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The 25 Best Movies About World War II

21 May 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Pedro Bento

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

War is an artistically rich topic and many noted cinematic artists have produced works concerning war and a war backdrop. World War II is perhaps and most familiar and fertile of war period settings in the filmmaking universe.

The war which inaugurated the atomic era and in which an accumulated 60 million persons died is considered to be the largest scale conflict of all time, and one which in many ways altered the course of world history forever within a span of six years. Many thought it would be a lesson for humanity, but, in the end, WWII was a conflict where some won the war, but nobody won peace.

The photographer Robert Capa, in the middle of war, facing the enemy on a trench, started to talk about Leo Tolstoy’s literature and how he’d like to read “War and Peace” at that precise moment. Cinema is also bonded with World War II. The conflict has cogently commented on the various aspects of the participating countries during the various phases of the experiences.

In many of these films, the feeling of the fire’s heat and the death’s cold, while the bullets are grazing ever close is palpable. The visceral impact of film can almost conjure feel of the concentration camps, the immediacy of a blitzkrieg attack and the moment of sheer terror felt shaking inside the dust.

Some pictures can take the simulation of a very specific reality to an extreme level of immersion and suddenly the enemy is chasing the viewer in the middle of, for example, Stalingrad. People are transformed into abstractions coping with impotency in trying to avoid something inevitable.

Cinema achieved a symbiosis with World War II which is almost perfect. This liveliest of the arts has the ability of turning the malevolent, cruel and repulsive into something mentally interesting. Following are 25 films which show what happens when the cinema explores the boundaries of World War II.

 

25. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Unlike other pictures exploring the infamous attack on the naval base of Pearl Harbor, this film has the virtue of realism in detailing the attack and its context. “Tora! Tora! Tora!” – the Japanese war code used in the assault – is a reliable account of a historical World War II episode, mirroring the death and destruction of the attack of December 7, 1941.

The film was initially assigned to the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, but, after two years of non-development, 20th Century Fox reassigned the project to Kinji Fukasaku, the director of “Battle Royale”. Reminiscent of the Italian neo-realist movement, the film is slow paced and richly detailed in order to tell the truth about how the Japanese prepared the attack and the errors committed on the part of the Americans.

 

24. The Hill (1965)

The Hill (1965)

Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Sean Connery, “The Hill” is the sort of film in which the characters take on a symbolic aspect. This edges the film into the realm of becoming a parable of survival in the face of genocide. The film narrates the path of five British men struggling to survive while dealing with severe torture and sadistic guards inside an African military prison.

Like this film or not, it has a haunting quality. Ignored by The Motion Picture Academy, “The Hill” shows the work of a masterful director and a main actor at the top of his form. The film unearths one of the darkest episodes concerning the conflict, providing some philosophical and enigmatic qualities, while presenting a harsh and scabrous story.

 

23. The Bridge (1959)

The Bridge (1959)

This film from Germany is among the few which pictures the war period era of that country without any type of propaganda, idiosyncrasies or political nuances. Directed by the actor Bernhard Wicki, “The Bridge” pictures how German boys in their teens were left alone to fight to the death. Illustrating the madness of war, the film is a meditation concerning the role teenagers play in politics and society during wartime.

Unlike the majority of war films, “Die Brücke” isn’t concerned with the praise of victory, but the bitter taste of defeat. The film is a veritable lesson pondering the subject of brainwashed Nazi teens and showing some 15 year-old boys and how they were conditioned for war. The movie was nominated for the best foreign film Oscar in 1960.

 

22. Kanal (1957)

Kanal (1957)

“The Pianist” isn’t the only film about a Polish musician cornered in WWII terror. The second film of Andrzej Wajda’s “War Trilogy”, Kanal, was the first film to explore the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and posits the story of a military company lost in a sewer, trying to escape from the Nazis. Commencing with images of destruction, “Kanal” is a realistic portrait about war minus positive emotions or beautiful pictures.

