The Best Films Set During World War II

By: James Sheldon
American soldiers marching in France during World War II.
Movies set in ancient times are often great historical pieces. Archive Holdings Inc. / Getty Images

“War! Huh! Yeah. What is it good for…?” According to Edwin Starr, absolutely nothin’. But what about all those war glorification movies featuring the WWII era? FYI: The word glory is taken from the Latin root, gloria, and ultimately settles on this idea of weight or incredible substance. It’s easy to “glorify” the allied actions in WWII because the Axis powers were so obviously evil. And if there’s anything humanity loves, it’s a story of redemption from tragedy, even when written as a victor’s history. Here are 12 of the best films set during WWII.


20. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

The Dirty Dozen remains a definitive example of the quintessential, testosterone-laden movie made for the male psyche. It will tap into the wannabe warrior of anyone. The 1967 film features a group of military prisoners who are facing death sentences or years behind bars. These misfits and criminals are offered the opportunity to engage in a high-risk mission on the eve of D-Day. They’re led into enemy territory by one of cinema’s greatest tough guys, Lee Marvin.

Their mission: parachute into German territory and make life utter hell for the German officers responsible for a D-Day counterattack. Films using The Dirty Dozen formula are still popular today (Suicide Squad), and the film has survived the test of time. Regardless of lacking the benefit of technology. practical and VFX, the story sustains. The story is inspired by the real-life Filthy Thirteen.


19. Downfall (2004)

One of the finest biopics ever made addressing Adolf Hitler’s regime, here’s a brief look at Downfall. You have likely seen more than one parody using this film as source material (the angry Hitler meme videos). Some are, without a doubt, hilarious, but it’s easily understood why the filmmakers became incredibly annoyed at a certain point. It’s possibly one of the most important films offering insight into the mindset of Adolf Hitler as the world came crashing down around him.

The film is based on the journals and memoir of Traudl Junge, a secretary for Hitler during the final chapter of World War II and the downfall of the Third Reich. The intimate glimpse of the charismatic leader, crumbling toward certain death—regardless of military defeat—is a staggering reminder that no power is wholly sustainable. The film also spotlights the final days of the Nazi elite, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler.


18. The Pianist (2002)

In The Pianist, Adrien Brody enjoyed an Oscar-winning turn as Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. The story was based on Szpilman’s book, which was published shortly after WWII, but kept off the shelves for years due to the ruling Communist regime following the war. It offered perspective outside the “official” war story. The film chronicles the life and survival of Szpilman in German-occupied Poland, beginning in 1939. As Szpilman’s family and friends are rounded up and shipped off to Nazi labor and death camps, he escaped and hid in the shelled ruins of Warsaw for years.

Roman Polanski did a knockout job calling the shots on this slice of non-fiction horror. He offers no opportunity to look away. The look, tonality, and pacing of the film are bleak, yet allow for Adrien Brody to shine as a spark throughout the enveloping darkness.


17. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun is one of two Steven Spielberg-directed films on this list, and for many fans, far from his masterful Schindler’s List, which is not on this particular list. There is no denying the mastery of Schindler’s List, and here is our most honorable mention, but it also serves as a WWII go-to, while a film like Empire of The Sun consistently falls through the cracks. The film offers an incredibly unique perspective on WWII outside of the European campaign.

Set in Japanese-occupied China, Christian Bale plays James (Jim) Graham, who is separated from his parents in Shanghai. After surviving on his own for some time, he is captured and sent to a confinement camp where he becomes one of the most popular prisoners. The film is loosely based on the life and times of British author J.G. Ballard.


16. Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Enemy at the Gates is a film based on a true story about the five-month battle over the city of Stalingrad. Based on William Craig’s 1973 nonfiction book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, which describes the events surrounding the titular battle in the winter of 1942 and 1943. Hitler believes his German army is invincible, while Stalin wants to save the city which bears his name.

The film’s main character is a fictionalized version of sniper Vasily Zaytsev, a Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II. Enemy at the Gates includes a climactic snipers’ duel between Zaitsev and a Wehrmacht sniper school director, Major Erwin König. While the film is certainly not perfect, it’s an entertaining take on the events surrounding a historic battle.


15. Casablanca (1942)

Set during World War II, Casablanca focuses on an American expatriate who must choose between his love for a woman and helping her and her husband, a Czech Resistance leader, escape from the Vichy-controlled city of Casablanca to continue his fight against the Nazis. Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic begins with a male narrator explaining that right before World War II, refugees from Occupied Europe were desperate to escape to America. However, the common point of exit was Lisbon, and there was often no easy way to get there, so many made the perilous journey to Casablanca, in Morocco (Unoccupied France) where people would do anything in their power to procure exit visas to make their way out.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid and an ensemble cast of  Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Dooley Wilson. Casablanca won several Academy Awards including Best Picture and consistently ranks near the top of lists of the greatest films in history.


