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.

  • Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

    Cartoon carnage and animated anguish in this harrowing Ghibli tragedy.

    Anyone who’s ever dismissed cartoons as being, you know, for kids, may want to seek out this haunting animated drama from Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki’s number-two guy over at Japan’s Studio Ghibli. His film adopts the template formed by Elem Klimov three years earlier in ‘Come and See’ by offering a child’s-eye-perspective of wartime atrocities. But like Miyazaki’s masterly ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ from the same year, it also expounds on the methods used by children to block out the horrors of the world (namely, day dreaming, fantasy, unrealistic optimism). It cannot be overstated how heartbreaking and painful ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is, following a young teenage boy and his toddler sister as they are forced to go it alone in the Japanese wilderness as US bombers lay waste to the cities. Their efforts to stay alive are initially successful, but as food becomes scarce and the willingness of others to share rations becomes more infrequent, the struggle for survival grows more and more futile. Critic Roger Ebert rightly named it the one of the greatest war movies ever made. One thing’s for certain: once seen, it will never be forgotten. David Jenkins

    ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is number 15 in our list of the 100 best animated movies

    Read review

  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

    Powell and Pressburger attempt to explain Anglo-American relations.

    Impossible as it is to watch some Powell & Pressburger films without wondering if the pair were stuffing their pipes with something more than Old Shag, this skewed, kaleidoscopic take on the redemptive power of love tops all of their work for sheer ambition alone. As the title suggests, Big Themes are up for consideration as David Niven’s bomber pilot misses his rendezvous with death only to fall foul of the heavenly bureaucrats who insist his time is up. This being Niven, the sly old dog spends his final minutes of life chasing a pretty and enthusiastic young filly, in the process dividing heaven over whether their love should be allowed to blossom and he to live. There probably isn’t enough shooting and shouting here for some purists, but if a film that asks why some die and some live, and that rails against the cold indifference of the gods, isn’t a war movie, what is? Paul Fairclough

    ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ is number 8 in our list of the 100 best romantic movies

    Read review

  • Rome, Open City (1945)

    Neo-realism meets street-level resistance drama in Rossellini’s first masterwork.

    The scars of European conflict and Nazi occupation were still deep and tender in Rome circa ’44, but this unsightly vista of societal desolation chimed with the documentary instincts of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. The ironically-titled ‘Rome, Open City’ was written by neo-realist figurehead Sergio Amidei along with a then-24-year-old Federico Fellini and drew on the real issues and situations during the years of conflict. It’s split pretty cleanly into two main chapters, the first centring on the wedding of Pina (Anna Magnani, offering one of her most harrowing performances) to Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), a member of a tearaway clique attempting to hide resistance fighter Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) from Nazi patrols. Without giving away the plot, the second part deals with the upshot of this set-up, and demands that we witness the inhumane operational tactics of Nazi command. Suffice to say, the brutality of the occupying regime is presented with a shocking frankness, not only its utter indifference towards class, age, gender and religion, but its total lack of logical purpose. Rossellini allegedly shot the film using leftover celluloid from other movies, which not only lent it a mussy, newsreel aesthetic, but a real sense of urgency and anguish. Three years later, the director chose to tell a similar story but from a German perspective in his document of the trials of life in post-war Berlin, ‘Germany Year Zero’. David Jenkins

    Read review

  • Cross of Iron (1977)

    Sam Peckinpah reinvents the frontline action picture with big side portion of hell.

    Sam Peckinpah’s odyssey on the Russian front manages to have its ration cake and eat it, consistently espousing anti-war philosophy through protagonist Sgt Steiner (James Coburn) while revelling in some of the most beautiful carnage ever committed to film. As shell bursts slice men in slo-mo and trees explode into matchwood, Steiner reveals himself a stoical killer with loyalty only to his squad, and we love him even more because he just can’t help sticking it to the officer class. Not even fatherly James Mason escapes Steiner’s ire, so what hope is there for Maximillian Schell’s fantastically camp poodle of a Prussian officer who is out to gain the Iron Cross and show his war hero Papa that having a manicure in a war zone doesn’t make you any less of a man. If the persistent rumour that Sergio Leone was planning a Stalingrad movie with De Niro makes you weep for what might have been, take some comfort here, where the Iron Crosses grow. Paul Fairclough

