World War II arguably has been the richest source of cinematic material in history, spawning hundreds of films dealing with actual fighting, or the lead-up to it or aftermath of it.
Assembling a list of the top 10 World War II films of all time is a brutal task, because the definition of such a film is always broader in sense and especially coming to one’s discrimination is again disputed. There are movies that deal mostly with combat. There are others set in specific areas of the war, like prisoner of war or concentration camps, naval vessels, air bases or boot camps. Still other films take place against the backdrop of the war, either at home or abroad.
The following is a sampling from all those categories. The primary criterion is excellence. Tastes and sensibilities over the years have certainly changes, so some of the more romanticized films on the list that were made years ago might seem tame in comparison to some modern entries that involve a grittier realism. But what they all have in common is the ability to capture the impact of World War II on mankind…..I would have missed lots of good ones too….. No offense for anyone, this is just a small expression of my love of movies that I’ve enjoyed over the years, and here the expressions of visual liberties set in the backdrop of WWII
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): David Lean’s epic surrounds British POWs forced by their Japanese captors to build a bridge in a rugged jungle. Led by Col. Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness), the Brits decide to show their captors a thing or two about work ethic, obligation and dignity by performing the task a high level while maintaining the honor of the officers involved. Unfortunately, they don’t know that Allied forces have a plan to bomb the bridge as soon as it’s complete. The crux of the film is a riveting battle of wills between Nicholson and his Japanese counterpart, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel and also starring William Holden and Jack Hawkins, it was one of the highlights of Lean’s long and illustrious career. It not only won seven Academy Awards but was the No. 1 film at the box office that year.
The Great Dictator (1941): A rib-tickling movie directed by Charles Chaplin, set during the raise of fascists in Germany and the beginning of WWII. Chaplin creates an exemplary depiction of Adolf Hitler by the character of Hynkel. The movie traces the very different paths of two men from the imaginary country of Tomania: the first is a Jewish barber who suffers amnesia as a result of a plane accident which occurred while rescuing an officer during World War I. The second is Hynkel, the Dictator of Tomania, who gesticulates wildly, shouts incomprehensible gibberish and harbors not-so-secret ambitions of global domination. Years after his accident, the Jewish barber finally recovers from his amnesia and returns home, only to find the ghetto under the oppressive rule of Storm Troopers who wear the infamous “double cross” on their sleeves. The barber befriends Hannah, a spunky young laundry girl given to resistance; he later runs into Schultz, who is now a close associate of Hynkel but orders the Storm Troopers not to harass the Jews of the ghetto out of gratitude for the barber’s help years ago. Meanwhile, Hynkel plans to invade the neighboring country of Osterlich but must negotiate with Napaloni, the wily Dictator of Bacteria first. The barber winds up arrested with Schultz and thrown into a concentration camp, but his uncanny resemblance to Hynkel gives him – and the world – one last hope.
Still after 74 years after its release- the closing scene moved me to tears. The Great Dictator is a frank, hard-hitting attack on Fascism, in which violent caricature bulks even larger than the immutable comedy of human existence that Chaplin knows so well.
Casablanca (1942): This is arguably a most feted love story and not a boots-and-bayonets saga, but it’s one of the greatest American films of all time. And it works so well because of the stakes involved, especially the drama, the cast, the craft, the Moroccan city, the lights of those era, the music, the triggers of man’s mortal nature and so much this movie has captivated the audience is enigmatic. The story is about the Nazis, who are the primary reason why Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is rooted in his café in Casablanca and why Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) are on the lam and why they all come together in an exquisite script by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. An unsung hero is director Michael Curtiz, who allows a patriotic fervor to bubble underneath as the love triangle unfolds but never lets it all get overcooked. And this film features one of the finest supporting casts ever, featuring Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam. While it is fictional, it helped to illustrate how the war touched places around the globe that had seemed like sanctuaries. “Casablanca” snagged Oscars for best picture as well as for its director and writers.
Schindler’s List (1993): The temptation is to first cite director Steven Spielberg’s other honored World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan.” But while that’s an example of great filmmaking, it isn’t a great film. Aside from the opening 20 minutes of documentary-style hell on Normandy Beach, the rest of it is an ordinary tale with stock characters, book-ended by a needless exercise in nostalgia. “Schindler’s List,” meanwhile, is a true masterpiece and almost completely bereft of the sentimentality Spielberg is often knocked for. Liam Neeson plays war profiteer Oskar Schindler, who eventually develops a conscience and rescues many of the Jews in his employ from certain death. The script, adapted by Steven Zaillian from a book by Thomas Keneally, builds masterfully from the early stages of the Nazis’ presence in Poland until the end of the war. The term “triumph of the human spirit” is too casually thrown around when describing such stories, but here it’s absolutely appropriate.
Das Boot (1997): It is 1942 and the German submarine fleet is heavily engaged in the so called “Battle of the Atlantic” to harass and destroy English shipping. With better escorts of the Destroyer Class, however, German U-Boats have begun to take heavy losses. Das Boot is the story of one such U-Boat crew, with the film examining how these submariners maintained their professionalism as soldiers, attempted to accomplish impossible missions, while all the time attempting to understand and obey the ideology of the government under which they served.
