It’s a war that spanned the globe, blew holes across three continents and directly touched the lives of billions, including filmmakers, actors and their crews. So yeah, there have been some pretty good movies made about the Second World War.
Many have been terrible, sure, but some have been amazing, worthy of not just being good war movies, but some of the best movies ever made. These 13 movies are the very best of them.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
This is a very good movie about one of the war’s most pivotal struggles, but it’s most remarkable in 2015 for two reasons. The first is that if you like Star Wars—especially the bits with starfighters whizzing around shooting at each other—George Lucas owes a ot o this movie and its dogfighting sequences. The second is that holy shit every aircraft used in this flick is a real fighter from the war. Even the ilming as done using WW2 aircraft, like a two-seater Spitfire.
A BRIDGE TOO FAR
What happens when you throw just about every big-name actor from the 1970s into a single movie? You get a slightly ponderous, though ultimately epic recreation of Operation Market Garden, one of the Allies’ most daring (and tragic) failures. The setup runs a little too long, but the depiction of the paratrooper’s deteriorating situation is masterful, and was a big inspiration for the developers of Call of Duty 2 (indeed, Call of Duty’s Captain Price is based on this movie’s Captain Price).
TORA TORA TORA
Similar to Battle of Britain in that it’s a good movie made great by its over-the-top use of real aircraft and equipment for its battle scenes. The most famous being this unscripted crash-landing scene, which nearly killed a couple of stuntmen. A key to its success is the fact it’s a joint American-Japanese production, with directors like Kurosawa and Toshio Masuda working on the sequences involving Japanese personnel, which help give them a different (and welcome) feel.
THE LONGEST DAY
Until Private Ryan came along, this was the D-Day movie. And really, outside of Spielberg’s opening (though Longest Day’s is no slouch either), this remains the better film about the invasion as a whole. Another huge cast benefits from the input of soldiers and officers who actually fought on the beaches, both Allied and German, and massive battle sequences really bring the Normandy invasion to life.
Of all the acclaimed movies dealing with Nazi atrocities behind the lines (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful), this is the standout. Adrien Brody is heart-breaking as Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish pianist from Poland who is rounded up and bounced around the machinations of Germany’s ghettos and concentration camps.
Not every Second World War movie needs to be stick to the facts. Tarantino’s revenge porn tale of a squad of Jewish soldiers wreaking havoc behind German lines is more comic book than history book, but it’s remarkable all the same. From Christoph Waltz’s Jew Hunter to the almost insufferable bar sequence, this movie is awesome.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI
The conditions the prisoners of war who built this bridge and railway worked under were hellish. This movie about their struggles is anything but. Not just one of the great war movies, this is one of the great movies, period.
Lots of movies, shows and documentaries have been made about Stalingrad, perhaps the single most important battle of the war. None have been as powerful as Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 classic, which tells the story of a squad of German soldiers plucked from a beachside vacation and thrust into the horrors of the Eastern Front. Needless to say, this is not a feelgood movie.
One of the defining Second World War movies, and with good reason: Wolfgang Petersen’s epic (the uncut version runs for almost five hours) captures the conditions, camaraderie and madness of a German submarine crew. It’s one hell of an achievement to make the act of just watching a movie feel as tense and claustrophobic as being in an actual submarine.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
It’s a dumb movie, but not every Second World War movie has to take itself seriously. Another big cast (the 60s and 70s sure loved their ensembles) sees Allied inmates try and escape from a German POW camp. It’s all fun and games and whistling and motorbikes until, well, the end, when we’re brutally reminded that, yes, maybe this war wasn’t a game after all.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
I don’t like this movie very much. But it’s intro alone gets it on this list. It’s hard to believe we’re approaching the 20th anniversary of Spielberg’s blockbuster, because in all the time since we’re yet to see another sequence so powerfully and brutally capture the visceral horrors of war.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
A few years back, Clint Eastwood made two movies about the Second World War. One, Flags of our Fathers, was terrible. The other, however, is a masterpiece. Japanese soldiers are so often portrayed in films as fanatical monsters, but Letters—which is filmed entirely from the Japanese perspective, starring Japanese actors speaking Japanese—shines a light on the conditions and pressures facing its troops as the Allies closed in their homeland.
GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
If you haven’t seen this movie, it might look strange having an animated feature on a list like this. If you have, you’ll know why it’s here. In all the decades since the war, there hasn’t been a sadder and more gut-wrenching story of collateral damage than the tale of Seita and his sister Setsuko. I’m tearing up even writing about this movie.
Before you pen furious emails, know that the following movies were seriously considered, but a line had to be drawn somewhere, and while all excellent flicks these didn’t quite make the list: Dambusters, Thin Red Line, Guns of Navarone, Downfall, Dirty Dozen, Enemy at the Gates, Patton and Big Red One.
That’s it! Now may also be a good time to remind you that as good as all of these movies are, none of them are as good as Band of Brothers.
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