6 Veteran Scenes We Love

By  · Published on November 11th, 2012

This week’s Scenes We Love goes out to the many men and women who have served in the military, whether in combat or not. Today is, of course, Veteran’s Day, with national observance tomorrow, and we have a mix of clips to honor the occasion. Of course, it hardly represents the numerous films since cinema began that deal specifically with the veteran experience or simply feature a character who is a veteran. They’re just some that we thought of and had something to say about. Hopefully they’re all considered as respectful as we intend. We welcome mention of additional favorites, regardless of whether or not the scene is streaming somewhere online, in the comments below.

Al’s speech in The Best Years of Our Lives

As this is the best film ever made about veterans, there are plenty of scenes we love presenting positive and negative aspects of soldiers returning from World War II. Real-life wounded vet Harold Russell dropping the glass of lemonade due to his having only hooks for hands is a particularly memorable homecoming moment. This scene is more relevant to the acknowledgment of veterans overall. It features Frederic March as Al Stephenson, a banker who has returned to a new position handling loans specifically for vets. After downing some liquid courage, he defends his decision to trust some customers without collateral by pointing out that they weren’t offered collateral to take a hill during battle. At the end, the lucky guy gets some love from his ravishing wife, played by that classic beauty we love, Myrna Loy.

Col. Trautman hints at the danger of vets in society in First Blood

John Rambo may have been the best fighting machine the U.S. had in Vietnam, but his extreme case of how difficult it is to return to normal society is simply an exaggeration of a very common issue for vets. They are changed through their training and changed through their experience, and for them to be dropped back into civilization without at least addressing those changes, there may be a danger to themselves and others around them. Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) explains to Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) that he’s there to save the town from Rambo. But how? Is the solution to incarcerate unstable heroes or find a way to change them back to normal?

Nathan shows off his battle scar in Hell and Back Again

This documentary clip is interesting because of the way the Wal-Mart greeter reacts to Afghanistan War vet, Nathan Harris. He rides in on a wheelchair cart and she has no clue what his ailment is, if any. So, he shows her part of his scar, which he says goes from his buttcrack around and down his leg. Then, he says he was shot. Then, he says it was in Afghanistan. And once she knows he’s a veteran, she asks to hug him. It makes you wonder how many vets are not so recognized, because they’re either not automatically discernible as such or because they don’t talk about it so openly.

Ryan is revealed to be the old vet in Saving Private Ryan

A scene at a military cemetery would normally be more appropriate for Memorial Day, but this is mainly about the WWII vet visiting the place, which is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. We see the old guy at the beginning of the film but only find out his identity in the end. He’s the private Ryan of the title, and like so many other veterans of this and other wars, he has to feels the need to ask himself if his life was worthy of his survival as opposed to all those who didn’t make it. For Ryan, there’s an added level to the concern because a group of men risked and lost their lives specifically to save his.

Ron speaks at the DNC in Born on the Fourth of July

At the end of the movie, Vietnam vet Ron Kovic has been through a long struggle to be heard on the issue of how he and others have been treated during and following their homecoming. Following an unsuccessful attempt to get some respect and offer his voice for his compatriots at the 1972 Republican National Convention, he garners attention from the media and is welcomed to the other side. Here, he makes his way to address the 1976 Democratic National Convention and speak up about the war and on the despicable conditions of VA hospitals and care. A true story, Kovic has been a major figure for veteran rights and vets against recent wars.

Donnie’s funeral in The Big Lebowski

Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is that type of cartoon Vietnam vet who has to reference his service whenever he sees an admissible opportunity. Often the pertinence is a stretch, as is the case in this scene. Before tossing his friend Donny’s ashes to the wind and ocean, Walter delivers a eulogy comparing Donny to the guys he saw die in ‘Nam. Maybe he saw him a casualty of their small, personal war against the Big Lebowski and the nihilists.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.