14. Fury (2014)

Fury is a 2014 World War II film written and directed by David Ayer, and starring a talented cast of Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Jason Isaacs. The film is set in 1945 as the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre. A battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank and her five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered and outgunned, with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

Sounds exciting right? It’s an adrenaline-filled ride through Nazi Germany during the final days of World War II. Fury was a success at the box office as well as with critics, with praise being given for the acting performances and raw depictions of the horrors of war.


13. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies is a 1988 Japanese animated film based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. Set in the city of Kobe, Japan, the film tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to survive during the final months of the Second World War. After an American firebombing separates the children from their parents, teenager Seita is charged with taking care of his four-year-old sister Setsuko.

This charming film features a heartwrenching story that is brought to life by the masters of animation at Studio Ghibli. The film received near-universal acclaim, with Roger Ebert calling it one of the best and most powerful war films and in 2000, included it on his list of great films.


12. Life Is Beautiful (1997)

The 1997 Italian comedic-drama Life Is Beautiful stars Roberto Benigni in the lead role as Guido Orefice, a Jewish Italian bookshop owner, who employs his eccentric personality to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp. The film was partially inspired by the book, In the End, I Beat Hitler by Rubino Romeo Salmonì and by Benigni’s father, who spent two years in a German labor camp during World War II.

Life Is Beautiful is a heartwarming story of love, courage, optimism, and inner strength in the face of horrific circumstances. The film was well received by critics and was also a financial success, despite criticisms of using the subject matter for comedic purposes. It won the Grand Prix at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival as well as three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Benigni.


11. The Guns of Navarone (1961)

Based on the 1957 novel of the same name, The Guns of Navarone is 1961 British-American World War II film directed by J. Lee Thompson. Inspired by the Battle of Leros during the Dodecanese Campaign of World War II, this spectacular film stars Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn, along with Stanley Baker, Anthony Quayle, Irene Papas, Gia Scala and James Darren in supporting roles. The film’s central plot revolves around the efforts of an Allied commando unit to destroy a seemingly impregnable German fortress on the Greek Island of Navarone that threatens Allied naval ships in the Aegean Sea.

This exciting action-adventure features some wonderful performances and an epic game of cat and mouse between the Nazis and the band of saboteurs charged with infiltrating their massive fortress. The film was a huge success grossing $29 million at the global box office on a budget of $6 million which was pretty hefty for the time.

10. Dunkirk (2017)

Acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan takes the reigns in this World War II thriller about the evacuation of Allied troops from the French city of Dunkirk before Nazi forces can take hold. Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Mark Rylance co-star, with longtime Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer providing the all-important score. Released in 2017, Dunkirk is unique in that it portrays the evacuation from three perspectives: land, sea, and air. It features very little dialogue, as Nolan sought instead to create suspense from cinematography and music with the aid of Zimmer’s expertise.

A powerful and stunning film, Dunkirk would go on to receive eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. The film received glowing reviews from critics with praise being given for the film’s screenplay, direction, musical score, and cinematography. Some critics have called Dunkirk Nolan’s best film to date and one of the best war films ever made.

9. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

How about some pure historical fiction on this list? Quentin Tarantino took from a lot of non-fiction source material to piece together another quality offering. Inglorious Basterds features classic Tarantino narrative, which is often disjointed, yet eventually fits together to offer great satisfaction. Brad Pitt leads a team of Jewish-American soldiers as a war party in the European campaign, hell-bent on finding Nazi soldiers and torturing them before killing them.

Using the winning formulas from films such as The Dirty Dozen, and the original (yet completely different) The Inglorious Bastards (1978), Quentin goes over-the-top in creating a lovable, yet disgusting villain, Col. Hans Landa (and consequently handing Christoph Waltz Hollywood superstardom). All the story elements come together in bloodlust fashion when the Basterds are able to deliver what accepted history never could: a violent end to the madman known as Adolf Hitler.

8. The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape is three hours well spent. That may sound like a real grind for a film made in 1963, but every minute is needed to present the plan, the plants, the execution and the payoff. And it does pay off. The film, starring screen legends Steve McQueen and James Garner, holds up with relative beauty, and the story is near impossible to beat. Take a group of WWII POWs and tell them they’re in an inescapable camp, and what’s going to happen? Challenge accepted.

The chemistry between the cast members in this film would make any 2016 director envious. The actors enjoyed an immediate rapport and competitiveness that translated to the screen. There is a tremendous amount of comedy in the first two acts of the film, and the third really delivers on the action and adventure front—a film that offers a little something to everyone.

7. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

It’s hard to mention Letters From Iwo Jima without addressing Flags of Our Fathers. The two films tell the same story from opposing perspectives. Clint Eastwood offered a consistent tonality to the world he created in both of these films and did an honorable job telling the stories of soldiers on both sides of the line within the Pacific campaign. There was something very special about Letters From Iwo Jima as it offered a humanity to the enemy that had never been captured well in a film before it.

