War has proven a fervent dramatic hunting ground for imaginations since the earliest incarnations of storytelling. In this top 10 we take a look at the best films about the Second World War…
Human conflict forms the basis for so much drama on the silver screen, the scale of which can be as intimate as a character fighting his or her own inner demons to hordes of fighters doing battle in grand wars on the international stage. Indeed, aggression between nations has delivered some of cinema’s most renowned work with the Second World War proving, more than any other, to be the most ripe for cinematic dramatisation. In this list, I look at the best films about the Second World War.
10. The Thin Red Line (Malick, USA, 1998)
The Thin Red Line had a reputation even before release. This was, after all, director Terrence Malick’s first feature film after a two-decade absence. 1978’s Days of Heaven was the last time we’d seen the expressionistic auteur behind the camera so The Thin Red Line was something of an event movie. His return showed no signs of rustiness despite a twenty-year hiatus, retelling the story of the allies’ battle for Guadalcanal during the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Defiantly anti-war, Malick explores themes of mortality, nationalism, the wisdom of warfare and courage where the brutality of battle is contrasted with the most picturesque and beautiful stage on which to shed its blood.
The film is a bit too long, its thematic ambition sprawls out of control, and the parade of cameos is distracting but the battle scenes, elevated by Hans Zimmer’s score and John Toll’s cinematography, are unforgettable. There are also moments, such as when Sean Penn’s Sergeant desperately tries to pull a fallen soldier back to cover only to succumb to the man’s cries for morphine knowing he is doomed, that are profoundly heartbreaking. Indeed, Malick, in these individual sequences, gives us some of the most moving, poignant and memorable images of World War II in film.
9. Patton (Schaffner, USA, 1970)
A war film about a man rather than a mission, Patton is a cleverly constructed biopic made to look like an action-drama about the American army’s battles in North Africa and Europe during WWII. Masterfully written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North and featuring an equally impressive performance from George C. Scott as General George S. Patton, the film depicts both the absurdity of war and its dire consequences through the American General who lived, breathed and loved war. Scott’s steely-eyed turn is a provocatively effective distillation of the war machine’s disregard for human life and the needless insanity of assigning heroes and villains.
What the film fails to deliver in actual combat it more than makes up for through character. Indeed, Scott’s depiction of the much celebrated Patton may be one of the most fascinating real life World War II commanders depicted on screen. The combative leader of the U.S. Seventh Army during its campaign in the Mediterranean and later the U.S. Third Army in Italy, France and Germany is the stuff of legend made real by his public outbursts, PR speeches and the recollections of those who fought with him. Although lauded as an American war hero, the film highlights the indistinct lines that such a title is painted with. He’s flawed, erratic and fiercely self-obsessed.
8. The Pianist (Polanski, France/Germany, 2002)
Undoubtedly one of the most haunting depictions of the Jewish experience of World War II in occupied Europe, director Roman Polanski’s film follows Wladyslaw Szpilman’s (Adrian Brody) experience of Nazi rule in Poland. The story begins with war’s underlining tragedy – loss of hope. Szpilman and his family believe the allies, having declared war on Germany, will come to their rescue but the battle rages on. The Nazis hold ground and set up rule in Poland. It would be years before liberation.
Based on pianist and composer Szpilman’s real life memoirs, Polanski tracks the man’s life during the course of the entire war years between 1939 and 1945 as he tries to survive. We see the Nazis’ undesirables ushered into ghettos or deported to concentration camps. The once beautiful historic city of Warsaw lies in ruins; a striking metaphor for the brutality, destruction and needless waste of war.
Brody is brilliant. Utterly compelling. He famously approached the role by losing a lot of weight and getting rid of his possessions such as his car to help connect with Szpilman’s sense of loss. It pays off.
