The Best World War II Movies – 20 Best War Films

Movies about World War II, like any war cinema, can be divided into two types. The first group includes battle pictures, which center around warfare or the course of individual battles. The second type, on the other hand, are complex dramas, revealing various human attitudes towards war and the stigma it imprints on the human psyche.

A war film is a genre that focuses on the fictional portrayal of military action or the impact of armed conflict on the human psyche. In a broader sense, the category of war film includes any production of this type, with no time limitation on the action, so, for example, productions telling the story of medieval wars can be included here. Most often, however, this genre is attributed to works telling the story of modern conflicts, starting with the First World War (See The Best World War I Movies).

Thus, the beginning of the war film is usually considered to be propaganda works produced between 1914 and 1918, whose role was to maintain the spirit of soldiers on the fronts. Analyses of the consequences of the Great War began to appear in the 1920s and 1930s by directors such as King Vidor, Georg Wilhelm Pabst and Jean Renoir, for example. At that time, a clear division within the genre was formed between battle productions (including those celebrating the valor of heroes, sailors, soldiers, etc.) and war dramas.

The Best World War II Movies

1. “Paisa” (1946)

the best world war II movies - Paisa

Roberto Rossellini’s “Paisa” is an outstanding war movie made in the spirit of Italian neorealism. The picture shows the liberation of Italy by Allied forces. The title itself comes from the phrase the Americans used to refer to the Italians – “paisa”. It derives from the term “paesano”, which means as much as “villager”. Rossellini portrays the war as a total devastation also in a metaphorical sense, involving culture and the human psyche. The film is a loose juxtaposition of six different stories, and the actors are largely naturists.

2. “Stalag 17” (1953)

the best world war 2 films - stalag 17

“Stalag 17” is a war film set in a German POW camp located on the Danube River. One of the soldiers staying there, Sergeant Sefton (played by William Holden) attracts attention with his cleverness and business vein. For this reason, he is suspected by his fellow captives of collaborating with the Germans. However, when one of the captives who managed to escape is quickly located by the Nazis, Setfon’s situation becomes serious. The man is accused of collaborating with the enemy, and if he wants to avoid a lynching, he must find the informer himself. William Holden was awarded an Oscar for his role.

3. “Kanal” (1956)

the best war movies - Kanal

Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” is one of the most important Polish war movies, created in the wave of the post-Stalin Thaw. The work is considered the beginning of the Polish Film School. Wajda’s picture is based on a short story by Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, and depicts the tragic experiences of young people taking part in the Warsaw Uprising. One of the Home Army units has to get through the sewers to the city center. The film starred Tadeusz Janczar, Emil Karewicz and Wieńczysław Gliński, among others. “Kanal” won the Silver Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

4. “Eroica” (1957)

the best war films - Eroica

Munk’s “Eroica” is another relevant Polish war movie, based, like Wajda’s “Kanal”, on Stawinski’s prose (see Polish War Movies – 20 Best Polish War Films). What’s more, it clearly refers to Wajda’s work. The film depicts two episodes from the Warsaw Uprising: the cooperation of a Polish and Hungarian troop of soldiers and the stay of Polish officers in German captivity. The main character of the first part is Dzidziuś Górkiewicz (played by Edward Dziewoński), an average soldier who is faced with difficult dilemmas: whether to bet on his own survival and interests or defend to the end a lost cause. A similar role in the second part is played by the character of Second Lieutenant Turek (Kazimierz Rudzki), who reassures fellow prisoners of the veracity of Lieutenant Zawistowski’s (Tadeusz Łomnicki) legendary escape from the camp. The film challenges the myth of Polish heroism and shows its various dimensions.

5. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)

the best world war II movies of all time - the Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai”, winner of seven Oscars and three Golden Globes, is one of the most famous movies about World War II. David Lean’s work is set in Burma, in a Japanese camp for British prisoners of war. At the behest of the Japanese, Allied soldiers are to build a railroad bridge over the River Kwai to connect the Bangkok – Rangoon route and speed up supplies for the Japanese army. Initially reluctant to embark on the venture, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness) begins to treat the order in terms of ambition: The British are to demonstrate the superiority of Western technological thought over Asian. Meanwhile, Commander Shears (William Holden), who escaped from the camp, becomes the guide of an American squad preparing to destroy the bridge.

6. “Fires on the Plane” (“Nobi”, 1959)

the best world war II films of all time - Fires on the Plane

“Fires on the Plane” is a Japanese war film based on the novel by Shoohei Ooka. The work is set at the end of World War II, in 1945 in the Philippines. The main character is Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), a Japanese private soldier who suffers from tuberculosis due to malnutrition. In extreme emotion, he distances himself from his regiment. However, no one is willing to help him: the doctors are busy dressing the wounded and the shattered units of fellow soldiers are trying with their last strength to survive in the jungle. There is a growing dehumanization in the army. The film has a pacifist message.

7. “Ballad of Soldier” (“Ballada o soldate”, 1959)

the best WW II movies - Ballad of Soldier

The “Ballad of Soldier” Chukhrai is a Russian war film awarded with a BAFTA statuette. The main character of the picture is a Soviet soldier Alyosha (played by Vladimir Ivashov), who gets a pass as a reward for his heroic fight at the front. Thus, he can visit his mother, who lives in the countryside. The road through the war-ravaged country brings more and more surprises. The film is a moving, poetic manifesto of faith in humanistic values, which cannot be destroyed even by the cataclysm of war.

8. “The Bridge” (“Die Brucke”, 1959)

The best WW II films - The Bridge

“The Bridge” is a German war movie directed by Bernhard Wicki. The picture shows the fate of eight teenagers who are forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht at the end of World War II. The boys are assigned to defend a bridge against the approaching Allies. The young soldiers fight willingly at the risk of their lives and are killed one by one. Once only one of them is left alive, the order comes to blow up the bridge. The film won a Golden Globe in 1960.

