The Top 20 World War II Movies In History

While World War I (the Great War) reshaped the lines of Europe, World War II was the most global war in history. The two sides of the war, the Allies and the Axis, directly involved over 100 million people and 30 different countries. The deadliest conflict in history cost between 50 and 85 million military and civilian lives. World War II involved bombings, massacres, genocide, starvation and disease. It was also the first conflict that involved the use of nuclear weapons. The drama, horror and carnage of World War II has inspired many movies.

Here are the top 20 World War II movies in history.

The Longest Day

The award winning 1962 epic World War II film “The Longest Day” is considered one of the best films depicting the Second World War. The film featured several star actors including John Wayne, Robert Ryan and Richard Burton. The movie provides the perspective of both the Allied and the German troops as they faced the most difficult campaign of the war, the invasion of Normandy. The movie is based on the historical novel by Cornelius Ryan about the penultimate D-Day invasion. It depicts interwoven stories of the five invasion points of the campaign and the logistics of the “Overlord” occupation. The movie won multiple awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Special Effects, Best Cinematography and Best Editing.

Saving Private Ryan

Like “The Longest Day”, “Saving Private Ryan” is an epic war film that depicts the drama of the Normandy invasion. The movie won multiple awards including the Oscar for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Editing in 1998. The movie dramatically opens with the Invasion of Normandy on Omaha Beach. The depiction of the invasion lasts 27 minutes and is critically acclaimed. The movie was also a huge box office success. Stephen Spielberg directed the film which tells the story of US Army Rangers Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) leads a band of soldiers played by Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Rabisi, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper and Jeremy Davies as they find Private First Class James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). Ryan is one of four brothers sent to fight in World War II. His three brothers were killed in action while James Frances Ryan had parachuted into Normandy. Captain Miller and his band of soldiers must find Private Ryan and return him home to his family in the United States alive. Throughout the course of their journey, the troop meets a variety of challenges and battles in enemy territory including sniper attacks.

Das Boot

1981’s West German made film “Das Boot” has been critically acclaimed and won several Academy Awards. “Das Boot” translates to “The Boat”. The film tells the story of German soldiers stationed on a submarine U-Boat, U-96. The movie looks at the tediousness and the dramatic battles of World War II aboard a German U-Boat. It is based on a 1973 novel and is as much a story of the traumas of war as a psychological drama. The film was directed by Wolfgang Peterson.

Schindler’s List

“Schindler’s List” is considered one of the best World War II movies of all time. The Steven Spielberg directed film was based on the novel “Schindler’s Ark” by Australian writer Thomas Keneally. The 1993 movie won multiple awards including the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Music Score. The novel and film are based on Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten German businessman who purposely saved thousands of Polish Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his factory during the war. The film starred Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, Ben Kingsley as Schindler’s Jewish accountant, and Ralph Fiennes as a brutal SS officer. Oskar Schindler did everything he could to help Jewish refugees and save them from the terrible fate awaiting in the German work camps.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai

1957’s “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” is the British American war film based on a 1952 novel. The film is a fictional account of the actual events in early 1943 when British prisoners of war captured by the Japanese in Burma who were made to construct a bridge connecting Bankok to Rangoon. Despite the Geneva Convention, soldiers of all ranks were forced to construct the bridge under dangerous circumstances. “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” delves into the treachery of being a POW and the Japanese “Honor Code”. The movie was directed by David Lean and starred Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins. It won multiple awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Leading Actor (Guinness).


“Patton” features one of the most iconic and most quoted scenes in movie history. The 1970 film, based on a best selling memoir, opens with US General George S. Patton’s address to American troops to boost morale after lost battles. General Patton (played by George S. Scott) delivers his motivating speech in front of a giant American flag. The epic World War II movie also starred Karl Malden, Michael Bates and Karl Michael Vogler. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Director. It also won for Best Screenplay. The screenplay was co-written by Frances Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North.

