Posted by: David Offutt | December 10, 2008

Films for Veterans’ Day

vet dayThis is the day in which we honor those who served in times of war and/or peace, whether they wanted to or not. My father, J.C. Offutt, joined the Navy during the Great Depression. He received a regular meager paycheck and an education as an electrician – neither of which were available to him otherwise. Both my brothers served in the Air Force. Lift your glass to those who have worn a uniform in good times and/or bad. I have selected seven of my favorite films that recognize the importance of all of those who served.

Richard Thomas

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1979) with Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Ian Holm, and Patricia Neal: As good as the classic 1930 film with Lew Ayres was, I still prefer this version. Veterans’ Day originated from Armistice Day which celebrated the day the guns stopped and ended the senseless slaughter in the trenches of World War I. This film traces the lives and deaths of a high school graduating class that wanted to serve their German fatherland. Any film dealing with WWI is going to be depressing, so be ready. It’s faithfully adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s brilliant anti-war novel. Beautifully and poignantly filmed.

Richard Anderson, Kirk Douglas, and George Macready

2. Paths of Glory (1957) with Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolph Menjou, and George Macready: French officers order a suicidal attack against the German trenches of World War I. The failure of the attack results in three soldiers arbitrarily being picked to be scapegoats to be tried and executed for cowardice. Douglas tries to defend them. This film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was so accurate that it was banned from being shown in France for years!

Gregory Peck as Gen. Savage

3. Twelve O’Clock High (1949) with Gregory Peck, Dean Jagger, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, and Millard Mitchell: Movies don’t get much better than this one, and it comes close to being my all-time favorite. Dean Jagger, in an Oscar-winning role, plays a veteran of WWII who returns to the airfield in England where he served and recalls those who flew those dangerous missions of daylight precision bombing. General Savage, one of Gregory Peck’s greatest roles, agrees to take on a hard-luck group, and he succeeds, but only by suppressing his own personal feelings until he breaks. This one gets better with each repeated viewing! You may even find yourself singing along: “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, anyone else but me, anyone else but me. No, no, no…”


Top Row: Mark Hamill and Kelly Ward; Bottom Row: Robert Carradine, Lee Marvin, and Bobby Di Cicco – the sergeant and his “Four Horsemen”

4. The Big Red One (1980) with Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Kelly Ward, and Bobby Di Cicco: Director Sam Fuller dedicated this one to the survivors, and more than anything else, that’s what Veterans’ Day is all about. Lee Marvin plays a WWII sergeant who is a retread from WWI. The film follows him and his “Four Horsemen” from North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and to the Nazi concentration camps. A very likeable, watchable cast makes any flaws in this film insignificant. A must-see for Veterans’ Day. Note: Look for The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (2004) – dedicated to Samuel Fuller, this version contains 47 minutes that were not in the original release (now 162 min.); the additional material makes this good movie even better.


5.Till the End of Time (1946)

with Guy Madison, Dorothy McGuire, Robert Mitchum, and Bill Williams: You know that Robert Mitchum became one of our greatest stars, but this movie will make you wonder why Guy Madison never achieved that status (he is best remembered as Wild Bill Hickok on television). This film is concerned with three returning veterans from WWII. Madison’s character is unable to decide what to do with his life once he gets home. Williams plays a former boxer who lost both legs in the war, and he’s very bitter and is giving up on life. Mitchum comes home with a metal plate in his head, and he has to deal with it. McGuire plays the widow of one of many who never made it home. Edward Dmytryk directed this film, and an important scene near the end of the movie depicts racism in the U. S. after WWII. Hence, Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who was persecuted by the Republican Party-controlled House Un-American Activities Committee. He was accused of having communist sympathies and was sentenced to prison for one year for contempt of the House. He was then blacklisted from working in Hollywood for several years.

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, and Fredric March returning home to Boone City at the end of World War II

6. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, and Virginia Mayo: Directed by William Wyler, this is one of the finest movies ever made. Like #5 above, it also follows the lives of three WWII veterans. From the Army Air Corps, Dana Andrews plays a former bomber pilot who appears to have no marketable skills for peacetime employment. From the Navy, Harold Russell (in an Oscar-winning role) wears his own hooks as he plays a sailor who also lost both hands in the war. And from the Army, Frederic March returns home to resume his life as a banker – his homecoming surprises wife Myrna Loy, and it is one of the screen’s greatest moments.

Jon Voight and Jane Fonda give two Oscar-winning performances

7. Coming Home (1978) with Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, and Robert Carradine: Director Hal Ashby’s film was one of the first that was willing to deal with the trauma and tragedy of the Vietnam War. The year is 1968: it started with the Tet Offensive, then Martin was slain in Memphis, next we lost Bobby in California, and finally we got Tricky Dick as president  – it was the year that everything went wrong. Voight brilliantly plays a disabled veteran, and Fonda matches him scene for scene as the volunteer at the veterans’ hospital who falls for him. Dern plays Fonda’s husband who returns home from the war physically intact but not emotionally – his final scene is unforgettable. Carradine is a patient who returned from Nam “without an ignition” – his final scene is also impossible to forget. This one is important, and it is powerful!

by David Offutt, October 2005


  1. I have a soft spot for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” even though it’s not a true story and it’s kinda mushy.

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