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The month of May for those of us writing with Brian and Benn’s Movie Corner has been deemed a Salute to U.S. Armed Forces since this month contains both Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day. So with this as our theme, it makes sense Brian G. Felts and I would take a look at what each of our Top 5 favorite movies involving the U.S. Armed Forces as a sort of tribute to the American men and women who continue to live stories of heroism and tragedy for the sake of others and their nation.

The first motion picture in history to depict a war involving the United States was a silent film titled The Birth of the Nation (1915). It was a pro-Union Civil War propaganda film which somehow linked the conflict of the Civil War to the founding of the Klu Klux Klan. Since then, war and those in service during these war have been a part of film history so much, it could have its own genre.

In while compiling my list of Top 5 favorite U.S. Armed Forces movies, not war movies because not all my selections involve an actual war. All of my top selections do involve legendary directors who are accustomed to projects on an epic scale. My selections also have in common a large cast of either all-stars or soon to be all-stars. However, the branch of the military which is involved with my selections and the time periods have no connection to each other.

So without further pause, below are my selections for my Top 5 Favorite U.S. Armed Forces movies. As usual, they are listed from No. 5 to No. 1.

poster_gloryNo. 5 – Glory (1989)

Directed by Edward Zwick

The civil war isn’t exactly what one would think of when looking to list movies which tribute the American military, especially since both sides of the conflict were American. However, the Union Army was the central hero in this film so I’m making it count. This movie was informative from start to finish about one the first all-AfroAmerican regiments of the Union Army and it was the first to see actual battle. It’s cast had a handful of names but for the most part it cast people still proving themselves.

One of those “names” was Morgan Freeman (Bruce Almighty) who became the first non-commissioned officer of the regiment, since the U.S. Army didn’t commission “black” soldiers. Morgan was a natural leader as he is in most of his roles. Denzel Washington (The Equalizer) won his first Academy Award for this role and his quick mouthed character had his best moment for his performance after going temporarily AWOL to get a warm meal. He was captured as a deserter and disciplined with lashes.

Washington kept eye contact with Matthew Broderick (The Producers), who played the Colonel of the regiment, while a single tear rolled down the ex-slave’s face during the lashing. It was maybe the most powerful moment of the whole movie and proves Washington was an upcoming master of his craft.

Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall) directed this and made best use of the material at every decision. The scope of this film was incredible given the needs to portray the Civil War era. The music score for the film from James Horner is haunting yet patriotic and one of my longtime favorites.

Of all films set during the civil war, this was my favorite and one of my favorites involving the U.S. Armed Forces in its history.

poster_uncommonvalorNo. 4 – Uncommon Valor (1983)

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Not many people remember this little film from the late ’80s, but I happened to see it in the cinemas when I was a kid. In fact, when my family and I we debating what movie to go see, I wasn’t in the mood for a war film and I was being a brat about it. “If I hear one damn gunshot, I’m leaving the movie,” I told my mother. Well, as sour as I was, the movie turned out to be one of my favorite POW fictional movies ever.

Basically, a retired Marine Colonel, played by Gene Hackman (Runaway Jury), decides to put a private team together to rescue Vietnam War POW’s 10 years after the colonel’s own son went missing in action.

The movie had great heroism and Hackman is obviously great in a leadership role. It also started my interest in actors like Patrick Swayze (Red Dawn), Fred Ward (Road Trip) and a great but not talented actor from the 80s Randall “Tex” Cobb. The cast was great, the story was great especially when the team learns of the colonel’s son. The whole production was exciting and extremely engaging once the team was deployed on its mission. I think despite its production set backs, this set up director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood) as a filmmaker who has always taken great care when working with material regarding the Vietnam War.

I really liked how the mission was fool proof and how everyone had to improvise to achieve his objective. A couple even give up their lives to save the objective and the others in it. The film was a good tribute to the POW/MIA movement despite its dates production value. Moreso than other POW related films like Rambo: First Blood Pt 2 or Missing in Action. There is no way the movie could be left off my Top 5 list.

Read my full review of Uncommon Valor by clicking here.

poster_blackhawkdownNo. 3 – Black Hawk Down (2001)

Directed  by Ridley Scott

This movie was basically an extraction mission which went terribly bad from the word go. It focuses on the story of over 100 soldiers who are sent into Somalia to extract two warlord lieutenants from a highly populated marketplace where American soldiers have no friends.

