When I was a kid, every year on Memorial Day, my dad and I would watch war pictures on TV. We normally would see a John Wayne WWII film, or a Civil War picture. This year, I am choosing from my DVD collection of my favorite war films in remembrance for those who gave their lives to defend my right to share my opinion. First off, I am leaving off a couple of films that I think everyone would agree are appropriate Memorial Day film classics -- "Saving Private Ryan," and of course "Band of Brothers." The networks are still airing these films every six months, often enough to warrant a search for something ageless and nostalgic. So, here are my top ten war films for Memorial Day.
The American Revolutionary War
-- Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, and Chris Cooper
A Rolland Emmerich epic of the American Revolutionary war, depicting through fictional characters, some slightly more historic battles in the southern colonies of the Carolina's during America's fight for independence of British rule. This film brings the atrocities of the war home during the scenes of the British Invasion. Told from the point of view of a veteran of the French Indian Wars, (George Washington started that one, by the way.) renouncing violence, a widower, and turning to running his plantation, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), just wants to raise his family of four boys and three girls. Martin receives an invitation to join a meeting in Charlotte to discuss a decision to rebel against King George of England. Benjamin Martin is against it, "Why should I trade a tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile a way." A good point, if you honestly think about it. However, his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), enlists against his will, and serves for two years before reuniting with his family. The reunion is only because he is traveling through his father's plantation, as the war has come to his home. The villainous lead in "The Patriot" is played with realism, and cruelty by Jason Isaacs ("Event Horizon") as Col. William Tavington, in charge of the British Light Dragoons (cavalry). He is Martin's nemesis throughout the film; a sure bet that there will be blood spilt between those two by the end of the story. High in drama, quick with the action, light on the romance, and a mush of history, you have almost three hours of epic fun to watch on Monday.
The American Civil War
Gettysburg (1993) -- Starring Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, and Stephen Lang
Based on "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara, Gettysburg is a long and loving look at the men behind the military campaign that turned the tide of the Civil War for the North. Told from the points of view of Colonel Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) and Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) of the Confederate Army, the film explores both sides of the three-day battle, and the victories and mistakes that the leaders made. A long movie to be sure, but well worth the time it takes to understand the details of the battles that comprise the campaign. Like war itself, sometimes boring and endless, till battle starts, and the bullets fly, the man next to you goes down and before you know it the battle is over and you thank God that you are left standing. Gettysburg may be one of those films that you start on Friday and finish on Monday.
Cold Mountain (2003) -- Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger
I have two films from the Civil War era on my list. "Cold Mountain" is a people drama set against the backdrop of the Civil War but tells the story from the perspective of the people of the south. Although I like the film for war scenes at the beginning, I like the film more of how it humanizes the people of the south rather than totally vilify them. I liked Jude Law's performance as the deserting soldier, Natalie Portman's as the young wife of a dead soldier, trying to keep her baby, and herself alive. Both Kidman and Zellweger turn in some very powerful performances as they try to keep their world's from falling apart at home while the war rages. I like the fact that it portrayed both the men of the North and the South as capable of doing evil. Look for a pre-Jax Teller as Charlie Hunnam ("Sons of Anarchy," "Pacific Rim") plays Bosie, one of Teague's (Ray Winstone) henchmen. Overall "Cold Mountain" is a drama at heart, significant others are welcome to enjoy this film too.
World War II
Midway (1976) -- Starring Charlton Heston,
Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Hal Holbrook, Toshirô Mifune, and an all-star cast.
After the U.S. defeat at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the President of the United States requested and received from Congress, a declaration of war upon the Imperial Nation of Japan. Less than a year later, in June 1942, while the Japanese continued to push an offensive in the Pacific, the United States prepared for the battle that turned the tides of victory from the Japanese. By intercepting coded Japanese signals, the U.S. Navy intelligence, trick the Japanese into naming their next target, the Midway Atoll, a third of the way between the islands of Hawaii and Tokyo, Japan. The small island would make an excellent jumping off point in a campaign to capture Hawaii. The battle is primarily seen through the character of Captain Matt Garth (Heston). The film shows the various points of view from each of the different ship's commanders, making the film, quasi-documentary in style. Leading the Japanese armada towards the island is Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and his convoy of four carriers, five battleships, heavy and light cruisers and as the advertising world says and much, much more. Up against great odds the U.S. Navy rallies together three carriers, 25 support ships and about 360 air and land attack based aircraft. The battle is epic; the drama is intense; and the archive footage lends a sense of realism to the film. As a kid, I used to keep track of all the archive footage used in TV shows that came from the film, "Midway."
A Bridge Too Far (1977) -- Starring Sean Connery, James Caan, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier
After Operation Overlord, the landing on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1946, a few months later, the Allied Command implemented Operation Market Garden to take several strategic targets in the Netherlands. Like the operation itself, "A Bridge Too Far" stars an international cast, including Maximilian Schell as Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Bittrich and Hardy Krüger as Maj. Gen. Ludwig. Adapted from Cornelius Ryan's book by the same name, the film recounts the disastrous account of the attempt to take northern positions to the Siegfried Line and outflank it. As the situation slowly unravels, British and American forces do their best to overcome the obstacles and put forth their best efforts. "A Bridge Too Far" features intense action and suspense, vivid but not gory violence, and a hit musical score by composer and conductor, John Addison.
