World War II (1939-1945) was and remains the greatest conflict that humanity has ever seen both in scale and loss of life; perhaps no other singular event of world history has shaped us as much, continuing to have long-lasting and deep resonance in our modern times. In the realm of cinema, the Second World War has provided for many decades (and counting) an endless catalog of films, which examine the many facets of the War, from military perspectives to civilian viewpoints.
To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, here are 10 of the best films ever made that spotlight the biggest clash the world has ever known, and all those caught in the middle.
NOTE: The list of WW2 films is countless and exhaustive; consider this list but a small sample of the great movies made on the subject.
HACKSAW RIDGE (2016), dir. Mel Gibson
Stories of American bravura during the War have never been in short supply, but although Hacksaw Ridge is certainly about the heroics of one exceptional American soldier, it never thumps its chest in an obnoxiously patriotic way; rather its message of the endurance of the human spirit and the ultimate triumph of goodness makes it an honorable and uplifting film.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) knew he wanted to serve his country in the war effort, but his religious beliefs also forbade him from holding a weapon; as a medic he distinguished himself in the Pacific Theatre against Japan, particularly during the Battle of Okinawa, where he single-handedly saved 75 men, a feat that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Mel Gibson’s retelling of Doss’ story functions both as a tribute to the man himself and to the grueling horrors soldiers faced in the front lines of battle; with graphic depictions of fighting and the ensuing casualties, Hacksaw Ridge deftly juggles images of absolute dread with reminders of the power of hope and love, and the difference just one man can make. For Desmond Doss it was imperative that despite the brutality of war, it would not define us; only an obstinate adherence to peace would.
THE LONGEST DAY (1962), dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki
The Allied invasion of Normandy would prove to be the “beginning of the end” for Nazi Germany, and the decisive events of D-Day (June 6th, 1944) have gone down in history as one of the most significant chapters of the War.
The epic The Longest Day, was among the very first films ever made on D-Day and continues to be unarguably the finest and most intense depiction of the Operation; while films like Saving Private Ryan also brilliantly captured the sights, sounds, and carnage on those French beaches, it remains The Longest Day that so totally captures the many vantage points of this seminal turning point in the War. Shot in black and white, the movie is constructed around a series of episodes that depict British, French, Canadian, American and German soldiers, generals and others in high command, giving us a rounded view of the many different combatants. It would win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Rather than a clear “good vs evil” storyline, The Longest Day is an examination of the toll of war on all sides; death and destruction show no discrimination, despite uniforms or allegiances. Featuring an all-star cast of international names including John Wayne, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery, the film is a must-see whose grand scope and affecting humanity continue to shine.
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List, is a film crafted specifically not to entertain or simply make one cry, but to confront us with a horrific truth. To confront us with the reality of crimes so unspeakably evil, it still seems hard to fathom they ever occurred. Spielberg then didn’t just present a film about the Holocaust, but an urgent and disturbing call to never forget and to ensure these acts remain in the past.
Filmed in black and white to ostensibly portray the literal darkness that befell Europe during the Second World War, Schindler’s List uses the story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and his employment of Jews in his ammunitions factory to personalise this infamous era of modern history; Schindler’s act would be one that saved nearly 1,200 from their fate in the concentration camps.
The film is a somber escape to a time of insanity that we must never dare to let vanish into history.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006), dir. Clint Eastwood
As fighting in mainland Europe continued, the blood-soaked Pacific chapter of the War grew increasingly intense; indeed even after Nazi Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Japan and the United States would continue their hostilities for another few months.
In 2006 director Clint Eastwood fashioned a pair of films that aimed to spotlight the ever-important and savage Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. A unique approach to filmmaking, Eastwood essentially told the same story in two films, but from the American perspective in one and the Japanese one in the other. While Flags of our Fathers is also an impressive and moving picture, it is Letters from Iwo Jima that has left the more lasting impression.
Seldom has there been cinematic insight into the militant Japanese Empire (especially from Hollywood), but with this movie audiences not only see the plight of the Japanese people and the consequences of rigid ultranationalism but begin to understand that at the human level, these so-called enemies were just as scared, vulnerable and plagued with guilt as their American counterparts. The brilliance of Eastwood’s two films is their focus on the humanity at the core of such wars, and the acknowledgment that good and evil is not simply one-sided. With tremendous honesty, compassion, empathy and plain old heart, Letters from Iwo Jima is a fine cinematic achievement in Second World War filmography. For an outsider without knowledge of the Japanese-American battles, viewing these films gives no indicators of who was “good or bad”, but rather a sad look on the continued absurdity of armed conflict and the souls who paid with their lives for it.
