The Top War Movies to Watch on Memorial Day

Saving Private Ryan

With Memorial Day weekend upon us, patriots may want to spend a few hours remembering some of our greatest war films. Here we will talk briefly about over thirty war films. Some stir the patriot’s blood, others are amusing, many harrowing, still more are foreboding with a subtle anti-war message.

While everyone has their own favorites list — and yours may not be here — all presented here are a great watch.

Band of Brothers (2001)

Starring Damian Lewis as Major Dick Winters, the 2001 mini-series Band of Brothers is probably the most faithful film project about World War II and is a must-see for any war movie fan. At 12 hours in length, it is certainly a commitment to watch, but the viewer is well rewarded at the end, as it is an experience that will stick with one for the rest of one’s life. This is as close as you can come to experiencing the camaraderie, deprivation, terror, and hell of war without actually being in one.

Patton (1970)

Unapologetically patriotic and hardnosed, the George C. Scott vehicle Patton is a tour de force of stirring military action punched by an incredible soundtrack. The nearly three-hour film follows the life, war, and untimely death of WWII General George S. Patton that stands as one of the classic war films of all time.

The Longest Day (1962)

The Academy Award-winning The Longest Day can’t help but bring you to the edge of your seat. The film follows one of the toughest battles in U.S. history as Allied forces landed on the coast of France during the D-Day landings. It starred nearly every major Hollywood star of the day including John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Red Buttons, Peter Lawford, Eddie Albert, Jeffrey Hunter, Rod Steiger, George Segal, Robert Wagner, and many, many more. Filmed in black and white, the lack of color makes it all the more gritty and inspiring as the Allies push the Nazis back – beginning the push into Europe that would eventually topple Hitler’s regime.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Inspiring for its man-against-all-odds theme, Schindler’s List depicts the actions of a real-life hero, Businessman Oskar Schindler (portrayed by actor Liam Neeson), who risked his own life helping over a thousand Jews escape Nazi clutches in Krakow, Poland, in 1939. The film won seven Academy Awards and was a box office smash.

The Patriot (2000)

At the height of his popularity, Australian actor Mel Gibson sought to make an homage to America’s Minutemen of the Revolutionary War, and his 2000 film The Patriot became a smash hit as a result. The film is an epic historical fiction following the life of Gibson’s fictional character, whom the film follows through the war from the beginning. Gibson’s Benjamin Martin is seen from his early days as a reluctant participant, to growing resistance leader, to avenging angel as he takes up arms against the invading Redcoats.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Starring Tom Hanks as a school teacher-turned war leader, Saving Private Ryan focuses on a small team of American soldiers who are assigned the seemingly impossible task of tracking down a single solder to return him home after he became the sole survivor of a group of family members who went into World War II. This is another film that perfectly depicts the heroism, camaraderie, and horrors of war. Indeed it was said that the scenes depicting the D-Day landings at Normandy are so realistic many surviving veterans were shocked into flashbacks.

The Great Escape (1963)

Another film in the grand Hollywood tradition of featuring a star-studded ensemble cast, 1963’s The Great Escape gives viewers the wonderful tale of crafty POWs planning, well, a great escape from a Nazi Prisoner of War camp during WWII. The stirring film cast such stars as Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, and more. It is one of those films in which viewers feel a visceral loss when title characters are killed by the enemy, and it also features an epic motorcycle chase by McQueen’s character as he desperately tries to make it to Switzerland.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge Over the River Kwai is another one of those epic films about WWII. The film is so iconic that it was deemed,”culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress. Starring William Holden and Sir Alec Guinness, the film portrays the hell Allied soldiers in the Pacific suffered after being captured by the Japanese Army during the War in the Pacific. This is widely considered one of the great anti-war movies.

Tora, Tora, Tora (1970)

Speaking of the War in the Pacific, 1970’s Tora, Tora, Tora may not be the most historically accurate film ever made, but it is a gripping tale. It features the war from both the Japanese and American perspectives and is one of the early films treating both sides with respect and honor. Starring Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore. Jason Robards, Takahiro Tamura, and Sō Yamamura, the film dramatizes the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent battles at sea between the two military giants. The film ends with the foreboding quote by Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” It is a tremendous quote if, sadly, fictitious.

