Top Ten Films For Memorial Day Weekend

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“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”

              Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, is a time of fun here in the US.  However, it should also be a time of memory.  Memorial day is derived from the Latin “memoria”, memory, and we are duty bound this weekend to remember those who died in our defense, and who left us with a debt which can never be repaid.  One aid to memory can be films, and here are a few suggestions for films to watch this weekend.

10.  300-This may seem like an odd choice, not involving Americans, and a fairly bizarre retelling of the battle of Thermopylae.  However, it celebrates the idea of never forgetting those who died for their country.  “Go tell the Spartans passerby, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”  So wrote Simonides, the greatest poet of his time, in tribute to the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae.  The speech of Dilios at the end of the film, which may be viewed here, reminds us of our duty to remember those who laid down their lives for us, a message to be recalled this weekend.

  9.   They Were Expendable (1945) John Ford and John Wayne tell the story of the doomed PT Boat crews that fought against overwhelming odds during the invasion of the Philippines in 1941-42.  The film has a gritty downbeat feel, appropriate to the subject matter, but an oddity for a film made during the War.

  8.    Hamburger Hill (1987)-Content advisory: very, very strong language in the video clip which may be viewed here.  All the Vietnam veterans I’ve mentioned it to have nothing but praise for this film which depicts the assault on Hill 937 by elements of the 101rst Division, May 10-20, 1969.  It is a fitting tribute to the valor of the American troops who served their country in an unpopular war a great deal better than their country served them.

   7.   Porkchop Hill (1959)-Korea has become to too many Americans The Forgotten War, lost between World War II and Vietnam.  There is nothing forgotten about it by the Americans who served over there, including my Uncle Ralph McClarey who died recently, and gained a hard won victory for the US in one of the major hot conflicts of the Cold War.  This film tells the story of the small American force on Porkchop Hill, who held it in the face of repeated assaults by superior forces of the Chinese and North Koreans.  As the below clip indicates it also highlights the surreal element that accompanies every war and the grim humor that aspect often brings.

  6.    Glory (1989)-A long overdue salute to the black troops who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.  Robert Gould Shaw the white colonel who led the 54th Massachusetts died at Fort Wagner in the assault of the 54th.  He was buried by the Confederates with his black troops.  His parents were given an opportunity to have his body exhumed and returned to Boston for burial.  Their reply was immortal:    We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers….We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company – what a body-guard he has!

     5.   The Alamo (1960)-The story of the Texan Thermopylae and John Wayne’s love note to America.

    4.   Gods and Generals (2003)-Out on blue ray this week, the prequel to Gettysburg.  It failed as a feature film partially because too much was left on the cutting room floor.  It works better in its uncut glory viewed as a miniseries on the small screen.

   3.  Gettysburg (1993)-Also out on blue ray this week, it is fitting that the greatest movie made about the Civil War deals with the greatest battle of that war.  You simply cannot understand the United States without understanding the Civil War.

The Civil War was really one of those watershed things. There was a huge chasm between the beginning and the end of the war. The nation had come face-to-face with a dreadful tragedy… And yet that’s what made us a nation. Before the war, people had a theoretical notion of having a country, but when the war was over, on both sides they knew they had a country. They’d been there. They had walked its hills and tramped its roads… They knew the effort that they had expended and their dead friends had expended to preserve it. It did that. The war made their country an actuality.

                                                          Shelby Foote

    2.   Saving Private Ryan (1998)-  “Earn this….Earn it”.  A message for us all to remember this Memorial Day and every day.

    1.   Sergeant York (1941)-A film biopic of Sergeant Alvin C. York, who, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive  on October 8,  1918 , took 32 German machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers and captured another 132.  Viewers who came to see the movie in 1941 must have been initially puzzled.  With a title like Sergeant York, movie goers could have been forgiven for thinking that Sergeant York’s experiences in World War I would be the focus, but such was not the case.  Most of the film is focused on York’s life in Tennessee from 1916-1917 before American entry into the war.  Like most masterpieces, the film has a strong religious theme as we witness York’s conversion to Christ.  The film is full of big questions:  How are we to live?  Why are we here?  What role should religion play in our lives?  How does someone gain faith?  What should we do if we perceive our duty to God and to Country to be in conflict?  It poses possible answers to these questions with a skillful mixture of humor and drama.  The entertainment value of Sergeant York conceals the fact that it is a very deep film intellectually as it addresses issues as old as Man.

The film was clearly a message film and made no bones about it.  The paper of the film industry Variety noted at the time:  “In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater.”

The film was a huge success upon release in 1941, the top grossing film of the year.  Gary Cooper justly earned the Oscar for his stellar performance as Alvin C. York.  It was Cooper’s favorite of his pictures.  “Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains – Tennessee for him, Montana for me – and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”

The film portrays a devout Christian who had to reconcile the command to “Love thy Neighbor” with fighting for his country in a war.  This is not an easy question and the film does not give easy answers, although I do find this clip compelling and a nice summation about how many of our combat veterans I think view their service.

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  1. All good. I also would include “Battle Ground” (?) on the 101st at Bastogne.

    Please take a moment next Monnday to pray for our fallen troops, especially Afghanistan and Iraq, and for their families.

    In a very recent four day period, nine gallant Marines of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines gave their lives for our liberties in Afghanistan.

    My son was there with the 10th Mountain Div. in 2009. I never told his Mother this: three months after he came home, a platoon leader (doing the same as he was doing) in his “sister” battalion was killed in action.

    Greet them ever with grateful hearts.

