July 18, 2024

How do you keep sending your people into the cauldron of combat, repeatedly? … These are tough topics that need to be thought about before you go down range for your first war.

For this Whiteboard, the question we asked was the following:

Which movie would you recommend to new lieutenants (or maybe cadets, or high-schoolers?) to learn about leadership?

Some readers recommended several familiar and well-known war movies, while others suggested movies with no connection whatsoever to the military. Yet all present leaders facing difficult choices under extraordinary conditions. Whether faithful to a real story or purely fiction, these movies nonetheless were seen as recommended viewing for junior leaders.


1. Michael Yuengert, Captain, U.S. Army

Let women lead and watch your society thrive. In a fight, brawn doesn’t beat flexibility, speed, and heart. Always understand how lucky you are to live in a resource-rich, technologically advanced society. When building a coalition, make sure the tribe with the rhinos is on your side

This film depicts two momentous decisions made by a newly crowned king, T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman): First, T’Challa unsentimentally removes the biggest threat to his country, his own cousin, Eric Killmonger (menacingly played by Michael B. Jordan). Despite mitigating circumstances, such as Killmonger’s being disadvantaged, rightfully angry, and in pursuit of what he thinks is his, these do not prevent T’Challa from eliminating his threat. Though T’Challa understands and respects his cousin’s anger, the King’s intelligent maturity is an essential leadership trait, which he demonstrates in spades by doing what he must for his Kingdom’s security. He knows that both he and Killmonger cannot coexist in it.

Second, T’Challa rebukes the founding, insular principles of his realm, Wakanda, and opens it to the outside world. He decides this despite near-unanimous opposition. (Dead ancestors even heckle him in dreams!) A leader must take a long-term perspective, often at the expense of short-term comfort or benefit. In T’Challa’s view, Wakanda’s incredible progress and modernity cannot remain hidden from the world. Someone will either come to seize it, or the rest of the world will disintegrate, while Wakanda sits and watches. With tremendous courage, T’Challa drags his prosperous nation out from behind its walls and leads it onto the world stage.


2. Keith J. Haviland, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army & Zachary L. Miller, Colonel, U.S. Army

Haviland: The film’s timeless lessons speak to developing contemporary officers’ potential to lead on the modern, complex, and ambiguous battlefield. The movie depicts the 1902 court-martial of an Australian warrior, Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and his Bushvelt Carbineer cohort, Lieutenant Peter Hancock, who served in South Africa during the Boer War. In the film, Morant’s light cavalry unit is known for its aggressive counter-terrorism tactics, in Britain’s effort to finish the war. After Morant’s commander and close friend, Captain Percy Hunt, is killed and mutilated, the Lieutenant seeks revenge through acts of savagery.

The moral compasses of everyone in the trial – to include the jurors – are tested. Most of them falter, in this realistic film which highlights making hard decisions in a battle against moral ambivalence. Viewers will certainly go back and forth on whether justice is served by executing the officers or whether they’ve become “scapegoats of the Empire.”

The film’s end delivers an insightful paradigm on the leadership trips and falls that accompany war, especially while fighting in a counterinsurgency.

Miller: The court scenes don’t dally on the legal tricks or gimmicks of the lawyers, as is common in this genre. Rather, they focus on the ethical issues associated with following one’s leaders orders too explicitly, and of getting into trouble for it, as superior officers get off the hook. In fact, the movie is based on a 1907 book about their case, Scapegoats of the Empire. In the end, Morant and his fellow defendants are found guilty of the crimes they are accused of, which creates a second set of issues worthy of discussion by new Army leaders. How can well meaning, otherwise ethically and morally grounded individuals get themselves into situations where they betray the ideals they are supposed to be defending?


3. Michael F. Charmley, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army

One of the best movies dealing with leadership ever made. Though not a military movie, this film demonstrates toxic leadership and its effects throughout an organization. The film’s greatest value is to demonstrate interpersonal relationships between leaders/peers/subordinates, what poor leadership looks like, and how to overcome it.

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Steep), a fashion magazine editor, is ruthlessly effective in meeting her mission but she fosters a toxic organizational environment. She uses methods to motivate her staff that range from sarcastic to cruel. Her leadership philosophy will be familiar to most long-serving military personnel, who doubtless have served with or under someone like her.

While Priestly exemplifies the toxic leader, Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) typifies how not to act as a junior leader: usually unprepared, every problem a crisis, nothing in her control, and always looking for affirmation – she is everything you do not want a junior leader to be.

