“It is well that war is so terrible,” General Robert E. Lee lamented, “otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” On the other side of the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman stated more simply that “war is hell.” They knew fighting for a cause always meant good soldiers suffer; some make the ultimate sacrifice; and often innocents get tragically caught in the crossfire. War always comes at a terrible cost.
Here are ten war films to watch this Memorial Day that will make you weep.
#10. Gunga Din
A 1939 adventure film “inspired” by the Rudyard Kipling poem follows the exploits of three British army lieutenants — Cutter (Cary Grant), MacChesney (Victor McLaglen), Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) — on the Indian frontier. The movie is all dash and panache, except for the erstwhile native water carrier, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), whose only dream is to be a real soldier. In the end, it’s the regimental “beastie,” shot, bayonetted, but carrying on, who saves the day before he falls. Sob along at the end of the film when the colonel declares over the funeral pyre, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
It is 1942. The allies are poised to strike back with an invasion of North Africa. Meanwhile, on the silver screen, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) cross wits with Nazis in Vichy-controlled Morocco. More than just a romantic drama, Casablanca is the America war film. Rick’s journey from indifferent saloon-keeper to sacrificing patriot parallels the country’s transformation from isolationist nation to the arsenal of democracy. At the end of the film, Rick speaks for every GI heading off to fight for freedom:
I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
They cried all over America.
#8. Paths of Glory
The title of this 1957 film about trench warfare during World War I is wholly ironic. After a regiment fails to take an important objective, the commanding general wants every man shot for cowardice. Instead, he “compromises.” Three men must be chosen from the ranks, court-martialed, and executed. Even the film’s noble hero, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), can’t turn back the tide of injustice. Called “the most powerful anti-war film ever made,” the movie is really about corruption, not combat. The film’s sad lesson is that with all the inhumanity inherent in war, especially despicable are those who, for their own vainglory, who would make war even worse.
#7. A Bridge Too Far
After Vietnam, Americans didn’t love war movies anymore — at least not ones that portrayed soldiers as the good guys. In 1977, Hollywood tried a compromise — a film about the true story of heroic military men forced to execute a general’s idiotic plan — Operation Market Garden. During World War II, Field Marshal Montgomery intended to shorten the European campaign by capturing a series of bridges leading straight to Berlin with a “carpet” of airborne troops. Everything goes wrong. There is heartbreak at every turn. Not even an appearance by Robert Redford can save the day.
“Give ‘em hell, 54th!” The 54th Massachusetts Regiment was one of the first black Civil War units in the Union Army to see frontline combat. In this 1989 film, Matthew Broderick plays the abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the regiment. In the ranks are Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Cary Elwes, and Andre Braugher. Together they tell an inspiring story. Then they all die.
This 1993 film tells the story of three bloody days in 1863 that turned the tide of the Civil War. Each day’s fighting delivers its “lump in your throat” scenes, but its General George Pickett (Stephen Lang) that grabs the most pitiable moment. In the aftermath of the disastrous Pickett’s Charge, General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) urges the distraught general to look to his division. Pickett answers, “General Lee… I have no division.”
#4. Forrest Gump
Sandwiched in the middle of a quirky 1994 comedy is a moving tug-at-your-heart-strings war movie. Forrest (Tom Hanks) runs through a gauntlet of withering fire, explosions and burning jungle, only to see his best buddy die in his arms. It’s a devastating moment of moving cinema, but it still was nice to see Hollywood finally start treating Vietnam War veterans as something other than drug-crazed baby killers.
The opening scenes of this Academy Award-winning 1998 film depicting the D-Day invasion of Normandy are arguably some of the most realistic moments of a war movie ever made. The rest of the movie is just corny-Hollywood. Still, who can watch Tom Hanks tell Matt Damon with his dying breath “earn it” and not lose it?
In one of the best and one of the most overlooked Vietnam War movies, two buddies, played by Colin Farrell and Jim Paxton, share the trials of soldiering from the first days of boot camp to the last training exercise before deploying to Vietnam. Tigerland (2000) delivers plenty of angst about men facing the fear before war, but also has a nice cathartic finish.
In most war movies, the other side is usually a faceless foil, not so in this 2006 film about a Japanese soldier (Kazunari Ninomiya) who finds himself in the midst of one of the apocalyptic battles of World War II. It’s a touching and heartbreaking accounting of misery and courage on the “enemy’s” side of the battle.