This Memorial Day, Maybe Watch A Less Somber War Movie

Memorial Day is when we honor those men and women who gave their lives in military service. It's a solemn occasion, and rightfully so. Conversely, it's also traditionally a day of picnics and cookouts, because nothing says "sober reflection on the sacrifices of our military" like guzzling Miller Lite and watching the Indy 500.

Or maybe it does. The concept of "freedom" has become somewhat amorphous during these weird times.

And that, conveniently enough, brings me to my point: traditions have been thrown out the window in the Age of Coronavirus (hell, the Indy 500 has been moved to August). While there's no doubt families will go the beach or ignore social distancing guidelines at the park this weekend, many more will continue to stay home and ... just spitballing here ... watch some movies.

It being Memorial Day, networks traditionally marathon war movies. If you aren't able to find multiple airings of Tora! Tora! Tora! and A Bridge Too Far this weekend, then — to quote Oliver Platt in The Ice Harvest — you're not trying, my son.

Thing is, are you really in the mood for grim and reverential fare this year? Isn't the unending deluge of bad news sluicing out of our TVs and computers enough right now? Maybe it's oxymoronic, but wouldn't you like to watch a war movie that doesn't take war so seriously?

For your consideration, the following movies (mostly) walk a precarious line between respect for the armed forces and derision, but still manage to honor the memories of the fallen.

Stalag 17 (1953)
I'm ashamed to admit I first became aware of this because it was Thomas Magnum's favorite movie. Though I am grateful that it introduced me to the works of one of the greatest directors of all time: Billy Wilder.

This is probably the least "comedic" entry on the list, but that's balanced out by the fact it inspired the inexplicably popular TV series Hogan's Heroes.

Operation Petticoat (1959)
I'll refrain from "seamen" jokes and point out that while this may not be the first movie to use the "eject debris out the torpedo tubes" to fake the destruction of a sub, it's definitely the first (only?) to eject lingerie.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The Cold War counts, I believe. Though on second thought, whatever whimsical qualities remain in Stanley Kubrick's class are somewhat overshadowed by the continued aggressive posturing by nuclear powers and a President actively discussing withdrawing from arms treaties.

What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966)
It's been so long that I honestly don't remember how funny this movie actually is. I'm just here for Giovanna Ralli, y'all.

M*A*S*H (1970)
"Hot Lips" O'Houlihan: "I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps."
Father Mulcahy: "He was drafted."

I can appreciate Altman's skill as a satirist and the efforts of a wonderful cast while acknowledging the misogyny and racism in this movie has aged terribly.

Kelly's Heroes (1970)
Come for the weirdly subdued Don Rickles, stay for the hilariously anachronistic Donald Sutherland (his second appearance here).

Catch-22 (1970)
Man, a lot of irreverent and cynical movies about the futility of war were released in 1970. I wonder what was going on at the time?

1941 (1979)
This is, honestly, one of my least favorite Spielberg movies. He is (or was) one of those directors — like Richard Donner — who doesn't traditionally do comedies and seems to think volume = hilarity.

But getting some distance between viewings makes me appreciate this a little more. The cast rivals one of those Cornelius Ryan adaptations, and the scope of the production is staggering. It's an ambitious failure, but at least it's better than War Horse.

Stripes (1981)
What if all those un- and under-employed malcontents out there right now joined the military instead of picking fights with retail and fast food workers? Would that make things better or worse?

Three Kings (1999)
If we go by gaps between the ends of wars and when they start making funny movies about them, while figuring that unpopularity leads to a longer interval, we can anticipate seeing another comedy about the Iraq War in, oh, about 40 years.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar