The Best and Worst War Movies About PTSD

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)


The Best!

The first war movie to ever deal with "PTSD," this film, which won the ​Academy Award for Best Picture, focused on a sailor, a soldier, and a Marine coming home from the war, each dealing with a different sort of problem.  For many viewers, the film was informative, as its protagonists struggled with re-obtaining employment, dealing with war injuries, and managing relationships, all while dealing with the emotional scars of battle.  A film about fifty years ahead of its time, as PTSD wouldn't be formally diagnosed or acknowledged for many decades to come. 

Click here for a list of the Academy Award Winning War Films.

Click here for the Best and Worst War Movies About Veterans.

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Twelve O'Clock High (1949)


The Best!

Gregory Peck is assigned the task of whipping a demoralized bombardier unit back into shape, after suffering post traumatic stress from losing so many airmen.  One of the first films to deal with the idea of combat stress, and is considered by pilots to be a fairly realistic rendition of aerial combat (at least as far as 1940s special effects went).

​Click here for the Best and Worst Aerial Combat War Movies.

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Coming Home (1978)


The Best!

Jane Fond and Jon Voight star in what was the first Vietnam film to deal with veterans struggling to adapt after the war.  The film's focus is a romantic triangle between a paraplegic vet, a Marine officer, and the officer's wife.  Voight if phenomenal as the disabled vet, struggling to adapt to his newly ruined body, as he attempts to tame the fury and anger that fills him.  A film that is careful in its observations about human emotions, and which exudes serious drama - you care about these characters and hence you care what happens to them.  Unfortunately, as in real life, not all endings are happy ones.

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The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter. Universal Pictures

The Worst!

Captured as prisoners of war in Vietnam, Christopher Walken is so disturbed by his wartime experiences, that when the war is over, rather than return to Pennsylvania to melt steel, he instead ends up as a drunk in southeast Asia, playing Russian Roulette for money.  (As you might imagine, there is a scene in this film where someone gets shot.)  

Of course, including Russian Roulette into a film about Vietnam was entirely a fictional conceit thought of by the screenwriters, one which, personally, I find slightly offensive.  (Vietnam was dramatic enough, you don't also need to fictionalize an "upping of the stakes" by including a 1 in 6 chance of dying.)  Though, I suppose that having the characters be forced to play Russian Roulette could simply be considered a metaphor for any soldier and his chances of dying in a war.

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First Blood (1982)


The Best!

John Rambo was a Green Beret in Vietnam, one of the best soldiers the U.S. Army had, given responsibility for millions of dollars of equipment and important missions.  But in America, John Rambo is just an unemployed drifter.  An unemployed drifter that wanders into the wrong town, and ends up in a war with the local Sheriff.  The Sheriff tries to arrest John Rambo for vagrancy, Rambo resists and goes on the run, whereby he is hunted in the forests of the Pacific Northwest by first the local Sheriff's Department, and later the National Guard.  Silly, but effectively executed action sequences follow.

The most potent scene of the film though is the ending, where, after having killed a dozen or so Sheriffs and National Guard soldiers, Rambo breaks down crying, admitting that he suffers from PTSD. Poor, sad, Rambo!

While for a lot of people having Rambo cry about PTSD seemed silly and overwrought, I liked the filmmaker's decision.  I thought it was a risky move to have their super soldier reveal himself to be vulnerable and wounded, and, ultimately, revealing himself to be a lot more like other soldiers than we initially thought.​

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Jackknife (1989)


The Worst!

Robert DeNiro stars in this ​little-seen film (along with Ed Harris) about a Vietnam vet struggling with PTSD as he starts a new romantic relationship.  The film has good intentions, but ultimately, doesn't offer enough gravitas to support the film's running time.  (In other words, it's a film entirely about one vet's romantic relationship and it's a bit boring.)

of 09

In-Country (1989)


The Worst!

The story of a teenage girl whose father was killed in Vietnam, attempting to come to terms with her lost family, by way of getting closer to her uncle (Bruce Willis), a Vietnam veteran himself surviving from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).   A well-intentioned film, but one that assumes the qualities of a "Made for TV" movie, and is ultimately forgettable.

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Born on the 4th of July (1989)


The Best!

One of the most effective scenes in the film is when Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), comes home drunk in the middle of the night and gets into a screaming match with his parents.  Kovic starts screaming that he and his fellow Marines killed women and children while in Vietnam, while his mother covers her ears with her hands, screaming back at him, calling him a liar.  (Momma obviously doesn't want to hear the horrible truths her son is telling her!)  It's a terrifying scene to watch, and Cruise masterfully plays Kovic in the throes of a full-on meltdown.  PTSD has never looked so horrifying.  The second in Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy.

Click here for the Best and Worst Vietnam War Movies.

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Hurt Locker (2008)

Hurt Locker Poster. Photo © Voltage Pictures

The Best!

The protagonist is an Explosive Ordinance and Disposal (EOD) expert who is addicted to the rush of combat.  But when he returns home to the states, he doesn't feel like he fits in, he struggles in his relationship with his wife and son and is paralyzed by simple decisions like choosing what type of cereal to buy at the grocery store.  In short, he has become an all but ineffective human being, because he craves combat.  It's a fascinating and interesting dynamic to put in a film.

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Rico, Johnny. "The Best and Worst War Movies About PTSD." ThoughtCo, Apr. 24, 2017, Rico, Johnny. (2017, April 24). The Best and Worst War Movies About PTSD. Retrieved from Rico, Johnny. "The Best and Worst War Movies About PTSD." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).