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Great War Movies Depicting The Challenges of Leadership

  • Aug 13, 2010
As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to put up list of what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. From the Civil War to Vietnam, on land sea, or air all these movies have valuable lessons in military leadership. So, tell me what you think.
1
Saving Private Ryan (Widescreen Edition) (1998)
Command is a lonely place! This is the best movie depicting the "lonely place" command can be, especially when you do not believe in the mission! "Saving Private Ryan" is the greatest Hollywood movie showing the reality of infantry combat ever made. The first 30 minutes showing the D-Day invasion was only missing the sense of smell to complete the realism! Tom Hanks is Ranger Captain John Miller who receives orders from the "top" to take 8 of his men and comb the countryside for airborne Pvt. James Ryan, (Matt Damon), because he has recently lost 3 of his brothers in combat; thus, leaving him as the sole survivor, and the "brass" wants to get him home. Looking for a needle in the haystack and fighting several skirmishes doing it while his men gripe and moan why they must needlessly put their lives in danger is the real life tension and challenge of command that makes this movie # 1 on my list of movies depicting command challenges. I know I cried at the ending, how about you?
See the full review, "Command is a lonely place".
2
Twelve O'Clock High
Leading men is hard when all are dying around you! As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "Twelve O'clock High" is one of the best movies depicting the challenges command can be, especially when taking a high casualty rate as our "fly boys" did with the new concept of daylight bombing in the early years of WW 2. This is in the days before the B-17's had p-51 fighter escort all the way to the target and back. Thus, few aircrews actually survived to reach the 25 mission requirement before rotating home. In this story General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) a desk bound staff chief, is sent to the group after the Bomber Commander is relieved of duty. He must take command of a "hard luck" bomber group. His command challenge is his struggle to whip his group into a disciplined fighting unit in spite of heavy losses. At first encountering resistance and becoming unpopular because of his harsh exacting standards, Savage eventually shows the pilots how to take pride in their unit and serve above and beyond the standards of the Army Air Corps. He even has a nervous breakdown himself. One of the very best movies for showing how hard leadership is when all around you are dying and in fear of losing their lives. By the way, the movie has a great cast and story line.
See the full review, "Leading men is hard when all are dying around you.".
3
In Harms Way
It is tough to order family and friends into "harm's way." As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "In Harms Way" is one of the best movies at depicting how a good leader puts the mission before his personal relationships, even when it involves family and good friends.. Captain Rockwell Torrey (John Wayne), and Commander Paul Eddington (Kirk Douglas), are part of the Navy's effort to retaliate for, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Torrey is romantically involved with nurse Maggie Haynes (Patricia Neal), and also tries to restore his relationship with his estranged son, Jeremiah, a young Naval officer. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. I love the tensions the movie sets up between Wayne's character who was an absentee father and his son who resents his father's involvement in his life. Also, Wayne's friendship for Douglas vs. the duty of a superior disciplining a subordinate. A classic war movie that should be viewed by all who like the genre.
See the full review, "It is tough to order family and friends into "harm's way."".
4
He gave his last full measure! As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. In "The Sands of Iwo Jima the "Duke" plays the hard as nails uncompromising Sgt. Stryker. He is tasked with training a Marine rifle squad before they invade Iwo. Needless to say he is unpopular with the men, but in the end he makes a fighting unit out of them and earns their respect. One of the few movies that the "Duke" dies in. Makes one just want to cry. A classic war movie that should be viewed by all who like the genre.
See the full review, "Great war movie that focuses on military leadership".
5
Civilian vs. military control of the country. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "Seven Days In May" is one of the best movies at showing the tensions between the civilian authority over our military. A concept that I wholeheartedly support as part of our constitution. Unfortunately, it has been tested to a smaller degree recently with the General McChrystal flap. At the height of the cold war, an unpopular U.S. President (Fredric March), manages to get a nuclear disarmament treaty through the Senate, but finds that the nation is turning against him. Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), a Marine Colonel, finds evidence that General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), the wildly popular head of the Joint Chiefs and certain Presidential Candidate in 2 years is not planning to wait. Casey goes to the president with the information and this very famous line from the movie. "I'm suggesting Mr. President, there's a military plot to take over the Government of these United States, next Sunday..." Working with a small circle of reliable and loyal officials, (a great cast of actors in this movie) President Lyman tries to get the evidence of Scott's treachery and stop him. Another reason why this movie is so high on my list is the sharp dialogue written by the brilliant Rod Serling!!! I wish modern movies were written this well!