This was nominated for 6 Oscars and become the most successful foreign movie. You also have a color-rich reprinted version, complete with restored footage and re-designed digital sound is, simply, even better. Wolfgang Petersen is the director, shot with absorbing veracity, the film alternates mundane claustrophobia – rarely has boredom been portrayed so rivetingly – with sequences of nerve-shredding tension. While it is oft said that the director’s masterstroke was to portray the humanity behind the German war effort, Das Boot displays pure filmmaking know-how-Masterful.
Cabaret (1972): Set in the Berlin hotspot Kit Kat Klub in 1931, a starry-eyed singer and the club’s master of ceremonies try to bring happiness and decadence to the lives of Berliners as the spectra of Nazism grows around them and threatens to destroy their lives.
This is Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical “Berlin Stories” focuses on singer-dancer Sally Bowles (Minnelli) as she struts her stuff on the stage of the Kit-Kat club – a place where absolutely anything goes. While the decadent partygoers of 30s Berlin experiment with song, dance, and all manner of sexual couplings, Germany’s going to rack and ruin as a bunch of thuggish political heavies known as the Nazis turn the city’s streets into a violent arena of hate-crimes and political propaganda. The champagne may still be flowing at the Kit-Kat club, but how long will it be before the brown shirts fulfill the promise of the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”?
Liza Minelli at her best, For an intense moment, the lights changes into fiery red as she sings the final notes in a cry of desperation, deafened by a time of extreme desperate measures and music all the way…
The Thin Red Line (1998): Whereas Spielberg got his point across by using thousands of bullets in “Saving Private Ryan,” director Terrence Malick did so with a choice few reserved for key moments in telling a story about events surrounding the battle of Guadacanal. Adapted from a novel by James Jones, it’s a poetic discourse on the impact of war upon the hopes and dreams of young men. Malick juxtaposes the blood and gore and madness with the serenity and beauty of nature to great effect. Actors love Malick, so it’s no surprise he was able to round up a top-notch cast headed by Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, John Travolta, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and George Clooney. The gorgeous cinematography by John Toll is almost a character itself, and it complements the film’s heart-rending tone perfectly. While it wasn’t ignored upon release — the Academy honored it with seven nominations, including two for Malick — it’s likely this will gain stature in the years to come.
The Great Escape (1963): John Sturges directed this testosterone-filled, fact-based adventure yarn about the mother of all escape attempts from a German POW camp. The iconic image is that of Steve McQueen high-tailing it away from his Nazi pursuers, but summing it up by that alone is selling it way short. The strength of this picture is in the battalion of supporting actors playing expertly crafted roles, among them Charles Bronson, Sir Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and David McCallum. There are equal amounts of revealing character moments and white-knuckle thrills, thanks to the crackling screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett. The film was passed over by the Academy, garnering just one nomination for film editing. But it has gone on to occupy a hallowed place in the annals of war films as well as inspiring new generations of motorcycle enthusiasts.
The English Patient (1996): Set in the backdrop of last days of World War II, this epic film of adventure, intrigue, betrayal and love about four strangers whose diverse lives become inextricably connected.
Backward into memory, forward into loss and desire, “The English Patient” searches for answers that will answer nothing. This poetic, evocative film version of the famous novel by Michael Ondaatje circles down through layers of mystery until all of the puzzles in the story have been solved, and only the great wound of a doomed love remains. It is the kind of movie you can see twice–first for the questions, the second time for the answers.
The film opens with a pre-war biplane flying above the desert, carrying two passengers in its open cockpits. The film will tell us who these passengers are, why they are in the plane, and what happens next. All of the rest of the story is prologue and epilogue to the reasons for this flight. It is told with the sweep and visual richness of a film by David Lean, with an attention to fragments of memory that evoke feelings even before we understand what they mean. Director Minghella proves that a movie love story can be smart, principled and provoking, and still sweep you away.
From Here To Eternity(1953): In “The Godfather,” Mario Puzo’s reference to singer Johnny Fontane wanting to land a role in a war picture to rejuvenate his career is said to have been inspired by Frank Sinatra securing the role of Pvt. Maggio in this, which earned the crooner an Oscar. But “Eternity,” set against the backdrop of life at Pearl Harbor before, during and after the Japanese attack, is more than that. It’s escapist melodrama of the highest order. Director Fred Zinnemann took on a job of adapting a hugely popular novel that many said could not be made into a movie without severely altering its scope and racy content and put it into the pantheon of cinematic classics. The cast also includes Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine. The image that lingers is the one of Lancaster and Kerr rolling around in the surf together, but there’s so much going on, including some of the darker aspects of military life.
- Mrs. Miniver
- The Train
- The Best Years Of Our Lives
- The Guns of Navarone
- The Longest Day
- Stalag 17
- A Walk In The Sun
- The Pianist
- Saving Private Ryan
- Europa, Europa
- The Diary of Anne Frank
- Au Revoir, Les Enfants
- To Hell and Back
- The Big Red One
- The White Rose
- The Grey Zone
- Hope & Glory
- The Ballad of a Soldier
- Closely Watched Trains
And many more beautiful films…………….