10 Best Movies About Veterans' Experience
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
William Wyler's moving saga of the postwar lives of three World War II vets was a boldly frank film for 1946 (when it earned an Academy Award for Best Picture), and it remains the definitive film about veterans readjusting to civilian life. Al (Best Actor Oscar winner Fredric March, shown) comes home to a loving wife (Myrna Loy), but he feels estranged from his grown children and his job (in a bank that regards his fellow vets as figures on a balance sheet), so he turns to drink. Fred (Dana Andrews) finds his wartime heroism as a bomber pilot doesn't count for much when he's trying to find work or impress the war bride (Virginia Mayo) he barely knows. And Homer (Harold Russell) feels like damaged goods, having been maimed in combat. Russell, an amateur actor who really did lose both of his hands in the war, earned an honorary Oscar for ''bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,'' then beat the competition to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, making him the only performer to win two Academy Awards for the same performance.
Coming Home (1978)
Jon Voight (shown, with Jane Fonda) won an Oscar for his role as Luke, a paraplegic Vietnam vet (modeled on Ron Kovic of Born on the Fourth of July fame) who overcomes his bitterness when he meets veterans' hospital volunteer Sally (Fonda, who also won an Oscar). As their friendship blossoms into an affair, Luke learns that he can still have a romantic and sexual life, as the film demonstrates in a famously tender and frank love scene. Alas, Sally is married, and when her Marine husband (Bruce Dern) returns from combat, he has his own psychic and physical scars to cope with, along with his wife's infidelity. Fonda, of course, had been notorious for her offscreen opposition to the war, but she commissioned the screenplay and surprised everyone by making a film that wasn't so much antiwar as pro-veteran.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
This harrowing Best Picture Oscar winner examines the devastating impact of the Vietnam War on an entire community. Small-town buddies Mike (Robert De Niro, shown with John Savage), Steven (Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken, in his Oscar-winning performance) are captured together and brutalized in the movie's notorious Russian roulette sequence. Mike returns home relatively unscathed, but Steven comes back a self-pitying paraplegic, while the tragic Nick doesn't come back at all, remaining in Saigon and ritualistically re-enacting his torture for money. The film's Vietnam sequences are hyperbolically surreal, but its meditation on survivor's guilt and a generation's loss of innocence is genuine. The movie is credited with inspiring the drive to build the Vietnam War memorial on the Washington Mall.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Oliver Stone, who has coped with his own tour of duty in Vietnam by making three movies about the war, here tells the true story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise, shown), who serves eagerly until a battlefield injury robs him of the use of his legs. Back home, he sinks into self-pity and debauchery until, emerging from his funk, he channels his frustration into activism and becomes a prominent antiwar protester. It would be a lot harder for viewers to go along on this angry journey of disillusionment were it not for Stone's canny casting of Top Gun Tom. Performing against type, Cruise earned himself an Oscar nomination.
It's Always Fair Weather (1955)
For a classic MGM musical that includes a dazzling number in which Gene Kelly (shown, left with Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, and Dolores Gray) dances in roller skates, this is a surprisingly grim tale. Wartime buddies Kelly, Dailey, and Kidd reunite 10 years after coming home from World War II, only to realize that they don't really like each other anymore and have nothing in common but their service memories and their disillusionment at how they've each failed to live up to their dreams. All is ultimately resolved through the magic of well-choreographed dance and slapstick farce, but not before the film lays waste to myths of military camaraderie and the crass realities of life in consumerist postwar America.
First Blood (1982)
Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo (shown) is a put-upon vet so tired of being treated as insignificant that, after a confrontation with a small-town sheriff's department, he finally snaps. Only this time, the former Green Beret becomes the Viet Cong, living in the woods and wreaking guerilla havoc on a better-armed, numerically superior enemy. At the end, he gets to deliver a cathartic monologue about his shabby treatment by both the civilian authorities who failed to support the troops in the field and the antiwar crowd who shunned them when they came home. Stallone would go on to symbolically right those wrongs in two pumped up sequels that sent Rambo back to Southeast Asia to singlehandedly win the Cold War, but this first installment had a surprisingly high thoughtfulness quotient and a surprisingly low body count.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Lots of veterans return home with post-traumatic stress disorder, but what if the nightmares they tried to suppress were artificially implanted? In the original 1962 version of the film, Korean War vets Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey come to realize they were brainwashed by Communists; in Jonathan Demme's even more paranoid remake, Gulf War vets Denzel Washington (shown, left with Jeffrey Wright), Liev Schreiber, and Wright are victimized by America's own military-industrial complex. All three give haunting performances; you don't have to buy the conspiratorial sci-fi aspect to appreciate the film's depiction of these soldiers as pawns manipulated and transformed into ticking time bombs by untouchable masters of war.
Dead Presidents (1995)
Veterans in many films have turned to lives of crime, from James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in The Roaring Twenties to the Rat Pack in the original Ocean's Eleven. But the chilling thriller Dead Presidents is one of the few films to focus specifically on African-American veterans. The antihero here is Anthony (Crash's Larenz Tate, shown), whose life in the South Bronx is as much a soul-deadening nightmare as his stint in Vietnam. Even before he and his crew don whiteface makeup to execute an armored car heist, he's already a walking ghost.
Legends of the Fall (1994)
Is the way one deals with the aftermath of war merely a matter of temperament? That's what this epic suggests. Three Montana brothers — Tristan (Brad Pitt, shown), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), and Samuel (Henry Thomas) enlist to fight in World War I. Tristan and Alfred watch in horror as Samuel is killed on the battlefield. The brooding Tristan tries to run from his grief, wandering around the globe on a years-long quest for self-annihilation, while the stolid Alfred returns home, marries the woman all three brothers loved (Julia Ormond), and becomes a rising politician. For both men, however, character is destiny, and neither is ever very far from tragedy and violence.
In this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical sci-fi novel, World War II vet Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks, shown, center) becomes ''unstuck'' in time, shifting randomly and helplessly between his dull present-day existence as a suburban optometrist, his future as a zoo exhibit on the planet Tralfamadore, and his past as a POW who managed to survive the horrific Allied firebombing of Dresden (as did Vonnegut). The movie's surreal, fantastic elements aside, Slaughterhouse-Five does approximate the book's absurdist, wistful, satirical tone, and it makes vividly real the veteran's sense that he is always about to relive the most devastating moments of his life.