Semper Films: The Top Ten Marine Corps Movies

The men and women who earn the right to wear eagle, globe and anchor of the United States Marine Corps are a special breed. To those outside the Corps, they talk funny. They look funny. They are extremely impressed with themselves - and they have every right to be.


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My beloved United States Army is a blunt instrument, a magnificent club that has pummels our nation’s enemies into submission. But the Marines are America’s rapier, a razor sharp weapon of war that has never been bested and never will be. For over two centuries, the United States Marine Corps has been fighting our country’s battles in the air, on land and sea. They don’t give up. They don’t quit. There’s no word for retreat in a Marine’s vocabulary. And they are making history even today in the mountains of Afghanistan and elsewhere.

November 10th is the Corps’ 234th birthday. With the indulgence of my Devil Dog brethren, here is this Army veteran’s countdown of the Top Ten Marine Corp movies:

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10. 55 Days at Peking: The Boxer Rebellion in China provides the backdrop for this epic true-life tale of Marines (with help from a few others) protecting civilians from rampaging Chinese peasants. Charlton Heston is the head Marine; Ava Gardner and David Niven show up as well.

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9. Jarhead: This film of Anthony Swofford’s book about Marines in Operation Desert Storm is a mixed bag. Perhaps director Sam Mendes was trying to make up for his slander of military men in American Beauty by making an attempt to understand how men function in wartime. He effectively captures the unreality of that war, but his depiction of the desert environment itself is somehow off (though not as inaccurate as the awful Three Kings). The clouds of oily smoke after the Iraqis set off the wells did bring back some memories. Look for Jamie Foxx as a tough Marine sergeant.

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8. Gung Ho: This World War Two story recounts the real-life story of the Marine’s raid on the Japanese position on Makin Island early in the war. Watch for Robert Mitchum as a Devil Dog named “Pig Iron.”

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7. A Few Good Men: This is problematic film for several reasons. First, it promotes the idea that lawyers as attractive, interesting people, which is demonstrably untrue. Second, it is positively schizophrenic in its attitude toward the Corps. Noted Hollywood liberal Aaron Sorkin penned the script, which features Jack Nicholson’s legendary "You can't handle the truth!"speech. Many look on that speech as an inspiration, not an indictment. Regardless, the issue of a society that demands protection yet questions the manner those who protect it do so resonates even more powerfully today than when Sorkin wrote it.

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6. Aliens: Okay, so James Cameron’s classic sci-fi flick is not technically about the United States Marine Corps, but ditch the space ships and hi-tech weapons and this band of Colonial Marines would be at home in today’s USMC. The interplay between the Marines is priceless. Their gunnery sergeant, played by Al Mathews, is calm, capable and scary. And as Private Hudson, Bill Paxton plays the most amusing military screw-up in film history. “Game over, man! Game over!”

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5. Generation Kill: This a miniseries is a tough call because there is a lot good and a lot bad about it, but it honors the Marines who have been fighting for us since 9/11 and so deserves a spot here. The bad first – there’s too much talking and pondering of the bigger issues going on. Those portions feel forced into the script to fit the filmmakers’ pre-existing anti-war narrative. What is accurate is the look and feel of the film. This light recon battalion is quite similar to an Army cavalry recon squadron, and the way the men lived in and around their vehicle feels true. One particularly good scene involves a young Marine asking to medevac a wounded civilian. You expect a typical movie conflict between the sensitive young officer and his uncaring superior, but instead the filmmakers have the battalion commander explain his perspective and the consequences he has to consider when deciding whether to divert evac resources away from his own wounded. It’s a powerful scene that demonstrates how high ranking officers, often portrayed on film as self-absorbed, obtuse and insensitive, bear enormous responsibilities for making difficult decisions that their subordinates sometimes do not fully appreciate.

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4. Pride of the Marines: This is the story of Marine Al Schmid, blinded fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, and his return home. It is a moving testament to the human cost of war and it demonstrates the price paid by many Marines over the years – and a price many continue to pay today. It is also the story about how once you become a Marine, you remain a Marine, and how that pride will stay with you throughout your life.

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3. Heartbreak Ridge: The great Clint Eastwood does a tour of duty here as Tom Highway, a Marine gunnery sergeant his obnoxious new commander labels a “dinosaur.” When all hell breaks loose on a tropical paradise called Grenada, Clint and his platoon smack around Castro’s minions. It’s very cool. One theme of the film is how a great sergeant grows his lieutenants into real leaders, and anyone who has been a platoon leader will smile as the nerdy LT learns to take charge and finally seizes the initiative to win the fight. Look for Mario Van Peebles as the world’s least likely Marine.

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2. Full Metal Jacket: Don’t see this a week before you ship to basic training. Take it from personal experience that this is a poor idea. R. Lee Ermey’s hilarious and horrifying turn as a Marine drill instructor is a legend, and properly so. His four minute verbal assault on his recruits is appalling, and yet one cannot turn away. The second half of the film, which covers the retaking of the Vietnamese city of Hue during the Tet offensive, is a solid depiction of the terrors of urban combat. Watch Big Hollywood’s own Adam Baldwin and the rest of the cast as they demonstrate the awesome firepower of a Marine infantry squad:

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1. Sands of Iwo Jima: A classic Hollywood story told against the backdrop of the greatest battle in Corps history, it features the Duke in his legendary role as Sergeant Stryker. As much as we all love R. Lee Ermey, John Wayne remains the gold standard for hardass Marine sergeants. This is the story of a tough NCO welding a gaggle of recruits into a lethal team of Marines, and this story is being repeated today with a new generation of tough NCOs and recruits. Only the battlefields, uniforms and weapons are different. The fighting spirit is the same.

I bleed Army green, but even I have to admit that the Marines are something special. But they don’t need validation from me or from anyone else. They are Marines. That says it all.

Semper Fi.

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