From the miracle at Dunkirk to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Stalingrad to the liberation of Auschwitz, no single event can tell the complete story of World War II: a global conflict so catastrophic that it claimed the lives of more than 50 million people. And no single film, whether it be an action flick, a spy thriller, a romance, or a docudrama, can convey the full scope of what it was like to experience the war firsthand. But for those of us looking back in awe and astonishment, these 12 films transform history into living, breathing art.
A magnificent blend of romance, intrigue, comedy, and wartime adventure, Casablanca premiered in November 1942, a few weeks after the Allies invaded North Africa. Set a year before its release, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the story stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick Barnes, an American nightclub owner in the titular Moroccan city, and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, Rick’s true love who abandoned him during the Nazi invasion of Paris. The on-screen chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, the classic dialogue (“We’ll always have Paris”; “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine”), the breathtaking final scene, and the exotic atmosphere created by the polyglot cast, many of whom were refugees from war-torn Europe, make this Academy Award winner not just a great WWII story, but one of the finest films ever made.
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Based on the real-life story of German businessman Oskar Schindler, who saved more than one thousand Polish Jews from the Holocaust, this profoundly moving drama was filmed in black-and-white to mimic documentary footage of the era. Featuring breakout performances by Liam Neeson as Schindler and Ralph Fiennes as sinister SS Captain Amon Goeth, commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp, the film won seven Academy Awards. Initially reluctant to tackle a subject as devastating as the Holocaust, director Steven Spielberg offered the project to Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack, and Martin Scorsese before finally deciding to make the film himself.
Saving Private Ryan
Inspired by the true story of Fritz Niland, who survived the D-Day landings but was sent back to the States after it was reported that his three brothers had been killed in combat, this Academy Award-winning epic has been highly praised for the realism of its combat scenes, especially the 27-minute sequence depicting the assault on Omaha Beach. Director Steven Spielberg spent $12 million and cast more than 1,500 extras to recreate the Normandy invasion, even going so far as to record the distinctive noise made by U.S, soldiers’ M1 Garland rifles as they ejected their ammunition clips.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness and directed by Lawrence of Arabia filmmaker David Lean, this epic adventure story was based on the Japanese Army’s use of forced labor to construct the Burma Railway. More than 12,000 Allied POWs died due to the horrific living and working conditions in the Burmese jungle. The film tells the fictional story of an arrogant British officer who becomes obsessed with building a railway bridge that will last for hundreds of years and serve as a testament to the ingenuity of the British Army. Unbeknownst to him, a group of Allied commandos has been sent on a mission to destroy the bridge. Highly regarded for its technical artistry and its ingenious depiction of British, American, and Japanese perspectives on WWII, the film won seven Academy Awards.
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Widely regarded as one of the greatest German films ever made, this thrilling and intensely realistic portrait of life aboard a U-boat during World War II is based on the novel of the same name by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim, a war correspondent who embedded with the crew of U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic. Originally released in Germany as a television mini-series, the film was criticized for its sympathetic portrayal of WWII-era Germans. The director feared that American audiences would react similarly, but the movie’s startling authenticity, gripping plot, and technical virtuosity earned it six Academy Award nominations–the most ever for a German film.
The Thin Red Line
After a 20-year absence, acclaimed director Terrence Malick returned to theaters with this brilliant adaptation of James Jones’s novel of the same name. Featuring a sprawling ensemble cast including Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and John Cusack, the story follows the men of C Company during the Battle of Guadalcanal. With breathtaking images of tropical flora and fauna, lyrical meditations on the nature of good and evil, and the barest sketch of a plot, The Thin Red Line is not your typical war movie. But it transforms the soldier’s ground view of war into a work of art and captures, perhaps more than any other Hollywood film, the full range of the human experience of battle.
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The Dirty Dozen
This film was inspired by the true story of the “Filthy Thirteen,” a group of paratroopers trained as demolitions saboteurs and tasked with destroying targets behind enemy lines and based on the bestselling novel by E. M. Nathanson. The gritty flick stars Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, John Cassavetes, and football legend Jim Brown as U.S. Army convicts sent on a suicide mission in Nazi-occupied France. Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin are the crusty officers who see heroic potential in a group of misfits and psychopaths. Unrepentantly violent and caustically funny, The Dirty Dozen was a huge commercial success whose influence can be seen in films ranging from The Wild Bunch to Inglourious Basterds to The Avengers.
George C. Scott famously refused to accept the Oscar for his performance in the title role of this film, a bold statement that seems totally in character with the outspoken and controversial U.S. Army General. Francis Ford Coppola won his first Academy Award for the screenplay, which opens with an abbreviated (and less profane) version of Patton’s real-life speech to the Third Army prior to the Allied invasion of France, then backtracks to chronicle the general’s decisive actions against Field Marshal Rommel in North Africa, his race to capture the Sicilian port city of Messina, and his shocking mistreatment of shell-shocked soldiers, which caused Eisenhower to sideline Patton for 11 months during the war, which lost Patton the opportunity to spearhead D-Day landings. An epic portrait of the war hero in all his complexity, Patton was reportedly Richard Nixon’s favorite movie.
