The 50 best World War II movies
We count down the 50 greatest World War II movies with the aid of guest expert Quentin Tarantino
Fri Aug 29 2014
World War II was the most epic conflict in history and war movies are a favourite with audiences and filmmakers, so it’s hardly surprising that cinema has been all over it it since hostilities began in 1939. From action epics to animated tragedies, knockabout comedies to brutally realistic dramas, here are the 50 greatest World War II movies as chosen by Time Out’s writers, aided and abetted by our guest contributor, ‘Inglourious Basterds’ director and war movie buff Quentin Tarantino.
A prison camp kickabout becomes an escape opportunity for Stallone, Caine, Pele and Moore.
It should be cinematic gold – football and war! Like those birthday cards in the For Boys section that picture a racing car jumping over a steam train full of cowboys, ‘Victory…’ apparently has everything for the sexually immature adolescent male. But this comic-book fantasy, wherein Allied POWs are forced to play a lose-lose football match against their captors, turns out to be something more subversive. By highlighting the charmless grandstanding of Sly Stallone over the silky skills of Pele and Bobby Moore, the film emphasises the common footballing culture of the assorted Krauts, Tommies and Frogs and becomes a rallying call to greater European integration. Paul Fairclough
German soldiers wake an ageless evil in a crumbling Carpathian castle.
The joker in the WWII movie pack, at least until ‘Inglourious Basterds’ hove into view, was this utterly bizarre cod-spiritualist dark castle chiller from a pre-‘Miami Vice’ Michael Mann. The mist-shrouded opening sequences, as Jurgen Prochnow’s dead-meat Nazi platoon occupy the titular fortress, rumoured to be stalked by evil spirits, are breathtaking, Mann’s superb eye for visual detail fusing with some spectacular design work to create a real atmosphere of impending dread. But it all begins to fall apart with the introduction of Scott Glenn’s Jewish translator (it doesn’t help that he’s saddled with the name Glaeken Trismegestus), who has some mysterious connection to the old castle. The film was drastically cut and limped out to a disinterested public, but it’s unashamed weirdness and wondrous sets have helped to build a pretty solid fanbase since. Director’s cut, please! Tom Huddleston
Russia V Germany – the battle of the titans.
There are few war stories more grim, empty and defeated than Joseph Vilsmajer’s epic depiction of the backbreaking battle between the German and Russian forces at Stalingrad. While the similarly-themed ‘Enemy at the Gates’ tried to turn the Russian story into a heroic tale of young studs at war, Vilsmajer’s film, focusing on the German side, treats the conflict with wide-open eyes, taking in every horrific, inhuman detail, every gunshot, every death by starvation, every body buried in the rubble. And so, while the film may stand as one of the most realistic depictions of WWII, it’s far from pleasant viewing. Tom Huddleston
All aboard for ‘Nazi-occupied Sesame Street’!
Francois Truffaut’s cinematic swansong feels like a dense and hearty fruitcake compared to the light and fluffy soufflé that was his is first, ‘Les 400 Coups’, even though both were based on personal experiences. This handsome and nostalgic, if somewhat conventional ‘adult’ ensemble drama set almost exclusively in a Parisian theatre in the ’40s takes on ideas of heroism, fidelity, the interplay between art and censorship and the creative minutiae of putting on a play. Catherine Deneuve stars as an actress who is also the wife of a famed German-Jewish theatre director and the film documents her toil to conceal her husband from both the Nazis and braying anti-semitic drama critic, Jean-Louis Richard, while taking strange directions from the basement in which he is hiding. Though the film has its admirers – it cleaned up at the 1981 Ceasar Awards – one of the key criticisms it still faces (and one that Truffaut was fully aware of at the time of its making) is that the occupation of Paris is dealt with in only the most fleeting and superficial of ways. David Jenkins
Quentin Tarantino says...
‘I don’t like Truffaut’s “The Last Metro”. It seems very phoney, like it’s made on Nazi-occupied Sesame Street. The story is all about the director of a theatre group hiding from the Nazis inside the theatre and ghost-directing his wife, Catherine Deneuve, and the leading man, Gerard Depardieu, from his hideout. And I watched it and thought: This is a great premise for a comedy, but it really doesn’t work as drama.’
