World War II is an infinitely compelling subject. The conflict sparked stories of horror and heroism across the globe; films capture those stories to become teaching tools for the entire world. There are too many fine films to list when discussing the great World War II movie, but we have narrowed our list down to eight of the best to ever broach the subject of the modern world’s greatest conflict.
Das Boot (1981)
Heralded as one of the greatest German films ever made, Das Boot follows the crew of a Third Reich U-boat. The film shows the diversity of Germany’s army during World War II, portraying many of them as average men serving their duty while ideologically opposing the Nazi regime.
Many critics around the world also consider Das Boot the greatest submarine film ever devised. It is praised for historical and technical accuracy, as well as for its technological innovations that allowed the camera to capture the claustrophobic quality of life in a submarine.
This tense, grounded, and smart thriller is a brilliant World War II movie and a fascinating glimpse behind Axis lines.
Call it recency bias, but Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a World War II movie unlike any other. The film keeps itself off the battlefield, instead following the United States government’s race against the Nazis to build the atomic bomb.
J. Robert Oppenheimer leads a team of scientists on a quest to do the impossible, developing of a weapon that devastates the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war.
Oppenheimer may be the crowning achievement of Christopher Nolan’s career, offering a haunting behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the world’s deadliest weapon. It may be new, but this philosophical and nerve-shredding World War II movie is an instant classic.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino takes a unique approach to the typical World War II movie, rewriting history to deliver a tense, entertaining, and satisfying narrative only he could come up with.
The film follows an elite and brutal group of Jewish United States soldiers on a bloody mission to kill Hitler – and as many Nazis as they can along the way. While Inglourious Basterds has plenty of fun moments, its best sequences are excruciating exercises in tension.
With unforgettable performances from Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, and many more, Inglourious Basterds is one World War II movie you will not soon forget.
The Pianist (2002)
Roman Polanski’s The Pianist follows not the men in uniform during World War II, but civilians living through it. Adrien Brody stars as the Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose 1946 memoir inspired the film.
Szpilman performs live on the radio when the station is bombed. He finds out that Germany is invading. From there, he and his loved ones fight to survive the hardships of a war-torn Europe as Nazis enact their atrocities on the population.
The Pianist is an emotionally harrowing World War II movie focused on regular people caught in the crossfire of war. The film earned Polanski, Brody, and screenwriter Ronald Harwood Oscars at the 2003 Academy Awards and remains a touchstone of modern Western cinema.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
From legendary director David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai is as much a film classic as it is a staple World War II movie. It follows a group of Allied prisoners of war at a Japanese prison camp in Thailand, where the men are forced to build a bridge critical to their enemy’s strategy.
The film asks tough questions about honor and loyalty, challenging its characters with fundamental and compelling questions of the heart. All this is done in a thrilling adventure format with striking cinematography that stands the test of time.
This World War II movie now lives on as some of the finest work from David Lean and actors Alec Guiness and William Holden.
Rick and Ilsa will always have Casablanca, and thanks to director Michael Curitz, so will we. Casablanca is, on its surface, a love story between two people. The backdrop of World War II makes this movie so much more.
It follows Rick, an American who runs a popular club in Morocco. Though he does not get along with the Nazis, his policy is to not involve himself in the war. That is, until Ilsa walks back into his life.
The lover who left him back in Casablanca returns with her husband, a freedom fighter essential to the Allied war effort. As Rick struggles with his feelings for Ilsa and his political loyalties, he must choose between love and the fate of the world.
Casablanca is a great World War II movie actually made during World War II, giving a unique sense of urgency and perspective that has made it one of the most enduring films of all time.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
No film captures the horror of the World War II battlefield quite like Saving Private Ryan. Director Steven Spielberg tells the story of a group of soldiers tasked with finding and safely bringing home Private Ryan, the last survivor of a group of brothers.
This World War II movie does not hold back. Its opening sequence, depicting the horrific violence on the beaches of Normandy, is one of the most harrowing sequences ever put to film. All through Saving Private Ryan, the value of human life is called into question as men risk and give their lives to save that of another, killing as many enemies as it takes to do so.
Spielberg is in rare form with Saving Private Ryan. His charm and sentimentality seeps into moments, but overall, Saving Private Ryan is a World War II film that challenges the audience as much as it entertains it.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg has covered aspects of World War II in several of his films, but Schindler’s List may be the finest work of the filmmaker’s entire career.
This World War II movie follows Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, a Polish businessman who, after witnessing what the Nazis are doing to the Jewish community, sets out to save as many members of his primarily Jewish workforce as he can.
Here, Spielberg pulls the curtain back on concentration camps and the vile acts of Nazi leaders. The history books come alive in a powerful and heart-wrenching way in Schindler’s List. It is one of the most important examinations of World War II ever made and one of the finest films of a Hollywood legend.