My Top Ten Favorite World War II Movies

10. Saving Private Ryan

While I can pick this movie apart with the best of ’em, I do think the battle scenes really set this one apart.  And while many gripe that Hanks was too old to play a Ranger captain, or that the rest of the cast were stereotypes of all GIs from many older war flicks, the first 20-minutes were just absolutely mind-blowing.  And while it did take the real heroes hours to get off that beach and push the Germans back, the violence and horror are laid bare for all to see.  Steven Speilberg has made many films that take place during the war, but I give him props here because he set the bar for war films high, and departed from the usual bloodless-GIs-running-off-the-Higgins-boats-cheering-loudly to storm and take Omaha Beach we had been accustomed too previously.

9.  Letters From Iwo Jima

General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) directs the movement of his troops on the island of Iwo Jima.

One of my favorite actors and directors, Clint Eastwood, made this a companion film to ‘Flags of Our Fathers.’   And while ‘Flags’ told the story of the iconic Marine Corps photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, ‘Letters’ takes a look from the Japanese perspective.  General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is the man in charge of all Japanese troops on the island, and exhorts each man to kill at least 10 Americans before they die for the Emperor.  Kuribayashi is almost a sympathetic character here despite this, as we see him in flashbacks in the U. S., gracefully accepting an elaborate .45 pistol from American military officers at a reception in his honor before the war.  Kuribayashi has no allusions as to what will happen to himself and his men.  He knows Iwo is their final resting place and none of them will ever see Japan again.  Eastwood does a good job of capturing that fatalism and melancholy despite the fanaticism shown by Japanese troops.  Some critics felt he went too easy on the Japanese, but I think it’s important to remember that one can’t paint a broad brush against an entire group of people, even Japanese soldiers.  These same critics often point to the scene between Baron Nishi and a wounded American marine that is captured and hauled into Nishi’s cave.  Nishi treats the marine well,  and after the young man dies, Nishi (a former Olympic medalist who is fluent in English) reads a letter from the man’s mother.  Nishi’s men listen as he translates it back into Japanese, and all of them no doubt realize just how much they have in common with their enemy.  More likely, they just wind up missing their own mother’s, and would not hesitate to kill the next American they encounter.  Japan’s record of brutality during the war has been well-known, and much made of the Bushido code.  I also enjoyed ‘Flags of Our Father’s’ as well, and think Eastwood did a phenomenal job on both.  ‘Flags’ does get a little clumsy in its jumping around, but as a companion set, these two stand up both together and alone as excellent war movies.

8.  Ballad of a Soldier

I honestly just saw this film for the first time about six months ago, and I have to admit I was astonished and blown away for several reasons.  First because the film is Russian, and was made in 1959, smack dab in the middle of the Cold War.  Second, because we Americans didn’t see the Soviets as people like us, despite their being our allies in World War II.  They were cold, distant, brutal, and sacrificed their soldiers in ways Americans couldn’t understand.   ‘Ballad of a Soldier’ is anything but cold.  It  is not so much a war movie, as it is a movie about love.  Love is the key theme set against the backdrop of war.  Little combat is actually shown, although the effects of war pervade the movie throughout.  A mother awaits the return of her son, and gazes out for miles on the Russian steppe.  It is revealed that her son has been killed in the war, in a foreign country far away.  Cut to a young Russian soldier named Aloysha single-handedly destroying two German panzers. His commanding general wants to give him a medal, but he asks for leave instead, hoping to help his mother fix her leaky roof.  His request granted, Aloysha begins a journey back home with six days of leave.  The various types of love depicted in the film are then explored.  At one point Aloysha runs into a fellow soldier named Vasya, who has lost a leg in battle and does not want to return home.  He tells Aloysha that he doesn’t want to be a burden to his wife and that their marriage was in trouble before he left.  After speaking with Aloysha, Vasya changes his mind, and is ecstatic to find that despite the loss of a limb, his wife welcomes him back, just glad to have him with her once more.  Aloysha then meets Shura, a young woman, and the two fall in love, which happens rather awkwardly but quickly, it being wartime.  After some further delays and adventures, Aloysha finally gets home, but only has a few minutes to see his mother, who is overjoyed to see him.  But the joy turns bitter when she realizes he has to go back to the front.  This film, despite being made by a former “enemy,” has a humanity that is universal in its simplicity.  The ending is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever seen and it will stay with you for some time.

