they not put themselves in danger, but they wouldn’t do that to their fellow soldiers as well. But Renner’s character needed a rush, and for watching, we got one too.
You probably recognize everyone in the photo below as a decent thespian, but good acting didn’t save Alexander from absolutely flopping in the box office. At least other inaccurate movies had the wherewithal to be good movies, which is not something we can say about Oliver Stone’s Alexander.
Yes, we get it, Alexander the Great was possibly gay, but we needed more than that for an accurate portrayal of one of the most impressive military campaigns ever. But Stone chose to gloss over wars with a single battle, omit others entirely, and then straight up made up native peoples and customs.
The Last Samurai
Comedian Paul Mooney once made a joke about The Last Samurai that completely sums up what’s wrong with this movie, but we can’t repeat that joke here. But what it pokes at is the fact that makers of The Last Samurai took a completely, wholly, and unequivocally Japanese concept, and cast Tom Cruise for the role of the last fricken samurai there ever was.
Okay, so this movie is legit in the fact that it’s awesome, but again, Tom Cruise playing a samurai is like John Wayne playing Genghis Khan (hold onto your hats folks, that actually happened!). Also, according to the movie, Japan can thank the US for keeping with its traditions. Oh wait, they actually hated each other and duked it out in the Pacific during WWII.
Here’s another awesome movie, and in this case, it was good enough to win Best Picture. However, one thing that’s kind of weird is the utterance of the word “Braveheart” never takes place in the movie. Probably because William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson, wasn’t actually nicknamed “Braveheart.”
The person who got that honor was the slightly less honorable Robert the Bruce, who is truly responsible for the liberation of Scotland from England. He also never betrayed Wallace, as the film portrays, and the Scots hold Bruce in such high regard they criticize the movie for taking shots at their national hero.
Gladiator is another “Best Picture” Oscar winner and is considered one of the greatest movies of all time, but we can’t help but point out some things the filmmakers overlooked. Aside from the character Maximus Decimus Meridius, portrayed by Russell Crowe, never existing, Marcus Aurelius didn’t face an insurrection during his reign.
The opening scene depicts a riveting battle in the forests of Germania, but the Romans brought siege weapons like they were attacking a castle. The film has further problems in the fact that Aurelius never banned gladiator games, understanding their need to distract Roman citizens from a fledgling economy.
Saving Private Ryan
Here we are with another “Best Picture” winner… Whoa, wait, that crappy Shakespeare in Love movie somehow beat this amazing war epic directed by Steven Spielberg (at least he won Best Director) in that category. But even as amazing as Saving Private Ryan is, Spielberg took some liberties with how the Battle of Normandy on D-Day actually unfolded.
Toms Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, leads a company of Rangers ashore Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The film shows that after a few harrowing minutes, they’re able to bust through the German lines. In reality, it took hours, and two more waves of landings to establish a beachhead.
Patton is another Best Picture winner, and this wouldn’t have been possible without the unmatched performance of George C. Scott, who portrayed, you guessed it, General George S. Patton. It would win Scott an award for Best Actor, mainly from the opening scene, which he managed to do in just one take.
The main problem with that speech, great as it is, it doesn’t really capture the voice of George S. Patton. Patton certainly could be crude and often inserted off-color jokes, but he had an exceptionally high voice, spoke sentences of a few words or less, and made long pauses followed by cursing to maximize the comedic effect.
The Thin Red Line
The Thin Red Line is another war movie that has amazing action, an impressive cast, and for the most part, is highly historically accurate. The problem with the film doesn’t exist so much in the fighting as it does in the soldiers’ surroundings: the jungle.
Anyone who’s been to Guadalcanal (note: I have not been to Guadalcanal, and unless you’re a veteran, you probably haven’t either) can tell you it’s no paradise. The film depicts lush green slopes, waterfalls, and cool temperatures. It must’ve been a real paradise, minus what was really there: Searing heat, disease-carrying insects, and poisonous snakes.
Glory is another masterpiece of a war movie, and many of the events portrayed in the film are historically accurate. Real characters are portrayed by amazing actors, and real-life events are correctly brought to life, however, most of the problem’s lie in the final scene.
During the assault of Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment never reached the walls of the fort. They were indeed the tip of the spear in the attack, but when they were starting to get driven back, other Union regiments joined in the fight. Fort Wagner was never taken during the Civil War, so maybe the writers should’ve just changed the ending anyway.
We Were Soldiers
We Were Soldiers is another fantastic war movie that’s based on the memoirs of a soldier. In this case, the soldier is Colonel Hal Moore, portrayed by Mel “I love war movies” Gibson. The film gets high marks from veterans and war movie enthusiasts, but like Glory, the problems come in the final battle scene.
