The Best Military Movies for Veterans Day
With America’s lengthy involvement in armed combat over the past century, it’s no surprise that there is a bountiful supply of war films, ranging from small-scale character dramas to epic recreations. To honor those that have served, I’ve compiled a list of war films that I recommend you check out. All of them pertain to war from an American point-of-view (so don’t expect Come and See or 1917), with each doing it in their special way. They’ll be listed in chronological order according to their release date.
The Longest Day (1962)
The Longest Day is an interesting piece of military and cinematic history. We have plenty of movies about the American perspective of landing on Omaha Beach, but we don't have any that tell the entire macroeconomic story relating to that fateful day. Through a style that has long been abandoned, three different directors each tell a side of the story: American/British, French, and German. We get unique perspectives because of this tactic, with an all-star cast of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Robert Mitchum providing larger-than-life performances.
Patton is a film caught between two time periods of both Hollywood and real-life history. In 1970, the golden age of Hollywood was coming to an end as studios were moving away from lavishly epic productions and leaning more into auteur-driven stories that reflected the harsh realities of life. That year also was the height of the unpopularity over the war in Vietnam. Protests occurred regularly, and patriotism was no longer seen as a virtue.
The brilliance of Patton is that it can appeal to everyone. Francis Ford Coppola's script sees Patton for who he was, warts and all. He was a genius on the battlefield, achieving victory with historical speed and precision. The Germans feared and respected him. He was also a tyrannical brute. He berated soldiers both verbally and physically (an act that nearly cost him his career), and pushed his men to the absolute limit. He got the nickname "Old Blood and Guts" for his bloodthirsty campaigns that, while successful, were incredibly dangerous.
George C. Scott's performance is one of the finest biographical portrayals ever. Because the film has no side plots or heft supporting characters, Scott's electrifying performance is what drives the three-hour runtime.
But Scott isn't alone as director Franklin Schaffner assists him with well-composed battle sequences and startling imagery. The film is epic in scope like in the past, but it is also intimate in detail and character. It's a balancing act that entertains the viewer with production and theatricality but also educates them about one of the most complicated men in American history.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Centering on the loss of innocence and the façade of the American dream for the Vietnam-era youth, Oliver Stone returns to his Platoon roots. There's even some of the original crew returning here, like Willem Dafoe in a small role that doesn't occur until almost 2/3 through the movie.
Stone crafts several ingenious individual scenes with his might behind the camera. The prom, the Vietnam battle scene, the protest at Syracuse, and Tom Cruise playing the loudest game of chicken by exclaiming the word "penis" are some of the great moments. John Williams' score supplements the sweeping nature of the story.
Cruise makes you forget about those problems from time to time as he effortlessly runs the gamut of Kovac's life from wide-eyed patriot to battle-weary realist. His performance is a reminder that he is a real actor, even if we tend to disagree with that sometimes.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The firm ideals of bravery and good ol' American patriotism are not traditionally found within Saving Private Ryan. Instead, Steven Spielberg, along with screenwriter Robert Rodat, offers something not usually found within a war film: humanity. While still an action film at its heart, the mind of the film is centered on philosophy, as opposed to pure entertainment. The titular mission of extracting Pvt. James Ryan isn't an honorable one. It doesn't take a genius to see the flawed math of risking the lives of eight men to save one. Spielberg and Rodat don't dance around that thought, and also find time to analyze the themes of doing your duty and the futility of war.
None of this is to say that the men in this movie aren't brave. It takes a lot of guts and courage to do what they did, which is why we have a day to honor them. But they don't carry out their mission out of their love for the stars & stripes. They do it because they have to. It's an order, and orders must be followed.
There's a character named Upham in the film. He's the squad translator and doesn't have the same fighting spirit as the rest of his fellow compatriots. There are times when you get mad at him for not being tough or getting the job done flawlessly. But I would bet many of us would be more like him than John Wayne when the time comes.
Within the film, there are no individual heroes, only real men fighting to keep themselves alive for just another moment. The opening set piece is one of the greatest ever produced, with chaotic camerawork, editing, and sound design. It's no wonder no film has attempted to portray D-day since, as Spielberg has set the bar at an unassailable height.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
While released in the same year and covering the same war, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan could not be any more different. Marking his return to filmmaking after a 20-year absence, Malick imbues the film with his usual philosophical ruminations on life and the futility of violence. “What difference do you think you can make, one single man, in all this madness?” is a line that is often repeated, sometimes with brutality and sometimes with lyrical beauty.
Of course, Malick still excels at giving action fans what they came for. With one of the most stacked casts ever assembled - including, but not limited to, George Clooney, John Travolta, Adrien Brody, Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, and Nick Nolte - the action set pieces are awe-inspiring in their ability to convey the confusion and hopelessness within combat. Soldiers weep as they know they are taking their last glances at the living world, and others question the ethics of killing someone in the name of your country.
Some war films claim to have more on their mind than just action, but none pontificate and leave with as much to chew on as Terrence Malick does with The Thin Red Line.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Each great director has quite a few stinkers that blemish their track record. But each great director also has a few or many great movies that perfectly showcase why they are great. Case in point, Black Hawk Down is one of the finest works by Ridley Scott and his tactical style of direction.
In real-time, the Battle of Mogadishu rages on with bullets whizzing, men screaming, and the overall frenzy rattling everyone down to the bone. It's amazing how Scott and his team, which includes an amazing score by Hans Zimmer and genius editing by Pietro Scalia, were able to take this daunting puzzle and piece it together.
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscars for Best Director and Best Motion Picture for this Iraq War thriller. Screenwriter Mark Boal, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, based much of the story on his experiences being an embedded journalist on the front lines. Jeremy Renner stars as a bomb defuser who seems to have a death wish, much to the distress of his squad mates that just want to make it to the next day.
Bigelow’s full-throttle direction lends itself to some incredibly tense action set-pieces. It’s an exhausting experience enduring the 130-minute film, which, to Bigelow and her team’s credit, puts you right in the mental and physical shoes of the characters.
Shifting away from the battlefield and towards the home front, first-time director Lila Neugebauer sensitively delivers a personal story that avoids much of the PTSD/trauma clichés we’ve come to expect. Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry each deliver powerfully subtle performances, with their characters striking up an interesting connection that goes deeper than something purely platonic or romantic. For viewers that tend to steer away from violence, this new film on Apple TV+ will offer a semi-fresh take on the well-worn genre.