The Top Ten World War II Movies of All Time

For a long while now I've been asking About War Movie readers to submit their vote for the best World War II film of all time.  I received a flood of responses, and took all of your thoughts into consideration.  And now, finally, I have developed the definitive list of best World War II movies of all time.  (How is it the definitive list?  Because it's the list that I developed, of course!)

Deciding the best World War II film is a complex matter.  It's not like Vietnam or Iraq, wars contained mostly to a single country, but rather a war that encompassed the entire world, with huge fronts in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific.  Furthermore, it's the war that Hollywood most often makes movies about, with some 40% of all movies about the second World War.  It's the war that gave rise to not one, but two distinct eras within the history of war films ("The Patriotic Era" and "The World War II Revival").

Some of the films suggested by my readers are on this list.  Many others were rejected.  (For example, I didn't use The Dirty Dozen because I already have The Great Escape, which sort of "fills the slot" for WWII action films.  Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds is an interesting film, but more an indulgent Tarantino movie, then ode to the second World War.  Eastwood's Flag of our Fathers is well meaning, but ultimately a very flawed film.  And so on it goes...)

It wasn't easy to decide on just ten films, but after much fretting and erasing, I have decided on a list of ten.  The ten films that I would keep in some fantasy scenario where all but the films I selected would be forever destroyed.   From best, to the very all time, number one best...

Write me to let me know if I got it right, or wrong...

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The Great Escape (1963)


Steve McQueen stars in this perennial classic of prisoner of war movies.  Here McQueen leads the prisoners in a complex, risky, and far-fetched plan of escape.  Part historical ode to prisoners of war, part action film, this is cinema at a grand escapist level.  It should also be said that as an action film it functions largely in the real world, abiding by real world rules; in other words, no absurd theatrics that would only be possible in Hollywood.  And the film's ending, which surprises everyone who sees it, only confirms the fact that the filmmakers wanted to root the film in what would most likely happen, not what studio execs would most want to happen.  Doesn't get much better than this.

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The Pacific (2010)


The Pacific is an HBO Spielberg backed mini-series following the Marines in the Pacific, as they move from one island to the next.  The series has incredible production values, and has quickly become the definitive cinematic experience on the Pacific theatre.  Though the film is a bit more disjointed than Band of Brothers, in part, because this second mini-series necessarily follows different units that fought on the different islands and is not able to track the same characters across the entire series.  Still, this mini-series is essential viewing for anyone who wants to see the Pacific campaign of the second World War brought to cinematic life.  An incredible viewing experience.

Click here for the Best and Worst Pacific Theatre World War II Films!

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Band of Brothers (2011)

The twinned pair of The Pacific is the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, which has become the definitive experience on the European theatre.  In part, that it simply because it effectively manages to be 11 films at once.  With so many episodes, it allows the viewer to experience the training on the home front, the messy parachute drop over France, the Battle of the Bulge, and about every major movement of the European cinema.  The film has top production values, a huge and talented cast, and - best of all - it's seriously moving cinema.  You will care deeply about the many characters, not all of whom will make it to the end of the series.
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Das Boot (1981)


Told from the perspective of a German U-Boat captain, comes Das Boot, one of the best submarine war movies ever filmed.  This is a dark, tension filled, taut, thriller.  The men are just boys, and the film builds real suspense as they race through darkened creaking corridors, as their sub does battle with U.S. forces.  The idea of death is real and present at every moment, and the film treats the idea that the death would be horrible indeed as very real and serious.  Moreover, as an American audience, you'll learn to care about the German forces, who, after all, are human beings, too.  (Also one of my great "Under Appreciated War Films."

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Saving Private Ryan (1988)

Saving Private Ryan Movie Poster.

Of course, Saving Private Ryan would be on this list.  Its inclusion is almost assumed.  Its inclusion also likely elicits a number of groans.  Too predictable.  Too safe a choice.  Yes, all true.  But, it also deserves its spot.  From the D-Day opening, to the Battle of Romelle, this is classic cinema, a film well deserving of its assumed spot.  

Click here for Steven Spielberg's War Filmography.

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Schindler's List (1994)

Schindler's List Movie Poster.

Like Saving Private Ryan, this is another on the list that's sort of assumed to be a safe choice.  Some argue that it's not even a war film, being about the Holocaust (click here to read about the best Holocaust films), but the Holocaust is most assuredly an artifact of the second World War.  And Schindler's List is the definitive Holocaust film.

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The Pianist (2002)


The second Holocaust film on this list, The Pianist is a near-perfect cinematic experience, detailing the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman as he experiences the Nazi occupation, being forced into the Jewish Ghetto, later being forcibly removed from the Jewish Ghetto, and then goes underground into hiding after his family is sent to the concentration camps.  Szpilman is not heroic in the traditional sense of a soldier charging the battlefield, but he exhibits a sort of heroism all the same, managing to maintain his sanity, as he spends years in solitary confinement, hiding in empty apartments and attics being unable to trust anyone for fear they will turn him in as a Jew in German occupied Poland.  There are no battles in this film, and the war fronts are distant, but the tension is fraught, and the war is ever-present and real, tied into every minute of this fantastic film.

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Graveyard of the Fireflies (1988)


This Japanese animated film follows two siblings, a young boy of about 10 and his much younger sister (really, just a toddler), as they endure the American firebombing of their hometown, in which their mother is killed.  They then navigate Japan in the final days of the war, attempting to survive amid economic upheaval, food shortages, and social chaos.  One of the most grim films you'll ever see, but spellbinding and powerful throughout.  A film that the late great critic Roger Ebert called one of the best war films he'd ever seen.

Click here for the Top Animated War Films.

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Come and See (1985)


Second from the best on the list is a little seen Russian film about two young children in a small Russian village during the German advance.  This film is hallucinatory and grim and ultra-violent.  Like , it offers that rare transcendental experience to the viewer, one that supersedes normal viewing experiences.  This film is so intensely disturbing, that a week later, it will still pervade your thoughts.  Hardly constitutes entertainment, but what an experience.  (Those not familiar with films from foreign countries will struggle with the different rhythms and cadences of foreign cinema, but those that stick with it will be rewarded!)

Click here for the Top 5 Most Brutal War Movies Ever Filmed.

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Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca. Warner Brothers

And the top World War II film of all time?  Casablanca.  This Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman film, is, just perhaps, the best film of all time.  As a World War II film, it captures the Resistance movement, the evacuation of Paris in advance of the German assault, and Nazis in north Africa.  Plus, it has one of the coolest film protagonists to ever exist within cinema.  A romance that ends perfectly, one would be amiss if they left off the best film ever made from a list of the best World War II films.

Click here for the Top War Love Stories.