22 Best Memorial Day Movies to Commemorate the Holiday
To honor the fallen this Memorial Day, add blockbusters about battles and the brave men and women of the Armed Forces who fought them to your list of holiday must-dos.
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A glimpse into a soldier’s life
Memorial Day was created to honor and remember the Armed Forces’ fallen, who gave their lives to protect the inalienable rights of those who live in the land of the free and the home of the brave (as opposed to Veterans Day, which commemorates all former members of the military). For most people, though, the holiday has become less about the men and women who sacrificed everything for that noble ideal and more about a day off work and the unofficial beginning of summer. Of course, we’re not suggesting that you give up backyard barbecues, long weekend road trips, or any other common Memorial Day festivities, but why not add a more meaningful tradition to your itinerary, like watching Memorial Day movies?
As most of us will never know what it is like to enlist, train, leave our loved ones for months and risk our lives to protect our country, watching a film about real-life heroes, wars, and battles and the various facets of a soldier’s life is an easy way to gain a bit more understanding about what servicemen and women endure. In the process, you’ll probably also learn a little bit about history. Here are 22 fantastic films that fit the (G.I.) bill.
One important note: As Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman declared in one of the most famous Memorial Day quotes, “War is hell.” To capture that truism, many of these movies are graphic, controversial, and intense, and therefore may not be suitable for the whole family. These Memorial Day activities, however, are great for Americans of any age.
Once known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first celebrated in 1868 to pay tribute to those lost during the Civil War. However, sometimes the fact that many free African-Americans were among this number is forgotten. Given the current heated conversation about Black lives, American history curricula, and Confederate monuments and flags, it seems appropriate to kick off this list of Memorial Day movies with this drama about the second all–African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (the first was the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment). Made up of volunteers recruited by abolitionists and the free Black community in Boston, and commanded by White officers, the 54th became famous for their charge in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, in South Carolina. Although the movie is based on the true story of White colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick), Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Private Tripp garnered him an Oscar. The film also features Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Cary Elwes.
Eclipsed in fame perhaps only by its making-of documentary (filmed by the director’s wife, Eleanor Coppola), the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous war movies ever made. Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the setting has been changed from the 19th century Congo to Vietnam during the war, but the themes remain: The horrors of war, the potential of human evil, and an exploration of heroes and antiheroes. The movie follows Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who is sent to find and terminate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has become mentally unstable and gone rogue, commanding indigenous troops without permission from his superiors. Harrowing, fascinating, and the source of every dad’s favorite quote over breakfast (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”), Apocalypse Now is considered to be one of the best depictions of the terrible experiences of the Vietnam War. Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper round out the all-star cast.
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Saving Private Ryan
Highlighting both the brutality of World War II and the courage of the Greatest Generation, it opens with one of the most “in your face, feels like you were on that beach” depictions of the Normandy landings. Then, the scale shifts to follow an intimate group, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), behind enemy lines for a special mission to find and retrieve the titular private (Matt Damon) who becomes the last of Ryan line after his three brothers are killed in combat. It won Steven Spielberg a Best Director Academy Award, but it lost the Best Picture race to Shakespeare in Love, in what is generally considered one of the biggest Oscar snubs of all time.
Catch up on the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster that cemented Tom Cruise as a full-fledged action star and bankable box office draw just in time for the sequel 35 years in the making, which will hit theaters this summer. Maverick (Cruise), a cocky but skilled fighter pilot, is sent to an elite Naval flight school to hone his skills, but his brash, competitive attitude rubs instructors and other pilots—like his arch-nemesis, Iceman (Val Kilmer)—the wrong way. Along the way, he’ll learn about a lot more than air combat through his bromance with Goose, his forbidden romance with an instructor, karaoke, and one super hot beach volleyball game.
Black Hawk Down
Using journalist Mark Bowden’s book as source material, this Ridley Scott thriller tells the true-life tale of the costliest and longest sustained firefight the U.S. military engaged in since Vietnam. In 1993, more than 100 soldiers, including two Delta Force operatives posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, were sent to Somalia to deliver food and humanitarian aid to a population starving under the reign of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, whom they hoped to capture while they were at it. As they were being lowered from helicopters, a surprise attack took down two Black Hawks, stranded the men, and led to casualties and a PR nightmare when photos of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu arrived on our shores.
The Best Years of Our Lives
This 1946 drama was of one of the first motion pictures to honestly and realistically delve into the often-traumatic uphill battle of returning to civilian life. It took home seven Oscars, including Best Picture and two given to Harold Russell, a veteran who, like his character, lost both his hands while serving and who was plucked from obscurity after director William Wyler saw him in an Army training video. It follows Fred, Al, and Homer post-war, as they deal with finding jobs and purpose, fall in and out of love, battle alcoholism, and encounter varying reactions to their service and World War II in general.