7. Grave Of The Fireflies (Takahata, Japan, 1967)
A mark of the diverse variety and inherent qualities of Studio Ghibli as well as the talents of writer-director Isao Takahata, Grave Of The Fireflies is one of the defining films about the Japanese experience of the Second World War. Being able to use animation to deliver potent, authentic emotion is something that has always shone through Studio Ghibli’s work and here it is at its most effective. The tragedy of war is not a cliché in Grave Of The Fireflies, it’s a stage on which to reflect on the horror which impacts ordinary life and the courage in ordinary people.
The film, in hindsight through flashback, tells the story of young siblings Setsuko and Seita who must fend for themselves after their mother is killed following an American bombing raid. They are initially helped by a family member but rationed food causes friction and the children leave to seek refuge alone in an abandoned bomb shelter. Food continues to be a problem and Seita is forced to steal to survive. Hope diminishes as malnutrition takes the life of Setsuko despite Seita’s desperate efforts to help her and, as Japan’s surrender is confirmed, Seita realises his father, a serving member of the Imperial Japan Navy, is probably dead.
6. Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1962)
For a Western audience, it’s fascinating to see the Russian perspective of World War II but what isn’t surprising is how it mirrors the horrors, tragedies and anti-combat sentiment we see in some of the best American and European WWII movies. What’s striking about the film, apart from its deeply affecting story of an orphaned boy and his experiences, as a child, of the war, is that the film was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film as director.
The influential filmmaker would go on to make the likes of Andrei Rublev and Solaris in 1966 and 1972 respectively, two films that often feature on greatest movies ever made lists. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman and Krzysztof Kieślowski have cited Ivan’s Childhood as influencing their work. It’s a poetic depiction of warfare’s nightmarish machinations, the tragedy made more potent by virtue of its 12-year-old POV. Tarkovsky, through personalising the experience, confines the Second World War to a more intimate scale than often seen by grandiose Hollywood action films, making the lurid results of bloody battle more moving.
5. Catch 22 (Nichols, USA, 1970)
Mike Nichols’ comedic satire Catch 22 has a number of characteristics reminiscent of William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration. Most obviously, they share a sense of farce founded upon the various sensibilities of their ensemble casts. A pervasive bleakness, borne out of anti-war sentiment, dissects this. They also each deal with issues provoked by military conflict in an unconventional way. Both exhibit transcendental quirks as they cleverly stage how war negatively affects the emotional state of those directly involved.
Aside from each suffering commercial failings when first released only later to become cult favourites, the two films are also brilliant pieces of anti-war cinema. Catch 22 is one of many memorable feature length works from director Nichols (who is perhaps best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe, The Graduate and more recently Charlie Wilson’s War) but remains a career oddity perhaps because adapting Joseph Heller’s novel of the same name was tough. Perhaps that’s why it took Nichols alongside writer Buck Henry two years to develop the screenplay.
Its non-chronological, multi-character narrative is not easily digested just as the unsympathetic Navy men it features are oddballs that drift in and out of the film’s central dramatic arc delivered by Alan Arkin’s Captain Yossarian. It does however boast one of Arkin’s finest performances, a brilliant cameo from Orson Welles, and an unforgettable climax that underlines the sheer craziness of war and the insidious motivation that powers its contemporary guise.
4. Downfall (Hirschbiegel, Germany/Italy/Austria, 2004)
Aside from Bruno Ganz’s authentic performance as Adolf Hitler, Downfall is made more powerful by virtue of being one of the most compelling documents on the Fuhrer’s final days. The film sees him holed up in his bunker as the Soviet army plunders its way through Germany during the Second World War’s last European battles.
As well as taking inspiration from the books Inside Hitler’s Bunker by historian Joachim Fest and Until the Final Hour by Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film also references various other first-hand accounts including the memoirs of one of the Nazi’s highest ranking officials Albert Speer in addition to the experiences of other top German officers.
With Ganz painstakingly recreating the various physical ticks of Hitler and spending months studying the Nazi leader’s speech and voice manner, Downfall’s gripping drama and subtle character study sticks close to the events, personal anxieties and eventual horrors that actually took place.