7.  Inglorious Basterds

Many people will probably stop reading after seeing this on here, but bear with me.  Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge fantasy is not historically-accurate AT ALL!  For many history-types, that is an unforgivable sin.  But why can’t history have fun every once in awhile?  That’s exactly what this film felt like: Fun.  And that may sound horrible, especially considering the subject matter, but Tarantino takes his shots at many of the Nazi higher-ups.  He has a few of them die in a way we know isn’t the real way they went, but who wouldn’t want to see Hitler and Goebbels get shot up in a violent, messy way?  Christoph Waltz is the star here, mesmerizingly evil and smarmy as SS Colonel Hans “the Jew Hunter” Landa (for which he won the 2009 Best Supporting Actor Oscar).   Brad Pitt does his best hillbilly impersonation, and the Jewish-American GIs are essentially goofy looking young nerds that would have been better cast in some lame teen comedy.  Melanie Laurent is excellent as Shoshana Dreyfus, the lone survivor of a Jewish family killed by Landa, and plotting against the Nazi hierarchy in a theater she now owns.  My favorite part of the movie takes place in an undergound bar, with British Lieutenant Archie Hickox (played by Michael Fassbender), accidentally giving himself away to a fanatical SS major while pretending to be a German officer.  The shootout and bloodbath that ensues after some hissing banter is pure Tarantino.  And while Tarantino’s film ideas aren’t always fresh, I do enjoy the dialogue he writes and the well-formed characters he usually creates.  Most of the time both are gloriously (or ingloriously in this case) over the top, but you can never really claim that any of his film’s are boring.  While historically a mess, this is pretty good fun.

6.  The Longest Day

Lt. Gen. Vandervoort (John Wayne) gathers American paratroopers with him to assault German positions in the movie ‘The Longest Day.’

This film seemingly has nearly every famous male actor from the 1950s and 60s in it.  John Wayne (much too old to play Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort), Roddy McDowall, Henry Fonda, Sal Mineo, Eddie Albert, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Richard Todd, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger, etc., all together in this movie based on Cornelius Ryan’s classic about the D-Day invasion.  And while it’s a little Ra-Ra in tone, it gives us a glimpse into not only what the Allies experienced on that day in June, but the confusion the Germans were going through as well.  I’ll always have an issue with the way the Americans are seen running off their landing craft and straight onto the beach, but movie violence back then was fairly bloodless and largely inferred, not the seeming gore-fest it is today.  It’s one of those movies that can be on and I can jump into it at any point and still enjoy it.  A true classic.

5.  Downfall

This German film captures the last few days of Adolph Hitler’s Germany right up until he kills himself alongside Eva Braun in his bunker in Berlin.  Seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s young secretary, we witness the depravities and horrors the Third Reich unleashed come home to roost.  While the viewer does not feel any sympathy towards Hitler and his supporters, one does gain some sympathy for those Germans that are caught squarely in the midst of his insanity. As the Soviets battle fanatical and often extremely youthful Nazis in the street, Hitler’s grip with reality comes undone.  He orders forces he no longer has to make stands against the invading Bolsheviks.  The SS men under his command fight on to the end, or wind up surrendering to the Russians, only to learn that their fate was often a decades-long imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag.   One truly does feel bad for the children of Josef and Magda Goebbels, as they are poisoned by their own mother, who does not want any of them to live in a “world without National Socialism.”  The audience gets a sense of just how much these people believed in their perverse cause, but not why.  Bruno Ganz does a phenomenal job of playing Hitler.  And although Hitler is often seen and played as a monster, he was all too human, and that is what Ganz is able to bring out.

4.  The Dirty Dozen

Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin starred in the 1967 action-adventure World War II film ‘The Dirty Dozen.’

