Ahh, Memorial Day…
For many of us, it marks the unofficial start of summer. Time to break out the grill, dust off the sandals, crack open a beer and enjoy the day off from work. Of course, for those that have lost loved ones in the military, the day deserves a little more reverence. The day is, after all, a time to reflect on those that have given their lives. And what better way to honor the memories of those that have died, than by watching classic war movies? (Yes, I know there are dozens of better ways to honor vets… we’re a movie review site… what do you want from us?)
1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)- “If you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir… pack your bags, fellas, war’s over. Amen.” What would this list be without Saving Private Ryan? It’s a film we’ve already reviewed and talked about on the podcast (as part of our Spielberg Special). Even when I was in middle school, I remember this film being broadcast on AMC every Memorial Day (unedited, too- and that was back when seventh grade me was still scandalized by the “F” word). It’s the war movie that still sets the bar even twenty years after its release. Why is it so amazing? Well, there are so many reasons- from the epic opening battle at Normandy on D-Day, to the heart-wrenching finale; this movie is one that has stood the test of time. It boasts a huge cast: Hanks, Damon, Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, even Nathan Fillion (I’m sure there are some glaringly obvious ones that I’ve missed, too). And of course, Spielberg directs. It is truly the pinnacle of warfare cinema, and a movie that deserves to be rewatched over and over again.
2. Full Metal Jacket (1987)- “What is your major malfunction numbnuts? Didn’t mommy and daddy show you enough attention when you were a child?” From the opening scene of this film- fresh recruits lining up to get shorn like sheep, their hair falling to the floor around them (representing how many of their number will fall)- this movie makes a lot of statements about the toll war takes on everyone involved. We follow a platoon through Basic Training, and even that is too much for the ill-fated Pvt. “Gomer” Pyle. But once the battle starts up, Pvt Joker and the others realize that they had no idea what they were signing up for. There are moments in this film that I still think about and feel chills creeping up my spine. The expressions of horror worn by these men during some of the more brutal scenes are more disturbing than the actual violence. Kubrick made Paths of Glory, another antiwar film earlier in his career. With both films, Kubrick was able to demonstrate the depth of his grasp on ways war takes a toll on the human psyche.
3. Patton (1970)- “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning form the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians, and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in a chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.” This is a different kind of war movie- it focuses primarily on the journey of one man: WWII General George S Patton, as played by George C Scott. This almost three-hour long masterful biopic stretches from 1942 in North Africa to the end of WWII. It’s a beautiful story, one that takes a different side on its stance on war. Patton loved war; he lived for it. And without him we might not have finished WWII as quickly as we did. He was brash and boisterous, he had unique beliefs (he was a Christian but believed in reincarnation- he thought he’d been a Roman legionnaire, and fought alongside Napoleon), but he stuck by them. He was hard on his men because he loved them, and he wanted to see them succeed. Unlike the other two films on this list, this film is unapologetically patriotic (just think of that opening shot- Patton monolog against the backdrop of a giant American flag), and Patton’s charisma made even me, a gun-hating pacifist, want to take up arms for whatever cause the man would lead me towards. The film won seven Oscars in 1970, including Best Actor, Director, Writing (by Francis Ford Coppola- two years before The Godfather), and Best Picture.
4. Apocalypse Now (1979)- “The horror… The horror…” Speaking of Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now is the next film on our list. Again, this movie is a different kind of war film. War is the backdrop for a secret mission undertaken by a small group of soldiers, sent to kill the deranged Col. Kutz, a man who fancies himself a God among the native people of Cambodia. The film is a slow meandering decent into madness and warfare. Even from the beginning of the picture we see the effect the war has had on our main character, Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen), as he drunkenly stumbles around in a stupor in a humid, trashy hotel room (Sheen was actually drunk during those scenes). The film is quite an accomplishment, and the story behind the making of the film is just as interesting, one that’s well documented in Hearts of Darkness (1991). This film was wrought with issues- from rewrites to extended shoots, recasts and hurricanes; this picture had everything go wrong during production, but it still turned out to be a masterful piece of filmmaking.
