Welcome to a special installment of That One Scene, a semi-regular series in which Task & Purpose writers wax nostalgic about that one scene from a beloved movie. This time around we rounded up some of the best military movie scenes, according to you, our readers.
When it comes to the military, there’s no shortage of on-screen depictions, whether it’s in an action flick, a period piece, an all-out war drama, a story of life after service, or a cameo in the midst of a big-budget CGI slug-fest in which super-powered spacemen duke it in small town America.
But movies that really nail what it looks and feels like to serve in uniform? Those are on the rare side.
Sometimes a whole movie seems to hit the mark, expertly capturing a moment in time, like Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam War drama Platoon, or the way Ridley Scott’s 2001 film, Black Hawk Down, presented the brutality of the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.
More often than not, there’s a single scene in a given movie that reaches out and slaps military and veteran viewers across the face with nostalgia.
Some moments just get *it* right.
Now, as we previously wrote, *it* is subjective and covers a wide range of topics like accurately depicting the gritty details of heavy combat; capturing the relentless tension of serving in a warzone; portraying the rocky transition back to ‘normal’ life that often follows a long or tough deployment; focusing on the technical and tactical aspects of modern combat; or acknowledging a timeless truth of service, like the ferociousness of Marine Corps drill instructors.
Due to how varied *it* is, and because each and every one of us has our own perspective and unique experiences that shape the way we view one scene or another, we decided to open the floor to you, our readers.
Last week, Task & Purpose put out the call asking folks to tell us which movie moments got *it* right, and you did not disappoint. You waded into our comments section to share your insights and recommendations, braved the trolls on Twitter and Facebook, or emailed us directly with your thoughts.
And so, we’ve compiled your recommendations together in one spot — and don’t worry, if you see this and get inspired, hop in the comment section! We’re always on the lookout for new movies and scenes to break down, and fresh takes on well-worn topics and moments.
Without further ado, here are the movies and specific scenes that actually get war and military service right, according to you, our readers.
Reader comments have been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama is a classic, as much for its grand story and ruminations on the value of one life over many, as for its technical accuracy and the emotional authenticity captured on screen — and it’s a film we’ve written about quite extensively here.
One scene that several readers flagged for us takes place early on in the movie. Following the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) reports to his commanding officer, played by Dennis Farina.
At the command tent, the battle-weary Miller briefs his CO on a recent mission — they went to clear a sector of enemy troops and to destroy several smaller minefields, only to discover that they were walking through one massive minefield littered with every form of explosive death imaginable.
As Miller finishes the post-mission brief, his eyes wander around the tent, and the camera pans with his gaze: Hot water for shaving; freshly brewed coffee poured into clean mugs by soldiers in neat uniforms. Miller by comparison looks exhausted and stands there in tattered fatigues. He has a five-o’clock shadow, bags under his eyes, and his face streaked with dirt and grime.
Then, his thousand-yard stare lands on a stack of sandwiches: High-end corned beef and cheese on fresh sourdough bread.
The look that crosses over his face is one of disdain and no small amount of envy. That passing glance is immediately recognizable to frontline soldiers of any war and era, who’ve returned to the headquarters area, among the POGs and the “rear echelon mother fuckers,” far removed from the fighting, where the creature comforts aren’t in short supply, and the dangers are often far less.
Miller’s reaction is telling: He doesn’t disparage those soldiers just because they get to enjoy a nice meal and a hot cup of coffee in safety, while his men sit in the dirt eating canned rations and choke down bad coffee brewed in a dented canteen cup. They have a job to do, same as him. Still, it is a brief and impactful scene that lays out the disparities between those who support the infantry and other frontline troops, and the grunts themselves.
Gardens of Stone (1987)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring James Caan as Army Sgt. Clell Hazard, the film follows a Vietnam War veteran’s life after combat. Despite his desire to train and better prepare soldiers heading off to fight the war still raging overseas, Hazard is assigned to The Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In the final moments of the film, he attends the funeral of one of his soldiers who got orders to Vietnam and was killed. At the funeral is another one-time member of the platoon and the unit’s perpetual screw-up, Pvt. Albert Wildman, who also got orders downrange, and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
According to reader Dave Freeman, the funeral scene, from start to finish, accurately depicts the somber affair, while underscoring a deeper point: “It doesn’t matter who you are or how you think you’ll be in combat. It’s what kind of person you are and what you do that matters.”
The camaraderie between soldiers is a fundamental part of military service. And while this bond is sometimes applied to film, and television, like a thin layer of glue to hold an otherwise flimsy plot and script together, when it’s done right it can be profoundly moving. Especially for those who remember what that feels like.
“Last night I toured the Audie Murphy [Medal of Honor] Museum in Tombstone, Arizona with my son’s Scout Troop,” Freeman continued. “One of the staffers said something I won’t forget: ‘It’s said that we’re fighting for freedom, defending our country, and all kinds of other stuff. No one in combat is doing that; they’re fighting for the guy standing next to them, and doing everything they can to get them home.’”