The Hurt Locker
Another Best Picture winner, this 2008 film centers around an Iraq War Explosive Ordinance Disposal crew in Baghdad led by Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie (who would later re–team up in the Avengers franchise). Between countdown timers, stifling protective gear, tense interpersonal relationships, and the constant threat of unseen grudge-holding insurgents, the stress is constant for the characters…and for viewers. Some thrive on the adrenaline, while other soldiers crack under the pressure.
A deft Robert Altman classic that spawned a hit TV show and inspired future generations of filmmakers to dare to combine comedy and wartime crisis, M*A*S*H follows the wacky staff at an Army field hospital three miles from the front lines of the Korean War. They use humor, pranks, pick-up football, and Donald Sutherland’s martinis to stay sane in the face of gruesome injuries and mounting death tolls.
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The Longest Day
With far less technology at its disposal than a Spielberg movie, 1962’s The Longest Day still deftly tackles the heroism, strategy, and incalculable loss of human life during the D-Day landings at Normandy during World War II. At the time it was made, it was noted for its impressive scale, a cast that hailed from four countries (and that included Red Buttons, Richard Burton, Paul Anka, and Sean Connery), and its overall attention to detail, no doubt gleaned from the many Axis and Allied participants and witnesses hired as advisers.
Some of the best Memorial Day movies tell stories about what happens to soldiers and sailors prior to seeing combat. One such film is Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland, named after the fort built in Louisiana to mimic the hot, muggy jungles of Vietnam that was often the last stop for infantrymen before they shipped out to a war many of them wouldn’t return from. Colin Farrell is a charismatic anti-authoritarian morally opposed to the war who finds himself drafted after it’s clear the United States is losing. At boot camp, he becomes the guy other soldiers rely on and turn to (usually for ideas on how to get discharged), as well as the target of a bigot with rage issues.
You can probably guess from the title that this story based on Marine Marcus Luttrell’s memoir doesn’t end all that happily. But sometimes the stories most worth telling are about the journey, not the destination. Peter Berg’s production is about brotherhood, patriotism, commitment, and doing the right thing even if that decision will almost certainly put your life in jeopardy. Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and his elite team (Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch) are sent deep into Taliban territory in June 2005 to capture or kill terrorist Ahmad Shah, but bad intel and even worse luck leave them outnumbered and vulnerable.
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World War II is a popular subject for Tom Hanks to tackle as an actor, director, and producer. This film was destined for the big screen when the pandemic hit and closed theaters, forcing Hanks to pivot, come up with a new plan, and try new tactics—just as his Greyhound character, Captain Krause, is forced to do when the 37-ship-strong American convoy his destroyer was sent to chaperone across the Atlantic in 1942 is stalked by German U-boats. The dangerous game of cat and mouse, an Apple TV+ exclusive, is lean on character development but full of nautical lingo and between-ship dustups.
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The Messenger makes the Memorial Day movies cut not because it is grand in scale or full of explosions and precise stunts. It makes it because it gives a gut-punch glimpse into an Army subculture rarely depicted on screen. (Another interesting military subgroup that deserves a movie? The Gray Berets, aka the special-ops weather technicians.) The indie is a quiet, powerful look at the branch’s Casualty Notification service. An injured soldier (Ben Foster) is reassigned to the unit sent to notify next of kin when their relative dies, under the direction of a by-the-book boss (Woody Harrelson) who uses detachment to get through his very heavy days. He warns the newbie to keep his distance, but one case gets under his skin and he starts to pay a little too much attention to a grieving widow. Then again, maybe it’s exactly the kind of connection he needs to survive.
Born on the Fourth of July
Having fought in Vietnam himself, director Oliver Stone has revisited the unsuccessful American conflict often through a number of different perspectives. His many political and controversial takes include Platoon, Nixon, Heaven & Earth, and this biography about Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise). Paralyzed during his second tour of duty, Kovic returns home with a new sense of the importance of peace and of the inexcusable and pathetic treatment of vets, especially wounded warriors. The feeling of betrayal by a country he swore to protect turned him into an anti-war activist and veterans’ rights champion as well as an author. His book inspired the movie.
The Great Escape
In 1943, the Germans debuted Stalag Luft North, a maximum-security prisoner-of-war camp to hold captured enemies who were particularly adept at getting out of their cells. The plan backfired, though, as it essentially put Ocean’s Eleven–level strategists under the same roof. They put their heads together to bust out of the Polish prison and get back to Allied territory. Based on the true adventure of the largest prison break ever attempted, this 1963 movie features a formidable call sheet: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Richard Attenborough.
