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Gear up for Memorial Day by watching these wartime flicks

Posted May 28
Updated May 29

As we leave Armed Forces Day behind and look toward Memorial Day (Monday, May 30), Flag Day (June 14) and Independence Day (aka the Fourth of July), patriotic wartime movies are on our minds.

Or if they’re not, all it takes to be reminded is a glance at the DVD racks while strolling through Costco or Wal-Mart.

When the subject of war movies comes up, it’s interesting to see so many people name favorites released within the past 20 or 25 years — “Saving Private Ryan” (rated R), “Schindler’s List” (R), “Unbroken” (PG-13), “The Imitation Game” (PG-13), “Flags of Our Fathers” (R), “Letters From Iwo Jima” (R), “Memphis Belle” (PG-13), “The Pianist” (R), “Valkyrie” (PG-13), “Pearl Harbor” (PG-13).

Someone even mentioned “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (PG). Yes, there are Nazis, but no, it’s not really a war film.

And even more surprising, all of them are World War II movies. For some reason, we tend to associate the conflict fought by the Greatest Generation with our patriotic holidays.

There are lots of films out there about more recent wars as well as older wars, but World War II still resonates, perhaps because our enemies at the time were so precisely delineated, and the double conflict of the European and Pacific theaters helped Americans understand what they were fighting for.

That's not so easy with more modern conflicts, from Vietnam forward.

My favorite World War II movies are much older than 25 years. In case you don’t know them or have forgotten them, here are a few titles to consider (all are available on Blu-ray, DVD or various streaming sites). Note: Films listed without a rating were released before a film ratings system was instituted and have not since been rated.

“Casablanca” (1942, PG, b/w). Considered one of cinema’s greatest romantic dramas (and with, arguably, more quoted lines than any other single film), this is also a gripping wartime thriller about duplicity, loyalty and sacrifice and how, during wartime, our smaller problems, in the words of Humphrey Bogart’s character, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains star, with Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Dooley Wilson. Nominated for eight Oscars, this one earned only three, but they were top awards — best picture, best director (Michael Curtiz) and best screenplay (Howard Koch and brothers Julius and Philip Epstein).

“The Great Escape” (1963). Based on a true story, this all-star effort plays as much as a caper thriller (with liberal doses of comedy) as a POW escape flick. British and American soldiers come together in a Nazi camp in Poland to plan an elaborate mass tunnel escape with everyone contributing their special skill sets. The pitch-perfect cast includes Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and David McCallum.

“Patton” (1970, PG). George C. Scott won an Oscar (but declined to accept it) for his powerful portrayal of Gen. George S. Patton, a colorful, some would say tyrannical, and certainly controversial U.S. Army leader during World War II. Scott is brilliant, and Karl Malden is also excellent as Patton’s friend Gen. Omar Bradley, and the staging of battle scenes is gripping and realistic. The film was nominated for 10 Oscars and won seven, including best picture, Franklin J. Schaffner as best director, and Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola for best screenplay, two years before Coppola struck gold with “The Godfather” (R).

“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946, b/w). This post-war examination of how World War II affected those who fought is one of my all-time favorite movies of any genre. The focus here is on three returning servicemen and the difficulties they face adjusting to civilian life: a decorated Army Air Corps captain (Dana Andrews) who has trouble finding work and discovers his wife has been unfaithful, an aging infantry sergeant (Fredric March) who turns to alcohol to soothe his jangled nerves, and a very young sailor (Harold Russell) who lost both forearms in battle and now uses prostheses with hooks.

All of the actors are in top form, including Myrna Loy as March’s understanding wife; Teresa Wright as their daughter, who is attracted to unhappy Andrews; Virginia Mayo as the straying wife; Cathy O’Donnell as Russell’s sensitive and loving fiancee; and Hoagy Carmichael as the local piano-playing barkeep.

The three stories of these men and their troubled roads to rehabilitation intersect in natural ways and the struggles they go through are universal, though they will, of course, particularly resonate with veterans and their families. This is a film of its time, but there’s a lot more going on here, resulting in one of those rare cinematic experiences that transcends its era to remain universally appealing decades later.

Nominated for eight Oscars, “The Best Years of Our Lives” won seven, including best picture, March as best actor, Russell as best supporting actor, William Wyler as best director and Robert E. Sherwood for best screenplay. In addition, Russell, a real-life amputee, won a second Oscar, an honorary award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”

Others I would highly recommend include “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946, PG), “The Big Red One” (1980, R), “The Bridge On the River Kwai” (1957, PG), “The Longest Day” (1962, G, b/w), “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970, G), “Stalag 17” (1953, b/w), “From Here to Eternity” (1953, b/w), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961, b/w) … and there are many more. These offer a variety to choose from, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.

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  • Marvin Sanderford May 29, 9:55 a.m.
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    If I may add....
    The Longest Day, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Red Tails, Stallag 17.