It’s tough to point fingers at the young men who fought the wars of dictatorial rulers, especially when these individuals were born into honor-shame cultures. In such an environment, patriotism and nationalism go hand-in-hand with existence. And how could Eastwood go wrong casting Ken Watanabe as the commanding General Kuribayashi? That guy can do anything.

6. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

You have to appreciate these films that were in production within a decade of WWII’s end. The Bridge on the River Kwai was all George Lucas needed to see to know Alec Guinness was his man for Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. When it came to commanding attention while on screen, Guinness was a gift to audience members. In Bridge on the River Kwai Guinness plays Colonel Nicholson, a British POW in a Japanese prisoner camp, who is commanded to lead his fellow prisoners to build a railroad bridge over a nearby river to service the Burma-Siam railroad.

Possessing no control over opposing forces, Nicholson defies his first instinct to sabotage the project and takes great pride in the construction of the bridge. The bridge becomes an obsession, and unbeknownst to the Colonel—and the prisoners under his command—an Allied mission to destroy the bridge is well underway.

5. Come and See (1985)

So much Russian cinema was lost, and/or ignored by American audiences due to the Cold War, and the general disdain for the Soviet Union. Come and See, or Idi I Smotri, which literally translates to “Go and Look,” was a mid-1980s cinematic masterpiece offered by Elim Klimov. The story follows a 13-year-old Belarusian boy who finds an old rifle, takes up the armament and embarks in the fight against invading German forces.

This film is by far the most obscure (to most) on this list, though it would be argued by WWII historians to be one of, if not the greatest. If you thought Saving Private Ryan advanced storytelling in regards to showing the horrors of war, Come and See did the same over a decade earlier. Using a child in the throes of battle to suggest the evils of war is a powerful cinematic device.

4. Schindler’s List (1993)

Released in 1993, Schindler’s List is simply one of the greatest films of all time. The film won Best Picture as well as six more Oscars at the 66th Academy Awards, after all. Steven Spielberg’s fantastic film about the real-life Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of over 1,000 Polish Jews during the Holocaust by giving them jobs in his factories, is a heartbreaking, yet inspiring film.

Originally motivated by greed, Schindler is deeply affected after witnessing several Nazi atrocities. Despite being a wealthy and influential member of the Nazi Party, Schindler secretly makes plans to save as many lives as he can, blowing his entire fortune in the process. The movie is powerful and emotional, but also a stark reminder of the unspeakable evils that existed not even a century ago. In the end, Schindler is still left feeling incredibly ashamed of his actions, wishing he could have done more.

3. Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Petersen outdid himself out with this filmmaking effort. Regarding the subject matter and the source material, he executed a most perfect cinematic experience. There are those WWII films that you watch and say “wow,” and then there are those WWII films that you watch and your stomach turns. Offering the human perspective to an enemy is such an ambitious undertaking, and then to take that element and stick them in a steel tube underneath the ocean surface…? This film is a mental grind.

For those unfamiliar, Das Boot is the story of a particular German U-Boat crew who are put to the test daily with demanding, daring and near impossible missions trickling down from superiors, all the while dealing with the fact that they’re nothing more than expendable resources of the Third Reich. The tagline is perfection: “40,000 men were sent out on German U-boats… 30,000 never returned.”

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

1998 was a great year for WWII flicks. Two very different films were masterfully presented to great popularity while offering two very different perspectives, styles, and tonalities. The first belonged to Steven Spielberg, who was awarded an Oscar for Best Director on Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg loves WWII storylines. The WWII classics developed and released during his formative years were responsible for his love of filmmaking, in addition to his father being a WWII veteran. Saving Private Ryan remains one of his finest career achievements.

Spielberg broke cinematic ground in the process, implementing new techniques into contemporary cinematography, and though uncredited, he served to plant the seed for the war-based FPS video games that began with the first Medal of Honor. The film also gave birth to the idea that Band of Brothers could be executed. Saving Private Ryan will easily stand the test of time.

1. The Thin Red Line (1998)

For anyone who has been to film school, or studied filmmaking, the first things they’ll teach you when you sit down in the classroom: film is a visual art. If you can expertly tell a story without using words, you’re working to advance the art of filmmaking. That’s Terrence Malick. With The Thin Red Line, Malick left behind the WWII European campaign and focused in on the Pacific and Guadalcanal. Told through disjointed personal stories and visual poetry, the film offers a glimpse into the hearts, minds, and souls of the soldiers.

Thoughts, aspirations, loyalty, fears, doubts and ultimately, courage: it is all on display. For most, Terrence Malick films are an acquired taste, and some remain quite experimental; however, The Thin Red Line offers one of the finest cinematic payoffs in history. And the Hans Zimmer score…combined with the Melanesian choirs? Incredible.