Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, the English officer who successfully united and led the diverse, often warring, Arab tribes during World War I in order to fight the Turks.
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn. (216 min)
This is the most important movie to watch to understand the Middle East. It is a great film. The length of the film and the long, sweeping shots give one a sense of Bedouin patience and what the desert requires of one who journeys through it. The language, pacing, and cultural insights are priceless. Do not travel to the Middle East without watching this movie first!
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Breaker Marant (1980)
Set in the late 19th Century, the story follows two former British soldiers who decide to set themselves up as kings in Kafiristan, a land where no white man has set foot since Alexander the Great.
Starring: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer. (129 min)
The concepts are deeply appropriate to the topic of clashes of cultures and ways of war.
Moneyball is the story of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's successful attempt to assemble a baseball team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Robin Wright, Jonah Hill (133 min)
I know that this movie is not linked to conflict or directly to narrative. It is, however, a film about seeing the problem from a different perspective and asking better questions to get the right answers. This is also a movie about developing an algorithmic approach to a problem. In these regards we see in Billy Beane’s character similar struggles to those of most military theorists like Clausewitz and Jomini.
Three Australian lieutenants are court martialed for executing prisoners as a way of deflecting attention from war crimes committed by their superior officers. The story takes place at the end of the Boer War (1899-1902).
Starring: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown (107 min)
This is an excellent ethical treatment of war against non-state actors. What is acceptable? What are the obligations of the state to the participants in the war when rules are bent?
The Four Feathers (1939)
Blackhawk Down (2001)
Paradise Now (2005)
In the Sudan, in 1884-85, Egyptian forces led by a British general defend Khartoum against an invading Muslim army led by a religious fanatic, the Mahdi.
Starring: Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier (128 min)
This is a great discussion of the collision of empire and the Islamic State. Yes, just like ISIS. This movie helps one to understand the last time an imperial power fought to defeat an idea. There are some profound lines in this film regarding understanding the other. The Four Feathers (see below) presents a perspective of the second half of this story.
Resigning his commission on the eve of his unit's deployment against Egyptian rebels (1898), a British officer seeks to redeem his cowardice by secretly aiding his former comrades - disguised as an Arab. When his unit is overwhelmed and captured by the rebels, the hero finds an opportunity to return the 'feathers' of cowardice sent to him by his former comrades by freeing them.
Starring: John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith (129 min)
This is the second half of the story dealing with the Mahdist or Islamic State in the Sudan, with the first half represented in the film Khartoum (see above), at the ending of the Nineteenth Century. This film has less about the other, however, there is enough to make the film worth watching. This is the best version of this story.
123 elite U.S. soldiers drop into Somalia to capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord and find themselves in a desperate battle with a large force of heavily-armed Somalis.
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore. (144 min)
I like the film, but I have also studied the battle in depth, so I can watch the film in context. I recommend that viewers read the book to understand how the carnage fits in to the bigger picture. Otherwise, this is simply a shoot ‘em up battle film. There are moments where the depth is there, but they can be overwhelmed by the violence.
Two childhood friends are recruited for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
Starring: Kais Nashif, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal. (90 min)
Why does one become a suicide bomber? This movie provides an empathetic answer to that question. The focus of the film is on the people and their struggles. It is deep and serious, but also light and heartfelt - a great film for experiencing empathy.
When straight arrow FBI agent Roy Clayton heads up the investigation into a dangerous international conspiracy, all clues seem to lead back to former U.S. Special Operations officer, Samir Horn.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Archie Panjabi (114 min)
Don Cheadle is excellent in portraying a complex character struggling to do right. He is a Muslim who represents the faith well. One of the best films for raising issues associated with the Global War on Terrorism.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
American Sniper (2014)
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
In 1917 when the British forces were bogged down in front of the Turkish and German lines in Palestine they relied on the Australian light horse regiment to break the deadlock.
Starring: Peter Phelps, Nick Waters, John Larking. (131 min)
The charge at the end is the best cavalry charge scene in film.
The state of Israel is created in 1948, resulting in war with its Arab neighbors.
Starring: Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson. (208 min)
Israel is born as a result of the guilt of the Holocaust, the commitment of dedicated patriots, and at the expense of the Arabs living in Palestine. Though this movie gives more emphasis to the first two, ti also addresses some elements of the third.
Acting under the cover of a Hollywood producer scouting a location for a science fiction film, a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran in 1979.
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman. (120 min)
The film would be better with more context, but it is only two hours. There is a need for people to understand the background of the US-Iran animosity and this film provides some of that background. There are elements of the film that are excellent in discussing specifics of history – for example why we have cross-cut shredders.
