"Saving Private Ryan"
Amblin Entertainment"Saving Private Ryan"

The 20 best Memorial Day movies

Feeling patriotic? Salute American sacrifice by watching the best Memorial Day movies honoring the military.

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War is hell, but it’s also where heroes are made. The best Memorial Day movies tell both stories. Some are serious-minded Oscar winners, others are considered action classics. Some amplify the horror, others crank up the heroism, but in their own way, each movie on this list honors those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. Here are 20 movies all Americans should consider watching this Memorial Day – or any day.

RECOMMENDED: The 50 best World War II movies.

Best Memorial Day movies

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Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

If you’ve seen Jimmy Cagney only as a tough-talkin’ gangster, you may be surprised by how fancy his footwork is in this biopic of beloved song-and-dance man George M. Cohan. He's the Broadway legend who composed the patriotic anthems "Over There," "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy."

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A slow-building and unlikely blockbuster (the biggest film of 84-year-old director Clint Eastwood’s career), this electrifying PTSD war drama became a political football for its questionable handling of the real-life Chris Kyle. But between a nervy performance by Bradley Cooper and some daring ambiguities on the matter of valor, you have a movie that only Eastwood could make.

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Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
You don't have to roll with Steven Spielberg’s central conceit—another movie about rescuing Matt Damon—to be knocked out by his epic mounting of WWII's 1944 Omaha Beach assault, a visually spectacular sequence that simply has no equal in cinema. This is war at its most violent and costly of national treasure.

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Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Another Eastwood film? This one deserves it. It's the story of the real-life Marines snapped in the iconic wartime photograph raising a flag on Iwo Jima, a staged moment that was cynically milked during the war-bonds drive. (Eastwood's companion film, Letters from Iwo Jima, is told from the Japanese perspective).

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The Hurt Locker (2008)
The Hurt Locker (2008)

Kathryn Bigelow made history with this depiction of an American bomb diffusal unit in Iraq, becoming the first woman to win an Academy Award for directing. The film itself won Best Picture, and for good reason: few war movies mix intimacy and intensity quite so potently.

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Black Hawk Down (2001)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, The Martian) is an undeniable visual genius and his pummeling action film puts a who’s who of celebrity grunts (Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor among them) through their “war is bad, I say!” paces. The subject is the 1993 Mogadishu raid, a military incident of thankless sacrifice.

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  • Action and adventure
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
Have we made all our Michael Bay jokes by now? Because the Transformers director turned out a remarkably serious effort chronicling a misunderstood moment in recent American military misadventure. There’s very little political commentary here. No actor is cast as Hillary Clinton, firing off secret emails; nobody questions the selfless heroism of the soldiers involved.

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Sergeant York (1941)
Sergeant York (1941)
Hard-core pacifists are advised to stay away from this film, since it tells the story of a man who starts out as one but ultimately becomes a WWI war hero. Anybody else is sure to be entertained by Gary Cooper's effortlessly sincere central performance and Howard Hawks's no-nonsense direction.

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11. A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Like The Longest Day a decade earlier, Richard Attenborough’s epic is based on a book by historian Cornelius Ryan, features a huge ensemble cast and depicts a specific military operation from World War II: Operation Market Garden, a failed Allied attempt to end the war by entering Germany through Holland. By nature of its subject, it is a much less triumphalist film than its predecessor, but it’s a better one: impressively lensed by cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and spectacularly acted by its international cast, including James Caan, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Laurence Olivier and Sean Connery, who appears in both movies.

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The Big Red One (1980)
The Big Red One (1980)

No, it’s not about Clifford. Samuel Fuller tapped into his own combat experiences in World War II and came away with what some consider his masterpiece. Told through a series of vignettes, it follows a rifle squad through North Africa and Europe, exploring their growing bond, and features several haunting scenes, including the bombing of an insane asylum and the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. Roger Ebert called it ‘one of the most expensive B-pictures ever made’ – and he meant it as a compliment.

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Coming from Navyman John Ford, this story of PT boats defending the Philippines in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor is among the more accurate representations of naval combat from its era. John Wayne and Robert Montgomery star as outmanned lieutenants fighting for survival against a powerful Japanese fleet.

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Famously, this was Richard Nixon's favorite film, a potent counterbalance to the voices of the protesters and a manly peptalk of righteousness. (It wasn't enough to help the President with his problems.) George C. Scott is magnificent in the title role, railing iconically against "Hun bastards" in his opening monologue before a huge American flag.

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A silent-era blockbuster, King Vidor’s World War I epic established the template many other war movies would follow over the ensuing decades: the realistic battle sequences; the two-part structure transitioning from basic training to the battlefield; and the personal story of a directionless rich kid who enlists to please his parents and comes home a changed man. It’s still a masterpiece of its kind and in its touching ending, a blueprint for the coming-home-type dramas that would follow. 

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A throwback to the Howard Hawks era of war films, Memphis Belle is a well-executed piece of flag-waving nostalgia. It’s 1943, and the elite crew of a famed World War II bomber is nearing its final campaign – but its last mission turns out to be its most dangerous. The historical accuracy basically ends at the name of the aircraft, but the upstart ensemble cast (Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Billy Zane) indulges the movie’s clichés with such zeal that they manage to elevate the film above them.

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  • Action and adventure

‘Written by and starring Tom Hanks’ doesn’t always indicate a classic, but it’s usually a dependable sign of watchability, particularly if it’s about the Greatest Generation. In the case of Greyhound, it’s a seafaring thriller based on the true story of an Allied submarine convoy under German attack in the early days of America’s entry into World War II. It’s a dad movie from the King of Dad Movies, and it delivers.

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A precursor to Saving Private Ryan, this all-star dramatisation of the invasion of Normandy is a decidedly 1960s interpretation of the battle – a little too clean, a bit too triumphant – but lord, the cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger… and on and on. It might not have lived up to producer Darryl F Zanuck’s desire to make the most important war movie of all time, but it’s a masterclass in stoic machismo. 

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Jeff Chandler, in what would be his final screen appearance, steps into the title role of Frank Merrill, a real-life brigadier general who led a successful campaign through the jungles of Burma during World War II to capture the capital, Myitkyina. Director Samuel Fuller would have bigger, better and bloodier war movies, but this is among his grittiest.

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  • Action and adventure
Lone Survivor (2013)
Lone Survivor (2013)

A crew of NAVY Seals (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch) on a mission in Afghanistan end up in a firefight with the Taliban, and… well, the title is a bit of a spoiler. Lone Survivor doesn’t have much to say about the War on Terror specifically, but director Peter Berg does an admirable job putting you directly in the center of the action, allowing the audience to make up its own mind about how much it’s all worth.

Best war movies of all time

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The 50 best war movies of all time
The 50 best war movies of all time
We slogged through our own basic training to arrive at the 50 best war movies—and not merely the best action movies with the wildest explosions and movie stunts (though expect plenty of ammo). Rather, here are the most profound statements, pointed and patriotic alike, on the distinctly human condition of fighting. We offer the list to you, our readers, along with our sharpest salute. Why not put on your war face and sound off, in the comments section below? RECOMMENDED: Our list of the 100 best movies of all time
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