The World War II brought many things; pain, anger, anguish, separation being one of those. While wars are usually associated with winners, but when you think about the net gain, it’s always a loss. Everyone had a story to tell from the world wars but not necessarily every story had war in it. Somewhere it was a love story dying within the war and sometimes it was the painful letter of a soldier writing but unable to send it home. Going back to the history to curate a list of the best WW2 movies, opened few scars for us but for most of the time, it was those stories which emphatically celebrated the feeling that made us what we actually were: Humans.
Perhaps you won’t find a ‘Guns of Navarone’ or a ‘Where Eagles Dare’ mentioned here but instead what we have found from the pages of history, intertwined with fiction, are the greatest stories told during the World War II. With that said, here is the list of top World War 2 movies of all time. You can watch several of these best World War II movies on Hulu or Amazon Prime.
25. Fury (2014)
‘Fury’ is a different kind of war film, primarily in its setting in the waning days of WWII, its treatment, its message, and even the group of soldiers it deals with, and most importantly, the bonding and camaraderie between them. However, let me warn you at the onset, ‘Fury’ is ugly violent and grotesque, and I’m still not sure of the intensity that was intended to send the spoils of war message home. Since the film is made almost seven decades after the events of WWII conspired, it inherently has a ‘modern’ treatment, more so at the hands of director David Ayer whose filmography depicts something similar.
‘Fury’ in the film is the nickname of a battle tank that the team uses to traverse through battle hit areas of Germany, but the hazards the team faces while deep in there, how the inexperience of one new recruit proves fatal for the team, and how the team chooses to react to it form the most interesting bits of the film. Needless to say, the film rides through easily on Brad Pitt’s steely persona and charm, but the performances of Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Jason Isaacs ably support this gritty war film.
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24. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
I find it hard to believe that a film this well-made was almost derided and panned by every known critic including Roger Ebert. With a sizeable cast including more than a hundred known names and faces from three nationalities, ‘A Bridge Too Far’ is a work of vision, grand in its execution and approach; that much is in fact the first opinion you will wholly form as you progress through the film. One rare thing that the film manages to do with respect to a war film is that it tries to expose and bring to fore the inadequacy and lapses in judgment that threatened and ultimately caused the failure of Operation Market Garden, that was intended for the Allied Forces to capture a series of bridges in German occupied Netherlands for their strategic and combat advantages. In that, I found the film informing enough sans the use of too much patriotic jingoism and propaganda commentary. A worth addition to your list if you are a history buff.
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23. Enemy at the Gates (2001)
‘Enemy at the Gates’ is a partially fictionalised account of the highly documented sniper battle between a Soviet and German sniper during the battle of Stalingrad, but unlike most of the fictionalised accounts of war, here the ‘fiction’ part of it serves only entertainment purposes, rather than propaganda. Jude Law and Ed Harris are utterly convincing in their roles as the sparring snipers engaged in a battle to the death, the latter more than the former. Unlike a lot of war films, the inclusion of a love story in the midst of war unless specifically centred on that may throw a spanner in the works, here, the inclusion of Rachel Weisz as Tania Chernova adds some fun stakes to the interesting bout. It is not a perfect account of the Stalingrad battle, neither does it intend to be. It is a rare entertaining war piece that is more action than patriotism or anti-war gravitas.
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22. Defiance (2008)
‘Defiance’ is not the kind of film you come across unless you are specifically looking for something very close, and I do agree that it wasn’t an easy watch, even at 137 minutes. The movie isn’t perfect either, yet still, this is a film that must be watched simply because it has a story worth telling. Based on the true story of the Bielski partisans, a group formed and led by Belarusian Jew brothers Tuvia and Zus Bielski, responsible for saving close to a thousand Jews during the Nazi occupation of Belarus during the Second World War.
As with all war stories, ‘Defiance’ too is one of sacrifice and endurance in the face of insurmountable odds. Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber are equally convincing in their roles of the Tuvia and Zus respectively, although the more finicky audience may have an issue with the variable accents. A definite plus for the film would be its aesthetic tone that is well suited to the happenings on screen, and the few and far apart action sequences that boast of excellent staging and high production values.
