Forget ‘Patton’ – Here Are 6 Underrated War Movies to Watch on Memorial Day

Instead of watching George C. Scott address the troops beneath a massive American flag again, try one of these criminally underrated gems

Last Updated: May 28, 2012 @ 1:47 PM

This Memorial Day, you don't have to watch, again, as George C. Scott addresses the troops beneath a massive American flag in "Patton" or quote along as Robert Duvall rants about the smell of napalm in the morning in "Apocalypse Now." 

Want a great war flick?

Here are six criminally underrated films that belong among the most compelling and emotionally involving cinematic portraits of battle and its aftermath. 


This darkly comic look at a group of Marines desperate to see action, and finding mostly tedium, during the first Gulf War had the misfortune of hitting theaters in 2005 when the second Iraq War was at a boiling point.

Something about the drunken shenanigans of a group of soldiers bored out of their skulls in the desert seemed to strike audiences as insensitive when a new generation of troops were risking death and dismemberment in the same troubled region of the world. 

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That's a shame, because there is a lot to savor in "American Beauty" director Sam Mendes' adaptation of U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford's memoir of the same name.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx all contribute memorable performances, and the hazy, almost dreamlike cinematography by Roger Deakins is stunning. Moreover, the movie is a wholly unique look at the feeling of isolation experienced by the men and women sent to the far corners of the globe to wage the nation's war.  


This World War II action film is a pure fantasy; an enjoyable diversion that partly influenced Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."

From its improbable pairing of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood to its stirring raid on a Nazi controlled castle in the alps, "Where Eagles Dare" offers up a slice of classic Hollywood filmmaking that is sorely missing from the multiplex these days.

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It's a men-on-a-mission film in the vein of "The Dirty Dozen" that has no other ambition except to entertain. A climatic battle on a cable car still holds up and Burton was never more fun to watch onscreen. 


Brian De Palma's searing look at the rape and murder of Vietnamese villager by a group of American soldiers couldn't be more different in tone from "Where Eagles Dare."

Though the picture suffers from an overly preachy conclusion, the first two-thirds are emotionally shattering — a nearly pitch-perfect depiction of the darker side of battle and its impact on civilians. 

Michael J. Fox, in a rare dramatic turn, is fine, but Sean Penn, as an emotionally unstable sergeant, gives a risky and chilling performance that ranks among his best. The haunting score by Ennio Morricone also rivals his more famous work in films like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "The Mission." 

A commercial failure upon its release, "Casualties of War" deserves to stand alongside "Platoon" and "The Deer Hunter" as one of the definitive big screen representations of Vietnam.  


Although critically drubbed when it was released in 1969, Jean-Pierre Melville's portrait of French Resistance fighters has undergone a dramatic reappraisal in recent years.

Stunningly restored in 2006, the portrait of suspicion, betrayal and heroism in Vichy France is a true film classic that depicts the Nazi occupation of the country like no other film save "The Sorrow and the Pity." 

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Melville, best known for noirish crime films like "Le Samouraï,"  drew on his own experiences as a member of the Resistance to fashion one of his most deeply felt works of art. It is fatalistic, but stirring — boasting fantastic performances by Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret as some of the handful of men and women who valiantly stood up to their oppressors. 


Released in 2002 and deceptively marketed as a run-of-the-mill action film, John Woo's look at Navajo code talkers in World War II sunk without a trace at the box office. It deserves to be rediscovered, however. 

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Nicolas Cage, playing an army officer tasked with ensuring the secrecy of the code at all costs, even if it means killing the Indian soldiers he is ordered to protect, gives one of his most restrained and impactful performances. Woo also pulls off several bravura war sequences that are highly stylized, almost balletic scenes of carnage. 

The dialogue is weighted down in clichés, but there's always a battle just around the corner to keep things interesting and make you remember just how good the Hong Kong action impresario can be when armed with the right material. 


With its child's eye view of war, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of J. G. Ballard's semi-autobiographical was seen as a less-than-successful attempt by the director of popcorn entertainment like "Jaws" to prove that he could direct a grown-up movie.

Yet, the 1987 look at a young British boy who finds himself swept into an internment camp during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in World War II, is a profound and powerful look at innocence lost. 

Christian Bale was just 12 when he took the lead role in "Empire of the Sun," but the future star of "The Dark Knight," gives one of the greatest performances by a child actor in movie history. He perfectly captures the terror, anger and hard-won maturity of a boy separated from his parents and forced to come of age amidst death and despair. 


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