Not every Veteran’s Day, mind you, but every few years or so on this holiday, I like to watch “Buck Privates” starring Abbott & Costello. My late father, a World War II veteran, immensely enjoyed this misfit comedy that, he said, lifted morale when he was in the service and gave homefront audiences a much-needed good laugh.
World War II was “The Good War,” its predecessor “The Great War.” It is the cessation of fighting on Nov. 11, 1918, generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars,” that Americans commemorate on Armistice, or Veteran’s Day, a day that then-President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed as one given for reflection and “solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service….”
From “Sergeant York” to Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump,” from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “The Hurt Locker,” some of the most memorable war-related films have put a human face on armed conflict. In many, some of the most searing drama doesn’t play out on the battlefield, but rather in the transition between combat and civilian life.
As America honors its veterans and gives thanks for their sacrifice and service, here is a celluloid salute.
American Sniper: Clint Eastwood’s film about legendary Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle took Hollywood by surprise, earning $107 million in its opening weekend and earning six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper. While war in Iraq continues to be divisive, this film focused on Kyle, and his personal struggles balancing his harrowing war experiences and readjusting to family life.
Band of Brothers: An Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning HBO miniseries based on Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1993 non-fiction chronicle of the “Easy” Company from training through the end of World War II. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who collaborated on Saving Private Ryan, were executive producers
The Best Years of Our Lives: William Wyler’s Oscar-winning American postwar classic follows three World War II veterans as they struggle to reconnect with their families and adjust to civilian life. Harold Russell, an actual vet who lost both his bands in the war, won both the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as well as an honorary Oscar for ”bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” Return stars Linda Cardellini as an American reservist returning home from her tour of duty in the Middle East and who struggles in her transition back into the roles of wife and mother.
Flags of Our Fathers: Eastwood again; and based James Bradley and Ron Powers’ book about the five Marines and one Navy Corpsman who raised the flag on Iwo Jima and how this heroic event, immortalized in a photograph, impacted their lives.
The Messenger/Gardens of Stone: Two stateside films. In the former, Ben Foster stars as an Iraq War hero who is assigned as a casualty notification officer charged with informing families that their loved one has been killed in action. In the latter, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, James Can stars as a veteran charged with leading a U.S. ceremonial honor guard, with D.B. Sweeney, as a new member of the Platoon who wants to fight in Vietnam.
Saving Private Ryan: “Earn this.” The official movie of the Greatest Generation, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winner stars Tom Hanks as the leader of a platoon charged with bringing home on Private First Class James Francis Ryan, three of whose brothers were killed in action.
Taking Chance: When it was broadcast in 2009, this film became the most-watched HBO original film in five years. Kevin Bacon stars as Marine Lt. Colonel Michael Strobi, who escorted the body of PFC Chance Phelps, who died in the Iraq Warm back to his hometown.
Ending on a lighter note, and in the tradition of Buck Privates, we offer Private Benjamin and Stripes, two exemplary military (as opposed to war) comedies, in which two misfits become the best the best that they can be when they join the service.
We salute our veterans on this Armistice Day and ask: Do you have a favorite film that best honors your experience?