50 Best World War II Movies Of All Times – Time Out

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From ‘Dunkirk’ to ‘Schindler's List’, here are our picks for the best World War II movies of all time
War, huh, what is it good for? Well, between the bloodshed, aerial bombardment and displacement of civilians, not a huge amount (agreed, Edwin Starr). But while World War II, like all major conflicts, was characterised by destruction on an unfathomable scale, the films documenting the war have been endlessly creative. Indeed, the great minds of cinema were already hard at work documenting and exploring the war while it was happening. The WWII genre includes Hollywood action epics and heart-wrenching romancesbut it also features movies that build empathy for ‘the enemy’, like Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima.
So how to choose the best World War II movies ever made? We called in the experts – specifically one expert: Quentin Tarantino – and solicited the advice of those hard-working Time Out writers. Now let’s just hope there never needs to be a ‘best of’ list for World War III, eh?

Written by Tom Huddleston, Adam Lee Davies, Paul Fairclough, Anna Smith, David Jenkins, Dan Jolin, Phil de Semlyen & Alim Kheraj
Recommended: London and UK cinema listings, film reviews and exclusive interviews.
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Quentin Tarantino kicks things off with a riveting obscurity
Director: William Witney
Cast: Richard Bakalyan, Ken Lynch, Jack Hogan
Quentin Tarantino says… ‘This is by one of my favourite directors, William Witney, an American who quit the movie business to go into the army. You can tell it was made by someone who’d been there. It follows a group of paratroopers in Italy, but one of them’s a fuck-up who accidentally kills one of his team. So he has people in the platoon who want to kill him, just waiting for the right gunfight. And the end of the movie is so exciting. They have to cross a field of landmines, sending one guy in after another until he gets blown up. Eventually, somebody will get to the other side. All these characters just start getting wiped out.’
They think it’s all over… and for you, Tommy, it is. 
Director: John Huston
Cast: Pelé, Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone

