20 Best WWII Movies, Ranked

Best WWII Movies Almost a century after the Second World War took millions of lives and forever changed the geopolitical face of the planet, cinema still tries to capture the emotion and devastation from the era so that none are forgotten. Writers and directors have taken script and camera to recreate battlefields and bring historical leaders to modern eyes through some of the best WW2 movies.

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They have reimagined the hardships of daily life, the horrors of the concentration camps, and the tragically short lives of so many soldiers who never made it home. In eight decades of film, there are some of the best World War 2 movies to ever grace the silver screen in homage to the victors and victims of World War II.

20 ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (1982)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Image Via Universal

Set after the war in 1947, Stingo (Peter MacNicol) meets Sophie (Meryl Streep), a Polish immigrant living with her husband Nathan (Kevin Kline) in the apartment above him. Sophie’s Choice follows the two as the protagonist tells her story of survival in Nazi-occupied Europe. Her choice, of which of her children will be killed in an Auschwitz gas chamber, has taken a severe psychological toll that she cannot heal from.

Streep’s award-winning performance depicts the trauma facing Holocaust survivors and the life-or-death decisions made to survive. Sophie’s Choice posits those decisions to an audience 40 years, and more removed from the horrors of the war and asked, if faced with the same circumstances, if they would do the same.

Watch on Peacock

19 ‘Dunkirk’ (2017)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk' rates pretty highly in terms of historical accuracy
Image via Warner Bros

Christopher Nolan‘s Dunkirk transports viewers to the beaches of the titular location, where the messy evacuation of the British and Allied soldiers is taking place. Separated into three different settings – land, sea, and air – the film follows the characters’ struggle to survive on the beach, on a boat, and in a fighter plane.

Nolan’s ambitious WWII movie uses little dialogue, relying instead on cinematography and suspense to propel the story forward. Audiences are purposely made to feel disoriented, shocked, and confused, just like the film’s characters. While these techniques don’t always pay off, there are enough stunning moments throughout that make the dizzying movie worth watching.

Dunkirk

Release DateJuly 19, 2017

Runtime107

18 ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ & ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ (2006)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Letters From Iwo Jima - 2006

Clint Eastwood‘s couplet of war films details the Battle of Iwo Jima from the American and Japanese perspectives in two companion pieces. Flags of Our Fathers is told from the American point of view and follows the siege of Iwo Jima and eventual victory by American forces, focusing on those marines who raised an American flag in an iconic moment in history memorialized several times over. Letters from Iwo Jima, in turn, follow the desperate attempts by Japanese forces to hold their ground amidst both calls to retreat and their orders; to succeed or die trying.

While both were filmed and produced by American production houses, Letters from Iwo Jima stands out from many Hollywood films for being scripted in Japanese and casting Japanese actors for a rare strike of authenticity. The couplet shows the heroes and victims of both sides and is one of many pyrrhic victories for the American military.

Letters from Iwo Jima

Release DateDecember 19, 2006

CastKen Watanabe , Kazunari Ninomiya , Tsuyoshi Ihara , Ryo Kase , Shido Nakamura , Hiroshi Watanabe

Runtime141

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17 ‘Jojo Rabbit’ (2019)

Director: Taika Waititi

taika-waititi-roman-griffin-davies-jojo-rabbit-2019
Image via Searchlight Pictures

Directed by Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit is a satirical film with a wholly unique perspective of the events of WWII. Set during the final years of the war in Germany, the film follows ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is a dedicated member of the Hitler Youth. His beliefs are challenged when he learns that his mom (played by Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl in their house.

The thought-provoking film is full of dark humor, which it uses to comment on war and prejudice. Carefully toeing the line between comedy and tragedy, Jojo Rabbit is an unconventional movie that successfully raises crucial questions about innocence, the horrors of war, and empathy.

16 ‘The Sound of Music’ (1965)

Director: Robert Wise

Sound of Music, Julie Andrews

At the onset of the annexation of Austria in 1938, The Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews as Maria and Christopher Plummer as Georg von Trapp. The award-winning musical follows Maria, the new governess of the von Trapp family. Bringing adventure and excitement into the lives of the seven children otherwise raised with militaristic strictness, The Sound of Music is a classic love story against the backdrop of looming catastrophe.

