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Dunkirk: our top 10 wartime escape stories


Did you see Christopher Nolan's astonishing, screen-filling World War II epic Dunkirk this weekend? The movie dramatises the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940 and is the kind of harrowing, overwhelming experience that only Nolan can deliver.

Whether you're yet to see it or can't wait to watch it again, we're honouring the movie's victorious spirit by selecting our top 10 wartime escape movies. Will your own personal favourite be included? Let's find out.

10. The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)

Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh star as the married couple Antonina and Jan Zabinski, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, who helped save 300 people during the German invasion of Poland.

Daniel Brühl plays the leading Nazi, Lutz Heck, a zoologist who offers to save their best animals by shipping them to his Berlin zoo, and then gets involved in a relationship with Antonina.

9. The One That Got Away (1957)

Director Roy Ward Baker’s exciting 1957 British wartime adventure stars Berlin-born Hardy Kruger who came to Britain to play Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, the real-life German wartime pilot shot down over England and captured by the British.

It is the fascinating true story of the only German prisoner-of-war to escape from imprisonment in Britain during the Second World War.

8. The Colditz Story (1954)

Bond director Guy Hamilton’s persuasive, well-crafted 1954 World War Two saga of British prisoner-of-war existence in the German castle of Colditz is based on the autobiographical book by Pat Reid.

John Mills is outstanding as the author himself, who synchronises all the escape plans from Colditz, and a creepy-seeming Eric Portman does well as the British commander, Colonel Richmond.

In 1972-74 there was also a famous hit BBC TV series of the story, Colditz, with David McCallum and Robert Wagner. And it was remade for TV in 2005 as Colditz, with Damian Lewis, Tom Hardy, Laurence Fox and James Fox.

7. Dunkirk (1958)

The story of the evacuation from Dunkirk, the gallant rescue operation of the retreating Allied army on the French beaches in 1940, is authentically told by director Leslie Norman (father of the late film critic Barry Norman) in realist style, with the help of contemporary newsreels and gritty black and white shooting. 

6. The Wooden Horse (1950)

This famous British film tells one of the best-loved escape stories of World War Two, with a screenplay by Eric Williams, based on his autobiography.

Captured in Germany during a bombing raid in 1942, Williams was one of three men who managed to escape a Nazi PoW camp. How? Easy, use a vaulting horse for gym exercise, place it near the heavily guarded camp boundary, and dig a tunnel beneath it while the gym work’s going on above!

5. The Pianist (2002)

Roman Polanski's harrowing drama takes another real-life Holocaust story and shows that, sometimes, it takes many, many people to help one person to survive.

This is the extraordinary story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist who alone managed with the help of so many different people to survive the Nazi destruction of his family's comfortable lifestyle, the building of the Warsaw Ghetto and the removal of all his relatives to a concentration camp.

Adrien Brody won the Best Actor award at the 2003 Oscars for his compelling tour-de-force as Szpilman and Polanski the Best Director award.

4. Schindler's List (1993)

Steven Spielberg won his long overdue Oscar for Best Director for his overwhelming film telling the true story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler. The latter risks his life and spends his fortune, first to protect the Jews on his famous list, then to save more than 1,100 of them from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Liam Neeson gives an extremely credible, layered and powerful account of the complicated hero Schindler, a character with a unique mix of charisma and contradictions. Ralph Fiennes is hypnotic in the difficult role of SS Commandant Amon Goeth, appallingly chilling and disgusting as the psychotic Nazi monster who runs the concentration camp.

Though gruelling, Schindler’s List is about celebrating human goodness and shows that one good act saves the world.

3. Von Ryan's Express (1965)

Director Mark Robson’s thoroughly exciting 1965 chase-adventure is mainly a vehicle for Frank Sinatra as the disliked and resented American colonel, Joseph L. Ryan.

He organises World War Two British prisoners (Trevor Howard and John Leyton) into carrying out a daring train escape in a commandeered freight-liner to make their getaway from a wartime Italian prisoner-of-war camp. Overall, it is one of Sinatra's best movies, with the hated man role ideally suiting Old Blue Eyes' belligerent personality.

2. Escape to Victory (1981)

Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone star in this classic about using a soccer game to cover an escape from a German POW camp in WWII.

Director John Huston’s eccentric 1981 prisoner-of-war adventure is agreeably old-fashioned and enjoyable entertainment. Huston signed up famous names from both the acting and footie fields (Pelé, Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles) as the World War Two wartime Allied prisoner of war players. They take on the enemy German National Team in a soccer match in Nazi-occupied Paris, while planning to make their escape at half time.

There is plenty here to keep soccer fans and fans of the stars happy, with Stallone as Canadian commando Robert Hatch, Caine as British Captain John Colby and Swedish superstar Max von Sydow as a Nazi officer (Major Karl Von Steiner).

1. The Great Escape (1963)

Director John Sturges' masterpiece is one of the most famous and popular prison escape movies of all time.

In 1943, Allied prisoners in Germany built three escape tunnels for a mass escape from the Nazis’ maximum security compound Stalag Luft III North, oddly the same prisoner-of-war camp where the escape in The Wooden Horse (1950) was being engineered simultaneously.

Playing Hilts the Cooler King, Steve McQueen makes his escape the most thrilling of all. His ride on a stolen Nazi motorbike to the sounds of Elmer Bernstein's rousing score certainly supplies the film’s most exciting and memorable sequence.

What did you make of Dunkirk and what are your favourite wartime escape movies? Let us know @Cineworld.

Derek Winnert is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.