Today is Veterans Day in the United States.
To honor veterans and soldiers around the world who have a story to tell, this article is for you.
Writing military movies is extremely difficult. You have to walk the thin red line between a gruesome reality, idealistic fantasy, and the emotional realm, while also catering to what the majority of people find acceptable to watch on screen.
Every military veteran surely has a personal story to tell, even if it is just one of boredom, such as in Jarhead (2005), or one of fear, as in Oscar winner The Hurt Locker (2008), or one of being an arms dealer businessman, as in the great Lord of War (2005).
Then there are street war films like groundbreaking City of God (2002) that have more freedom but also have some of the same development obstacles.
How do you explain the unexplainable and mention the unmentionables of war in a reasonable way without coming across as unpatriotic, unsympathetic to the military, or uncaring to humanity as a whole?
Telling the story of what you experienced is a moral challenge in and of itself that may become the subject of your script: a conflict between actions, feelings, and public perception.
There are thousands, if not millions of military people who have a story to tell, so what makes your story unique and attractive to the masses?
The public wants to watch your war story for a few possible reasons: 1) they can relate to it; 2) it is something new they never considered; 3) shock value, 4) current propaganda, 5) for pure entertainment, or 6) to right the wrongs, or perhaps, to wrong the rights.
To have a big hit of a movie, people must sympathize with your lead character(s). My articles about understanding your audience and how to write a likable bad guy will help you to write your military characters.
One of the best war movies of all time is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). If you want to write a war movie, you must watch this movie because no film, after all these years, outshines it.
In short, to have popular characters, you have to show reasonable motivations. Some common war story motivations are the drive to survive, the conflict between duty and morals, maintaining sanity in the face of madness, and stories of love and hope.
Your audience will skew male, so action, suspense, artillery, machinery, and sexy women usually go over well.
Military stories tend to be one-sided and only appeal to one’s own nation.
If you can appeal to an international audience, then you probably will have tapped into the essence of humanity itself and will have created a huge commercial success. Usually, you have to turn to science fiction or fantasy to do this, thereby not naming any particular nation as the bad guy, and use fictitious beings and nations to address current political issues at home. Great sci-fi fantasy war movies that have worldwide appeal are Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), and Lord of the Rings (2001).
If you want to write a script, you have to read scripts to know how they are structured and function. Start by studying the war scripts of those who have marched before you.
To read scripts, click on the titles below or this list here of successful military war movie scripts for more screenplays.
Some of these scripts may have been written by individuals who have no real military experience at all, but maybe they were adapted from a novel by a veteran.
What is important for you to focus on is not the reality of their stories, but rather their ability to entertain and present a story that the masses want to watch.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Novel by Joseph Conrad
Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius, and Michael Herr
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper
During wartime, who can say what is sane? Surfing, slaughtering, and sloshing, this is a bizarre psychedelic tale of one Captain Willard on a secret mission in Cambodia to hunt down highly decorated Colonel Kurtz who has set himself up as a local spiritual leader.
CLEAN “What did you put in all those ammo boxes?”
WILLARD “Rocks, sand — those two men who deserted.”
CHIEF “Shit! Fucking arrows! They’re shooting fucking arrows at us.”
MOONBY “I said to myself, why didn’t he shoot me? He didn’t shoot me, because I had a stash like you wouldn’t believe. — Opium — cocaine — uncut Heroin; the Gold of the Golden Triangle. and Acid — I make Koolaid that makes purple Owsley come on like piss. Now I’m Kurtz’ own Disciple — I listen he talks. About everything! Everything. I forgot there’s such a thing as sleep. Everything. Of love, too.”
Apocalypse Now had 8 Oscar nominations and 2 wins for Best Cinematography and Sound.
Forty years later, Apocalypse Now is still chilling and psychologically disturbing. This movie is all over the place as it visits the strangest circumstances of the Vietnam war.
Tom writes, “Many people complain about the ending, but I think it’s perfect. Nothing is explicitly stated, and no grand meaning is given to the prior events, but that is the point. War is chaos. Kurtz, despite making some sense, is actually “insane”. Willard kills him, as per his orders, but he has been changed by the whole ordeal, as has the audience, as has America after Vietnam. The script is good, this draft is OK, but the film itself is a masterwork, particularly the Redux. It is so beautiful and haunting.”
To read more comments, click here.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Novel by Gustav Hasford
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Gustav Hasford, and Michael Herr
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Matthew Modine, R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio
From bootcamp to the streets of Vietnam, this 1960s U.S. Marines story Full Metal Jacket is tough to swallow, as is war.
SERGEANT ”I want it so sanitary and spotless and sparkling that the Virgin Mary herself would he proud to go in there and take a dump.”
SERGEANT ”What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?!! Didn’t Mommy and Daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?!!!”
Full Metal Jacket had 1 Oscar nomination and 1 win for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director, so much that I named my female dog after him. All his films blow my mind, this is no exception. The distinct movie score, music, and sound effects are particularly outstanding and withstand the test of time, as does the dark twisted humor of the script.
Veteran Richard Stafford writes, “I spent a total of 5 yrs and and 3 months in Viet-Nam (3 tours plus 3 extensions). I was in the Infantry and my last tour I was in the Air Wing Helicopters. I found the movie starting from Bootcamp through the very end more realistic than any movie I have watched on the Viet-Nam War. I am a Disabled Marine Veteran and I enjoyed your movie very much. Respectfully, Richard Stafford, USMC DV Retired.”
Anonymous writes, “The older Marines in my family have been known to remark how very closely the movie Full Metal Jacket stayed to actual situations in boot camp, but my uncle who served in the Vietnam conflict said that had they made it more realistic, the average american would protest against the treatment of the soldiers.”
Gaffa writes, “Funny in parts, but on the other hand very serious.”
The Mouse Avenger writes, “As a general rule, I don’t usually enjoy war movies, but in this case, I make an exception for Full Metal Jacket. Not only did Stanley Kubrick, one of my favorite directors (the greatest of all time, in fact!), direct this movie, but the characters, music, cinematography, script, acting, & everything else about it are just absolutely wonderful beyond description.”
To read more comments, click here.
Screenplay by Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe
Platoon takes a dark path to the Vietnam war as it tells the story of going from feeling very important, wanting to be patriotic and to serve one’s country, to feeling not important at all out in the jungles of Vietnam, playing out the struggle between good and evil, right and wrong.
CHRIS “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves – and the enemy was in us.”
Platoon had 8 Oscar nominations and 4 wins for Best Picture, Director, Editor, and Sound.
Mark Davies from Chester, England says, “Oliver Stone’s Platoon is quite simply the best Vietnam war film ever made in my opinion.”
Andrew Phillips writes, “I Served in Nam, and found it to be the same way as portrayed in the movie, a bloody shit hole. This movie just reminds me of the horrors of the war and reminds me of what I went threw.”
Craig writes [edited for clarity], “Platoon is a metaphor film. Stone made it look real though. I saw little in this film that represented my experience [in the 60's], except for the 24 hr fear, the heat, the tension and some the bullshit we all saw and heard from Command. The troops in the 60′s were better mentally and we had a some seasoned Korea and WWII experienced officers and senior NCO’s. By the early to mid-70′s [the time of Platoon], it was different. Lots of drugs, many professional soldiers rotated out and wounded etc. [Platoon] looks more like a diary.”
Three Kings (1999)
Story by John Ridley
Screenplay by David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube
A few American soldiers in Iraq intend to do a hefty gold theft and have conflict over what to do with the locals in their way.
TROY ”You think I don’t know what I’m saying. I know what I’m saying. We’re gonna do more than steal, that’s what I’m saying. We’re gonna help these people out.”
Three Kings is no Oscar winner, but it does have a lot of fans. Dealing with a war that we are still fighting is often too sensitive for its citizens to handle, hence why people are still telling World War II stories from 70 years ago!
