In honor of Veteran’s Day, Tail Slate thanks all veterans for their service and offers the following list of fine films about veterans. Rather than focus on “war” films, these movies are primarily about what veterans experienced following their time at war. These are offered in no particular order.
Coming Home – Starring Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, this 1978 film is the story of a woman who loves a soldier off fighting the war, believes in the war and then has her love and beliefs challenged when she starts volunteering at the local VA facility. There she meets someone she went to high school with who is anti-war after becoming a paraplegic due to injuries he suffered in Vietnam. Her views begin to change as she falls in love with this injured veteran, but then her husband returns unexpectedly, putting everything to the test and at risk.
Dead Presidents – Starring Chris Tucker, Larenz Tate and Keith David, and directed by the Hughes Brothers, this 1995 film is the story of several African-American Vietnam veterans who are mistreated by society after fighting the war and decide to steal a bunch of old money that was going to be burned anyway. As much a social commentary as a heist film.
The Deer Hunter – Featuring Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Cazale and George Dzundza, this is the story of three men from a small town who enlist in Vietnam. Their time in a POW camp and the aftermath following their escape is life-changing for all three, as well as their hometown. Released in 1978.
First Blood – Starring Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna, with David Caruso in an early screen appearance, this 1982 film is based on a wonderful novel by David Morrell. It is the story of a highly trained Special Forces soldier who seeks out his teammates after the war and finds they are all deceased. Unable to find work, he ends up in a small town where mistreatment by the local deputies results in his going on the offensive against them.
The Best Years of Our Lives – Dana Andrews, Frederic March, and Harold Russell are three World War II veterans who return home to the same town and try to pick up their lives in this 1946 film. Only things don’t work out as they had imagined. The banker can’t handle treating other veterans with the cold realities of his responsibilities to the bank. The bombardier can’t find work other than as a soda jerk, and the navy veteran can’t handle the pity he sees others showing him when they see his burned off hands.
Some Kind of Hero – A 1982 film starring Richard Pryor, Margot Kidder, Ray Sharkey and Ronny Cox may well be the finest dramatic performance of Pryor’s career. Playing a former POW who signed a statement denouncing the U.S. involvement in the war in order to try to save the life of a fellow POW, that choice haunts him upon his return home. He gets no back-pay, and is considered a traitor. His struggle to find a new life is aided by the archetypical hooker with the heart of gold, played by Kidder.
The Manchurian Candidate – The 1962 original starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury is the story of Korean War veterans who return home unaware that they’ve been “brainwashed” by their captors. It was a brilliant film at the time and it has held up very well 50 years later. (The 2004 remake is also good.)
Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth – Two films from director Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam war veteran, give us the stories of men who can’t seem to put the war behind them. The former stars Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, a paralyzed Vietnam veteran who becomes a fervent anti-war activist. This film, released in 1989, gave Stone a Best Director Oscar. The latter film, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Joan Chen and Haing S. Ngor, is primarily the story of a Vietnamese woman who marries an American soldier and goes to America with him after his time in Vietnam is up. While he loves his wife, he cannot escape the demons that torment him relating to his military service and their relationship crumbles.
Home of the Brave – A 2006 film starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, 50 Cent and Brian Presley as Iraq war veterans returning home to Spokane who are involved in an ambush just before going home. Biel’s character loses a hand, 50 Cent’s character kills an innocent woman accidentally and Presley’s character watches one of his closest friends die in his arms. Their difficulties adjusting to life post-war make a compelling story even if this isn’t a great film.
Stop-Loss – A 2008 film starring Ryan Phillipe, Abbie Cornish and Channing Tatum, this film is the story of a soldier who has come home from Iraq and thought the war was over for him. Instead he finds that instead of being discharged, he’s been ordered to return to Iraq under the very controversial “stop-loss” policy of the military. He refuses to report and goes AWOL. The journey then leads him to make an important decision: Leave the U.S. forever or return one last time to fight for his country in Iraq.