The Best and Worst War Movies About Prisoners of War (POWs)

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Prisoners of War (POW)


In every war, there are victims, and there are prisoners.  Captured prisoners are referred to as POWs (Prisoners of War).  The war movies about POWs have traditionally existed on an uneven spectrum, on one end being absurdly and inappropriately comical (consider the long running TV show Hogan's Heroes, for example), and on the other end, being appropriately morose and horrible.  What follows are the best and the worst war movies about Prisoners of War.

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Stalag 17 (1953)

Stalag 17.

The Best!

Stalag 17 was one of the first mainstream movies to tackle the subject of wartime imprisonment.  It was a film the studio held off on making for a long time, believing that audiences would never want to watch a film about American soldiers being kept captive as prisoners.  When the film - which details the attempted escape of American GIs from a German concentration camp - was finally released, it was a huge box office hit and received near universal acclaim.  This is the film that set the mold for all subsequent prisoner of war movies.

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Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)


The Best!

Bridge on the River Kwai has Alec Guinness in the lead role as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, a British commander under Japanese control along with his troops during the second World War.  Nicholson is a man who believes in things being done properly, and that means refusing to submit to his jailers unless they abide by the Geneva Convention - even if it means being held in isolation and tortured.  It also means instilling discipline and order in his ranks, even though they are prisoners in a war camp.  When the Japanese order them to work on building a bridge over the River Kwai, Nicholson doesn't want to just build them a bridge, he wants to build them the best bridge they've ever seen.  As a film, it deals with the idea of discipline and order and authority, even within hellacious conditions.  (This movie is also on my Academy Award winning Best Pictures list.)

Click here for the Best Pacific War Movies.

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The Deer Hunter (1978)

Deer Hunter.

The Worst!

Although this film is usually critically acclaimed, for myself, it made my overrated war movies list.  In this film, DeNiro and Christopher Walken are American GIs in Vietnam that are captured as prisoners of war and subjected to brutal conditions, one such condition being to  play "Russian Roulette," whereby their Vietcong guards make them put a bullet in the cylinder of a revolver, spin the cylinder, put the gun to their head, and see if they get lucky.  While this is an intense scene in the movie, contrary to some popular rumors, it's also just a figment of  Hollywood's imagination, as there are no real-life cases where this was reported to have happened.

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The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape.

The Best!

The Great Escape is not a historical drama, or meditation on the horrors of captivity - it's a straight out action film following a group of Allied forces POWs determined to escape.  But at least it does what it sets out to do with great precision and fanfare - as action films go, it's excellent.  Along with Stalag 17, this is the perennial war time classic of prisoner of war films.  The filmmakers likely never knew that they would be inspiring thousands of subsequent films, television shows, cartoons, and comic books.

Click here to see Steve McQueen as part of the War Movies Dream Team.

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Empire of the Sun (1987)

The Empire of the Sun.

The Best!

Spielberg's Empire of the Sun is not one of his more popular films.  In fact, within his filmography, it's largely forgotten about, especially when compared to his more popular war films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List.  This negligence doesn't mean it's not a good film though.  While not perfect, it is, in fact, a great film in parts.  Especially good is the young Christian Bale in a Japanese internment camp for Western foreigners in China.  Bale offers a child's like innocence to the prisoner of war experience, which seems a clumsy turn of phrase, but which is also true.  Bale almost makes it seem downright fun!  John Malkovich steals many of the scenes he's in, and did I mention the film has some of the best production values of any World War II film ever produced?  

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Schindler's List (1993)

Schindler's List Movie Poster.

The Best!

Spielberg's Schindler's List was the first in a resurgence of World War II movies that started in the early 1990s, and is the first film to ever show the brutality of the German concentration camps in their full unblemished horror.  The Great Escape this is not.  A powerful film, but be prepared to cry.

Click here for the Best and Worst War Films about the Holocaust.

Click here to see Ralph Fiennes as part of the War Movies Villains Hall of Fame.

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Paradise Road (1997)

Paradise Road.

The Worst!

Glenn Cloe and Frances McDormand star as two women in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II.