A drama based on Texas congressman Charlie Wilson's covert dealings in Afghanistan, where his efforts to assist rebels in their war with the Soviets have some unforeseen and long-reaching effects.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman. (102 min)
The US religious right supported the mujahidin in Afghanistan because they were religious and fighting the godless communists. This movie, despite its unnecessary sexualization of the story, portrays the naivete with which the US supported the fighting in Afghanistan better than any other film. This is excellent supporting material for understanding the narrative space.
This movie depicts Afghanistan under the repressive rule of the Taliban. The regime was particularly restrictive of women, who, among other things, were not allowed to work. This situation is especially difficult for one family consisting solely of three women representing three successive generations.
Starring: Marina Golbahari, Zubaida Sahar, Khwaja Nader. (83 min)
This is a short, disturbing film. I felt like I needed to shower after watching it. That said, you need to see it if you want to understand what life was like in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The acting is superb. It is a great movie.
This is an Israeli made film which tells the story of a group of Israeli soldiers stationed in an outpost prior to the withdrawal of forces in 2000.
Starring: Alon Aboutboul, Adi Adouan, Ya'akov Ahimeir. (131 min)
The Israel Defense Force has a unique culture, and this movie gives great insight into that culture. There are details in the film that are difficult to follow without greater understanding, however, they are not crucial to appreciating the film as a whole.
Zero Dark Thirty is a chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden following the September 2001 attacks.. It covers his death at the hands of Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt (157 min)
The major inaccuracy of the film is that it portrays the hunt as driven by a single person. Aside from this misreading of how large bureaucratic organizations work, the conceptual linkages, the fixation on the latest shiny object, and the general risk aversion of senior management are all accurately portrayed.
Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home with his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that he can't leave the war behind.
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner. (133 min)
I watched this film the first time in Baghdad, Iraq and talked about it with an Iraqi-American friend who was troubled that he thought the film did not show any Iraqi in a positive light. This caused me to think about the presentation of the film. This movie gives the perspective of American service members, one in particular, who is trying to explain why killing was justified. The film is great because it covers the human tragedy of war in the form of how it mentally and emotionally breaks down otherwise healthy people by wearing at them over numerous deployments.
During an attack on a U.S. compound in Libya, a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
Starring: John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, James Badge Dale. (144 min)
This may be the best Michael Bay film. I was working in an embassy in the Middle East when these events happened, so I connect with this story. What gets this film on this list is the portrayal of civilian contractors and the relationship with the US government and the government employees. We cannot fight this war without the contractors and yet those connected with the government rarely show them the respect that they deserve.
Pre World War II
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
Paths of Glory (1957)
In Pursuit of Honor (2001)
A noblewoman discovers her husband is The Scarlet Pimpernel, a vigilante who rescues aristocrats from the blade of the guillotine.
Starring: Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey. (97 min)
This is one of the great black and white movies. The setting is during the terror of the French Revolution and demonstrates, to some degree, why England was such an implacable foe of the Revolution throughout the entire period.
Facing the decline of everything he has worked to obtain, conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte and his army confront the British at the Battle of Waterloo.
Starring: Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, Orson Welles (123 min)
Rod Steiger does an excellent job portraying the complexity of Napoleon as does Christopher Plummer who portrays one of the least likable and most competent battlefield commanders in the era – the Duke of Wellington. The final battle shows the scope and scale of Napoleonic warfare with real actors and horses and not CGI. Excellent.
With the Civil War continuing to rage, America's president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn (150 min)
While there is not very much about warfare in the film, it does present war as an extension of politics. It is also just a great movie to watch. The portrayal of Lincoln is iconic.
Outnumbered British soldiers do battle with Zulu warriors at Rorke's Drift (1879).
Starring: Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins (138 min)
The discussion of how the Zulus fight by the Boer farmer is an excellent example of the understanding one needs to have of the opponent.
When soldiers in World War I refuse to continue with an impossible attack, their superior officers decide to make an example of them.
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou (88 min)
This is one of Stanley Kubrick’s finest films. Note the long shots both with the general walking in the trench and the movement across no-man’s land. This is brilliant film making. The movie presents a great commentary on the absurdity of industrial-age warfare and the slaughter produced by it. It also provides excellent source material for ethical discussions. Most of the lines from the general officers are quotes or paraphrases of things actually said during World War I. This gives the film, for those viewing it upon release, a sense of dark comedic history. This is similar to many of the lines in another Stanley Kubrick war movie: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
A group of cavalry men defy orders to destroy hundreds of army horses. Having disobeyed a direct order, the men are pursued by the military, but now the bullets aren't just aimed at the horses.
Starring: Don Johnson, Craig Sheffer, Gabrielle Anwar, Rod Steiger (111 min)
Based on real events. One can see the interwar dynamics playing out in the decisions made.
World War II
Twelve O'clock High (1949)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
A hard-as-nails general takes over a bomber unit suffering from low morale and whips them into fighting shape.
Starring: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill (132 min)
This is a profound movie addressing challenging leadership dynamics in a type of combat that people today have a difficult time fully appreciating.