DER UNTERGANG: DOWNFALL (2004), dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel
As the central figure of the War and the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler continues to fascinate us, remaining a prominent fixture in the world’s collective culture, and the go-to personification of evil. As such numerous books, plays and films have been produced that attempt to glean some understanding of who this madman really was.
Downfall is surely amongst the most striking and disturbing depictions of Hitler, with a totally mesmerizing lead performance from the late great Bruno Ganz. Set in the Fuhrerbunker at War’s end in 1945, Hitler and his remaining loyalists refuse to leave Berlin, despite the advances of the Allies. As their inevitable defeat approaches, Hitler begins his descent into an even more depraved paranoia. While the film was criticized by some as potentially humanizing Hitler, it is precisely this human look that makes the movie even more effective.
Like any well-known dictator, Hitler is a figure surrounded by much mythology (much of which was created by the Third Reich itself). Downfall shows Hitler in all his wretchedness, and ultimately how pathetic of a human being he was; rather than sowing sympathy for him, the movie asks us to remember that the only way a person like Hitler could achieve power, was through the inaction of good people. In the years since its release, the movie has also become well known as the source of a very popular Internet meme; a scene where Hitler excoriates his generals for perceived disloyalty has spawned a number of parody videos, where the subtitles are changed to reflect things as trivial as parking tickets to Superbowl losses. While some of these are certainly amusing, it’s a shame that the true meaning of this scene and the film as a whole has been rendered as merely a parody. Aside from the seemingly “funny-sounding” German, Downfall is a work way beyond parody offering a fascinating glimpse and insight into the final days of the Fuhrer.
ROMA, CITTA’ APERTA: ROME, OPEN CITY (1945), dir. Roberto Rossellini
One of the best examples of Italian neorealist cinema, Roma, Citta’ Aperta, painfully brings to the screen the hardships and injustices faced by the civilian population during the foreign invasion; Italy’s role in the War went from antagonist to unlikely protagonist after the deposition of Mussolini and the switch to the Allied side. But despite an initial alliance with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy still found itself under occupation and would be the site of many notably bloody campaigns to liberate the country.
In Roma, Citta’ Aperta, Nazi-occupied Rome serves as the backdrop for the tale of the everyday struggles the average Italian citizen faced in war-ravaged times. Though bleak and downright saddening, it is through the glimpses of hope (the pregnant Pina or the tireless optimism of Don Pietro, for instance), that we are reminded of how life has a way of healing, even after such atrocities.
Director Roberto Rossellini had previously helmed several propaganda films for the Fascist regime, but this marked his first truly honest film on the realities that had befallen Italy during this dark period; what is even more impressive about the film is that it was produced in 1945, with the War still going on! Rather than producing a historical film, Rossellini essentially crafted a movie (or docudrama) about current events. The difficulties of producing a movie in an occupied country with little money or resources don’t need to be explained, and it is indeed a miracle that the film was able to be completed at all. By the time of its release on September 1945, the War had only been over for three months. Not exactly an escapist good time at the movies… Nonetheless, Roma, Citta’ Aperta served as a vigilant reminder to never again repeat the horrors of war, and it continues to be a raw and richly affecting viewing experience.
THE PIANIST (2002), dir. Roman Polanski
The total and abject evil that was the Holocaust is naturally a very sensitive topic for any type of media to attempt to portray; for director Roman Polanski, who escaped the Krakow Ghetto as a boy and lost his mother at Auschwitz, making a movie about the Holocaust was more then just a deeply personal experience, but a cathartic one.
The Pianist, based on the memoir of the same name, tells the story of Polish Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and his harrowing survival in Warsaw at the outset of the Final Solution. A celebrated concert performer, Szpilman is torn away from his family and way of life, sentenced to years of hiding as his fellow Poles are massacred.