9. “The Dirty Dozen” (1967)

20 best world war II movies - the Dirty Dozen

“The Dirty Dozen” is a battle film set during World War II. The twelve of the title are a squad made up of convicts who have had their sentences commuted to an extremely dangerous military mission: the liquidation of German commanders barricaded in a castle. Major John Reisman (played by Lee Marvin) is responsible for training and directing the action. In addition, the film starred Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, John Cassavetes and Donald Sutherland. “The Dirty Dozen” won an Oscar for best sound effects.

10. “Patton” (1970)

20 best world war II films - Patton

“Patton” is a seven Academy Award-winning American war film about General George Patton. The picture depicts the outstanding figure of the military commander, who became famous for his uncompromising and courageous fighting on several fronts of World War II. Patton also enjoyed great authority among soldiers. The lead role was played by George C. Scott, who received an American Academy Award for his performance.

11. “A Bridge Too Far”, 1977

WW2 movies - a Bridge Too Far

Richard Attenborough’s “A Bridge Too Far” is a war movie depicting the Allies’ implementation of Operation Market Garden. It assumed the capture of all strategic bridges on the road to Berlin. The author of the plan was General Montgomery. The film depicts the reasons for the final defeat of the operation, which could have ended World War II in 1944. The picture has a good cast, including Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Robert Redford, Liv Ullmann or Edward Fox.

12. “Das Boot” (1981)

List of WW2 movies - Das Boot

Petersen’s “Das Boot” is a classic war movie. It tells the story of the mission of one of the German submarines engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. The film portrays men who must face the test of their own courage in the face of a deadly military threat, but also the claustrophobic space, isolation from the world and the element of water. “Das Boot” has earned nominations for a number of prestigious awards, including the Oscars and the Golden Globes.

13. “Saving Private Ryan”, 1998

Best WW2 movies - Saving Private Ryan

“Saving Private Ryan” is a high-profile film set during World War II. The title character (played by Matt Damon) is the only survivor of four brothers sent to war. When information about his disappearance reaches the command, a special squad is formed to find the soldier. At the head of the dangerous operation in Normandy is Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks). Spielberg’s movie was showered with awards: five Oscars, two Golden Globes or two BAFTA statuettes.

14. “The Thin Red Line”, 1998

World War 2 film - the Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line” is a Golden Bear-winning war film by Terrence Malick, among others. The picture is based on the novel by James Jones. A detachment of American soldiers arrives at the island of Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands archipelago, to seize it from the Japanese. However, contrary to expectations, the Japanese put up stiff resistance, and instead of an easy victory, the Allies must fight for survival. The movie has a fine cast, starring Nick Nolte, James Caviezel and Sean Penn, among others.

15. “When Trumpets Fade”, 1998

top ww2 movies - When Trumpets Fade

“When Trumpets Fade” by John Irvin tells the story of one of the bloodiest battles in World War II history, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in 1944. The main character of the film is Private David Manning (Ron Eldard), who miraculously escapes the clash with the enemy – as the only one of his unit. From Captain Pritchett (Martin Donovan) he receives a promise of discharge from service, but first he must himself, as commander of an inexperienced unit, lead the men into the attack and capture a German cannon.

16. “Letters from Iwo Jima”, 2006

top ww2 films - Letters from Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” is a moving film about the battle for Iwo Jima, which took place in 1945. Interestingly, Eastwood showed the event from the perspective of the Japanese defending the island, who had disproportionately smaller forces: 22,000 soldiers faced more than a hundred thousand Americans. The main character in the film is General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe), a tragic commander who, in the face of obvious defeat, raises the spirits of his men and sets an example of heroism. The movie is a sequel to “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), in which Eastwood showed the same battle from the point of view of American soldiers. Both pictures were praised by critics and audiences.

17. “Band of Brothers”, 2001 – series

best World War II dramas - Band of Brothers

“Band of Brothers” is an American ten-episode miniseries set during World War II. The film was based on the true fate of Company E belonging to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States. The script was based on the book by Stephen Ambrose. The series shows the soldiers’ preparations for the Normandy mission and their actions during the mission until the fall of Hitler. Company of Brothers won six Emmy statuettes, as well as a Golden Globe.

18. “Downfall” (“Der Untergang”, 2004)

List of World War II films - Downfall movie

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall” is a German war movie showing the last weeks of the life of Adolf Hitler and his closest associates. The broken, ailing Furer hides with his entourage in specially prepared bunkers. He does not resemble the embodiment of evil, but appears to be an ordinary, lost man. The role of Hitler was played by Bruno Ganz, who created a rather ambiguous character, which divided critics and viewers on the final assessment of the message of Hirschbiegel’s film.

19. “Hacksaw Ridge”, 2016

the greatest world war II movies - Hacksaw Ridge

“Hacksaw Ridge” is one of Mel Gibson’s acclaimed films. The picture, set at the end of World War II, is based on the true story of Desmond Doss. The Americans are fighting a bloody battle for the island of Okinawa. One of the orderlies, for religious reasons, refuses to use weapons and decides, unarmed, to save his fellow soldiers during the fighting. The leading role in the movie was played by Andrew Garfield. Survivor’s Pass won two Oscars and one Bafta Award, among other awards.

20. “Dunkirk”, 2017

the best ww2 movies - Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a war film depicting the Allied evacuation from the French coast in 1940. The director depicts an infamous episode of World War II for the British, when under German pressure they had to withdraw their forces from continental Europe in panic and bury their belief in a quick victory. The film starred Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden and Mark Rylance. The film won three Academy Awards and one BAFTA Award, among other honors.

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