This movie portrays the World War II phase of the career of the controversial American general, George S. Patton.
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young (172 min)
A great movie on the dynamics of a learning organization as the US Army is unprepared for war. Obviously told through the experiences of a senior US leader.
A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden (September 1944) in which the Allies attempted to capture several strategically important bridges in the Netherlands in the hope of breaking the German lines. However, mismanagement and poor planning resulted in failure.
Starring: Sean Connery, Ryan O'Neal, Michael Caine (175 min)
The best ensemble cast war movie. This provides an excellent source of discussion for leader decisions and the dynamics of battles in planning and reality.
Midway is a dramatization of the battle that was widely heralded as a turning point of the Pacific Theatre of World War II.
Starring: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn (132 min)
This is an excellent cinematic presentation of the film. Some historic elements are off, but this is still the best two hours for understanding this battle and carrier dynamics in the Pacific Theater.
Three World War II veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed.
Starring: Gregory Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy (170 min)
I love this film. It is one of the bravest movies made in that it addressed aspects of returning home from war in a forthright manner. As you watch, always remember that this was released a year after the war ended and emotions were raw and fresh. This is the best movie about the toll of World War II on those who fought in it. It was made immediately after the war and it addresses with courage some of the most important elements of the return home at a time when soldiers, sailors, and marines were actually returning home.
Fail Safe (1964)
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Thirteen Days (2000)
Go Tell the Spartans (1978)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
American planes are sent to deliver a nuclear attack on Moscow, but it's a mistake due to an electrical malfunction. Can all-out war be averted?
Starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau. (112 min)
Both this movie and Dr. Strangelove are derived from the same book. This movie addresses the absurdity of limited nuclear war. It is a melodramatic approach. The theory debated throughout the film is well worth thought.
An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust which a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop.
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott. (95 min)
Both this movie and Fail Safe are derived from the same book. This movie addresses the absurdity of total nuclear war. It is a black comedic approach. Despite the humor, the theory debated throughout the film is well worth thought.
A former Korean War POW is brainwashed by Communists into becoming a political assassin, but another former prisoner may know how to save him.
Starring Frank Sinatra. (126 min)
Can one be hypnotized as this movie portrays? Probably not. The point of the film is that it demonstrates what people thought was possible in the fear of communism as a mind controlling phenomenon. Consider the current thoughts people have regarding religious ideology as a mind shaping phenomenon.
Thirteen days is a dramatization of the Kennedy administration's struggle to contain the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.
Starring: Kevin Costner. (145 min)
There are several scenes in this movie that address a new form of communication. For this reason, I recommend this film. I also think the chaotic nature of foreign policy formulation represented in this film is rather accurate in concept.
A unit of American military advisors in Vietnam prior to the major U.S. involvement find similarities between their helpless struggle against the Viet Cong and the doomed actions of a French unit at the same site a decade before in this bitter look at the beginnings of the Vietnam war.
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Craig Wasson, Jonathan Goldsmith. (114 min)
I do not enjoy this movie very much, but several Vietnam veterans, that I respect and who lived and worked in Vietnam in the period represented by the movie, highly recommend it. It does capture the dynamics of the war in the early American advisor period.
During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall. (147 min)
One of the darkest movies I have watched. I also think this is the most perfectly poetic film I have ever seen. Every shot, character, and scene is part of the poetic storytelling. This is the story of America’s experience in Vietnam. It is America that is traveling up the river that is Vietnam. By the end of the journey, America has gone crazy and needs to be pulled out of the war. Brilliant.
Military History - Documentaries
The World at War (1972-1973)
World War II in HD (2009)
The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1999)
American War Generals (2014)
26 episodes. This is a multi-episode documentary series on World War II. Laurence Olivier is the narrator. His voice makes it worthwhile, all by itself. This is an excellent series that includes interviews with some of the most important figures from World War II. These films focus on the war and not the theoretical underpinning of it. It is my understanding that these films are available through several online sites. Probably the best series to understand the complexity, scope, and scale of the world’s largest war.
10 episodes. Follow the lives of soldiers who lived World War II, through previously unseen color footage.
Starring: Gary Sinise, Charles Scheffel, Justin Bartha (450 min)
I highly recommend this series for understanding the American perspective for why the US used the atomic bombs. The campaign against Japan is provided in riveting anecdotal detail.
This film documents the Arab-Israeli conflict from its inception to the Oslo Peace accords.
Starring: Abba Eban, Will Lyman. (300 min)
The people interviewed are the most influential in the actual events discussed. This is the single best source for understanding the pre-Second Intifadah events in the history of Israel.
This is a documentary interviewing the senior leaders who directed the Global War on Terrorism up to the arrival of ISIS.
Starring: David Petraeus, George Casey, H.R. McMaster (90 min)
Obviously given from an American military perspective, but once one filters for the bias, the information in the documentary is outstanding.