With Christopher Nolan's historical colossus Dunkirk looming on the horizon, we've rounded up our choices of the most stirringly powerful World War II movies ever made. Will your favourites make our list? Scroll down to find out.
The Thin Red Line
This star-studded drama from director Terrence Malick eschews many of the standard war movie conventions. Instead, it’s a languid, almost spiritual film where the war itself (or more precisely the Battle of Mount Austen on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific) is almost a backdrop to a meditative study on the nature of existence.
Very Important Person
As British as Yorkshire pudding, this rollicking prisoner of war camp-set comedy is a bit of a forgotten gem. Starring Leslie Phillips, James Robertson Justice and Stanley Baxter, it tells the story of a newly arrived POW who, the prisoners discover, is a key officer who must be got out at all cost.
It may have all the hallmarks of a Quentin Tarantino flick – fruity language, great long dialogue scenes, brutal violence and a belting soundtrack – but Inglourious Basterds (the title comes from a 1978 Italian film, but the spelling is pure Tarantino) is also a bold and brilliant war drama. Brad Pitt heads up the cast as Aldo ‘The Apache’ Raine, the leader of a group of Jewish-American soldiers who have only one thing on their minds – killing Nazis.
Saving Private Ryan
Though famed for its intense 27-minute opening scene on Omaha Beach, there’s so much more to relish in Steven Spielberg’s poignant drama about the search for paratrooper James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), the last-surviving brother of four US servicemen. The movie won Spielberg a Best Director Oscar and was acclaimed as an uncompromising and devastatingly powerful movie about the human cost of war.
The Dam Busters
This true-life drama about how the British pummelled German dams in WWII is certainly a classic even though some aspects of the movie have dated badly (the name of Wing Commander Guy Gibson's dog is a highly offensive racial term). Patriotic and spirit-lifting without ever resorting to flag-waving propaganda, The Dam Busters is a powerful and emotional reminder of one of the most important aerial attacks on the Second World War.
A Bridge Too Far
True-life war movies are usually made about the successes, not the mess-ups. Which makes A Bridge Too Far, about the mismanagement and poor planning behind Operation Market Garden in September 1944, kind of unique. Thankfully, Richard Attenborough’s sprawling epic (in its time, one of the most expensive films ever made) is no failure, but is instead a riveting, star-laden (it has more A-listers than even an Oscar night can manage) masterpiece about one of the war’s most inglorious episodes.
A group of American soldiers go AWOL in order to rob a bank in occupied France in this bouncy wartime heist flick penned by Sweeney creator Troy Kennedy Martin. With its snappy dialogue, peppy performances (doffs cap to Donald Sutherland, Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas especially) and eye-wowing action, it’s no mystery why Kelly’s Heroes has been such a Bank Holiday TV favourite for so long.
The Great Escape
Not just one of the greatest war movies ever made but one of the very best movies ever made, period. Featuring an all-star international cast, The Great Escape told the true story of the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Poland. But while it has its bleak moments (the murder of 50 escapees at the very end is gut-wrenching), it has some real punch-the-air moments. And that theme tune is still a knockout.
Ice Cold in Alex
In this bullet-proof war movie classic, a medical field unit must cross the North African desert in their ambulance in order to reach the British lines in Alexandria. The film’s title, by the way, is a reference to the main character, John Mills’ Captain Anson, and his dreams of drinking an ice-cold pint of lager in Alexandria.
Grave of the Fireflies
World War II movies can take many different forms, even animation. This devastating drama from the masters at Studio Ghibli explores the fallout from the end of the war as a young brother and sister endeavour to survive amidst the remains of Kobe. It is, quite simply, one of the most artistically beautiful and powerful war movies ever made.
Steven Spielberg's harrowing, urgent account of the rescue of thousands of Jews from Nazi occupation marked his coming of age as a serious, adult filmmaker. One of the definitive statements about the Holocaust, Spielberg's black and white masterpiece features stunning performances from Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler and, especially, Ralph Fiennes as monstrous commandant Amon Goeth.
"Here's lookin' at you, kid." Has any Hollywood melodrama been stuffed with more classic lines than this unforgettable romantic epic? Both a story of thwarted love and a political microcosm of the complexity of World War II, it largely unfolds within the confines of Rick's cafe in the titular African city, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman giving towering, iconic performances as two people torn apart by conflict.
Come and See
Few World War II movies render the conflict in as dreamlike or disturbing a fashion as this nightmarish Russian drama. The final movie from noted director Elem Klimov, it ditches the conventional wartime narrative for a horrifying, expressionistic look at the atrocities committed by the Nazis on the Belorussian front, our guide a young boy suffering from both deafness and shellshock. Even today it stuns and terrifies.
Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel received a fine 2007 adaptation courtesy of director Joe Wright. It's a slippery beast, dealing with that most infamous of things, the unreliable narrator, but it reaches its dramatic peak when James McAvoy's Robbie, unfairly accused of a crime, shipped off to war and separated from his beloved (Keira Knightley), comes face to face with the horrors at Dunkirk. Wright's astonishing, five-minute tracking shot is surely one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of cinema.
It takes a brave filmmaker to invest the last days of Adolf Hitler with nuance and compassion, but Oliver Hirschbiegel was that man. His noted 2004 drama takes place in Hitler's bunker during the dictator's last days, an uncompromising look at the last minute scramble for power as the Nazis' control began to collapse. Bruno Ganz' explosive, empathetic performance as Hitler is truly remarkable.
The Guns of Navarone
One of Hollywood's most audience-friendly takes on WWII assembles the all-star cast of Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn for the engrossing story of a quest to destroy a German fortress threatening Allied warships. It's not the most realistic war movie ever made but few can rival it for sheer entertainment value.
Which of your favourites did we miss off the list? Let us know @Cineworld.