This is the weekend when the world pauses and remembers all of those who gave their lives in wars held around the world. For many people, however, the weekend is the official start of summer and the holiday is for getting together and drinking in the heat and barbecuing. But for movie fans, there is a simple way to remember what this holiday is really for and that’s some key movies about war and sacrifice.
Breaking the movies down by the war that they represent, here at the 15 movies I think any movie fan should watch to remember the true reason for the Memorial Day holiday.
The Last of the Mohicans - I am going to recommend the version with Madeleine Stowe and Daniel Day Lewis for this one. Yes, the movie directed by Michael Mann. It is a love story, of course, but it is also a war movie. This one takes place even before the Revolutionary War, in the French and Indian War that was the first major step in helping the country on to its path for independence. While the love story is there, there are epic battle scenes featuring armies and sieges and hand-to-hand fighting in slow motion. Romance to keep the romance lovers happy and plenty of action to keep the action lovers happy.
Glory - This movie remains, at least for me, the ultimate Civil War movie. There have been many movies about the war that nearly destroyed the entire country, but this one managed to transcend the genre of the war movie and become something else. It tells the story of the first African American regiment that were trained as real soldiers and then allowed to fight against the South. It looks at the prejudice that they faced and overcame and how the white soldiers who were in charge also decided to sacrifice along with the men to achieve some kind of justice. Again, the battles scenes are amazing, but the drama of the men involved with actors such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Andre Brauer truly make the film.
All Quiet on the Western Front - The ultimate anti-war and World War One movie wrapped up into one. The story follows several young and idealistic men who sign up to fight in the first World War. When they get to the front, however, their illusions and beliefs in the glory of war are shattered. The drama is intense and heartbreaking at times as they deal with the horror in the trenches and try to keep their lives as normal as possible in impossible situations. The ending is a classic and truly heart wrenching.
Paths of Glory - Kirk Douglas as a French officer in World War I who ends up dealing with the insane bureaucracy of war. Soldiers are given an impossible mission to take an impossible hill in the war and end up on trial, convicted and executed for cowardice. A very, very powerful movie from Stanley Kubrick that deals with the ridiculous idea that dying is truly the greatest thing that a man can do and explore the disconnect between the soldier on the line and the generals who sit far from it. It also explores the idea that war is glorious and that the average soldier is expendable. It is set in World War I, but the movie is very anti-war and came out before Vietnam would dominate everyone’s consciousness.
Bridge on the River Kwai - One of the finest movies set during World War Two and one of the finest epic films ever made. Alec Guinness heads up and all star cast of British soldiers who end up in a Japanese prison camp. In order to establish discipline among the men while they are incarcerated, they take over the task of building the titular bridge. Although the setting and scenes are epic, the story is very personal and psychological. As Guinness gets so caught up in providing discipline and building a bridge to be proud of, he loses sight of what he’s doing and how he is helping the enemy. Again, the ending of this one will leave you stunned.
A Bridge Too Far - An all star cast set during one of the most failed World War Two battles. Everyone is in this movie: Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Gene Hackman and Sean Connery. It involves the tale of Operation Market Garden which was an attempt by the Allies to cross the German lines and into the Netherlands. The operation was a complete failure and this movie manages to detail how that happened. Intense battle scenes are everywhere and the movie manages to balance the large and impressive cast.
Saving Private Ryan - Probably the ultimate modern World War Two film. If you want to know what it was like to be on the beaches of Normandy, this is the movie to see. The battles scenes in this film will leave you shaken and are graphic in their brutality. This is war in its bloody messiness and all thought of glory are gone. There is the plot involved with a group of soldiers sent to find one other soldier whose brothers have all been killed during D-Day. In the end, the plot doesn’t matter, it’s about the individual soldiers and how they deal with the fact that death lurks everywhere.
