First intended to honor Union soldiers during the Civil War, Memorial Day was expanded to include all fallen American soldiers from all wars. Here are some of our favorite movies that tell the stories featuring American servicemen.
Stalag 17 (1953) selected by El Bicho
Director Billy Wilder brought to the silver screen this Broadway play that tells the story of American POWs who think one of their comrades is a traitor working with the Germans. At the beginning of the film, American prisoners Manfredi and Johnson are killed by German soldiers waiting for them, which leads to questions about how the Germans knew when and where to find them.
The most likely suspect becomes Sefton (William Holden, in an Academy Award-winning performance), a loner who hustles and barters to make his life in the camp as comfortable as he possible. He wins cigarettes betting against the success of Manfredi and Johnson and is given access to a woman's barracks, leading to assumptions he is feeding the Germans information. After he takes a beating, Sefton endeavors to find the mole.
Under Wilder's guidance, Stalag 17 is an enjoyable mystery due to its smart script, which finds humor in a humorless situation, brought to life by a taleneted cast.
The Longest Day (1962) selected by El Bicho
Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was responsible for creating this epic film that tells the story of D-Day, when the Allies landed at the German-occupied beaches of Normandy during World War II. He wanted a different approach to the material from past Hollywood films, so it was shot in Europe, in black and white, and the French and German characters spoke in their native tongue, giving the film a more authentic, almost documentary feel to it, as history plays out before the audience.
Based on Cornelius Ryan's book, the mission was quite an endeavor on the land, on the sea, and in the air as the combined might of the U.S. and British militaries and the French Resistance caught German forces off guard. Once set in motion by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, it's a series of relentless fighting. The film offers numeroues plotlines populated with many famous faces, like Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Red Buttons, Peter Lawford, and John Wayne, in roles large and small, as it tells
Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) selected by Mule
"Bombed last night, and bombed the night before"... and not in a good way.
Directed by Richard Attenborough, Oh! What A Lovely War is one of those outside-the-box war movies that draw you in and hit you with the absurdity of its own premise as well as the way it handles the atrocities of the nature of war. It started as a radio play, evolved into a stage musical, and eventually wound up as a feature film. The cinematic adaption has a cast weighted down with heavy names like Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Vanessa Redgrave, to mention but a paltry few.
The story of WWI is told using parodies and pastiches of songs that were popular at the time, showing the "lost generation" with a deep irony that works well as potent anti-war propaganda. The action is loosely centered around the Smith family, an allegorical kind of Everyman. We do, however, start with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and go from there all the way through to the Armistice by way of the trenches.
Okay, so, making a music hall musical out of a world war is all kinds of crazy and that's one of the reasons why this works so well. There's something inherently ridiculous about doing a little song and dance about getting bombed that heightens the sense of un-reality and simultaneously underlines the stark realism of the subject matter. Attenborough has created a visually stunning and absurdly appealing movie that manages to convey all the gravitas of the horror while using music as mood shifters. There's humor in there, as well as satire and sarcasm and deep pathos. The juxtaposition is harrowing and the final scene with its seemingly endless mass of white crosses is heartbreakingly poignant and really brings home how many lives were actually lost. The futility of the whole endeavor of "the war to end war" only becomes more piecing when you have the eagle-eye perspective of knowing that WWI was only the beginning of a long and violent century in our contemporary history. All of this is wrapped up in catchy little tunes that you can hum along with.
A Midnight Clear (1992) selected by Trisha Haddad
William Wharton's poignant novel, A Midnight Clear, is a great read. But the movie of the same name is a must-see slice-of-life WWII story in a frosty holiday package, both heart-warming and heart-breaking in the span of a couple hours.
American GI Will Knot is the newly-appointed sergeant of Intelligence & Reconnaissance Platoon, a group of the guys who scored highest on the IQ tests ("He'd figured if he filled the squad with intelligent soldiers he'd get better Intelligence." Knott is reluctant in his new role to either lead or sew on his stripes, as the recent rounds of promotions weren't "for anything we did. Except stay alive... We gained a few miles of European real estate and lost the beginnings to untold generations of very bright people." I&R Platoon are stationed at a chateau around the holidays to do recon and find out if there are any Germans nearby. What they find requires them to reevaluate their assumptions, and I&R are wary but hopeful. The story is harkens back to the touching true stories of Christmas truces in 1914 during WWI, while walking the line to successfully avoid voyeuristic graphic violence or conversely smoothing over the horrors of war.
The acting is what makes the film though. Particularly brilliant are Gary Sinese as the barely-sane "Mother" Wilkins, Frank Whaley as a sad-eyed failed priest "Father" Mundy, and Ethan Hawke as Will Knot. The rest of the cast shine as well, and while this isn't a feel-good movie, it is well worth the watch.
Renaissance Man (1994) selected by Mary K. Williams
Whoever said "War is Hell" was being kind. Countless stories abound of the real tragedies and horrors of battle. Yet, year after year, young men and women enlist in the military. Even with no draft or conscription device here in the U.S., they still sign up.
Why? Because they believe in the cause. They have to have some strong motivation, because, as we've established, War is Hell.
So, we've got these fresh young things ready to fight for their country, they are motivated by something strong, but what next? What gets them through it all? Except for their equally motivated Drill Instructors, these grunts only have each other.
And that notion of a tight team, a Band of Brothers (and sisters) is what fuels 1994's Renaissance Man, directed by Penny Marshall.
It's a typical story, Bill Rago (Danny DeVito), a jaded unemployed ad-exec, finds a temporary job teaching Army recruits at Ft. McClane. His students are the hard-luck cases that are barely making it through training. Eventually he gets through to them, using the works of Shakespeare, and not only do they begin to bond with Rago, they bond with each other. The flick actually has some nice moments, and a few forgettable ones. However, the best scene of the movie - and the one that depicts the trainees' deeper understanding of brotherhood - stands out.
The tough Sergeant Cass (Gregory Hines) is betting on Rago's kids to fail. Epically. He always rides them hard, as these things do go in Hollywood. At one point, DI Cass has called a night maneuver in the pouring rain. He starts to ask the recruits to recite Shakespeare. He does not get a very promising response. Finally he asks Private Benitez, and with heavy Bronx accent, Benitez (Lilo Brancato, Jr) lets rip one of the best pre-battle oratories - the St. Crispin's Day Speech from Henry V. Starting hesitantly, he gradually finds his groove and his performance rivals those of Sirs Branagh and Olivier, maybe not in elocution, but certainly in heart:
"...But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day."
Saving Private Ryan (1998) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) selected by Mark Buckingham
There are a few traits that make movies stand out for me. Among those are unpredictability and endings that feel more honest than "Hollywood." There are not a lot of fans of I Am Legend out there, but those who've read about or seen the alternate ending seem to rally around the fact that it makes a lot more sense and made it a better movie, half-witted mouth-breathing test audiences be damned.
War is rarely a pleasant subject, yet some try for the glitz and happy endings popcorn feasters are so fond of. Those that went for the gut with dark surprise twists and tragic endings instead top my list -- Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far. Despite focusing on different missions and theatres, the brutality remains the same, and no punches are pulled. And if you somehow haven't managed to see these, there will inevitably be spoilers below. Go watch them.
Private Ryan is just as green as you'd expect him to be when he's finally located by Capt. Miller's team, a group of war-weary veterans and a spineless translator who've suffered repeatedly for the greater good, and now must sacrifice even more for an oft-perceived much less significant cause -- returning one man, the last of four brothers, to his family safe and sound. No single actor steals the show here, despite enlisting the likes of Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, and Dennis Farina -- everyone shines, if only for a moment. I can't stand some of these guys in many of their other movies, but here, you ache for every one of them as the wounded fall and the emotional trauma mounts. War is dirty, ugly, merciless, and unpredictable. It takes guts, discipline, and ingenuity. The focused efforts of a few can topple the strength of many. Saving Private Ryan captures so many of these traits with its dynamic, enduring characters and how they cope with the loss of comrades and civility along the way.
A Bridge Too Far continues (despite coming out decades earlier...just go with it) the tradition of throwing big-name actors (Sean Connery, Ryan O'Neal, Gene Hackman, Edward Fox, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, James Caan, Maximilian Schell, Elliott Gould, Denholm Elliott, Laurence Olivier, Robert Redford, John Ratzenberger) into a the war-effort blender, many of whom don't come home. Operation Market-Garden was a real mission; its aim was to capture four key bridges to secure a route to Germany -- and presumably victory in WWII. Due to a number of factors conspiring against them -- missed landing zones, unanticipated enemy encounters/occupations, interrupted supply routes, etc. -- the overall mission is a failure, stranding these iconic stars of the silver screen behind enemy lines, either to be killed or captured. The whole thing can be depressing to watch despite moments of creativity and improvisation on the part of the soldiers, but again, war is not a happy affair. In the closing line of the movie, the commanding officer who cooked up the entire plan dismisses the sacrifices of hundreds of his men by simply saying he'd always thought they had over-extended themselves by going "a bridge too far." It's a kick in the stomach, but is the best way to sum up how dismissive the top brass can be when they don't have to do the actual fighting.