6 Classic War Films to Watch for Memorial Day

  By Maureen Lee Lenker

By Maureen Lee Lenker

Memorial Day is a joyous occasion for many -- the weekend that marks the official start of summer -- a time for BBQs, pool parties, and summer blockbusters. It’s also a day off from our weekly grind. But most importantly it is a day to remember and honor our veterans, particularly those that lost their lives fighting for our country. It’s a day where we should reflect and appreciate the sacrifice of many brave men and women who gave their country everything they had.

Movie-making has long been a wonderful platform for sharing these stories and dramatizing/memorializing the service, heroism, and fears of our military. So, here are six war movies you can watch this Monday while you’re enjoying your cook-out.

6. From Here to Eternity

From Here to Eternity is many things -- a love story, a tale of a bored military wife who carries on an affair to lend meaning to her stifling existence, a critique of military culture, and an expertly woven story of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nowadays, the film is best remembered for its beachy clinch between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr (filmed on location in Hawaii). But for a 1953 film it has a powerful message about military culture, abusive chains of command, and the psychological toll of being a soldier.

Frank Sinatra won an Oscar for his indelible portrayal of Maggio, an Italian soldier who suffers numerous beatings from a sadistic CO and can’t resist his own brand of insubordination. Sinatra rejuvenated his acting career with the role and proved himself a serious acting talent to reckon with.


5. The Longest Day (1962)

Long before Steven Spielberg created his harrowing D-Day sequence in the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Longest Day told the story of the invasion of Normandy during World War II. It tells the story of D-Day from five different invasion points and features dozens of characters, including several German ones. The film is a smorgasbord of stars, featuring appearances from Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, Paul Anka, and more. Though it wasn’t particularly well-received at the time, it was one of the first American studio feature films about the war in which characters spoke their dialogue in their native tongues. The U.S., Britain, and France were so dedicated to the film’s efforts that they supplied 23,000 troops for filming.

Reports suggest some didn’t have the mettle of their forefathers -- Robert Mitchum was disgusted when extras refused to jump into the water while filming the Omaha Beach scene because they were worried it would be cold.


4. No Time for Sergeants (1958)

No Time for Sergeants  tells the story of a bumbling country bumpkin drafted into the Air Force. This film made Andy Griffith a star and marked his first collaboration with Don Knotts. War movies that are also comedies are rare, but this made use of Griffith’s “aw shucks” demeanor that would propel him to success on The Andy Griffith Show. Based on a Tony-award winning play of the same name, it also spawned a television series and a comic book. As Will Stockdale, Griffith displayed his deft comedic timing as well as his gift for physical comedy. This movie provides a light-hearted entry on the list in a genre usually sobering and emotional.


3. Patton (1970)

George C. Scott won an Oscar for his portrayal of the controversial general Patton during the World War II phase of his career. Scott refused to accept his Oscar due to his reluctance to compete with fellow actors. It doesn’t get much more iconic than this film’s opening speech in front of an enormous American flag. The monologue is full of patriotic calls to action and features an amalgamation of many of General Patton’s real quotes. The film was sometimes criticized for not showing General Patton’s more prickly and foul-mouthed nature, but it was necessary to avoid an “R” rating. Patton has become an iconic war film and symbol of patriotism on screen, earning spots on the AFI Top 100 list and the AFI Heroes and Villains List.


2. Sergeant York (1941)

A rare film about World War I (the second World War gets far more play on movie screens), Sergeant York tells the story of one of America’s greatest real war heroes. Alvin York was an unlikely war hero, entering the conflict as a committed pacifist. Hollywood had tried to make a film about him for many years, but he refused until the onset of World War II allowed producers to convince him it was his patriotic duty. York agreed on the condition that Gary Cooper be hired to portray him. The film reportedly had the desired effect with young men rushing out of the theater to sign up to fight for their country. The timing of the release of Sergeant York certainly didn’t hurt; it was released very close to Pearl Harbor when patriotism was running high.


1.  The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

  Harold Russell and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives

Harold Russell and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives

  Best Picture and Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award recipient Samuel Goldwyn, Supporting Actor and Special Award recipient Harold Russell and Best Directing winner William Wyler

Best Picture and Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award recipient Samuel Goldwyn, Supporting Actor and Special Award recipient Harold Russell and Best Directing winner William Wyler

So often Memorial Day marathons are laden with films that depict moments of heroism on the battlefield. That’s all well and good, but what we are really memorializing is the cost and sacrifice of our servicemen -- the scars visible and invisible they suffered to keep us safe. The Best Years of Our Lives was staggeringly ahead of its time in tackling issues of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), isolation, and disaffection in the lives of servicemen returning from World War II. It addresses visible injuries with Harold Russell’s Homer Parrish wondering if his girlfriend stays with him out of love or pity due to the loss of his hands. The film also unflinchingly examines less evident damage with its investigation of soldiers’ challenges returning to civilian life (e.g. holding down a job, maintaining a marriage). Russell was not a trained actor, but a real wounded serviceman who actually suffered from his onscreen disability.

Director William Wyler discovered Russell and rewrote the script to fit his injuries. Harold Russell went on to win two Academy Awards for the same role -- Best Supporting Actor and a special award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.”

Salute our troops with a classic this Memorial Day!


Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.