Memorial Day is upon us and it is a day to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Personally, I’m not a big believer in this holiday because honoring our troops should be something that occurs more than once a year. At any rate, I have selected five outstanding war movies to commemorate this Memorial Day. So take this chance to stay away from the heat and enjoy these five films that focus on this terrible affliction that has haunted the human condition, war.
A Midnight Clear
Based on William Wharton’s autobiographical novel, A Midnight Clear depicts the madness of war through the eyes of a small squad of American soldiers who come upon a platoon of German soldiers wishing to surrender near the end of World War II. Isolated on the frontline, the two groups of men come to put aside their differences and celebrate Christmas together until a fatal misunderstanding turns the encounter into a tragedy. Starring young, recognizable faces such as Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Kevin Dillon and Peter Berg, this 1992 war movie is a powerfully haunting anti-war drama that remains terribly underseen to this day.
One of the best movies of 2009, Oren Moverman’s The Messenger draws us into the lives of the soldiers who have the grim duty of informing next of kin that their loved one died in combat. Ben Foster stars as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a soldier injured in Iraq who has just returned home, only to be paired with the tightly wound Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) for one of his toughest assignment yet: Casualty notification. Will soon finds out just how unbearable the job can be, as a series of powerful scenes shows them delivering the worst possible news to military spouses, and parents. Bolstered by excellent performances across the board, The Messenger is an intimate look into the difficulties that plague war veterans after returning home from combat.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria
Forget Full Metal Jacket, The Siege of Firebase Gloria is a rare, uncompromising look at the fickleness of war. R. Lee Ermey stars as Sergeant-Major Hafner, a tough no-nonsense Marine who has to lead the disorganized defense of an outpost named Firebase Gloria at the onset of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam war. While the story is straightforward, the film fleshes out the motive of both sides with uncommon balance and manages to paint a hard-hitting portray of the Vietnam war at the level of the boots on the ground. Sadly, this is one of those movies that is getting lost in the ether of cinema so finding a copy of this movie may take some luck.
Devils on the Doorstep
One of the forgotten gem of the past decade, Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep is a stunning and unsettling anti-war film which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Set in 1944 occupied China, the film stars Wen as Ma Dasan, a peasant who is compelled to conceal two Japanese prisoners of war. But as the days turn into weeks and then months, the fate of the two prisoners becomes a point of heavy contention for the meek villagers. What if the Japanese realize the Chinese villagers are holding two of their own captives? A plan to exchange the men for grain leads to the film’s unsettling and devastating climax.
Devils on the Doorstep is a brilliant antiwar movie, exposing the folly of war and the absurd horror committed by ordinary people. It offers a rare look of Chinese life during the Japanese occupation, a perspective that is almost totally unknown to Western audiences used to war movies focusing on the European or Pacific theaters. Based on You Fengwei’s novel “Shengcun”, this black-and-white film is most surprising in how it deals with wartime horrors in a tone which is darkly farcical and at times incredibly hilarious only to unexpectedly shift in the third act into gut-wrenching and horrifying irony. It’s a fine balancing act between horror and comedy and Jiang does it masterfully.
Escape from Sobibor
This made-for-TV movie depicts the escape of 300 prisoners from the concentration camp, known as Sobibor, on October 14, 1943. The fact was all the more remarkable given that it was the most successful uprising during World War II and lead the Germans to shut down the camp and plant a forest over the site. Such luminaries as Alan Arkin, Rutger Hauer, Joanna Pacula and Hartmut Becker, give harrowing performances in this grimly inspiring story of determination and courage in the face of utmost horror.
What are other underrated war movies we should see? Let us know in the comments!