8 of the Best Military Movies to Watch on Remembrance Day
These classic films capture the valour and the sacrifice, the grit and the grace, of our brave men and women in uniform.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
When Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece first premiered, the veterans who actually stormed the beach on D-Day said the movie got it right. Spielberg recreated the World War II beach battle so realistically that watching the movie was like living through history as it happened, giving civilians a small taste of what war is really like. The filmmakers aimed to reproduce historic details with painstaking accuracy right down to the tanks and weapons. Tom Hanks portrays Captain Miller, an English teacher by trade who’s tasked with finding and returning the last surviving Ryan brother home to his mom. After gut-wrenching battles, Miller tells Matt Damon (as Private Ryan) to “earn this.” It’s a message for us all.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
James Cagney’s charisma as a song-and-dance man shines in this classic musical set in the early days of World War II. Cagney plays real-life Broadway legend George M. Cohan, known for penning the beloved tune “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Musical highlights also include “Over There” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” The Broadway numbers show the pageantry and opulence of military uniforms and formations at their best. Stirring visuals, sparkling costumes, and epic set-pieces will keep you riveted from beginning to end. Cohan’s music captured the spirit at the time, and the film shows exactly how music can unite us. When Cagney joins the marching soldiers at the end and sings the rousing tune (“prepare, say a prayer”), you might just find yourself singing along as well.
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The Hurt Locker (2009)
Kathryn Bigelow was the first and only woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. Her Iraq war thriller, The Hurt Locker, also took the prize for Best Picture. The Hurt Locker gives a searing look at the lives of soldiers sent in to dispose of bombs and booby traps in Baghdad. Jeremy Renner’s performance personifies “grace under pressure.” He gives the impossibly tense ticking bomb scenes a human centre. In all, The Hurt Locker depicts the psychological costs of war as it repeatedly jolts the audience with tense explosions.
The Messenger (2009)
Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson star as “Casualty Notification Officers” in this heartbreaking drama about the men tasked with informing military families that their loved ones have died. The film depicts the personal toll on the families and the men who deliver grave news about the ultimate sacrifice. Broken hearts abound, but also the hope of redemption and healing.
George C. Scott’s opening monologue as General Patton, delivered in front of an enormous American flag, remains one of the most iconic images in film. Scott won the Best Actor Oscar for his riveting portrayal of the notorious general, but famously refused to accept the award. His performance is noted for capturing Patton’s passion and aggression. The opening speech, both rousing and controversial, suggests the difficult stakes faced in battle and the grit of fighting spirit. Both flawed and heroic, Patton epitomized the heart of war, and showed it was just as brave to fight as it was to be speak your mind unabashedly.
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Courage Under Fire (1996)
Meg Ryan stars as the first female officer to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor in this drama about the Gulf War. Denzel Washington investigates her story and gets closer to his own battle scars as he tries to determine whether Ryan as Captain Walden deserves the honour. Poignant scenes include a visit to the daughter she left behind and Matt Damon’s portrayal of the toll of combat trauma. The film’s multiple perspectives (we see Walden’s story from many different vantages) suggests that we can never really know what goes on in the heat of battle until we’ve been there ourselves.
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Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
It’s not a real war movie unless John Wayne is gritting his teeth through the hell of battle. As World War II Sergeant Stryker, he pushes his men to extremes because that’s the best way to save them. Misunderstood as brutal by the men he leads, Stryker’s harshness is actually meant to keep them alive. No slackers allowed. The tragic ending becomes even more moving when the men find Stryker’s letter home to his son. The iconic flag-raising scene of the battle of Iwo Jima shows the glory of finally winning the battle, while never losing sight of the genuine sacrifice it took to get there.
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Brad Pitt leads a crew of Sherman tank soldiers during World War II in this brutal, haunting depiction of camaraderie during wartime. The men band together for heroic feats during scenes of intensely realistic tank warfare. Despite the action sequences, Fury‘s heart is with the men, their friendships, and the idea that they will do anything for each other. We watch a young, conscientious objector (Logan Lerman) join their team as a replacement. At first, he can’t pull the trigger, but we watch as he learns to shoot and kill, not only for his own survival, but to aid the men who fight alongside him. Fury‘s scenes of devastating violence bring the meaning of sacrifice to light.
Next, read these powerful Remembrance Day stories of Canadian veterans.