    Quentin Tarantino says...
    ‘I’m a big fan of Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron”. I saw it the day it opened. It was playing in a theatre that I would ride my bike or take a bus to, but for some reason I couldn’t take the bus and my bike was jacked up, so I had to walk, which took three hours. And then I was hit on by the janitor of the theatre. I was terrified. But I still went back and watched the movie. I was a little boy, I didn’t know anything about the Russian front, so I guess it went over my head. I learned to appreciate it later. But one of the interesting things is that it came and went in America but was such a hit in Europe that it inspired rip-offs for years. And one of them is the movie that I took the name “Inglourious Basterds” from. It was an Italian rip-off.’

    Read review

  • Kanal (1957)

    A country loses its innocence in the aftermath of war. Andrzej Wajda mourns.

    Andrzej Wajda was part of that generation of European filmmakers who experienced the war as children or young adults, whose parents fought and died, whose friends and relations were killed or deported. But, as Tarantino points out in his comment on ‘Hangmen Also Die’ (see entry Number 14), these films are rarely gloomy, or even recriminatory. ‘Kanal’ is, admittedly, a daunting film, detailing the journey of a Polish resistance platoon from one side of Warsaw to the other following the uprising. Forced to take shelter in the sewers, the men are separated and picked off one by one. But it’s more tough than mournful: the film never feels less than absolutely real, eschewing holy-light heroism in favour of stark, truthful storytelling. ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ is even better, depicting one single day in the life of a puckish, rebellious teenager, played by ‘Polish James Dean’ Zbigniew Cybulski, as the Germans prepare to leave town. It’s barely a war film at all – moments of conflict are rare and sudden, though the sense of a people driven under by years of brutality can be felt throughout. This is a film more interested in life than in death, in youth, romance, and freedom: even if, as Wajda knew when making the film, that freedom was to prove short-lived. Tom Huddleston

    Read review

  • Went The Day Well? (1942)

    Those Nazis picked the wrong sleepy village in this surprisingly tough English fantasy.

    Those of us who grew up with much-missed national treasure Dame Thora Hird’s passive, grandmatronly demeanour sandwiched between every episode of ‘Countdown’ can only watch in amazement as, at the climax of Cavalcanti’s masterful wartime chiller, she gamely starts picking off invading Nazzies with a rusty old hunting rifle. The plot, in which Gerry parachutes into a sleepy English village and sets about clearing the way for a major invasion, may be fantasy, but it’s alarmingly powerful. Released well before the Normandy landings, ‘Went The Day Well?’ was made to remind all those bicycling bobbies, cheeky pub-dwelling chappies and self-satisfied lairds that they, too, may one day have to take on an entire paratroop division armed only with national pride and a malacca walking stick. Tom Huddleston

    Read review

  • The Big Red One (1980)

    Sam Fuller revisits his own personal battlefield in this masterful travelogue.

    The original ‘Band of Brothers’, and one of the most detailed, all-encompassing and nourishing WWII flicks of them all. For a long time, the film was chiefly remembered as the movie Mark Hamill made between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Empire’, but thanks to a first-rate twenty-first century recut – restoring 47 lost minutes – the film has taken its place in the pantheon. It’s richly deserved: essentially a memoir of Fuller’s own wartime experiences – and a fitting tribute to the men who served alongside him – the film takes in almost the entire European theatre, from North Africa to Italy, and up into France, Germany and Czechoslovakia. But this is far from a straightforward shoot-em-up travelogue, bringing in bizarre and often cruel humour, marvellous characterisation and one of the oddest war-movie scenes of them all, as our heroes assist with childbirth in the belly of a stranded Nazi tank. All this, and one of the most intensely moving concentration camp scenes in cinema. A masterpiece, no less. Tom Huddleston

    Read review

  • Das Boot (1981)

    Jurgen Prochnow is running both silent and deep in this U-Boat chiller.

    Originally made as a five-hour miniseries for German TV, cut to feature length for worldwide consumption and finally expanded again to a 210-minute ‘director’s cut’, Wolfgang Petersen’s breathless, terrifying U-boat drama remains the most unsettling and claustrophobic of all WWII movies. The film is a masterclass in economical, tight-space storytelling, piling the pressure on both characters and audiences until the sprockets squeak. The infamous ‘tiefer… ’ sequence, as captain Jurgen Prochnow pushes the sub to life-threatening depths, is almost unwatchable. Tom Huddleston

  • The Thin Red Line (1998)

    The grim poetry of conflict in Terrence Malick’s spiritual elegy.