Black Hawk Down has a ton of name actors like Josh Harnett (Sin City), Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge), Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan), Eric Bana (Troy), Sam Shepard (The Pelican Brief), William Fichtner (The Perfect Storm), Jason Isaacs (The Harry Potter saga), Ron Eldard (Deep Impact), Tom Hardy (The Dark Night Rises), Jeremy Piven (The Kingdom)…I mean the cast is immense and so are the number of characters.

If there’s a fault to the movie, it would have to be the viewer having to keep up with so many characters, and once they have all their gear on and the mission is in full swing, it’s difficult to keep track of who is doing what, who is injured, who is lost, whose black hawk is down, etc.

However, the action is incredibly engaging, credited to director Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Martian). The details of the military actions make your feel like you have combat experience by the end of it. Between the action, the heroism and the theme of watching “your brothers” back make this movie easily one of my Top 5 movies involving the U.S. Armed Forces.

poster_bornonfourthjulyNo. 2 – Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Directed by Oliver Stone

I’m not exactly sure if this movie counts as a tribute to U.S. Armed Forces in it’s entirety. However, I think it honors the Vietnam veteran quite well and thus I have included it on my list. The fact that it is such an engaging and well written movie is my its my second favorite among this genre; plus, its one of the best performances from Tom Cruise ever.

Born on the Fourth of July is a lengthy tale of Ron Kovic, an upstate NY competitive Catholic boy who volunteers for the U.S. Marines on the cusp of the Vietnam conflict. There, he experiences the horrors of war, especially that one, and his life after returning from the war, dealing with his PTSD and a nation split divided between wartime supporters and protesters. Eventually, Kovic becomes one of the biggest anti-war advocates and lead a group of disabled veterans who protested/rioted at the Republican National Convention in 1972. He was later invited as a guest speaker to the Democratic National Convention four years later.

Biggest thing I love about this movie is Oliver Stone’s visual work. At home in upstate New York, the entire film is beautiful and vibrant. In Vietnam, things are difficult to make sense, attempting to match Kovic’s experience which led him to accidentally killing a fellow solider with friendly fire. In the care of the VA, things got slow and painful, and when Ron gets back home, things just are dark and not as vibrant. Stone’s choices were masterful and earned him an Academy Award that year for best director. The movie also earned a Best Picture nomination.

What I liked most was, Stone, an outspoken Democrat, used the material to criticize the Vietnam War but at the same time pointed out the senseless and undeserved disrespect Vietnam veterans received for over a decade after they returned home. That’s not easy, and made the film far more balanced than what it could have been.

From the first scene when Cruise’s Kovic was in high school and in a wrestling team dual, he WAS that main character. As his character developed and was influenced by both sides of the conflict back home over the war, Cruise showed amazing ability to present a conflicted character with a great dynamic. His character didn’t blindly yell all the time to express his aggravation. He yelled, he cried, he laughed, he whispered. His performance really ran the gambit. Between Cruise’s performance, a great cast of walk on roles, Stone’s direction and one my favorite music scores from the legendary John Williams, this movie is my second-favorite honoring movies fitting into our theme for this month.

poster_savingryanNo. 1 – Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

This is the one. This is my favorite tribute to U.S. Armed Forces. This is my favorite war film. This is one of my favorites from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. This is it.

The movie starts with what seems like an endless and brutal demonstration of the first wave of U.S. soldiers attempting to take Normandy Beach in German-occupied France during the second World War for the first 30-40 minutes of screen time. It’s a gut-wrenching, bloody mess of American soldiers dying in a sad variety of nonsense until forces can regroup on the beach and attack the defending Nazis. Once that happens, the movie turns to its actual story of a group of men who attempt to search for one soldier who was lost in country. The story is loosely based on a handful of brothers who were drafted and three of them were killed in action while serving in the same unit.

The best aspect of this movie for me was the variety of characters. The playful mystery behind Tom Hanks’ character Cpt. Miller, the smart mouth from Brooklyn Pvt. Reiben (Edward Burns), Pvt. Mellish the jew (Adam Goldberg), Pvt. Jackson the god gifted sniper (Barry Pepper), T-4 Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) and of course Corporal Upham the translator (Jeremy Davis). Let not forget Tom Sizemore (Paparazzi) and Matt Damon (The Martian) thrown in there as well. Plus a couple little cameos from Ted Dansen (TV’s Cheers), Dennis Farina (Get Shorty) and Paul Giamatti (Lady in the Water). I could keep going. The cast is immense but their characters are equally well crafted by writer Robert Rodat (The Patriot, Thor 2). I don’t think I’ve seen a better ensemble cast prior or since, especially not one in a war movie.

