In no particular order, here are 50 films and television events that are worth your time and which to one degree of realism or another, honor the sacrifice we remember today:
Saving Private Ryan
Besides bringing the sights and sounds of war to the screen like no other film, this movie asks the audience what they have done with their lives to make such sacrifice worthwhile
The Great Escape
The most entertaining war movie of all time, with the greatest cast.
Battle scenes only surpassed by Saving Private Ryan, this film illustrates the esprit de corps of the American soldier like few other films.
Okay, it might not be about a soldier—though you could say it’s about the recruiting of one—but it is the greatest movie ever made, and it’s a call to resist tyranny.
The Dam Busters
A superb retelling of the greatest air strike of all time, incredible special effects for its time.
The Story of Gl Joe
From Ernie Pyle’s dispatches, features a great Robert Mitchum performance and a realistic grunt’s-eye view of war.
The Deer Hunter
Everyone focuses on the Russian roulette scenes, but few American films portray who fights our wars and how their towns deal with it like The Deer Hunter. Note how the hometown people great their warriors when they return and how they send them off. There is no moral equivalence between the Americans and the communists–Michael, the protagonist puts himself between danger and his friends at every turn, which the communist forces commit beastly atrocities. Liberal critics read irony into the singing of “God Bless America” at the end, but the actors play it heartfelt and it made me bawl like a baby.
The best biography of an American warrior ever. Period.
Gary Cooper’s Oscar winning performance as the Quaker sharpshooter who became America’s greatest WWI hero gets the A-list Howard Hawks treatment in this winning film.
We Were Soldiers
The true story of the first big battle of the Vietnam war is magnificently filmed, yet intimate in its story of war both on the battlefield and at home.
The Caine Mutiny
One of Humphrey Bogart’s great performances. Pay close attention to Jose Ferrer’s closing comment on the men we count on to keep us safe in peace time.
They Were Expendable
John Ford’s tribute to PT boat crews is one of the first realistic WWII movies, taking place when the outcome was very much in doubt. A great film, overlooked by many.
Sure, it’s long. But the battle at Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge are well worth it, as are some moving scenes that remind us that in many cases close friends were on opposite lines facing each other. Jeff Daniels leads a great cast.
To Hell and Back
Audie Murphy plays himself and recreates his Medal of Honor heroics.
30 Seconds over Tokyo
The Doolittle Raid, very well told, even if the Japanese enemy is a bit over the top.
Humphrey Bogart and a tank crew stranded in the desert behind enemy lines.
Bridge on the River Kwai
David Lean’s best “big” movie. Most known for Alex Guiness’s portrayal of an officer who lets personal ambition get in the way of the objective, but still has heroic turns by William Holden and Jack Hawkins as the commandoes sent to destroy the bridge.
Back to Bataan
The best of John Wayne’s wartime propaganda-tinged films, though Flying Tigers, and The Fighting Seabees are well worth your time as well.
The Cruel Sea
Classic British film about the dangerous—and freezing—convoys to Russia in WWII.
Sands of Iwo Jima
Do I even need to say why? One of the Duke’s best performances.
Run Silent, Run Deep
The best film about American submariners.
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Marine Robert Mitchum and nun Deborah Kerr are stranded on a Japanese occupied island in the South Pacific. Even better than it sounds.
The Longest Day
The best of the Big Hollywood treatments of a Big Battle. Unfairly panned in some circles. Far better than Battle of the Bulge and other similar films.
The Big Red One/A Walk in the Sun
Two classic looks at a combat unit slogging its way across Europe in WWII, both films were likely big influences on Saving Private Ryan.
Best Years of Our Lives
WWII vets return home and try to adjust to civilian life. A deeply moving and perfect film for Memorial Day.
Twelve O’ Clock High
General Gregory Peck struggles with sending bomber crews out to the slaughter of daylight bombing before the P-51 started providing fighter escorts all the way to the target.
Rousing Revolutionary War drama, far more historically defensible than some critics tried to portray it.
Suffers from Edward Zwick’s usual Big Event direction, but still a potent drama of a black unit fighting for the Union Army in the Civil War.
In the Gulf War, a group of vets set out to steal Saddam’s gold, but ultimately, like the Magnificent Seven, their better instincts take over as they protect a village from the savage Revolutionary Guards.
Von Ryan’s Express
Frank Sinatra is great as an American airman who buts heads with Brit Trevor Howard as leads his POW camp out of Italy in the chaos between the Italian surrender and the Germans retaking control of the front.
Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire shine as Quakers caught up in the Civil War. A classic American film that needs to be rediscovered by modern audiences.
A huge cast tries to stop German rockets from falling on England in a rousing mix of fact and fiction.
Anthony Quinn is terrific in this surprisingly realistic look at the famous battle, made in 1943, only a year later.
The humor seemed edgier in the 1950s, but this Billy Wilder classic is still one of the greats.
The Password is Courage
The true story of Charley Coward who actually ran an intelligence ring out of a POW camp. Hoooogan!
The Colditz Story
Nearly as entertaining as The Great Escape, the true story of what happened when the Germans gathered all their most incorrigible Allied POWs in one place to control them better.
Reach for the Sky
Seek out this great British bio pic of Douglas Bader, a pilot who loses his legs in an accident, then becomes on of the greatest Spitfire aces of the war—and even manages to escape a German prison camp, ultimately sent to Colditz Castle as one of the incorrigibles.
The Guns of Navarone
Pure impossible mission action heroics don’t get any better than this, as a great cast led by Gregory Peck actually improves on Alistair MacLean’s greatest novel.
Where Eagles Dare
Yes, it’s over the top, but Alistair MacLean’s effort to recapture the magic of Navarone nearly succeeds and is great fun.
The Dirty Dozen
Lee Marvin and a great cast in a slightly cynical but rousing action film.
This modern Dirty Dozen has about as much regard for WWII history as The Good the Bad and the Ugly does to the Civil War, but it’s just pure cinematic wish fulfillment on a grand scale.
Band of Brothers
The standard by which war miniseries are measured.
Overcrticized because of producer Tom Hank’s stupid comments, and comparisons to Band of Brothers, this is still a major achievement, and shows the hardship of the island war against the Japanese like no other film.
Winds of War/War and Remembrance
The grandaddy of WWII big TV productions is a bit soapy and grandiose but a pretty good overall picture of the war
PBS turned Thomas Fleming’s book into an excellent overview of the Revolutionary War.
Ken Burns’ The Civil War
Whatever its flaws, this is still PBS’s greatest achievement
Watching this HBO film about a soldier escorting a fallen comrade’s body across America is an overwhelmingly emotional experience. The perfect Memorial Day tribute.
Yes, it’s about the enemy, but it’s also at it’s core an anti-Nazi film—not to mention one of the greatest war movies ever. Besides, the German Navy was probably the most resistant of the German armed forces to Nazism.
Now, what do you think I missed? Have at it.