Fictionalizing war can be controversial; after all, lionizing participants in bloody conflict seems to go against the notion that violence is bad — that it should not be remembered romantically, but regretfully. And yet we remember wars, not just for their death tolls, but also for the bravery of those involved and those who worked to end them.
Memorial Day originated in 1868 as “Decoration Day,” an opportunity for Americans to mourn soldiers that perished in the Civil War. Today, the holiday celebrates the service of those enlisted in the U.S. military — past and present — honoring their commitment to the country and its ideals, and their sacrifices in its name. Depictions of war on the big screen tend to do the same, often remembering real-life heroes who gave all they had to protect their nation. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the best and most inspirational war movies for you to watch this Memorial Day.
The Dirty Dozen
This 1967 World War II classic grossed more than $45 million at the box office, earning equal parts praise and scorn from critics for its “preposterous” premise and graphic violence. In the film, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) is put in command of 12 military convicts, each with a harsh sentence to carry out, and tasked with infiltrating a French château to eliminate a number of high-ranking German officers. The plot follows this group — called, of course, the “Dirty Dozen” — as they train, plan the operation, and attempt to get along with one another. The film features a star-studded ensemble cast including Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and Donald Sutherland; in particular, John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas were lauded for their performances as the deranged Franko and Maggott.
The Longest Day
Based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 book of the same name, The Longest Day offers a stunningly thorough overview of the events of D-Day, when the Allied forces began their invasion at the German-occupied Normandy beachhead. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck employed three separate directors, each assigned to one of the military factions depicted in the film. The movie offers several different points of view relating to the attack, including those of German forces and French revolutionaries. Zanuck also hired several veterans of the event to provide insight to present a more accurate account; several of those veterans (across multiple factions) were cast in the film as well. The Longest Day features several huge movie stars in supporting roles, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Sean Connery.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Winner of seven Academy Awards in 1958, Bridge on the River Kwai became a seminal war story for Hollywood and a template for portraying heroism in the face of insurmountable odds. When British prisoners of war are forced by their Japanese captors into constructing a rail bridge over a nearby river, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and his men must decide whether to build the bridge or sabotage the operation at their peril? The film isn’t nearly as jingoistic as many WWII tales of the time, and commanding performances by Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, and William Holden drove the film to immense success. Despite its many historical inaccuracies, Bridge remains to this day one of the most important and unforgettable war movies of all time.
The most recent film on our list is also (perhaps unsurprisingly) one of the most exciting and visually impressive, thanks to director Mel Gibson’s skill behind the camera. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist and conscientious objector who nonetheless enlists in the military to serve during World War II. Despite refusing to touch a gun, Doss becomes a critical contributor, working as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa to save the lives of many American soldiers. Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t break much new ground — in fact, it falls victim to many of the same tropes that have always plagued war movies — but its battle scenes are frantic, kinetic affairs, with believable anguish and choreographed chaos. Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington turn in excellent performances in supporting roles as well.
This 1970 biopic follows the exploits of U.S. General George S. Patton after he was put in command of American troops in the Mediterranean and European theaters of World War II (yeah, there are a lot of WWII films here). George C. Scott earned the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Patton, and the film went on to win several more honors at the Oscars, including Best Picture. The screenplay, written by Francis Ford Coppola, expertly depicts Patton’s fiery demeanor and his love for war, as well as his dedication to his troops. The film masterfully blends truth with historical fiction, utilizing all of its 170 minutes to chronicle the officer’s experiences in the war, from North Africa to Bastogne.
Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning turn as Private Silas Tripp in Glory jump-started one of Hollywood’s most legendary careers. The film stars Matthew Broderick as Colonel Robert Shaw, who commands the first American unit of all black soldiers during the Civil War. The movie simultaneously inspires and horrifies, offering a starkly honest account of the way African-Americans were treated during the period. Despite mixed reviews of Broderick’s performance — some critics viewed his youthful nature as weakness, while others praised him for his sensitivity — Glory received universal acclaim for its ambitious scope and imagery, commitment to developing minor characters, and for supporting performances by Washington and Morgan Freeman.