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10 of the Best Movies to Watch on Veterans Day

These classics capture the valor and the sacrifice, the grit and the grace, of our national heroes.

1 / 10

‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

When Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece first premiered, the veterans who actually stormed the beach on D-Day said the movie got it right. Spielberg recreated the World War II beach battle so realistically that watching the movie was like living through history as it happened, giving civilians a small taste of what war is really like. The filmmakers aimed to reproduce historic details with painstaking accuracy right down to the tanks and weapons. Tom Hanks portrays Captain Miller, an English teacher by trade who’s tasked with finding and returning the last surviving Ryan brother home to his mom. After gut-wrenching battles, Miller tells Matt Damon (as Private Ryan) to “earn this.”

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2 / 10

‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (1942)

James Cagney’s charisma as a song and dance man shines in this classic musical set in the early days of World War II. Cagney plays real life Broadway legend George M. Cohan, known for penning the beloved tune “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Musical highlights also include “Over There” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” The Broadway numbers show the pageantry and opulence of military uniforms and formations at their best. Stirring visuals, sparkling costumes, and epic set-pieces deliver patriotism galore. Cohan’s music captured the American spirit at the time, and the film shows exactly how music can unite us. When Cagney joins the marching soldiers at the end and sings the rousing tune (“prepare, say a prayer,”), you might just find yourself singing along as well. While you’re wathing, check out our 25 favorite military cartoons of all time.

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3 / 10

‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009)

Kathryn Bigelow was the first and only woman to win an Oscar for Best Director. Her Iraq war thriller, The Hurt Locker, also took the prize for Best Picture. The Hurt Locker gives a searing look at the lives of soldiers sent in to dispose of bombs and booby traps in Baghdad. Jeremy Renner’s performance personifies “grace under pressure.” He gives the impossibly tense ticking bomb scenes a human center. In all, The Hurt Locker depicts the psychological costs of war as it repeatedly jolts the audience with tense explosions.

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4 / 10

‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001)

An impressive ensemble cast—anchored by Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, and Sam Shepard, depicts the intense tragedies that occurred during the true story of the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. First one, then another Black Hawk helicopter crashes in the Somalian city. The original military objective goes south fast. Now it’s all about saving the surviving men and getting back to safety. American soldiers endure injury and hardship as they wait out the night in a harrowing cityscape. Bana’s character Hoot puts it this way: “It’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” These soldiers stick together.

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5 / 10

‘The Messenger’ (2009)

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson star as “Casualty Notification Officers” in this heartbreaking drama about the men tasked with informing military families that their loved one has died. The film depicts the personal toll on the families and the men who deliver grave news about the ultimate sacrifice. Broken hearts abound, but also the hope of redemption and healing. These are the 22 words and phrases you had no idea originated in the military.

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6 / 10

‘Patton’ (1970)

George C. Scott’s opening monologue as General Patton, delivered in front of an enormous American flag, remains one of the most iconic images in film. Scott won the Best Actor Oscar for his riveting portrayal of the notorious general, but famously refused to accept the award. His performance is noted for capturing Patton’s passion and aggression. The opening speech, both rousing and controversial, suggests the difficult stakes faced in battle and the grit of America’s fighting spirit. Both flawed and heroic, Patton epitomized the heart of war, and showed it was just as brave to fight as it was to be speak your mind unabashedly.

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7 / 10

Platoon (1986)

Oliver Stone’s stirring war drama changed the way Americans thought about the Vietnam war by taking them inside its brutal realities. Charlie Sheen plays a naive college boy who enlists and finds himself in way over his head. Ultimately, Platoon gave audiences a window into both Vietnam and the experiences of the vets who fought and died there. Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias epitomizes the honor and integrity of a good man in the midst of violence and chaos. The iconic image of Elias with raised arms captures the tragedy and sacrifice of the men he represents.

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8 / 10

‘Courage Under Fire’ (1996)

Meg Ryan stars as the first female officer to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor in this drama about the Gulf War. Denzel Washington investigates her story and gets closer to his own battle scars as he tries to determine whether Ryan as Captain Walden deserves the honor. Poignant scenes include a visit to the daughter she left behind and Matt Damon’s portrayal of the toll of combat trauma. The film’s multiple perspectives (we see Walden’s story from many different vantages) suggests that we can never really know what goes on in the heat of battle until we’ve been there ourselves.

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9 / 10

‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ (1949)

It’s not a real war movie unless John Wayne is gritting his teeth through the hell of battle. As World War II Sergeant Stryker, he pushes his men to extremes because that’s the best way to save them. Misunderstood as brutal by the men he leads, Stryker’s harshness is actually meant to keep them alive. No slackers allowed. The tragic ending becomes even more moving when the men find Stryker’s letter home to his son. The iconic flag-raising scene of the battle of Iwo Jima shows the glory of finally winning the battle, while never losing sight of the genuine sacrifice it took to get there.

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10 / 10

‘Fury’ (2014)

Brad Pitt leads a crew of Sherman tank soldiers during World War II in this brutal, haunting depiction of camaraderie during wartime. The men band together for heroic feats during scenes of intensely realistic tank warfare. Despite the action sequences, Fury‘s heart is with the men, their friendships, and the idea that they will do anything for each other. We watch a young, conscientious objector (Logan Lerman) join their team as a replacement. At first, he can’t pull the trigger, but we watch as he learns to shoot and kill, not only for his own survival, but to aid the men who fight alongside him. Fury’s scenes of devastating violence bring the meaning of sacrifice to light.

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Molly Pennington, PhD
Molly is a writer and collage artist with a PhD in film and cultural studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her professional astrology services and artwork are available at Baroque Moon Astrology. She covers the zodiac, books, movies, TV and culture for Reader’s Digest, and loves to talk about all the ways we make meaning.