See the full review, "Civilian vs. military control of the country".
6
The Longest Day
Leadership on the global scale. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "The Longest Day" is one of the best movies showing how important it is for subordinate leaders to see the mission through when the plan falters from the start. "The Longest Day" tells the story of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in WWII. There are 42 stars in the movie, some seen only briefly, who together interlace the story of five separate invasion points that made up the operation. Although the actual story and hardships depicted of the invasion of the movie outshines all the star power, John Wayne figures prominently as an airborne battalion commander. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. This is a great movie showing the leadership challenges of conducting such a large military operation.
See the full review, "Leadership on the global scale".
7
Gettysburg
Leadership from the least likely of people! As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "Gettysburg" is one of the best movies showing how leadership is displayed from some of the least likely of people, like a college professor of rhetoric! The movie follows the historical and personal events surrounding and including the decisive American civil war battle. The defense of the Little Round Top by the improbable leader Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels),(who was recently teaching rhetoric), and Pickett's Charge are highlighted in the three day battle that was a turning point in the Civil War. The movie is shown from the perspectives of both sides. Other important leadership emphasis is on Longstreet and Lee's relationship as they have differing strategic opinions. Another great movie showing how one man who leads his men properly can overcome insurmountable odds.
See the full review, "Leadership from the least likely of people".
8
MacArthur, The Rebel General (1977)
One of America's greatest military leaders. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. The biopic "MacArthur" (Gregory Peck), is one of the best movies depicting the remarkable and flawed career of one of America's greatest military leaders; General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and United Nations Commander for the Korean War. The movie examines this military legend's1942 recall from the Philippines by FDR; his triumphant return to liberate the country from the Japanese; his guidance of & influence on the allies' post war policies in Japan; his often volatile & fragile relationship with Harry Truman; which resulted in his dismissal from the army by Truman. Another reason I picked this movie is because it highlights the original tension between the civilian authority over our military. A concept that I wholeheartedly support as part of our constitution. Unfortunately, it has been tested to a smaller degree recently with the General McChrystal flap.
See the full review, "One of America's greatest military leaders".
9
Strategic Air Command
Peace Through Strength. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "Strategic Air Command" is the best movie showing the daily grind, time spent away from family, and challenges for leaders during the "Cold War." SAC's motto "Peace Through Strength" was very appropriate. Seen by most people as one of the offensive arms in the American arsenal, it actually kept the nuclear peace with Russia because it was so well equipped and had highly trained personnel. SAC's success is due in no small part to Gen. Curtis LeMay, an Air Force strategic genius. A cigar smoking tough as nails leader, who knew what he wanted to get done and was the kind of leader that always got 110% out of his people. OK, now a little about the movie. Believing his fighting days are over, Robert "Dutch" Holland (James Stewart, who in real life was a bomber squadron commander in WW 2 and wound up retiring as a General in the Air Force reserves,) had become a successful ballplayer for the Cardinals, only to be recalled into the newly-formed Strategic Air Command,. Set in 1955, when the Cold War is rapidly heating up, SAC has been formed to provide the ultimate deterrent to nuclear war. Holland, promoted to Lt. Colonel, grudgingly accepts the assignment, along with some other equally unhappy airmen, many of whom are old acquaintances from WW 2. Holland's wife Sally (June Allyson) is less than pleased with the turn their life has taken, and isn't happy about her husband being sent out on dangerous missions when there isn't even a war going on. The movie is great at displaying Dutch's leadership skills, and how over the next few months, he helps form SAC into a tightly run, well oiled machine, even when it means long stretches away from home. The example he set for his men, staying in SAC even when he had every reason and opportunity to leave, has done more good for the force than he can imagine.
See the full review, "Peace Through Strength".