With a masterful Oscar-winning performance from Adrien Brody (the youngest to ever win Best Actor), The Pianist is at once both a haunting re-telling of humanity’s lowest point as well as a tenacious tale of one man’s desire to live again. In an unforgettable and beautiful scene an emaciated, gaunt and disheveled Szpilman plays a Chopin Ballade in an abandoned building, after years on the run. Through sublime shots of his anguished face and battered hands, Polanski delivers a message of hope. In spite of how broken the whole experience has made Szpilman, it is the music (a metaphor perhaps for the goodness of man) that continues to reside deep within.
The crimes of the Nazis may be ingrained with us forever, but as is a common theme with many of the films on this list, it is the endurance of those who suffered that constantly proves that good is just as, if not more, stubborn than evil.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), dir. Steven Spielberg
Surely amongst the first titles to come to mind if asked to name a World War II movie, Saving Private Ryan is yet another Steven Spielberg masterwork, that more than any other film celebrates the bond of brotherhood.
This is a movie that intelligently features a wide range of emotions and moods; from its unflinching and grisly opening 30 minutes (sequences continually held to this day as amongst the most immersive and brutal ever made), to the quiet moments of camaraderie between the squad of US Rangers who reminisce on the old times and hope for the future, it’s obvious that the loudest message of all is not who had more kill shots. Instead, it is that even with the immense trauma that is warfare, the bonds of affection and love may see us through. Winner of five Academy Awards (including Spielberg’s second for Best Director) and selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, Saving Private Ryan is a complete and heartfelt embrace of the Greatest Generation, honoring the tremendous sacrifice made by all who served to protect the ever-elusive dream of freedom.
PATTON (1970), dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
Boastful, domineering, and unabashedly patriotic, American General George S. Patton, was truly amongst the most colorful and memorable figures of the US war effort in Europe; a key leader in many Allied missions including the Battle of the Bulge and D-Day preparations, Patton’s aggressive tactics, and vulgarity drew both praise and scorn, but ultimately leaving a legacy as an inspiring war hero.
On the surface the film Patton is unquestionably an American propaganda piece, and yet despite the chauvinism on display it would be difficult to deny the film’s ability to rouse emotions. Even for non-American audiences, the call to action to fight for justice and defeat enemy extremists may certainly be an enticing one.
With an Oscar-winning screenplay co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, before his major breakthrough with The Godfather, the movie exemplifies the power of effective leadership in wartime. Just as how one man can inspire evil (Hitler), so can another inspire feats of heroism. In the role that won him Best Actor (although he would refuse to accept it), George C. Scott is a bombastic delight, showcasing the very complex personality of the General in greatly entertaining fashion. The film’s famous opening scene where Patton delivers a speech to troops while standing in front of a giant American flag has become an iconic symbol of Americana. But beyond the American lens, the lasting importance of Patton is not about American victories, but of the power of ‘never say die’ and the ability to confront evil unashamedly.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), dir. David Lean
The plight of British POW’s in Burma, under detention from the Imperial Japanese Army, serves as a compelling narrative of survival and perseverance, in David Lean’s remarkable epic The Bridge on the River Kwai; based on the novel by Pierre Boulle (who would later find increased fame as the author of The Planet of the Apes), this semi-fictionalized tale once more sheds light on the Pacific Theatre and the menacing barbarity that was Imperial Japan.
Forced to complete construction of a railway bridge, the POW’s are subjected to abuse, torture, and humiliation. While the Japanese thought they had successfully broken their prisoners, the ever indomitable spirit of British defiance remains. Under the guidance of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness in his Oscar-winning role), the construction moves along, as he becomes increasingly fixated on leaving a lasting British legacy in the region. Meanwhile, plans have already been made to deny the vicious Colonel Saito the satisfaction of having the bridge built on time. Though at times slow-paced and plodding, The Bridge on the River Kwai compensates for it with tremendous performances and beautiful vistas of South East Asia, that makes it a commendable work of cinema. Including the famous military tune “The Colonel Bogey March” as whistled by the POWs, there is plenty to enjoy in this film. And like any good war film, it ultimately reminds us again of what can be achieved when we work together, and what can be destroyed when we turn on each other.
- The Dirty Dozen (1967)
- Stalag 17 (1953)
- The Great Escape (1963)
- Fury (2014)
- Battle of Britain (1969)
- Das Boot (1981)