At the end of the movie, Colonel Moore lead a desperate bayonet charge into the bowels of the Vietnamese lines, only to have helicopter gunships mow them down. These type of gunships didn’t exist at the time of the Battle of Ia Drang, and the battle itself just fizzled out, without an overwhelming, conclusive end.
Born on the Fourth of July
Our second Oliver Stone movie on this list (note: Platoon, another ‘Best Picture’ winner, is not on this list for its extremely accurate portrayal of events in the Vietnam War) is Born on the Fourth of July, starring another person familiar to this list: Tom Cruise.
Cruise plays Sergeant Ron Kovic, who gets shot and paralyzed during his second tour in Vietnam. Aside from the fact that a comrade in arms later disputed the events of Kovic’s book and Stone’s subsequent film (after the guy was released from a 22-year prison sentence), Kovic never gave that speech on July 4 upon his return to the United States.
This Vietnam War movie classic was about as brutal as the name implies, and while there are many inaccuracies in the movie, the real-life battle it attempts to portray was decidedly more controversial. Hamburger Hill depicts a battle summed up the Vietnam War: Exhaust human life to take a piece of land, then promptly give it back. How fun!
The fighting in the movie has been widely regarded as realistic, but the filmmakers got a little overzealous with some of the equipment they brought in. The battle was almost exclusively an infantry battle (with artillery and airborne support), so there wouldn’t have been tanks and other heavy equipment.
Good Morning Vietnam
Robin William’s portrayal of Vietnam War radio Disc Jockey Adrian Cronauer was one of the most memorable roles of the 1980s, and Good Morning Vietnam was nominated for Best Picture. Cronauer happens to love Williams’ performance in the movie but admits that the filmmakers took many liberties with how events actually unfolded.
In the movie, Williams befriends a Vietnamese boy who turns out to be a Viet Cong insurgent. Due to his friendship with the boy, Williams is forced to leave Vietnam, despite how much he’s loved by the troops. In reality, this friendship never occurred, and Cronauer contends he’d be in jail if he did half the things Williams did in the movie.
Mel Gibson is back at it again, and again he portrays a real-life historical figure, this time named Benjamin Martin. Gibson’s character is actually thought to be a composite of many real-life historical figures, and most notably is Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion.
Just like Marion, Gibson’s character had savagely attacked a band of Native Americans prior to the Revolutionary War. Both men also owned slaves, but in the film, the filmmakers expect us to believe that the African-Americans on Benjamin Martin’s South Carolina farm work as free men. That’s like asking us to believe the Pope doesn’t live in the Vatican.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
Even though Tora! Tora! Tora! is on the same list as Pearl Harbor (both depict the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941), this movie is far more accurate than the Michael Bay, nearly satirical portrayal of the battle. This movie is really cool, as it shows the events leading up to the battle on both the Japanese and American sides.
Where the movie falls a bit short is in the portrayal of some of the political proceedings prior to the assault. Historians will debate Emperor Hirohito’s role in Japanese war strategy for ages, but it’s largely agreed he was portrayed a bit too weak, and too much of a pushover in the movie.
The Great Escape
As crazy as the events depicted in The Great Escape are, they are for the most part true. The Great Escape is another book to movie adaptation, this time written by Paul Brickhill, who is played by one of the coolest actors ever, Steve McQueen.
The motorcycle jump at the end of the movie is considered one of the greatest stunts ever pulled off in the history of movies. The only problem is no one who was part of this escape used a motorcycle, let alone to jump over a prison wall. There’s also a problem with McQueen’s character, who was actually Australian in real life. Can you imagine McQueen saying, “g’day!” Didn’t think so.
The Longest Day
The Longest Day is one of the greatest war movies of all time, and while it stars John Wayne, this movie is decidedly more accurate than The Green Berets (though Wayne was still about two decades too old). The filmmakers lead us through the battle of D-Day once again, and this time they show it from the American, British, French, and German sides.
At the time the movie came out in 1962 it was widely regarded as extremely realistic, and that lasted for several decades. Then came a movie called Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and showed what the horrors of Utah Beach in Normandy were really like. Let’s see if Robert Mitchum could hold onto that cigar with bullets flying like fireflies.
The Deer Hunter
The Deer Hunter is an absolutely amazing movie, and lands in the company of other “Best Picture” and “Best Director” winners. Not to mention the film stars Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken among others and is one of the most emotional films you’ll ever see. However, it’s depiction of events in Vietnam are slightly out of the ordinary.
While pain and suffering seem to be a common thread among prisoners of war, they were not subjected to mind-bending games of Russian roulette. Of course, it cannot be proven that it never happened, but the movie makes it look like Russian roulette was as common as rice in Vietnam.