The film is mainly detached from the war itself until the von Trapps are forced to flee Austria overnight to escape Georg’s commission with the German Navy. In a solemn and empowering show of quiet protest, the family sings “Edelweiss,” a song about the Austrian national flower, at the Salzburg Festival before Brownshirts try to take them in.

15 ‘The Great Escape’ (1963)

Director: John Sturges

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Image via United Artists

A heavily fictionalized depiction of the bravery and strength of prisoners of war, The Great Escape follows British POW’s real-life escape from camp Stalag Luft III in Germany. The film chronicles the teamwork and commitment of dozens of POWs’ ingenious attempts to keep the camp’s guards unaware of escape tunnels being dug beneath their feet. Praised also for its score and its stunts, including Steve McQueen‘s iconic motorcycle jump.

Much more of an action romp than a brutal snapshot of war, The Great Escape stays true to a few historical accuracies in the number and nationalities of those involved. It doesn’t shy away from the casualties sacrificed so the real-life soldiers could make it to freedom. It’s also just an epic adventure film that relies on McQueen’s star power from start to finish.

The Great Escape

Release DateJune 20, 1963

DirectorJohn Sturges

Runtime172

14 ‘Downfall’ (2004)

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Downfall, Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz)

A German-Austrian-Italian cooperative, Downfall depicts the final weeks of WWII in Germany from Adolf Hitler’s point of view. The film’s director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, and the production team sought to be as realistic and historically accurate as possible to ensure that this piece of history would not be forgotten.

Downfall does not make a one-note caricature of Hitler and the movie is based on real events as recounted by primary and secondary sources who were with him during his final days, such as Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by historian Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour by Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge. Hitler goes from a seemingly immutable historical figure to a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood person. This decision is still met with controversy. Critically, Downfall is a poignant retrospective that closes the gap between the “monster” anyone could succumb to being.

Downfalll

Release DateSeptember 8, 2004

DirectorOliver Hirschbiegel

CastBruno Ganz , Alexandra Maria Lara , Corinna Harfouch , Ulrich Matthes , Juliane Köhler , Heino Ferch

Runtime150

13 ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)

Director: Terrence Malick

The Thin Red Line’ (1998) (1)

Telling a fictionalized version of the Battle of Mount Austen, which took place during the Second World War, The Thin Red Line follows C Company, a group of soldiers led by Captain John Gaff (John Cusack), and their grueling campaign against the Japanese forces. Amidst the chaos of battle, the characters confront their own fears, doubts, and moral dilemmas. The thoughtful Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), for instance, finds solace in the beauty of nature despite the brutality around them. Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), a hardened veteran, talks about how he has lost his faith in what it means to fight the war.

The Thin Red Line marked Terrence Malick‘s return to the industry after a 20-year-long break, and what a comeback it was. One of Terrence Malick’s best movies, it’s an incredibly introspective war film that sees its brave soldiers as vulnerable individuals who deal with the horrors around them in their own unique ways. Its murky message is lost in its own messiness, which seems appropriate for the complicated story anyway.

The Thin Red Line

Release DateJanuary 15, 1999

DirectorTerrence Malick

Runtime170 minutes

12 ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

The cast of Inglourious Basterds
Image via The Weinstein Company

A WWII revenge fantasy unlike any other, director Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds is centered on a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who plan to wreak havoc among the very top Nazi officials. Alongside their storyline is Shosanna Dreyfus’ (Mélanie Laurent) own murderous plot, as the French-Jewish cinema owner wants payback for a war crime against her family.

Tarantino fans need no introduction to this film, and it showcases the director’s most famous trademarks. From sharp dialogue and unexpected twists to dark humor and over-the-top violence, Inglourious Basterds has it all. For fans of darkly comedic revisionist movies done right, the 2009 film is a must-see.

11 ‘The Human Condition’ Film Series (1959 – 1961)

Director: Masaki Kobayashi

A couple looking across an empty battlefield
Image via Shochiku

Director Masaki Kobayashi‘s sprawling epic, The Human Condition, is made up of three war films, which all follow the life and experiences of the protagonist and pacifist, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai). Kaji has become disillusioned and questions common practices in World War II-era Japan, but soon becomes involved in the very atrocities he despises.

The criminally underrated movie trilogy chronicles the protagonist’s heartbreaking transformation from being an idealistic socialist into a jaded survivor. The Human Condition is a powerful film series that delves into the human cost of war in a sweeping and insightful way, highlighting the horrific loss individuals endured during the war on both an intimate and grand scale.