Letters From Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood directed “Letters From Iwo Jima”, the 2006 companion film to “Flags of Our Fathers”. “Letters From Iwo Jima” depicts the same battle as “Flags of Our Fathers” but from the viewpoint of Japanese soldiers. The movie is about Japanese soldiers defending their homeland against invading Americans. The movie starred Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyosh Mara and Ryo Kase. It explores the Japanese code of honor. The clip is from the powerful suicide scene. Japanese code of honor is grounded in the culture of unyielding loyalty. In the clip a Japanese soldier kills himself rather than give up his home, his family and his honor.

Empire of the Sun

1987’s “Empire of the Sun” shows World War II from a different perspective than most Second World War films. The movie tells the story of a young upper class British boy, James “Jim” Graham (played by Christian Bale), who lives in the Shanghai International Settlement with his family as Japan invades China. The film is based on the autobiography by James Ballard. Steven Spielberg directed the movie and it also starred John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese occupy the settlement and James is separated from his family. James is taken prisoner of war by the Japanese.

The Dirty Dozen

“The Dirty Dozen” is a classic war film whose theme has been replicated several times. The film came out in 1967 and was based on the E.M. Nathanson novel “Filthy Thirteen” based on a real life group. The movie is about the planning and execution of a top secret mission code named “Project Amnesty” and carried out during the D-Day Invasion. Lee Marvin plays Major General Sam Warden who is assigned to train a group of criminals recruited to be soldiers and carry out the suicide mission. Along with Marvin, the movie starred Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, Robert Weber and Donald Sutherland. Robert Aldrich directed the film. Although criticized for its violence, “The Dirty Dozen” was a box office success.

The Dam Busters

“The Dam Busters” is a classic British World War II epic film based on the actual “Operation Chastise”. The mission to bomb dams in Mohne, Eder and Sorpe in Nazi Germany was carried out in 1943 by the RAF 617 squadron. The movie is based on books by Paul Brickhill and Guy Gibson. It starred Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave. Todd was a World War II veteran who was with a Parachute Regiment during the D-Day invasion of German occupied France. The movie features the climactic bombing of the dam at Mohne where the squadron experiences triumph yet realize how many lives were lost in their successful mission. Critics have compared the air strike scene to the battle in the original “Star Wars” film.


One of the most famous World War II films is “Casablanca”. The film was made during the war and came out in 1942. It stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick, an American expat who owns an upscale club, Rick’s Café, in Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman stars as Ilsa, Rick’s former love, and Paul Henreid is her husband, Victor Laszlo, a leader of the Czech Resistance. When Ilsa and Victor come to Casablanca, they are trying to get to America but need letters that Rick can help them obtain. Rick is torn by his love for Ilsa and helping her husband. The film features a dramatic scene of patriotism at Rick’s Café. As German troops drink and sing their national anthem, Victor orders the club’s band to play the French national anthem. The club’s French patrons begin singing their anthem overpowering the German’s singing.

The Thin Red Line

“The Thin Red Line” looked at the emotional issues of World War II as well as the battles. The 1998 movie is based on a graphic novel by James Jones. Terrence Malick directed “The Thin Red Line” and starred Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody and George Clooney. The movie centers on a group of men with the Army Rifle Company C (“Charlie”) as they invade Japanese occupied Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The clip is from Sargent Welsh’s (Sean Penn) speech saying “Everything is a lie”. The soldiers are jaded and cynical about the missions they are sent on and the purpose.

Days of Glory

“Days of Glory” was produced by RKO Studios and starred Gregory Peck and Tamara Toumanova. The 1944 film includes a powerful depiction of the Russian attack on Alsace. The movie is about a beautiful Russian dancer, Nina Ivanova (Toumanova) who is separated from her entertainment troop and found by a group of Soviet guerillas fighting as Nazi Germany invades Russia in 1941. Peck plays Vladimir, the leader of the group who falls in love with Nina.