From Here to Eternity
Starring Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, and Deborah Kerr and based on James Jones’s bestselling novel of the same name, this classic drama is set at Schofield Army Barracks in Honolulu in the weeks leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. From Here to Eternity was immediately beloved by critics and audiences alike and went on to win eight Academy Awards. Frank Sinatra won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the doomed Italian-American Private Angelo Maggio, a career-resurrecting performance that inspired a memorable subplot in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Featuring one of the most iconic love scenes in American cinema, From Here to Eternity brilliantly dramatizes how the boredom, frustration, and brutality of life in the peacetime army were swept away by the tidal wave of war.
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The Longest Day
Featuring one of the greatest ensemble casts in Hollywood history, this epic recreates the D-Day landings at Normandy from American, British, French, and German perspectives. Based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction book of the same name, the film was shot in many of the actual locations where the real-life events took place, including the Pegasus Bridge, Saint-Mere-Elise, and Pointe Du Hoc, and employed more than 20,000 Allied troops as extras. In an unusual move for the time, French and German actors delivered lines in their native languages, helping to give the film its documentary feel. A three-hour saga that never sags, The Longest Day featured actors who had actually participated in D-Day.
Letters from Iwo Jima
This Clint Eastwood-directed saga, a companion to Flags of Our Fathers, tells the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. Ken Watanabe was nominated for an Oscar for his role as General Tadamichi Kurabayashi. Kurabayashi was a diplomat and poet turned general whose novel strategy of defending the island from an underground network of tunnels and caves turned what was expected to be a five-day rout into a 36-day war of attrition. Kurabayashi’s noble goal was to delay the Allied bombing of Japan long enough to turn the tide of public opinion toward a negotiated peace. By paying scrupulous attention to Japanese history, language, and culture, Letters from Iwo Jima humanizes the enemy and sheds new light on a war that Hollywood has almost exclusively portrayed from an American point-of-view.
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Gloriously profane, shockingly violent, and undeniably thrilling, Quentin Tarantino’s unique take on the WWII commando caper is an alternate history tale of eight renegade Jewish-American soldiers dropped into enemy territory to do one thing and one thing only: Kill Nazis. Featuring Brad Pitt as the squad’s swashbuckling leader and Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa–the most sinister on-screen SS officer since Ralph Fiennes’s Amon Goeth–the outlandish story also follows a French Jewish cinema owner’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. Tarantino was influenced by such action flicks as The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, and Where Eagles Dare, but Inglourious Basterds is one-of-a-kind: a genre-bending thrill ride that gleefully delights in breaking all the rules.
Enemy at the Gates
Based on William Craig’s book of the same name, Enemy at the Gates focuses on the peak of military activity during the Siege of Leningrad. German forces surrounded the city in September 1941, but it was not until the summer of 1942 that an all-out battle began. Jude Law stars as Vasily Zaytsev, a sniper in the Soviet Army. Although Craig’s book is a nonfictional tale, the film fictionalizes much of the real Vasily Zaitsev’s life and military career. Despite this, Enemy at the Gates remains a deeply thrilling war film, sure to satisfy any WWII buff.
Dunkirk is one of the most formally inventive films on this list. Portraying three separate aspects of the Dunkirk evacuation and three distinct time periods at once, this Christopher Nolan-helmed film is one of his best. The strong cast, featuring everyone from Kenneth Branagh to Harry Styles, carries the twisty film ably, grounding the narrative emotionally even as time shifts around the viewer.
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Downfall may now be best known for the deluge of parody videos that swapped out Hitler’s irate (subtitled) dialogue as he berates his generals for failing to prevent the end of the Nazi regime for… less serious fare, but it’s far more than its YouTube fame. Although some point to its strength as a weakness, Downfall is one of few films to show Hitler as a person rather than a figure.
This rather unusual Hitchcock film takes place only on a lifeboat. Eight British and American citizens, both civilian and in service, are stranded on a lifeboat together after their passenger boat was sunk by a U-boat. Three of the passengers argue to save a German sailor despite the status of war. This allegorical film is one of Hitchcock’s lesser known films, and perhaps his most underrated.
Son of Saul
This Hungarian film is set in Auschwitz in 1944. It covers just 36 hours in one man’s life, but illuminates much of the misery of the Holocaust in that short time. Saul Ausländer, a Jewish prisoner, is tasked with cleaning up after the gas chambers are set off—removing the bodies, any valuables from those bodies, and cleaning the chamber itself. When a young boy survives the gas chamber only to be suffocated by a Nazi, Saul snaps out of the fugue he has put himself into to survive. Over the next day and a half, Saul attempts to give the boy a proper Jewish burial. Son of Saul manages to find a narrative in a moment that is too often reduced to the numbers of casualties.
Grave of the Fireflies
This film may turn off some viewers thanks to its animation, but Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most moving World War II films ever created. Animated by Studio Ghibli, the film is based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical short story about his attempt to keep himself and his siblings alive in the final months of WWII. Grave of the Fireflies focuses on the individual’s experience of war rather than the grand, cinematic moments of battle.
Featured still from "Saving Private Ryan" via DreamWorks