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
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.
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