    Filmmaker. Journalist. Recluse. Inventor of the automatic catflap. By the time of ‘The Thin Red Line’, Terrence Malick had been languishing in self-imposed exile for two decades while his first two films, ‘Badlands’ and ‘Days of Heaven’, grew in both stature and influence. So it was no surprise that on his prodigal return to filmmaking, the Hollywood elite would line up to volunteer. The released cut of Malick’s film, an adaptation of James Jones’s fictionalised memoir of the battle for Guadalcanal, features Sean Penn and John Cusack in major roles, with smaller parts for Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta and Woody Harrelson. What’s even more astonishing is the list of folks who either hit the cutting-room floor – including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke – or were considered for parts but, for one reason or another, eventually missed out, including Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton.

    Critics were largely nonplussed on first encountering ‘The Thin Red Line’: while some accepted its fragmented, episodic nature and mystical longeurs as part and parcel of the Malick experience, others found the film indulgent. Admittedly, it has flaws: there are moments when the voiceover becomes simply too poetic, too dreamlike, the entire movie seems about to drift off into some kind of dubious patchouli-induced spiritual trance. But such moments are few and fleeting, and what surrounds them is one of the great cinematic masterworks of the past few decades. The overriding theme in Malick’s work – the central core of every one of his films – is the transition from youth to adulthood, from innocence to experience, from paradise to reality, and ‘The Thin Red Line’ is no exception. Malick paints Guadalcanal as a kind of lost Eden, the two opposing armies as equally invasive, and ultimately insignificant in the face of eternal nature. The soldiers which comprise these armies are viewed as individuals, as questing souls on their own ultimately destructive spiritual journeys, but also as mere facets of the natural world, no more important than the plants, birds and insects which surround them. It's an extraordinary vision of war, and indeed of humanity – godlike but ultimately sympathetic. Malick avoids the icy subjectivity often attributed to Stanley Kubrick and explores not just hearts and minds, but the souls of men in combat. Tom Huddleston

    Read review

  • Come and See (1985)

    The true face of modern warfare, and it's far from pretty.

    Making the infamous opening 15 minutes of Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ look about as brutal as a Sunday afternoon’s stroll down Chesil Beach, Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory ‘Come and See’ feels like the nearest cinema has ever come to recreating the ruthlessly discombobulating sensory experiences of war. After much angry deliberation, we thought it fitting to place this singular work at the head of the list, not merely in tribute to its bracingly original and candid take on the human toll of warfare, but as a work of sublime visual and aural intensity that uses every tool available in the cinematic arsenal to distinct and often nauseating effect.

    With its title referencing the end of days as described in the Book of Revelations, Klimov’s desultory opera of human wickedness is often compared to Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ in the way it presents the onset of madness as a lone man burrows deeper and deeper into war-ravaged territories. ‘Come and See’, though, is told from the perspective of young Byelorussian lad Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko), an army recruit whose plucky optimism is ripped from beneath him as the platoon he’s inducted into are massacred. He is then forced on a torturous expedition across the countryside with would-be girlfriend Glasha (Olga Mironova) where he suffers unspeakable indignities at every turn.

    Klimov does everything in his power to place us inside Florya’s head, from replacing the soundtrack with a high-pitched ringing when a bomb explodes in his close vicinity, to filming a shot where he has to wade through a huge puddle of mud in excruciating real time. Indeed, it’s ironic that the film takes place in the same country where such spiritually enlightened masters as Tarkovsky, Dovzhenko and Sokurov were able to hint at the presence of a divine being in their shots of shimmering fields and flickering fire, as Klimov’s film states in no uncertain terms that if there is a god, then he was out for a very long lunch in the early ’40s.

    Though he said in a recent interview with Time Out that he'd not seen the film, Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ contains numerous similarities to ‘Come and See’, not least its famous closing shot where Florya unloads a machine gun into a discarded portrait of the Fuhrer. Except, where Tarantino’s film playfully offers a self-reflexive fantasy of Jewish revenge, Klimov’s denouement contains altogether less encouraging connotations, suggesting that there are no heroes in war – only victims and perpetrators – and that no amount of guns and ammo will be able to expunge or reconcile the memory of the holocaust. A disorienting, downbeat and unforgettable classic. David Jenkins

    Read review

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Cartoon carnage and animated anguish in this harrowing Ghibli tragedy.