Of course, Spielberg always knows simply the most perfect way to shoot a scene, and this is a perfect example of that. Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) won the Academy Award (his second) and rightfully so with this film, which he dedicated to the memory of his father, also a WWII veteran. The movie, although nominated, didn’t win Best Picture. That honor went to Shakespeare In Love of all things.

The visual effects also was a huge strength recreating the historical look of that war in that region. They went hand in hand with the production design. The only thing I didn’t care for was the bits involving the Abe Lincoln letter. I simply didn’t “get it.” Other than that, you can’t have a better war movie or a better tribute to the men and women whom have served in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII than Saving Private Ryan.

Read my full review of Saving Private Ryan by clicking here.

Of course, since war movies have existed since 1915, it would be nearly impossible to choose only five to use as a tribute to those in service portrayed in them. So, also as usual, below is my list of honorable mentions which didn’t quite make the cut. They are listed in no particular order.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Maybe its the sappy love story, but for some reason not a whole lot of people liked this movie. But I thought it was epic, exciting and the love triangle story didn’t exactly take away from it because it was peppered with scenes of tension between the U.S. and Japan, leading up to the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Only a part of the movie was the love story, a part was the actual attack and the last part was the initial retaliation against Japan. It was long but very well shot. The music was fitting and one of my favorite scores in my collection. The acting wasn’t the best, but it was nice to watch Kate Beckinsale (Click) for most of it. The visual effects were amazing during the attack scenes. Other than some melodramatic acting in spots, and a PG-13 rating which took away from the film when compared to Saving Private Ryan, I can’t come up with a reason not to love this movie.

Read my full review of Pearl Harbor by clicking here.

Platoon (1986)

Born on the Fourth of July was the second movie Oliver Stone directed with a story involving the Vietnam War. Platoon was the first, which DID win the Academy Award. Platoon was loosely inspired by Stone’s personal experience with his platoon while serving in Vietnam, and the platoon splinter into two while one group of soldiers stood behind one sergeant and the rest stood behind another when the two officers had a conflict. Stone wrote an original script embellishing the situation to the point of murder, intimidation and war crimes among the platoon told through the eyes of an idealist who volunteered for duty, played by Charlie Sheen (Money Talks). The movie was intense and extremely well shot. If you research how Stone prepared a handful a young Hollywood actors including Johnny Depp and Corey Glover how to look and feel like they’ve been “in country” for months/years, you will see why this film is so real and well made. It’s definitely hard not to include it among my favorites involving the U.S. Armed Forces.

Crimson Tide (1995)

This movie is another stretch when listing movie which tribute Armed Forces men and women. However, since both sides of the conflict involved in this U.S. nuclear submarine action thriller where loyally attempting to do what they thought was the right thing for the country and their loved ones, it shows a prime example of devotion of service. When things get going, and we realize the predicament of the two commanding officers, Crimson Tide is marvelous ride. Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Unstoppable) put up his best work with this project, as far as I’m concern, and it is one of my favorites from both Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

First Blood (1982)

Another great action movie and story of a Vietnam veteran being misunderstood and falls into trouble with local law enforcement. Respect is the theme here, which is no surprise when director Ted Kotcheff is at the helm with material related to the Vietnam War. A drifter is pushed to hard by local law enforcement and he pushes back. Soon even the national guard is after him as he is holed up in a mountain side, trained to disappear and live off the land. That drifter? None other than Sylvester Stallone as John J. Rambo. This kick off to the Rambo saga captured my interest as a kid and it’s never let go. It’s directed well, written well and overcomes its dated production values. Talk about a tribute to veterans with PTSD, this one is exactly that. The scene where Rambo breaks down crying to Colonel Troutman, played by Richard Crenna, is heartbreaking. This piece of action is absolutely worth mentioning among my favorites in this genre.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

This was an independently-made war time movie set in Iraq with a super low budget. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, but the reason I loved the movie was two fold. One, it showed how war can actually become an addiction for some soldiers. It also shows how those of us at home may never understand that. Two, I LOVED the dynamic between the characters of Sergeant James, Sergeant Sanborn, played by Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron), played by Anthony Mackey (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and Specialist Elridge, played by Brian Geraghty (TV’s Boardwalk Empire). I believe this was also the first time a female director, Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), had taken on this genre involving an actual U.S. War. The scene when James finds the eight bombs wired together in the sand was maybe the greatest shot of the entire movie. It was simply intense and extremely effective. Bigelow’s follow up in this genre was Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which I have not seen but would have to do huge things for it to be better than The Hurt Locker.


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