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The 50 best World War II movies

We count down the 50 greatest World War II movies of all time with the aid of guest expert Quentin Tarantino

World War II was the most epic conflict in history and war films 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.

The best World War II movies: 50-41

Paratroop Command (1959)

Paratroop Command (1959)

Quentin Tarantino kicks things off with a riveting obscurity

Quentin Tarantino says... ‘This is by one of my favourite directors, William Witney, an American who quit the movie business to go into the army. You can tell it was made by someone who’d been there. It follows a group of paratroopers in Italy, but one of them’s a fuck-up who accidentally kills one of his team. So he has people in the platoon who want to kill him, just waiting for the right gunfight. And the end of the movie is so exciting. They have to cross a field of landmines, sending one guy in after another until he gets blown up. Eventually, somebody will get to the other side. All these characters just start getting wiped out.’


Escape to Victory (1981)

Football, football über alles

Footie and war! Like those birthday cards in the ‘For Boys’ section of card shops with a picture of a racing car jumping over a steam train full of cowboys, ‘Escape to Victory’ has everything for the sexually immature adolescent male. But this comic-book fantasy, in which Allied POWs are forced to play a lose-lose football match against their Nazi captors, turns out to be a whole big barrel of fun. Sure, it’s hardly a masterpiece, but any film starring Sly Stallone, Pelé, Max Von Sydow and Bobby Moore has to be worth 117 minutes of anyone’s time. PF

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The Keep (1983)

Totally schlossed

This is a gloriously bizarre cod-spiritualist dark castle chiller from a pre ‘Miami Vice’ Michael Mann. The mist-shrouded opening sequences, as Jürgen Prochnow’s dead-meat Nazi platoon occupy the titular demon-occupied fortress, are breathtaking, Mann’s superb eye for visual detail fusing with some spectacular design work to create a real atmosphere of impending dread. It begins to fall apart with the introduction of Scott Glenn’s mystical Jewish translator (yes, his name really is Glaeken Trismegestus), but the film’s unashamed weirdness and wondrous sets have helped to build a pretty solid fanbase. TH

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Days of Glory (2006)

Out of Africa

There are hundreds of untold WWII stories still to be filmed. Rachid Bouchareb’s drama shines a light on those North African soldiers drafted in to fight for the Free French after D-Day. The film itself is a mite predictable, but what’s impressive are the ripples it created: after 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 still have direct political impact. TH

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The Pianist (2002)

Tinkling the ivories

Roman Polanski kicked off the twenty-first century with a sophisticated, Oscar-winning WWII survival drama which not only offered an authentic depiction of the Warsaw ghetto, but proved that – controversy aside – the director could still deliver when it mattered. Adrien Brody deservedly picked up Best Actor for his muted portrayal of Jewish concert pianist Władysław Szpilman, whose mission to stay alive against titanic odds is an inspiring testament to the human instinct for self-preservation. DJ

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The Dam Busters (1954)

Buuuh buh buh buh buh-buh buuuh buh…

‘The Dam Busters’ represents a particularly British type of cinematic military endeavour, shuffling 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, said development is lent charm and eloquence by the ever-impeccable Michael Redgrave as ‘bouncing bomb’ boffin Barnes Wallis. And the actual busting of the dams of the Ruhr Valley is an edge-of-the-seat, seat-of-the-pants ride. ALD

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I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Cary on cross-dressing

Hollywood has a bad reputation for fixing tricky book titles, like going from ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ to ‘Blade Runner’. In the case of French Army Officer Henri Rochard’s autobiography ‘I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress’, we reckon they had a point. In this jolly gender-swap comedy from screwball master Howard Hawks, Cary Grant plays Rochard (mercifully eschewing a French accent), whose romance with chauffeur Ann Sheridan somehow leads to him dressing as a woman and smuggling himself into the US. TH

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Phoenix (2014)

Seems like old times

How does war change people? That’s the theme of German director Christian Petzold’s icily disconcerting thriller, in which Nina Hoss plays a Berlin cabaret singer who survives the Holocaust, but is forced to have major reconstruction surgery following a gunshot to the face. Reunited with her husband and former Resistance partner despite a lingering doubt that he may have shopped her to the authorities, she begins to pick up the pieces of her old life. Sleek, subtle and perpetually ambiguous, Petzold’s film is a very modern kind of war movie, concerned more with identity and memory than with action. It’s relentlessly gripping, though. TH

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Black Book (2006)

Dutch courage

Almost three decades after his handsome but rather sedate resistance story ‘Soldier of Orange’, shockmeister Paul Verhoeven revisited WWII for a tale of Jewish subterfuge and erotic espionage, filling the screen with all the sex, death and pube-dyeing the earlier film sadly lacked. But beneath all the nudity and bloodshed is an intelligent, original study of occupation and revenge: the final shot, subtly drawing parallels between the occupation of Holland and the birth of Israel, is courageous and brilliant. TH

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Battle of Britain (1969)