10
Patton
One of America's greatest military leaders. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. The biopic "Patton" (George C. Scott), is one of the best movies depicting the remarkable and flawed career of one of America's greatest military leaders; General George S. Patton, famous tank corps commander of World War II.. The movie examines this legendary leader's career in North Africa and progresses through the invasion of Germany and the fall of the Third Reich. His reputation for exacting standards and constant harsh training techniques, including slapping soldiers who he thought were malingerers did not ingratiate him with his men and made him politically unpopular with the "brass." However, it was those very traits that also made him a great leader that got more fight out of his men than any other commander in Europe! The movie ably shows how Patton's battlefield genius garners him fear and respect from the Germans. When the movie shows how he is ridiculed by other generals for volunteering his corps to disengage from a pitch battle, turn it 90 degrees and in less then 72 hours move it 100 miles to relieve the "Battling Bastards of Bastogne" (101st Airborne Div.) it highlights all that was great in Patton as a military leader! That is why you should see this Oscar winning movie!
See the full review, "One of America's greatest military leaders".
11
The Battle of Midway
As Sun Tzu said: A good leader surprises his enemy by being were he is least expected! As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. The biopic "Midway" is one of the best movies showing how important it is for good leaders to deceive their enemy by being were they are least expected, and using this element of surprise to enable an inferior force defeat a superior force. This concept is expertly portrayed in the film through the character of Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda). By having his intelligence staff give him enough information on the whereabouts of the Japanese fleet; Nimitz was able to lay a trap and destroy the effectiveness of the Japanese fleet for the rest of the war. From that time period on the Japanese were on the defense. This movie has an all star cast but they do not overshadow the importance of this epic naval story! Like the "Longest Day," this is a great movie showing the leadership challenges of conducting such a large military operation.
See the full review, "As Sun Tzu said: A good leader surprises his enemy by being were he is least expected".
12
Paths of Glory
When the leadership at the top is rotten!!! As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" depicts the futility and irony of the war in the trenches in WWI. French battalion commander Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack. In this mesmerizing film, the director Kubrick (one of the best) highlights a true episode in World War I which combines the idea that class differences are more important than national differences with the cannon-fodder theory of war, the theory that soldiers are merely pawns in the hands of generals who play at war as if it were a game of chess. I am a huge WW I buff and I impress upon my students the criminal neglect of the British and French generals to properly lead their men. They lost over 60,000 men in the first day of battle in the Somme. The Viet Nam wall has 55,000 names of the men we lost in over 10 years fighting. That was the scale of the gross failure of leadership depicted in this very important film!!!
See the full review, "When the leadership at the top is rotten!!!".
13
The Fighting Seabees
He gave his last full measure. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. In "The Fighting Seabees the "Duke" plays Lt. Cmdr Wedge Donovan, a civilian construction manager who is tasked to form the Navy's first Construction Battalion, (CB CBs=Seabees). The new CBs have to both build and be ready to fight. Donovan a hard nosed construction manager at first chafes under military control, but once commissioned, he learns the importance of doing things the Navy way. This turns him into a great leader and his unit into a very effective force. One of the few movies that the "Duke" dies in. Makes one just want to cry.
See the full review, "He gave his last full measure.".
14
Flying Leathernecks
It is tough to order friends into "harm's way." As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "The Flying Leathernecks" is one of the best movies at depicting how a good leader puts the mission before his personal relationships, even when it involves friends. I always liked John Wayne in war movies more than in westerns. This movie is similar in theme to another of the "Duke's" movie "In Harm's Way." Major Daniel Kirby (John Wayne) takes command of a squadron of Marine fliers just before they are about to go into combat. While the men are well meaning, he finds them undisciplined and prone to always finding excuses to do what is easy rather than what is necessary. The root of the problem is the second in command, Capt. Carl 'Griff' Griffin Robert Ryan). Griff is the best flier in the group but Kirby finds him a poor commander who is not prepared to the difficult decision that all commanders have to make - to put men in harm's way knowing that they may be killed. This movie is great at depicting the importance of a leader serving as a mentor to prepare subordinates of increasing leadership responsibility.
See the full review, "It is tough to order friends into "harm's way."".