The birth of the 1,000-year Reich, according to arch-propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
Perhaps the cinematic Rosetta Stone that unlocks much of the sentiment (mostly hatred and anger) on the remainder of this list, Reifenstahl’s ‘Triumph… ’ is still arguably the most famous propaganda film ever made. A gaudy celebration of Teutonic immovability, it documents the 1934 Nuremburg rally for which Adolf Hitler descends from the clouds like some toothbrush-moustachioed deity to ‘review the columns of his faithful followers’. Reifenstahl employed some of the most innovative cinematographic techniques of the day in order to capture the full glory of a revitalised Germany. From speeches, processions and shots of strapping, semi-clad men washing each other and engaging in a friendly tussle to epic panoramas filled with Aryan poster boys marching in strict formation, it’s a dangerous if dull film that now takes on more of a cautionary (pathetic, even?) tenor. Tellingly, it was exec produced by one A Hitler. David Jenkins
Steven Spielberg adapts JG Ballard’s memoir of Japanese iniquity.
‘Empire of the Sun’ came smack in the centre of Steven Spielberg’s mid-’80s slump: ‘Temple of Doom’ had been excoriated for excessive violence, and there was still ‘Always’ and ‘Hook’ to come before the director’s ‘Jurassic Park’/‘Schindler’s List’ rebirth. As a result, the film tends to be passed over: weak box-office performance and lack of (then) recognisable stars left the film in a limbo from which it has never really managed to emerge. But there are some incredible moments in ‘Empire of the Sun’. The choice to hire Tom Stoppard to adapt JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel pays dividends with a tight, focused script and some memorable characters, not least John Malkovich’s Machiavellian hipster Basie. Allen Daviau’s sterling cinematography and John Williams’s stirring score add a sense of grandeur (and, at times, glitz), and Spielberg himself was still in his more-light phase, drenching the screen with dazzling searchlights, blazing buildings and, at the climax, Hiroshima itself. Tom Huddleston
Dum Dum Dum Dum duh duh Dum Dum... Zoom! Boom! Splash! etc.
‘The Dam Busters’ represents that particularly British type of cinematic military endeavour – one that isn’t considered to be truly up to snuff unless it has shuffled us in and out of an endless series of stuffy boardrooms, past a chain-smoking array of lab-coated eggheads and through a rigorous testing process before allowing its audience to experience anything approaching excitement. Happily for us, the lengthy development section of the film is lent charm and eloquence by an especially fine turn by the ever-impeccable Michael Redgrave as ‘bouncing bomb’ boffin Barnes Wallis. The actual busting of the dams of the Ruhr Valley is an edge-of-the-seat, seat-of-the-pants affair that wrings a good deal more exhilaration than it has any right to from sequences that deal in hand-drawn tracer-fire and obvious miniatures. Soon to be remade by Commodore Peter Jackson from a script by Wing Commander Stephen Fry. Adam Lee Davies
The war seen through the eyes of a brotherly band of North African conscripts.
Proof positive that there are still hundreds of untold WWII stories still to be filmed, Rachid Bouchareb’s powerful drama shines a light on those North African soldiers drafted in to fight for the Free French after D-Day. The film itself is no masterpiece – it’s entertaining and well-characterised, but a mite predictable – but what remains impressive are the ripples it created: after the film’s release, the French government agreed, for the first time, to begin paying compensation to the remaining widows of North African fighters. Proof that a work of art can have direct political impact. Tom Huddleston
Ollie Reed packs his trunk and heads for the Alps.
Long before he was Britain’s premier insurance salesman, Michael Winner was a reliable directorial journeyman, helming everything from ‘Death Wish’ to ‘Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood’. Winner's contribution to the ’60s-’70s Technicolor WWII boom was this odd, likeable Alpine adventure, in which plucky POW Ollie Reed (back when he was a dish, rather than a drunk) is put in charge of the elephants at Munich zoo and attempts to flee with one to Switzerland when the city is firebombed. Along with some spectacular landscape photography and the cheerful rapport between Reed and his pachyderm pal, most of the film's undoubted charm stems from a peculiar, compelling performance by the underused Michael J Pollard, cheekier than a boatload of monkeys as a renegade American platoon commander raising merry hell behind enemy lines. Tom Huddleston
Alain Delon’s war profiteer finds himself on the sharp end of a Gestapo investigation.
Following a great run of bleak British character pieces, American exile Joseph Losey headed to France in the early ’70s and threw himself wholeheartedly into the cause of the Euro-pudding: over-budget, half-baked historical dramas packed with periwigs and powder. But he also found time to make this gripping Paris-set holocaust thriller, which suffers from the same expanded runtime and unfocused plotting as its contemporaries, but benefits from a superb central character and some genuinely suspenseful sequences. Alain Delon plays Klein, a black marketeer profiting from the war by buying up the possessions of wealthy Jews before they are shipped off to the camps. But when Klein himself is mistaken for a Jew thanks to a bureaucratic mix-up, he finds himself on the same side of the fence as his victims, facing deportation and death. For all its failings, Losey’s film creates a compelling portrait of a city in the grip of terror, its populace struggling to maintain any semblance of normality. Tom Huddleston
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