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

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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.

20

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Old Golden Boy hurls us into the heart of hell on earth.

Spielberg; the Golden Generation; Tom Hanks; all those Academy Awards – it’s easy to come over a tad sceptical about the burnished overtones that colour one’s perception of ‘Private Ryan’. A repeat viewing, however, blows away those sugar-spun cobwebs with a near-perfect men-in-combat film which balances musings on duty and comradely bromance with gale-force action and plenty, plenty ketchup. Sentimental, yes; treacly, no. Adam Lee Davies

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.’

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19

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Alec Guiness misplaces his moral compass in the jungle heat.

Narrowly beating out Sunday afternoon staple ‘The Bridge at Remagen’ (1969), David Lean’s majestic PoW classic keeps getting better with age. Alec Guinness is in fine form as a captured British Colonel, overseeing Allied troops charged with assisting the Japanese war effort by building said bridge across said river. With his stiff upper lip wilting in the maddening Burmese heat and a copy of the Geneva Convention always to hand, Guinness presents an incarnation of how we all would like to imagine we comport ourselves in such a tight spot. William Holden’s scheming, wiseacre – and all too relatable – American GI, meanwhile, is quite unshakeable in his belief that the war would get on quite well without him thank you very much, and spends an enviable amount of the film goosing the nurses in a Ceylon military hospital. In the end, both men’s attitudes are compromised to the greater good and the bridge comes crashing down in a riveting scene of unbridled catharsis. Adam Lee Davies

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18

Army of Shadows (1969)

The shifting moral landscape for French resistance fighters.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s twelfth film opens on a shot of the Arc de Triomphe, stood in quiet pomp as, slowly, a long line of Nazi soldiers goose-step across its base. This insidious, softly-softly approach to portraying the real traumas suffered by the people of Paris during the occupation sets the tone for the film, a riveting, steely-eyed chronicle of top-ranking resistance fighter, Gerbier (Lino Ventura). Based on a novel by author Joseph Kessel, the film remains a seminal instance of the power of restraint over hysteria, with Melville adopting a curt and undemonstrative shooting style to present his ‘heroes’ as a self-hating cadre of unlikely freedom fighters who think nothing of risking life and limb in the name of their great nation. Prison escapes are brief and unglamorous; torture is never shown on camera; murder is insouciant; espionage is gruelling and perilous, and emotions, speeches and friendships remain suppressed at all times. Yet, Melville is certainly not depriving us of these feelings of pride and purpose, simply delivering them through more subtle and unexpected outlets: a segment in which Gerbier is hiding out in London sees him just as enraptured at being in the same room as then leader of the Free French Forces, Charles De Gaulle, as he is watching ‘Gone With The Wind’ on the big screen (with US films having been banned in Paris). As a cold, meticulous drama about the pressures of propping an entire country on your shoulders, ‘Army of Shadows’ is peerless. David Jenkins

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17

Attack (1956)

The title says it all – gritty dad-friendly action par excellence.

As cutting as piano wire and cynical to the core, Robert Aldrich’s smart detailing of the mechanics of war follows through on the queasy promise of its tagline and ‘rips open the hot hell behind the glory!’ Joining up with the daintily named Fragile Fox company for a botched support mission during the Battle of the Bulge, we find ourselves caught within a clammy microcosm of the chain of command that witnesses cruel and unusual ‘gutless wonder’ Company Captain Eddie Albert representing the brass, Lee Marvin’s manipulative horse-trading standing for the institutional machinery and Jack Palance cracking with frustration as the leader of the grunts at the sharp end. A minor landmark that dared to suggest that in war, ‘Not everyone is a hero and not every gun is pointed at the enemy’. Adam Lee Davies

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16

Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires Were Started (1943)

A pair of propaganda classics from homegrown legend Humphrey Jennings.

At the beginning of WWII, all British cinemas were forcibly closed for an indefinite period. But Churchill’s cabinet quickly realised that not only were the movie houses a great way for a put-upon populace to get a little R&R, they were also a perfect channel for the government to disseminate the right kind of information. But while Humphrey Jennings’s twin short-form masterpieces ‘Listen to Britain’, a celebration of British life through the medium of sound (skylarks, spitfires, the crack of leather on willow) and ‘Fires Were Started’, a semi-fictionalised portrait of London fire crews during the Blitz, may be unashamed propaganda, they’re also two of the most striking, inventive documentaries ever made on these shores. The former is more sedate, a sort of Radio 4 with pictures, building to a genuinely stirring crescendo of national pride in the face of overseas aggression. ‘Fires Were Started’ is pitched somewhere between documentary and drama in its depiction of a day in the life of a fresh-faced fireman, but through all the Blitz-spirit banter there’s an inescapable sense of dread, lives in the balance, and a city on the brink of absolute collapse. Tom Huddleston

Read ‘Listen to Britain’ review Read ‘Fires Were Started’ review

15

Shoah (1985)

The Holocaust remembered in sombre, lucid detail.