Roy of the Rovers meets Stalag 17 in a boy’s own football fantasy than even its greatest fans wouldn’t place in cinema’s Champions League. But with its hummable score, assortment of late ’70s football luminaries, smattering of acting legends, and a stirring finale on the pitch, it is a rollocking good time for anyone prepared to wade through the ropey line readings. Seriously, where else are you going to see Max von Sydow and Pelé sharing the screen? Michael Caine glues it altogether with a performance in which he plays it all straighter than an Ossie Ardiles through ball.
Winter is coming
Director:Joseph Vilsmaier
Cast: Dominique Horwitz, Thomas Kretschmann, Jochen Nickel
Forget Enemy at the Gates and the 2015 Fyodor Bondarchuk CG-fest, this rare Germans’ eye view of the conflict is a much more authentic glimpse of the hell that was Stalingrad – the turning point in World War II and one of the most brutal battles in human history. Thomas Kretschmann plays a Nazi office leading a platoon into the crucible and, in the spirit of Das Boot (with which this film shares producers), struggling to lead them out again. It’s harrowing, bleak viewing. It’s also an incredibly honest example of a film addressing a country’s horror-filled past: honest and uncomfortable to the last. This story had no happy ending. 
Totally schlossed
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellan
This is a gloriously bizarre cod-spiritualist dark castle chiller from a pre Heat Michael Mann. The mist-shrouded opening sequences, as Jürgen Prochnow’s dead-meat Nazi platoon occupy the titular demon-occupied fortress, are breathtaking, Mann’s superb eye for visual detail fusing with some spectacular design work to create a real atmosphere of impending dread. It begins to fall apart with the introduction of Scott Glenn’s mystical Jewish translator (yes, his name really is Glaeken Trismegestus), but the film’s unashamed weirdness and wondrous sets have helped to build a pretty solid fanbase.
Out of Africa
Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila 
There are hundreds of untold WWII stories still to be filmed. Rachid Bouchareb’s drama shines a light on those North African soldiers drafted in to fight for the Free French after D-Day. The film itself is a mite predictable, but what’s impressive are the ripples it created: after release, the French government agreed, for the first time, to begin paying compensation to the remaining widows of North African fighters. Proof that a work of art can still have direct political impact. 
Tinkling the ivories
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Adrian Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay
Roman Polanski kicked off the twenty-first century with a sophisticated, Oscar-winning WWII survival drama which not only offered an authentic depiction of the Warsaw ghetto, but proved that – controversy aside – the director could still deliver when it mattered. Adrien Brody deservedly picked up Best Actor for his muted portrayal of Jewish concert pianist Władysław Szpilman, whose mission to stay alive against titanic odds is an inspiring testament to the human instinct for self-preservation. 
Buuuh buh buh buh buh-buh buuuh buh…
Director: Michael Anderson
Cast: Richard Todd, Michael Redgrave, Ursula Jeans 
The famous real-life partnership of boffin scientists and plucky pilots is brought to life in a stiff-upper-lipped war film that has endured sufficiently to spark talk of a Peter Jackson remake (still, alas, unmade). Thanks to The Dam Busters, the 1943 raid on the Ruhr dams using bouncing bombs has seeped into the public consciousness. It’s still a gem of the genre, with Michael Redgrave sincere yet conflicted as conscience-stricken inventor Barnes Wallis and Richard Todd all derring-do as RAF wing commander Guy Gibson. The special effects may look a little hokey now but they inspired the final Death Star assault in Star Wars.
Cary on cross-dressing
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan
Hollywood has a bad reputation for fixing tricky book titles, like going from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to Blade Runner. In the case of French Army Officer Henri Rochard’s autobiography I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress, we reckon they had a point. In this jolly gender-swap comedy from screwball master Howard Hawks, Cary Grant plays Rochard (mercifully eschewing a French accent), whose romance with chauffeur Ann Sheridan somehow leads to him dressing as a woman and smuggling himself into the US.
Dutch courage
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman
Almost three decades after his handsome but rather sedate resistance story Soldier of Orange, shockmeister Paul Verhoeven revisited WWII for a tale of Jewish subterfuge and erotic espionage, filling the screen with all the sex, death and pube-dyeing the earlier film sadly lacked. But beneath all the nudity and bloodshed is an intelligent, original study of occupation and revenge: the final shot, subtly drawing parallels between the occupation of Holland and the birth of Israel, is courageous and brilliant. 
Stars over the battlefield
Director: Guy Hamilton
Cast: Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ The Spitfire’s finest hour is recreated in a stirring, salty rip-roarer from Bond-movie mainstay Guy Hamilton. Battle of Britain stars everyone from old pros Michael Redgrave and Laurence Olivier (fruity as ever) to up-and-comers like Michael Caine and Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane. Despite being shot on film stock that looks like it was processed in milky tea, the drama features some remarkable aerial photography (George Lucas has noted its influence on the space battles in Star Wars), and makes for a rousing and authentic spectacle. 
Hang on, that title’s familiar…
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Cast: Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten, Fred Williamson
Not Tarantino’s WWII picture, but the 1978 B-movie that partially inspired it. Director Enzo G Castellari is a hero to cult film fans everywhere: his 40-year career has gifted us half a dozen decent Euro-Westerns, a few rip-offs of hits such as Jaws (The Last Shark) and Mad Max (1990: The Bronx Warriors) and the 1990s detective series Extralarge on Italian TV. But thanks to Tarantino’s tribute, he’ll be best remembered for this WWII actioner. Explosive, colourful and slicker than you might expect, it follows a rag-tag bunch of Allied soldiers who… well, we don’t want to spoil it. 
QT takes the reins again for the tale of Heydrich’s assassination
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Anna Lee, Gene Lockhart
Quentin Tarantino says… ‘When I was writing Inglourious Basterds, I ended up looking at a different type of war film than I’d ever watched before. These were propaganda movies made in the ’40s, mostly directed by foreign directors living in Hollywood because the Nazis had occupied their home countries, like Fritz Lang who made the excellent Hangmen Also Die! WWII was still going on, the Nazis were an actual threat, not just movie bad guys. Those directors had personal experience with the Nazis, and obviously they had to be worried about their loved ones back home. And yet those films are entertaining, they’re thrilling adventure stories, and there’s a lot of humour in them. And this goes against all the ponderous, violin-music diatribes we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s.’
