Filmmakers have long explored the delicate and emotively charged subject of World War II in a variety of notable and moving works. These powerful and frequently brutal depictions of the atrocities, startling truths, and devastating effects of the violent war seem to have a profound effect on viewers all over the world.
Moviegoers can’t help but be drawn to the gripping and heartbreaking tales that production studios continue to weave from this terrifying and important period of history. The sensitive and challenging subject has drawn the attention of some of Hollywood’s most accomplished and revered visionaries, who then created remarkable and thought-provoking works that frequently won Best Picture Oscars.
January 5, 2023 update: Additional content and movies have been added to this list in order to keep it current and pertinent.
The best actors and filmmakers, including Humphrey Bogart, Tom Hanks, and Liam Neeson, as well as renowned directors like Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, seem to be drawn to World War II films. The cinema has been home to some epic war dramas, whether they depict terrifying tales of soldiers going behind enemy lines to rescue one of their own, like in Saving Private Ryan, with its incredible opening scene, or the gathering of a band of murdering misfits in The Dirty Dozen. These films rank among the best ever produced during World War II.
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One of the best movies ever made is this vintage Hollywood production. Famous Hollywood actors Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman star in the 1942 romantic drama Casablanca, which is about an American exile who must choose whether to aid his ex-girlfriend and her wanted boyfriend in escaping the Nazis in French Morocco. The famous image was based on a play written by author Murray Burnett, who found inspiration when visiting Vienna in 1938, just after the Anschluss, and personally seeing the antisemitism.
Burnett once referred to Casablanca as “true yesterday, true today, true tomorrow” when he said it was first released more over 80 years ago. The romantic war drama is still well-liked by critics and viewers, and Ingrid Bergman later said, “I feel about Casablanca that it has a life of its own. It has a magical quality to it. It appears to have satisfied a need, one that existed prior to the movie and one that the movie satisfied.
The Soviet Union besieges Berlin as Adolf Hitler spends his final days in a bunker there in this 2004 German film by Oliver Hirschbiegel. The two books on which the movie was based were Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour by Traudl Junge, who in the movie was portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara as one of Hitler’s secretaries.
Despite being controversial at the time of its release for “humanizing” Hitler, Downfall was nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature and received favorable reviews. Hitler-playing actor Bruno Ganz also won praise for his work. This drama is highly worth watching since it provides a terrifying glimpse into one of history’s deadliest monsters’ mental breakdown as everything around him falls to pieces.
Christoper Nolan, a creative genius, wrote, produced, and directed the 2017 war film Dunkirk, which tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II from the perspectives of the sea, the air, and the ground. Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy are among the superb ensemble cast, and the drama is presented with relatively little language because Nolan intended to build tension with the gorgeous cinematography and soundtrack.
The idea for the war movie first came to the director in the middle of the 1990s as he and his wife were sailing across the English Channel while emulating the route taken by numerous tiny boats during the Dunkirk evacuation. Dunkirk was a huge success for Nolan, earning over $500 million at the box office and winning three Academy Awards. Many people consider Dunkirk to be among the best war movies ever made, and it has received raving acclaim for its narrative, director, and musical score.
Grave of the Fireflies
Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical short story of the same name, this 1988 Japanese animated film was produced. The movie follows two kids, Seita, 14, and Setsuko, 4, as they fight for survival after their mother is killed by an American firebombing. Despite being viewed as a potent anti-war movie in the West, director Isao Takahata believes the movie conveys a message about leading a life that is unsuccessful because of social isolation.
produced and animated by the renowned Studio Ghibli, who initially screened it in a double feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro. The movie is “an emotional experience so profound that it necessitates a reassessment of animation,” according to Roger Ebert. Grave of the Fireflies is a movie that would make even the toughest person cry, and it rightfully deserves to be listed among the best war movies ever created.
Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s 2016 biographical war film, centers on the World War II adventures of battlefield medic Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to carry or use any form of weaponry. Gibson was asked to make a mixture of violence and faith for the movie, which was based on the 2004 documentary The Conscientious Objector, after originally declining the job twice. Doss is masterfully portrayed by Andrew Garfield, and the biopic also makes use of the skills of actors like Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, and Vince Vaughn.
Garfield admitted he cried when he read the script for the first time; to get ready, he studied to be a Jesuit priest for a year, shed 40 pounds, and attended a silent retreat in Wales. When the Oscar-nominated drama first came out, it was hailed for Gibson’s direction as well as Garfield’s powerful performance.
The king of chaos in movies The 2009 war picture Inglourious Basterds, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, depicts two schemes to assassinate Nazi Germany’s leadership: one was hatched by a gang of Jewish American troops, and the other by a French Jew who owned a theater. The script took Tarantino more than a decade to write, and he considered it to be both his greatest achievement to date and a work-in-progress. “Not your typical hero types that are thrown into a big deal in the Second World War,” he said of the individuals in the picture.