One of the best action-packed adventure movies ever made, with an all-star cast that could never be duplicated again.  Who would one get nowadays to star in a remake of this 1967 classic?  Clooney?  Maybe.  Pitt?  Perhaps.   Hell, some of the original stars WERE actual World War II veterans-Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy and Robert Ryan all served.  Round out this awesome lineup with John Cassavettes, Richard Jaeckel, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker, and Trini Lopez and you have a recipe for a kick-ass action flick!  Based upon the real-life unit of demolitions experts within the 101st Airborne known as the “Filthy Thirteen,” the ‘Dirty Dozen’ begin as a group of convicts are trained as commandos to go into France before D-Day to kill several high-ranking German officers and throw the Nazis into confusion.  The catch-if they refuse the training or try to escape, they go right back to prison to have their sentences carried out.  For many of them, that would mean death at the end of a rope.  Lee Marvin stars as Major John Reisman, a tough OSS officer, ordered to whip the convicts into shape and lead them into Nazi-occupied France.  This is another of those films that I could watch again and again and never get sick of.  Cassavettes nails the role of Franko, the most rebellious of the convicts, while Savalas stars as A. J. Maggott, a race-baiting, female hating psychopath who nearly ruins the mission before it even begins.  An instant classic.

3.  Patton

I believe that if George S. Patton, Jr., had ever seen this movie, he would have liked it very much.  He definitely would have liked George C. Scott’s gruff and powerful voice (his was actually more high-pitched and nasally), and would have enjoyed seeing his pulling-one-over on Monty in Sicily (some historical facts are played with a bit fast-and-loose), but this film helped cement Patton’s reputation as an ornery, fiery, cussing fighter despite his clashing with Bradley, Eisenhower, Montgomery, and any soldier suffering from combat fatigue.  While only one of two actual slapping incidents is depicted in the film, Patton firmly did not believe in combat stress at all.  The opening scene, of Patton in full regalia (including ivory-handled revolvers on his hips) in front of a huge American flag and giving a “pep talk” to his troops, is based on a speech he gave to Third Army troops.  Francis Ford Coppola, one of the screenwriters, had to tone Patton’s real speech down, as it was peppered with several swear words, and the director wanted to get the movie in under an ‘R’ rating.   Scott won the Best Actor Oscar in 1971 for his performance as Patton, but very un-Patton like, gave it back, citing his disbelief in acting competitions.

2.  Kelley’s Heroes

“Always with the negative waves Moriarty!”

I just must be a sucker for those World War II movies with great casts, action, and some humor.   And you can never go wrong when you have Clint Eastwood starring.  Throw in Don Rickles as “Crap Game,” Donald Sutherland as “Oddball,” and Telly Savalas as “Big Joe,” and this movie is seriously entertaining every time.  Plus, you have Carroll O’ Conn0r playing the hilariously naive General Holt (not to mention Len Lesser, ‘Uncle Leo’ from ‘Seinfeld)!  Eastwood stars as Pvt. Kelley, a former lieutenant that was demoted and became the scapegoat for another officer’s screwup.  After capturing a German officer and finding a gold bar in his possession, Kelley gets the German drunk and is told about more gold bars worth some 16 million dollars sitting in a bank vault 30 miles behind German lines.  Rounding up some suspicious characters, including a hippie tank driver played by Sutherland who pesters his gunner to “quit it with those negative waves,” and a hustler played by the great Don Rickles, Kelley and the rest plan their heist and then fight their way through German lines to grab the loot all while trying to survive.  Being made in 1970, the movie reflects the way a fed-up and war weary American public was dealing with the Vietnam War.  Kelley’s heroes are also sick of their war and figure if they’re going to risk their lives for something, why not $16 million?  One of my favorite parts of the movie is near the end, when after enlisting the help of an SS tanker to blow the doors of the bank open, Kelley tells the Nazi goodbye.  The SS officer gives him the straight-armed Nazi salute, and Kelley shoots him a look like he’s about to shoot him as only Eastwood could give.  The German responds with the more proper salute with the fingertips of the right hand to the right eyebrow and Eastwood returns it somewhat agitated.  It’s Kelley saying “hey, even though I’m sick of this war and sick of you, you started this thing and I’d still rather kill you than buy you a beer, so don’t be giving me that Nazi crap!” Sometimes it’s just all about a look.

