Memorial Day is an awkward holiday. Not the holiday itself so much as what we use it for. It has become a time for celebration of conspicuous consumption. And while I can understand the emotional catharsis of a wake or a celebration of a deceased loved one’s life, is there anything less patriotic than a discount sale to celebrate men and women who gave their lives to protect ours?
With this in mind, I would like to encourage you to reconsider how you will choose to spend this long weekend. Perhaps commemoration is more in order than more celebration. Here are a few movies that might help you to consider what Memorial Day is actually memorializing.
While there are a great many films that rightfully celebrate the brave and selfless heroism of our troops, this is a list designed to highlight the costs of war, both personal and societal. As this is a list about an American holiday I have limited this list, with one exception, to films about American troops. Though films like Chan-Wook Park’s JSA: Joint Security Area, Isao Takahata’s Graveyard of the Fireflies and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir could easily fit, they would seem out of place given the context.
No matter what your political view, this list should not deter those of a more conservative mindset from seeking out these films. After all, the fallen men and women died in large part to preserve our ability to disagree openly.
This adaptation of Ron Kovic’s incendiary autobiography won Oliver Stone an Oscar for best director, and rightfully so. A tale of one man’s struggle to understand himself, his country and what it means to be a patriot grabs the viewer by the collar and never lets go. Tom Cruise, who was also nominated for best actor, gives a career best performance as Kovic, an idealistic young man who goes off to Vietnam and comes home permanently disabled. Discovering that his life will never be the same and that his fellow Americans see him as a traitor, Kovic becomes a prominent anti-war protester and a proponent of human rights. Regardless of one’s thoughts about Stone’s increasingly erratic political stances, this film stands as a masterwork. It is as emotionally harrowing as it is visually mesmerizing. It stands as a profound statement, not just about the costs of war, but also about the ways in which we can rebuild.
Though the film is probably best known to younger viewers through Metallica’s appropriation of its footage in the music video for the song, “One,” the film itself is also vital viewing material. Adapted by Dalton Trumbo from his 1939 novel, Johnny Got his Gun tells the story of a WWI solider who awakens in a hospital bed to discover that he has lost both his arms and his legs as well as his eyes, ears, nose, and tongue. His brain still works perfectly, however, leaving him a prisoner in his body. Though works like James Whale’s Frankenstein dealt with similar issues of the walking wounded through a fantasy context, this film and novel are unique in that they tackle the subject head on.
Perhaps the most famous and possibly the best war film of the modern era, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is an epic that redefined Hollywood aesthetics and made real the storming of the beaches at Normandy for a generation of Americans far removed from the realities of WWII. With a plot that might have played as pulp material in lesser hands, Spielberg crafts a narrative that is as much about soldiers as people as it is about the war itself.
An early work by auteur Stanley Kubrick, adapting Humphrey Cobb’s novel, Paths of Glory stars Kirk Douglas as a French WWI Colonel who faces the gallows for refusing to send his men on a suicide mission. The Kafkaesque machinations of the war machine are here laid bare. There could almost be an element of black comedy, where the narrative not so soul crushing. With masterful filmmaking and a perfect performance by Douglas, this film has the power to permanently alter the way you think about war, patriotism, and duty.
The Hughes Brothers burst onto the scene during the early '90s with possibly the best one-two punch in modern Hollywood history. Following their breathless debut, Menace II Society, Dead Presidents is both a character study and a war film. A heist movie and an action picture. But most importantly, it is a portrait of Black America during the era of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Full of challenging, sometimes anti-social content and some of the most startlingly bloody violence ever put on screen, Dead Presidents is utterly unforgettable, even as it is an extremely polarizing experience.
Kubrick returns to the list with Full Metal Jacket, a massive, perversely funny masterpiece of filmmaking. Split into two acts, this tale of soldiers in Vietnam differs from the other films on the list because it never grants us a view of who these men were before they entered the military. The closest we get is a brief look at their previous hairstyles as they are shaved in preparation for basic training. Wholly politically incorrect, this film features some of the most potently quotable lines of dialogue in any war film ever. And while R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant is indeed hilarious, the true impact of his dehumanizing rants and harsh psychological conditioning is not fully understood without seeing the second half, in which we follow the Marines out of basic training and into the dizzying horrors of the jungle. As visually decadent as it is physically draining, this is a movie that will keep you up at night for weeks, even as you may find yourself reciting some of its lines for laughs. Compounding the blunt force trauma of it all is the reveal of the true context of the oft parodied line, “Me so horny,” which was infamously sampled by the 2 Live Crew for their controversial song of the same title.
Another film full of such potent imagery that it has become the subject of countless parodies, spoofs, and satires is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, this film is as epic and sprawling as the jungles of Vietnam. With a production schedule spread over sixteen months thanks to a stress induced heart attack from star Martin Sheen, a mental breakdown from Coppola, a typhoon that destroyed most of the sets and bizarre demands from a bloated, drunken Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now was almost never completed. It is a film gripped by madness from in front of and behind the camera, lost in a fog of war not dissimilar from that which it was trying to document. It is in turns surreal, gritty, blackly humorous, and gut wrenching, often it is all of these things in quick succession. One of the most fascinating and engrossing films ever made about any subject, this is a film unlike any other. And frankly, that’s probably a good thing.