After making a documentary on the same subject—Purple Heart, Navy Cross, and Air Medal honoree Dieter Dengler—director Werner Herzog decided to tell the story again through a narrative lens that takes a few liberties in its account of the U.S. fighter pilot’s POW experience in Vietnam. Dengler (Christian Bale) was shot down during a classified mission in Laos, captured, and tossed in a particularly primitive and barbaric camp; he was one of only seven Americans to escape a Viet Cong camp and live. After being repeatedly and horribly tortured, including being hung upside down with an ants’ nest attached to his head, he and his cellmates (Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) start planning their escape through the wet, dense jungles of Thailand.
Not all heroes are human. Anyone who has ever had a truly special pet whose company and unconditional love felt like a life-saver will gravitate to this biopic about a U.S. Marine corporal and her partner, a bomb-sniffing dog named Rex. Never connecting well with people, the rudderless Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) enlists but has a rough start. After a disciplinary hearing sends her to clean the K-9 unit, she relates to a particularly aggressive Semper Fido that no one believes will amount to much. Both Leavey and the German Shepherd prove everyone wrong by completing more than 100 missions in the Middle East and saving countless lives. Rex even saves his handler’s hide on a few occasions. When an IED injures them both, the courses of their lives are altered, and Purple Heart recipient Leavey begins a years-long process of trying to get K-9 policies changed and to bring her buddy home.
Set mostly aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine, Crimson Tide is a full-tilt Cold War clash of acting titans. Denzel Washington is the USS. Alabama’s new first officer out to prove himself worthy of his post and to Gene Hackman, his headstrong commander, as the boat travels toward Russia. After missile exchanges with the enemy and a series of ominous messages have them readying the missiles, the radio becomes disabled and they are cut off from the chain of command. Hackman’s character believes they should follow orders first and ask questions later. Washington won’t sign off, worried they would instead start World War III. No one is sure who is right, and the vicarious tension is suffocating. Is mutiny afoot…or is the captain making a bad call that will cost millions their lives?
Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who signed up to serve after the 1998 attacks on embassies in Africa, is considered the most lethal and talented marksman in U.S. armed forces history with 160 confirmed kills. But just because you’re good at your job doesn’t mean it won’t haunt you. As the movie shows quite brutally, Kyle has to make tough split-second decisions in high-pressure situations, some concerning women and children, in order to watch the sixes of his band of brothers. There’s no way the call would always be right. After four tours of Iraq duty, Kyle battled addiction, insomnia, and other PTSD symptoms but had begun to turn his life around with the help of his wife (Sienna Miller, in a more well-rounded portrayal of a military wife than the audience is usually handed), creating a nonprofit to help veterans with PTSD, writing a bestseller, and becoming a devoted dad. Unfortunately, as most people who follow the news even a little bit know, Kyle didn’t get a Hollywood ending.
During World War II, the Japanese proved formidable adversaries. For one, they were astute codebreakers. They cracked one after the other, foiling American plans of attack and destroying ships and supplies. That is, until one was created using the language of the Navajo Nation. It proved impenetrable and helped turn the tide in the Pacific theater. Windtalkers follows a jaded sergeant (Nicolas Cage) sent to Saipan as the bodyguard of a Navajo private (Adam Beach). Christian Slater is another officer paired with a windtalker. What the Navajo coders don’t know about their watchdogs is that they were actually ordered to protect the code, not the coder, and that they were to do anything to avoid their capture—even kill them.
Now, this John Woo film is far from perfect. It’s guilty of the “White savior” trope, it uses far too many battlefield clichés, and it tries harder to wow the audience with pyrotechnics than with facts or character development. But we felt it deserved to be on this list of Memorial Day movies because, at its heart, it’s about the fascinating yet little-known contributions of Native Americans to the cause, and hopefully it will encourage people to look into it further.
Flags of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima
Six men raising the Stars & Stripes at the Battle of Iwo Jima is one of the most recognized and iconic photos ever taken. It was even turned into a D.C. memorial. Clint Eastwood chronicles how it happened, who these men were, and what became of them (including those who were shipped home to drum up war bond sales and reignite the fire to fight within the hearts of a mentally exhausted American public). Equally worth watching, although not about the U.S. military specifically, is Letters from Iwo Jima, the companion piece Eastwood released the same year that recalls the same event from the Japanese perspective. Watching them in tandem drives home the point that war is devastating to both winners and losers and is not something that should be entered into lightly.