Memorial Day Appreciation: Ranking the Very Best Hollywood Visions of American Service Men & Women

May 27, 2019
M.N. Miller 0
Features, Lists, Ranked, RSC Originals
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I want to extend my greatest thanks to the men and women who have bravely served in our military and made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our country. In honor of this Memorial Day, I have ranked Hollywood’s 25 greatest visions of American conflicts. Sorry Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and All Quiet on the Western Front, I am not discounting other countries’ countless contributions to the wars and conflicts listed below, but today is a United States holiday. Would you please read my list of the Top 25 US military movies (and shows)? Remember, if you meet anyone today who has served in or is still currently in our armed forces, please thank them for their service and sacrifices.

The Top 25 US Military Movies (And TV Shows)

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25. The Longest Day (1962)
An all-star cast that included Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger, and even Paul Anka shows up as US Soldier. Who cares that President Eisenhower walked off the set during its filming because of inaccuracies? It’s a sweeping film about the D-Day invasion and the horrors of those 24 hours.

24. Casualties of War (1989)
This is one of the very few Brian De Palma films that I can tolerate. The Casualties of War is a searing look at a young soldier (Michael J. Fox) who attempts to turn in his fellow soldiers for the rape of a young Vietnamese girl. A polarizing film.

23. Patton (1970)
Has there ever been a greater biographical film than Patton? George C. Scott’s monstrous performances as the legendary general still stand the test of time. He is a man obsessed with completing his mission, no matter the consequences to his young soldiers.

22. Tuskegee Airmen (1995)
An HBO film that looks like a low budget television film (there is a scene with clear cutouts of horses in the background) but tells the powerful story of a group of African-American pilots trying to prove themselves for the right to fight for a country that doesn’t want anything to do with them. The monologue delivered by Andre Braugher near the end of the film is wonderfully moving, as is its emotional score.

21. Restrepo (2010)
An absolutely stunning documentary that had filmmakers spending a year with one platoon in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. It is a film no one talks about and kicks off a decade of the golden age of documentary filmmaking.

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20. Taking Chance (2009)
An intimate look at the true story of a US marine who escorts the body of a 19-year old soldier back to his home in Wyoming. It’s a beautifully restrained performance by Bacon, whose scene in the airport security demanding to be searched in private quarters was depicted with great dignity. It still upsets me Bacon lost out to Brendan Gleason at the 61st Emmy Awards for this performance.

19. The Thin Red Line (1995)
Terrance Malick’s return to Hollywood came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, and both films could not be more different. The Thin Red Line is a visual poem to the horrors of war with powerful performances from Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Elias Koteas. There are so many stars in this film that pop in and out then are never seen again, mimicking the loss of American lives in the Pacific conflict of World War II (poor Adrian Brody).

18. American Sniper (2014)
Say what you want about Clint Eastwood’s remarkable film about an American hero, Chris Kyle. His film is a remarkable depiction of a man put in a difficult position during a time of great political unrest. It’s moving and powerful, with an outstanding performance from Bradley Cooper about the most decorated sniper in US military history (despite the fake baby thumb scene that has gone down in history).

17. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
The best film of 2012 is about the greatest manhunt in US History and the scene choices that were made that show the shadowy side of the sacrifices made to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice.

16. Born on the 4th of July (1989)
A gritty, often horrific, look at the emotional and physical toll the Vietnam War had on US Soldiers. Oliver Stone’s film packs an emotional punch that few have matched since that still holds a Tom Cruise performance that remains his finest.

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15. The Hurt Locker
The film made Jeremy Renner a star, and if any Avenger asked what the hell Sergeant James is doing right now, they would make him an honorary member. Anthony Mackie was also robbed of a nomination and the award Best Supporting Actor; watch his emotionally vulnerable turn as JT Sanborn and tell me you were not moved. The Hurt Locker is a viscerally powerful film.

14. Mash (1970)
At the time, a bold and dark-black comedy was remarkably current of the era it was shot in. You can even argue it remains so, even today.

13. We Were Soldiers (2002)
Based on the classic book, “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young,” by photographer Joe Galloway, who received the Bronze Star for carrying a wounded soldier to safety during heavy enemy fire. Randall Wallace’s film is a resilient depiction that had only gotten better with age and didn’t get the credit it deserved when it came out in 2002.

12. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Stanley Kubrick’s horrific dream of the realities of the effects of military life on mental health is stunning. R. Lee Ermey’s turn as Gny. Sgt. Hartman remains darkly comic, even for today. His unfortunate demise by Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pvt. Pyle still sends shivers up viewers’ spines.

11. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
A dark revenge fantasy tale about a group of Jewish-American soldiers taking down the Nazi regime in Germany. After Pulp Fiction, it remains Tarantino’s finest film and reflects how Basterds was made. Inglourious Basterds is a horrific, nightmarish fairy tale of what our troops were fighting against and for.

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10. The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Deer Hunter is director Michael Cimino’s finest work and tells the story of how the Vietnam war tore apart a group of friends from a small, rural Pennsylvania town. Christopher Walken’s performance remains an emotional wrecking ball.

9. Platoon (1986)
Based on legendary director Oliver Stone’s personal experiences, Platoon ends the John Wayne era war film. A brutal, gritty, in-your-face telling of the overall pointlessness of the war they were dropped in the middle of, where no one was safe.

8. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Frances Ford Coppola’s hypnotic dark and emotional tumble down the rabbit hole is loosely based on the 1899 novella The Heart of Darkness. The legendary director changed the setting from the Congo to Vietnam, the film that almost killed Coppola and its young star, Martin Sheehan, in the process. Apocalypse Now remains a classic piece of art on the costs of our soldiers’ sacrifice and loss of mental health.

7. Black Hawk Down (2001)

Ridley Scott’s film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Mark Bowden; he covered the 1993 raid in Mogadishu by the U.S. Military intended to capture Mohammed Farrah Aidid. It’s a relentless, potent, and fierce trip that seldom lets up, except for when the late-great Sam Shepherd tells us, “No one gets left behind.”

6. Paths of Glory (1957)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is still the very best film of World War I. Paths ahead of its time had so much more on its mind than its epic battle sequences. Kubrick’s film is remarkably compassionate and understanding, that honors its subjects.

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5. The War (2007)
The Ken Burns documentary remains a rousing tribute to everyday Americans through Europe, the Pacific, and African conflicts. Burns does an impeccable job showing the effects of the war on the soldiers in the fight and the communities at home.

4. Glory (1989)
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry film is one of only a handful of films to be nominated for more Academy Awards, including best film editing and cinematography, than any other Best Picture nominees that did not receive the Best Picture nomination in the same year. Roger Ebert called Glory “A strong and valuable film no matter whose eyes the film is seen through.” Edward Zwick’s film is a timeless story and a beautifully moving one at that. Denzel Washington earned his first Oscar win as Pvt. Trip and features the greatest musical score of all time.

3. Mash (Television Series 1972-1983)
A television masterpiece that combines a high amount of zany comedy and insanely powerful storylines inside a mobile Army Surgical Hospital. One of them included its remarkable series finale where Alan Alda’s Hawkeye gets a glimpse of the true horrors of war. A rare television adaptation that supersedes the original film.

2. Band of Brothers (Miniseries 2001)
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s epic mini-series remains one of the finest events in television history, or in any medium, frankly. An all-star cast, with many before-they-were-stars cameos (hello James McAvoy), featuring a high performance by Damien Lewis, a wonderful supporting turn by Donnie Wahlberg, and the jaw-dropping “Why We Fight” chapter that remains iconic.


1. Saving Private Ryan (1995)
Steven Speilberg’s masterpiece of giving equal treatment to honoring its subject while questioning its mission was a staggering achievement in film history. Never before has a director made the landing at Normandy so intense, powerful, and shocking; it’s a masterclass in filmmaking.

Honorable Mentions:
Jarhead, Lone Survivor, The Pacific, Gettysburg, The Dirty Dozen, The Crossing, Hacksaw Ridge, Ride with the Devil, Tigerland, Letters of Iwo Jima, Courage Under Fire, In the Valley of Elah, Three Kings, Cold Mountain, A Bridge Too Far, Tora! Tora! Tora!