Most of us, the lucky ones, have only experienced warfare in the movies. But many of us feel its sting through the loss of loved ones. War doesn’t just destroy, though – it creates, fueling artists with the need to express the sorrow, horror and loss of the experience.
These 10 moving, sometimes devastating war films make for perfect Memorial Day weekend viewing as you honor those who’ve lost their lives in service. All are available through streaming services such as Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes, Google Play.
10. ‘They Were Expendable’ (1945)
Fresh from filming American propaganda films during World War II, John Ford had war in his blood when he teamed up with John Wayne to tackle the subject on a set. An adaptation of William L. White’s book, “They Were Expendable” relates the exploits of a squadron of PT-boat crews defending the Philippines from the invading Japanese. Wayne didn’t serve in the war, but he makes for a fine fictional soldier alongside Robert Montgomery as they bicker with Navy brass.
9. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987)
Stanley Kubrick made two of the best movies ever about war, and this decidedly is the more violent and viscerally upsetting of the two. The film follows a platoon of Marines through training, where the bumbling but well-intentioned private nicknamed Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) is bullied and hazed into a mental breakdown that’s one of the most unsettling ever set to film. And that’s just the first half of the movie: There’s still the madness of combat in Vietnam to contend with.
8. ‘Patton’ (1970)
Few movie moments are as rousing as George C. Scott’s opening monologue in “Patton,” whose growling Gen. George S. Patton delivers a five-minute call to arms in front of a giant American flag and delivers this fine bit of advice: “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Scott led this epic World War II film to glorious victory on the Oscar battlefield, taking home seven Oscars, including best picture and best actor.
7. ‘Platoon’ (1986)
Oliver Stone isn’t a director often heralded for subtlety. But that tendency toward loudness (in this case without being strident) was an asset in this Vietnam War drama. Stone himself is a Vietnam vet, and his insights into the horrors of warfare and its aftermath are searing. A young, untested soldier (Charlie Sheen) finds his enthusiasm for war challenged by exhaustion, deplorable conditions, death and unparalleled cruelty. Stone took home an Oscar for his efforts and the film won best picture.
6. ‘The Messenger’ (2009)
Woody Harrelson turns in his most affecting performance as Capt. Tony Stone, a strict, emotionally distant recovering alcoholic who has the hard job of notifying military families of combat casualties. He has been assigned to mentor Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a damaged young man recently discharged from combat who finds himself drawn to a grieving widow. It’s a moving character piece, and a different kind of war film – one that eschews the heroics of combat to take a sobering look at the fallout.
5. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)
Steven Spielberg has never been a more visceral filmmaker than when he attempted to capture the horror of combat in the intense, half-hour-long depiction of the invasion of Normandy that opens this shattering film. We follow Army Rangers led by Capt. John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) through the battlefield and see what he sees – soldiers falling left and right, a man picking his severed arm off the ground – and hear what he hears – nothing, at one point, when a bomb explodes nearby. There’s still nothing like it. And that’s just the first half-hour of a nearly three-hour film about sacrifice, in which Miller and his squad search for Pfc. James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper missing in action and the last surviving brother of a family of servicemen who fought in World War II. Spielberg won a much-deserved best director Oscar for his work.
4. ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)
World War II films had a banner year in 1998, and although Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” captured most of the attention, Terrence Malick’s first film after a 20-year hiatus has proven to be the more affecting work of art, unfurling with the elegiac grace of a Zen koan. With a three-hour running time, an ethereal narrative and no real plot to speak of, it’s clearly not for everyone; it’s difficult in both subject and form, and veers as far from the mainstream as American cinema can as it follows an ensemble cast of U.S. soldiers battling the Japanese in the South Pacific. Even war, apparently, can be poetry.
3. ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946)
This hugely popular World War II film was one of the first to set aside the thrilling heroics of warfare to tackle the aftermath of war. Nobody comes back the same, as three servicemen discover when they return to their old lives in small-town America and struggle to readjust to civilian life. It’s especially a struggle for Homer Parrish, a double amputee with hooks for hands. He was played by Harold Russell, a real-life double amputee and non-professional actor who’d lost his hands during a demolitions-training accident in 1944. Russell was given an honorary Academy Award that year for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” But he did them one better by winning the Oscar for best supporting actor.
2. ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)
Oliver Stone’s best movie won him his second Oscar for direction and scored Tom Cruise his first nomination. Cruise plays Ron Kovic, a real-life Vietnam War veteran who returns home paralyzed and traumatized to a country he can’t trust anymore as his horrified family asks, “What did they do to you in that war?” It’s a transformative performance, the most physically and emotionally demanding role of Cruise’s career. Kovic eventually heals enough tto become an anti-war activist, but it’s a long, painful road to salvation, and a viewing experience that’s sadly as relevant today as ever.
1. ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)
The cast in this Vietnam War drama is astounding: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale and Meryl Streep, all in their prime, playing working-class Joes and Janes in the Rust Belt, living it up before the men ship off to Vietnam. What they find there is horror of a kind that nothing in their upbringing could have prepared them for, its atrocities culminating in a Russian roulette scene that has lost none of its potency over the years. Neither have the painful transformations of the men who survive.
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