The federal holiday Memorial Day has roots going as far back as the late 1860s, when a group of Union Army veterans from the Civil War established it as a time to decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers, and reflect upon those who made the ultimate sacrifice to the cause of liberty during that costly conflict.
Today, Memorial Day is a holiday where we all recognize those soldiers who served in the armed forces of the United States, and who gave their lives in conflicts all across our history as a nation. A great many films have been made over the years that have taken place during some of our most costly and influential conflicts, and if one of the ways you choose to reflect on the meaning of the day is by taking one of them in, here are our recommendations for films based on some of the bigger conflicts across American history.
The Revolutionary War: The Patriot
It all started with the perception by the citizens of the 13 American colonies that the British Empire had imposed far too many taxes on the burgeoning communities of the North American continent. An act of rebellion in Boston eventually led to the British government imposing more restrictions on the colonies as well as the removal of self-government, which then eventually gave way to the colonists taking up arms against the throne to forcefully branch away from the purview of King George III, and to create a new nation.
Although most scholars don’t dispute that the 2000 film The Patriot is rife with historical inaccuracy, the film directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Mel Gibson is more of an ideal for America rather than a film based purely on the history of the war. While taking place primarily in the southern theater of the war in its second half, Gibson plays a veteran that is swept into fighting for the Continental Army when his family comes under threat. While it shouldn’t be your major stop for information on how this element of the Revolution played out, The Patriot is a well-constructed film that gives service to the spirit of the conflict that gave rise to the United States. In that spirit, it’s worth watching on today’s holiday. It’s largely a popcorn movie, but a relevant one for this day.
The Civil War: Lincoln
When Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the United States in 1860, the already damaged relationship between the free states of the north and the slaveholding states of the south became even more strained. Four days before Lincoln’s inauguration, seven states seceded from the Union, and would eventually form the rebellious Confederate States of America. When President Lincoln refused to abandon the military installation at Fort Sumter in April of 1861 and instead chose to resupply it, it eventually led southern rebels to fire the opening shot of the American Civil War. Often perceived as a battle between the fundamental concepts of freedom and bondage, it was also a battle to save the Union established by those who fought and died in the American Revolution nearly a century earlier.
Although this film primarily focuses on the efforts of the president, his cabinet, and political operatives to get the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution passed — which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude — director Steven Spielberg does a masterful job at juxtaposing the actions of the president with the bloodiness and heartbreak of the war that pitted brother against brother. Unlike The Patriot, Lincoln represents the pinnacle of historical accuracy and cinematic value intersecting, and with great context given to the sacrifice made by so many soldiers to try and maintain the integrity of the nation. Led by a brilliant performance by Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln brings the period to life in true form while spotlighting the tempered, legendary leadership that Abraham Lincoln brought to the highest office in the land.
World War I: Lawrence of Arabia
World War I erupted across Europe due to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Yugoslav nationalist. That act caused a military ultimatum to be issued, which then entangled allies of the affected powers to break out into war, which ultimately engulfed much of Europe. Eventually, the United States joined the war on the side of France and the United Kingdom’s Allied Powers, with the U.S. ultimately committing over 4.7 million troops to the war. By the time the war came to an end in November of 1918, America had lost over 116,000 troops to the conflict.
Unfortunately, for people hoping to watch a sweeping tale on film from the perspective of the United States in this war, there aren’t really many good examples. So, if we want to point you in the direction of a good World War I movie, then there’s only one title that jumps to the top of the list: 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole as British troop T.E. Lawrence. Many of the themes present in this film are universally resonant regardless of a person’s nationality, since the theme is all about the personal discoveries that one can find during a time of war. It can show you what you’re truly capable of, it can split your allegiances, and it can show how high the price of war can truly be in terms of both blood and treasure. This, of course, on top of the fact that Lawrence of Arabia is one of the single most critically acclaimed films in history. If you’re looking for an epic taking place during the “Great War,” it doesn’t get any better than this.