Strolling thunder
Director: Lewis Milestone
Cast: Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, George Tyne
Director Lewis Milestone was the master of the grunt’s-eye view, and with this account of a few hours in the life of an American platoon in Italy he set the template for dozens of thoughtful war films that followed. For long stretches, nothing much happens – but when it does it’s violent and irrevocable. There’s little in the way of heroics and barely a few moments of gunfire. The impression of warfare is neither of gung-ho glory nor of pant-wetting terror: the overriding feeling is confusion, and a nagging sadness that in such a beautiful landscape one should have to be concerned with dying rather than living. 
War is the ultimate bummer
Director: Brain G. Hutton
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland
‘Why don’t you knock it off with them negative waves?’ Yes, the hippies finally do their part for global security as Donald Sutherland’s superfreaky tank commander Oddball joins up with Clint Eastwood’s surly one-man warzone, Kelly, on a mission to raid a French bank and hightail it with buckets of Nazi loot. Director Brian G Hutton dispenses pretty much entirely with historical reality, leading some to accuse the film of trivialising the war effort. Which it does, but with such warmth, wit and insouciance that it’s impossible to resist. Pure pleasure.
Not feeling Fiennes
Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas
Wartime has rarely been as atmospherically and artfully shot as it is in Anthony Minghella’s Academy Award-winning romance. Adapted (some would say quite loosely) from Michael Ondaatje’s novel, this amorous epic stars Ralph Fiennes as the unknown ‘English patient’ who, covered in burns, is being cared for by a young Canadian nurse (Juliet Binoche). Under her unerringly tender care, fleeting memories of life prior to injury return to the ailing patient, including, most significantly, the juicy affair he had with a friend’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas, looking enigmatic in linen). Ridiculously attractive people swooning in the desert: oh go on, you’ll enjoy watching it really. 
For the Mutterland
Director: Helma Sanders-Brahms
Cast: Eva Mattes, ‎Ernst Jacobi
One of the lynchpins of New German Cinema and, alas, the only female-directed film on this list (which says something about war movies). Helma Sanders-Brahms’s film presents a dewy-eyed romance between Lene (Eva Mattes) and Hans (Ernst Jacobi) that blossoms into marriage. But their bliss is short-lived when Hans is called away to fight and Lene’s life spirals into disaster. It may sound brutal, but Sanders-Brahms never judges her characters (who are based on her own parents), bluntly demonstrating how relentlessly grim life in wartime can be for women as well as men. 
Both sides now
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya
Given his hard-bitten reputation, it’s surprising Clint Eastwood hadn’t got around to directing a World War II movie before 2006. But he made up for it with a groundbreaking one-two punch: a pair of films exploring the battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspectives. Flags of our Fathers was weak, exploring the American culture of war. But Letters from Iwo Jima is stunning, depicting a group of soldiers even more bound by tradition and honour than their American counterparts, trapped in an unwinnable war and dreaming only of home. 
Keep the home fires burning
Directors: Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder
Cast: Eric Portman, Gordon Jackson, Patricia Roc, Basil Radford
No film evokes the everyday British experience of WWII better than Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder’s stiff-upper-lipped drama. It’s a masterpiece of social observation, reflecting the national shift towards social inclusion in its depiction of the lives, loves and heartrending losses endured by the lower-middle-class Crowson family. The closing sequence – in which munitions worker Celia (Patricia Roc) forcibly represses her grief over her dead lover and joins in a rousing factory singalong – is almost unbearably moving. 
Shouting lager lager lager
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle
Britain’s obsession with the demon drink has made for some terrific cinema, and second only to Whisky Galore in the pantheon of pissed-up pictures is this rousing, surprisingly hard-nosed tale of dipsomania in the desert. When his unit is attacked by the Germans, army captain Anson (John Mills) hijacks an ambulance and heads across the Sahara with two nurses and a dubious South African officer in tow. They’re bound for Alexandria, and the refrigerated lager Anson imagines he’ll find there – provided the Bosch don’t do for them first. Terse and stiff-lipped but never to a fault, this is one of the archetypal British combat films. 
Two tickets to paradise
Director: John Boorman
Cast: Lee Marvin; ‎Toshirō Mifune
‘Two Enemies! One Island! No Subtitles!’ was not the tagline for John Boorman’s allegorical yarn about a Japanese soldier (Toshiro Mifune) and an American pilot (Lee Marvin) stranded on a beautiful, isolated South Seas island, but it damn well should have been. This perfectly pitched two-hander might have descended into an unholy mess of sentimentality and earnestness. But Deliverance director Boorman has never had too much time for easy resolution, and maintains an even strain as his leads realise that the only way to survive is to collaborate. 
Bale begins
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers
Empire of the Sun came smack in the centre of Steven Spielberg’s mid-’80s slump: Temple of Doom had been criticised for excessive violence, and there was still Always and Hook to come. But there’s incredible work in Empire of the Sun. The decision to hire Tom Stoppard to adapt JG Ballard’s fictionalised memoir of his days in a Japanese internment camp pays off with a focused script and some wonderfully memorable characters. Best of all is John Malkovich’s Machiavellian hipster Basie. Christian Bale is a star in the making as young Jim, while Allen Daviau’s cinematography adds grandeur, drenching the screen with dazzling searchlights, blazing buildings and, at the climax, Hiroshima itself. 
The Normandy conquest
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies
Spielberg, Hanks, all those Academy Awards. It’s easy to be a tad sceptical about Private Ryan. A repeat viewing, however, blows away the cobwebs with a furious men-in-combat film that balances comradely bromance with gale-force action. ALD
Quentin Tarantino says: ‘I really liked Saving Private Ryan, in particular the Omaha beach scene. You’re watching that sequence and you think, could anything be worth this? Ultimately, I guess the answer is yes. But when you’re watching it, it seems unfathomable that anything could be worth that.’
Hot Guinness
Director: David Lean
Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa
William Holden’s authority-defying, nurse-goosing square-jawed US Navy Commander Shears may be the supposed hero, but in this grandiose epic set in a Japanese labour camp it’s Alec Guinness’s hopelessly compromised Colonel Nicholson that we really relate to. A story of the blurred line between enslavement and collaboration, David Lean’s film drips with jungle sweat as Nicholson tries to protect his men from Japanese cruelty as they work to build a strategically important railway bridge. The photography, sets and supporting performances are all terrific, but it’s all in orbit around Guinness’s towering turn as the man torn between duty and a kind of twisted, self-sacrificial honour. 
Vive le resistance!
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse
Jean-Pierre Melville’s film opens on a shot of the Arc de Triomphe as, slowly, a long line of Nazi soldiers goose-step across the screen. This insidious, softly-softly approach to the traumas suffered by the people of Paris during the occupation sets the tone for a riveting, steely-eyed chronicle of resistance. Prizing restraint, Melville adopts a curt, undemonstrative shooting style to present his ‘heroes’ as a self-hating cadre who think nothing of risking life and limb in the name of their nation. Prison escapes are brief and unglamorous, espionage is gruelling and perilous and emotions, speeches and friendships remain suppressed at all times. A cold, meticulous drama about the pressures of propping an entire country on your shoulders. 
True grit
Director: Robert Aldrich 
Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, William Smithers
As cutting as piano wire and cynical to the core, Robert Aldrich’s whipsmart drama follows through on the queasy promise of its tagline: ‘Rips open the hot hell behind the glory!’ Joining up with the daintily named Fragile Fox company for a botched support mission during the Battle of the Bulge, we find ourselves caught between company captain and ‘gutless wonder’ Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin’s manipulative institutional horse-trader and platoon leader Jack Palance, cracking with frustration at the sharp end. A minor landmark which dared to suggest that, in war, ‘Not everyone is a hero and not every gun is pointed at the enemy’.
Funny how?
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack
‘So, they call me concentration camp Ehrhardt, do they?’ It’s hard to imagine the shock that must’ve greeted Ernst Lubitsch’s frothy comedy on release in 1942. Here we were, in the grip of the most bloody conflict in Earth’s history, and along comes German Jewish émigré Ernst Lubitsch with a broad Hollywood satire lampooning Nazism, spies, the camps, the whole damn shooting match. A story of mistaken identities, backstage hi-jinks and theatrical misunderstandings set in occupied Poland, the film is genuinely funny. But if you actually stop to think about it, you may start screaming. 
Makes you proud to be British. Or American
Director: John Sturges
Director: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald
Maybe the most flat-out enjoyable WWII film of them all, this bank holiday classic continues to win fans, inform ad campaigns and drown out England football matches every time an impromptu rendition of its impossibly chipper theme tune sounds. Steve McQueen heads a top-notch cast of international talent, all of whom are given plenty to do by the lively script and nimbly wrangled by John Sturges’s muscular direction. ALD
Quentin Tarantino says: ‘One of my favourite movies of all time, not just war movies. I love that film. It’s one of those bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movies that got me to sit down and write Inglourious Basterds.’
Up close and personal
Director: László Nemes
Cast: Géza Röhrig, Levente Molnár, Urs Rechn
The degradation and horror of the Holocaust has never been captured with such ferocity as in László Nemes’s extraordinary debut. Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the Jewish concentration camp prisoners tasked with dealing with the bodies of those murdered in the gas chambers. Nemes’s camera stays – literally – right in Saul’s face, using as few cuts as possible to immerse the viewer in an all-too-believable vision of hell. If it sounds tough, it is – but, until virtual reality technology improves, this is the closest you’re going to come to a bone-deep understanding of what really happened. 
Only 23? *Angry Hitler gif!*
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes
We’ve all been there. You haven’t slept for days. The place is a wreck. There are empties everywhere and you don’t even know who half these people are. Admit it: the Party’s over. This claustrophobic account of the last days of Nazi Germany takes place within the dank corridors of Hitler’s bunker. The sense of impending doom is palpable and, as much of it is based on the recollections of Hitler’s secretary, scenes like a wild champagne party to the backbeat of Russian artillery ring bizarrely true. Sadly for these guests, history was about to gatecrash. 
Brothers in arms
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr
‘[A] highly elaborate, flashy, flabby and costly film, the most disgraceful production that has ever emanated from a British film studio.’ That’s from a pamphlet entitled ‘The Shame and Disgrace of Colonel Blimp’, foisted on the ticket-buying public when Powell and Pressburger’s heartfelt biopic of a fictional British army officer was first released in 1943. The film’s great crime was to depict a German character in a positive light – indeed, to plead for understanding between two countries at war. It still feels like a brave move – and it lends a film that could’ve been fusty and traditionalist a genuine cutting edge.
Scouting for boys
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Nikolai Burlyayev, Valentin Zubkov, Evgeny Zharikov
By the early 1960s, the bloom was off the war – WWII movies no longer needed to focus exclusively on square-jawed men nobly battling fascism. Heck, they might even suggest that the conflict took a toll on both sides. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s shimmering (and surprisingly short) debut, a boy stumbles into the headquarters of a Russian platoon on the Eastern front, claiming to have important information. It transpires that he’s a junior spy used by his own side, who play on his hatred for the German who murdered his family. Dreamlike and devastating, this was a new kind of war movie. 
‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy…’
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Cast: Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood
Famous for the cinema’s best ever punch-up on a moving cable car, this behind-the-lines romp is also reputed to clock up the highest body count of any Clint Eastwood film, with hundreds of Germans throwing themselves headlong into a storm of lead. The plot serves up a string of icepick-sharp set-pieces but more importantly provides an excuse for Richard Burton and Clint to get out of their itchy, ill-fitting British togs and look sharp in German officers’ uniforms. Those Nazis: no moral compass, but what tailoring! 
Burt on the beach
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra

If all you remember is Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling in the Hawaiian surf, it’s time to take another look at this hard-headed wartime drama set in the run-up to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Sure, it’s not as tough (or as foul-mouthed) as James Jones’s inflammatory source novel, but there’s still plenty that shocks in Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation: the adultery, the prostitution, the fact that Frank Sinatra can act. And the attack itself is a belter: lasting mere minutes on the screen, it’s got more punch than all three hours of Michael Bay’s awful Pearl Harbour. 
The horror
Director: Alain Resnais
Ten years after the liberation of the concentration camps, Alain Resnais made this mournful 32-minute documentary that offers as clear-sighted and painful an insight into the National Socialist mindset as any film before or since. Austerely constructed, the film simply juxtaposes German newsreel and films shot by the Allies as they liberated the camps with newly filmed shots of disused railway sidings, empty fields and husks of buildings where thousands lost their lives. As a yardstick for the gravity of Nazi atrocities, Resnais’s film takes some beating. 
This is Britain, and it’s fine
Directors: Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister
Cast: Chesney Allen, Bud Flanagan/William Sansomm George Gravett
At the beginning of WWII, all UK cinemas were closed. But Churchill’s cabinet quickly realised that not only were the movies a great way for a put-upon populace to relax, they were also a perfect channel for propaganda. But while Humphrey Jennings’s twin masterpieces may be unashamedly patriotic, they’re also two of the most inventive documentaries ever made. The former, co-directed with Stewart McAllister, is more sedate, a sort of Radio 4 with pictures, all twittering songbirds and the smack of leather on willow. Fires Were Started is pitched between documentary and drama in its depiction of a day in the life of a fireman in the Blitz, but through all the banter there’s an inescapable sense of dread, of a city on the brink of collapse.
Twelve angry men
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown 