Stars over the battlefield

‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ The Spitfire’s finest hour is recreated in a stirring, salty rip-roarer from Bond-movie mainstay Guy Hamilton. ‘Battle of Britain’ stars everyone from old pros Michael Redgrave and Laurence Olivier (fruity as ever) to up-and-comers like Michael Caine and Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane. Despite being shot on film stock that looks like it was processed in milky tea, the drama features some remarkable aerial photography (George Lucas has noted its influence on the space battles in ‘Star Wars’), and makes for a rousing and authentic spectacle. ALD

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The best World War II movies: 40-31


The Inglorious Bastards (1978)

Hang on, that title’s familiar…

Not Tarantino’s WWII picture, but the 1978 B-movie that partially inspired it. Director Enzo G Castellari is a hero to cult film fans everywhere: his 40-year career has gifted us half a dozen decent Euro-Westerns, a few rip-offs of hits such as ‘Jaws’ (‘The Last Shark’) and ‘Mad Max’ (‘1990: The Bronx Warriors’) and the 1990s detective series ‘Extralarge’ on Italian TV. But thanks to Tarantino’s tribute, he’ll be best remembered for this WWII actioner. Explosive, colourful and slicker than you might expect, it follows a rag-tag bunch of Allied soldiers who… well, we don’t want to spoil it. ALD

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Where Eagles Dare (1968)

‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy...’

Famous for the cinema’s best ever punch-up on a moving cable car, this behind-the-lines romp is also reputed to clock up the highest body count of any Clint Eastwood film, with hundreds of Germans throwing themselves headlong into a storm of lead. The plot serves up a string of icepick-sharp set-pieces but more importantly provides an excuse for Richard Burton and Clint to get out of their itchy, ill-fitting British togs and look sharp in German officers’ uniforms. Those Nazis: no moral compass, but what tailoring! PF

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A Walk in the Sun (1945)

Strolling thunder

Director Lewis Milestone was the master of the grunt’s-eye view, and with this account of a few hours in the life of an American platoon in Italy he set the template for dozens of thoughtful war films that followed. For long stretches nothing much happens – but when it does it’s violent and irrevocable. There’s little in the way of heroics and barely a few moments of gunfire. The impression of warfare is neither of gung-ho glory nor of pant-wetting terror: the overriding feeling is confusion, and a nagging sadness that in such a beautiful landscape one should have to be concerned with dying rather than living. PF

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Kelly's Heroes (1970)

War is the ultimate bummer

‘Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?’ Yes, the hippies finally do their part for global security as Donald Sutherland’s superfreaky tank commander Oddball joins up with Clint Eastwood’s surly one-man warzone, Kelly, on a mission to raid a French bank and hightail it with buckets of Nazi loot. Director Brian G Hutton dispenses pretty much entirely with historical reality, leading some to accuse the film of trivialising the war effort. Which it does, but with such warmth, wit and insouciance that it’s impossible to resist. Pure pleasure. TH

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Germany, Pale Mother (1980)

For the Mutterland

One of the lynchpins of New German Cinema and, alas, the only female-directed film on this list (which says something about war movies). Helma Sanders-Brahms’s film presents a dewy-eyed romance between Lene (Eva Mattes) and Hans (Ernst Jacobi) that blossoms into marriage. But their bliss is short-lived when Hans is called away to fight and Lene’s life spirals into disaster. It may sound brutal, but Sanders-Brahms never judges her characters (who are based on her own parents), bluntly demonstrating how relentlessly grim life in wartime can be for women as well as men. DJ

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Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Both sides now

Given his hard-bitten reputation, it’s surprising Clint Eastwood hadn’t got around to directing a World War II movie before 2006. But he made up for it with a groundbreaking one-two punch: a pair of films exploring the battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspectives. ‘Flags of our Fathers’ was weak, exploring the American culture of war. But ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ is stunning, depicting a group of soldiers even more bound by tradition and honour than their American counterparts, trapped in an unwinnable war and dreaming only of home. TH

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Millions Like Us (1943)

Keep the home fires burning

No film evokes the everyday British experience of WWII better than Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s stiff-upper-lipped drama. It’s a masterpiece of social observation, reflecting the national shift towards social inclusion in its depiction of the lives, loves and heartrending losses endured by the lower-middle-class Crowson family. The closing sequence – in which munitions worker Celia (Patricia Roc) forcibly represses her grief over her dead lover and joins in a rousing factory singalong – is almost unbearably moving. TH

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Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Shouting lager lager lager

Britain’s obsession with the demon drink has made for some terrific cinema, and second only to ‘Whisky Galore’ in the pantheon of pissed-up pictures is this rousing, surprisingly hard-nosed tale of dipsomania in the desert. When his unit is attacked by the Germans, army captain Anson (John Mills) hijacks an ambulance and heads across the Sahara with two nurses and a dubious South African officer in tow. They’re bound for Alexandria, and the refrigerated lager Anson imagines he’ll find there – provided the Bosch don’t do for them first. Terse and stiff-lipped but never to a fault, this is one of the archetypal British combat films. TH

