The Ten Best World War II Films of All-Time

Last month we celebrated the seventy-third anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Whether we ever stop to reflect upon it or not, the Second World War remains the one of the most important, influential global events in modern history. From geo-political tensions in Europe still playing themselves out in today’s headlines, to the fact that English remains the international language of commerce, World War II is the definitive occurrence of our modern age.

There have been so many World War II films made because there are so many stories to tell. This weekend, Christopher Nolan, one of the best film directors alive today, unveiled his cinematic homage to World War II with Dunkirk. And while the jury is still out on where Nolan’s contribution will rank among the all-time greats, here is my list of the Ten Best World War II (action) films of all-time:

10) Fury (2014)

The most recent entry on my list, few films better capture the raw nerves and heightened tensions that marked the final months of the war. Brad Pitt plays U.S. Sherman tank commander “Wardaddy,” a man hell-bent on doing whatever it takes to keep his men alive in an impossible situation. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it is Shia LaBeouf who steals the show in this instant classic from director David Ayer.

9) The Guns of Navarone (1961)

A small commando team is sent to destroy huge German guns on the Greek Island of Navarone in order to rescue Allied troops trapped nearby. Starring the inimitable Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven, Navarone is a film that your grandpa likely loved and you should learn to love as well. There are even some fun twists and turns along the way.

8) Das Boot (1981)

The story of a German submarine, its captain, and crew, charged with patrolling the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. The masterful, Oscar-nominated Wolfgang Petersen explores the madness and minutia of war in close quarters in this epic film.

7) A Bridge Too Far (1977)

The trials and tribulations of the failed Operation Market Garden mission in 1944 that was intended to liberate Holland and bring a speedier end to the war. The remarkable ensemble cast—Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, and James Caan, to name a few—is what solidifies this film as one of the all-time greats.

6) The Longest Day (1962)

Darryl F. Zanuck’s labor of love became the most comprehensive exploration of D-Day ever to grace the silver screen. Like Bridge Too Far, the star-studded cast only enhances what is already an insightful survey of one of the most important days in history.

5) The Great Escape (1963)

Imprisoned during World War II in a German POW camp, a group of Allied soldiers are intent on breaking out, not only to escape, but also to draw Nazi forces away from battle to search for fugitives. This is the movie that made Steve McQueen a household name, and features director John Sturges (Magnificent Seven) at the top of his game.

4) Inglorious Basterds (2009)

I do not care that director Quentin Tarantino made up an alternative version of World War II history. I do not care that Brad Pitt’s Appalachian accent is horrendously bad. This is one of the most enjoyable action movie experiences of my life and Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa will still be talked about decades from now.

3) Patton (1970)

God broke the mold when he made General George S. Patton. This biopic, co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, is a gritty, exhilarating deep-dive into the mind (and volatile career) of a true American hero. George C. Scott was born to play this role and you were born to enjoy him playing it.

2) The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)

This is an adaptation of the Pierre Bouelle novel about POWs in Burma who are forced to build a bridge to aid the war effort of their Japanese captors. British and American officers plot to blow up the structure, but the commander of the bridge’s construction has different plans. Both Alec Guinness and William Holden give career-making performances in this gut-wrenching epic.

1) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes his men behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Surrounded by the brutal realties of war, while searching for Ryan, each man embarks upon a personal journey and discovers his own strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage. It simply does not get better than this one. It’s so good, even Vin Diesel’s acting deficiencies can’t undermine the movie.

Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.

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  • SamHamilton

    I’m glad someone else appreciates The Guns of Navarone. I always liked that one.

  • Bob

    Great list. Hard to argue with any of it.

  • Mack

    If only veterans could copyright their experiences – the film industry makes fortunes based on the stories of those whom they otherwise repudiate.