15
55 Days at Peking
Sometimes a good military leader must be a good diplomat." As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "55 Days In Peking" is one of the best movies at depicting how good leaders U.S. Marine major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston, and British Ambassador Sir Arthur Robinson (David Niven), must also often times be good diplomats. Diplomats, soldiers and other representatives of a dozen nations fend off the siege of the International Compound in Peking during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The disparate interests unite for survival despite competing factions, overwhelming odds, delayed relief and tacit support of the Boxers by the Empress of China and her generals. It is not always about defeating an enemy in combat, sometimes one has to use diplomacy to prevent bloodshed. This movie is an excellent portrayal of that lesson.
See the full review, "Sometimes a good military leader must be a good diplomat"".
16
Battle of Britain (movie)
Leadership and courage by youngsters. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "The Battle of Britain" is one of the best movies showing the collective heroism and leadership of dedicated pilots who took to the skies again & again in the face of overwhelming odds. I also think it has one of the greatest soundtracks of any war movie made, especially if you love classical music. The German Luftwaffe's planes outnumber the R.A.F's by more than 2 to 1. "The Battle of Britain" tells the story of the of the air war in the early days of World War 2 for control of the skies over Britain as the new Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force determine whether or not an invasion can take place. The intrepid leadership skills shown by hundreds of young 20 somethings is the reason Winston Churchill uttered one of his most memorable quotes. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
17
A Gathering of Eagles
Peace Through Strength Redux. As a retired army officer and an adjunct history professor I thought it was important to review what I consider the best war movies depicting the challenges of leadership and the command of men. "A Gathering of Eagles" is one of the best movies showing the daily grind, time spent away from family, and challenges for leaders during the "Cold War." SAC's motto "Peace Through Strength" was very appropriate. Seen by most people as one of the offensive arms in the American arsenal, it actually kept the nuclear peace with Russia because it was so well equipped and had highly trained personnel. SAC's success is due in no small part to Gen. Curtis LeMay, an Air Force strategic genius. A cigar smoking tough as nails leader, who knew what he wanted to get done and was the kind of leader that always got 110% out of his people. OK, now a little about the movie. Air Force Colonel Jim Caldwell (Rock Hudson) has just been re-assigned as a cold war B-52 commander who must shape up his men to pass a grueling inspection that the previous commander had failed, and had been fired for. He is also recently married, and as a tough commanding officer doing whatever he has to do to shape his men up, his wife sees a side to him that she hadn't seen before. This movie has a similar story line to the "Strategic Air Command" This movie is great at depicting the importance of a leader serving as a mentor to prepare subordinates of increasing leadership responsibility.
See the full review, "Peace Through Strength Redux".

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August 15, 2010
Enjoyed your list. Have not seen many of the films that you discuss here. Am adding severalto my "must see" list.
August 15, 2010
I promise you will not be disapointed.
 
August 14, 2010
I still remember watching Saving Private Ryan with my dad when he pointed out the scene where Tom Hanks and the rest of his team talk. "I say we turn back!" "I say we take him home, thats what we're supposed to do." My dad's reaction was "When does the Army allow this? Tom Hanks is in command it's what HE says they do." Maybe he missed some line in the movie with Hanks as the touchy feely type or that his aire of leading allowed more talk for suggestion but it struck me as odd too. Unless of course having served you know of a situation that I don't know of where this occurs. Nice list. I need to see more of these.
August 14, 2010
Well, I can't tell you how many times after I gave an order that I had to explain the logic behind why it was given. And by the way, it has been like that since our revolution. Americans are individualists at heart. Whenever they have to do something of a collective nature, or dangerous they will question the reasoning. The difference is that 99.9% of the time the American soldier will put his life in harm's way as long as they understand why it has to be. Remember, in the movie there is allot of griping and questioning, but no mutiny. The film is very accurate in that aspect of a soldier and leaders life. You can see similar parallels in the film Gettysburg as well.
August 15, 2010
I guess my impression of the Army or any armed services was that when an order is given, it's followed unless you want trouble. Especially when peoples lives are in danger and things need to get done. My dad was in the Marines so maybe they do things differently. Thank you for the explanation.
August 15, 2010
Most orders are followed without question, but there are times it is as I explained. Don't be under any misconception that the Marines are that much different than the Army, if you viewed the recent HBO series Pacific, then you will know Marines questioned orders as well. Hell, it happens in every fighting force on the planet, throughout history.
