“The Best Years of Our Lives” was pathbreaking for its time in boldly exploring the traumas of war, especially pertinent when you consider its 1946 release date. Three World War II veterans return home to sweet and wholesome mid-west America, only to slowly discover that nothing will ever be the same. Their families have been irreparably changed.
Among the group of three soldiers, two are now deeply traumatized and disabled. The film chronicles the trauma that an entire generation of men would soon undergo after witnessing the horrors of war – PTSD, insecurity, rage, fear, guilt, rampant alcoholism, and an overwhelming sense of feeling unhinged. Few films back then showed what happens after the war, but only when these stories are told can we ensure history never repeats itself.
The Longest Day (1962)
“The Longest Day” is an adaptation of a successful 1959 book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan. The movie rights sold for a staggering $1.75 million in today's money – making it one of the highest figures for any adaptation. The film was an enormous undertaking, an international production depicting D-Day from multiple perspectives that needed five screenwriters and three directors!
As for the cast, the dizzying lineup included John Wayne, Rod Steiger, Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, and Robert Ryan, among a dozen others! The film also featured 750 soldiers who had fought in WWII. The story is meticulous and unravels in a documentary style. With real-life stories and perspectives informing the narrative, “The Longest Day” is arguably one of the most authentic war films ever made.
Filmmaker Stuart Cooper’s “Overlord” tells the story of a character named Tom (played by Brian Stirner) from the time he enlists right through D-Day. Tom is a sensitive soldier who is bracing himself for the inevitable. He continually imagines death, specifically how he might die in the war.
The film’s use of narrative with documentary scenes gives it a unique feel. Tom’s story feels like fate because of it, like something already pre-determined and written. “Overlord” is a blend of historical footage and dream sequences. Although the focus is on Tom’s life, the film honors and grieves the loss of thousands of lives in the war.
The Train (1964)
Inspired by true events, “The Train” has Burt Lancaster as Labiche, a French resistance fighter who finds himself (reluctantly) matching wits with Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) on a train returning to Germany. Waldheim is an art connoisseur, but a murderous one at that. And the train is full of valuable art.
The tension in the film is palpable, both from the battle of wits and the larger narrative of how the casualties of war extend far beyond the trenches and battlefields. Labiche, while not an art enthusiast, comes to recognize what it means for a country to have its treasures stolen – an entire identity, culture, and stories gone in a flash. For a country struggling to hold ground in the war, stolen art is a struggle for the country’s soul.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
“Saving Private Ryan” kicks off with a harrowing portrayal of the Normandy landings during WWII. A squad of soldiers is on a mission — to rescue Private Ryan from enemy territory. Director Steven Spielberg walks a fine line with the narrative, grappling with celebrating the soldiers’ bravery while laying bare the horrors of war, especially in a gut-wrenching opening battle sequence.
The balance between critiquing the larger machinery of war and recognizing human endeavor is never easy. In doing so, sometimes the film contradicts itself but manages to get the point across. Overall, “Saving Private Ryan” is a visceral war film that stays with you. It's what war movies strive to be — raw, unfiltered, and powerful – and why the film still remains a cherished classic.