And my #1 favorite movie you ask?

1.  The Best Years of Our Lives

The winner of 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, the ‘Best Years of Our Lives’ does not even include any combat action (although it does include some flash backs for Dana Andrews’ Air Corps pilot).  A fantastic movie about three veterans returning to their hometown, it follows how each readjusts to a society that is ready to put the war behind them even though they themselves may not be.   The veterans, Fred Derry (Andrews), Al Stephenson (Frederic March), and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), return to their lives and families but feel out of place and that they are no longer the same as when they left for the war.  Derry’s young wife wants to go out and party, while Al is becoming an alcoholic.  The movie really belongs to Homer, played by real-life amputee Harold Russell who lost both of his arms in a training accident during the war.  In the film, Homer lost his arms from burns when his aircraft carrier was sunk, and returns to his parents home, where he feels shut off from everyone else due to his disabilities.  His girlfriend Wilma is glad he has returned alive, but Homer doesn’t want to be a burdern to her and pushes her away.  Some have accused the film of being a tad schmaltzy, and perhaps it is, but it is one of the few to examine what it is like for veterans returning home from war.  These men were the victors of World War II, but many came back with physical and mental issues that were hardly addressed.  I have often wondered why Hollywood has not remade this film.  Of all their horrible remakes, perhaps it’s best they just leave it alone.  But I can’t help but think with the current wars we are involved in, how much an updated version of this story would be fantastic, if done simply and understated.  No big explosions, no on-screen murders or gratuitous sex scenes…just a low-key drama on the effects of war on veterans and how sometimes it takes awhile for the people who love them to let them heal and get help.  And to stand by them when the nightmares return.  And while none of the three men in the movie ever completely healed, they were able to make the best of what they could with what they had.  There is a strong theme of hope throughout the film, and it is a masterpiece of subtlety and poignancy.

18 comments on “My Top Ten Favorite World War II Movies

  1. Steve McCracken says:

    1. Best Years of our Lives 2. Soldiers of Orange 3. Battle of Britain 4. Guns of Navarone 5. Patton 6. Big Red One 7. Windtalkers 7. Saving Private Ryan 8. Sands of Iwo Jima 9. Letters from Iwo Jima 10. The Longest Day

  2. navyphoto22 says:

    I also like the ones you have mentioned that didn’t get on my list. Others I enjoy include ‘Come and See,’ ‘Where Eagles Dare,’ ‘Thin Red Line,’ and ‘Hell in the Pacific’ among many, many others. It would probably be easier to make a list of the WWII movies I DON’T like! Maybe that will be the next post.

  3. Steve Rubin says:

    Love your choices, Navy. The Best Years of Our Lives has always been one of my favorites. I used to have an audio tape of the whole movie and I would play it before I went to bed in college and I got to know the characters so well. The scene at the end where Fred Derry wanders around an airfield with hundreds of bombers and fighters that are about to turned into pre-fabricated housing was amazing. William Wyler was quite a director and he really painted what life must have been like for returning veterans. Why not a remake? Look at the title. World War II for these men may have truly been the best years, I wonder if modern veterans would say the same.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Thanks Steve, appreciate the feedback! I hadn’t even thought that these times we are living in may not be the best years of our current veterans’ lives. That is quite possible. But I think with the right writing, director, and actors, a remake could be done. Maybe it’s just best not to mess with perfection though!

  4. What a great list! Mine are: Saving Private Ryan, Best Years of Our Lives, Fires on the Plains, The Women, Patton, The Burmese Harp, Bataan, The Big Red One, Downfall, and, oddly enough, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Thanks Rebecca! I admit to never having seen Fires on the Plains or The Burmese Harp. All the others are great films! Have you seen ‘The Thin Red Line?’ It’s a bit too ponderous at times, but it’s pretty good. The list of good actors whose scenes were left on the cutting room floor is astounding!

