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8 Movies About America at War to Watch for Memorial Day

Yes, you can still barbecue. But take a moment to watch one or more of these great films that honor the deeper spirit of the holiday

spinner image Morgan Freeman starring in the film Glory and Tom Hanks starring in the film Saving Private Ryan
(Left to right) Morgan Freeman in "Glory" and Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan."
TriStar Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images; Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Memorial Day means the first weekend of summer and playing outside. But it’s important to remember that the holiday was founded not long after the Civil War to commemorate our nation’s war dead. So what better way to honor the holiday — and learn a little more about the history of America's conflicts — by watching movies? (It’s also a terrific option if the weather this weekend ends up being not all that summery.) Here are eight films that explore the history of our nation at war, all available to stream on your favorite platforms.

Sergeant York (1941)

The conflict: World War I

The real-life Alvin York was that rarest of war heroes: a conscientious objector who went into battle in World War I and won a Medal of Honor after he and six platoon mates wiped out a German machine gun nest and captured 132 enemy troops. Gary Cooper, playing York as a religiously inspired country boy who learned sharpshooting while hunting to feed his family, won an Oscar under the sober but moving direction of Howard Hawks. Released five months before the U. S. entered World War II, the film captures the uncertain mood of a nation caught between wishing to remain at peace and taking action against evil.

Watch it: Sergeant York on Max

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The conflict: World War II

Among the greatest of American melodramas, William Wyler’s epic about three servicemen who return home from World War II bearing physical and psychological traumas won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, plus a special Academy Award. Poignant and forthright, it features career-defining performances by Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright and, most memorably, Harold Russell, who lost both hands in demolition training during the war.

Watch it: The Best Years of Our Lives on Prime Video

Platoon (1986)

The conflict: Vietnam War

Whatever he may have done later on, say this about director Oliver Stone: In 1967, he dropped out of Yale, volunteered for the Army, requested assignment to Vietnam and served in action for 14 months, earning a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart, among other decorations. His experience became the basis for this harrowing account of a green infantryman (Charlie Sheen) thrown into the hell of jungle warfare and torn between the influence of two sergeants — a grizzled warrior (Tom Berenger) and a hippy-ish mystic (Willem Dafoe). The grueling combat scenes, still vivid decades later, helped the film win a Best Picture Oscar.

Watch it: Platoon on Max

Glory (1989)

The conflict: Civil War

Based on a true story, director Edward Zwick’s account of the campaign of one of the first all-Black regiments to serve the Union Army in the Civil War is filled with powerhouse acting in the service of a heartbreaking tale. Matthew Broderick is fine as the unit’s commander, but the performances of Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Denzel Washington, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, truly lift the film to another level. An intimate, beautifully crafted movie (it also won Academy Awards for cinematography and sound), Glory has the sweep and scale of a classic war epic.

Watch it: Glory on Hulu

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Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The conflict: World War II

Fifty-plus years after D-Day, Steven Spielberg, the son of a World War II veteran, crafted arguably the most visceral depiction of combat ever seen in an American movie. Bracketed by the invasion of Normandy Beach and a fictitious battle in a French town, the film follows a platoon searching for a soldier whose three brothers have died in combat and whom the Pentagon wishes to find and send home. An unforgettable, immersive vision of warfare from a master of action filmmaking, it inspired one of its stars, Tom Hanks, to create the great miniseries Band of Brothers­ — which was based, like this film, on the work of historian Stephen Ambrose.

Watch it: Saving Private Ryan on Paramount+

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Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

The conflict: World War II

When director Clint Eastwood turned his attention to World War II, he focused on the story of the six servicemen who were famously photographed raising an American flag on Iwo Jima only to grow disillusioned when they found themselves used as human props in fundraising drives back home. Eastwood crafted some memorably potent battle sequences and became so engrossed in the story that he directed a second film, Letters from Iwo Jima, nearly simultaneously, portraying the battle from the perspective of Japanese troops. That film, shot almost entirely in Japanese, was nominated for Best Picture.

Watch it: Flags of Our Fathers on AMC+; Letters from Iwo Jima on Apple TV

The Hurt Locker (2008)

The conflict: Iraq War

The surreal experience of 21st-century urban combat is brought powerfully to life in this nail-biting account of the Iraq War as experienced by a bomb disposal expert played with chilly reserve by Jeremy Renner. Focusing on a dedicated professional who takes unimaginable risks, perhaps because he’s emotionally numbed, it subtly inserts the viewer in its protagonist’s eyes to ponder the differences between life in battle and life at peace. It is the winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win that prize.

Watch it: The Hurt Locker on Prime Video

Five Came Back (2017)

The conflict: World War II

A fascinating three-part documentary series based on film historian Mark Harris’s book, Five Came Back follows five of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors — Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler — as they brave the front lines of World War II to create training films and newsreels for military and civilian audiences. All five directors were well beyond the age of conscription when they went to war, not to mention prosperous and professionally secure, but they literally faced combat alongside troops to make their films. Don't neglect to seek out the movies they made, including Capra’s Prelude to War, Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro and Let There Be Light and Wyler’s Memphis Belle.

Watch it: Five Came Back on Netflix

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