This year as we honor those who’ve served in combat, some of us might want to celebrate through cinema. To say that the movies are a poor substitute for actual wartime experience in trying to understand the sacrifices made by soldiers would be the understatement of the century; still there are some films that begin to offer some conception of what soldiers face in war; and the challenges they face when they return from battle. Fury, starring Brad Pitt, is the most recent. (See our review.) Here are others:
The Best Years of our Lives (1946)
Directed by the legendary William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur) starring Dana Andrews (Laura, The Ox-Bow Incident), Myrna Loy (The Thin Man), Fredric Marsh (Seven Days in May, Inherit the Wind) and Teresa Wright (Mrs. Miniver, The Pride of the Yankees) it tells the story of three World War II veterans who return home to small town America only to learn you really can’t go home again. (Photo above)
Good Morning Vietnam! (1987)
Directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, Wag the Dog) and starring the late, much mourned Robin Williams with the equally treasured Forrest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland, Ghost Dog), this true story of an irreverent DJ entertaining the armed services in Vietnam is both hysterically funny and gravely touching all at once.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece set during Vietnam, starring Matthew Modine (Memphis Belle, Married to the Mob), and Vincent D’Onofrio (Ed Wood, Law and Order: Criminal Intent), indictment of the dehumanizing effects of war from boot camp training to the blood soaked streets of Hue feels as visceral and relevant now as it did when it first appeared.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Directed by Vietnam Veteran Oliver Stone (who won an Oscar for it), this biopic traces the life of Ron Kovic (a very young Tom Cruise in his first Academy nominated performance) who enlisted in the Marines during the Vietnam War and after being paralyzed became a war protestor. This is actually the ‘middle chapter’ for Stone’s Vietnam trilogy that began with Platoon (1986-won Awards for Best Picture and Best Director) and ended with Heaven and Earth (1993).
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Widely considered to be one of the greatest movies of the 20th century and a masterpiece for both Steven Speilberg and lead man Tom Hanks, it follows a group of soldiers sent behind enemy lines to rescue a paratrooper (Matt Damon) whose brothers were all killed in action. The solder’s ambivalence about a mission that is essentially a PR stunt as well as the groundbreaking scene of the Normandy invasion made this an instant classic.
Starring Ryan Phillippe (Brandon King) and Channing Tatum (Steve Shriver) as two decorated officers who come home from Iraq. Steve is eager for another tour of duty but Brandon wants nothing more than to stay home only to find that thanks to the stop-loss program he has been arbitrarily sent back in a ‘back-door’ draft. Phillippe and Tatum are serviceable in their roles but the real stand-out is Joseph Gordon-Levitt (above) as the PTSD afflicted Tommy Burgess in a role that helped establish Gordon-Levitt as one of the finest young actors around.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
There’s a reason this one won six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Zero Dark Thirty). Telling the story of an Iraqi bomb squad played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty, this movie is so intense and so gritty you can almost feel the sand and dust in your mouth along with the main characters. Besides its unbelievable action and some of the most suspenseful sequences ever filmed, it also puts you inside the heads of the madness of a war where you literally never know who might be a civilian and who might be an insurgent. After watching this movie, it’s not surprising that the rates of mental distress among Iraq’s veterans is so high; rather that any of them retain a vestige of sanity at all. The scenes where Jeremy Renner’s adrenaline junkie tries to adjust to life back in the U.S. are especially striking.