World War II: Saving Private Ryan
With tensions mounting in Europe during the late 1930s, and fascism spreading to more and more territories, things came to a head in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. This resulted in France and the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany, with varying alliances on both sides giving rise to the two predominant powers of World War II: the Axis, and the new iteration of the Allied Powers. While the United States sought neutrality instead of being pulled into a costly new conflict in Europe, that changed on December 7th, 1941, when the Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. From there, the U.S. entered the war once again on the side of the Allies, and took the fight across Europe and the Pacific theater.
While a multitude of great films have taken place during World War II, our recommendation will sit with 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks. Easily the most violent entry on this list, Saving Private Ryan provides a frank and harsh look at the realities of the war’s brand of violence, beginning in a sweeping and horrifying look at the Allied invasion of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on June 6th, 1944. While the film has an immense and realistic scope to it, it also does a phenomenal job of remaining intimately focused on a small band of soldiers tasked with bringing home an army private whose brothers all died during the war. With an honest perspective on the horrors found only on a battlefield, Saving Private Ryan is thrilling and reflective all at once, and contextualizes the brutality with which over 400,000 Americans lost their lives. If World War II feels like a distant passage in a history textbook, Saving Private Ryan will make it uncomfortably real.
Vietnam War: Full Metal Jacket
Today, you will find very few defenders of America’s part in the Vietnam War. A proxy conflict in the larger Cold War, the communist North Vietnamese forces were supported by the Soviet Union, while the anti-communist South Vietnamese forces were supported by the United States. With the Viet Cong launching a brutal campaign of guerilla warfare on those supporting the South, a messy and unwieldy war dragged America into a long stretch of participation, with the mounting casualties causing a great deal of civil unrest in the U.S. during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. With American politicians seeing participation as essential to stopping the “spread of communism,” the Vietnam War was ultimately one of America’s few military defeats, causing social and political divisiveness and ultimately costing the lives of 58,000 American troops, in addition to millions of civilians caught in the middle.
Director Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket focuses on the toll that the war created in the minds of the soldiers who fought it, with the strange dueling desires of war and peace visible even on the garb of the main character, Private “Joker” (played by Matthew Modine). While Full Metal Jacket doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the violence of the Vietnam War, equally shocking is the psychological toll taken on the men who fought in it. Private Joker kids around with fellow soldiers about the “thousand-yard stare” that hits war-weary soldiers after witnessing the horrific, and when the moment comes for Joker to wear it, it’s tragically ironic and gives an immense value to knowing that sometimes, war has an effect on the mind that’s not easily fixed. Far from it.
The War on Terror: Zero Dark Thirty
When the World Trade Center was attacked by cowards and murderers on September 11th, 2001, the United States was forever changed. As the biggest foreign attack on American soil and claiming nearly 3,000 lives, the United States wanted vengeance. So, our leaders enlisted our armed forces to hit the Middle East hard in search of the prime terrorist that was responsible for orchestrating and ultimately executing the attacks on both New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and for nearly ten years he eluded capture. Then, after a long time and an extensive search, retribution came calling right to his door in Pakistan.
Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty details the exhaustive search by American intelligence officials for Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist organization al Qaeda. By exemplifying the costs of 21st century warfare — where the U.S. has primarily seemed to fight ideas and loosely-unified organizations rather than other nations — Zero Dark Thirty shows in uncompromising fashion exactly what the September 11th attacks did to America’s entire military and intelligence apparatus, as a gifted young CIA agent cracks the mystery of Osama bin Laden’s location. A harrowing and dramatic narrative leads to the ultimate moment, when the film depicts the nighttime raid conducted by the elite SEAL Team 6 on a small compound in Abottabod, Pakistan. It’s not a gung-ho journey to the end, but it does feel resoundingly honest, and helps to highlight the climate of war that real American soldiers are facing every day, even as I sit and write this.
Now, these are just some ideas for how you may want to observe a day designed for us all to reflect on those that have given their lives for the United States. Do you have a movie that you go to in order to observe the day? How do you choose to spend your Memorial Day? Let us know in the comments below, and remember today: all gave some, but some gave all. Have a good Memorial Day.
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