  2. The events leading up to the church scene Joe:

    Hollywood of course jazzed up York’s conversion in that there was no bolt of lighting from the sky. His conversion was a product of his devout mother’s influence, the influence of his future wife who was also a devout Christian, and his seeing a friend die in a senseless barroom brawl. However, as in the movie his conversion was total, and from being a brawling, frequently drunken, hellraiser, he became a Christian who made heroic efforts throughout his life to live the Gospel. Sergeant York is one of the greatest American films on the subject of religious conversion and what it means to be a Christian.

  3. Of course, Don, “artistic license.” One possible addition: Something with Audey Murphy (To hell and back), most decorated soldier ever.

  4. Also a great film Joe. Murphy’s wartime exploits were more fantastic than anything he ever filmed in Hollywood as an actor. Most of the men he served with intially in his squad were killed in the war, and Murphy thereafter considered himself, after surviving the war, as a “refugee from the law of averages”. He died, appropriately enough, in an airplane crash on May 28, 1971, during Memorial Day weekend that year.

  5. I recall hearing a story about Shaw’s parents receiving a letter from the Confederates stating something along the lines of “we buried him with his n*ggers.” which they promptly framed and displayed in front of their home in MA. Not sure if that’s true, but it certainly was believable.

  6. It failed as a feature film partially because too much was left on the cutting room floor.

    You mean there’s actually more? Wasn’t it like 15 hours to begin with?

    In all seriousness, I thought I was the only who actually liked that film.

  7. I’d also add Blackhawk Down. I don’t think I’ve ever shaken with rage in a film (besides Rob Roy) like I did when Delta snipers Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart gave themselves to death with no hope of rescue only so that their comrade would not face his own death alone. God bless those men and their brothers who carry that duty today.

  8. Doesn’t quite fit this category perhaps, but I recently saw “Andersonville” and thought it was one of the most underappreciated movies ever. No big stars, but well acted and helmed by a great director (Frankenheimer)

  9. “Not sure if that’s true, but it certainly was believable.”

    I doubt if that is true, Chris, but it would have been right in character with his parents’ sentiments. His father summed up the family’s view:

    “We hold that a soldier’s most appropriate burial-place is on the field where he has fallen”.

  10. I suggest A Bridge to Far, Patton, and Full Metal Jacket.

    There are also Sands of Iwo Jima and The Battle of the Bulge. I have not seen these two in a while but Sands of Iwo Jima played every Sunday on AFTV in San Diego during boot camp. We could watch while cleaning gear, etc. A cheesy movie but full of patrotism and the never quit attitude of the USMC – Semper Fi!

    For a look at the German perspective on WWII Eastern Front see Iron Cross.

    Enjoy your Memorial Day!!

  11. I remember Tom Hanks in ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ saying he cried watching The Dirty Dozen.’ The ultimate guy movie?

  12. I know Mel has sort of fallen out of favor of late, but what are your thoughts on “We Were Soldiers”?

    And, as far as Alamo movies go, I’m more partial to the more recent version (and Billy Bob Thornton’s more realistic portrayal of Davy Crockett) to John Wayne’s (although I still like the Duke’s version, as well).

  13. Is the “Gettysburg” Blue-Ray contain the extended version (another 20-30 minutes)? That version was only released as part of a collector’s edition VHS set, along with a booklet and bullet from the War.

  14. “Battle of the Bulge” was OK, but the purist in me hated the fact the tanks were all wrong. It was the same case in Patton, but the greatness of the film overcomes my problems with it.

    How about “The Big Red One,” a semi-autobiographical film from Samuel Fuller? I’d love to see the restored version from 2004 (another 50 minutes of film).

    Ditto to the recommendation of “Black Hawk Down,” a tribute to the determination of the American soldier.

    Finally, while a good but not great film, “The Great Raid” is a well-told story about the successful rescue of American POWs in the Phillipines. It properly tips its cap to the indispensible efforts of the Filipino resistance fighters, too. Read William Breuer’s book of the same name, too.

  15. “I know Mel has sort of fallen out of favor of late, but what are your thoughts on “We Were Soldiers”?”

    I’m not sure why, but it left me cold. Gibson and Sam Elliot gave fine performances, and as a piece of entertainment I have no problem with it. I guess I probably know too much about the battle of the Ia Drang to allow a proper suspension of disbelief in regard to how it was portrayed in the film.

    “Is the “Gettysburg” Blue-Ray contain the extended version (another 20-30 minutes)? That version was only released as part of a collector’s edition VHS set, along with a booklet and bullet from the War.”

    Not quite sure Dale. I’m picking it up this weekend. It clocks in at 271 minutes and is described as the Director’s Cut. There is 17 minutes of additional footage not incorporated in the Director’s cut.

  16. Joe

    What are you doing throwing in a reference to Sleepless in Seatle?!!! Might as well referred to the movie Mama Mia, ugh!! 🙂

    Dale – As a teen ager I thought they were great. I couldn’t tell the diffence between the tanks at that time and now when I comment about inaccuracies I am told by wife and kids that I am ruining the movie . . . such is life.

  17. Ah, the Battle of the Bulge, inaccuracies galore, although I loved the movie as a kid especially for this scene:

    My brother commanded an armor platoon in Germany in the early eighties. One time he wandered into a German pub where a bunch of German vets were having a reunion. They found out he was in the US Army and asked him what branch he was in. When he said “panzers” they treated him like a long lost brother since they were all tankers too. They all claimed to have fought on the Eastern Front except one guy who pointed to his bum leg and said “Normandy!”.

  18. Some might consider it an “anti-American” movie. But, I gained a huge amount of respect for the sheer (and often senseless) brutality our soldiers go through when watching ” The Thin Red Line.”

  19. It clocks in at 271 minutes and is described as the Director’s Cut. There is 17 minutes of additional footage not incorporated in the Director’s cut.

    Interesting–it sounds like a third version, then. I’m reasonably certain the VHS collector’s edition had another half hour of footage. I’ll have to look it up to make sure, though.

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