Memorial Day: 21 films, including American Sniper, that tell the story of war

21 war stories told on film - from The Deer Hunter to American Sniper.


WASHINGTON, May 22, 2015 —  Let’s face it, we all hate war but love war stories. As far back as Homer’s The Iliad, people have been transfixed by the story of the dashing hero, the desperate battle, and those who did not come home. And while Memorial Day is a serious time to honor those we’ve lost to war, it can also be a fun time to lose ourselves in a good war story. What makes a good war movie? There may be as many opinions on that as there are war movies themselves. We think it takes more than just a story set against the backdrop of war. We want the hero, fighting against all odds, and daring it all in a good and just cause. This is what drives our list (although we’ve made some allowances for comedies that make a statement about war in here too).  This weekend, fly the flag, remember the fallen and then light the grill and enjoy some of these classics.

21. The Deer Hunter

Released in 1978.  183 minutes. Rated R.

In this Oscar-winning epic from director Michael Cimino, a group of working-class friends decides to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam War and finds it to be hellish chaos — not the noble venture they imagined. Before they left, Steven (John Savage) married his pregnant girlfriend — and Michael (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) were in love with the same woman (Meryl Streep). But all three are different men upon their return.

20. Catch 22

Released in 1970. 121 minutes. Rated R.

Capt. Yossarian (Alan Arkin) tries to escape the travesties of World War II by convincing his Air Force commanders that he’s crazy. Hilarity ensues — but so does reality as he watches his close friends (Martin Sheen and Art Garfunkel) die in the ridiculousness of war. Mike Nichols directs this cinematic adaptation of Joseph Heller’s scathing black comedy about a small group of flyers in the Mediterranean in 1944.

19. Sergeant York

Released in 1941. 134 minutes. Rated NR

In a career-defining performance that earned him his first Academy Award, Gary Cooper stars as Alvin York, a poor Appalachian pacifist drafted into World War I. Placed in an impossible position, York single-handedly captures an entire enemy platoon and becomes a national hero. This World War II-era Hollywood classic based on the real-life war hero received 11 Academy Award nominations, including one for director Howard Hawks.

18. Gallipoli

Released in 1981. 111 minutes. Rated PG

Australian Director Peter Weir takes on one of his country’s most tragic moments in history: the World War I confrontation with the German allied Turks. As the film leads up to the battle in act three, we get to know the young men destined to be casualties of war. A young Mel Gibson (on the heels of his successful turn in Mad Max) plays one of the innocent doomed. This poignant war drama swept the Australian Film Institute Awards with eight wins.

17. Sands of Iwo Jima

Released in 1941. 109 minutes. Rated NR

Sgt. John Stryker is a tough-as-nails Marine who’s relentless in his efforts to turn new recruits into fighting machines during World War II. Though his troops question his harsh methods, Stryker’s methods prove useful on the Iwo Jima battlefields.

16. Run Silent, Run Deep

Released in 1958. Ratd NR

Film legend Clark Gable plays single-minded Cmdr. Richardson, who lost his submarine during an overzealous pursuit and has sworn to take revenge against the Japanese destroyer that sunk his ship. But on the skipper’s new vessel, the executive officer (Burt Lancaster) believes Richardson’s obsession is putting the crew’s lives in danger, leading to talk of mutiny in this taut World War II thriller also starring Jack Warden.

15. In Harm’s Way

Released in 1965. 167 minutes. Rated NR

This World War II epic focuses on the effect the Pearl Harbor attack had on military lives. After a failed counterstrike on the Japanese, Capt. Torrey gets shore duty, finds love with a nurse, reconciles with his son and is finally sent back to sea.

14. The Hurt Locker

Released in 2008. 130 minutes. Rated R

Kathryn Bigelow directs this gripping drama that follows a U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal team operating in Iraq. Amid the dangers of their work, the squad also contends with the pressures that arise from living in constant peril.

13. The Great Escape

Released in 1963. 172 minutes. Rated NR

Based on a true story, this tension-filled epic adventure centers on an audacious plan by Allied officers who’ve escaped their Nazi captors time and again to stage a massive breakout, this time from an ostensibly escape-proof German prison camp.

12. They Were Expendable

Released in 1945. 135 minutes. Rated NR

During the bleak days following Pearl Harbor, Navy lieutenants John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and Rusty Ryan (John Wayne) persuade the brass to let them send untried plywood boats against the Japanese fleet. The odds are against them, but what do heroes care about odds? One of director John Ford’s pet projects, this war drama is based on the true story of the development of patrol torpedo boats.