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Hell in the Pacific (1968)

Two tickets to paradise

‘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 beautiful, isolated South Seas island, but it damn well should have been. This perfectly pitched two-hander might have descended into an unholy mess of sentimentality and earnestness. But ‘Deliverance’ director Boorman has never had too much time for easy resolution, and maintains an even strain as his leads realise that the only way to survive is to collaborate. ALD

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Empire of the Sun (1987)

Bale begins

‘Empire of the Sun’ came smack in the centre of Steven Spielberg’s mid-’80s slump: ‘Temple of Doom’ had been criticised for excessive violence, and there was still ‘Always’ and ‘Hook’ to come. But there’s incredible work in ‘Empire of the Sun’. The decision to hire Tom Stoppard to adapt JG Ballard’s fictionalised memoir of his days in a Japanese internment camp pays off with a focused script and some wonderfully memorable characters. Best of all is John Malkovich’s Machiavellian hipster Basie. Christian Bale is a star in the making as young Jim, while Allen Daviau’s cinematography adds grandeur, drenching the screen with dazzling searchlights, blazing buildings and, at the climax, Hiroshima itself. TH

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The best World War II movies: 30-21


Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Normandy conquest

Spielberg, Hanks, all those Academy Awards. It’s easy to be a tad sceptical about ‘Private Ryan’. A repeat viewing, however, blows away the cobwebs with a furious men-in-combat film that balances comradely bromance with gale-force action. ALD

Quentin Tarantino says: ‘I really liked “Saving Private Ryan”, in particular the Omaha beach scene. You’re watching that sequence and you think, could anything be worth this? Ultimately, I guess the answer is yes. But when you’re watching it, it seems unfathomable that anything could be worth that.’

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The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Hot Guinness

William Holden’s authority-defying, nurse-goosing square-jawed US Navy Commander Shears may be the supposed hero, but in this grandiose epic set in a Japanese labour camp it’s Alec Guinness’s hopelessly compromised Colonel Nicholson that we really relate to. A story of the blurred line between enslavement and collaboration, David Lean’s film drips with jungle sweat as Nicholson tries to protect his men from Japanese cruelty as they work to build a strategically important railway bridge. The photography, sets and supporting performances are all terrific, but it’s all in orbit around Guinness’s towering turn as the man torn between duty and a kind of twisted, self-sacrificial honour. TH

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Army of Shadows (1969)

Army of Shadows (1969)

Vive le resistance!

Jean-Pierre Melville’s film opens on a shot of the Arc de Triomphe as, slowly, a long line of Nazi soldiers goose-step across the screen. This insidious, softly-softly approach to the traumas suffered by the people of Paris during the occupation sets the tone for a riveting, steely-eyed chronicle of resistance. Prizing restraint, Melville adopts a curt, undemonstrative shooting style to present his ‘heroes’ as a self-hating cadre who think nothing of risking life and limb in the name of their nation. Prison escapes are brief and unglamorous, espionage is gruelling and perilous and emotions, speeches and friendships remain suppressed at all times. A cold, meticulous drama about the pressures of propping an entire country on your shoulders. DJ


Attack (1956)

True grit

As cutting as piano wire and cynical to the core, Robert Aldrich’s whipsmart drama follows through on the queasy promise of its tagline: ‘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 between company captain and ‘gutless wonder’ Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin’s manipulative institutional horse-trader and platoon leader Jack Palance, cracking with frustration at the sharp end. A minor landmark which dared to suggest that, in war, ‘Not everyone is a hero and not every gun is pointed at the enemy’. ALD

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To Be or Not To Be (1942)

Funny how?

‘So, they call me concentration camp Ehrhardt, do they?’ It’s hard to imagine the shock that must’ve greeted Ernst Lubitsch’s frothy comedy on release in 1942. Here we were, in the grip of the most bloody conflict in Earth’s history, and along comes German Jewish émigré Ernst Lubitsch with a broad Hollywood satire lampooning Nazism, spies, the camps, the whole damn shooting match. A story of mistaken identities, backstage hi-jinks and theatrical misunderstandings set in occupied Poland, the film is genuinely funny. But if you actually stop to think about it, you may start screaming. TH

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The Great Escape (1963)

Makes you proud to be British. Or American

Maybe the most flat-out enjoyable WWII film of them all, this bank holiday classic continues to win fans, inform ad campaigns and drown out England football matches every time an impromptu rendition of its impossibly chipper theme tune sounds. Steve McQueen heads a top-notch cast of international talent, all of whom are given plenty to do by the lively script and nimbly wrangled by John Sturges’s muscular direction. ALD

Quentin Tarantino says: ‘One of my favourite movies of all time, not just war movies. I love that film. It’s one of those bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movies that got me to sit down and write “Inglourious Basterds”.’