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21. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)
‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ is an important, affecting film, and one of the most emotional ones based on the horrors of the Holocaust, apart from the obvious ‘Schindler’s List’. To the film’s great merit is that the treatment of the subject matter is absolutely perfect, sensitive, yet something that is also easily understood by a younger audience. There have been countless films that have made a point about the innocence of childhood, and how children view the world regardless of all bias and hate. Yet again, with the tender friendship of two eight year olds at the centre of it, unaware of the anti-Jew propaganda of the Nazis and the nature of the fence that divides them in the beginning of the film, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ stands true to its opening quote: “Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” The ending, especially, is guaranteed to leave a gulp in your throat.
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20. The Imitation Game (2014)
Without a doubt, the single most interesting film on this list. ‘The Imitation Game’ is not quite directly a ‘war film’, in the strict meaning of the term, but all the action in the film takes place during the events of WWII, focussing on the efforts of one individual and his team of cryptographers led by Alan Turing, the man responsible for cracking the German Enigma code during a crucial time in the war for Britain, but was never offered the recognition he deserved due to his sexuality which was then a crime in Britain. Benedict Cumberbatch is pitch perfect as Alan Turing, always wearing that air of superiority around him and nailing it to the T, similar to many of the characters he has portrayed on screen. Despite that, he is also increasingly sensitive in the scenes where Turing has to encounter instances related to his sexuality. Keira Knightley too is in good form, but the film virtually belongs to all the code cracking, puzzle solving and cryptography that occurs at Bletchley Park, and that coupled with the early 20th century setting is a treat to watch.
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19. Atonement (2007)
It is essentially not a war movie but is the story of human repentance set during the WWII. A young girl sees her sister and their housekeeper’s son engaged in a flirtatious moment of intimacy and in jealousy, sets in motion a series of events that ultimately spells doom for the young lovers. Years later, the war represents the tumultuous situation of the mind for the young couple where the sister is a nurse and her lover gets enlisted as a soldier. At a time when humanity failed to keep its sanity, they keep longing to meet each other. Eventually they meet, well, in real or fiction that remains the question. One of the underrated World War II movies.
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18. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Another docu-drama on the list, ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ is a combined Japanese American production, and while it was not critically successful upon its release, it has seen significant rise in its repute since then over production qualities and factual correctness in its depiction of the Pearl Harbour bombings and the final hours leading up to it on both sides. I agree that the pace is a little drab in places, especially when considered today, but as a viewer looking to be plainly educated about the events at Pearl Harbour, I was more than satisfied. Superior in almost every aspect to its American counterpart, ‘Pearl Harbour’, this is a true blue ‘history’ film and a must watch if you are a history or WWII documentary enthusiast.
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17. Flags of our Fathers (2006)
While ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ told the heart rendering story of the Japanese side of the battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest in the war, ‘Flags of our Fathers’ tells tales of glory of the American Side, and yet still, the anti-war message is still intact, which is a feat in itself. Directed as a companion piece to ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ by Clint Eastwood himself, this film works more as a patriotic albeit human account of the historic hoisting of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima, the lives of the men behind this feat, what they went through, and the unwanted fame that followed after. The story, also included glimpses from the other side, is so inherently human, it really makes the viewer question the sanity of the decisions that lead to some of the worst human atrocities in centuries. In inducing that feeling in the viewer, ‘Flags of our Fathers’ is almost unforgiving in its depiction of violence in Iwo Jima, and utterly honest both from a war and a bureaucratic point of view.
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16. Dunkirk (2017)
Sure, ‘Dunkirk’ is a World War II movie. But what is so creditworthy of Nolan is that he dares to break any notions of how a war film should be made. ‘Dunkirk’ has no character arc and neither does it indulge in unnecessary sentimentality — very typical with most of the war films. There is no back story to any of the characters. No love story either. It is just a brilliant rendering of an unforgettable piece of history where Nolan lets the visuals and score take over and puts you right in the middle of the action. It is THE MOST IMMERSIVE war movie ever made. You will feel your pulse racing every single moment of the film. In ways more than one, ‘Dunkirk’ works more like a thriller than an action drama.
Apart from sweeping, extraordinary camera work and a heart-pounding background score what also makes ‘Dunkirk’ so immersive is the way Nolan chooses to tell the story — that is in non-chronological fashion. So, while you are gripped with all that’s happening on screen, you also have to be attentive so as to follow the three simultaneously occurring stories. Typically such an approach is reserved for science fiction movies or thrillers, but Nolan busts that notion too and effectively uses it for telling a war story. Talk about breaking new grounds!