There's not a single thing to say about this film - it is imminently and entirely forgettable.  Except, perhaps, that it only has a 38% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Hart's War (2002)

Hart's War.

The Worst!

Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell starred in this psuedo-remake of Stalag 17, as Ferrel must serve as lead counsel and defend two African American Airmen charged with murder in a makeshift court martial held inside the prisoner of war camp, turning what should be a concentration camp war film into a courtroom thriller.  Of course, the court drama is just to distract from the tunneling that's occurring underneath the base.  All of which, makes the film entirely too busy:  It's simultaneously a film about black airman dealing with racism, a prisoner of war film, an escape movie, and a courtroom legal thriller.  None of it gets enough attention, and ultimately, nothing ends up carrying the film.

Click here for the Best and Worst War Time Legal Thrillers.

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The Pianist (2002)

The Pianist.

The Best!

This 2002 film by Roman Polanski stars Adrian Brody as a Jewish pianist in Warsaw that is forced to go underground into hiding after his family is taken off to concentration camps.  Although not in a physical internment camp, Brody's character is a prisoner of war in another sense in that he is forced to live a life of isolation, living alone in empty apartments for years at a time, afraid to make even the slightest noise for risk of alerting neighbors of his existence.  The Pianist is a beautiful film about the power of a single individual to survive, with incredible direction and production values.  It doesn't get much better than this.

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Rescue Dawn (2006)

Rescue Dawn.

The Best!

Wener Herzog's 2006 film (one of my top Vietnam films of all time) tells the real life story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), an American fighter pilot shot down over Vietnam and taken as a prisoner of war is one of the best Vietnam films you will ever see.  Mostly, because this film ignores so many of the lazy Hollywood film conventions, trying instead to have the film exist as a sort of "ultra realistic" adaptation of real life.  Which is to say that everything in the film is harder than it normally is in a Hollywood movie.  When Bale escapes, instead of suddenly appearing at some American base, he struggles to survive in the jungle.  When he confronts his Vietcong captors, instead of shooting them with perfect precision, he struggles to control them.  Instead of being stoic and determined, Christian Bale's Dengler is scared to death.  As he should be.  About War Movies vote for the best Prisoner of War film of all time.   (Unfortunately, this film also had a glaring historical inaccuracy.)

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Road to Guantanamo (2006)

Road to Guantanamo.

The Best!

This 2006 documentary tells the story of British Muslims that were errantly scooped up by American soldiers in the immediate chaos following the retreat of the Taliban across Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo for years at a time, despite no evidence connecting them to terrorism.  A powerful documentary which is sure to incite anger in the viewer and reveals that sometimes, Americans are the ones that keep Prisoners of War. 

Click here for the Best and Worst Films about Afghanistan.

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Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Standard Operating Procedure. Sony Pictures Classics

The Best!

This Errol Morris documentary takes aim at the practice of the enhanced interrogation techniques, which resulted in the infamous photos at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq.  Through interviews with the enlisted personnel who managed the prisoners (and were blamed for the photos despite orders from higher in the command structure), a culture of lawlessness within the U.S. military is revealed.  The tragedy is that America used to be the good guys, the ones who rightly criticized those that didn't follow the Geneva conventions.  This documentary shows that America started practicing that which it previously forbid.

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Unbroken (2014)


The Worst!

Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a one-time Olympian athlete turned bombardier that was shot down over the Pacific Ocean, and then forced to survive 45 days at sea before being captured by Japanese forces and sent to a prisoner of war camp.  Strong production values and a winning lead performance can't save this film's lack of characterization though.  The audience knows just as much about Zemperini at the end of the film as they did at the beginning, that he's a "resilient" guy.


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Rico, Johnny. "The Best and Worst War Movies About Prisoners of War (POWs)." ThoughtCo, Mar. 1, 2017, Rico, Johnny. (2017, March 1). The Best and Worst War Movies About Prisoners of War (POWs). Retrieved from Rico, Johnny. "The Best and Worst War Movies About Prisoners of War (POWs)." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 18, 2017).