 
August 13, 2010
MARVELOUS list! I am featuring this for sure! thank you!
August 14, 2010
Thank you for the compliment. I notice you are into martial arts, I just watched my grandson receive his high blue belt in Tae Kwon Do, very proud of him.
August 14, 2010
wow! send him my congratulations. Yes I am very much into martial arts, also, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for your contributions. I am trying to catch up and I hope to view all the reviews in our community real soon!
 
August 13, 2010
This is a thoughtfully annotated list. I wonder (even at a remove myself as my uncle and namesake died on Saipan and that makes it harder for me to watch WWII in Pacific films, for example) how personal connections to the combat shown enhance or exacerbate one's reaction? You stress the leadership roles more than the carnage as the ultimate value of these films. I teach near a VA hospital so lots of my college students come back from Iraq or Afghanistan; I find myself "enjoying" war films less than I used to as a kid when I grew up, seeing the reaction to the Vietnam war also diminished my childhood interest in playing soldier with my pals.
August 13, 2010
John, thank you for the comment. As a historian and Gulf War veteran I am fascinated by military courage and leadership traits. In fact, my humanities masters degree thesis was looking at the philosophy of courage through history. Everyone's reaction is different depending on their experience. Some talk about it and can watch combat movies, others never talk about it.
 
August 13, 2010
Great list and good insight. As to Saving Private Ryan, don't give Hollywood ideas. They are bombarding us with 3D and I hope they don't take you up by adding "smell" to the film. That movie along with Paths of Glory are two of my all-time favorite films.
August 13, 2010
Thanks for the comments. What kind of books do you like to read?
August 13, 2010
Virtually anything. Military books that I have greatly enjoyed include All Quiet on the Western Front, The Red Badge Of Courage, The Caine Mutiny, Winds of War, War and Rememberance, and Johnny Got His Gun.
August 13, 2010
Great list of books. I will have to inquire about starting a new community, I am new here, still feeling my way around. Do you have a favorite historical era? I love Asian history, Greco-Roman, Amer. Revolution era, WW I.
August 13, 2010
Creating a community is fairly simple. You select the browse communities option and there is an option to set up your own. There are a lot of easy instructions for filling in the sections of the new community and promoting it. Two of my favorite periods are the Julian-Roman era (Julius - Nero) and all US history.
 
August 13, 2010
Wow, this is a super fantastic list, Michael! I've actually seen quite a few of these, many in history classes, so it's really interesting to read your perspective on them given your background. Thanks for sharing!
August 13, 2010
Devora, thank you for the kind comment. I checked your profile and see we have alot in common. I was a jewelry design major my first 2 years in college, in fact I had a 2 year scholarship. When I accepted my ROTC scholarship I made art my mainor and swithced my major to Pol. Sci. I am going to friend request you.
August 13, 2010
My pleasure, and thanks for the friend request! What kind of jewelry did you design? I mostly work with white gold and diamonds. That's an interesting change in path that you ended up taking! :P
August 13, 2010
I worked mostly in silver. Started to do it in art class at Miami beach High school. I think when I have some time this winter I will dabble in it again, I still have all my tools.
August 13, 2010
Oh, neat! I imagine silver would be much easier to work with since it's so much more malleable. I'm the fifth generation jeweler in my family, so jewelry runs in my blood :D I've never actually physically made anything though. The closest I ever come to making something is a simple wax carving. I just sketch designs and send them off to someone else to make. And Miami Beach? I love Florida!!! Are you still living there? My best friend lives in Tampa and is trying to entice me to go enjoy the hot weather with her.
August 13, 2010
I now live in Newport News VA. I had a great childhood in Miami Beach. I went to the U. of Miami class 1980.
September 28, 2010
Thank you for the comment. I agree both of those "series" where great examples of leadership under stress. However, my list is on movies, both of those shows are a series and not movies, thus the reason they are not on the list. By the way, how many of my movies on the list have you seen?
 
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This list was inspired by:
created a list. July 30, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
I love war movies and here are a some of my favorites in particular order. Most of them are under 30-40 years old, and yes I am aware Apocalypse Now, …
Saving Private Ryan The Hurt Locker Platoon Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb The Men Who Stare At Goats
About the list creator
Michael Neulander ()
Ranked #43
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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