Great Navy Movies

I decided to change things up a little bit this week—it seems a bit self-centered to spend all of my time talking about books I wrote. So today, I’m going to take a look at my ten favorite Navy movies. If you haven’t seen all of these, maybe my recommendation might steer you toward something that’ll be worth your while.

For “Navy movies,” I decided to stick to films explicitly set in wartime or that feature enemy action as a major driver of the plot. Top Gun, Officer and a Gentleman, and Crimson Tide don’t quite make that cut; Hunt for Red October is right on the cusp, but I decided it was more of a spy movie than a war movie.

10. Midway

A sprawling 1976 dramatization of the 1942 battle with an all-star cast, Midway screens like a historical military thriller reads. It sticks reasonably close to the actual course of events, including the codebreaking ploy that revealed the Japanese target and Nimitz’s decision to set up a carrier ambush. Charlton Heston’s character and his storyline are completely made up, of course, but serve the purpose of providing a point-of-view so that we can see the big decisions. Quite a lot of actual WW2 gun camera footage shows up in the air combat scenes, and—something I just learned when I checked on the release date of the movie—it also made extensive use of “stock” footage from older movies. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good, and it covers the basics of Midway pretty well for a layman’s audience. (If you really want to dig into the Midway story, I recommend the excellent book Shattered Sword, by Parshall and Tully.)

9. Sink the Bismarck!

Based on a book by C.S. Forester, the 1960 Sink the Bismarck! is a dramatization of the actual events surrounding the ill-fated debut operation of the famous German battleship. Actor Kenneth More plays Captain Jonathan Shepherd, who (rather surprisingly in a navy movie) does not actually go to sea, but instead oversees the hunt for Bismarck from the Admiralty’s operations center. The movie in fact focuses much more on the guesswork and anxiety of trying to locate Bismarck once it breaks out than it does the actual running battle. The historical accuracy is just so-so, but again, it’s good enough for a casual viewer, and many scenes made use of real ships that had served in WW2.

8. Run Silent, Run Deep

There are several decent movies about American submariners in WW2: Destination Tokyo, Hellcats of the Navy, Operation Pacific, Torpedo Run. Frankly, it’s almost a sub-genre (HA! See what I did there?) of its own. But I think Run Silent, Run Deep is the best of them, mostly because I really like Clark Gable’s performance and the depiction of a command crisis between a popular XO (played by Burt Lancaster) and a CO who seems intent on going off the rails.

7. Tora! Tora! Tora!

Like Midway, this movie is a 1970-era dramatization of a historical battle that does a pretty good job of portraying the actual events. In fact, it’s more rigorously historical than Midway. Some people feel like it bogs down in the planning parts, but I really appreciate the effort to capture the concerns of the Japanese commanders and the amount of time they get on the screen: the movie goes a long way toward balancing the narrative between the Japanese and American sides. If you have an interest in watching a Pearl Harbor movie, Tora! Tora! Tora! is the one you should watch. It may be apocryphal, but I love the delivery of Yamamoto’s famous foreboding about the war he’d reluctantly started: “I fear that all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

6. In Harm’s Way

This 1965 epic stars John Wayne as Captain Rockwell Torrey and spans pretty much the whole Pacific War from Pearl Harbor to a desperate late-war surface action reminiscent of the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf. It’s not included on many lists of great Navy movies, but it makes it onto mine for several reasons. First off, it’s a John Wayne movie, and I admit I’m a sucker for John Wayne movies. Second, it’s a movie focusing on the surface navy’s battles in WW2, and there just aren’t all that many of those; I really don’t understand why no one’s made a stark war movie about Savo Island or the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, but it hasn’t happened yet. In Harm’s Way is as about the closest example you’ll find. Finally, the movie features strong and complex character arcs, including what might be Kirk Douglas’s single most chilling moment on film right before his character does something truly terrible. In Harm’s Way is a very straightforward war story on its surface, but it’s the characters that make the movie.

