Memorial Day’s designation as the unofficial start of summer, with its attendant cookouts and road trips, often overshadows the federal holiday’s true, much-less-sunny purpose as a designated day to remember the sacrifice of those who died in the service of the United States Armed Forces. And what better way to do that than eschew the sun and outdoor fun and spend the long weekend inside watching a bunch of films that capture the trauma and ambiguous glory of the war experience? In an attempt to pay tribute to the entirety of American military history, we’ve organized our list of streaming-movie recommendations by the major American military conflicts they represent—with the unfortunate omission of the one that started it all, The American Revolution, which is poorly represented among the major streaming services. (Those with access to a copy of John Ford’s Drums Along The Mohawk or the 1953 Disney two-reeler Ben And Me should feel free to add them to the lineup.)
The American Civil War has always been a ripe subject for filmmakers, because it has a high capacity for tragic irony (brother against brother!), a few clear villains (dastardly slave-holders!), and battles that rage in the picturesque American wilderness. But director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus take a different tack in Ride With The Devil, one of the best Civil War films to capture the conflict’s confusion and contradictions. Following a group of Confederacy-affiliated Missouri “bushwackers” through years of war, Lee and Schamus show how a soldier’s initial fervor cools over time, as the fighting drags on and the homefront beckons. It also deals with questions of race and gender, examining how the film’s protagonists deal with a freed slave in their midst (well-played by Jeffrey Wright) and a woman (pop star Jewel) who helps shelter and nurse the group through the winter. Best of all, Ride With The Devil has the soft-spoken Tobey Maguire as its hero, representing the ordinary Americans who got caught up in the furious rush of the war between the states, eventually becoming displaced from their own country and ideals.
Streaming availability: Digital rental via Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube.
One of the last WWI movies released before America entered World War II, Sergeant York tells the true story of Alvin York, a sharp-shooting pacifist who tried to avoid service during the first World War, but was drafted anyway, and eventually concluded he could shoot at Germans and still be a Christian. As York, Gary Cooper brings an earnest quality that sells both the character’s faith and his capacity to become a lethal weapon. Director Howard Hawks and a team of screenwriters (including young John Huston) re-created the America of the early 20th century, looking back on a time when a large, diverse nation was preparing to become more of a player on the international stage. No wonder Sergeant York was credited with driving military recruitment in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Streaming availability: Digital rental via iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and more.
Even more than 65 years later, it’s rare for an American movie to depict World War II as anything but “the last good war.” A rare and worthwhile exception, Attack was made in 1956 by director Robert Aldrich without the assistance or support of the United States Army, because of its depictions of internecine strife and cowardly commanding officers. A ferocious Jack Palance stars as Joe Costa, a brave lieutenant whose platoon is repeatedly put at risk by the weak-kneed decisions of a craven captain (Eddie Albert) and the politically minded colonel (Lee Marvin) who protects him. When the captain tosses his men to the wolves yet again, Costa swears revenge—which won’t be easy to get, since he’s trapped in a German stronghold and surrounded by the SS. Aldrich—who, along with Marvin, returned to World War II and the themes of courage and sacrifice in the also-excellent 1967 film The Dirty Dozen—skillfully balances intense action scenes with quieter contemplations of the morality of war. And while Albert occasionally seems outmatched by his role (particularly when asked to approximate a mental breakdown), the final showdown between Costa and the captain doesn’t disappoint. Attack is simultaneously a skeptical look at war and the powerful men who control it, and a deeply moving tribute to the soldiers who are fully aware of the corruption around them, and willingly lay down their lives anyway. It looks beneath the myths of World War II and finds hope amid the harsh reality.
Streaming availability: Digital rental via Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.
During the Cold War, the country was gripped by the threat of nuclear holocaust, but the battle lines were sharply divided between two camps: the hawks, who felt the only way to counter the Soviets was to engage in the arms race and keep up America’s end of the mutually assured destruction threat, and the doves, who argued for nuclear treaties and disarmament. Written by Rod Serling, John Frankenheimer’s superb 1964 thriller Seven Days In May imagines a worst-case scenario in which the country’s political fault lines threaten to destroy it without the Soviets’ help. The film opens with the dove-ish president (Frederic March) signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, despite fears that drive his approval numbers below 30 percent, leaving him vulnerable to a brazen coup attempt by General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) and the Joint Chiefs Of Staff. Scott’s subordinate, a Marine colonel played by Kirk Douglas, learns of this secret plan and alerts the president, leading to a tense standoff. Shooting in black-and-white, Frankenheimer makes a sickly plausible entertainment out of an over-the-top scenario, born of a schism that divided the country in 1964, and still ripples through our political discourse today.
Streaming availability: Digital rental via Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and more.
The Korean War is sometimes referred to as the forgotten war, and with good reason. A three-year conflict fought to a virtual draw, it was overshadowed by the scale of World War II, and ignored as much as possible by an American populace still weary from that conflict, and less inclined to be roused by the fate of an Asian peninsula than a threat directly involving the United States. The Korean conflict didn’t spark a rich legacy of films, and even the most famous, M*A*S*H, is as much about attitudes toward the Vietnam War as Korea. But Samuel Fuller made two films about the war while it was still in progress, both released in 1951, both starring Fuller favorite Gene Evans, and both taking a tough, soldier’s-eye view of the war that suggested the rightness of American involvement without overdoing the propaganda or sugarcoating the cost. Fixed Bayonets! is a strong feature set against an unforgiving Korean winter. (It’s available for rental from several streaming services.) The Steel Helmet, one of Fuller’s best films, is a better starting point, however, with Evans playing a WWII veteran who’s signed on for another war. Over the course of the film, he encounters a cross-section of those fighting the war, including African-American Corporal Thompson (James Edwards) and Japanese-American Sergeant Tanaka (Richard Loo). When they later take a North Korean P.O.W., he taunts them both with the racism waiting for them back home, but their belief in their duty, and the rightness of American ideals, lets them resist his attempts to turn them to the other side. It’s the sort of sequence Fuller did so well: filled with a keen awareness of America’s shortcomings, but also a love for its ideals, and the firsthand knowledge that the men fighting and dying for those ideals deserved a country willing to face its flaws. (Trivia fans: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas borrowed the name “Short Round” from a character in this film.)
