Calling Memorial Day a “federal holiday” is a bit of a sacrilege. More than a day for big sales or a stretch at the beach, this is a time for remembrance. Our freedoms are secured and preserved by those that serve. This is our day to honor their sacrifice—and our loss. Over the years, Hollywood hasn’t been half-bad at recounting the nobility and the pain of war’s cost. These movies are particularly moving—unforgettable films where the sense of loss on the silver screen is just sometimes overwhelming.
#7 The Fighting Sullivans (1944)
They were five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa. They all served on the cruiser USS Juneau. They all died on November 13, 1942, when the ship went down. Their true story was lovingly told in this wartime drama. The film is often cited as an inspiration for the 1998 blockbuster hit Saving Private Ryan.
#6 Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
John Wayne dies. Really? John Wayne never (well, almost never) dies. Arguing he was too old when World War II broke out to make much of a contribution as a soldier, Hollywood’s biggest wartime star played patriotic heroes in a number of films. In this movie, Sergeant Stryker (John Wayne) bravely leads men through some of the toughest fighting of the Pacific War. On Iwo Jima, after taking over 26,000 casualties the Marines snagged the summit of Mount Suribachi. In the film, the battle won, Stryker’s platoon takes the spot right at the foot of the iconic raising of the American flag. One of Stryker’s squad mates is distracted reading a letter from home. Sacrificing himself, Stryker throws his body across a grenade tossed at their feet. The audience just gasps. Did that really just happen?
#5 Mister Roberts (1955)
This was supposed be a comedy! In the waning days of World War II, in the back waters of the South Pacific, Lieutenant Junior Grade Douglas A. “Doug” Roberts (Henry Fonda) butts heads with the ship’s captain (James Cagney). Roberts wants to get into the real war. At the end of the film, he gets his wish. And, you guessed it, the lovable, admirable, heroic, courageous Mister Roberts dies fighting for his country. Curtain.
#4 The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
They called it the “death railway.” During World War II, Allied prisoners of war were used as forced labor to construct a rail line from Thailand to Burma. This fictional account of the construction of the River Kwai bridge combines the confusing nobility, futility and tragedy of war in one haunting film with both the movie’s two big box-office stars, William Holden and Alec Guinness, shockingly going down for the count in the last scene.
#3 A Bridge Too Far (1977)
They called it Operation Market Garden. It was a bold plan to jump the Rhine River and put the allies in the heart of Germany. It was also absolutely the most impractical campaign of the Second World War. The Allies had about 17,000 of their troops killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. In the film, an all-star cast, from Robert Redford to Sean Connery, delivers a play-by-play replay of the disaster. This is an object lesson in military hubris–what happens when an army tries to go one bridge too far.
#2 Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)
His name was David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus. He was colonel, U.S. Army. Mickey Marcus is best remembered not for his distinguished military career that spanned graduating from West Point to parachuting into Normandy, but for being the father of the Israeli army that battled for independence. A few hours before the final cease fire, he was killed by friendly fire. His courageous life and tragic death are portrayed in the film by Kirk Douglas.