Great Films on Small Wars

Here is our list of 20 outstanding movies on political violence, insurgency, and counterinsurgency — small wars, somewhat liberally defined. This selection has been included as “recommended viewings” in a forthcoming textbook, Understanding Counterinsurgency — with a permalink to this post and of course a note of acknowledgement to the fine readers of this blog — thank you for the many suggestions and helpful comments in response to our initial request, also for Great Novels on Small Wars.

Oldest films first:

  1. The Quiet American (1958, Joseph Mankiewicz)
  2. Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick)
  3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
  4. La 317ème Section (1965, Pierre Schoendoerffer)
  5. La battaglia di Algeri (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo)
  6. Lost Command (1966, Mark Robson)
  7. Army of Shadows (1969, Jean-Pierre Melville)
  8. Cromwell (1970, Ken Hughes)
  9. Soldier of Orange (1977, Paul Verhoeven)
  10. Breaker Morant (1980, Bruce Beresford)
  11. L’honneur d’un capitaine (1982, Pierre Schoendoerffer)
  12. Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick)
  13. Michael Collins (1996, Neil Jordan)
  14. No Man’s Land (2001, Danis Tanović)
  15. Bloody Sunday (2002, Paul Greengrass) [updated]
  16. L’ennemi intime (2007, Florent Emilio Siri)
  17. Che (2008, Steven Soderbergh)
  18. Waltz with Bashir (2008, Ari Folman)
  19. Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008, Uli Edel, Bernd Eichinger)
  20. The Hurt Locker (2009, Kathryn Bigelow) [updated]

(Note: this is not a comprehensive selection of films, and I’m sure we missed great movies — feel free to point that out in the comments.)

[Update: we took Defiance off the list and added The Hurt Locker.]

Some trailers:


25 thoughts on “Great Films on Small Wars

  1. Thomas Rid says:

    Defiance got very mixed reviews, I know. But it’s a genre — blockbuster, shall we say — that isn’t represented very strongly in this list.

    Glad you find the list useful otherwise.

  2. Brian says:

    Agree Defiance was not that great.
    How about The Beast?
    Also Costa-Gavras’ film State of Siege, on the Uruguayan urban guerrillas, is interesting.

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  4. Ramzi Nohra says:

    the list is good, but I’ve thinked you’ve linked to the wrong bloody sunday on wikipedia.

    There was a film called Contact about some Para’s time in South Armagh. It was informative, but not greatly entertaining.

  5. ADTS says:

    1) I think you linked to the trailer for the 2003 version of “The Quiet American,” which, for the record, I find outstanding. My view, though, is it points more to the moral dilemmas of, perhaps, war strictly construed, rather than COIN/CT in particular. Nonetheless, moral dilemmas are important, and the book is superb.

    2) I would add “Platoon” by all means, far more than the movie with which it is often paired, “Full Metal Jacket.” Half of “FMJ” is boot camp; the other is essentially high-intensity conflict in the battle to retake Hue. “Platoon,” however, has a Caputo/”Rumor of War” feel to it of the moral dilemmas and pure strain of day-in/day-out life of ordinary soldiers engaged in COIN. I am not a combat veteran; however, the voiceovers of exhaustion, to say nothing of the depictions of search and destroy missions, ring more true to me.


  6. ADTS says:

    To clarify my first point, I suppose my objection lies not so much in that the film deals in moral dilemmas, in that it deals largely with issues that in my opinion have less to do with small wars (then again, I have not seen the film in some time). “Platoon” follows a soldiers fighting a small war; “The Quiet American” (as I remember it) follows a love triangle between an (outwardly) foppish American, a world-weary British journalist, and a beautiful Saigonese woman. “Platoon” immerses one in what it means to be engaged in a small war as a private soldier, and really never lets up on that them; “The Quiet American” does not.

  7. Jeffrey W says:

    “Go Tell the Spartans”
    A little know ,but great film starring Burt Lancaster about a small unit in the opening days of Vietnam.

  8. The Wind that Shook the Barely won the award for the best film at Cannes in 2006.

    It is set during the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Irish Civil War. It demonstrates the differing factions within the insurgent camp that often manifest when a common enemy has been driven out.

    There is also the Russian film, Come and See, which follows Belarussion partisans fighting the Germans behine enemy lines.

    Restrepo is yet to be released but the word is that it is an exceptional documentary.

    There is a Serbian film about a group of disparate Serbian soldiers holed up in a cave while the Muslim forces attempt to flush them out. Very thought and well considered movie characters representing the profesional soldier, the intense nationalist and the out of his depth conscript. The leader of the Serbian group knows the Muslim commander as they went to school together.

    The Russian film Vonya is set during the Chechen War and sees a de-mobbed Siberian conscript make his way back into the area whilst serving as a guide for a British journalist looking ofr his kidnapped wife. Very high quality and got some release in film festivals and the like.

  9. Cohiba says:

    I would add:

    Farewell to the King, 1989 (based on the book by Pierre Schoendorrfer! starring Nick Nolte and directed by John Milius!) WWII Borneo jungle guerrilla warfare

    The Ugly American, 1963 (based on the Lederer and Burdick book, and starring Marlon Brando ) examines the beginnings of a Vietnam type insurgency

    Something of Value, 1957 (based on the Robert Ruark novel and starring badly miscasts of Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier) Mau Mau in Kenya)

    Never So Few, 1959 (Sinatra, Charles Bronson, Dean Jones, and Steve McQueen) as OSS leading Kachins in Burma and fighting Chinese Nationalist Army bandits. Not bad if you ignore the scenes with Gina Lollobrigida.

  10. BK says:

    Second “Wind that Shakes the Barley.” Better off reading Tim Pat Coogan’s “Michael Collins” than suffer through the film with Julia Roberts.

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  12. Christopher says:

    Why did you remove DEFIANCE from the list and replace it with the execrable HURT LOCKER?
    I have seen Special Forces officers use DEFIANCE as an Officer Professional Development vehicle on the basics of Unconventional Warfare to prospective SF candidates. One guy who used it used to run Robin Sage a few years back—he probably knows a thing or two about UW.

    As to the commentators above who lamented it in contrast with COME AND SEE, fair point, but DEFIANCE is much more accessible to the general population. It is certainly more realistic than the HURT LOCKER which is chock full of ridiculous plot points, bad characterizations, and idiotic tactics, techniques, and procedures.

    • Another Balkan film, “No Man’s Land”, is an interesting story about how the U.N. handles some situations – the correct thing to do according to the rules vs the RIGHT thing to do (although the movie’s treatment of the UN higher command is a bit, shall we say, Benny Hill-esque).

  13. We were soldiers I found remarkable in itself but also for the deleted scenes on the DVD. The exchange between Westmoreland and Harold G. Moore may not have happened in reality, but the scene does neatly summarize the problem for invaders.

    Then there is also a little known Vietnam war movie called The Iron Triangle which has nearly half the movie taking place in a Viet Cong camp showing the internal political rivalries and conflicts. That half of the movie was based on a captured diary of a VC officer.

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