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May 22, 2020

Best ‘War’ Movies for Memorial Day

That grateful for and inspired by those veterans who have given their lives for our country, we may bravely face the challenges ahead; we pray to the Lord ... USCCB Prayer for Troops.

Reading the Gospel story of Jesus’ healing of the Roman centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), the centurion’s soldiering profession does not necessarily preclude him from a life of faith and starting a discipleship in the Lord.

The centurion’s new purpose, presumably, would be to bring faith to one of the places where you least likely find it, the elite military unit of one of world history’s most ferocious empires. More radical discipleship followed in the 4th century with St. Martin of Tours leaving the Roman cavalry to join a monastery.

Consider the following films, then, as the most digestible for discerning Christians on Memorial Day weekend, when we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country. Where the premise of each film proposes a primary objective other than killing the enemy or “taking the hill." It’s a “Where’s Waldo” exercise, of sorts, finding God on the existential margins of war.

1917 (2019)

Two soldiers traverse a World War I version of Dante's Divine Comedy. Their superiors command them to move through the hell of No Man’s Land and the purgatory of the Germans’ abandoned position to warn the forward colonel (Benedict Cumberbatch) to call off a doomed English attack.

The runners’ task is an evasive one: elude the enemy and engage them only in self-defense. On a couple of occasions, I felt the English runners to be representative of grace. In one instance, a German pilot rejects that grace; in a later instance, a young German infantryman does the same.

Look also for two “Easter eggs." Midway through the film, one runner (George MacKay) encounters a woman and her baby in an abandoned village. (Madonna and Child image, I wonder?) The mission’s dates listed at the outset of the film fall over a Friday to a Sunday. I looked up the liturgical calendar for 1917 and the dates computed to Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

There's even a beautiful folk hymn in the film, I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger:



And here's the trailer:

Dunkirk (2017)

Director Christopher Nolan masterfully tells a “third way” story with his depiction of the Miracle of Dunkirk. The German army traps the Allied Forces at the sea. Only two options seemingly remain: attack or surrender.

The Germans pause their advance to reinforce their position, assuming the inevitable counterattack. The Allies use the Germans’ fear against them, outmaneuvering them by commandeering British civilian boats to successfully sail the English Channel and ferry the soldiers to safety, so they can live to fight another day.

To those who think in Biblical terms, the parting of the Red Sea, of course, comes to mind. Similar to 1917, Nolan’s film assumes a liturgical structure, piecing together the story over one week (infantry on the beach), one day (civilian boaters) and one hour (fighter pilot). The great Catholic feast days, too, commence over one hour (Mass), one day (Easter and Christmas) and one week (octaves).


The Red Baron (2008)

In one poignant scene, World War I German flying ace Manfred von Richthofen berates his younger brother, Lothar. He reminds him the point of dogfighting was the dismantling of airplanes, not the slaughter of enemy pilots. If a biplane was damaged and out of the fight, unwritten rules allowed the pilot to land.

The Red Baron knows war is hell, but battles can still be waged with (in his words) “grace.” The aerial war represented, perhaps, the last fumes of medieval chivalry that was long since lost in the trenches.



Honorable mentions: The Thin Red Line (1998), The Burmese Harp (1956-Japanese), Joyeux Noel (2005-French, German, Latin),  and Three Kings (1999).

Image: 1917/Universal Pictures

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