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Son of Saul (2015)

Up close and personal

The degradation and horror of the Holocaust was never captured with such ferocity as in László Nemes’s extraordinary debut. Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish concentration camp prisoners tasked with dealing with the bodies of those murdered in the gas chambers. Nemes’s camera stays – literally – right in Saul’s face, using as few cuts as possible to immerse the viewer in an all-too-believable vision of hell. If it sounds tough, it is – but, until virtual reality technology improves, this is the closest you’re going to come to a bone-deep understanding of what really happened. TH

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Downfall (2004)

Only 23? *Angry Hitler gif!*

We’ve all been there. You haven’t slept for days. The place is a wreck. There are empties everywhere and you don’t even know who half these people are. Admit it: the Party’s over. This claustrophobic account of the last days of Nazi Germany takes place within the dank corridors of Hitler’s bunker. The sense of impending doom is palpable and, as much of it is based on the recollections of Hitler’s secretary, scenes like a wild champagne party to the backbeat of Russian artillery ring bizarrely true. Sadly for these guests, history was about to gatecrash. PF

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Brothers in arms

‘[A] highly elaborate, flashy, flabby and costly film, the most disgraceful production that has ever emanated from a British film studio.’ That’s from a pamphlet entitled ‘The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp’, foisted on the ticket-buying public when Powell and Pressburger’s heartfelt biopic of a fictional British army officer was first released in 1943. The film’s great crime was to depict a German character in a positive light – indeed, to plead for understanding between two countries at war. It still feels like a brave move – and it lends a film that could’ve been fusty and traditionalist a genuine cutting edge. TH

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Ivan's Childhood (1962)

Scouting for boys

By the early 1960s, the bloom was off the war – WWII movies no longer needed to focus exclusively on square-jawed men nobly battling fascism. Heck, they might even suggest that the conflict took a toll on both sides. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s shimmering (and surprisingly short) debut, a boy stumbles into the headquarters of a Russian platoon on the Eastern front, claiming to have important information. It transpires that he’s a junior spy used by his own side, who play on his hatred for the German who murdered his family. Dreamlike and devastating, this was a new kind of war movie. TH

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The best World War II movies: 20-11


Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

QT takes the reins again for the tale of Heydrich’s assassination

Quentin Tarantino says... ‘When I was writing “Inglourious Basterds”, I ended up looking at a different type of war film than I’d ever watched before. These were 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 who made the excellent “Hangmen Also Die!” WWII was still going on, the Nazis were an actual threat, not just movie bad guys. Those directors 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 there’s a lot of humour in them. And this goes against all the ponderous, violin-music diatribes we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s.’

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From Here to Eternity (1953)

Burt on the beach

If all you remember is Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling in the Hawaiian surf, it’s time to take another look at this hard-headed wartime drama set in the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Sure, it’s not as tough (or as foul-mouthed) as James Jones’s inflammatory source novel, but there’s still plenty that shocks in Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation: the adultery, the prostitution, the fact that Frank Sinatra can act. And the attack itself is a belter: lasting mere minutes on the screen, it’s got more punch than all three hours of Michael Bay’s awful ‘Pearl Harbour’. TH

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Night And Fog (1956)

The horror

Ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps, Alain Resnais made this mournful 32-minute documentary that offers as clear-sighted and painful an insight into the National Socialist mindset as any film before or since. Austerely constructed, the film simply juxtaposes German newsreel and films shot by the Allies as they liberated the camps with newly filmed shots of disused railway sidings, empty fields and husks of buildings where thousands lost their lives. As a yardstick for the gravity of Nazi atrocities, Resnais’s film takes some beating. DJ

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Closely Observed Trains (1966)

Lazy bones

For those in occupied countries, joining the resistance was a great honour – the chance to fight and die in the service of their country. But by God, doesn’t it look like an awful lot of effort? That’s the attitude taken by teenage railwayman Miloš in this lovely Czech New Wave comedy. Miloš may be employed as a station guard, but his only real interests are following girls around and finding creative ways to avoid doing any actual work. So when he becomes embroiled in a Resistance plot, his own desire is to get out of it again as quickly and painlessly as possible. Sweet and spiky at the same time, this is a gently subversive antidote to the traditional breast-beating war movie. TH


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

This is Britain, and it’s fine

At the beginning of WWII, all UK cinemas were closed. But Churchill’s cabinet quickly realised that not only were the movies a great way for a put-upon populace to relax, they were also a perfect channel for propaganda. But while Humphrey Jennings’s twin masterpieces may be unashamedly patriotic, they’re also two of the most inventive documentaries ever made. The former, co-directed with Stewart McAllister, is more sedate, a sort of Radio 4 with pictures, all twittering songbirds and the smack of leather on willow. ‘Fires Were Started’ is pitched between documentary and drama in its depiction of a day in the life of a fireman in the Blitz, but through all the banter there’s an inescapable sense of dread, of a city on the brink of collapse. TH

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The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Twelve angry men

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’.

Quentin Tarantino says... ‘The thing 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 that running around anymore.’