The leadership bright spot in the film is Nigel (Stanley Tucci). He effectively mentors Sachs while he copes with Priestly’s tyrannical rule. Nigel encourages Sachs to see herself as she really is, including her potential. Once she does this, she can adapt to the organization’s culture, prepare better in order to perform better, and become an asset to Priestly’s staff. In short, with Nigel’s effective mentorship, Sachs develops into a highly effective staff member and she is able to diffuse much of Priestly’s toxicity.

The lesson for any leader is to analyze how and why to use different techniques to achieve the same goal. We like to learn from good leaders, but some of the most important leadership lessons come from bad ones. Observing without experiencing toxic leadership and the effects it has on an organization is a valuable education for young military officers.


4. Chris Coglianese, Colonel, U.S. Army

Based on a novel (which is out of print and ridiculously overpriced on the used book market), this is the first movie I would use for an officer professional development (OPD) session, to discuss leadership, unit command, taking casualties in your unit – on both an abstract and personal level, rehabilitating folks (a lost art in some corners of our Army, where it is easier to just chapter folks), taking care of yourself for the long haul, and managing leader stress. Starring Gregory Peck, Twelve O’Clock High is the rare war movie that focuses on the challenges of command, with combat occurring largely in the background. How do you take over a solid unit, but one that just isn’t getting the job done, from an absolutely beloved commander? How do you keep sending your people into the cauldron of combat, repeatedly, when you know them all personally and you know many of them, no matter what you do, will not return alive? How can you do these things without becoming an inhuman ghoul? These are tough topics that need to be thought about before you go down range for your first war.


The most important principles that cadets and young officers can learn are those for leading small units


5. Paul Smith, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army
BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), Director: Ridley Scott

The U.S.’s involvement in Mogadishu, Somalia began as a humanitarian relief mission but quickly evolved into the most intense conflict that Americans had faced since Vietnam. Black Hawk Down captures that feeling and in the process imparts several leadership lessons still applicable to young leaders today.

The first lesson comes before the battle even begins. The night before the main mission, a raid, Second Lieutenant John Beales has an epileptic seizure which forces Staff Sergeant (SSG) Matt Eversmann to serve as chalk commander. This highlights the need for junior leaders to have an in-depth understanding of the mission and the role of their immediate supervisors.

Black Hawk Down also shows how important studying the operational environment is in mission planning. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Danny McKnight mentions the difficulties with heading into a marketplace completely under the control of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his militia, which gave him the advantage of interior lines of communication. LTC McKnight also knew that going during daylight, when the Somali militiamen were likely to be more aggressive due to their use of khat, an organic stimulant, would increase his unit’s risk. SSG Eversmann demonstrated his understanding of the environment when he directed ground movements during prayer time, to reduce the likelihood of enemy engagement. Developing an understanding of the culture is vital in planning, and, when done right, identifies risks and provides chances to exploit enemy weaknesses in battle.

Finally, the movie shows the visceral and ever-changing nature of fighting in urban terrain. By 2030, sixty percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This means it is highly likely that any combat which new leaders will face will require fighting in an urban environment.

Learning these lessons early will pay dividends for these young leaders during their careers.

6. Allan Dollison, Colonel, U.S. Army

This film epitomizes moral courage. LTC Hal Moore (played by Mel Gibson) has more combat experience than any of the young troops he leads in the U.S. War in Vietnam. However, when the Army introduces a new tactic of helicopter air assault into its operations, Moore’s technical competence is suddenly one of equal inexperience with his men’s.

Moore’s leadership style is to never display fear and to never demonstrate that he is unfamiliar with or unimpressed by the new tactical art. He knows that revealing either sentiment might cause his men to question his leadership and to not follow him. In the real battle, depicted in the movie, Moore’s forces are outnumbered. Moore makes full use of the combined arms fight to counteract this using tactical proficiency. He promises his men he will be the first to step foot on the battlefield and the last to leave. As an officer leading from the forward edge of the fight, he reinforces that he will not put his men in any danger that he is not willing to face himself.

The film also demonstrates the essential “battle buddy” relationship that Moore has with his Command Sergeant Major (CSM). Moore displays confidence and courage before his men. Yet he fully integrates his unit leadership, in a true partnership with his CSM. He knows that his CSM must agree with what he is doing, but he also wants blunt and realistic advice to absorb privately. This film depicts that vital commander officer/CSM relationship better than any others, in stressing the importance of that relationship.