American Sniper (2014)

The Bradley Cooper starrer American Sniper is both a powerful, patriotic depiction of an American hero and a warning against war. It won one Academy Award and became one of America’s highest-earning war films of all time. The film features Cooper’s Chris Kyle, a real-life U.S. Navy SEALs sniper who racked up an impressive count during the war in Iraq. It follows Kyle through his service and right up until a veteran with PTSD murdered him once they all made it back home to Texas. The ending may shock those who don’t know the real-life tale of Chris Kyle’s life.

Sergeant York (1941)

If you want a good old-fashioned, flag-waving war film, you can’t go wrong with 1941’s epic Sergeant York. Made before so many war films were morose and gory — and before everything was in color, even — the movie follows World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York (portrayed by Golden Age film star Gary Cooper). York was a real-life war hero and was a backwoods Tennessean who came from the hollows and hills of Appalachia to fight the Hun on the battle-scarred fields of Europe. This film is great for its 1930s-era story telling and was given a slew of top Academy Awards as the biggest grossing film of its day.

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Mel Gibson comes through again in We Were Soldiers with a gritty depiction of Battle of Ia Drang, the first major battle of the American phase of the Vietnam War. As Colonel Hal Moore, Gibson leads a small force of 400 American soldiers into battle to beat back a major communist Vietnamese offensive in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. While historically both side proclaimed victory, the films shows how the small U.S. force waded into and essentially beat back an enemy force many times larger. The film contains some of the most realistic — and harrowing — battle scenes ever filmed.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

This is another of Clint Eastwood’s worthy efforts to show the horror, yet nobility of war, as the film follows the hard slog that was the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima against Japan’s dug-in Imperial Army. Featuring a young cast including Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, Paul Walker, and others, this film is also notable for showing the ravages of war on our fighters, many of whom see recurring issues after their service. This is another that can be rightly seen as an anti-war movie, even as it gives us strong, heroic characters.

Glory (1989)

Starring Matthew Broderick as a reluctant Colonel of negro troops during the Civil War, this 1989 film is a joy to watch. Even with its grim betrayal of the racial animus blacks faced during the era (that chore in the film falling to a taciturn yet combative performance by Denzel Washington), the movie also thrills to the way the white officers and their black charges bonded during the War of Rebellion. The character work is stellar and makes it all the harder when the film’s conclusion shows viewers just how many of our heroes ended up. This one is a tear jerker in many ways.

Gettysburg (1993)

Starring Tom Berenger as Confederate General James Longstreet and Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, this film is one that probably couldn’t even be made in today’s foolish drive to eliminate any reference to Confederate history — in fact, it barely got made in 1993. If you want a good old-fashioned, exhilarating war tale, you can’t beat Gettysburg. There are very few movies based on the Civil War that are worth bothering with, but this one is worth the effort.

Rough Riders (1997)

While its three-hour running time may seem a slog, thisTV mini-series following future President Theodore Roosevelt (Tom Berenger) as he prepares for his famed stint in the Spanish American War has some of the best pre-World War battle scenes ever put on film. While it might be easy to dismiss Berenger’s frenetic (almost cartoonish) portrayal of Roosevelt, the affectation does eventually drive you to understand just what a force of nature Teddy Roosevelt was in real life. This is one of those films in which you can’t help but love every character. It is a must-see film about a war few Americans know much about. The film also stars the indomitable Sam Elliot, who makes every film better for his presence.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

With yet another war film given to us all by the amazing Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge runs against the gun-toting heroes of most war films and gives us the incredible, real-life story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, an American pacifist who joined WWII anyway as a medic. Through his valiant efforts to save lives during the brutal Battle of Okinawa, Doss stayed behind to help fallen soldiers as Japanese troops scoured a shell-torn battlefield killing all survivors. This film is by turns thrilling, sorrowful, and ominous and brings the whole panoply of emotions that befalls those who experience and survive a war.

Downfall (2004)

The Academy Award-winning Downfall is an amazing piece of work depicting the end of Adolf Hitler’s life and the last days of his Third Reich empire. It shows Hitler slowly descending into madness as his German armies are mopped up one after another by the Allied Forces that are encircling and closing in on Berlin, his capital city. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gives a dynamic and provocative performance as Hitler’s fate is literally sealed in a morose bunker in which The Führer devolves into a drug-addled lunatic knocking at death’s door.

