Today we salute the military veterans who have either served in wartime or in peace. I think technically Veteran's Day specifically honors war veterans, but I don't see why the non-combat military personnel needs to be excluded. Still, in the movies, it's the war vets that are most memorable, and on this holiday, I'd like to present my list of seven favorites.
Obviously this list isn't comprehensive -- in fact, I don't feature any examples of the now-stereotypical Vietnam vet character, which would include Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July or Gary Senise in Forrest Gump. This is just a list of characters, positive and negative, that I prefer and which I think somewhat represents the wide and diverse scope of war vets.
"Homer Parrish" from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
About fifty years before Robert Zemeckis was digitally removing Gary Senise's legs to make him the disabled vet Lt. Dan of Forrest Gump, William Wyler directed a real amputee veteran named Harold Russell as the handicapped character Homer Parrish in this movie about the difficulty of coming home following World War II. Russell actually won an Oscar for his performance as Parrish, a former high school quarterback who returns to his childhood sweetheart, with whom he's engaged and for whom he no longer feels good enough. The actor/character has hooks for hands and appears in some sappy, obligatory scenes where he has trouble with them, but he ends up a guy that is beloved more than pitied, and it's almost easy to forget he has the handicap, especially after hearing him play piano with the false limbs.
"Ethan Edwards" from The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
I often forget that John Wayne's greatest character is Civil War vet, mostly because it isn't completely necessary to the film's plot. But it is certainly necessary to the development and understanding of the character. Particularly the mystery of where Ethan has been for the three years since the war is vital to the mystery of his persona.
"Nick Chevotarevich" from The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino)
Another in a long line of Oscar-winning veteran roles, Christopher Walken's character in The Deer Hunter is so psychologically tortured following his experience as a POW that he can't even go home, choosing instead to remain in a Saigon gambling den where he shoots heroin and plays Russian roulette.
"Walter Sobchak" from The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel and Ethan Coen)
John Goodman's militant Vietnam vet is like a guy who never came home, except that he did. Still, twenty years later, the war is with him every day and seems to affect his every action and line of dialogue. He's the guy who brings up his time in the jungle anytime he's antagonized, whether or not it disrupts a diner's business. "Have you ever heard of Vietnam," he'll ask a young boy who isn't cooperating. It's all kinda funny, but it's also kinda tragic.
"James Ryan" from Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg)
The bookending scenes of an old Matt Damon can appear a bit cheesy, but they allow for the whole rest of Saving Private Ryan to be seen as one of the greatest veteran stories ever told. Just imagine if Spielberg's WWII film was your memory rather than just a cool movie you saw. Sure, it doesn't make sense you'd have memories of the scenes not featuring you, but likely you would have heard enough about the journey to save your butt that it would all be a part of you.
"Herman Blume" from Rushmore (1998, Wes Anderson)
Bill Murray's Herman Blume is the kind of guy where it isn't at all obvious that he's a vet. This is significant, because a lot of real life vets share his invisibility -- a sign that some people can re-assimilate into society. But it's interesting how his position as a veteran is seen by the young idolizer, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). The kid even writes a play in honor of his Vietnam War service, whether or not it's an accurate portrayal of his own experiences. The nonchalant tone and wording of his reply to Max, "yeah, I was in the sh*t," perfectly represents both his apathy and Max's veneration.
All the Iraq War vets from The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (2006, Patricia Foulkrod)
They aren't exactly characters. But then, there hasn't been any Iraq War vet characters that better represent the tragedy of the modern homecoming than the ensemble of real-life vets featured in Foulkrod's documentary. A number of the interviewees suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and some of them are also physically disabled. One of the most significant points the doc addresses is how there are far more veterans this time around, but only because there's better care for the wounded now, and many of these vets are coming back handicapped, physically and mentally. The doc also adequately discusses these mental handicaps, why they exist more now than ever and how and why they're not being sufficiently treated. Just as I wrote one year ago, The Ground Truth is the most important film to watch this Veteran's Day.