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15. The Dirty Dozen (1967)
‘The Dirty Dozen’ is still considered far and wide to be the benchmark for ‘Macho’ films as far as testosterone fuelled action, dialogue and jingoism is concerned. If Quentin Tarantino had made ‘Inglorious Basterds’ back in the 60s, it would look a lot like this film. The plot of the film is about an egocentric major tasked with recruiting and training a dozen of criminals to carry out assassinations of high ranking German officials in a suicide mission just short of the D-Day. Contrary to the rather ‘grey’ nature of war films, including most on this list, ‘The Dirty Dozen’ is unabashedly commercial in nature, and the absurdity of it all, the fantasy behind it, the stellar ensemble and even the violence and amorality of the central characters was seen as breaking new ground at the time, and its treatment at the hands of seasoned director Robert Aldrich is authentic, owing to which the movie has immense rewatch value even five decades hence.
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14. The Longest Day (1962)
‘The Longest Day’ is without a doubt, the most definitive World War II film on this list, and one of the most detailed accounts of what the D-Day looked like out there. The D-Day is a significant day in history, marking the largest sea-borne invasion in the history of the world in an effort to liberate Nazi occupied France. The scale of production here is commendable and not something you come across very frequently even today. The film was an event when it released, boasting of a star cast comprising of 42 stars, and separate portions of the film being directed by three different directors.
The film may even be seen as a wartime documentary on the D-Day landings, grand in its execution and approach. This might be an unpopular opinion, and while I was in absolute awe of the war sequences including the aerial and naval combat, the landings, the parachuting and the on ground combat as well, what endures me more about war movies is the silence before the storm, the war council bickering, and the nervousness of the soldiers the day before the big war. The movie successfully showcases even those among scenes of intense battle, and of both sides, the Allies as well as the Nazis, which is especially commendable. A classic in every right, this one should be a prized inclusion in your film library.
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13. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
A fictional take on an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life blended with Quentin Tarantino’s quirkiness and immortalized by the performance of Christoph Waltz: that’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ for you. Told in a linear pattern but interlaced with smaller events with perspective to the bigger story that lead to Hitler’s assassination, this is an epic tale. From Col. Hans Landa to Shoshana to Fredrick Zoller to First Lt. Aldo Raine, each character is etched so well that you reach out to know more about them. Christoph Waltz won the academy award and the BAFTA in the supporting actor segment and the best actor in Cannes for his portrayal of the much hated Col. Hans Landa.
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12. Empire of the Sun (1987)
Steven Spielberg’s third on this list, is about the loss of innocence of a kid, during the times of war. A young Jamie gets separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion, gets caught to join a POW camp. Through sheer hardship, scams and sometimes with pure luck he manages to exist in the big bad world. Eventually when he gets the chance to escape, he cannot remember what his parents look like! The movie hits its zenith with the climactic scene of atomic bombing at Nagasaki, which stays with the viewer for a long time. Released to a mixed reaction, over the years this movie has achieved a cult status.
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11. Downfall/ Der Untergang (2004)
The Hitler rant by now is one of the most parodied videos on the internet, with completely non contextual English dialogues replacing the führer’s furious barrage of words in the film. However, when you come to watch the scene in its intended context in ‘Downfall’, you’ll experience what is easily one of the best acting performances of the previous decade in a stellar historic account of a film.
‘Downfall’ masterfully details some of the most important aspects of Hitler’s life and personality and the fall of the third reich in the final ten days before he committed suicide to avoid capture, and dare I say that it even makes an attempt to humanise somebody who is considered to be a monster by the rest of the world. His rage, political ideology, his blind followers, his desperation in the face of apparent defeat, even his vulnerability, everything, including even physical aspects of the film to the last detail in his bunker where he spent his final days, are worthy of commendation. Bruno Ganz is virtually Adolf Hitler recreated, living and breathing. The actor not only embodies all of Hitler’s subtle nuances and body movements, he brings to life one of the most hated characters in history with dire passion and visible dedication.
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10. The Pianist (2002)
Roman Polanski’s tale of a hurt and punished pianist during the Holocaust mirrors his own as he is a survivor of the concentration camp. Holocaust brought out the ghastliness and the insufferable pain of the Jews in the concentration camps. ‘The Pianist’ tells the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist and his journey to hell and back during the holocaust. Adrien Brody won many accolades including the academy award for best actor for his titular role.
9. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
There are no winners in a war, though the only loser is humanity. Clint Eastwood tells this through this story of the other side of the critically acclaimed ‘Flags of Our Fathers’. Towards the far end of the WWII, looking at the impending loss in the hands of the US army, the remaining Imperial Japanese army readies for its final onslaught. It was well appreciated by the critics for its correct portrayal of the both sides’ agony as well as frustration.