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Rome, Open City (1945)

Spaghetti realism

The wounds of European conflict and Nazi occupation were still tender in Rome in late 1944, which chimed with the documentary instincts of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. ‘Rome, Open City’ drew on real issues and situations during the years of conflict. Needless to say, the brutality of the occupying regime is presented with a shocking frankness, not only its indifference to class, age, gender and religion, but its total lack of logical purpose. Rossellini shot the film using leftover celluloid from other movies, which not only lent it a gritty newsreel aesthetic, but a real sense of urgency and anguish. Three years later he would tell a similar story from a different perspective in ‘Germany, Year Zero’. DJ

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Cross of Iron (1977)

Withdrawal method

Sam Peckinpah’s only war film follows a German platoon through the 1943 retreat on the Russian front. Sombre and claustrophobic photography and Peckinpah’s clear understanding of a working platoon of men are all far removed from the monotonous simplicity of most big-budget war films.

Quentin Tarantino says: ‘I’m a big fan of “Cross of Iron”, it’s really cool. I saw it the day it opened. I was a little boy; I didn’t know anything about the Russian front. I guess it went over my head, but I learned to appreciate it later. But one of the interesting things about “Cross of Iron” is that it came and went in America, but it was such a huge hit in Europe that it actually inspired rip-offs for years, which I get a huge kick out of. And one of them is the movie that I took the name “Inglourious Basterds” from.’

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Kanal (1956)

Tunnel vision

Polish master director Andrzej Wajda’s second film follows the remnants of a ragtag platoon through the last days of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, beating a retreat in the face of German aggression. Left with no other option they take refuge in the sewers, where one by one they succumb to malnutrition, madness and death. Wajda lets us know from the very beginning what we’re up against, as a doom-laden voiceover informs us: ‘These are the tragic heroes. Watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives.’ But he forces us to relate to these characters, sketching their personalities in subtle, effective strokes: the grim and desperate captain, the lovestruck youth, the out-of-place artist. Each is given a reason to live; that we know they won’t only makes us care more deeply. TH

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Schindler's List (1993)

In the ghetto

Spielberg had been circling the Holocaust for years, getting a little closer each time: the evacuation trains in ‘Close Encounters’, the sneering Nazis in ‘Raiders’, the brutal camps in ‘Empire of the Sun’, all of it leading him to this devastating adaptation of Thomas Keneally's novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’. A quarter of a century later, the film, which was inspired by Claude Lanzmann’s remarkable ‘Shoah’ documentary, has lost none of its power. This is a movie so painstakingly crafted, so precise in its details, that it could’ve become cold and removed, unable to fully feel the horrors it depicts. It’s proof of the sheer depth of Spielberg’s empathy that that never happens: despite its visual beauty, the film is emotionally raw and still horrifyingly relevant. TH


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The best World War II movies: the top ten


Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Before the bomb

Studio Ghibli number-two Isao Takahata’s haunting animated drama adopts a template familiar from ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ and ‘Come and See’, offering a child’s-eye-perspective of wartime atrocities. But like his colleague Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘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 daydreaming, fantasy and unrealistic optimism). It cannot be overstated how heartbreaking and painful ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is, following a 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. Roger Ebert rightly named it the one of the greatest war movies ever made: once seen, it will never be forgotten. DJ


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The Big Red One (1980)

European vacation

The original ‘Band of Brothers’, and one of the most detailed and nourishing WWII flicks of them all (at least in its epic director’s cut). Essentially a memoir of director Sam 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, 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 tank. TH


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A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Stairway to heaven

Powell and Pressburger’s soaring story of love after death was initially inspired by a government request for a film emphasising the common ground between the UK and America as the latter entered the war. In the hands of just about any other filmmaking team this would probably have resulted in something fairly traditional: a lads-together-behind-enemy-lines actioner, perhaps. But in the hands of the most imaginative filmmakers this country has ever produced, such a straightforward narrative was unlikely. Starting in outer space and incorporating a fatal plane crash, French ghosts, naked pan-pipe playing children, brain surgery, feverish hallucinations, Abraham Lincoln, gushing romance and the halls of heaven itself, this is one of British film’s grandest fantasies. TH


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The Cranes Are Flying (1957)

Mother Russia

Made in the wake of Stalin’s death, this visually rapturous masterpiece is more akin in tone to ’40s British morale boosters than Soviet propaganda pieces of the post-war period. The story – of young lovers torn apart and dragged where the currents of war pull them – bucked the prevailing trend towards willing sacrifice and noble collective spirit. Director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky would go on to make ‘Soy Cuba’, and their singular, mesmeric photographic style is evident here too: a startling blend of audacious framing and hand-held intimacy that wouldn’t filter into Western cinema for years. PF 

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Went the Day Well? (1942)

Stiff lips and sharp axes

Those of us who grew up with national treasure Dame Thora Hird being frightfully lovely on the BBC can only watch in amazement as, at the climax of Alberto Cavalcanti’s masterful wartime chiller, she gamely starts picking off invading Nazis with a rusty old hunting rifle. The plot, in which a German 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 before the Normandy landings, ‘Went The Day Well?’ was precision-tooled 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. TH


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Das Boot (1981)

Deeper and down

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 claustrophobic of all WWII movies. The film is a masterclass in economical, tight-space storytelling, piling the pressure on both characters and audience until the sprockets squeak. The infamous ‘tiefer…’ sequence, as captain Jürgen Prochnow pushes his sub to life-threatening depths, is still almost unwatchable. TH


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Shoah (1985)

The unvarnished truth

It’s been four decades since Claude Lanzmann started work on this nine-hour documentary investigation into the minute details of mass murder. His method was to dismiss archive images and interviews and to return instead to the sites of the Holocaust, interviewing afresh those with first-hand experience of events at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chełmno and the Warsaw Ghetto. His subjects range from Jewish concentration camp survivors to former Nazi guards. This is sweeping oral testimony as conducted by a filmmaker who is ever-present in his film, bespectacled and smoking, pushing for detail and honesty above emotion and inexactitude. What emerges is an unprecedented form for an unprecedented tragedy. DC

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Casablanca (1943)

The fundamental things apply...

Is there anything left to say about this Hollywood melodrama? Well, newsflash: it’s still a near-perfect movie. Set during the Allied invasion of North Africa, it focuses on Europe’s displaced flotsam as they pass through Humphrey Bogart’s Moroccan bar en route to freedom. Of course, ivories are tinkled and old flames rekindled, with Bergman and Bogie as the quintessential doomed couple. But on balance, it’s Claude Rains’s Vichy-appointed police captain who proves to be the film’s most interesting character, perfectly representing France’s ambiguous situation during the war. DJ


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The Thin Red Line (1998)

Fight or flight

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 stature. So it was no surprise that on his return to filmmaking the Hollywood elite would line up to volunteer. Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’s memoir of the battle for Guadalcanal features Sean Penn, John Cusack, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta and Woody Harrelson, with Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke left, amazingly, on the cutting room floor.

The overriding theme in Malick’s work has always been the transition from youth to adulthood, from innocence to experience, from paradise to reality, and this is no exception. Malick paints the disputed island as a lost Eden, the two opposing armies as insignificant in the face of eternal nature. The soldiers are viewed as individuals, 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 that surround them.

It's an extraordinary vision of war, and indeed of humanity – godlike but ultimately sympathetic, exploring not just hearts and minds, but the souls of men in combat. TH

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Come and See (1985)

About a boy

Making the infamous opening of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ look like a Sunday stroll in the park, Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory masterpiece feels like the nearest cinema has ever come to recreating the ruthlessly discombobulating sensory experience of war. After much deliberation we thought it fitting to place this singular film at the top of our list, not just for its strikingly candid take on the human toll of warfare but as a work of sublime visual and aural intensity that uses every tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to unforgettable and often nauseating effect.

‘Come and See’ is told from the perspective of Byelorussian lad Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), an army recruit whose plucky optimism is torn away as the platoon he’s inducted into are massacred. Forced to survive alone in the wilderness, he suffers unspeakable indignities at every turn. Klimov’s film argues convincingly that there are no heroes in war, only victims and perpetrators, and that no amount of guns and ammo will be able to reconcile the memory of the Holocaust. A disorienting, downbeat and unforgettable classic. DJ

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The best movies in cinemas now


Tanim H

What about "Patton" ....should have a place within 50 for sure.

Álvaro O

I´m sorry, but...others films of greater cinematographic value, in quality, cast, escenography, vehicles, locations and plot.

Real facts:

A brigde too far 1977

Patton 1970

The longest day 1962

Tora! Tora! Tora! 1971

Thirty Seconds over Tokyo 1943
Enemy at the gates 2001 

To hell and back 1955

Operation Crossbow 1965 (except mission to secret factory and the New York missile)

The Heroes of Telemark 1965

The Man Who Never Was 1956

The Bridge at Remagen 1969

Memphis belle 1989

I have not seen, but they look good in images: Stalingrado 1993 and 2014.

And others.

Decision Before Dawn 1951

A Time to Love and a Time to Die 1958

Germany, year zero 1948

Is Paris Burning 1966

Squadron 633 1964

Enemy below 1957

The train 1964

Von Ryan's Express 1964

Guns of Navarone 1961

Force 10 from navarone 1978

Hannibal Brooks 1969

Submarine X-1 1967

Nelson D

What about "The Cruel Sea"? Amazed this film did not make it into this list. Someone is not paying attention.

Jonathan F

Stalag 17, The Train, and Five Graves to Cairo; and while not strictly a war movie, an honorable mention to The Best Years of Their Lives for dealing with the experiences of returning vets.

Rick C

This book should be made into a movie (No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII) 

james p

Q: What was the movie in Germany Post WW-II where people were still sinking trains and the narrator said, "you now have 1 minute to live".

