They are veterans not victims. Every once in a while, Hollywood captures the nobility of the American veteran. Coming home may not always be easy, but those who have worn their country’s uniform have done much to nurture, shape, and enrich this nation. Here are 10 movies that tell their story.
1. The Searchers (1956)
This story of a complex and conflicted veteran “hero” fighting his personal demons and a savage frontier is widely regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made. It’s based on a novel by Alan Le May which draws from actual events that occurred in 1836. On film, the story is moved to after the Civil War. John Wayne plays one of the three million veterans who came home after the conflict. When his niece is abducted during an Indian raid, Wayne embarks on a violent 10-year search to find her. In the end, he rides off into the sunset, triumphing over both hatred and adversity.
2. The Razor’s Edge (1984)
Yes, Bill Murray can really act. In his most underappreciated role ever, he delivers a sympathetic and moving portrayal of a disillusioned World War I ambulance driver who wanders around Paris searching for the meaning of life—a stereotypical member of “The Lost Generation.” In this remake of a 1946 movie, Murray injects some dry wit into a downer plotline. And the ending is uplifting. When asked where his path to salvation is leading him, Murray says “home”—to America.
3. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Hollywood made many films about the greatest generation going off to war, but only a handful about them coming home. This one, about the fates of three servicemen returning to civilian life, won seven Oscars. Two of the Oscars went to Harold John Russell, who portrayed a disabled veteran. In real life, Russell had joined the Army after Pearl Harbor and lost both hands in a training accident. In the movie, he portrays a sailor struggling to live a normal life with two prosthetic hooks as hands. His heart-wrenching decision about whether to marry his high school sweetheart is an emotional tour-de-force. In real life, Russell did get married. In 1992, he sparked controversy by auctioning off one of his Oscars to help pay his wife’s medical bills. “My wife’s health is much more important than sentimental reasons,” he shot back. He added: “The movie will be here, even if Oscar isn’t.” An independent man to the end, Harold Russell died in 2002.
4. The Men (1950)
It was Brando’s first film, and it remains one of the most memorable movies he ever made. Marlon Brando plays a GI, crippled below the waist, recovering at a convalescent hospital. The actor did his best to turn it into a story about real “men.” To prepare for the role, he got himself admitted to the amputee ward at Birmingham Veterans Hospital in Van Nuys, California, where he went to treatment and therapy side-by-side with wounded warriors for weeks. This experience enabled method-actor Brando to deliver a performance that did justice to their difficult experience of coming home.
5. White Christmas (1954)
Maybe the best movie ever about the bond between the band of brothers. Former Army buddies Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye travel to Vermont, staging a Broadway play to save a failing ski lodge run by their former commanding officer. The plot is contrived mostly to provide opportunities for song and dance numbers. But the movie’s depiction of the veterans bonding together for “the old man” is truly moving.
6. The Karate Kid (1984)
An enigmatic handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) trains a bullied youngster for a karate tournament. Along the way, his student learns lessons in discipline, manhood and courage. One night the protege discovers a secret about his mentor’s past: Miyagi had served in the 443rd Infantry Regiment during World War II. But while his fighting won him the Medal of Honor, his wife had died in childbirth at Manzanar internment camp in California. The story’s fictional, but not too far-fetched. Twenty-one members of that all Japanese-American regiment earned the nation’s highest medal for bravery.
7. Walking Tall (1973)
In real life, Buford Pusser didn’t have much of a military career. He joined the Marine Corps after graduating high school, but was discharged in basic training after being diagnosed with asthma. In the film, Pusser comes home after a tour of service to find his small Tennessee town overrun with crime and corruption. But, once a Marine, always a Marine. The movie follows Pusser’s real-life campaign to single-handedly clean up the county. Joe Don Baker plays the legendary sheriff.
8. First Blood (1982)
The character of Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) was anything but the stereotype of the crazed Vietnam War veteran. But just like in David Morrell’s novel, he suffers abuse in a nation that just did not understand. After an encounter with a local sheriff, Rambo becomes the target of a massive manhunt pitting his special forces skills against his pursuers. The rest of the movie is a classic action film. In the book, Rambo dies. In Hollywood, Rambo comes back for what seems like innumerable and increasingly less satisfying sequels.
9. Gran Torino (2008)
A gruff and grizzled Korean War veteran (played by Clint Eastwood) bonds with neighborhood teens and winds up sacrificing his life to protect them from a violent street gang. All the issues of The Searchers as well as the process of redemption and salvation are explored in this gritty yet moving film.
10. Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Eastwood was on the other side of the camera directing this film, which follows three of the soldiers featured in the iconic photograph raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Whisked back to America to help sell war bonds, each struggles to adjust to the fame and recognition of being labeled a hero, as well as the grief and memories of the savage wars in the Pacific.
Every generation of Americans is the greatest generation. Each has served to safeguard our freedoms. The story of what happens when they come home is not always pretty or even well told, but all are American stories. When the tale is told well, it helps us appreciate their service and sacrifice all the more.