Real heroes don’t wield lightsabers or drive cars through post-apocalyptic landscapes – they go off to war.
For those spending their Memorial Day reflecting on more than barbecues and beaches, here are the best war movies of all time:
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
Director Steven Spielberg’s landmark World War II epic may have been snubbed of a best picture Oscar, but the movie set the bar for the realistic depiction of battle on screen. Reports circulated of veterans openly weeping over the memories brought back by the opening Omaha Beach scene, for which Spielberg enlisted 1,000 extras.
“The Great Escape” (1963)
If part of the war experience is men caught in tight situations, no movie gets tighter than this ultimate POW adventure. The cast smuggles in a truckload of charisma, and director John Sturges turns a true story into a taut tapestry of ingenuity and drama. As the symbol of rebellion, you can’t get any better than Steve McQueen and that baseball mitt.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
You can’t boil any conflict down to one word, but “hallucinogenic” is the one director Francis Ford Coppola clearly had in mind for Vietnam. Trippy, troubling and epically tangled, it goes inside the mind of warfare like no other film before or since.
“Three Kings” (1999)
Set in the immediate aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, David O. Russell’s opus is equal parts war movie and political satire. The best drama may have happened off the screen, with reports of star George Clooney warring with his drill sergeant-like director.
Absurdity and insubordination are the orders of the day, as the Korean conflict spawns the most raucous war comedy ever. The show is genius, the hard-to-find source books (by Richard Hooker) are curiosities, but Robert Altman’s film is the “finest kind,” as Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye Pierce would say.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)
Coming home is part of the war experience, and no movie details its happiness and heartbreak like William Wyler’s multiple Oscar-winner. The film’s Americana, and American soul, is a subtle grace note to three stories that add to our understanding of what it was like to be Over There — and then back here.
“American Sniper” (2014)
The highest-grossing war movie of all time sees Bradley Cooper starring as real-life SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who notched the Navy record for most confirmed kills during four tours of duty. Surviving Iraq proves easier than navigating the homefront for the emotionally scarred war hero in director Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed drama.
“Sergeant York” (1941)
Director Howard Hawkes’ biopic about a real life country bumpkin who became an unlikely national hero during World War I proved to be ahead of its time. The real-life Alvin York reportedly only agreed to allow his story to be told on the big screen when Gary Cooper was cast to play him.
“The Dirty Dozen” (1967)
While not exactly boasting the cinematic verite of a “Saving Private Ryan,” who wouldn’t follow Lee Marvin into battle?
When Oliver Stone’s career-changer arrived, it was the first major Vietnam film to be fully informed by experience. It still feels like a heartbreaking and visceral eulogy for innocence, even when – or, perhaps, especially – when it becomes grandly operatic.