With Memorial Day amongst us, it’s a time to reflect upon the sacrifice of those who have served and fallen for the American military, paving the way for the freedoms we enjoy and sadly take for granted sometimes. Part of this freedom is the freedom to lounge around and watch war films, which is how I used to spend my Memorial Day weekends in the years of my youth, viewing network television like AMC, Turner networks like TNT, TBS, and even on home video through VHS and DVD rentals/purchases. There are certain films that I’ve seen a dozen times over during war movie marathons, some of which that have made an impact on my life many years later.
For this article, I’m focused on films that center around the European Theater, since VE Day was earlier this month to mark its 75th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazi Regime. So I’ll share with you some classic war films that I think people should check out. They’re not the best of the best, but just my personal favorites that I’ve seen growing up.
I’ve probably seen this film about 10 or so times, or way more, I’m not really sure. This is hands down not only my favorite war film but my favorite Clint Eastwood movie. Released in 1970 by MGM, Kelly’s Heroes takes the seriousness of previous war films and makes it into a comedic heist movie, while in a way somewhat throwing out an anti-war message since this was made during the political turmoil of the Vietnam War. This includes an all-star cast of known Hollywood actors alongside Eastwood, like Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland, while including comedic actors like Don Rickles, Carol “Archie Bunker” O’Connor, and Telly Savalas’ younger brother, George Savalas, as the dopey mortar First Sergeant. With every comedic film comes big personalities, and I have to say the chemistry on screen—from the hippy Sutherland, the hard-nosed Savalas, the scheming hustler Rickles, and the level-headed Eastwood—all work together to steal gold right under the Third Reich’s noses.
The Big Red One
For its time, this was one of the best war movies ever made, which I’d say 40 years after its release in 1980, it still holds true today. The film is based on Samuel Fuller’s own experiences during his service in the 1st Army in World War II, and 35 years after the war ended, he could finally tell his cinematic story.
The all-star cast includes Lee Marvin and the biggest galactic hero on the big screen, Mark Hamill, as they and their rifle squad battle across the North African desert, to the rocky countryside of Italy, the blood-soaked beaches of Normandy, all the way to Falkenau Concentration Camp by the end of the war. The rifle squad, which consists of Lee Marvin’s “The Four Horsemen” includes the half brother to David Carradine, Robert; Fuller on-screen persona played by Bobby Di Cicco, and the voice of Gobot “Fitor”, Kelly Ward.
There are two versions of this film that exist; the theatrical, and the “Reconstruction” version that added additional cut footage crafted from the Warner Bros. vault in Kansas City, Kansas, a few years after Fuller passed away, which would be the true defined version to watch. The main goal of the squad wasn’t to act heroic nor to win medals for glory, but to just survive, and to have your squad-mates next to you to make it out of this hellish war.
The Dirty Dozen
On the track of Lee Marvin war films, The Dirty Dozen from 1967 pits Marvin to forming a crack commando team from the army’s worst; its own criminals locked away for life by the sentencing of hard labor or execution. The all-star cast includes Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan, all-star running back Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, and Ernest Borgnine. It’s up to Marvin to whip criminals like Bronson, Savalas, Brown, Sutherland, and the others for a shot at their pardon from their sentences if their mission is successful behind enemy lines. Ryan’s role as a West Point, by-the-books Colonel is only one more challenge against the success of Marvin’s team to impress Borgnine as the general in charge of their operation. To win a war, you gotta fight the dirtiest!
Battle of the Bulge
Another big cinematic war film with an all-star cast at the time from 1965. This surrounds a particular campaign by the Nazi’s to split the allied forces into two fronts to delay them reaching Germany by Christmas, in a final push from the best the Nazi’s could muster. We get to see another grand all-star cast with previous actors mentioned above, like loudmouth tank sergeant Telly Savalas, frontline major Charles Bronson, Robert Ryan, SS Tank commander Robert Shaw (for James Bond fans he played the assassin in From Russia with Love), and the level-headed and determined Henry Fonda who tried to warn of the oncoming invasion. These were one of the last major cinematic war films that started to dwindle down in the 1960s, and it still holds 55 years later.
The Longest Day
One of the earlier cinematic war films of the ’60s, released in 1962, The Longest Day brought in an international cast with multiple directors to collaborate on a true representation of the Normandy D-Day invasion. The international cast includes John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, and making a small role before his larger one to kick off the James Bond film series, Sean Connery, just to name a few (you thought that throwaway mention of James Bond wasn’t gonna go anywhere now did yea?). The film recounts every detailed invasion from the allied forces, with the scaling of the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc, the beaches of Normandy, and the capture of towns inland from airborne forces. It works as both a Panoramic cinematic war film and part documentary, which included assistance from former D-Day veterans on both sides to assist in the actual recreation of the invasion. A must watch for any World War II historian or fan buff out there.
Where Eagles Dare
Just as we opened this article with a Clint Eastwood film, so shall I’ll conclude it with another one from 1968. This was always a film I’ve grown up seeing bits and pieces of and it wasn’t until recently I got to watch the whole film and enjoyed every moment of it. Richard Burton is the main star with Eastwood as a solid co-star till the end. This tells the other side of the war—the espionage side—where Eastwood is recruited by MI6 to assist Burton in rescuing an American general that has been captured, but there are other plans at hand. I would consider this one of the best spy war films out there that I’ve seen so far, and it should definitely be on your watch list.
There are plenty of other classic war films surrounding the European Theater that I’ve failed to mention such as Guns of Navarone, Force 10 From Navarone, Patton, Von Ryan Express, Casablanca, The Iron Cross, Battle of Britain, Stalag 17, The Great Escape, The Devils Brigade, Inglorious Basterds (not the Tarantino film, the 1978 Italian one), A Bridge Too Far, and probably a dozen more that are worth viewing. But the ones I’ve listed are the ones I’ve grown up watching in my youth that have had an impact on me to this day. So if you’re still under that quarantine mess, hunker down in your foxhole you call a couch this Memorial Day and enjoy the hell that is war on your television screens!