Downfall is particularly effective in its interplay between the increasingly detached, dejected and suicidal Hitler and the various officers and military staff who have their allegiances (and motives) tested as the war effort is now irretrievably doomed.
Perhaps most haunting is the depiction of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch). Their immovable devotion to the Fuhrer and his vision of an Aryan utopia culminates in perhaps the most shocking event to take place in Hitler’s bunker. That being the systematic murder of their six children who are fed cyanide capsules after being sedated by morphine. Hirschbiegel’s camera follows Magda as she carries out the sadistic killing, forcing us to witness this unhurried, calculated tragedy in intimate close-up. It’s a powerful metaphor for the wastefulness of life in war. It’s also another soul-sapping depiction of the Nazi era’s real life horrors.
3. Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, USA, 1998)
A technical achievement rather than an emotional one, Steven Spielberg’s Second World War film Saving Private Ryan has similar flaws plaguing Schindler’s List but these take nothing away from the visceral prowess on show. Spielberg pulls at the heartstrings forcibly but his celebration of the bravery of these men, and the legacy of their lives, compels just as much as the cinematic battle scenes pummel the senses.
While best remembered for its opening and closing depictions of warfare, Spielberg unsurprisingly gains brilliant performances from his ensemble. Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg and Giovanni Ribisi are just a handful of those deserving of a mention.
However, performance plays second fiddle to the film’s technical team – cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn, production designer Tom Sanders – who conspire to put the audience amid flying bullets and exploding mortars.
Spielberg utilises the tricks of the trade to cinematically recreate the horror of D-Day with the grim reality of the day’s carnage best defined not by disembodied limbs but the wet, sandy grit and blood spatter that hits the camera lens. This powerful sequence has a documentary-like sensibility that continues throughout the film and culminates in a similarly pulverising battle in the film’s finale.
2. Life Is Beautiful (Benigni, Italy, 1997)
A worthy addition to any “best of” list about World War II, Life Is Beautiful is noteworthy in part because it brings comedy into a situation that is inherently devoid of laughs. What’s most striking is that it works wonderfully. The horrors of war are evident in Life Is Beautiful, its depiction of Italian Jews during the period authentically captured by the director Roberto Benigni’s own recollection of his father’s real life experience of a German labour camp and the book In the End, I Beat Hitler by concentration camp survivor by Rubino Romeo Salmonì.
Perhaps most surprising is that I decided to put Life Is Beautiful in a list of the top 25 films to make you happy. You’d think a film about the holocaust has no place in such a list but Benigni’s effort concentrates on the human spirit. It’s a cinematic experience that transcends its depiction of the destruction and horror of war by championing our ability to hold on to hope. It’s about the vitality of life, and the power to dream of better, in the midst of the destructiveness of war.
1. Das Boot (Petersen, Germany, 1981)
Representative of the German experience of the battle to control the Atlantic, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (in its various incarnations) is one of the most visceral World War II cinematic excursions. It’s also a worthy alternative for Western audiences overloaded by depictions of American and British heroes stamping out the evil Nazi threat.
Indeed, Das Boot is most effective in its recreation of the horror of living in a tin can below the ocean’s depths. As well as trying to survive depth charges and sea battles, these submarine men have to contend with life confined to a sort of underwater prison. While the U-Boat itself becomes the film’s defining character, each of the film’s protagonists boast traits, fears and personal qualities that individualise their experience, making Das Boot even more effective.
But it is the photography by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jost Vacano (who worked with Petersen on The NeverEnding Story and also photographed the likes of RoboCop and Total Recall) that really stands out. We’re often moving through the submarine, our line of sight mimicking the submariners, our point of view shifting sporadically, underling the panic. It works to put the audience inside this nightmarish situation, securing a sense of claustrophobia that genuinely unsettles.
There are at least three prominent versions of Das Boot. The first is the original theatrical cut of around 149mins. The second is a significantly longer version edited to run as a six-part TV miniseries and split into 50-minute segments. The third, considered the director’s preferred version, is a 209-minute feature film version.
Over to you: what are your top 10 Second World War films?