Originally a Southern event designated to honor Confederate veterans of the Civil War, Memorial Day went on to become a nationally recognized holiday in the United States, which now honors all American veterans. While today the true meaning of the holiday is too often lost amidst the barbeques, beach days, and block parties that it has since become associated with, it remains at its heart a commemoration of the bravery and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. Below are three films that celebrate and honor America’s men and women in arms and all that they stand for.
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The Patriot: The best place to start with America’s military history is at the beginning, and the 2000 historical war drama The Patriot does just that through its wrenching tale of one man’s struggle to protect his family amidst the American Revolution. The story begins with emotionally scarred French and Indian War veteran Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) attempting to maintain neutrality in an increasingly conflicted world. While his war-time trauma and the death of his wife leave Benjamin determined that his family remain safely out of the bloody events surrounding them, his pacifism places him in direct conflict with his headstrong eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger). Benjamin is eventually forced to choose sides when Gabriel defies him by enlisting in the Continental Army and is later arrested. The arrest sets off a brutal chain of events that ultimately lead father and son on a quest for more than mere revenge as they devote themselves to the colonies’ struggle for independence. Following in the footsteps of Mel Gibson’s earlier hit, Braveheart, the film portrays the harrowing reality of war and the heavy price paid by those caught in the cross-fire. In this way, the film not only pays homage to the courage of the Continental Army and its supporters, but also serves as an apt tribute to the sacrifices that they made in their pursuit of freedom. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its morally conflicted approach, which emphasizes the plight of the colonies under British rule without glorifying the gruesome reality of their fight for independence. While the film serves as much to entertain as to educate it provides viewers with an introduction to the American Revolution and brings the historical events it portrays to life with equal parts gritty realism and emotional resonance. For a revolutionary way to honor Memorial Day look no further than The Patriot.
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Glory: The American Civil War is most often portrayed on-screen as the struggle between north and south over the abolition of slavery. What such narratives all too often fail to acknowledge, however, is the role that African-Americans played in the fight for emancipation. The 1989 film Glory, presents a more complex portrayal of the Civil War from the unique perspective of an all-black regiment and their abolitionist leader. Inspired by a true story, the film follows the real life 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the Union Army’s first all-black regiments, as they face adversity both on and off the battlefield. The film begins with Boston abolitionist Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) being promoted to the rank of colonel for valor at Antietam and receiving orders to lead the 54th regiment. To the credit of the film’s writers, the script approaches the characters as an ensemble cast, giving full weight to the men who comprised the regiment rather than merely focusing upon Shaw’s leadership. The film is made up of a variety of three-dimensional performances rather than mere types, with standout performances from Matthew Broderick as Shaw, Morgan Freeman as insightful John Rawlins, and Denzel Washington as rebellious Silas Tripp. The film relates a more complicated tale than most war movies as it portrays its heroes’ efforts to struggle against racial discrimination in their own army in the midst of their larger battle against the Confederacy. The film is made even more complex by its bittersweet ending, as the majority of the regiment ultimately fall in the assault on Fort Wagner even as their valor prompts the Union Army to accept the enlistment of thousands of African-American soldiers. Through its engaging performances and intelligent script the film offers more than a mere history lesson and serves as a solemn tribute to the soldiers of the 54th regiment and those who followed after them.
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The Best Years of Our Lives: While war dramas have graced cinema screens since the silent era, few films capture struglle that soldiers continue to face after the gunfire stops quite like The Best Years of Our Lives. Released in the immediate wake of World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives stands out from the plethora of war films released in its era for is stark portrayal of lingering trauma. The film follows three soldiers as they return to civilian life in the same Midwestern town while they continue to grapple with the traumas that they have suffered. The script aptly portrays the ways in which the war impacted people of all walks of life as middle-aged banker Al (Frederic March) returns home to a family who no longer know him, ambitious Fred (Dana Andrews) wrestles with both the plummeting job market and his broken marriage, and former high school athlete Homer (Harold Russell) adjusts to life with a disability after losing both hands in combat. The script approaches each of its characters and their individual journeys with an essential sensitivity and subtlety that provides apt insight into the trials of soldiers returning home not just from World War II but from every war. The film particularly stands out for its refusal to follow the propaganda film trends of its era in its focus upon the heavy price of freedom rather than limiting itself to the Allied victory. For one of the most emotionally resonant and honest film going experiences of your life look no further than The Best Years of Our Lives.