A History of World War II in 10 Movies
75 years ago, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes appeared over the skies of a Hawaiian harbor, killed over two thousand American soldiers, sank six American ships, and destroyed nearly two hundred American aircraft, most of which never got off the ground. It was a tragedy and an embarrassment, and should have been much worse than it was, but it was exactly what President Franklin Roosevelt needed to convince his wary, insular nation to go to war against the aggressive Axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
In less than four years, America’s practically inexhaustible resources of manpower and machinery had tipped the scales and helped bring the war to an end in both Europe and Asia. December 7 lingered in the American memory as a date of infamy, as Roosevelt had predicted it would, and the memory of World War II became, on the whole, a positive one for Americans. Hollywood played its problematical role by both preserving memory and elevating it to fantasy, just as during the war its newsreels and war films had been entertainment, education, and propaganda.
European filmmakers, preoccupied with post-industrial social changes or under the thumbs of communist censors, took a break from World War II films for a while, but eventually turned their attentions to the era again and created some of the darkest and most complex narratives about the events of 1939-1945. Postwar and post-Occupation Japanese films were rich with references to the war, though these were often abstractified – as in the nuclear horror film Godzilla – or woven into small-scale family dramas, as in Yasujiro Ozu’s seminal Tokyo Story. Unsurprisingly, though, the most detailed movies about Japan’s war experience have come from Japanese filmmakers.
As we commemorate, for the 75th time, a date that was both a beginning and the beginning of the end of the world’s biggest and bloodiest war, we’ve put together a list of ten films that tell the military and paramilitary history of World War II in big, powerful, and more accurate than average ways. The list is organized more or less chronologically by topic, not by release date, and features movies from American, British, Russian, German, and Japanese filmmakers. Included below each film are its Flickchart stats, which you can influence by logging in and ranking them.
Topics: Anti-war attitudes in the U.S.; Japanese, German, and Italian plans for expansion, 1930s-1941
Frank Capra, the man behind Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, lent his talents to the war effort with a series of propaganda documentaries called Why We Fight. The word “propaganda” here does not imply that the movies are loaded with cherry-picked data or falsehoods – on the contrary, as records of factual events they’re on impressively broad and solid footing – but that they have an unambiguous point of view about the war and seek to persuade the audience of that view. Prelude to War is the first of seven film in the series and contrasts anti-war sentiment in the United States prior to December 7, 1941 with the relentless expansion of Mussolini’s Italy, Hirohito’s Japan, and Hitler’s Germany. Prelude to War is a masterpiece of documentary editing, having been cut by eventual four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner William Hornbeck. Some of the most impressive segments of this and other Why We Fight entries are those featuring animation by Walt Disney Productions. The combination of Capra and Disney is enough reason to start a silver screen WWII retrospective with this important movie, though it must be noted that the film contains racist language, especially with regards to the Japanese.
- Global ranking: 10,622
- 28 users have ranked it
- Wins 37% of matchups
- 0 users have it in their top 20
Topic: The attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941
One of the most remarkable things about the end of World War II is how quickly Japan and the United States pivoted from enemies to allies. You can thank Cold War politics for that, as well as cultural traits and a reasonably popular Occupation experience, but in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor such a turnaround would have seemed almost impossible. Americans viewed Japanese as rank deceivers and racial inferiors, while Japanese forces fought the American advance through the Pacific with suicidal fanaticism. Yet by 1970, a mere generation later, U.S.-Japan relations were so good that studios and filmmakers in both countries were able to collaborate on an epic film about the very catalyst of the wartime bellicosity. Tora! Tora! Tora! was co-written and co-directed by American and Japanese writers and directors, including on the Japanese side several people who had worked with Akira Kurosawa (who nearly co-directed the film.) It is based on a book by an American historian who served in the Pacific, and the film’s minute-by-minute attention to detail and accuracy is unrivaled among Pearl Harbor films. Specific lines of dialogue and interpretations of key figures have been disputed, but if you’re going to learn about December 7, 1941 from a movie, this one towers above the competition. Tora! Tora! Tora! stars Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, So Yamamura, Jason Robards, and Eijiro Tono, among many others.
