A 10-Film Introduction to America’s Turn-of-the-Century ‘Small Wars’

Check out the previous installments in James Jay Carafano’s ongoing series exploring war films: The 10 Best Movies to Watch to Understand the Cold War10 War Movies Guaranteed to Make You CryAmerica’s First Wars in 10 Movies10 Movies For Understanding the Civil War.


“Is America a weakling, to shrink from the work of the great world powers?”

Having asked the question, Teddy Roosevelt proceeded to answer it: “No! The young giant of the West stands on a continent and clasps the crest of an ocean in either hand. Our nation, glorious in youth and strength, looks into the future with eager eyes and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.”

Teddy was chomping at the bit for America to go out into the world. But not everyone was “bully” about it. Between the Civil War and World War II, the U.S. had been involved in more than a few scraps.  Often called “small wars,” few Americans were itching for bigger ones.

Hollywood hasn’t paid much attention to the Small Wars Era, a largely forgotten part of American military history. Finding 10 films was tough. Still, there is a cinematic and martial legacy worth noting.

10. The Wild West

Not all of America’s small wars occurred overseas. The U.S. military spent a good deal of its days after the Civil War conducting constabulary duties in the western territories. As military historian Andrew Birtle notes, “The Army has spent the majority of its time not on the conventional battlefield.”

Perhaps the most iconic movie of the “Indian Wars” period is Fort Apache (1947).  This John Ford film stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda in a fictional story that borrows from historical events, including the Fetterman Massacre (1866) and Custer’s Last Stand (1876). An American classic, this film should not be missed.


9. Remember the Maine!

A Cuban revolt to throw off Spanish rule prompted President McKinley to dispatch the USS Maine to Havana, with orders to help safeguard American citizens. The harbor proved none too safe for the Maine. On February 15, 1898, it blew up and sank. Three months later, America and Spain were at war. The sinking of the Maine is the opening scene of A Message to Garcia (1936). Inspired by Elbert Hubbard’s 1899 essay exhorting young men to do their duty, the movie tells a fictional version of the true-life story of a young Army officer who carried  a message from McKinley to rebel leader Calixto Garcia. Starring one of Hollywood’s greats, Wallace Beery, the film was a “talkie” remake of a 1916 silent movie.

8. “Teddy’s Riotous Rounders!”

Cuba saw most of the ground fighting in the Spanish-American War. While every service branch fought in the campaign, the most well-known outfit was the troop of volunteer cavalry led by Roosevelt. The papers gave them many nicknames, like “Rounders” and “Terry’s Terrors,” but the moniker that stuck was also the title of the only full-length film on combat operations in Cuba: Rough Riders (1997), starring Tom Berenger as the irrepressible Colonel Roosevelt. The movie is actually a compilation from a TV miniseries that aired on TNT. For Hollywood, the history in the film is more accurate than most military dramas. There was also a silent-film rendition, The Rough Riders (1927).  No complete print exists, but a New York Times reviewer at the time called it “bully entertainment.”    


7. The Boxer Rebellion

In 1900, a small contingent of U.S. Marines along with soldiers and diplomats from a half-dozen countries were besieged by peasant rebels in the shadow of China’s Forbidden City. In 55 Days at Peking (1963), the heroic band, led by Charlton Heston and David Niven, hold off the rampaging hordes. In real life, the petty squabbling between the delegations, confusion and incompetence nearly got everyone killed. The heroics were real enough. Fifty-nine servicemen, including soldiers, sailors, and Marines, received the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, none of those stories made it into the movie. The film treatment of race and imperialism is quite politically incorrect by today’s standards, but it still works as an action flick.

6. The Philippine Insurrection

In The Real Glory (1939), it’s 1909 and Gary Cooper is training local tribesmen to beat back the Moro rebels as part of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. David Niven shows up in this small war as well.  The real Philippine insurrection lasted from 1899-1902.  For U.S. troops, it was a complex, dangerous and difficult counter-insurgency campaign. As historian Brian Linn noted, “these are incredibly debilitating wars.” Sadly, the movie is little more than a potboiler.

5. “Civilize ‘Em with a Krag”

That was one of the mottos of the U.S. troops during the Moro rebellion. As might be expected, independent-film director John Sayles provides a more morally ambiguous version of the military effort to suppress the insurgency in Amigo (2010). In the movie, Colonel Hardacre (Chris Cooper) has anything but a “win their hearts and minds” campaign in mind when he orders U.S. troops to secure the fictional barrio of San Isidro.


4. Carry a Big Stick

I am breaking the rule not to repeat films on previous movie lists, but The Wind and the Lion (1975) has to be included here. It’s just that good. The set-up: President Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith) orders the Marines to rescue Americans held hostage in Morocco. Though based on a “true story,” the screenplay rewrites history a good bit. Who cares? It’s an awesomely entertaining action flick.

3. Back to the Border

After the Civil War, the U.S. Army was repeatedly sent to restore order to the Southern border, with military patrols conducted through 1929. The most famous deployment was the Mexican Punitive Expedition (1916-1917), in which General “Black Jack” Pershing’s troops chased the murderous bandit Poncho Villa.  In They Came to Cordura (1957), Gary Cooper is dispatched to identify potential Medal of Honor recipients. The film deals but little with the campaign. Rather, it’s a melodramatic, preachy take on heroism. So why watch? To see the great Gary Cooper in one of his last roles before terminal illness ended his career.

2. Gunboat Diplomacy

In The Sand Pebbles (1966), Steve McQueen patrols a tributary of the Yangtze on the gunboat USS San Pablo.  From 1854 to 1941, U.S. ships helped protect American trading rights and interests around the Yangtze River treaty ports. This largely forgotten history is well told in this action-adventure film. The story of USS Panay, a river gunboat that served until it was sunk by the Japanese in 1937, is often cited as the inspiration for the plot of the movie.  



1. Rumors of War

Not every American military adventure overseas was fought under an American flag.  In 1941, with a wink and nod from President Franklin Roosevelt, Claire Lee Chennault organized a group of volunteer American fighters to help support the Chinese nationalists against an invading Japanese army. In 1942, Hollywood brought the story of the Flying Tigers to the screen with John Wayne leading his brave wing of volunteers into battle against overwhelming odds. It’s a fairly fictional version of events, but a classic example of the “Hollywood goes to war” era films.

From truly great to not so good, these movies are still worth watching. They remind us that, from Appomattox to Pearl Harbor, the American armed forces were often in harm’s way.


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