Neil H

A movie I really liked that never is on any list. You can't find anywhere. Maybe a used copy on Amazon here or there.  Is "The Outsider" Starring Tony Curtis as Ira Hayes.The Native American who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. and is buried in Arlington.  I still remember the final scene where he dies drunken frozen on a dark road a short distance from his home. He literally died of drunkenness virtually penniless in 1955  at the young age of 32. FYI when you do search for it that bad movie from SE Hinton The Outsiders is what mostly comes up.

Mark S

Trying to remember a WW2 movie..Its towards the end of the war and some kids get on a bomber before it takes off,they even take a dog with. As they encounter heavy fire a can of tomato juice gets hit and one of the kids think they are bleeding. Thats about all I can remember.

Ian S

Memphis belle . 1989

It was filmed at binbrook about 10 miles from Grimsby

I live nearby

I love the film

Db sweeny and billy zane star and a crap matt modine as the b17s captain

Don R

The Dirty Dozen & Kellys Heroes (comedies) are rated higher than Stalingrad, Schindlers List & Empire Of The Sun. A Bridge Too Far & Enemy @ The Gates don't even make the list ??????

John W

Two missed recommendations of literary-based movies that best exemplify the insanity of war: 

Although a much better book than movie, the adaptation of Vonnegut's Mother Night at least deserves an honorable mention (the pitfall of the movie is that it misses the dark humor of the book, which is devastatingly funny as anything Kurt V. wrote); Nolte is nonetheless surprisingly perfectly cast in the lead role. 

On the flip side, a better book than movie, the adaptation of Heller's Kafka-esque CATCH-22 is in my top 10 WWII movies. Voight's chipper Milo Minderbender is unequaled as the epitome of war's bureaucracy, driven by those who can gain from it. And the hallucinogenic night sequence in Rome is somehow more disturbing than many movie's best combat scenes. Just about every aspect of human folly is mercilessly pilloried in this offering by Mike Nichols. And the opening sequence sets the tone with the appropriate gesture....  


Lisdoon V

Not one movie about the 20,000,000 Chinese killed by the Japanese, the reason the US got into WW2.

Barry M

@Lisdoon V try again, the US joined WW2 because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 

Rahul R

I'm lookingmovie that a girl help a man from army.....help him to escape from that place...the movie last scene is bridge

Viveca P

Looking for a movie about ww2 or ww1, but it had a scene where these soldiers gave a boy and his father chocolate and supplies. Then the father helped the soldiers a bit with trying to get somewhere. But then later on in the film the soldiers were at a concentration camp trying to rescue people and checking out the living circumstances of them. And one of them opened up a giant bin and there were people spilling out and crammed in. I also think the film might have been a did series. But it was a movie not a documentary.

Sam C

@Viveca P 

That's a TV mini series called "Band of Brothers" the episode you are talking about is called "Why We Fight" 


That's Samuel Fullers The Big Red 1 with Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill

dimi d

sorry no 1 film is ivans childhood or my name is ivan by Tarkofsky.If you do not believe me ask Copolla or Klimof

Nokkie d

i am looking for a movie , we saw it early 1970s  how a woman walk through a museum and i think she started to remember world war 2 I remember it was a heart breaking movie and at the end this blond guy died in her arms came through a bush been shot 

Harry K

I hope you can help me. I remember a movie about a Nazi prison guard who escapes the Allies by posing as a Jew. He winds up working on a kibbutz in Israel. I don't recall much more of the plot I am sorry.

Can you help me learn what movie this was. I remember enjoying it.

Thank you.

nathan c

looking for a old 60s war world 2 desert movie a group of men take on nazi soliders they showed it on netflix for awhile  but can't find it now. really good detail on german army. they blow up allot of tigers and try escape as well

Lauren D

I was wondering if you could help me...

I watched a movie in France about 6 years ago. It was French, and set in ww2 and a romance. I remember very little, but I remember a scene where she is in town and there is a heap of Nazi's heil hitlering. He grabs her hand and leads her through the crowds while saluting. He takes her to a café.

Another scene I remember was later in the movie, she had a child, and was in a field with the child and an old man. Then they started getting bombed.

I remember little else, as it I don't speak French and never understood the words. But the movie fascinated me as a child and I have been trying to find it ever since. Thanks for any help!

Paul P

      can you guys help me to figure out a film ?

i'm looking for a war world 2 movie set in desert, talk about a group of American soldier were finding water. After that, they were attacked by the German. The American try to protect a few of wells near it, which contain a little of water, and the German were trying to take it in order to have water for there soldiers ! Finally , there were only 2 American left and they arrested some dozens of Germans !

     Reply me if you know which film is it !!! thanks a lot

Lauri L

@Paul P  Your description resembles a British movie The Steel Bayonet, ca. 1958. A Hammer production. Curiously, your recollection rings my bells. I´m quite sure having seen the same film as you 40 years ago, but the soldiers were Brits, to my memory. - Steel Bayonet was my best guess so far, but after reading your comment, I may be wrong.

