In honor of servicemen and servicewomen this Memorial Day weekend, today we’re recommending ten classic war movies as selected by retired U.S. Navy third class petty officer and electrician’s mate Milton L. Bunce, Jr. who served aboard the USS Goodrich DDR 831 in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea and the USS Hancock CVA-19 in the Pacific before and during the early days of the Vietnam War.
If you’re looking for some realism and detail, he’s picked some great classics and any one will hit the mark for you this weekend.
The Wings of Eagles is director John Ford’s 1957 biopic about his friend, U.S. Navy pilot Frank “Spig” Wead, considered one of the best biopics committed to film. It stars John Wayne, Dan Dailey, Maureen O’Hara, and Ward Bond, and provides a splice of the history of aviation’s role in combat. Keep an eye out for the great early airplanes in the aircraft carrier scenes. And the character of Captain Hazard was based on real-life U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve officer Jimmy Doolittle.
Twelve O’Clock High is a 1949 Darryl F. Zanuck production about the U.S Army’s Eighth Air Force flying daytime bombing missions against Nazi Germany and occupied France during World War II. It’s one of those dramas that will soon be on your list of best films if you haven’t seen it yet. These airmen are realistically portrayed keeping up the good fight against a seemingly never-ending battle where failure was not an option. Check out some outstanding acting by star Gregory Peck. This film is on the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Based on an Alistair MacLean’s 1957 novel that was inspired by the Battle of Leros during the Dodecanese Campaign of World War II, the 1961 J. Lee Thompson film The Guns of Navarone is an epic adventure war movie like no other. The filming location in and around Athens, Greece and top-notch acting by the powerhouse trio of Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn add to a suspenseful movie about a multi-national team attempting to destroy a mountain fortress. And it’s a great action movie. (Milton was on liberty in Athens in 1960 where he visited some of the filming locations around the time of production).
If you want to see one of the most realistic portrayals of the daily life of a U.S. Navy sailor, you can’t get much better than director Robert Wise’s 1966 critically acclaimed hit The Sand Pebbles. Steve McQueen stars in one of his best performances along with Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, and Mako. McQueen is gritty and tough (and as cool as ever) as a machinist’s mate aboard a 1920s U.S. gunboat on the Yangtze River in China. (Milton says ship life as shown here was similar to that of an electrician’s mate in the engine room of a U.S. ship 40 years later).
The post-war film The Best Years of Our Lives took home seven Academy Awards. It tells what life is like when the soldiers and sailors and pilots come home, adapting to normal life, dealing with PTSD before it had that label, and facing post-war apathy. Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, and Teresa Wright are superb. Look for real-life wounded war hero Harold Russell in his Academy Award-winning role as one of the three servicemen returning home. Keep an eye out for Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano throughout the film. This film is also on the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Otto Preminger’s epic war film In Harm’s Way is an easy entry on this list. With an all-star cast, including John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Burgess Meredith, Dana Andrews, and Henry Fonda, you just can’t miss. It follows the lives of several service personnel from the bombing of Pearl Harbor and how they addressed the war effort through the first year of the war.
Prisoners of war and their treatment is the subject of David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, a big picture showcasing stars William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins. This film is also in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. The movie, based on the novel by The Planet of the Apes author Pierre Boulle, is loosely based on the Burma-Siam railway. Built by prisoners of war for the Japanese army, the real incident resulted in the deaths of 13,000 POWs and more than 80,000 civilians. Definitely symbolizes the saying “War is hell.”
They Were Expendable is another top-notch war movie starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. The 1945 movie follows a PT boat unit defending the Philippines against Japanese invasion during the Battle of the Philippines in the early years of World War II. Also stars Donna Reed and Robert Montgomery, who had served in the Navy as a PT boat commander. (Milton was based at the US Naval Base at Subic Bay in the Philippines nearly 20 years later).
It’s probably the only time a decorated war hero portrayed himself in an autobiographical biopic. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, wrote the autobiography and starred in the film adaptation To Hell and Back, chronicling his service. Murphy provided a solid performance with a great supporting cast. Murphy made a name for himself as an actor in Westerns before making this film in 1955. (Murphy was one of Milton’s early war heroes and he met Murphy and got his autograph at a Des Moines, Iowa, movie theater as a teenager).
Probably no other film portrays the gigantic, epic scope of war and toll on a country like David Lean’s 1965 war drama Doctor Zhivago. Based on the Boris Pasternak novel, the movie follows a man in Russia between the years prior to World War I and the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922. Omar Shariff, Julie Christie, Alec Guinness, and Rod Steiger provide great performances. The spectacular sets and music and poignant story will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Thanks to Milton L. Bunce, Jr. (my Dad) for the recommendations!
Have a good and safe Memorial Day weekend and thanks to all armed forces members, past and present, for your service!