Foul-tempered, lusty and ludicrously enjoyable, this suicidal symphony to the futility of war fully deserves its status as ‘The Greatest Men-On-A-Mission Movie Ever Made.’

Quentin Tarantino says… ‘The thing that’s just amazing about The Dirty Dozen, and why I don’t think it could ever be duplicated today, is the fact that you could never find eight actors like that now. It was just a different breed of man. Robert Aldrich threw a rock in a tree and Jim Brown fell out, Charles Bronson fell out, John Cassavetes fell out, and Telly Savalas… and that’s without even mentioning Lee Marvin. There aren’t guys like that running around anymore.’
Spaghetti realism
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero

The wounds of European conflict and Nazi occupation were still tender in Rome in late 1944, which chimed with the documentary instincts of Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. Rome, Open City drew on real issues and situations during the years of conflict. Needless to say, the brutality of the occupying regime is presented with a shocking frankness, not only its indifference to class, age, gender and religion, but its total lack of logical purpose. Rossellini shot the film using leftover celluloid from other movies, which not only lent it a gritty newsreel aesthetic, but a real sense of urgency and anguish. Three years later he would tell a similar story from a different perspective in Germany, Year Zero. 
Withdrawal method
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason

Sam Peckinpah’s only war film follows a German platoon through the 1943 retreat on the Russian front. Sombre and claustrophobic photography and Peckinpah’s clear understanding of a working platoon of men are all far removed from the monotonous simplicity of most big-budget war films.

Quentin Tarantino says: ‘I’m a big fan of Cross of Iron, it’s really cool. I saw it the day it opened. I was a little boy; I didn’t know anything about the Russian front. I guess it went over my head, but I learned to appreciate it later. But one of the interesting things about Cross of Iron is that it came and went in America, but it was such a huge hit in Europe that it actually inspired rip-offs for years, which I get a huge kick out of. And one of them is the movie that I took the name Inglourious Basterds from.’
Tunnel vision
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Cast: Teresa Iżewska, Tadeusz Janczar, Wieńczysław Gliński

