Nothing goes together quite like popcorn and unconventional warfare. That’s why Hollywood serves up plenty of both with movies about special operations warriors. The US Army’s Special Forces — often referred to as Green Berets — are among the best warriors in the world, and that’s why they’re the stars of some of our favorite “popcorn flicks”: those movies made primarily for discerning American cinephiles who mostly want muscle-bound protagonists, lots of explosions, and generally over-the-top awesomeness. If that’s you, we’ve got you covered with this list of our top movies about Army Special Forces: popcorn edition.
The Green Berets
Despite being the weakest link on the list, no roster of Green Beret movies would be complete without the John Wayne classic named for the legendary snake eaters that continues to inspire soldiers to pursue the less-traveled path of Special Forces. The Green Berets was released at the height of the Vietnam War and is nothing if not a flag-waving salute to the elite Army unit. The movie stars an aging Duke stuffed into a set of tiger stripes, swaggering through the jungles of Vietnam.
But for all its cheesiness and the overtly political agenda, The Green Berets is an entertaining flick about America’s unconventional soldiers kicking ass. Released more than 20 years before Navy SEALs, The Green Berets similarly trades realism for entertainment in its celebration of the Army’s quiet professionals.
It’s clear from the opening montage of Arnold Schwarzenegger casually carrying a giant fucking tree on his shoulder to the sweet, synthesized sounds of James Horner’s steel drum, saxophone, and electronic score that Commando’s portrayal of a former Green Beret is nothing but pure 1980s gold. When it comes to over-the-top, action-packed ’80s camp, you can’t do much better than Commando. The fictional Col. John Matrix hits all the hallmarks; he hip-fires an M60 that never runs out of ammo, shoots a fully automatic M16 like a pistol, and only needs a rose garden to stop a wall of enemy bullets.
The movie follows Matrix on a journey void of reason to rescue Alyssa Milano (his daughter) from a bitter South American dictator. Matrix launches the greatest vigilante dad killing spree in movie history, complete with throwing knives and breaking a dude’s neck on a commercial airliner before tucking him in with a blanket and uttering, “He’s dead tired.”
Schwarzenegger’s Matrix even goes so far as to camouflage his face while simultaneously embracing “De Oppresso Liber“ and liberating his seven-time Mr. Olympia physique from his camouflage uniform. Commando made one thing abundantly clear: When Hollywood told Schwarzenegger he’d never make it as a movie star, they lied.
Not technically Special Forces, the hand-picked crew in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is based on the real-life Devil’s Brigade: a mixed unit of American and Canadian soldiers who specialized in unconventional warfare. Formally known as the 1st Special Service Force, the band of commandos fought in the Aleutian Islands, Italy, and France during World War II. Their unique insignias — a red spear-tip shoulder patch and crossed arrows on the collar — were a nod to US Army Indian Scouts. Today’s Special Forces retain the shoulder patch’s original shape, and the crossed arrows remain the branch insignia.
Tarantino’s all-Jewish team of commandos is a fictional precursor to modern Green Berets. The band of bloodthirsty operators is led by Lt. Aldo Raine, aka “The Apache,” who demands 100 Nazi scalps from each member of the unit.
Heralded as Tarantino’s best film by many fans, Basterds follows the unit on its mission to kill Hitler. It’s an awesome look at unconventional troops in a war in which conventional battles dominate most of the surrounding entertainment. And in true Tarantino fashion, the film also gives audiences one of the most memorable shootouts in movie history.
Two years after Commando, Schwarzenegger played a Green Beret again in the action-horror mashup Predator. Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, a Vietnam veteran and Special Forces major, who puts together a team of elite soldiers who rip cigars and chew tobacco while pummeling Hollywood’s most dangerous invisible alien. Predator is another movie made with the classic ’80s idea that more automatic weapons equals a better movie — and they weren’t wrong.
Just like real operational detachments, the elite soldiers in Predator each have their own areas of expertise. Blain, played by none other than “sexual Tyrannosaurus” and Navy UDT veteran Jesse Ventura, is an expert in cutting down jungles with “old painless” and delivering banger lines like “I ain’t got time to bleed.” CIA operative Dillon, played by Carl Weathers, is the team’s expert in delivering perfect bro handshakes and accounting for 60% of the agency’s testosterone. Schwarzenegger’s Dutch is still the only Green Beret to make an M16 with an M203 look like a cooler weapon than a backpack-fed minigun. The Green Berets in Predator are far cries from the real snake eaters, but Predator remains one of the greatest movies about Special Forces.