NamDC from Palm Springs, California writes, “I avoided this film for some time because I have a strong dislike of war films, particularly relatively recent wars. Too bad for me. I finally rented it because of the impressive works I’ve seen by Mr. Russell. This is not a war film, even though it takes place during a war, and in a war zone. This is a film of humanity. Like many other films that I find excellent, this film deals with the human condition on many levels. There’s pathos, humor, love, violence, ad infinitum. You’d get a sterilized version of what this film shows on the evening news. It shows that our soldiers, just as ourselves, are human, with all our frailties. And, I believe, it gives an honest account of what life is like for the people of the Middle East. Fine acting by truly fine actors, great cinematography, and a very intelligent script make this a must see film.”
To read more comments, click here.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Mélanie Laurent, and Christoph Waltz
During World War II, we follow an alternate reality of two main fantasy stories that start in different places and come together in a French movie house in the end. There is the story of a French girl’s revenge for her slaughtered family and there is the story of a secret American military terror task force.
COLONEL LANDA ”Unless some fool is stupid enough to try and handle a live one, rats don’t make it a practice of biting human beings. Rats were the cause of the bubonic plague, but that was some time ago. In all your born days, has a rat ever caused you to be sick a day in your life? I purpose to you, any disease a rat could spread, a squirrel could equally carry. Yet I assume you don’t share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you? Yet, they are both rodent’s, are they not? And except for the fact that one has a big bushy tail, while the other has a long repugnant tail of rodent skin, they even rather look alike, don’t they?”
LIETENANT ALDO ”We’re gonna be dropped into France, dressed as civilians. And once we’re in enemy territory, as a bushwackin, guerrilla army, we’re gonna be doin one thing, and one thing only, Killin Nazi’s. The Members of the National Socialist Party, have conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimidation, and terror. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna do to them. Now I don’t know bout y’all? But I sure as hell, didnt come down from the goddamn Smoky mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half Sicily, and then jump out of a fuckin air-o-plane, to teach the Nazi’s lessons in humanity. Nazi ain’t got no humanity.”
Inglourious Basterds had 8 Oscar nominations and 1 win for Best Supporting Actor.
Basterds has mixed reviews due to its stylized fantasy script.
Of all military movies, I was least of all looking forward to another Nazi World War II movie, but Inglourious Basterds became one of my favorite movies: dark, twisted, superb performances, beautiful cinematography, and most important, a creative script with careful suspenseful pacing, this wacky convoluted war fantasy is unique.
Dr. Sam from Lebanon writes, “One thing I hate about a movie is when it treats audience as bunch of dumb people. Now I know Tarantino’s style is based on fantasy and fictitious plots, but come on…”
Produpp from United Kingdom writes, “Inglorious Basterds makes no apologies, asks for no forgiveness, it’s a no holds barred assault on the senses. Tarantino doesn’t care if he offends, if he steps all over stereotypes and clichés, this is film making at it purest. It’s great to see a film maker whose work clearly isn’t interfeared with by the powers that be. Tarantino is a master of effortlessly cranking up immense tension and suddenly mixing it with laugh out loud moments; you’re not sure if you should be looking away in disgust or rolling around laughing, either way it’s a roller coaster and one not to be missed! It’s not for everyone, certainly if you’re not a fan of Tarantino’s style, this may be a little hard to swallow, but never-the-less, it is a film which simply has to be seen. No self respecting film fan should miss this. And the performance of Christoph Waltz… Oscar don’t you dare ignore him!!”
Ron writes, “This screenplay is exhausting to read. I know Tarantino is one of Hollywood’s “wonder boys” but since the man obviously can’t write, he should at least hire someone to correct his spelling and grammar. I’ve seen better written stories come out of the second grade.”
(Tarantino may not have written this version of the script.)
To read more comments, click here.
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If you are strong in vision and story, but weak in grammar and spelling, to play it safe, make sure to have a friend or family member edit your script before sending it off to anyone in the biz.
What is your favorite war movie script and why?
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Click on the title for scripts. If any of these script links in red do not work, please let me know.