It’s 24 years since Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’ was first released and three decades since the French filmmaker first started work on this unique, immersive and poetic nine-hour investigation into the minute details and reality of the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s method was to dismiss inherited images and received stories of the genocide of the European Jews and to return instead to the sites of those murders and interview afresh those with first-hand experiences of events at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno and other death camps, from Jewish survivors to former Nazi guards and farmers who tended their fields in the shadows of death. So there’s not a second of archive footage in Lanzmann’s film: he rejects the over-familiar images of suffering which he sees as irredeemably tainted, either by being filmed for a political purpose by Nazi cameramen or by being shot through the eyes of Allied forces in 1945 after the real tragedy had already occurred. Lanzmann also rejects plain statistics and cold historical context. There’s no mention of ‘six million’ and barely a whisper of the names of those notorious figures in the Nazi government that top and tail many a GCSE history essay. This is sweeping oral testimony as conducted by a filmmaker who is ever-present in his film, bespectacled and smoking, prodding and pushing for detail and honesty above emotion and inexactitude. He mixes talking heads with footage of the remains of the camps – his camera movements often evoke the arrival of the trains – and he pulls you deeper and deeper into his subject while never offering anything so crude or reductive as a simple structure or narrative. What Lanzmann offers is an unprecedented form for an unprecedented tragedy. Dave Calhoun

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14

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Fritz Lang celebrates one of the great Polish resistance successes.

.Lang’s film, made after he fled Poland for Hollywood, depicts the resistance movement started by the citizens of Warsaw against their Nazi overlords, and the brutal repercussions carried out by the Germans under the direction of Reinhard ‘The Hangman’ Heydrich. It’s a superb, compelling noirish thriller, treating its bleak – and, to Lang, intensely personal – subject matter with wit, verve and invention. Tom Huddleston

Quentin Tarantino says...
‘When I was writing the script for “Inglourious Basterds”, I ended up looking at a different type of war film than I’d ever watched before. These were the propaganda movies made in the ’40s, mostly directed by foreign directors living in Hollywood because the Nazis had occupied their home countries, like Fritz Lang with “Hangmen Also Die!”. What’s really interesting is that WWII was going on, the Nazis were an actual threat, not a theoretical threat, not just movie bad guys. Those directors, in most cases, had personal experience with the Nazis, and obviously they had to be worried about their loved ones back home. And yet those films are entertaining, they’re thrilling adventure stories, and oftentimes they’re quite funny, there’s a lot of humour in them. And this goes against all the ponderous, anti-war, violin-music diatribes that we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s.’

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13

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

Knockabout comic brilliance in occupied Poland, anyone?

German émigré director Ernst Lubitsch had already poked fun at the intrinsic absurdity of fascist governments in 1939’s ‘Ninotchka’, but it wasn’t until 1942 that he produced one of the edgiest and most controversial comedies in cinema history. The film was lambasted at the time of its release for being in poor taste, particularly as the idiotic Nazi officers it lampooned were at the very same time sanctioning policies that were having a drastic effect on the European populace. More surprising is that Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’, which adopted a similar comedic stance (but was eventually undermined by its mawkish undertow), was a massive hit just two years earlier. Watching it now, ‘To Be or Not To Be’ strikes a note-perfect balance between risqué jibes and honest-to-goodness wit, with Jack Benny as the narcissistic Shakespearean actor working in Nazi-occupied Poland with his wife and leading lady, Carol Lombard (who died in a plane crash two weeks before the film was released). The pair become embroiled in a plot to harbour a resistance leader which involves Benny pretending to be high-ranking Nazi officer Col Erhardt (known among colleagues as ‘Concentration Camp Erhardt’ – a springboard to one of the film’s funniest gags). Indeed, ‘To Be or Not To Be’ is hilarious throughout, and proves that the famed ‘Lubitsch touch’ was just light enough to make us see the farcical core at the centre of one of the most appalling threats that humanity has ever faced. David Jenkins

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12

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

This Tarantino-approved classic is hardbitten and ruthlessly efficient.

Foul-tempered, lusty and ludicrously enjoyable, this suicidal symphony to the futility of war fully deserves its status as ‘The Greatest Men-On-A-Mission Movie Ever Made’™. Aldrich puts us through our paces on an unforgiving breaking ground of man’s man filmmaking while the richest grab-bag of perverts, psychos and scenery-chewing crazies ever assembled – including John Cassavetes, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland - are trained for certain death and tossed into the Nazi war machine. Adam Lee Davies

Quentin Tarantino says...
‘What originally got me to sit down and write “Inglourious Basterds” were all those bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movies made in the late ’60s and early ’70s, like “Where Eagles Dare”, “The Devil’s Brigade” and ‘"The Dirty Dozen”. I think one of the things that’s just amazing about "The Dirty Dozen", and why I don’t think it could ever be duplicated today, is the fact that you could never find eight actors like that now. It was just a different breed of man. Robert Aldrich threw a rock in a tree and Jim Brown fell out, Charles Bronson fell out, John Cassavetes fell out, and Telly Savalas… and that’s without even mentioning Lee Marvin. There aren’t guys like Charles Bronson and Jim Brown running around any more.’

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11

Hell In The Pacific (1968)

Enemies find common ground in Boorman’s out-to-sea two-hander.

‘Two Enemies! One Island! No Subtitles!’ was not the tagline for John Boorman’s allegorical yarn about a Japanese soldier (Toshiro Mifune) and an American pilot (Lee Marvin) stranded on a South Seas island, but it damn well should have been. This perfectly pitched two-hander could easily have descended into an unholy mess of sentimentality and earnestness. But Boorman has never had too much time for easy resolution (‘Point Blank’, ‘Deliverance’, ‘The Emerald Forest’) and maintains an even strain even as his leads eventually realise that the only way they are going to survive their ordeal is if they cooperate. Marvin – a bona fide Pacific War hero – is as grizzled as ever, while Mifune – despite his Japanese dialogue being delivered sans subtitles – is better served than by any number of his other Hollywood outings (and, yes, we are counting ‘1941’). Adam Lee Davies

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1 comments
John B
John B

Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith - one of the best of all time, probably not known to QT.