TCM Honors the Military With a 2020 Memorial Day Movie Marathon

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Steve McQueen stars in “The Great Escape.” (United Artists)

Memorial Day 2020 will be missing many of the traditions that make the weekend so important.

There are no large ceremonies taking place at military cemeteries, no baseball and no NBA playoff games.

If you're following social distancing guidelines, your neighborhood cookouts and family reunions have been canceled. So what's left for us on the weekend that traditionally kicks off summer?

Fortunately, Turner Classic Movies won't be breaking its own Memorial Day tradition and will air a 31-movie marathon of military-themed movies from Saturday, May 23, through Monday, May 25.

Since TCM's definition of classic movies usually cuts off somewhere around 1980, there won't be any films about the first Gulf War or the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do get movies about the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

The channel is mostly sticking to favorites over the weekend, offering no premieres. It's also keeping to its Saturday night Essentials programming, its Saturday midnight (repeated Sunday morning) Noir Alley slot, and its Sunday overnight silent and foreign-language features.

"Casablanca" fills the Essentials slot on Saturday night at 8 p.m. Granted, it's not exactly a war movie (since there's zero combat), but it's still almost everyone's favorite World War II movie. The Essentials co-host will be director Brad Bird, who's made both great animated ("The Incredibles," "Ratatouille") and live-action ("Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol") movies.

"Cornered" is the Noir Alley feature. It's an early classic of the genre, starring Dick Powell as a recently released prisoner of war who returns to France and discovers that his war bride, a member of the Resistance, has been murdered by a Vichy collaborator. That collaborator is supposed to be dead, but Dick has his doubts and heads to Argentina to look for revenge.

The Sunday silent movie is "Wings," the 1927 World War I film that won the first-ever Best Picture Oscar. It's a primitive movie in many ways, but the aerial dogfight scenes, performed by pilots with wartime experience, remain some of the most spectacular ever filmed.

Director G.W. Pabst's "Westfront 1918" (1930) presents WWI from a German perspective. It's a particularly bleak film, one that makes its American-made analog "All Quiet on the Western Front" seem positively cheerful by comparison. If you're seeking reasons why the German people were receptive to Nazi promises, "Westfront 1918" offers some excellent background.

If you're looking for a lesser-known movie worth watching, Samuel Fuller's 1951 film "The Steel Helmet" (airing Saturday at 4 p.m.) is the first movie made about the Korean War. Fuller dashed off the script in a week and shot the movie in L.A.'s Griffith Park with a cast of mostly unknowns. A POW survives the North Korean execution of his unit when their bullet glances off his helmet. He's rescued by a Korean boy, and they join up with another unit on patrol. Fuller confronts the racial attitudes of the era head-on and offers a far grittier take on military life than he would've been allowed to offer on a studio picture with a big budget.

If you're looking for a more Hollywood-style soft-focus take on combat, John Wayne's "The Green Berets" (1968) follows immediately after at 5:30 p.m. Is it possible to appreciate both Wayne's unrealistically positive take on one war and Fuller's unrelentingly negative take on another? Of course it is. We're all grown-ups here.

Monday daytime will offer up a quadruple feature of 1960s classics about World War II starting at 8:30 a.m. How many times can we watch "Where Eagles Dare" (1968), "The Great Escape" (1963), "The Dirty Dozen" (1965) and "Battle of the Bulge" (1965)? The correct answer is, of course, infinite times.

TCM ends its Memorial Day tribute with four movies about the complications faced by veterans returning from war. "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), "Till the End of Time" (1946) and "Homecoming" (1948) are all contemporary movies made just as WWII ended, and all offer a sharp contrast to the later tales of universally well-adjusted Greatest Generation veterans.

"Coming Home" (1978) was one of the first movies to offer respect to the wounded warriors of the Vietnam conflict and was partially inspired by the story of veteran Ron Kovic. Jon Voight won a Best Actor Oscar, and the writing trio of Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd won a Best Original Screenplay award.

Unfortunately for many of our Vietnam veteran brothers, the film also stars Jane Fonda (who won a Best Actress Oscar). She developed the film in her first attempt to apologize for her actions during the war and, for most, the apology was not accepted. The movie's still pretty great, though.

A complete listing of the weekend is below. All times are Eastern. If you get TCM via cable on the West Coast, the times should line up with Pacific Daylight Time. If you get TCM via a streaming platform like YouTube TV, everything may be showing three hours earlier. Make sure you check your listings.

Saturday, May 23

06:00 a.m. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

08:00 a.m. Captain Caution (1940)

09:30 a.m. Glory (1989)

11:45 a.m. Sergeant York (1941)

02:00 p.m. D-Day the Sixth of June (1956)

04:00 p.m. The Steel Helmet (1951)

05:30 p.m. The Green Berets (1968)

08:00 p.m. Casablanca (1941)

10:00 p.m. Waterloo Bridge (1940)

12:00 a.m. Cornered (1946)

02:00 a.m. Uncertain Glory (1944)

03:45 a.m. Edge of Darkness (1943)

Sunday, May 24

06:00 a.m. Reunion in France (1942)

08:00 a.m. Assignment in Brittany (1943)

10:00 a.m. Cornered (1946)

12:00 p.m. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

02:30 p.m. The Wings of Eagles (1957)

04:30 p.m. The Sand Pebbles (1966)

08:00 p.m. Hell to Eternity (1960)

10:15 p.m. Pride of the Marines (1945)

12:30 a.m. Wings (1927)

03:00 a.m. Westfront 1918 (1930)

04:45 a.m. The Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Monday, May 25

06:00 a.m. Battle Cry (1955)

08:30 a.m. Where Eagles Dare (1968)

11:15 a.m. The Great Escape (1963)

02:15 p.m. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

05:00 p.m. Battle of the Bulge (1965)

08:00 p.m. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

11:00 p.m. Till the End of Time (1946)

01:00 a.m. Coming Home (1978)

03:30 a.m. Homecoming (1948)

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