The Second World War was a terrible thing. It was marked by on of the most evil men in history rising to power and creating havoc across Europe and Africa.
Led by Hitler, the Nazis invaded Poland and started rounding up all the minority groups that they perceived as a threat to Germany; and if anyone tried to stop them, they simply wiped them out. What followed was a conflict that engulfed the entire planet for six gruelling years.
Millions of people died and the whole world changed. World War II inspired some of the finest cinematic masterpieces in film history. All of the best directors, from Steven Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino to, most recently, Christopher Nolan, has had a crack at it.
In honor of this year’s fantastic Oscar shoo-in Dunkirk, here are the 15 greatest World War II movies ever made.
15. Hacksaw Ridge
It would take a lot for the world to forgive someone for racist and sexist and anti-Semitic remarks, but that’s what happened to Mel Gibson when everyone saw how great his latest directorial movie Hacksaw Ridge was.
It’s a different kind of World War II movie in that it’s not about a soldier who achieved glory by killing a bunch of people – it’s about a soldier who achieved glory by being a brave son of a bitch in spite of never picking up a gun.
See, Desmond Doss was a conscientious objector who didn’t commit one act of violence in his entire life, and yet he still wanted to serve his country, so he went to war as a medic and saved a whole bunch of lives using nothing but his bravery.
He was a real hero. And the movie did his incredible story justice, as it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and three other Oscars, and critics called it “absolutely one of 2016’s must-see films.”
14. The Longest Day
The Longest Day is a ridiculously epic black and white movie that was directed by five guys and written by five other guys. It took ten people in total to tell this story, and it’s three hours long. It borders on the absurd, but dammit, they pulled it off.
They brought together an incredible ensemble cast that included such huge stars as John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, and Rod Steiger (some of whom in fact were servicemen during the war) to tell the full and complete story of the D-Day landings, from the British, American, French, and German perspectives.
The critics have called it “a solid and stunning war epic” with “breathtaking scope and authenticity” that is “certainly impressive in its scope.” That’s high praise.
13. A Bridge Too Far
You know those great double whammies of writer and director, where there’s no dead weight and there’s fierce and raw talent on both ends? Like Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader or Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman? Well, A Bridge Too Far has just one of them.
It was directed by Richard Attenborough, the guy who gave us Gandhi, John Hammond in Jurassic Park, and his son David. It was also written by William Goldman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the great Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men.
The movie is notable for telling the story of a failure by the Allies: Operation Market Garden. It was supposed to gain the Allies access across German lines, where they would have been able to take over some bridges in Nazi-occupied Holland, with an aim to end the war, but sadly, it didn’t work out. At least we got a brilliant movie out of it, though.
12. Sink the Bismarck!
Too few World War II movies focus on the naval efforts out at sea, but those are some of the bravest soldiers and some of the most exciting stories. Directed by three-time Bond helmer Lewis Gilbert, Sink the Bismarck! tells the tale of the sinking of the battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy, and to this day, it is still the only movie ever made that tells that story.
It was praised by critics for being mostly historically accurate and for giving a voice to, as the Radio Times calls them, the “unsung back room planners as much as on the combatants themselves.” Variety’s critic called Sink the Bismarck! a “first-rate film recreation of a thrilling historical event.”
The movie’s poster tagline deemed it “The Greatest Naval Epic of Them All,” and although it clocks in at just a mere 97 minutes, that may just be true.
11. The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai had such an impact on the culture of the time that Billy Joel mentioned it in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” his roll call of groundbreaking events in twentieth century history. It’s a fictional story with roots in history, which often makes for the best movies.
It was awarded the number 10 spot on Channel 4’s list of the 100 Greatest War Movies, which was compiled based on an audience poll, while the BFI named it the 11th greatest British film of all time.
Screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson never got to receive their Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay while they were alive, because they were on the Hollywood blacklist for being communists. They received it posthumously though.
10. The Dam Busters
This classic British movie about the bouncing bombs used by the Allies to destroy the Nazis’ dams is most remembered for Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s dog, whose name was the N-word. But if you look past that, it’s actually an incredible movie. It has the best possible Rotten Tomatoes score of 100 per cent.
It’s had a great influence on popular culture, too – the Death Star trench run in Star Wars is a deliberate homage to the climactic sequence in The Dam Busters.
For a while now, Peter Jackson has been working on getting a remake off the ground using a script written by the great Stephen Fry. Though the remake has run into one problem after another for years, so it’ll probably never happen. If it does, though, the producers have confirmed that the infamous dog’s name will be changed to Digger to avoid any controversy.
9. The Guns of Navarone
The best World War II movies tend to be the star-studded ones (whether they feature Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Andrew Garfield, Harry Styles, whoever), and The Guns of Navarone has one of the greatest casts of any WWII flick: Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony freaking Quinn.
These names may not mean anything to a millennial, but they are three of the greatest and best remembered actors of all time. The Guns of Navarone has been referenced time and time again in pop culture – from Pulp Fiction to The Dick Van Dyke Show – and it maintains a huge following of cinephiles.
And with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 95%, the critics have called it a “beautifully paced” film that “allows enough time for character development [and] plot complications.”
Patton is the very definition of an epic film.
The WWII career of war hero U.S. General George S. Patton is handled deftly thanks to neat direction by Franklin J. Schaffner, a taut screenplay co-written by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather and Apocalypse Now), and beautiful cinematography shot on breathtaking 65mm film by an Oscar-nominated Fred J. Koenekamp.
Clocking in at 170 grueling minutes, it’s far from an easy watch, but it’s worth it for a powerful story told superbly. The opening scene, a monologue delivered by George C. Scott as General Patton standing in front of a gigantic American flag, is one of the most famous and iconic images in film history.