Anyone who’s ever dismissed cartoons as being, you know, for kids, may want to seek out this haunting animated drama from Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki’s number-two guy over at Japan’s Studio Ghibli. His film adopts the template formed by Elem Klimov three years earlier in ‘Come and See’ by offering a child’s-eye-perspective of wartime atrocities. But like Miyazaki’s masterly ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ from the same year, it also expounds on the methods used by children to block out the horrors of the world (namely, day dreaming, fantasy, unrealistic optimism). It cannot be overstated how heartbreaking and painful ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is, following a young teenage boy and his toddler sister as they are forced to go it alone in the Japanese wilderness as US bombers lay waste to the cities. Their efforts to stay alive are initially successful, but as food becomes scarce and the willingness of others to share rations becomes more infrequent, the struggle for survival grows more and more futile. Critic Roger Ebert rightly named it the one of the greatest war movies ever made. One thing’s for certain: once seen, it will never be forgotten. David Jenkins

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is number 15 in our list of the 100 best animated movies

Read review


Users say

13 comments
Justin M
Justin M

what a joke..who made this crap list..no Tora,Tora,Tora..no the Longest Day,A Bridge too far or Midway...really..those should b top 5 top 10...

Katrine J
Katrine J

You're kidding me, right? what about Schilder's list? and the boy in the striped pajamas!?

Terry L
Terry L

CRAP list, The Big Red One is entertaining but it's no where near as good as Kelly's Heroes and The Great Escape (both of which should have been in the top 10). Where's From Here To Eternity, The Sands Of Iwo Jima, They Were Expendable , Tora, Tora, Tora, In Harms Way, Flags Of Our Fathers, Patton, To Hell and Back, The Devils Brigade, Enemy At the Gates, The Train, 12 O'Clock High, Wings Of Eagles and Battleground? All of which are better than the Big Red One. They Were Expendable and 12 O'Clock high are two of the best movies about leadership, duty, and sacrifice. They should be required viewing for all leaders, NCO and officer.

Simon C
Simon C

'The Longest Day' not rated?

Todd P
Todd P

OMG what a driveling piece of dung this movie is. How typical of Time Out to pick such a pretentious pile of shallowness. Looks cool with all those camera filters, but has about as much depth as a David Lynch automobile commercial.  

It barely makes any sense at all. The characters are so under developed that Sean Penn's scene over the grave has no emotional impact. The filmmaker HATED it and wanted to stop its release. He wanted all the scenes with the big stars like Clooney and Tavolta cut out since they added nothing to the story. But the corporate masters wanted their box office draw. 

Years later he was in negotiations with the USA Network to re-cut the whole thing and put it out as a 10 hour miniseries. But sadly that never happened.

Samrat N
Samrat N

A very bad listing of WWII movies. According to me Saving Private Ryan should have been No5 and Big Red One as no4 in World war II war movies lists. While Holocaust of Meryl Streep according to me is the no2 and Band of Brothers the no 1 WWII movies ever made on the subject. What about unsung war movies like Hannah's war 1988, Genny's war 1985, War and Remembrance tv movie 1988, Wallenber a heroes story 1985, Twist of fate 1989 etc. The latest releases on WWII are movies - WALKING WITH THE ENEMY, THE MONUMENTS MEN, THE IMITATION GAME, UNBROKEN AND FURY.  

Ronald T
Ronald T

How could you pass over "The Best Years of Our Lives"?

limeburner
limeburner

WHERE ARE THE MOVIES FROM 9 TO 1???????

John B
John B

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

Rick H
Rick H

@Samrat N My grandfather fought in Patton's spearhead division (American Indians, African-Americans and other minorities who could be "sacrificed") and said Big Red One was closest to his experience. For gawd knows what reason, he loved Patton. "Only sonuvabitchin general worth a shit in that whole damn war," he said. Thank you. I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed this.


Atif B
Atif B

@limeburner 

simply click the movie image on right side there a button appear.. clk to the nxt

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