What kind of war movies best capture the day set aside in remembrance of the honored dead?
Memorial Day remembers those who have died while serving in the armed forces of the United States—in war or peace. As long as our nation produces these men and women willing to “bear any burden, pay any price,” our nation earns the liberty it enjoys. That is the eternal meaning of this day. When we walk out of a theater profoundly moved by the sacrifice of our soldiers on the screen—those are movies that evoke the sentiment of the day the most.
I have done lists before of the top war films that make you cry, but this is a “Memorial Day” list, so let’s single out those history-based military movies that exclusively highlight the loss of Americans in harm’s way.
6. The Alamo (1960)
Alright, I acknowledged this one is a bit of a cheat. The two-hundred or so lost souls fighting for an independent Texas didn’t wear a uniform from Uncle Sam. For almost two weeks they held the enemy at bay before they were cut down to the man. In the film, it is hard not shed a tear after John Wayne, et al. fight to the last. If that doesn’t tear you up enough, there is also the classic Disney bio-pic (1955) with Davy Crockett meeting his end at the Alamo or the 2004 remake.
5. Gettysburg (1993)
Adapted from the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, this magisterial film has a enough history for a deep lesson on one of the climatic battles of the Civil War. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” President Lincoln declared in his Gettysburg Address, “but it can never forget what they did here.” Lincoln was wrong on the first point, but spot on with the second. This was a fight for the ages. The terrible losses on both sides are well depicted in the movie, including the death of Major General John F. Reynolds, “the highest ranking officer killed at the Battle of Gettysburg and one of the most senior officers to die in the Civil War.”
4. The Purple Heart (1944)
After the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, Americans were thrilled when the Army Air Forces struck back with a bombing raid on Tokyo. The story was told in the film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). But the harrowing tale of a downed-bomber crew that is captured and executed after a show trial will choke up the toughest tough guy— there’s a particularly gripping speech at the end of the movie by the doomed American pilot.
3. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
For heart-stopping sadness, no World War II film tops the tearful end of Saving Private Ryan (1998). That was a fictional account of the Normandy invasion. A more historical take was the big-budget film The Longest Day (1962). For a bitter taste of the terrible waste of good soldiers, however, few World War II battles were more botched than the muddleheaded airborne assault called Market Garden. The allies suffered over 17,000 casualties. This film tells the tragic tale from beginning to end.
2. We Were Soldiers (2002)
In 1965, American airmobile forces charged into the Ia Drang Valley and one of the most violent and bloody battles of the Vietnam War. It is a toss-up which is more moving—the heartbreaking scenes on the screen of delivering the telegrams to next of kin or the haunting song at the end sung by the West Point Glee Club.
1. Fort Bliss (2014)
This is a riveting, underrated film about modern war and a young women struggling to be a good soldier and strong mom. In the course of the movie, one of her sergeants commits suicide, a problem that is all too common among American veterans. That’s a heart-breaking loss that is hard to stomach.
For those of you who are moved by the meaning of the day or these movies and want to give back, you can support TAPS. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors “offers compassionate care to all those grieving the death of a loved one serving in our armed forces.” It’s a great volunteer organization that helps many military families deal with the terrible tragedy of losing a loved one.