The Best Years of Our Lives - A movie that some consider one of the greatest of all times. Another movie with a bevy of celebrities, as well. The story is that of three men who are coming home to the real world after serving with distinction in World War Two. The movie has become famous for one of its celebrities: Fredric March, who was actually in the war and lost both of his arms. The movie is a drama that takes a look, way back in 1946, at how men try to adjust to normal life once they have spent years in war. There are some very emotional scenes as their lives back home come apart and they try to assimilate back into society. For example, the scene where the bomber pilot who ends up with a job turning bomber planes into scrap metal is profoundly sad.
The Manchurian Candidate - If you have to pick one movie that features the Korean War and also wraps up the Cold War, this one would have to be it. Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh are spectacular in this John Frankenheimer film that is easily one of the best films of all time. A group of soldiers are captured while on patrol during the Korean War and undergo intense Soviet and Communist brainwashing to turn one of them into a mindless drone assassin. The suspense is edge-for-your-seat and the ending, again, is powerful and dramatic. A truly awesome political thriller.
The Deer Hunter - A movie that manages to look at the Vietnam War and how the soldiers try to deal with the world when they come back from the war. This movie has become so iconic that man of the scenes are known even by people who have not seen the film. Three friends celebrate a wedding before they head off to Vietnam and then endure unspeakable horrors once they get there. When they return they find that they are not quite as capable of returning to normal life as they thought. This movie made the career of director Michael Cimino, but the very next one he did (Heaven’s Gate) destroyed it. Powerful acting even if some of the believability of the plot stretches things a bit.
Apocalypse Now - Probably the ultimate Vietnam War movie. Martin Sheen is a man sent on an insane mission in a war that is equally insane. Marlon Brando turns in his bravura performance as Kurtz, the man who has realized that the war is insane and now commands a kind of cult that does his brutal bidding. Again, so much of this movie has become iconic and so many lines have entered the public lexicon that many probably do not know that words came from this film (I love the smell of napalm in the morning, never get out of the boat, the horror, the horror). If you feel daring, seek out the four-hour uncut edition of this seminal Francis Ford Coppola film.
Full Metal Jacket - The second Stanley Kubrick movie to end up on this list. This film came out at about the same time as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which is also a powerful Vietnam War movie. However, over the years, this one has become the Vietnam movie that I prefer over that one. This one takes a look at how the military turns ordinary young men into brutal killers and then sets them loose in the madness that was Vietnam. The scope is epic, the stories personal, and the scenes will leave indelible marks on your psyche for years afterward.
Blackhawk Down - As far as modern warfare goes, there are few movies that tell the story of a modern soldier better than this one. Based on the true story of an operation in Somalia to capture key warlords and how two Blackhawk helicopters ended up shot down. This one is really for the patriotic as we see them try to stick to their credo that they never leave a man behind, whether he is dead or alive. This movie is one long battle and it is intense from the very start.
Three Kings - A modern war movie set during the first Gulf War starring George Clooney. Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cude and Spike Jonze. The soldiers come into possession of the knowledge of a hidden cache of Saddam Hussein’s treasures and gold and they decide that they are just going to head into the desert and steal it. The movie is excellent and, at times, even funny as the madness of the war and how the soldiers are allowed to interact with the residents of Kuwait. What is interesting these days is the stories about how the movie was filmed. Directed by David O. Russell who has become infamous for having down and out screaming battles with his stars on his film and the stories of Clooney literally wanting to beat Russell over his treatment of his cast and crew during the filming of this movie add an element to this film.
The Hurt Locker - One of the finest films that deals with modern warfare. Jeremy Renner turns in his career-making performance of a man who is an adrenaline junkie and is on a unit that defuses the IEDs in and around Iraq. The movie one Best Picture just a few years ago and it earned it. The tension is maddening as you watch these soldiers deal with the brutality and insanity that is the U.S.’s current involvement in the Middle East. One of the finest war movies of the modern era.
Honorable mentions also go to Patton and Platoon which are also fine examples of war films that look at World War Two and Vietnam respectively. Both of them contain spectacular battle scenes and gripping, award-winning, performances from the likes of George C. Scott. Platoon will also remind you that, at one time, Charlie Sheen was actually a pretty good actor. Also, don't forget classic films such as The Great Escape, Gallipoli and Stalag 17.
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