What Makes a War Movie a 'Classic,' According to Turner Classic Movies

James Garner, Jud Taylor and Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape," featured on TCM's 2024 Memorial Day movie marathon. (United Artists)

On the morning of Saturday, May 25, 2024, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will begin its Memorial Day weekend military movie marathon, an annual tradition since 2020. The three-day, commercial-free event will feature 35 iconic films, including a fully restored version of the 1944 William Wyler wartime classic "The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress."

This year will also feature a new classic movie, 2018's "The Cold Blue." It's a new documentary of the famed B-17 bomber the Memphis Belle, a film made with only the unused color footage from Wyler's original documentary, saved from the National Archives and fully restored by filmmaker Erik Nelson.

We can all agree that many of the films on TCM's Memorial Day marathon roster are certifiable classics. Movies such as 1963's "The Great Escape," 1945's "They Were Expendable" and the Academy Award-winning "The Best Years of Our Lives" from 1946 not only saw critical praise upon their release, but have stood the test of time. Military.com asked TCM's chief programmer, Charles Tabesh, just what exactly makes a military movie a "classic."

"It's a genre that a lot of people really love, and so it's a great way for us to give people a chance to see some of the greatest war movies ever made," Tabesh told Military.com. "There's no age cutoff because a great movie is a great movie. It's really a subjective kind of feel."

Tabesh says that for TCM, a "classic" movie is all about context. The channel regularly recognizes events such as Memorial Day by programming movies about military service. It celebrates stars like Hollywood icon and film noir fixture Robert Mitchum by playing his movies, even if they aren't as well known or the actor's role is more obscure.

"A lot of our fans watch TCM constantly and they've seen almost everything, so we do want to give them something different at times," he said. "Movies are so personal. There are plenty of movies I like that other people wouldn't, and our job really as programmers is to understand and make sure we're satisfying a big group of classic movie fans, independent of what we might or might not like in a film."

Even though he acknowledges that the difference between a good movie and a bad movie belongs to the viewer, Tabesh can identify at least one characteristic "classic" war movies do share: characters.

"I think characters are more interesting and sustainable than, say, action scenes," he said. "I'm thinking of what makes a movie stand the test of time, and I think character and story development are more important than anything else."

This is not to say movies filled with action or begin with action sequences are not "classics." TCM's chief programmer notes that action sequences, especially in war movies, can be just as meaningful. They may even help develop character.

"Having said that, the first scene of 'Saving Private Ryan' is a battle scene, and it's just so amazing," Tabesh said. "That's different. I think anything that's done exceptionally well is going to matter, but on the whole, character and character development make a movie stand out.

TCM's Memorial Day Military Movie Marathon begins Saturday, May 25, 2024, at 7:45 a.m. EDT with the 1962 film "Merrill's Marauders." It continues through Tuesday, May 28, concluding with the 1941 classic "Sergeant York."

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