– Starring Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, and Charles Bronson, with Telly Savalas
Near the end of World War II, in the Ardennes forest, the German's pushed out for one last offensive during the winter of 1944 - 1945. Seen from both the German point of view as well as the Allied's, the two forces battle it out -- turning the French snow, blood red. Lt. Col. Kiley (Henry Fonda) leads the American defense, while Col. Hessler’s (Robert Shaw), Panzer division leads the offensive. Kiley is an intelligence officer who spends the first part of the film trying to convince his commanders that the Germans are pushing an offensive during the middle of winter. Allied generals have a hard time accepting that the German's are crazy enough to attack in the middle of winter, at a time when the roads and the weather are not conducive to waging war. The battles and tactics are inspiring, and for a 40 + year-old film, it still holds it's own, in character building, pacing, story development and a memorable patriotic musical score.
Patton (1970) -- Starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden
Patton is the story of one of America's best and worst general. A brilliant tactician, a leader in tank innovations, and a man who didn't know how to keep his mouth shut. Based on the book "A Soldier's Story" by Omar N. Bradley and introduction by A.J. Liebling, we get Bradley's perspective of the man who was once his superior officer, and how he raced across Europe, defying orders along the way, and who struck fear in the hearts of the German officers and soldiers. Reprimanded by Ike for slapping a soldier, Patton's apology scene deserves attention in that it shows a man showing how to make an apology. In this day and age, I think saying I am sorry is an almost forgotten art. Patton shows the man’s greatness and his flaws. Patton is inspiring film for all ages. However, AMC runs Patton every six months, and as much as I like this film, the acting, the charisma that George C. Scott imbues Patton with, I need another year's rest before I can watch this film and enjoy it as much as the film deserves.
We Were Soldiers (2002) -- Starring Mel Gibson, Sam Elliott, and Madeleine Stowe
Director Randall Wallace's adaptation of the book "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young: Ia Drang - the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam," written by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. Like any historical war fiction, this one, although not historically accurate, does allow the viewer a snapshot in time of the mid-sixties escalation of force in Vietnam. The film shows Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), and trusty Sgt. Major Plumley (Sam Elliott), standing side-by-side training troops that will fight in the first significant battles on Vietnamese soil. Like "The Green Berets," "We Were Soldiers" tells the story from essentially three points of view, by Hal Moore's -- as he sees the battle, correspondent Joe Galloway's (Barry Pepper) perspective, and by Hal's wife, Julie. Madeline Stowe, as the Colonel's faithful wife and partner, shows the audience what life was like for the Army wives, as they received notices from a cab driver that their husbands fell in battle. The film's production values exceed expectations for war films, with realistic special effects, and a haunting musical score. Look for "Mad Men's" John Hamm as Capt. Matt Dillon, a minor part, but a glimpse at the actor before his success as ad executive Don Draper.
The Green Berets (1968) -- Starring John Wayne, Jim Hutton, and David Janssen
Co-directed by Ray Kellogg and John Wayne, "The Green Berets" bring to life Robin Moore's book "The Green Berets: The Amazing Story of the U.S. Army's Elite Special Forces Unit," written by Robin Moore in the sixties, after going through Special Forces training himself. Always the patriot, The Duke, and friends stride into the war and kick some enemy butt. Col. Kirby (John Wayne), leads his Green Beret forces to a base camp in the jungle and takes command. One of the soldiers that Wayne brings along is Sergeant Petersen (Timothy Hutton), the lovable scrounger of the group. (Every troop seems to have one), and journalist George Beckworth (David Janssen), who comes along for the ride to report on the waste of time and resources by the U.S. government in Vietnam. What the soldiers do see are the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong upon their own people. Also, starring as the South Vietnamese Captain, Nim, is "Star Trek's" helmsman, Mr. Sulu -- George Takei. Filmed in Georgia, doubling for Vietnam, "The Green Berets" shows the heroic acts of the elite military force. Look for Jack Soo from TV's "Barney Miller." Included in the cast is Wayne's long-time friend and colleague, Bruce Cabot as Colonel Morgan. After watching "The Green Berets," one usually comes away from the film with an extreme sense of patriotism, along with a catchy tune, "Ballad of the Green Berets." another Robin Moore contribution to the film and sung by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.
Apocalypse Now (1979) -- Staring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, and Robert Duvall
Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam era, psychedelic take on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" that leads Army Cpt. Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) up the Nung river in on a classified mission in pursuit of one Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a Green Beret officer, who apparently went MIA at best, and at worst is psychotic. "Apocalypse Now" features many notable performances in this film, almost too many to count. For example, Robert Duval as the gung-ho surfer, Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, leading his Wagner screaming Air Cavalry into enemy territory. Along with his navy guides, Willard, a deeply troubled man himself, studies the career of the man whose command he was ordered to "terminate, with extreme prejudice." Included in the over-the-top cast of characters is Dennis Hopper who plays a crazy photojournalist, who worships Kurtz as a god. Look for a young Laurence Fishburne ("Matrix," "The Signal") as Clean, and Sam Bottom's as the LSD dropping front gunner are amazing. Look for a cameo of Coppola himself as the TV news director filming on the beach. In addition, look for a cameo from Harrison Ford as he has makes a brief appearance that took place during breaks between "Star Wars" films. A clearly disturbing film, it does give one the sense of surrealism of that era.
This list is not in any order of preference; however, I did arrange the films chronologically historically. I don’t have any movies in this list that represents the War of 1812, Spanish American War, and World War I. One of my favorite films depicting the First World War are "Gallipoli," "All Quiet On the Western Front" staring Lew Ayers. Nor do I have any films representing the Gulf Wars, but that is not to say films like "Jarhead," "The Hurt Locker," or "In the Valley of Elah" shouldn't be overlooked. Most of the films, selected are based on books by authors whose passion was to make history come alive. I am sure you may have your own favorite films that have a meaning for you as you start your summer, while that you will be watching while you are barbecuing those tasty ribs or steaks. Don’t be afraid to comment and post your list for Memorial Day
All photographs belong to their respective studios and distributors