It hardly needs be said that World War II has been a cinematic goldmine pretty much since it started. A terrifyingly huge and barbarically violent industrial conflict on a scale never seen before or since, it also had (at least on one front) distinct goodies and baddies – a combination that has made it utterly irresistible to countless filmmakers. With Christopher Nolan’s new epic Dunkirk set for imminent release, it’s a perfect time to revisit the best of the best in this packed-out genre.
10. The Great Escape (1963)
Utterly iconic, The Great Escape’s theme tune almost earns the film a spot on this list all by itself – but there is so much more to the Steve McQueen-starring classic. It’s incredibly funny and hugely entertaining, without shying away from the cruelty of being held as a prisoner of war. An all-star cast bring this true story to vibrant life. Though endlessly parodied, it remains a thrilling adventure over 50 years after its release.
9. Schindler’s List (1993)
The definitive English-language Holocaust movie, Spielberg’s black-and-white take on the incomprehensible horrors of the concentration camps remains a high-water mark in the careers of all involved. Not only is it visually and tonally masterful (it’s simply amazing that Spielberg released this and Jurassic Park in the same year), but Liam Neeson is deeply moving as Schindler and Ralph Fiennes makes for one of the screen’s great villains as Amon Goeth. Somehow the only Spielberg film to win Best Picture, it’s a piece that’s impossible to shake from your memory.
8. Das Boot (1981)
World War II films are generally grand, sweeping affairs, but Wolfgang Petersen’s miniseries-turned-film is so brilliant because it keeps everything so small. We’re confined to the same tiny space as the ever more broken and harried crew of the U-96 in one of the great exercises in cinematic claustrophobia, alternating between the mind-bending fear and tedium of being stuck on a submarine. The sound work is flawless, and there are few noises as immediately frightening on film as that of the sub’s steel bending and creaking under the immense pressure of the deep sea.
7. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
One of the finest films from one of the world’s finest animation studios, Grave of the Fireflies is Studio Ghibli’s most devastating story. Set in Japan at the tail end of the war, its deep tragedy is amplified by the knowledge that the dreadful firebombing of Kobe that sets the film in motion is not even the most diabolical punishment that the civilians of Japan will have to suffer before the war closes. Its bleakness is pretty relentless, and anyone mistaking it for a fun family cartoon is going to find themselves in floods of confused tears, but in its darkness it also finds beauty. For western audiences, Grave of the Fireflies is a vital look at how an ostensible enemy suffers, survives, grieves, and dies just as we do; particularly given the regular treatment of the Japanese army in film as a rabid, inhuman force of kamikaze nature.
6. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Terrence Malick made audiences wait two decades for his followup to Days of Heaven, and his typically dreamlike take on the Battle of Guadalcanal was absolutely worth it. There’s no glamour to the war here. It does nothing but ruin the natural beauty of the island, and men die slowly and humiliatingly. Exceptionally well shot and scored, The Thin Red Line is mesmerising, and though Malick’s trademark tics might leave some frustrated, his uncompromising style makes for a truly unique, transporting and profound war film. In focusing so intently on the impact of war on the natural world, Malick emphasises just how patently absurd mankind’s urge for combat really is. The elusive director’s recent output has been nothing short of embarrassing, but The Thin Red Line earns him an all-time great slot regardless of any Knight of Cups or Song to Song.
5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Easily the most popular film on this list, Saving Private Ryan’s opening 20 minutes redefined onscreen combat. Terrifying, visceral, and immediate, Spielberg stages the Normandy landing with a verve and confidence that very, very few other directors can muster. From the second we find ourselves on the landing boat, we’re in constant motion, only allowed to catch our breath when the carnage briefly overwhelms Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller. As always with Spielberg, the cast is flawless, made up mostly of very capable character actors who keep things completely engaging even when the bullets aren’t flying. Though Ryan may not be able to recapture the bone-shaking perfection of its beginning, it’s all just fantastic. It also led to Spielberg and Hanks creating Band of Brothers, the unassailable pinnacle of WWII on screen.
4. Casablanca (1942)
What is there to say about Casablanca that hasn’t already been said? As the quintessential American movie of the ‘40s, nearly every line and moment is immortal: oft imitated but so rarely, if ever, bettered. Made right in the middle of the war itself, Casablanca was rushed to release after the Allied invasion of North Africa had made its Moroccan setting as timely as possible. Yet it’s also a timeless film, superbly shot and acted, a story of romance and espionage set against the backdrop of modern history’s greatest villainy. What more could you possibly ask for?
3. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Set in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t cover any of the most active combat fronts of WWII, instead taking place in Franco’s Spain, as a ragged resistance attempt to outmanoeuvre the vile fascist Captain Vidal. An allegorical child’s-eye view of war, Pan’s Labyrinth is Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece, matching his unparalleled eye for grotesque fantasy visuals with a story and characters that feel dangerously real. As a magical horror it’s exceptional, with creatures like the Pale Man unbelievably haunting, but even a being with its eyes in its hands that eats fairies can’t match Captain Vidal. The scene in which he caves a rebel’s face in with a bottle is sickening, and the sight and sound of it burrows deep into your brain, bringing the barbarity of war down to an unforgettably personal level.
2. The Pianist (2002)
A survivor of the Holocaust, Roman Polanski crafted the finest film interpretation of humanity’s darkest hour: a biographical look at Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, from his final radio broadcast on the day of the German invasion to his eventual salvation as the Red Army liberates Warsaw, and taking in six years of unimaginable suffering and bravery in the interim. The film has come under fire from Szpilman’s family for its depiction of his playing piano for a Nazi officer, but Polanski implies no weakness on Szpilman’s part. He does what he must in order to survive, but more than that, his relationship with Wehrmacht officer Hosenfeld gives hope and light to his life where there should by all rights be none. Adrien Brody is phenomenal in the lead, as is Thomas Kretschmann as Hosenfeld, both as utterly gripping throughout as the action, which culminates in one of the most breathtakingly tense scenes ever filmed.
1. Come and See (1985)
In many ways the polar opposite to Pan’s Labyrinth, Come And See is an unflinchingly real look at a child’s experience of war. The Soviet Union suffered losses on a greater scale than any other participant in the Second World War, and that brutalisation found its artistic outlet in Elem Klimov’s near-unwatchable tale of a Belarusian boy joining the Soviet resistance against the Nazis. The war ages him by decades and turns everyone around him into animals, driven by nothing more than either the will to violently dominate or the desire to survive for another minute. Life as we understand it does not, and cannot, carry on in this context, reduced as it is to base instincts and ugliness. Come and See is, in its bizarre and soul-scouring way, too powerful to wring tears from you, instead leaving a blank space deep within. The film’s title is taken from the Book of Revelation, about Hell being brought to Earth. But Klimov shows that we don’t need angels and demons and gods to do that for us, when we’re so willing and able to do it ourselves.