Poland was one of the countries most affected by the conflict, the film is a semi-documentary, emphasizing aspects which were severe, nefarious and filthy. Kanal’s message is to struggle, to kill, and to die in order to… get nothing. “Kanal” also deals with an obsessed general and a mentally strong woman. The Polish film won Special Jury Award at Cannes Film Festival.

 

21. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

The Boy in The Striped Pajamas

Based on John Boyne’s euphonious best seller, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a story concerning the cataclysmic events of the Holocaust as seen from a child’s perspective.

The story is seen through the eyes of Bruno, a Nazi commandant’s young son. His family encourages him to hate Jews, but this turns out to be difficult for him when, living next to Auschwitz, he meets Shmuel, a Jewish boy who is captive in the camp. The boys meet and develop their friendship secretly.

Though living alongside a nightmarish situation, Bruno has a normal childhood, living in simplicity and freedom, while Shmuel’s life is ensconced in injustice and brutality. This contrast is present throughout the film in the juxtaposition of the boy’s lives. This purity of friendship illuminates the darkness like a drop of grace inside a powder keg.

 

20. The Reader (2008)

The Reader

Set in post-WWII Germany, the story concerns Michael Berg, a 15 year-old boy, who has an affair with an older woman and becomes bounded to her until her death. The woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), is exposed as a guard in Auschwitz, which leads to much consternation. “The Reader” is a tale of ethical dilemmas and posits hard questions with answers which are ambiguous at best.

Michael will embark of a long journey filled with personal fears, laws and impulses. In the end, what is learned? “We learn how to read”.

 

19. Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

The battle of Stalingrad was one of the major episodes of World War II, pitting Soviets against Germans, Romanians, Italians, Hungarians and Croatians. Against all odds,the Soviets won. As in all great battles, great heroes rise, and one of these was Vassili (Jude Law), a soviet sniper. Vassili became a legend in his country due to his talent for shooting enemies.

Due to his skill, Vassili is charged with killing the best Nazi sniper on the field, Major König (Ed Harris). During a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse, the young soviet soldier will experience love, fear and betrayal, as seen from an insider’s view.

“Enemy at the Gates” is a compendium of gunfire, tactical moves and detailed historical drama. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud had telescoped the battle involving the great forces into the experiences of two snipers fighting the Battle of Stalingrad.

 

18. Europa (1991)

europa_lars_von_trier

The controversial Danish director Lars von Trier is more multi-faceted than many would suppose. Among his finest efforts is his Europa trilogy comprising “The Element of Crime”, “Epidemic” and “Europa”.

Influenced by Franz Kafka’s novel “Amerika”, the film focuses on an idealistic American boy, who wishes to “show some kindness” to Germans after the end of World War II. Things end up turning out to be very different from what the boy, Leopold Kessler, had expected.

Pondering a number of metaphysical questions, the film tells an interesting story, marked by a peculiar aesthetics beauty germane to Lars von Trier’s work. The director creates Kafka-esque ambiguity in this stylish film. “Europa” won the Jury Prize in Cannes tied with “Hors la vie”.

 

 

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  • Brett Lovejoy

    Ooh, ranking The Thin Red Line higher than Saving Private Ryan? That decision has some people divided. Personally, no war film will ever be greater to me than Saving Private Ryan.

    • TheVoid

      I dont get what people find so great about it. You’re basically comparing the shallow explosion filled holywood flick vs the deep philosophical war movie that goes into the nature of human beings and war.. and also has explosions. so which one of these is the timeless one?

      • Brett Lovejoy

        All I’m saying is that the two are pretty comparable while also being completely different war films: some side with Saving Private Ryan, others side with The Thin Red Line. Some prefer the slower-paced message of Malick’s film (and his movies in general), while others enjoy the brutal horror shown in battle with Spielberg’s. Both are excellent movies, don’t get me wrong, but I can see SPR being all-around enjoyed and praised more than The Thin Red Line, simply for that philosophy conveyed by Malick that some people find to be borderline pretentious.