The Library of Congress has deemed Patton “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and has chosen it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It’s good stuff.
7. Schindler’s List
Most World War II movies are about the conflict, because explosions and gunfights and tanks are relatively fun to watch (despite the atrocities behind them in real life).
Hollywood tends to avoid going too in-depth about the atrocities that the Nazis committed, because it doesn’t make for a very fun moviegoing experience, but sometimes telling a certain story is more important than whether or not watching it will be fun.
Schindler’s List is ostensibly the story of a German businessman who liberated some Jews from the concentration camps during the Holocaust by putting their names on a list and hiring them to work for him. It’s a truly uplifting story that shows us that not all Germans were bad and there was some light in all the darkness.
But Steven Spielberg doesn’t let the parameters of this story preclude him from telling the full extent of the horrors that his Jewish ancestors went through. Schindler’s List shows us, in gloomy black and white, all of the terrible things that happened during the Holocaust. It doesn’t even shy away from showing a dead child – it even highlights her red coat.
6. Where Eagles Dare
This movie is not a contemplative anti-war piece or a cinematic masterpiece, but it is a balls-to-the-wall, action-packed spectacle, and for that, it earns a pretty high spot on the list. It starred Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, who were pretty much the biggest movie stars in the world at the time.
It was like if Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt starred in a movie together. A Guardian critic wrote, “It gets better, yields deeper layers of meaning, every time I see it.” A Variety critic wrote that Where Eagles Dare is “highly entertaining, thrilling, and rarely lets down for a moment.”
It was a real blockbuster back in the day, yielding massive profits, even for such an experience movie, and it’s notable for its stunning snowbound sequence at the movie’s climax. Where Eagles Dare is a fiercely patriotic action WWII picture.
5. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino tackled American slavery by viewing it through the lens of a spaghetti western, and that’s exactly what he did when he tackled World War II with Inglourious Basterds.
It’s loaded with all the whip pans, Morricone-esque music, and revenge themes that you’ll find in all the best spaghetti westerns, and it also plays around with the idea of alternate history and revenge fantasies that Tarantino has become known for. The movie sees a bunch of American Jews literally assassinating Adolf Hitler.
Inglourious Basterds is pure Tarantino, combining long, dialogue-heavy scenes and references to all the other movies that influenced him with QT’s trademark styles: the loose, non-linear structure of Reservoir Dogs, the novel-like chapter breaks of Kill Bill, and the intertwining storytelling of Pulp Fiction.
It’s not perfect, and it’s not the “masterpiece” that Tarantino expected it to be, but it is a hell of a movie. Oh, and we have to talk about Christoph Waltz’s chilling portrayal of SS Colonel Hans Landa, which earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
4. The Dirty Dozen
Until The Dirty Dozen came along, World War II movies had been less stories and more patriotic, big budget propaganda for the U.S. Army. They were about soldiers who were brave and heroic and good and strong fighting against the weak, evil Nazis. But The Dirty Dozen changed that by introducing the notion of antiheroes into the mix.
It follows a band of the worst, most corrupted convicts in the military on a suicide mission against the Germans. The Dirty Dozen is ranked number 65 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills list.
Contemporary critics derided the film for its excessive violence, but modern examiners have come to see the film for the cynical anti-military statement it is, with Variety calling it “a spectacle that demands an audience.”
It stars a great cast featuring the likes of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy, and Donald Sutherland, and the movie was loosely based on an actual group of guys in the Second World War who were called the “Filthy Thirteen” (but “Dirty Dozen” sounds catchier, doesn’t it?).
3. The Great Escape
This epic movie starring Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner tells the amazing (albeit mostly fictional) story of a bunch of British Commonwealth prisoners of war who break out of a German POW camp during WWII.
It’s an empowering, patriotic story until it reaches its tragic end, and it has a really catchy theme tune, too, composed by the legendary Elmer Bernstein. Although it was not too well-received by contemporary critics, modern film buffs have come to appreciate The Great Escape for the cinematic masterpiece that it is.
It has since come to be described as “an all-time action classic,” “a motion picture that entertains, captivates, thrills, and stirs,” and having “manifold pleasures…beyond nostalgia,” while Quentin Tarantino ranks it among his favorite movies.
Christopher Nolan has solidified himself as the next Stanley Kubrick. The guy’s a bona fide filmmaking genius. Every genre he tackles, he completely nails it. He totally changed the superhero movie game with his Dark Knight trilogy. He made sci-fi trippy and mind-bending again with Interstellar.
And he made a special kind of heist movie with Inception, in that the thieves infiltrate the mind. When he tackled the war film genre this year with Dunkirk, he may have just crafted his masterpiece. It plays out like an intense, visceral opera. Nolan structured the movie with mathematical precision to wring out the most tension and terror from the story that he could.
We see soldiers on the land, in the air, and in the sea, and what makes Dunkirk special is the fact that it’s based on a battle that didn’t involve American troops and was a loss for the Allies, which is unheard of in Hollywood productions. And not to mention the beautiful, stunning 65mm that Nolan was shooting on.
1. Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan is a war epic directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks. It held its position as the greatest World War II movie ever made until Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came along this year to challenge it. This is one of many great collaborations between Hanks and Spielberg, which includes fellow WWII projects Band of Brothers and The Pacific.
There are many great scenes and moments in Saving Private Ryan, but its crowning achievement is the deftly handled, gritty portrayal of the D-Day landings. Spielberg chose not to storyboard the sequence, and the result is more raw and authentic and real.
The movie as a whole juggles an anti-war stance with a respect for the veterans who fought for our freedom, with a blurry depiction of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. There are only soldiers fighting to stay alive in a war they’ve been forced to take part in. They’re scared, and so are we.