5. Inglorious Basterds (2009)- “We’re gonna be doing one thing, and one thing only: Killing Nazis.” Love him or hate him, Tarantino knows how to tell a story, and this one- a visceral alternate reality of WWII populated by Nazi-hunting Jews and men brimming with quippy one-liners- is one of his better stories. Tarantino’s dialogue is nigh impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. Usually, his characters talk at length about how they feel about certain things, turning suddenly on a dime: Tarantino knows how to turn a simple conversation into a nail-biting scene. But the best part of this film is easily Christoph Waltz, who steals darn near ever scene in the whole film. Christoph revels in Tarantino’s dialogue, and his performance is better than most I’ve seen in the decade following this film (he won Best Supporting Actor in 2010). He speaks four languages: French, Italian, German, and English, while hunting hidden Jews, all while displaying a deviously devilish smile. He looks like he’s having fun with this role, a role that Tarantino previously thought he’d overwritten, because he thought no one would be able to play it. Waltz’s performance alone makes this film worth watching, but the rest of the film is filled with just as many unforgettable characters as some of Tarantino’s other work. While the film isn’t even slightly historically accurate, it is a film that gives you the urge to stand up and root for America.
6. Das Boot (1981)- “They made us all train for this day. ‘To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one, just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland.’ Oh God, all just empty words. It’s not the way they said it was, is it? I just want someone to be with. The only thing I feel is afraid.” Memorial day is an American holiday, but its important to remember that many of the people we’re fighting in the wars were waging are not monsters: they’re human beings with hopes and dreams, sons and daughters, wives or girlfriends, and they’re subject to the same emotional toll that is taken on Americans. Das Boot takes a lengthy look at a group of Germans inside a submarine (the directors cut [the only version I’ve seen] is three and a half hours long, though there’s a longer version somewhere out there that is almost five hours long). The film builds slowly- much of the tension comes from the crewmembers being trapped inside this boat with nothing to focus on but the terror they’re facing. Other scenes focus on the boredom they face- I mean, what is there really to do inside a sub for months on end? The film is an impressive feat of claustrophobic cinematography, well-rounded characters, and it’s also a compassionate look into the lives of a group of people we so often villainize.
7. Come and See (1985)- “<wailing screams>” Another film that shows a rarely shown side of WWII is Come and See. I only just recently watched this film for the first time, and holy freaking cow was I impressed. Come and See is one of those movies you see once and it’s forever burned into your brain. When doing a smidge of research for this film, I came across a comment saying that this film was more of a horror movie with a backdrop of WWII than an actual war movie; to some extent, I’d agree. This movie is about the atrocities of war, told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Florya, a Russian boy. After finding a rifle in the sand he’s recruited into the army. Soon he looses his battalion and spends the rest of the movie trying to get back home or find another place to stay. Florya’s humanity is slowly stripped away from him in scene after scene of disturbing violence and sadness. Sadly, this film is rather difficult to find- and as of now there hasn’t been an American Blu Ray release, but if you can find it, jump at the opportunity to watch it.
This list is small, but hopefully you can find one or two films in here that pique your interest. Below I’ve included a list of other films that I’ve either seen and didn’t feel like writing about (its Memorial Day Weekend! I want a break too!), or I haven’t seen but they’ve been recommended by reputable sources (IE. Michael). If I missed one of your favorites feel free to leave a comment below! As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m always looking for good movies to watch!
· Platoon (1986)
· The Hurt Locker (2008)
· The Longest Day (1962)
· The Patriot (2000)
· American Sniper (2014)
· Black Hawk Down (2001)
· Gettysburg (1993)
· Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
· Restrepo (2010) and Korengal (2014) (Documentaries)
· To End All Wars (2001)
· Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
· Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
· The Patriot (2000)
· American Sniper (2014)
· Black Hawk Down (2001)
· Gettysburg (1993)
· Dunkirk (2017)
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