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8. Patton (1970)
A foul mouthed, brash, arrogant but battle hardened commander with success, this is the story of US General George S Patton. He was famous for his counterattacking and bold approaches during the war. George C Scott played the titular role, for which he famously refused the academy award for the best actor, making him the first of the two to do so, Marlon Brando being the other for ‘The Godfather’. ‘Patton’ is a biopic and makes a legend out of this American hero who once famously said this: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
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7. Grave of the Fireflies/ Hotaru No Haka (1988)
A poignant, touching film that is at par in every aspect you can think of with the other live action films highlighting the spoils of war. This Japanese animated film centred on the horrors of World War II by focussing on the lives of a sibling pair, broke my heart in a manner a lot of the films on this list have failed to. Being a war movie, it also works wonders on the human front, beautifully realising and developing the tender relationship between Seita and Setsuko in the face of the adversity that was the Second World War. The anti-war message of the film is loud and clear. I would commend the movie for not being overtly emotionally manipulative in making us root for its characters; but make no mistake, its powerful and uncompromising viewpoint on the war and the travesties undergone by the sibling pair will reduce you to a sobbing mess. That being said, there is no other way I would have it. It is perfection, in its most heart-breaking form.
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6. The Thin Red Line (1998)
To say that Terrence Malick is a genius will be an understatement and an outright insult to his talent. He’s a visionary, leagues ahead of his contemporaries. ‘The Thin Red Line’ rather finely illustrates this. This movie depicts the battle of Mount Austen during the WWII against the Imperial Japanese. Upon its release the critics were divided as some stated this as radically self-indulgent and for some, it was pure brilliance. But everyone agreed on one thing: ‘Every man fights his own war’.
5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Spielberg’s masterpiece and probably a manual on how to shoot war pieces as evidenced by the opening Normandy beach invasion sequence, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is the war film you need to watch. A group’s journey to save that one remaining man from a family which already had lost three sons to the war is poignant as well as gritty. It tells you an eternal fact about life that no matter what you do, this life’s once so you better do everything to earn it.
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4. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
A classic in every sense, this is a satire on the unrighteousness of human nature using the construction of a bridge as a medium. A British officer, at the cost of his men helps in building a bridge which will necessarily help the enemy Japanese army move forward but for him it will serve as a proof of British ingenuity. The moment of despair arrives in the movie where he discovers his own army’s plan to sabotage the bridge by planting explosives. He moves to counter it, only to be thwarted by his men, as the bridge blows to pieces with ‘Madness.. Madness’ echoing all around.
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3. The Great Escape (1963)
Based on a real life incident of a mass escape of British prisoners from a German camp, this is a classic tale of dare and adventure. Although the escape ends on a sad note, as almost all escapees except the character of Steve McQueen get caught and killed, it’s historically accurate to the events actually occurred. The way the escape has been plotted with the minute intricacies is a treat to watch. Probably the only movie in this list, to have the fun element added to it, ‘The Great Escape’ is one hell of a ride. Watch out for the scene, where the entire German army is chasing after Steve McQueen on a motorcycle who tries to jump a barbed wire fence.
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2. Das Boot (1981)
‘Das Boot’ is translated to English as ‘The Boat’ and is a story of a German Submarine and its occupiers, on a mission during WWII. More than the actual war, it’s the relationship of the occupiers that takes the centre stage here. Under the sea, within a claustrophobic environment, a group of seamen on a venture that goes from bad to worse. Essentially an anti-war movie, ‘Das Boot’ received much recognition for its acute portrayal of the anguish of the sailors on the submarine. It received six nominations at the academy awards, which was unprecedented for a foreign movie.
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1. Schindler’s List (1993)
The Holocaust will probably go down in the history as one of the cruelest decisions of one ethnocentric German. But there was another German, who saved over a thousand lives from their fate in the concentration camps and thus established the greatest story about humanity from man to man. Spielberg’s second on this list is about the life of Oskar Schindler who wanted to take advantage of the ongoing war by appointing POWs in his factory but ended up saving their lives from the Nazi apathy. Technically brilliant, it is highlighted by its black and white cinematography and that scene of the girl in red coat walking down the street is replete with piercing symbolism. An important film that greatly benefits from Spielberg’s flair for the dramatic, it is an equally disturbing and sensitive experience unto itself.
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