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)
This 1946 classic, which won a slew of awards and has even been added to the Library of Congress’ film registry, follows three veterans of World War II as they return home to the fictional town of Boone City in the Midwest.
“The film’s main idea, soldiers returning home after experiencing war for an extended period, was based on a Time article where a reporter rode a train with veterans from the East Coast, heading west, stopping in Cleveland, Chicago, wondering if they would see each other again,” writes Ryan Lockwood, another reader who weighed in on the comment thread, adding that the film holds a special place for him, because it was a favorite of his father, a Vietnam veteran.
What’s particularly interesting about the movie is just how timeless its themes are, covering ideas of service, sacrifice, and the varying costs of war, from the mental, to the emotional, physical, and even the social isolation that many feel after they trade in the uniform of the day for, well, everyday attire.
“It’s a melodramatic film, but it was 1946,” Lockwood writes. “It came out right after the war ended, and it’s still powerful in 2021. My hope is people read this comment, look for the film, and enjoy it as much as my father did.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
Based on the book of the same name, Ang Lee’s surreal take on the Iraq War is a visually stunning juxtaposition of war and everyday life, and one particular scene captured what it was like to serve in the early 2000s. The film follows Billy Lynn, a young Army specialist, who after an act of heroism is plucked from the battlefield for a stateside publicity tour. Lynn and his fellow soldiers go from being in the midst of a warzone to back home for a short block of leave, with a return ticket to the sandbox hanging over their heads like an ax. It’s an uncomfortable and all-too-familiar situation for post-9/11 veterans: To be home safe with those you love, but knowing all the while, that in just a week or two, you’ll be gone once again.
One scene in particular, which is hinted at in the title, features a halftime show, in which Lynn and his fellow soldiers are paraded out in front of a crowd of cheering spectators during a football game. As reader Bryce Dubee pointed out for us, the scene captures a bizarre moment unique to the early 2000s, when the commercialization of war and ‘rah rah’ patriotism were in full swing.
“It’s not a perfect movie, but Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk did a great job of capturing that weird slice of America that was the pro-Iraq crowd of the early 2000s,” Dubee wrote in the comments. “When I came home from my first deployment in ’04 it was a lot of that same weirdness — even down to getting trotted out to, like, wave a giant flag or whatever in my DCUs during an NFL game.”
“Again, not a perfect movie, but there’s a ton tonally that they nailed.”
In the Army Now (1994)
Now, you might not think that a 90s military comedy starring Pauly Shore would nail the finer points of uniformed life, but you’d be wrong.
“Hear me out,” writes Dan Graham. “While not a serious movie about the military per se, the scene with cattle trucks used to transport new trainees to meet their drill sergeants for the first time is spot on. It’s the only military movie I can recall [that uses] period-perfect mid-90s cattle trucks. If you joined then, I’m sure you had the distinct pleasure of riding around Ft. Benning and other places on those.”
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War classic is a lot of things: A psychedelic and bloody romp through the jungles of Vietnam; an homage to Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, but with a lot of camouflage and 5.56mm. It’s also a sampler platter of far-fetched, and simultaneously relatable moments from war and service, like this one:
In the scene, Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) leaves the patrol boat and joins Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks (Frederic Forrest), to go look for mangos in the jungle. And while that particular moment may not be relatable, it’s Chef’s backstory, and how he ended up on a river boat on a mission to kill a rogue Army officer that is.
As Rick Reiss noted, Chef’s name is a reference to the fact that he is, in fact, an actual New Orleans chef. A saucier, born and raised, who joined the Navy with the hopes of serving fine food to his fellow sailors, only to discover that the service’s take on cuisine was not up to snuff.
“Chef realized that he couldn’t utilize his culinary skills in the Navy by just churning out institutional slop to feed the masses,” wrote Reiss. “It would be insulting, a bastardization of his talents. So he applied for Radioman school and got turned down, but was offered the Engineman rating and later found himself assigned to [Patrol Boat, River] ‘Streetgang’ in Vietnam.”
While watching the movie back in the 1980s during a stint at sea in the Navy, Reiss said the scene hit on a complaint common among service members: That the military seems to frequently put people in the wrong jobs, to the point that it feels almost deliberate.
“Many sailors empathized with the way the military mismatches people’s skills and God-given talents to jobs in which they have little interest or aptitude in,” Reiss added. “Or similarly, there is that epiphany, that what you thought was your dream job in the military isn’t really what you thought it was and you are left feeling disappointed and cynical.” “The scene from Apocalypse Now just illustrates another small instance of FUBAR for an individual within the vast bureaucracy of the military.”
Feature image: Tom Hanks as Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan. (Saving Private Ryan)