      • Brian Lussier

        Apart from the harrowing opening and the end where they defend a bridge, Saving Private Ryan is NOT explosion-filled, as you put it. It’s actually a pretty deep reflection on the arbitrary nature of war from a political point of view, as well as a human one. The question is well asked and well explored in the film: “Where’s the sense in risking the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?”, one soldier asks. And that’s the heart of this film, to which the film offers no simplistic answer: is saving one man’s life worth risking the lives of many others? It’s a deep question. As for “explosion-filled”, you’re making it sound like this is Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor or something. The first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan are some of the most masterfully shot scenes (and most terrifyingly realistic) in the entire history of cinema. This is not gratuitous violence and dumb, Hollywood explosions; this is a true masterpiece in the art of conveying the horror of warfare. If you don’t see that, you’re honestly either an idiot or not very observant. However, I agree that The Thin Red Line is a superior film, and by FAR! But your assessment that Saving Private Ryan is essentially mindless Hollywood entertainment is really off and lacks perspective.

        • TheVoid

          Ok, so I might have exaggerated a bit regarding SPR. Even though SPR has a deeper side to it its not anywhere near the issues presented in Thin Red Line, it basically takes the point of view of the American fighter/soldier trying to do his duty even if it doesn’t make sense to him, which isn’t bad, but not that great either. it basically is still a commercially focused film with the typical macho American heroics, that is my biggest issue with it, but what it it does, it does really well, i.e showing the combat in a very realistic way in all its horrors.

  • Alma Saucedo

    Full metal jacket?

    • Divlji Koračar

      …has nothing to do with WWII

      • Alma Saucedo

        right, I just read “war” at the beginning

    • Julio César Sepúlveda Rodrígue

      That’s from Vietnam war

      • Alma Saucedo

        you’re right.

  • Julio César Sepúlveda Rodrígue

    Enemy at the Gates is a compendium of anti comunist propaganda I may say.

  • Blica

    Saving Private Ryan is just a stupid patriotic pro-american movie

  • Benas Bačanskas

    Life is Beautiful 3rd place? The Pianist 2nd place? Both overrated here. Films in 4-8 positions are better than those two.

  • Special_One

    No The Longest Day? The Great Escape? From Here to Eternity? All better than most films on this list.

  • Jecar Donoso Villaseca

    Where the hell is “Stalingrad”??? Life is Beautiful is a joke of a movie.

  • Cinema Phenomenology

    A controversial list (without A Bridge Too Far, The Cranes are Flying etc) but still interesting one. Thanks for including Father of a soldier, The Bridge and The Thin Red Line (which I believe is better than Private Ryan)

  • Goran Mars

    Inglorious Bastards? That is everything, even comedy and children fiction, but NOT a war movie. You obviously missed some Yugoslavian movies, like Sutjeska, Neretva, etc. Or, Russian, Stalingrad! I would understand if list was made by American…

    • Moeslim

      A movie about World War II =/= a war movie.

  • Mhmad A. Shannag

    i was worried that (come and see) won’t be in this list, for those who haven’t seen it yet, i strongly advice you to, shows the horrors of WW2 like no other movie ever!

  • Razvan Bibire

    I saw “Come and See” long ago. It’s a very tough film. I read that the main actor has played many scenes in hypnosis to not be affected mentally.

  • No Verboeten! by Sam Fuller?

  • Evelyn Melendez

    How about “The Great Escape” it wasn’t directly about the war but It was based on true events during that time

  • thecolonel1

    Glad to see Kanal on the list, but no Empire of the Sun, King Rat, 36 Hours or The Eagle Has Landed?

  • Noctambulus San

    Schindler’s List It is absolutely ridiculous. The end.

    • Brian Lussier

      Right. I’ll take note: Noctambulus San knows everything. Noted.

    • Padraig McWeeney

      Schindler’s List is a good movie. Very good. Ralph Fiennes was amazing… Watch it again…

  • Rentahobbit

    The Big Red One?

    • Padraig McWeeney

      should be number 1

  • Chandradeep

    where is the Ascent? And The Cranes are flying? which is 1000 times better than hollywood mtv . you have saving private ryan and inglourious basterds. lol seriously? inglourious basterds?

    • Ryan Strandjord

      Seriously!! The Ascent is fucking amazing.

  • Yo Pedro…Excellent list..

  • Camilo

    Rome, Open City?

  • zaki85

    Enemy at the Gates? 🙁

  • Padraig McWeeney

    I don’t get the Reader or Inglorious B’d. Two poor and badly acted films, even with Christopher Waltz It was still a shit film. I like the Pianist because Polanski made it… James Cockburn in Cross of Iron, hard to beat. Where Eagles dare is also another really good film in my opinion.

  • Padraig McWeeney

    someone mentioned “The Big Red One” earlier also. Now that’s a WWII film…

    • giallopudding

      The Big Red One is hands down the best WWII film ever made. It captures the tragicomic aspects of mankind’s most ludicrous and persistent pursuit.

  • giallopudding

    Whoa! Where is: The Big Red One? Guns of Navarone? The Dirty Dozen? Where Eagles Dare?

  • Le Blanc

    ‘Enemy at the Gates’, are you serious? If you asked two drunken teenagers to make a war movie this is what they would produce.

  • Nikolai

    World War 2 was a complete fiction in which we were fooled into stopping the Axis powers from making their OWN money, maintaining England’s crumbling overseas empire, and crushing challengers to our Pacific sea trade routes. We’re still being controlled

  • Dimitri Poenaru

    So many people here bashing on Inglourious Basterds. Just because it’s a recent movie, or because it’s funny, and not as sad as the other movies. Yes, it doesn’t capture the sadness and suffering that is a war, but it dares to be different. That movie is a masterpiece, even if you don’t wanna accept it. It has an unique style, and it’s still a war movie, and i don’t care that it’s not as old as Casablanca, older isn’t always better, you know.

  • Randal Gist

    Several of these are not even good films (Life Is Beautiful? Enemy at The Gates?) Inglorious Basterds is much more about World War II movies than the actual war. Saving Private Ryan–except for the first 30 minutes, is mostly a patrol movie. It’s a good film, but vastly overrated. For Hollywood WWII: They Were Expendable, The Story of G.I. Joe, Twelve O’Clock High, Battleground, From Here to Eternity, Hell is For Heroes, The Big Red One, Hell In The Pacific, The Train. The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far are excellent for their type. I’ve always thought Too Late the Hero a great war film, if no one else does. There are many more–European & Asian, and yes you left out Stalingrad. But everyone has their own opinion.

  • Mark Jeffery

    A Bridge Too Far, The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare (best cheesy one) Cross of Iron, Hope & Glory, Went The Day Well, This Happy Breed, Sink The Bismark, The Battle of River Plate – a seriously flawed list.

    • Diego Dias

      Totally agree!

  • Diego Dias

    You forgot/ommited “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge too far”

  • Diego Dias

    Some compare the life of actor Gustaf Grundgens – know as the best Faust interpreter ever – as the real life “Mephisto” from the movie,

  • Gabriel Apetrei

    The Ascent 1977. Is from far the best ww2 movie. Perhaps is one of the best war movie of all time.

  • MnkyLv

    The Human Condition
    Three Godless Years
    Hope and Glory
    Fires on the Plain
    The Tin Drum
    Au Revoir, Les Enfants
    The Burmese Harp
    Oro, Plata, Mata
    The Best Years of Our Lives
    Europa, Europa

  • disqus_k3qr4AlPnS

    Good list, placing The Thin Red Line above Saving Private Ryan and Come and See at the top of the list are strong calls that I completely agree with, though my version would definitely have to include From Here To Eternity, Grave of the Fireflies, The Tin Drum, Stalingrad, or Catch 22, over Life is Beautiful, Private Ryan, and Enemy At the Gates. I love how you guys always spark debate though.