Watch on Criterion

10 ‘Das Boot’ (1981)

Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Das Boot (1981)

A widely acclaimed classic directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot is among the best submarine movies ever made. Delving into the deep and suffocating setting that is the inside of a German U-boat during the Second World War, the 1981 movie portrays the dangerous mission a crew of sailors goes on under the leadership of Captain Lehmann-Willenbrock (Jürgen Prochnow).

Known for its realistic portrayal of life inside a U-boat, the film uses meticulous attention to detail to accurately capture the routines, dangers, and rollercoasters of emotions the sailors go through before a perilous mission. The psychological impact of the gargantuan task on the characters is amplified by their confined setting, which leads to some truly intense exchanges throughout the film.

Watch on Fubo

9 ‘Oppenheimer’ (2023)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Robert Oppenheimer staring downwards pondering in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

Easily among director Christopher Nolan’s best works, Oppenheimer became a global phenomenon when it premiered alongside an unlikely partner film, Barbie. Cillian Murphy stars as the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in the 2023 epic biographical movie, which chronicles how the “father of the atomic bomb” led the Manhattan Project during World War II. This top-secret project would eventually result in the creation of nuclear weapons.

The award-winning blockbuster gives audiences a glimpse of the deeply personal story of a complicated man whose pursuit of scientific discovery led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. It’s a different kind of WW2 film that’s been hailed as an instant classic thanks to Nolan’s brilliant direction, bringing Oppenheimer’s story to the big screen in an epic way.

Oppenheimer

Release DateJuly 21, 2023

Runtime180 minutes

8 ‘Casablanca’ (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

A film actually produced during the war, Casablanca, offers a unique and poignant perspective. With a multinational cast, many of whom were refugees from the fighting in Europe, actors were able to bring their real-life struggles and experiences to the script in a story that endures as one of the best films of all time (with one of the best last lines in cinematic history).

Set in the eponymous city in Northern Africa, Casablanca follows Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) as he comes into the possession of letters of transit, offering invaluable safe passage for refugees trying to escape the war. When his estranged lover Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), and her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), enter his bar seeking safe passage, Blaine sees the two to freedom and their brief love affair to rest.

Casablanca

Release DateJanuary 23, 1942

DirectorMichael Curtiz

CastHumphrey Bogart , Ingrid Bergman , Paul Henreid , Claude Rains , Conrad Veidt , Sydney Greenstreet

Runtime102 minutes

7 ‘The Pianist’ (2002)

Director: Roman Polanski

Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman crying while walking down a destoryed street in The Pianist
Image via Pathé Distribution

Based on the memoirs of Władysław Szpilman and directed by Roman Polanski, The Pianist tells the bleak tale of one man’s survival during the Holocaust. Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) is a Jewish pianist, who watches the community he loves deteriorate as the war chugs along. Once an acclaimed Polish musician, he’s reduced to hiding in the wreckage of the increasingly unfamiliar city as he loses one close friend and family member after another.

Brody’s career-defining performance brings the terrible true story to life in this emotionally draining and renowned WWII film. The protagonist’s haunting experiences are a testament to hope against all odds, but also a necessary reminder of the loss, suffering, and horrors people had to endure during the Holocaust.

The Pianist

Release DateSeptember 17, 2002

DirectorRoman Polanski

CastAdrien Brody , Emilia Fox , Michal Zebrowski , Ed Stoppard , Maureen Lipman , Frank Finlay

Runtime149

Rent on Apple TV

6 ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988)

Director: Isao Takahata

Grave of the Fireflies
Image via Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli’s renowned somber war film follows siblings Seita and Setsuko in the final months of the war in Japan, struggling, and ultimately failing, to survive starvation and frequent American air raids. The film gets its name from the needless and accidental deaths of a jar of fireflies the siblings had caught and released in their shelter, starved of sustenance alongside the people of Japan.

Grave of the Fireflies makes no silver lining familiar in Western animation. The Ghibli movie is one of the best depictions of the era for its visceral realism and the cost of war beyond those conscripted and enlisted in the armies that fight them. Viewers should be warned that it’s a tear-jerking animated movie that doesn’t hold back its depiction of the human cost of war.