Das Boot (1981)

This German-produced film depicts the doomed crew of a German U-Boat during World War II. Though it is a fictional tale of U-96 and its crew, the film gives an excellent account of the thrill of battle, the tedium of the hunt, and the agonizing anxiety of submarine warfare. The film is notable for accurately depicting the claustrophobic atmosphere of a submarine of the era. Still, despite the accolades heaped upon Das Boot, the author of the book that served as the film’s inspiration was a bit upset that his anti-war message was dumped in favor of making a “cheap, shallow American action flick.” You can’t please everyone.

Casablanca (1942)

One of the most famous war movies of all time, Humphrey Bogart stars as roguish expatriate Rick Blaine whose old love, the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), comes to his town looking for a way to escape the growing Nazi tendrils in a pre-war Morocco. Not exactly a “war movie” per se, Casablanca nicely portrays the dread that spread across Europe when the Nazis took over. Of course, war film or not, Casablanca is widely considered one of the best, most romantic films of all time.

Cross of Iron (1977)

One of director Sam Peckinpah’s last successful extravaganzas, Cross of Iron is nothing of not an anti-war film. But it is renowned for its stunning battle sequences and offered star James Coburn the opportunity to turn in one of the best performances of his long career. Set on the Eastern Front in World War II during the Soviets’ Caucasus operations against the Germans, the film was reportedly one of Orson Welles’ favorites alongside the next film on our list. As reviewer Ian Johnston once put it, the film “bears all the hallmarks of a real classic,” and “As a poignant reminder of the sheer brutal obscenity of war, it has rarely been equaled.”

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Considered one of the most realistic and harrowing films depicting warfare during World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front follows the experiences of a group of carefree school boys whose lives are darkened and damaged by the scourge of war. It is ranked one of the top movies of all time for the sorrowful tale of its main characters. The battle scenes are so frightening that many see it as the most anti-war war film of them all. The ending is most poignant, with one of its final scenes depicting a smiling solder reaching out toward the beauty of a butterfly only to expose his position and to be cut down by an enemy sniper.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Perhaps no list is complete without director Stanley Kubrick’s work, and this list gives the 1987 flick Full Metal Jacket high marks for its compelling character work. Sure, it is another anti-war pic, but it gives us such indelibly intense characters as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and doomed Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio). Even though it is supposed to be the story of Private Joker’s experiences (played by Matthew Modine) during the Vietnam War, it’s hard to forget Sgt. Hartman and Private Pyle, even though they are left behind halfway through the film. The movie is another grim take on the futility and inhumanity of war.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

This Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood vehicle is a great action/spy flick about a daring rescue during World War II, as the heroes work to free an American general taken prisoner by the Germans. While star Eastwood wasn’t too thrilled with the script and thought it was too hyper with all the stunts and action sequences, the film is a fun ride for viewers, who rewarded the movie as one of the hits of the year and an early example of a blockbuster actioner.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

This Academy Award-winning film was a massive hit for stars Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, and Frank Sinatra as it followed the cast through the days leading up to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, that “day that will live in infamy.” This one, while a classic, is heavier on soap opera than war, but it is a worthy addition to the list.

Hunt for Red October (1990)

This Cold War espionage thriller starring Sean Connery as a wily Soviet submarine commander is a suspenseful gem. The head games played by the American and Soviet spies sets the stage for a possible eruption of World War III as an American sub and Connery’s Soviet boat hunt each other like silent, but deadly, carnivores. Indeed, author Tom Clancy was so tuned into the technology of the day, some members of the military raised eyebrows over his use of what they thought were classified weapons systems.

And just for fun here are a few classic war comedies to lighten the mood:

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Not to be confused with the actual World War II, this Donald Sutherland and Clint Eastwood vehicle is World War II if 1970s hippies had decided to take up arms in 1942. Even the theatrical poster tells you that it is going to be a wild romp, showing the main characters toting a flag made of a U.S. dollar and drawn by famed Mad Magazine satirical artist Jack Davis. The film follows a U.S. Army tank crew who go AWOL in order to rob a German bank and get rich.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

This Lee Marvin action film is both a dark comedy and a wild action film. The movie follows a rogues gallery of military prisoners-turned commandos as Lee Marvin is given the job of turning the unruly “dirty dozen” into a close-knit force on a mission. It’s all very improbable, but it strikes the right note, and perhaps despite yourself, you learn to care for the criminals sent on a suicide mission. In that 60s/70s Hollywood blockbuster tradition, it stars a long list of fan favorites including Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, George Kennedy, John Cassavetes and more. If you want a bang-up good time with lots of humor and action, you can’t miss the The Dirty Dozen.

Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Clint Eastwood does it again, this time as the gruff, tired, Gunny Sergeant Thomas Highway, who is nearing mandatory retirement in the Marines and is re-assigned to a commanding officer who is not pleased with his new drill sergeant. A Korean War Medal of Honor winner, Sgt. Highway is given the worst bunch of misfit recruits in the Corps and is forced to whip them into shape just as the troop is sent off to a real war situation on the Island of Grenada. Chock full of amusing bits, this movie will make you stand up and yell Oo-Rah as the goofoffs are melded into a well-trained fighting machine just in time to take on the enemy.

Operation Petticoat (1959)

Cary Grant stars as a harried Naval commander faced with the difficult task of getting a damaged U.S. submarine out of a Philippine shipyard before the area is overrun with Japanese forces. As Grant’s Lieutenant Commander Matt Sherman races to find supplies with the aide of conman Lieutenant Nick Holden (Tony Curtis), a group of Navy nurses fall into hand seeking a way out of the area ahead of the impending Japanese invasion. When it hit theaters, one review said the film “has no more weight than a sackful of feathers, but it has a lot of laughs.”

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

What could happen if the wrong leader had his finger on the button that could start nuclear Armageddon? Let Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens tell you. Obviously its an anti-war statement, but with such quirky characters as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) who keeps forgetting he is no longer working for the Nazis, the maniacal General Buck Turgidson (Scott) who wants to bomb everything, and the enthusiastic Major T. J. “King” Kong (Pickens), you just end up with one of the most memorable films of all time.

The General (1926)

One of stunt master Buster Keaton’s most memorable films, The General was based on a real incident, the true story of a locomotive chase between U.S. and Confederate forces during the Civil War. While the film was not well received when it debuted in 1926, it has since become acclaimed as a slapstick classic.

MASH (1970)

Another anti-war film starring Donald Sutherland, MASH (or as it appears on the poster M*A*S*H) is an irreverent black comedy set in a mobile field hospital during the Korean War. It follows the offbeat antics of surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould) who make a mockery of Army regulations while saving the lives of soldiers wounded in battle. This bawdy film also features a football game where the medics cheat by injecting the opposing team with tranquilizers on the field. The film was such a hit that a few years later it spawned one of TV’s longest-lived sitcoms. Starring Alan Alda and a big cast of costars, MASH the TV show lasted 11 seasons.

Stripes (1981)

If you want irreverent comedies, you can’t do better than the Bill Murray starrer, Stripes. The film follows two bored city boys who think that joining the peacetime Army of the 1980s is just the ticket to get them out of the ruts their lives have become. This romp features Murray as wisecracking cabbie John Winger and Harold Ramis as introverted, snarky New York college professor Russell Ziskey as they make the snap decision to join the army and broaden their horizons. It contains a ton of great one-liners such as the time the pair are asked by a recruiter if they are gay and Ramis replies, “We’re not gay, but we’re willing to learn.” Another hilarious bit entails the troop’s beleaguered drill sergeant Hulka (Warren Oates) telling an overzealous private to “Lighten up, Francis,” right after the private tells anyone that if they call him Francis, he’ll kill them. And the misfit platoon’s synchronized drill routine led by Murray’s character is a hoot.

Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

Not long after receiving critical praise for the 1982 flick The World According to Garp but with a few flops intervening, comedian Robin Williams came roaring back with 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam. The comedy/drama followed the antics of Vietnam War radio disc-jockey Adrian Cronauer in a story loosely based on the life of real life Vietnam War radio personality of the same name. Of course, the film carries another anti-war message. This dark comedy was a smash hit for Williams, who got to indulge his frenetic standup comedy persona. Most reviewers called Williams’ performance a tour de force. Indeed, it was such a feat that he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor that year, though he lost to Paul Newman for Color of Money.

This list gives you a ton of choices, certainly, but after you’ve attended your local Memorial Day celebration and as your friends and family stop by for some barbecuing, be sure to flip your TV on to some of these classics. They are all well worth your time.

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.

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