War movies often take on bigger missions than just making combat visually stimulating from the safety of your couch. On-screen battle works well when the focus is on explosions and pretty-colored tracers, but some of the best war movies opt to tackle more complicated topics like morality, madness, and homecoming. That’s why centering such topics around some of the most complicated warriors in the US military — Special Forces — often works best. If you like war movies that dive deeper than the fighting, this list is for you. Here are our top movies about Army Special Forces: war is hell edition.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more iconic on-screen depiction of Green Berets in their natural habitat than Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Martin Sheen stars as MACV-SOG Capt. Benjamin Willard in the trippy Vietnam classic. The film follows Willard as he embarks on a journey into the Heart of Darkness in search of Col. Walter Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), a Green Beret who’s gone rogue (batshit insane, really). Kurtz is so effective in winning over the locals that they’ve come to worship him as if he’s demigod.
The movie is intentionally far-fetched, and for cinephiles, it’s a masterpiece. Apocalypse Now is renowned for its cinematography and for its ability to rise above spectacle, revealing the absurdity of war. While navigating Vietnam’s beautiful maze of back-jungle waterways, Martin Sheen delivers one of his best performances. The Vietnam fable perfectly toes the line between madness and sanity, leaving audiences wide-eyed and wondering where good ends and evil begins. Acclaimed movie critic Roger Ebert fittingly placed Coppola’s dark tour of a Green Beret’s psyche second in his top 10 movies of all time.
The Deer Hunter
The 1978 film starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep is the most devastating movie on this list. In 1978, The Deer Hunter pushed the broken veteran narrative at a time when Vietnam veterans were being viewed unfairly as ticking time bombs. The Deer Hunter doesn’t do vets any favors, but the movie is undeniably powerful. De Niro still manages to highlight the fiercely independent nature of Green Berets while giving one of the most moving performances of his storied career.
The entire Russian roulette storyline was dreamt up in the writer’s room for the sake of gut-checking the audience. Apparently, zero instances of prisoners being forced to play the suicidal game exist. But that scene effectively questions how deep psychological scar tissue from war can go.
De Niro and Walken use their Special Forces training to escape a prisoner-of-war camp, swim to safety, and survive against all odds. But besides showcasing the resilience of Green Berets, the movie stands as an all-time great for highlighting the sheer waste war leaves in its wake.
For a franchise that brings to mind an over-muscled, M60-wielding killing machine, the first installment in the Rambo series is actually a great look at what makes Green Berets unique. Based on the book of the same name, First Blood follows Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, a Green Beret who finds himself drifting through the Pacific Northwest after returning from Vietnam. When a prejudiced sheriff refuses to leave Rambo alone, the movie turns into an hour and a half of the battle-hardened Green Beret showing off his Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape skills.
Stallone’s commie-killing Green Beret is famous for stacking up a whopping 552 kills across the five-movie franchise, but Rambo only actually kills one person in First Blood, and even that one is unintentional. The emphasis in First Blood is on Rambo’s Special Forces expertise rather than his ability to hip-fire a machine gun.
Rambo puts on a SERE clinic that leaves a horde of cops and National Guardsmen at his mercy up until the somber ending, which drives home the film’s central commentary on post-traumatic stress and how society often fails to help combat veterans transition from war to civilian life.
The rest of the franchise belongs on our Popcorn Edition list of awesome Green Beret flicks, but First Blood is a great depiction of some of the skills that make Special Forces soldiers elite and the aftermath of war when a society marginalizes its warriors.