5. Mr. Roberts

War isn’t all about heroism and narrow escapes. Mr. Roberts portrays a very different side of WW2: Bored and lonely sailors in the middle of nowhere, engaged in thankless drudgery that seems almost without purpose. That would be tough enough, but they’ve got a martinet for a captain, brilliantly portrayed by James Cagney. Henry Fonda stars in the title role, and Jack Lemmon has a hilarious turn as Ensign Frank Pulver, who is so determined to avoid anything resembling work he manages to avoid meeting the ship’s captain for most of the movie. I love the last scene in this movie: “Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver!” Watch this one for the great acting and a look at war as a theater of the absurd.

4. Das Boot

A dark and grimly realistic portrayal of life on a German U-boat, Das Boot (1981) is a fictional account that draws heavily on the real wartime experiences of German sailors. U-boat service was one of the filthiest and most dangerous duties to be found in any theater of the war: the Germans lost almost 800 submarines and 28,000 submariners during WW2, a staggering 75 percent of the men who served in the U-boats (90 percent of the men who actually sailed on a war patrol). The losses American and British bomber crews suffered were terrible, but serving on a U-boat was almost certain death. Anyway, Das Boot shows the horrors of the Battle of the Atlantic from the other side, with unflinching realism.

3. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World

A beautifully filmed 2003 film based on Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey books, Master and Commander offers perhaps the best and most realistic example of battles in the Age of Sail ever to appear on the big screen. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany provide standout performances and bring the friendship of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin to life (if not exactly how it goes in the books), and the story also touches on the loneliness of command and the wonder of a world that is not yet fully explored. I could go on, but I figure you’ve probably seen this one: It’s the most recent film on this list and it was a highly successful blockbuster with multiple award nominations.

2. The Sand Pebbles

Another one of my personal favorites, The Sand Pebbles is a 1966 movie starring Steve McQueen as machinist’s mate Jake Holman, an American sailor serving on the Yangtze River Patrol in 1926 China. Filmed largely in Taiwan, the movie brilliantly captures the troubled times and exotic setting. It also features great performances by Mako as the engine coolie Po-Han, Richard Attenborough as Frenchie, and Candice Bergen as the missionary Shirley Eckert. The simple and sincere romance between Holman and Shirley is excellent, and the cross-cultural friendship between Holman and Po-Han is amazing: the heart of the movie, really. But I have to admit my favorite scene is the boarding action at the river boom, because on the few occasions I wore a sword with my naval uniform I secretly hoped for the chance to heroically storm a boat full of bad guys. The Sand Pebbles is not a happy story, but it’s an absolute gem of a movie and well worth your time.

1. The Caine Mutiny

I mentioned before that I’m a John Wayne fan. Well, I’m also a Humphrey Bogart fan, and in my humble opinion, The Caine Mutiny (1954) is the single best performance of his career. Do you remember Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” scene from A Few Good Men? The Caine Mutiny did it first and did it better. In addition to Bogart’s iconic turn as Captain Queeg, Fred MacMurray makes a rare appearance as a less-than-sympathetic character (trying to avoid spoilers, here), Van Johnson portrays the conflicted XO Steve Maryk, and Robert Francis plays Ensign Willie Keith, who winds up in the center of the whole thing. The movie is based on Herman Wouk’s 1951 novel (also very, very good). While the Caine is fictional, the typhoon at the crisis point of the story is not: In 1944, Task Force 38 under the command of Admiral Halsey steamed into the path of a major typhoon. Three destroyers capsized and sank, with the loss of many hundreds of American sailors—the Caine would have been in mortal danger at the moment shown in the movie.

There you go: Ten great Navy movies! I need to find some time to watch The Cruel Sea and The Battle of the River Plate, since I hear that they’re also quite good. I wouldn’t be surprised if they bump something off my list. I’ll get back to talking about writing stuff next time.



3 thoughts on “Great Navy Movies

  1. richardbakerauthor

    I’ll look for it. De Ruyter’s story isn’t very well known here in the U.S., and it really deserves a little more attention.


  2. Paul Westermeyer

    Wow, it’s rare to find such a list where i not only agree with the choices, but also with their order! Well done! I would add the Hornblower TV movies as honorable mentions. I agree we need a surface navy movie. I’m disappoiinted the Hanks/Spielberg nostalgia machine is doing the 8th Air Force, yet again, instead of film something on the Navy in the Pacific. I’d love to see the USS Enterprise (CV-6) get the ‘Band of Brothers’ treatment.


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