  5. Sorry, but I cannot agree with many of these picks but then again the choices are very personal indeed! It is obvious You prefer action and technically proficient movies whereas history and realism is secondary:

    If You wish more of the above, I mean history and realism, I would recommend You to see any/all of these:

    Unknown Soldier (Finland 1955)
    Talvisota – Winter War (Finland)
    A bridge too far – Excellent film, perhaps the best of them
    The Iron Cross
    Enemy at the gates
    Das Boot – U-boat, another excellent film
    Regeneration (WWI) about injured/shellshocked soldiers being regenerated to frontline service
    Admiral (Koltjak, WWI+revolution) excellent Russian film about the white admiral
    Tali-Ihantala 1944 (Finland)

    … you might learn something from these films

    All the best

    • Sorry forgot:

      Battle of Britain – is an EXCELLENT FILM and the Longest day (which is on Your list)

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Hi Joacim,

      Well, these are personal picks, and I’d like to think that my tastes do evolve and are constantly changing. Like many American males of my age, I grew up liking action movies with tons of explosions and violence. Unlike some of my peers, I understood that many movies like this were over the top and not based at all in reality. I enjoy many of the movies you mention, but honestly haven’t seen others on your list, such as ‘Admiral’ and ‘Tali-thantala.’ I remember having seen ‘Regeneration,’ and thought it was a very well done movie centering on two of my favorite WWI poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. My all-time favorite war film besides ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ is the WWI film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ But I’m glad you responded, because now I can go and look for these movies I haven’t seen, and who knows-they may just become new favorites!

      • All the best to You Rob, hope You get some joy from these indeed. I would recommend to start with the “A Bridge too far!” Simply outstanding.

        Shows the Germans persistence, American’s unpredictability and gung-ho and sometimes the British incompetence (at HQ level).

        As for the Finnish movies would recommend the Winter War – it is indeed truthful. Depicting a hopeless battle against inhuman odds in material and men. This movie just shows how proud we Finns can be of our grandfathers

    • rob says:

      Is Stalingrad in DVD format yet?

  6. rob says:

    In the Longest Day wasnt John Waynes character a Lt Col.?

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Yes, Wayne played Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, whom was 27 in 1944. John Wayne was ten years older than Vandervoort, so when ‘The Longest Day’ was made in 1962, Wayne was 55, twice the age of what Vandervoort was during the war.

  7. David Magnusson says:

    The Great Escape [Luftwaffe Colonel] Are all you Americans so arrogant? [McQueen] “Just about”. Thank you and GOOD LUCK!…..Priceless.

  8. Jim Dewar says:

    Good list but as has been said such lists are very personal. Have to admit I have never heard of you #1 choice. I have an issue with films that attempt to depict themselves as historically accurate accounts but are not, Hollywood is terrible for this as a Scot Brave Heart makes me cringe but if you switch off the buffers it can be fun. On WW2 I would have great difficulty keeping the list to 10, I am the sad sort who used time off in Afghanistan to watch war movies, mainly WW2. All that said the two big omissions from your list I would be compelled to add are, in no order, THe Great Escape, Bridge over the River Kawi, The Battle of Britian and my fav A Bridge to Far (talk about a stellar case and given most of the main characters wher still alive and acted as consultants, historically very accurate)

    • navyphoto22 says:

      Hi Jim,

      I love The Great Escape, Battle of Britain, and both Bridge Over the River Kwai, and A Bridge Too Far. As I’ve mentioned before, my tastes will change from time-to-time, so a month or two from now, the 10 I’ve listed could all be replaced by 10 completely different movies about the war. For instance, I’m already beginning to sour on ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ I like the first half hour, but after that it becomes bogged down a bit by cliche. Thanks for your service in Afghanistan. Quite a nasty place from what I have heard. By the way, I love your scotch!

      • Jim Dewar says:

        Never been a fan of Saving Pvt Ryan, to be honest I have never managed to watch the whole movie. First half an hour is very realistic siilar to the sort of work first seen on Band of Brothers (best WW2 TV prog). The rest held my attention for about 20mins before I got bored. Lat time I watched Bridge too Far was in Bagram, where I had been stuck for a week awaiting trasport back to Kandahar, with about 20 American SF. Lots of questions to me about varrious charaters and what they were like (of course I kbow them all personally!!). At the end of the film I said, partly tongue in cheek, that the battle reprsented the first and last time the British Army had suffered defeat since 1811. I got the expected reply, a hail of empy bottles!!

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