Polish master director Andrzej Wajda’s second film follows the remnants of a ragtag platoon through the last days of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, beating a retreat in the face of German aggression. Left with no other option they take refuge in the sewers, where one by one they succumb to malnutrition, madness and death. Wajda lets us know from the very beginning what we’re up against, as a doom-laden voiceover informs us: ‘These are the tragic heroes. Watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives.’ But he forces us to relate to these characters, sketching their personalities in subtle, effective strokes: the grim and desperate captain, the lovestruck youth, the out-of-place artist. Each is given a reason to live; that we know they won’t only makes us care more deeply. 
Before the bomb
Director: Isao Takahata
Cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi
Studio Ghibli number-two Isao Takahata’s haunting animated drama adopts a template familiar from Ivan’s Childhood and Come and See, offering a child’s-eye-perspective of wartime atrocities. But like his colleague Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro from the same year, it also expounds on the methods used by children to block out the horrors of the world (namely daydreaming, fantasy and unrealistic optimism). It cannot be overstated how heartbreaking and painful Grave of the Fireflies is, following a boy and his toddler sister as they are forced to go it alone in the Japanese wilderness as US bombers lay waste to the cities. Roger Ebert rightly named it one of the greatest war movies ever made: once seen, it will never be forgotten. 
European vacation
Director: ​​Samuel Fuller
Cast: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine

The original Band of Brothers, and one of the most detailed and nourishing WWII flicks of them all (at least in its epic director’s cut). Essentially a memoir of director Sam Fuller’s own wartime experiences – and a fitting tribute to the men who served alongside him – the film takes in almost the entire European theatre, from North Africa to Italy and up into France, Germany and Czechoslovakia. But this is far from a straightforward shoot-’em-up, bringing in bizarre and often cruel humour, marvellous characterisation and one of the oddest war-movie scenes of them all, as our heroes assist with childbirth in the belly of a stranded tank. 
Stairway to heaven
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 
Cast: David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey

Powell and Pressburger’s soaring story of love after death was initially inspired by a government request for a film emphasising the common ground between the UK and America as the latter entered the war. In the hands of just about any other filmmaking team this would probably have resulted in something fairly traditional: a lads-together-behind-enemy-lines actioner, perhaps. But in the hands of the most imaginative filmmakers this country has ever produced, such a straightforward narrative was unlikely. Starting in outer space and incorporating a fatal plane crash, French ghosts, naked pan-pipe playing children, brain surgery, feverish hallucinations, Abraham Lincoln, gushing romance and the halls of heaven itself, this is one of British film’s grandest fantasies. 
Mother Russia
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Cast: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasili Merkuryev

Made in the wake of Stalin’s death, this visually rapturous masterpiece is more akin in tone to ’40s British morale boosters than Soviet propaganda pieces of the post-war period. The story – of young lovers torn apart and dragged where the currents of war pull them – bucked the prevailing trend towards willing sacrifice and noble collective spirit. Director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky would go on to make Soy Cuba, and their singular, mesmeric photographic style is evident here too: a startling blend of audacious framing and hand-held intimacy that wouldn’t filter into Western cinema for years. 
Oh, we don’t like to be beside the seaside
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Fionn Whitehead
It’s often said that Christopher Nolan doesn’t do things the ordinary way. But Dunkirk, his visceral, fist-gnawingly tense ticking-clock, actually harks back to an era of war epics like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. Back then, casts were so colossal and the props budgets so enormous, you sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be easier just declaring war for real. Nolan’s achievement is giving his film scale and intimacy at the same time. There’s not an inch of fat on its bones, just tommies, citizen sailors and the odd officer struggling bitterly for salvation in the face of extraordinary odds. 
Stiff lips and sharp axes
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Cast: Leslie Banks, Mervyn Johns, Basil Sydney
Those of us who grew up with national treasure Dame Thora Hird being frightfully lovely on the BBC can only watch in amazement as, at the climax of Alberto Cavalcanti’s masterful wartime chiller, she gamely starts picking off invading Nazis with a rusty old hunting rifle. The plot, in which a German parachutes into a sleepy English village and sets about clearing the way for a major invasion, may be fantasy, but it’s alarmingly powerful. Released before the Normandy landings, Went The Day Well? was precision-tooled to remind all those bicycling bobbies, cheeky pub-dwelling chappies and self-satisfied lairds that they, too, may one day have to take on an entire paratroop division armed only with national pride and a malacca walking stick.
Deeper and down
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Cast: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann

Originally made as a five-hour miniseries for German TV, cut to feature-length for worldwide consumption and finally expanded again to a 210-minute ‘director’s cut’, Wolfgang Petersen’s breathless, terrifying U-boat drama remains the most claustrophobic of all WWII movies. The film is a masterclass in economical, tight-space storytelling, piling the pressure on both characters and audience until the sprockets squeak. The infamous ‘tiefer…’ sequence, as captain Jürgen Prochnow pushes his sub to life-threatening depths, is still almost unwatchable.
The unvarnished truth
Director: Claude Lanzmann
It’s been four decades since Claude Lanzmann started work on this nine-hour documentary investigation into the minute details of mass murder. His method was to dismiss archive images and interviews and to return instead to the sites of the Holocaust, interviewing afresh those with first-hand experience of events at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chełmno and the Warsaw Ghetto. His subjects range from Jewish concentration camp survivors to former Nazi guards. This is sweeping oral testimony as conducted by a filmmaker who is ever-present in his film, bespectacled and smoking, pushing for detail and honesty above emotion and inexactitude. What emerges is an unprecedented form for an unprecedented tragedy.
In the ghetto
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall

Spielberg had been circling the Holocaust for years, getting a little closer each time: the evacuation trains in Close Encounters, the sneering Nazis in Raiders, the brutal camps in Empire of the Sun, all of it leading him to this devastating adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark. A quarter of a century later, the film, which was inspired by Claude Lanzmann’s remarkable Shoah documentary, has lost none of its power. This is a movie so painstakingly crafted, so precise in its details, that it could’ve become cold and removed, unable to fully feel the horrors it depicts. It’s proof of the sheer depth of Spielberg’s empathy that never happens: despite its visual beauty, the film is emotionally raw and still horrifyingly relevant.
Fight or flight
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin

By the time of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick had been languishing in self-imposed exile for two decades while his first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, grew in stature. So it was no surprise that on his return to filmmaking the Hollywood elite would line up to volunteer. Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’s memoir of the battle for Guadalcanal features Sean Penn, John Cusack, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Travolta and Woody Harrelson, with Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke left, amazingly, on the cutting room floor.

The overriding theme in Malick’s work has always been the transition from youth to adulthood, from innocence to experience, from paradise to reality, and this is no exception. Malick paints the disputed island as a lost Eden, the two opposing armies as insignificant in the face of eternal nature. The soldiers are viewed as individuals, questing souls on their own ultimately destructive spiritual journeys, but also as mere facets of the natural world, no more important than the plants, birds and insects that surround them.

It’s an extraordinary vision of war, and indeed of humanity – godlike but ultimately sympathetic, exploring not just hearts and minds, but the souls of men in combat.
About a boy
Director: Elem Klimov
Cast: Aleksei Kravchenko, Olga Mironova

Making the infamous opening of Saving Private Ryan look like a Sunday stroll in the park, Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory masterpiece feels like the nearest cinema has ever come to recreating the ruthlessly discombobulating sensory experience of war. After much deliberation, we thought it fitting to place this singular film at the top of our list, not just for its strikingly candid take on the human toll of warfare but as a work of sublime visual and aural intensity that uses every tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal to unforgettable and often nauseating effect.

Come and See is told from the perspective of Byelorussian lad Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), an army recruit whose plucky optimism is torn away as the platoon he’s inducted into are massacred. Forced to survive alone in the wilderness, he suffers unspeakable indignities at every turn. Klimov’s film argues convincingly that there are no heroes in war, only victims and perpetrators, and that no amount of guns and ammo will be able to reconcile the memory of the Holocaust. A disorienting, downbeat and unforgettable classic. 
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