The renowned director sought for Austrian actor Christoph Waltz who “gave me my movie” to play Hans Landa because he was a natural German speaker. Waltz’s outstanding performance as the vicious SS officer won him an Oscar, assuaging Tarantino’s concerns that the role was unplayable. With a supporting ensemble that included Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, and Diane Kruger, it’s no surprise that the movie was a box office triumph.
Saving Private Ryan
The 1998 epic war film Saving Private Ryan, which is set during the Normandy Invasion and centers on a group of American soldiers who cross enemy lines to rescue a paratrooper whose siblings have been slain in battle, marked Steven Spielberg’s return to the emotional theme of World War II. The suspenseful movie, which also has Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, and Matt Damon in leading roles, was partially inspired by the Niland brothers, a group of four American brothers from New York who served in WWII but only two of them survived.
Spielberg previously explained why he keeps coming back to the issue, saying, “I think that World War II is the most crucial event of the last 100 years; the fate of the Baby Boomers and even Generation X was related to the conclusion. Beyond that, World War II has always piqued my curiosity. The Academy Award-winning war and action film Saving Private Ryan is usually acknowledged as a genre innovator and is credited with reviving public interest in World War II.
The 1993 historical film Schindler’s List, directed by the eminent Steven Spielberg, tells the story of the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who helped prevent the Holocaust by hiring more than a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees in his factories during World War II. Alongside the talented Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, Liam Neeson gives the performance of a lifetime as Schindler.
Spielberg was amazed and inspired by Schindler’s List, which made him wonder if he was mature enough to take on such a heartfelt film. I was drawn to it because of the paradoxical aspect, he remarked. What would prompt a guy of this caliber to suddenly spend everything he has amassed to save their lives? Famously, the director declined payment for the drama, referring to it as “blood money.” In addition to earning more than $300 million, Schindler’s List also received widespread acclaim and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
The Bridge on the River Kwai, a 1957 epic war drama widely regarded as one of the best movies ever made and based on the Pierre Boulle novel of the same name, tells the harrowing tale of a group of British POWs who are made to build the Burma Railway by the Japanese while being completely unaware that their allies are planning a perilous mission to destroy it. The gripping film, which stars actors like William Holden and Alec Guinness, tells the dramatized story of how the railway bridge was actually built, with more than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war being forced to labor against their will.
The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “There can be no doubt of this searching, searing picture’s brilliance; no doubt that here is the finest, and very likely the most honest, anti-war film ever made.” The Bridge on the River Kwai won a record-breaking seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The critically acclaimed drama was ranked number 13 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American movies ever.
The Dirty Dozen
war movie from 1967 by Robert Aldrich The “Filthy Thirteen,” a real-life WWII regiment of demolition experts from the 101st Airborne Division, served as the inspiration for E.M. Nathanson’s 1965 best-seller The Dirty Dozen. The ensemble films star Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Sutherland in addition to Lee Marvin. It centers on a disobedient U.S. Army Major who is tasked with mentoring a group of twelve convicted killers before sending them on a mission to kill many German commanders.
Many of the cast members, notably Bronson (US Army Air Forces) and Borgnine, participated in World War II. The New York Daily News noted that The Dirty Dozen is “a heavenly reprieve from the strain of grisly facts and awful realities of war, waged by a scant handful of American on foreign land.” The film was favorably received by critics and moviegoers.
The Great Escape
AKA “The King of Cool” The Great Escape, a suspenseful 1963 epic war adventure starring James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and Steve McQueen, follows a group of German POWs who are determined to not only escape their captivity but also to fight back against Nazi forces and entice them out of battle in order to look for other fugitives on the run. In his role as American Captain Virgil Hilts, played by McQueen, the Allies successfully outwit their captors and construct a tunnel that helps them to escape the maximum-security prison camp.
The movie, which was adapted from Paul Brickhall’s book about his actual experiences during an attempt to flee the German POW camp Stalag Luft III, was a huge hit with both critics and viewers, and McQueen’s performance received a lot of praise. One of the most famous motorcycle chases and dramatic jump scenes in movie history are included in The Great Escape, performed by the renowned Steve McQueen.
The Holocaust memoir of Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Wadoslaw Szpilman served as the inspiration for Roman Polanski’s biographical war drama The Pianist, which was released in 2002. Szpilman’s memoir details his struggles to survive the Warsaw ghetto’s destruction during World War II. Polanski has a close connection to the moving film because after his mother passed away, he fled the Kraków Ghetto and ended up staying in a Polish farmer’s barn until the war was over.
Adrien Brody, an incredibly talented actor, portrays Szpilman with poignancy. He did this by ending his relationship with his girlfriend, selling his house and car, and relocating to Europe in order to prepare for the Oscar-winning role. The actor adopted a systematic way to fully comprehend the man who had lost everything, losing 30 pounds to tragically portray the musician who had spent two years hiding out in the Warsaw ghetto.
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