11. M*A*S*H

Released in 1970. 116 minutes. Rated R

Director Robert Altman’s thinly veiled Vietnam War satire is indicative of when the spirit of the 1970s went mainstream, with Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland and Tom Skerritt as Army doctors fighting military insanity and healing wounded soldiers during the Korean War. Featuring an Oscar-winning score and standout work from a huge ensemble cast (including Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman), M*A*S*H is a masterpiece of ’70s cinema.

10. The Dirty Dozen

Released in 1967. 150 minutes. Rated NR

In this Academy Award-winning World War II action flick from director Robert Aldrich (The Longest Yard), a U.S. Army major (Lee Marvin) is handed a near-impossible assignment: Turn a group of conscripted convicts into a crack fighting unit and then send them on a mission to destroy a villa filled with Nazi brass. The “volunteers” include Archer J. Maggott (Telly Savalas), Victor Franko (John Cassavetes) and Vernon L. Pinkley (Donald Sutherland).

9. The Longest Day

Released in 1962. 178 minutes. Rated G

This Oscar-winning war epic chronicles World War II’s harrowing D-Day invasion. Shot on the beaches of Normandy, France, the ambitious film attempts to cover the historic day from all perspectives, focussing on both sides of the conflict.

8. Das Boot

Released in 1981. 209 minutes. Rated R

Nominated for six Oscars, this edge-of-your-seat dramatic triumph follows the trials of a German U-boat crew during World War II. Upon its restored re-release in 1997, an hour was added to the original film, which further augmented its impact. It also played as a six-hour German miniseries. In all its forms, the realistic and gripping battle scenes and palpable human struggle make Das Boot a critical hit.


Released in 1957. 162 minutes. Rated PG

Director David Lean’s sweeping epic — best known for a whistling work theme that became legendary — is set in a World War II Japanese prison camp, where British prisoners are forced to build a railway bridge as a morale-building exercise.

6. Full Metal Jacket

Released in 1987. 117 minutes. Rated R

Vietnam-era Marine recruits endure the grueling ordeal of basic training and later face the unrelenting Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive in this grim Stanley Kubrick drama based on a novel by Gustav Hasford.

5. A Bridge Too Far

Released in 1977. 176 minutes. Rated PG

Featuring intense battle sequences and a cast of thousands, this wartime drama details a pivotal day in 1944 when an Allied task force tried — and failed — to win World War II by seizing control of key bridges in Holland.

4. Saving Private Ryan

Released in 1998. 169 minutes. Rated R

As U.S. troops storm the beaches of Normandy, three brothers lie dead on the battlefield, with a fourth trapped behind enemy lines. Ranger Capt. John Miller and seven of his men are ordered to penetrate German-held territory and bring the man home.

3. Lawrence of Arabia

Released in 1962. 227 minutes. Rated PG

This Oscar-winning epic tells the true story of T.E. Lawrence, who helped unite warring Arab tribes to strike back against the Turks in World War I. This lush, timeless classic underscores the clash between cultures that changed the tide of war.

2. Patton

Released in 1970. 171 minutes. Rated PG

Gen. George S. Patton earned the nickname “Blood and Guts” for his determination on the battlefield. This epic-scale production follows the commander as he guides his troops across Africa and Europe, illuminating a man whose life was defined by war.

1. American Sniper

Released in 2015. 132 Minutes. Rated R.

Director Clint Eastwood’s multiple Academy Award-nominated film exploring the complexities of war and its effects on the soldiers who return home finally arrives in the Blu-ray format. Mr. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall brought to light the impactful life of Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history, with help from an outstanding performance by a transformed Bradley Cooper as Kyle and support from actress Sienna Miller as his wife Taya.

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  • bill

    As a Vietnam Vet I served as a Army Combat Medic twice there once with a Navy Special Operations Unit in The Mobile Riverines 4th Bn 47th Inf. To me the most realistic movies were “Hamburger Hill” (25th Inf Div) and the Air Cavalry Div. represented very well in “We Were Soldiers”.

  • FB Dairy Farmer

    I might also add- Das Boot, Stalingrad (The German production)…
    Lastly- If you have not seen “The War” a documentary by Ken Burns. It beats almost every movie to understanding the affects of WWII.

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