These films follow a long history of cinema that portrays the lasting effects of war on individuals long after the last shots are fired. For Veteran's Day, we've compiled ten films that span nearly 70 years and present ten different veterans. While they range from fantastical to funny, each of them offers insight into serious struggle American heroes must endure. With America's two ongoing wars, it's no wonder Hollywood continues to produce movies dealing with the hardships returning soldiers endure. This week's 'The Messenger' and the upcoming 'Brothers,' focus on home-front troubles rather than the tribulations of battle.
These films follow a long history of cinema that portrays the lasting effects of war on individuals long after the last shots are fired. For Veteran's Day, we've compiled ten films that span nearly 70 years and present ten different veterans. While they range from fantastical to funny, each of them offers insight into serious struggle American heroes must endure.
'The Roaring Twenties' (1939) and The Gangster Veteran
Jeffrey Lynn, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney star in this classic gangster movie that is too often excluded from 'Best Of' lists. The film begins with the end of World War I. Upon their return, soldiers Lloyd Hart (Lynn), George Hally (Bogart), and Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) realize the United States isn't what it used to be. Prohibition has put a damper on things. However, with the fearlessness they learned in battle, the guys build a small bootlegging business into a crime empire. Unfortunately for them, like all historical empires, it eventually falls.
'The Best Years of Our Lives' (1946) and The Real Deal Veteran
This is the seminal film on veterans returning to civilian life. While it enjoyed overwhelmingly praise and won seven Academy Awards, supporting 'actor' Harold Russell received most of the attention. He had hooks for hands after losing both to an explosive during World War II. Film director William Wyler saw him in an Army film about rehabilitating veterans and hired him to play the role of Homer Parrish despite having no acting experience. Russell became the first non-actor to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He also won an Honorary Oscar for bringing hope to veterans, making him the only person to win two Oscars for the same role.
'The Sun Also Rises' (1957) and The Ex-Patriot Veteran
Prolific director Henry King tried to capture Ernest Hemingway's 'The Lost Generation' in this film based on the author's first novel. A group of American ex-patriots have had their spirit broken by the First World War, so they wander aimless and drunk around Paris. Veteran Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) sustained a battle injury that has left him impotent and unable satisfy his love interest Lady Ashley (Ava Gardner). While the film falls short of the intent, it's interesting to see a veteran that only existed in the 1920s, the Ex-Patriot Veteran who runs off to Europe. Plus, Robert Evans, infamous Jewish producer, plays a young Spanish matador.
'The Manchurian Candidate' (1962) and The Brainwashed Veteran
People today watch Todd Solondz movies and say, "That's twisted." Audiences gave this film the same reaction in the 60s. A group of soldiers come home from Korea believing Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw saved them from their Communist captures. However, oddly enough, they all think Shaw is still a dick. Once home, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) begins having nightmares about the war and realizes the Soviets implanted false memories in the brains of his troops. Old Blue Eyes tries to convince Army Intelligence, they prove to be an oxymoron, and Shaw becomes an unwitting assassin for The Reds.
'Slaughterhouse Five' (1972) and The Time-Traveling Veteran
Chaplain's Assistant Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) is a bad soldier, who becomes unstuck in time (like 'The Times Traveler's Wife,' but way cooler). He begins experiencing his life in a random order: the bombing of Dresden in World War II, his father 'teaching' young Billy to swim by throwing him in the water, his time with fellow prisoners of war, and his time on the alien planet Tralfamadore (it is based off a Kurt Vonnegut novel after all). While the events are fantastical, Billy Pilgrim feels real. All common men don't become soldiers like Tom Hanks in 'Saving Private Ryan' just because there's a war on.
'Coming Home' (1978) and The Veteran Who Learns to Love
Jon Voight plays Luke Martin, a Vietnam vet who come home a paraplegic and angry at life. Jane Fonda, still trying to overcome the 'Hanoi Jane' controversy from six years earlier, portrays Sally, who volunteers at the VA hospital because her Marine husband has been sent to war. Despite breaking Luke's urine bag and her marriage vows, Sally begins an affair with the disabled veteran. 'Sexual Healing' works better for Luke than Prozac. Eventually, her husband comes home and breaks up the healing sessions, but not before Luke wins hope and the lead actors won Oscars.
'First Blood' (1982) and The Veteran Who's Still Fighting Bad Guys
John Rambo is a Vietnam War hero, but he looks like a drifter with his shaggy mop of hair and Salvation Army-looking jacket. All he wants to do is wander through the small town of Hope and think melancholy memories of war buddies. However, an overzealous sheriff doesn't take kindly to his type. In quick order, Rambo suddenly finds himself in a guerrilla war with the redneck cops who brutalize and try to kill him. The movie was intended to highlight the difficulties of veterans in civilian life. Instead, it spawned a vehicle for 60-year-old Stallone to still kill armies of men.
'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989) and The Anti-War Protester Veteran
Based on Ron Kovic's autobiography of the same name, this Oliver-Stone film took Tom Cruise from pretty-boy fighter pilot to long-haired serious actor. Like Luke Martin in 'Coming Home,' Kovic (Cruise) comes home from the Vietnam War in a wheelchair. He's angry and confused by the American public's mistreatment of their 'war heroes.' Unlike Martin, he doesn't find love, but finds a prostitute in Mexico. Of course, that relationship sours. Kovic is a man without a place until he finds the anti-war movement and becomes one of its national spokesmen.
'Rushmore' (1998) and The Eccentric Millionaire Veteran
Casual viewers may forget Herman Blume (Bill Murray) is a Vietnam veteran, who "was in the sh*t." However, it explains many of his personality traits: his inability to connect with family, his tenacity in business, and his hatred of the overly privileged. In his speech at Rushmore Academy, he advises, "Take dead aim on the rich boys. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can't buy backbone." Blume proves war emotionally injures a person for decades, even if it's not blatant. Luckily the depressed millionaire meets Max and steals the object of his affection, Mrs. Cross.
'Gran Torino' (2008) and The Veteran Who Overcomes Racism
Unlike Stallone, Clint Eastwood takes roles where he is a believable badass. He plays widower Walt Kowalski, a retired factory worker and Korean War veteran, who hates change and, like Herman Blume, hates his whiny family. While that's a lot of hate for one man, he has enough left over for his Asian neighbors. However, in a Hollywood turn-of-events, he begins to tolerate them and appreciate their culture. He bonds with the neighbor teens and tries to protect them against gang violence. Actually, in a way, he is still fighting bad guys like Rambo, but in a very non-Rambo way.