Streaming availability: Free via Hulu Plus, digital rental via Amazon and iTunes.
The gold standards of Vietnam films are still Apocalypse Now (free on Amazon Prime, rentable on most basic VOD platforms) and Full Metal Jacket (also widely available for a couple bucks online), and there’s no shortage of other sticky-and-icky movies about the exhaustion, confusion, and moral collapse of soldiers trying to make sense of that war. For a no-less-hellish, but still strikingly gorgeous and affirming story, there’s 2006’s Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog’s strange fictional retelling of his own 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, an American pilot shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War, and stuck in a POW camp under horrific conditions that are breaking down his fellow inmates. (One is memorably played by Steve Zahn, in the role that convinced the world he had dramatic chops as well as comedic ones.) Part of what makes the film is that Dieter is the same kind of cracked, wild-man visionary who’s always fascinated Herzog, but instead of trying to pull a boat over a mountain to bring opera to the jungle, or conquer the New World and spawn an empire with a few dozen doubtful and dying soldiers, Dieter is simply trying to survive and escape. It’s the same kind of unlikely, manic ambition Herzog loves, but suddenly it’s relatable, and set in a phenomenally beautiful and deadly environment, shot by frequent Herzog partner Peter Zeitlinger (Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters At The End Of The World, and more—including Little Dieter). There’s a Terrence Malickian hush and wonder to Rescue Dawn, but it’s first and foremost a Herzog film, about the human drive to live and overcome. In a subgenre so often devoted to death, it’s unusually satisfying.
Streaming availability: Digital rental via Amazon and iTunes.
By all accounts, the atmosphere on the set of 1999’s Three Kings was combative. Director David O. Russell and star George Clooney repeatedly clashed over Russell’s improvisatory approach and his allegedly abrasive treatment of the crew and extras; they even reportedly came to blows on at least one occasion. But if anything, the strife behind the camera only enhanced the atmosphere in front of it, and suffused this bold, frenetic film with a palpable, purposeful rage. Clooney plays a disillusioned Army major who, in the days immediately after the Persian Gulf War, goes on a treasure hunt for stolen Kuwaiti gold and inadvertently rediscovers his moral compass after witnessing the destructive impact of the war on innocent Iraqi civilians. The film itself bears a similar arc. Early scenes ooze a flashy, stylish cool as Russell whips his camera (and its desaturated frame) around with wild abandon, even following the path of a bullet into the human body at one point. But the climactic race to help some refuges across the Iranian border takes on huge emotional stakes. Though Russell and Clooney each went on to hugely successful film careers, they’ve never worked together again—but they supposedly buried the hatchet a couple of years ago. Maybe someday they’ll get back together for a follow-up on the second war in Iraq, a subject that really deserves a film with Three Kings’ merciless, take-no-prisoners approach.
Streaming availability: Digital rental via Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes
The anti-Iraq War documentary became an overflowing subsection of the independent film world for years, as one documentarian after another took dead aim at the purported crimes of the second Bush administration. But few condemnations of the war’s planning and execution were as persuasive or compelling as Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-nominated 2007 exposé No End In Sight. The film methodically depicts an administration obsessed with waging war on Iraq, misreading the situation at every turn and consequently failing soldiers, the people of Iraq, and the American people through mismanagement and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge and/or learn from its mistakes. No End In Sight takes on the feeling of a slow-motion tragedy, as soldiers, civilians, and politicians recount how the war was doomed at every step by a lack of planning and execution that would be comic if it hadn’t produced such horrifying consequences. By dropping the hyperbole and name-calling that doomed so many leftist anti-war documentaries, and sticking to the facts, Ferguson produced the definitive Iraq War documentary. The film is a powerful indictment of a particular administration, but what gives it a timeless power is the knowledge that without public vigilance, such horrifically misconceived and executed war-mongering can, and will, happen again.
Streaming: Free via Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime. Digital rental via iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.
After 30 years of films presenting John Rambo as a symbol of grunting, efficiently murderous, well-oiled American butchness, it’s much too easy to forget where the character began: in a downbeat, thoughtful, tragic 1982 film that isn’t nearly as interested in heroism and wastin’ Commies as it is in veterans’ experience when they come home. First Blood adapts David Morrell’s 1972 novel, with changes made to make its hero more soulful and sympathetic—a symbol of the era’s veterans, coming home from Vietnam traumatized and disassociated, and getting reviled or ignored. The plot has troubled Special Forces vet Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) being targeted and bullied by small-town lawmen, whose brutality triggers flashbacks to his POW past. When he fights back, he ends up at war with the law, in a grim forest face-off that’s more akin to the feverish solemnity of Straw Dogs or even Apocalypse Now than to any of the Rambo sequels that followed. Director Ted Kotcheff gives the film a murky, portentous feel that highlights the tragedy of war veterans, the trauma of people trained to kill to survive, then brought back to a society that doesn’t value those skills or want to hear about—or possibly even acknowledge—their traumatic experiences. It’s a nerve-racking film, but a surprisingly smart and sad one as well, and it’s well worth discovering both for its own rich emotional qualities, and to boggle at just how far the Rambo story has been warped since the original outing.
Streaming availability: Digital rental via Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.