Grave of the Fireflies

Release DateJuly 26, 1989

DirectorIsao Takahata

CastTsutomu Tatsumi , Ayano Shiraishi , Akemi Yamaguchi

Runtime89 minutes

Buy on Amazon

5 ‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997)

Director: Roberto Benigni

Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni

Life is Beautiful is an Italian Holocaust film that follows Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) and his son Giosuè (Giorgio Cantarini), prisoners in a German camp. After the war snatched their life as booksellers, Guido dedicates himself to convincing his son that their lives as prisoners are one big game with a tank as the grand prize.

In a comedy-drama, despite the subject matter, Guido’s antics help his son survive to the end of their internment and indeed win a tank that has come to liberate the camp. An essential Italian war movie, Life is Beautiful offers a fragile optimism that endures in the heart of a prisoner who is never broken by their circumstances and survived by a son forever grateful for his father’s sacrifices.

Life Is Beautiful

Release DateDecember 20, 1997

CastRoberto Benigni , Nicoletta Braschi , Giorgio Cantarini , Giustino Durano , Sergio Bini Bustric , Marisa Paredes

Runtime116

Rent on Apple TV

4 ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)

Director: David Lean

Sir Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, standing in front of a group of soldiers in The Bridge on the River Kwai
Image via Columbia Pictures

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an Oscar-winning World War II movie set in a Japanese prison camp in Burma. There, British Colonel Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness) and his men are taken captive and forced to build a bridge over the River Kwai by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Despite facing harsh conditions and brutal treatment, Nicholson becomes determined to build a bridge that will reflect the honor and discipline of the British Army, leading to a clash of wills between him and Saito.

Director David Lean is a master of the historical epic genre, known for grand works like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The Bridge on the River Kwai was no different, with Lean’s talent for creating sweeping and complex scenes obvious in the 1957 movie’s battle sequences and explosive conclusion that still hold up today. Sir Alec Guinness is also impeccably cast as the passionate yet conflicted protagonist, whose arc serves as the anchor for the entire war movie.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Release DateOctober 11, 1957

DirectorDavid Lean

CastWilliam Holden , Alec Guinness , Jack Hawkins , Sessue Hayakawa , James Donald , Geoffrey Horne

Runtime161

3 ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan
Image via DreamWorks

Steven Spielberg’s award-winning war film remains regarded as one of the best depictions of life on the battlefield. Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller leads a company of soldiers from the landings at Omaha tasked with finding the last surviving son of the Ryan family. Saving Private Ryan is a grim and unapologetic tragedy that doesn’t stop killing off its characters.

Abstaining from glorifying bombastic battles or vilifying enemy soldiers as faceless drones, the film forces audiences to reckon with the strengths and weaknesses of a generation of young men sent to war, many of whom never made it home. It soars thanks to Hanks’ performance, alongside his loyal team of courageous soldiers who march into battle with him.

2 ‘Come and See’ (1985)

Director: Elem Klimov

Best WWII Movies

Set in Nazi-occupied Belarus during WWII, director Elem Klimov‘s Come and See depicts the war through the perspective of a young boy, Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko). When Flyora joins the Belarusian resistance movement, he’s exposed to appalling events that no one should have to see (at any age). Soon, his community is thrust into the chaos of war, all for him to see.

It’s easy to see why Come and See has been one of the highest-rated films on Letterboxd for quite some time now, as the unflinching war movie tells its heart-wrenching story in surrealist and philosophical ways. It’s a war film that’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, as audiences will find that it’s a grueling, but important, viewing experience.

Come and See

Release DateSeptember 3, 1985

DirectorElem Klimov

CastAleksey Kravchenko , Olga Mironova , Liubomiras Laucevicius , Vladas Bagdonas

Runtime142 minutes

1 ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Best WWII Movies
Image via Universal Studios

An adaptation of the real-life Oskar Schindler‘s account, Spielberg’s other WWII Best Picture winner, tells the story of Schindler’s mission to protect and see to safety more than a thousand persecuted Jews. Initially, he is a member of the Nazi party, but when Schindler witnesses the brutality against the Jewish ghetto in Kraków, he vows to save as many lives as possible.

Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kinglsey pay homage and respect to Schindler’s harrowing bravery and those who made it to safety with his aid. This experience is of course portrayed as terrifying, intense, and bold all at the same time. Filmed in black and white and scored with a hauntingly somber central theme, Schindler’s List is a masterpiece regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

NEXT:The Best War Movies of All Time, Ranked

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