Come and See

“Come and See” is the 1985 Soviet film that is a drama and psychological thriller about World War II. The film was directed by Elim Klimov and starred Aleksei Kravchenko and Olga Mironova. It centers around the stories of Flyora and Glasha during the Nazi German occupation of the Byelorussian SSR. It took several years for the film to get Soviet approval to go into production. Although several critics did not like the movie, it is considered by many to be a great film “Come and See” won at the 1985 Moscow International Film Festival.

A Bridge Too Far

1977’s “A Bridge Too Far” was based on a 1974 novel by Cornelius Ryan about an operation involving 35,000 ally soldiers dropped behind German enemy lines in The Netherlands. The troops were assigned to blow up roads and bridges. The hope of the operation was to end World War II by Christmas 1944. The movie was a critical success and was directed by Richard Attenborough. The movie featured many stars including Dick Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, and Laurence Olivier.

Life Is Beautiful

Roberto Benigni directed and starred in 1997’s award winning World War II film “Life is Beautiful”. Benigni played Guido Orefice, a Jewish Italian book store owner with a big personality. Guido wins the love of Dora who he steals away from her engagement party. The two live happily together and have a son. When Nazi Germany occupies Italy, Guido and his son are taken away and Dora volunteers to go to a concentration camp. The family is separated, but Guido convinces his son that it is all an exciting game to shield his boy from the travesty of living in a concentration camp and fearing death. Just before the allied troops free the prisoners of the camp, Guido is taken away to be executed. He continues to “play the game” as he is led away from his son. His son is eventually reunited with his mother. As a grown man, the son realizes what his father did to protect him. The movie also starred Nicoletta Braschi and Giorgio Cantarini. “Life Is Beautiful” won Academy Awards including Best Foreign Film and Best Actor.

Inglourious Basterds

“Inglourious Basterds” is a critically acclaimed World War II movie and a box office success. The 2009 movie was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and starred Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender. The movie is about two alternative plots to assassinate Nazi political leaders, one French plot and one American plot. Tarantino spent a decade perfecting the script for “Inglourious Basterds”.

From Here to Eternity

“From Here to Eternity” won eight Academy Awards and was based on a novel by James Jones. Among the Oscars won, the 1953 World War II film won for Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemenn), Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed). The movie centers on three US Army soldiers stationed in Oahu, Hawaii just months before the Japanese attack on Harbor which led to the American entrance into the war. The three soldiers were played by Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra. The film also starred Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine and Jack Warden. Lancaster’s character falls in love with Kerr’s character who is the neglected wife of an army officer. The film’s most iconic scene is Lancaster kissing Kerr on the beach as the surf rolls in.

Grave of the Fireflies

“Grave of the Fireflies” is a Japanese animated World War II film released in 1988 to critical acclaim. Two live action films were later released. “Grave of the Fireflies” tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, who survive the bombing of their neighborhood and city just before Japan’s surrender that ended World War II. The movie begins with Seita dying from starvation in September 1945. His spirit joins his sister’s spirit and they flashback to how their young lives came to an end. When their Japanese town is bombed, the children’s mother dies. Their aunt takes care of them but their are limited food rations so the children go to live in a bomb shelter where they release fireflies for light. They slowly starve to death before they are given food rations which come too late. The movie is a touching depiction of a side of World War II that most of the world does not consider.


“Downfall” or “Der Untergang” is the critically acclaimed 2004 international film that explores the final days of Adolf Hitler’s live. The film was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and written and produced by Bernd Eichinger. The film begins with a clip of the 2002 documentary “Im toten Winkel” which featured the real Traudl Junge. In the clip Junge says that she feels shame for admiring Hitler when she was young. Hitler hired Junge as his secretary in 1942. The remainder of the film begins with Hitler’s final birthday on April 20, 1945 and ends with his murder of his wife, Eva Braun, and his suicide as allied troops approach and the burning of their bodies.

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