If you’re tired of watching the latest streaming hits, why not take a dive back into the best military movies of the 1990s this weekend?
I was born in 1985, which makes me an elder statesman of the millennial generation (an age range that’s a lot broader than most folks realize). That means that I was perfectly positioned to truly appreciate the last golden age in blockbuster movie marketing–and I don’t just mean the rental business.
The 80s had no shortage of powerhouse military movies, from “Full Metal Jacket” to “Red Dawn,” but as much as I loved those flicks, they existed in a time when the film industry was catering to more specific demographics, with R-rated dramas and action movies dominating the box office and us kids left to watch horrifying “children’s classics” like “The Witches,” which came out in 1990, but is rightfully an 80’s film.
Ah, but then came the 1990s; a beautiful time for family-friendly (or at least friendlier) action romps that often came hand in hand with promotional tie-ins at all the fast food places kids of my era loved to eat. Now don’t get me wrong, military and war movies of the 1990s were still largely oriented toward adults, but as the film market grew to embrace the idea of making military-oriented thrillers that fit into the then-recently invented “PG-13” rating, I was just old (and nerdy) enough to be enthralled by the action, the drama, and the heroism on screen.
It probably wouldn’t be overstating to say that these great military movies from the 1990s had a hand in shaping my world view, and in turn, my decision to serve in the Marine Corps.
5. Crimson Tide
One of a handful of submarine movies from this era (and not the only one on this list), “Crimson Tide” follows the story of Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter as he begins his tour aboard the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Alabama. Gene Hackman, a real-life U.S. Marine, played the role of the ship’s captain, Frank Ramsey, and while there are a number of other notable actors in the cast, the crux of the film is the conflict between these two officers deep beneath the surface of the ocean, juxtaposed against a nuclear Cold War backdrop.
As the film comes to its climax, Hunter and Ramsey’s clash has spread to the rest of the ship, and the nuclear implications of their squabble could literally end the world. Washington and Hackman are fantastic in their roles, and while it may suffer from the same inaccuracies most military films share, in the moment, the movie feels entirely believable. What I liked best about “Crimson Tide” was the way you could feasibly make a reasonable argument for either man’s case… giving us a rare glimpse into the grey reality of combat operations: it’s not always easy to tell who the good guys are.
Unlike “Crimson Tide,” “Soldier” doesn’t take place anywhere near our reality (or at least, our timeline). In “Soldier,” Kurt Russell plays the titular lead, and one of many orphans trained from childhood to become highly disciplined and effective soldiers. It’s hard to say if this movie is dystopian, but it certainly is for the soldiers themselves. The movie opens with a new generation of genetically engineered war fighters competing against the old guard, literally to the death. When Russell and his peers fall at the hands of the new breed, he is literally thrown in the trash, only to wake up on a landfill planet inhabited only by the survivors of a spaceship crash.
While this movie is science fiction, Russell’s character (who is eventually named Todd) offers a caricature of real issues faced by veterans that sometimes have trouble re-integrating into the community they fought for. Russell’s Todd sees his self worth as a measure of his ability to fight, and that’s something a lot of us that spent time in boots can relate to, even if only at the surface level. This movie truly shines a light on the humanity hidden behind Todd’s disciplined exterior, and in doing so, reminds us all that the men and women we send to war are real people, with real feelings.
3. A Few Good Men
Not everybody in the military is a door kicker, and “A Few Good Men” is still one of the best military movies of the decade without ever needing to fire a shot in anger. The film follows Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Alastair Kaffee as he investigates and prosecutes a Marine commander (played by Jack Nicholson) over the death a Marine under his charge. As the movie unfolds, Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup eventually incriminates himself on the stand amid delivering one of the most memorable speeches in cinema history. Lines like, “you can’t handle the truth,” remain a part of our cultural lexicon to this very day for good reason.
This is a great flick all the way around, and one that’s worth revisiting from time to time. Over the years, I’ve found myself commiserating with many of the main characters, including the “villain” that was Jessup. But then, maybe that’s just the Marine in me…
2. The Hunt for Red October
While it can be said that “The Hunt for Red October” is another submarine mutiny flick, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest of the field, and that’s sort of what you’d expect from a Jack Ryan movie.
The film follows Sean Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius, a Soviet officer in command of his nation’s newest and most technologically advanced ballistic missile submarine. In the film, Ramius recognizes that the vessel he’s in command of could bring about nuclear war, and as a result, the end of the world, prompting him to defect (along with some character-driven reasons). Connery is so good on the bridge of the Red October that you’d probably forgive me if I forgot to mention the film’s “real” protagonist — CIA analyst Jack Ryan, was played in this iteration by Alec Baldwin.
This movie may not have earned the top spot on this list, but it’s probably the 90’s war movie I’ve re-watched the most times, in case that’s the metric you want to judge your movie night picks by.
1. Saving Private Ryan
While every movie on this list is great, “Saving Private Ryan” is epic. For the most part, this movie’s gritty portrayal of World War II is as real as it gets, with many veterans of the World War II era opting out of watching the film’s opening scene that recreates the invasion of Normandy, because Spielberg’s depiction of the battle just felt a bit too real.
What makes this movie great, however, isn’t the fantastic action sequences–it’s the character driven story carried in no small part by the perpetually likable Tom Hanks. As a kid watching this movie, I’ll never forget how I felt the first time Hanks’ Captain John Miller told his unit what he did for a living prior to the war: he was a school teacher.
In the context of the brutality of the film, the incredible circumstances the movie’s troop of Rangers found themselves in, and Miller’s steadfast resolve to do what he felt was right… finding out that, in the absence of that terrible war, Miller spent his days teaching kids had a significant effect on me. “Saving Private Ryan” was the first movie I ever saw that made me consider the sacrifices inherent to service in a context other than death. These men had left their lives behind to go fight, and in that moment, watching from my couch, I admired them all that much more for it.