American History: Memorial Day Weekend Movies

“When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”

              Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.


A few films to help remember that there is much greater significance to Memorial Day than sun and fun:


1.  American Sniper (2015)- A grand tribute to the late Chris Kyle and to all the other troops who served in Iraq.

“I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
Chis Kyle

2.   Hamburger Hill (1987)- A moving film about our troops in Vietnam who served their nation far better than their too often ungrateful nation served them.

3.  Porkchop Hill (1959)-Korea has become to too many Americans The Forgotten War, lost between World War II and Vietnam.  There is nothing forgotten about it by the Americans who served over there,  including my Uncle Ralph McClarey who died a few years ago, and gained a hard won victory for the US in one of the major hot conflicts of the Cold War.  This film tells the story of the small American force on Porkchop Hill, who held it in the face of repeated assaults by superior forces of the Chinese and North Koreans.  As the above clip indicates it also highlights the surreal element that accompanies every war and the grim humor that aspect often brings.

4.   Hacksaw Ridge (2016):  Mel Gibson fully redeemed his career as a director with this masterpiece.  A film that goes far beyond mere entertainment and illustrates what a man of faith can accomplish when he stays true to his beliefs and cares so much more about helping others than he does about his own mortal life.  Incredibly, the movie does justice to Desmond Doss, a true American hero.


 5.   Sergeant York (1941)-A film biopic of Sergeant Alvin C. York, who, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive  on October 8,  1918, took 32 German machine guns, killed 28 German soldiers and captured another 132.  Viewers who came to see the movie in 1941 must have been initially puzzled.  With a title like Sergeant York, movie goers could have been forgiven for thinking that Sergeant York’s experiences in World War I would be the focus, but such was not the case.  Most of the film is focused on York’s life in Tennessee from 1916-1917 before American entry into the war.  Like most masterpieces, the film has a strong religious theme as we witness York’s conversion to Christ.  The film is full of big questions:  How are we to live?  Why are we here?  What role should religion play in our lives?  How does someone gain faith?  What should we do if we perceive our duty to God and to Country to be in conflict?  It poses possible answers to these questions with a skillful mixture of humor and drama.  The entertainment value of Sergeant York conceals the fact that it is a very deep film intellectually as it addresses issues as old as Man.

The film was clearly a message film and made no bones about it.  The paper of the film industry Variety noted at the time:  “In Sergeant York the screen has spoken for national defense. Not in propaganda, but in theater.”

The film was a huge success upon release in 1941, the top grossing film of the year.  Gary Cooper justly earned the Oscar for his stellar performance as Alvin C. York.  It was Cooper’s favorite of his pictures.  “Sergeant York and I had quite a few things in common, even before I played him in screen. We both were raised in the mountains – Tennessee for him, Montana for me – and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up. Sergeant York won me an Academy Award, but that’s not why it’s my favorite film. I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”

The film portrays a devout Christian who had to reconcile the command to “Love thy Neighbor” with fighting for his country in a war.  This is not an easy question and the film does not give easy answers, although I do find the clip above compelling.

6.  The Rough Riders (1997)-  A superb recreation of the time and the place, the film is a fitting tribute to the valor of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.  Tom Berenger gives an uncannily on target performance as Theodore Roosevelt.

7.    Fort Apache (1948)- The beginning of the John Ford-John Wayne cavalry trilogy, I have always loved the speech of John Wayne at the end of the film, a tribute to the small Regular Army that fought the Indian Wars after the Civil War.  John Ford put it well at the end of the second film in the trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon:  So here they are, the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty-cents-a-day professionals riding the outposts of the nation, from Fort Reno to Fort Apache, from Sheridan to Stark. They were all the same. Men in dirty-shirt blue and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passing. But wherever they rode and whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.





 8.  Gettysburg (1993)- It is fitting that the greatest movie made about the Civil War deals with the greatest battle of that war.  You simply cannot understand the United States without understanding the Civil War.

The Civil War was really one of those watershed things. There was a huge chasm between the beginning and the end of the war. The nation had come face-to-face with a dreadful tragedy… And yet that’s what made us a nation. Before the war, people had a theoretical notion of having a country, but when the war was over, on both sides they knew they had a country. They’d been there. They had walked its hills and tramped its roads… They knew the effort that they had expended and their dead friends had expended to preserve it. It did that. The war made their country an actuality.

9.   The Alamo (1960)-The story of the Texan Thermopylae and John Wayne’s love note to America.


10.  The Buccaneer (1958)-Cecil B. DeMille’s second film salute to Jean Lafitte, Andrew Jackson and their heroic stand at New Orleans.  Charlton Heston was perfect as Old Hickory.

11.  The Patriot (2001)-There is a lot wrong historically with Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War opus, but he captures well the war to the knife fighting in the Southern theater of the War and the desperate courage of Patriot partisans who turned the tide.



Have fun this weekend, and think about the silent victors who allow us to enjoy ourselves in freedom.


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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. One of my favorites, “We Were Soldiers,” a great movie about the true story of the first major clash of US and NVA forces in Vietnam… based on an even greater book by Hal Moore, who happens to be Catholic, who led the Americans. This scene is one of my favorites.

  2. A very moving scene Pinky. It reminds me of what my Mom told me about her Uncle Bill who fought in the British Army 1939-1945:

    His family rejoiced when he arrived back in Newfoundland in one piece, my future Mom noting that he seemed just the same, although he was now sensitive to loud noises. However, one night my Mom saw that the War had left a deeper mark on Uncle Bill. She was visiting Uncle Bill and his wife Aunt Nool, and an older couple came over to see Uncle Bill. Their son had served with Uncle Bill and had been killed in the War. Uncle Bill talked with them and told them how much all the other men in his unit had liked their boy, and how he had been very brave. After he died they had buried him with full military honors. This all seemed to be of great comfort to the older couple, and they thanked Uncle Bill and left. My Mom then saw something she had never seen before, her tough and always smiling Uncle Bill weeping. He turned to Aunt Nool and said that he hadn’t realized that he was such a good liar. The poor son of the older couple had stepped upon a huge land mine and there hadn’t been enough left of him to bury.

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