Marc R

@Paul P The movie you seek is called "Sahara", starring Humphrey Bogart

Paul P

Yes that's right ! I have found it ! Thanks a lot !

Paul P

It's Sahara ! Anyway, thanks for your help ! Have a nice day !

Justin Y

@Paul P It had Humphrey Bogart in it and it was called Sahara.  Great Film....

Calamb L

hello, I hope someone can help me figure this out.

It is very vague recollection though. I think the movie came out in the late 90s or maybe in the past 10 years. It was about wwII and (I think) mostly took place in a polish ghetto. It mostly involved an older gentleman, who was either an artist, or musician or playwright. All I vaguely remember was (i think) the Germans 'hired' him to go to the ghetto, and was made to entertain the prisoners (or maybe it was the German soldiers?) to try to keep their morale up or something. I think at one point he maybe got a few others there to perform in a play, or maybe it was a musical group. Sorry, I don't remember most of what happened, but I think eventually he got 'stuck' in the ghetto (was not allowed to leave).

It is not 'the pianist' or jacob the liar, nor was it life is beautiful. I'm almost positive this movie was made in Europe, because I also have this strong recollection of watching this movie with English subtitles.

I've looked through a bunch of 'top' movies on wwII etc and could never find a description of the one I'm thinking of.

anyone got any ideas? I'm stumped

Jim M

And the Violins Stopped Playing

Raymond P

Obscure?  This list pretty much left out the classics.  Who is the person that wrote this list?  I could not agree less with it.

David Z

This list seems to tend towards the obscure, for which I'm grateful, as I wouldn't have found some of these films otherwise.  However, it also overlooks some undeniable classics that deserve to be mentioned on this list somewhere: 

Flags of our Fathers deserves to be mentioned alongside Letters from Iwo Jima-- I almost consider them parts 1 and 2 of the story.  Beyond that, I believe some classics like 'The Longest Day', 'Patton', and 'Tora Tora Tora' deserve spots somewhere on the list.  I would also argue a spot for Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds-- it's not historical, but it's exceptional all the same. 

I don't want to comment on the order of the movies themselves-- that comes down more to taste than anything really, but if you're going to chronicle the 50 best movies about the war, you really ought to be including at least two of the 5 films I just mentioned somewhere in your list. 

David Z

I would also add-- for people just looking for other films not on this list-- that I enjoy 'Enemy at the Gates' and 'Memphis Belle' quite a bit, but they're more personal pleasure movies and  I have less of a problem with them not being on this list (though they wouldn't be necessarily out of place either)

Neil H

@David Z Enemy at the Gates is an underrated film could be on Top 50 war films for sure let alone just those based in WW II . Which is why it is unfathomable how Patton / Longest Day or Tora Tora Tora  aren't on a list of WWII only war movies.

Nadja A

Note that a number of much better films were omitted, Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! among them. Other, better, and missing films include Stalingrad and To Hell and Back, among too many others to list.

It seems that the author of this list hasn't seen a movie made before about 1980. He probably thinks Citizen Kane is about a guy who dresses as an elf and acts as an assistant to a department store Santa by handing out candy canes.

Nadja A

One of the best, and eeriest, films of WWII and the aftermath somehow missed this list while inferior films were listed.

Bad Day at Black Rock is one of the most powerful films ever made. Pressure builds continuously from end to end until the truth is discovered.

Jon S

You're right, The Thin Red Line isn't good...it's brilliant.  There are plenty of "kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out" films and The Thin Red Line isn't one of those.  Sure, if you just want to see explosions and fast action fantasy, you might not like it.

Neil H

@Jon S Thin Red Line was horrible. Way Way Way Way too long and boring. Me and my gal walked out on it when it first came out. As did several others before us in the theater. We waited thinking it would get better. It did not. Later after it got rave reviews. I thought maybe I was wrong. Nope watched it on Netflix with a different girl and we kept falling asleep. I had high hopes with it's many actors that I like. BTW I do not like movies that are just special effects. The fail to hold my interest as well. 


Neil try not bonging on before the movie, you might be able to stay awake watch a moody war movie, its up there with Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, Terrence Malick is incredible director

Julian P

Saving Private Ryan is easily #1

Ben S

@Julian P  Stalingrad (1993) beats saving private ryan by so much

Mahfuz B

@Ben S Could you please give me the source of this movie?

Wouldnt Y

Thin Red Line is not good. It's too artsy fartsy, convoluted, and boring. Insane that Saving Private Ryan is not #1, 2, or 3, or even in top 10. This list is garbage. Wtf is Patton?


Is this a joke? Stalingrad is in the top 10 at least

Also any top WWII movie list that fails to include The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far,Guns of Navarone, Force 10 from Navarone,The Eagle has landed,Play Dirty, Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back,Devil's Brigade,Heroes of Telemark,Anzio,Tora Tora Tora or this little academy award winning movie starring the legendary George C Scott called PATTON, simply cannot be taken seriously!