7. Frank A. Blazich, National Museum of American History
La 317ème section [THE 317th PLATOON] (1965), DIRECTOR: Pierre Schoendoerffer

A remarkable film largely unknown to American audiences is Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 masterpiece La 317ème Section [The 317th Platoon]. Set in May 1954, the film largely ignores the politics of the situation and frames the story around a platoon of French and Cambodian soldiers at a small outpost in Cambodia. The French Command has ordered the platoon to abandon its post and withdraw 100 miles south.

The film then follows the platoon’s journey and the relationship between two characters. The first is the overall commander, a young, idealistic Lieutenant Torrens, in country only two weeks. In contrast to Torrens is the platoon’s senior noncommissioned officer, Willsdorf, an experienced soldier and survivor who fought as a conscripted Alsatian on the Eastern Front in the Wehrmacht, and for years with the French Army against the Viet Minh in Indochina. The dynamic between the idealism of Torrens with the harsh realities of war meted out by Willsdorf play out over the course of the journey. The lieutenant, committed to his orders and men, finds himself confronting the death of his men and his inexperience in war. Willsdorf, at times combative in disagreement with Torrens, increasingly respects and mentors the lieutenant as he learns the challenges of leadership and the seemingly impossible task placed before him.

Filmed in the jungles of Cambodia using only live ammunition (cheaper than blanks), the film is beautifully shot in black and white within the confines of the jungle. Based on a novel of the same name by Schoendoerffer, the film won the award for best screenplay at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival. The story undoubtedly reflects many of Schoendoerffer’s own experiences as a combat photographer with the French Army and as a prisoner of war following the fall of Dien Bien Phu.


8. Mike Schellhammer, Department of the Army Civilian

The most important principles that cadets and young officers can learn are those for leading small units. One of the best films on small unit leadership is the 1955 classic, Mister Roberts.

Mister Roberts is the story of Navy Lt. (j.g.) Doug Roberts, Executive Officer on the USS Reluctant, a small cargo ship in the Pacific, in late World War II. As Roberts (played by a brilliant Henry Fonda) describes it, the Reluctant sails from “apathy to tedium,” carrying the most mundane cargos. Roberts yearns for action with a battle group and continually requests transfer through the Reluctant’s captain. Unfortunately, the Captain (an equally brilliant James Cagney) takes more interest in a prized palm tree awarded from an admiral than his crew’s welfare and denies Roberts’s requests.

Roberts, however, stands up for the crew and earns their loyalty. He sets his ambition aside in a deal with the Captain for the crew’s liberty in a coveted port, in exchange for stopping his transfer requests. As the crew riotously makes the most of their liberty, Roberts takes genuine joy in their happiness and melding as team. He eventually gets his transfer after a similar act of devotion from the crew in return for his liberty bargain.

Weaved in with comedy, including a career-launching performance by Jack Lemmon and William Powell’s final appearance on film, Mister Roberts depicts the importance of making the welfare of subordinates a paramount leadership principle. Fighting against “ambition, cruelty, arrogance and stupidity,” is an overriding theme. Mister Roberts is from a 1946 novel (and his own adaptation of the book as a Tony Award-winning play) by Pacific cargo ship veteran Thomas Heggen, grounded in the reality of real-world leadership challenges.

The leadership lessons of Mister Roberts – taking care of subordinates and giving selfless service – are timeless principles that will serve officers in their early assignments and throughout their careers.



The views expressed in this Whiteboard are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo: Still shot from the ABC Television Series 12 O’Clock High from 1964-1967 showing the protagonist Brigadier General Savage (played by Robert Lansing, center) being held prisoner by Nazi officers (played by John Van Dreelin, left and Alf Kjellin, right).

Photo Credit: ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Other Releases in the “Whiteboard” series:


  1. One cannot forget U-571: “This is the Navy, where a commanding officer is a mighty and terrible thing… a man to be feared and respected… all knowing and all powerful. Don’t you dare say what you said to the boys back there again, ‘I don’t know.’ Those three words will kill a crew, dead as a depth charge. The skipper always knows what to do, whether he does or not.”
    This film also clearly demonstrates the ugly necessity for a leader to command his subordinates into a potentially perilous situation (sending Trigger into the bilge tank – to his ultimate death – in order to save the rest of the crew and the mission). Lastly, the importance of technical and tactical competence is clearly demonstrated during the final battle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend