Memorial Day, previously known as Decoration Day, is widely thought to have begun after the Civil War as a means of remembering fallen soldiers. Over the years, the holiday has evolved, and is now widely considered the beginning of summer vacation. However, the holiday’s true meaning remains the remembrance and honoring of those who have died in the United States Armed Forces. In honor of those who have lost their lives protecting their country, here are a collection of films that offer tribute to these soldiers, and give an important glimpse into our past.
There are many movies that tackle the subject of World War II veterans returning to civilian life after the war, but few have managed to convey it quite like The Best Years of Our Lives. Released in 1946, just one year after the end of the war, the film was inspired by the director’s experience with real veterans, garnering the film an authenticity and respect. Harold Russell, who plays one of the film’s three main roles, was an actual veteran and had lost both of his hands in the war, and remains one of the only two non-professional actors to ever win an Academy Award for acting. You can watch the trailer here!
When British World War II POW’s are ordered to build a bridge by their Japanese captors, they must work to both follow orders to surrender and undermine the operation. After all, the bridge would be a great advantage to the opposing side. But as their attempts of sabotage and escape are continually thwarted, they begin to realize that the construction of the bridge is inevitable, and they must instead focus on destroying it once it is built. You can watch the trailer here!
This film focuses on one single day in world history: June 6, 1944, known to the world as D-Day. The epic scale of this production includes scenes from many of the important events that occurred on that day, from both the Axis and Allied forces. Filmed as a docu-drama, many scenes in this movie are direct re-enactments of actual events dictated by the film’s numerous veteran consultants (ranging from German generals to American generals to the leader of the Free French Forces). You can watch the trailer here!
Based on a real mass escape by POW’s in the Second World War, The Great Escape follows the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a Nazi-run prisoner of war camp in Germany (now Poland). The film is known for its enigmatic characters and spectacular motorcycle chase scene, widely considered one of the best stunts of all time. Though the original story was greatly modified for the screen adaptation, the film remains a classic, and is praised for the performance of its actors and crew. You can watch the trailer here!
When Major John Reisman is tasked with a mission to infiltrate a French chateau under Nazi control just before D-Day, he understands that it is doomed to fail. To avoid risking the lives of honest men, he recruits twelve military prisoners serving life sentences for a variety of crimes, promising them parole if they are able to survive the ordeal. This “dirty dozen” must undergo intense training if they are to succeed, and it is up to them to shift the balance of the war. You can watch the trailer here!
This film, which focuses more on the effects after war than during, is notable for taking place in a suburb of Pittsburgh. It also marks the first film to gain Meryl Streep an Academy Award nomination (she currently holds the record for most nominations, with twenty-one total), and took home five of the nine awards it was nominated for at the 51st Annual Academy Awards. The film follows three steel-workers as they deal with their post-traumatic stress from their time in the Vietnam War. You can watch the trailer here!
A movie with just as much behind the scenes drama as on-screen drama, Apocalypse Now is widely considered to be one of the best films of all time. Based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the movie takes place during the Vietnam War and follows Captain Willard as he is tasked with taking out the corrupt and insane Colonel Kurtz, whose troops have abandoned the war and worship him with cult-like fanaticism. As Willard travels by boat to Kurtz’s compound, he witnesses the horrors of war, and starts to question his own sanity as well. You can watch the trailer here!
Based on director Oliver Stone’s experience in the Vietnam War, Platoon is a semi-autobiographical film that follows a volunteer soldier as he fights for his country, while his two sergeants argue over the platoon’s leadership. Unlike other films about the Vietnam War, which had veteran consultants and crew members, Platoon is actually the first Hollywood film to be written and directed by a Vietnam War veteran. This fact is echoed in the film’s reception with Vietnam veterans, who widely praised the movie for its accurate portrayal of the war. You can watch the trailer here!
Full Metal Jacket follows a group of U.S. Marines as they undergo strict training by their relentless drill sergeant. Lee Ermey, who plays the ruthless Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, was an actual drill sergeant during the Vietnam era, and was originally only hired as a technical advisor to the film. However, once seeing the actor improvise his dialogue to recruits, Stanley Kubrick immediately gave him the role. In the end, Ermey wrote most of his own dialogue, allowing for a nuanced, precise view of U.S. Marine life in the Vietnam era. You can watch the trailer here!
One of the movies that helped put Robin Williams on the map, Good Morning, Vietnam is a nice, comedic palate cleanser when compared to many of the darker, more dramatic films on this list. Based on a real life DJ from the Vietnam War, the film follows Williams as Adrian Cronauer, a radio host for the Armed Forces Radio Service in Saigon. Though frustrating his superiors, Cornauer’s comedy and energetic demeanor gain him huge favor with the troops, boosting morale in the war-torn landscape. You can watch the trailer here!
A war epic that is massive in scale, Saving Private Ryan has won countless awards and has gone down as one of the best war films of all time. The entire movie takes place during the invasion of Normandy in World War II, and is noted for its graphic depiction of war (note: this movie is certainly not for the faint of heart). It follows a squad of military personnel as they journey to save the last surviving brother of four American servicemen. You can watch the trailer here!
In 1993, the U.S.-led United Task Force attempted to capture Somali faction leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid, entering into the most intense close combat situation the country had seen since the Vietnam War. This film, based on a non-fiction book of the same name, details the efforts of this task force, which eventually was forced to retreat from Somalia. Starring an impressive ensemble cast, Black Hawk Down won several awards, and remains an important entry into the long list of great war films (despite, as stated before, not portraying an actual war). You can watch the trailer here!
Though technically a mini-series and not a movie, it would be impossible to make a list of notable war media and exclude Band of Brothers. The series follows a company, nicknamed “Easy Company,” in the United States Army in World War II. The series is based on a non-fiction book of the same name, and thus features characters and actions based entirely on real events and people. Most notably, the series is praised for focusing more on the soldiers themselves than on the actual war, and its tribute to fallen servicemen perfectly demonstrates the spirit of Memorial Day. You can watch the trailer here!
The first film on this list to tackle the war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker follows a United States Army bomb squad in Baghdad and its effect on the soldiers involved. The film deals with explosives and carries an R-rating, meaning that there are quite a bit of difficult, graphic scenes included, so watch with caution. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and remains a startling look into the horrors that happened during the American occupation of Iraq. You can watch the trailer here!
First a book, then a play, and, finally, a movie, War Horse tells the touching story of the relationship between a young man and his beloved horse during World War I. The first World War was notable for its combination of both modern and antiquated weaponry; though horses were still used for the war, inventions like the machine gun and tank were also deployed. The film follows young Albert and his horse, Joey, who are separated by the war, and the long path they take to get back to each other. You can watch the trailer here!
Taking place during the war in Afghanistan, Lone Survivor is based on the real experiences of former United States Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell as he and his special operations team attemp to locate Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Luttrell was the only member of the team to survive the operation (this isn’t necessarily a spoiler; after all, the name of the movie is Lone Survivor), and wrote a book about his experience. While the movie, and Luttrell’s story, shows the harsh reality of war, it also demonstrates the hospitality of the Pashtun people, who sheltered and hid an injured Luttrell until he was able to be rescued. You can watch the trailer here!
Though there are many films about World War II on this list, this is the only one to concern itself entirely with the tank crews of the United States military. During the war, the tank crews experienced extremely high casualty rates, and director David Ayer was inspired by veterans to create a film about this experience. The movie follows the crew of a tank nicknamed “Fury” during the final days of the Second World War, and features Brad Pitt in a starring role. You can watch the trailer here!
This film tells the true story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a former Olympian in the United States Army Air Corps in World War II taken as a prisoner of war in Japan. After surviving for weeks on a raft following an airplane crash, Zamperini and several other officers were imprisoned in Japanese POW camps, where they suffered a great deal of abuse. After his rescue, Zamperini recovered and lived a fulfilling life, even carrying the torch at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. You can watch the trailer here!
When Desmond Doss joined the Army in 1942, he never planned to handle or fire a gun. Instead, he considered himself a conscientious objector, a term given to those who refuse military service on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. Doss, an aspiring doctor, instead became a medic, much to the chagrin of both his superiors and peers. However, during the Battle of Okinawa, he managed to save the lives of 75 fellow soldiers, and became the only conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor in World War II. You can watch the trailer here!
Christopher Nolan’s epic war drama Dunkirk portrays the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II in France. Though it features quite a few major celebrities, the film itself has very little dialogue, as Nolan wanted to build the movie’s suspense using the music and visuals. The evacuation is shown from three separate perspectives: land, sea, and air. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won three. The film, praised for its casting choices, used accurately young actors (instead of the Hollywood trend of 29-year-olds playing 19-year-olds) to demonstrate just how young the men being sent off to fight in World War II were. You can watch the trailer here!
When the world entered its first World War in 1914, video technology was not yet at a point where sound and color could be recorded. All film from the war is thus grainy, badly rendered, and silent. That is, until now. Peter Jackson, legendary director behind the Lord of the Rings series, and his crew have carefully, delicately restored the footage, adding color and audio to provide us with our first ever true glimpse into the Great War. The soldiers who fought, referred to as the Lost Generation because of the high casualty rate, are remembered in stunning, haunting detail. As the title reminds us, most of these men would not survive the war, but thanks to Peter Jackson, they are no longer quite as lost. You can watch the trailer here!