- Global ranking: 1774
- 1051 users have ranked it
- Wins 41% of matchups
- 11 users have it in their top 20
Topic: Germany’s war in Russia, 1941-43
If you define World War II by where most of the casualties happened, then it was, simply speaking, a war fought between Germany and the Soviet Union. No nation suffered more military and civilian casualties than the USSR. Hitler and Stalin initially had a nonaggression pact, but Hitler broke that in the summer of 1941. The German army and SS death squads turned Russia’s villages into abattoirs and its cities into bombed-out, starved-out wrecks. Elem Klimov’s 1985 Soviet film Come and See takes place in 1943 as the Germans were retreating but still capable of inflicting great harm on a weary populace. To say the movie is bleak and brutal is an understatement. Its depictions of death and massacre are like something from the imagination of Dante, or the Book of Revelations from which the movie takes its English title. Yet Klimov’s direction, comparable to Terrence Malick and Alejandro Iñárritu’s, is gorgeous and artful, and draws you into the upside-down world of the young boy protagonist who seems to age 100 years in a few nightmarish days. This is almost certainly the best film made about the eastern front, and that’s saying something, as more widely-seen films like Stalingrad and Enemy at the Gates are pretty good in their own rights.
- Global ranking: 357
- 394 users have ranked it
- Wins 64% of matchups
- 49 users have it in their top 20
Topic: The career of General Patton; the campaigns in North Africa and Italy, 1943-45
Patton won Best Picture for 1970 and remains famous for its opening monologue, which George C. Scott delivers in front of an enormous 48-star American flag (Hawaii and Alaska did not become states until well after World War II). The monologue contains fairly shocking language by 1970 Hollywood standards, but it’s cleaner and more statesmanlike than the speeches Patton really gave to his Third Army troops. He was one of the most colorful figures of the war, making him a natural choice for a biopic, and for our purposes Patton does a fine job bridging the gap between America’s entry into the war and D-Day. The film carries on past D-Day, but Patton became famous and controversial for the events depicted in the movie’s first half: his successful campaigns in North Africa and Italy where he imagines himself as a reincarnation of ancient-world generals, his friction with other military leaders, his impolitic statements to the public, and the incident in which he slapped a shell-shocked soldier recuperating in a hospital.
- Global ranking: 332
- 6453 users have ranked it
- Wins 49% of matchups
- 190 users have it in their top 20
Topic: D-Day, 1944
Apart from a U-Boat campaign in the Atlantic and the North Sea, an air war waged on the civilians of London, and guerrilla attacks from the French resistance, there was little in western Europe to demand the attention of the Nazi government. From their perspective, the real war was happening on the eastern front, in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. By 1944 that war was going very badly for Germany, and to make matters worse, in June of that year a new front finally opened in west when Allied troops sailed across the English Channel and seized the beaches in Normandy, France. The planning for this “D-Day” invasion was conducted in great secrecy, and having been successfully carried out it became the largest amphibious military operation in history. The Longest Day is a nitty-gritty procedural about how it all happened, and seemingly everybody who was anybody in the early 1960s was part of the cast: Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, and Rod Steiger, to name a few. On the German side, future James Bond villains Gert Fröbe and Curd Jürgens appear. Director Ken Annakan and French cinematographer Jean Bourgoin create several memorable sequences and images, including a long helicopter shot over the Normandy beaches, soldiers swarming across them like ants.
- Global ranking: 1100
- 760 users have ranked it
- Wins 54% of matchups
- 23 users have it in their top 20
Topic: Operation Market Garden, a setback to the Allied advance on Germany, 1944
Summaries of World War II often hurry through the 11 months between the opening of the western front at Normandy in June 1944 and the collapse of the German government in April and May 1945. Once Allied soldiers and American tanks and trucks were on the continent of Europe, the end of the war seemed inevitable. The British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, much like the American General Patton with whom he had had frequent disagreements in North Africa and Italy, wanted to push on rapidly into the German heartland and claim a large share of the credit for the victory. To that end, Montgomery planned a paratrooper-led invasion of the German-occupied Netherlands in hopes of seizing bridges and highways in preparation for the final push. What happened instead is told in this film from English director Richard Attenborough. “Operation Market Garden” was an unqualified disaster and paved the way for the subsequent Battle of the Bulge, in which Germans temporarily reversed recent Allied gains in western Europe. Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, James Caan, and Gene Hackman star in A Bridge Too Far, one of the last great ensemble combat films of its kind.
- Global ranking: 996
- 1494 users have ranked it
- Wins 42% of matchups
- 27 users have it in their top 20
Topic: The fall of Hitler’s Germany, 1945
Considering how many of the residents of the Führerbunker never made it out alive, it’s a wonder we know so much about how Hitler spent his final days. Some people from the dictator’s shrinking inner circle did survive, including his secretary Traudl Junge, who appears in a documentary clip at the beginning of Downfall. Her tale is a chilling one. As the Reich collapsed in the spring of 1945 Hitler was paranoid and raving. His physical condition had deteriorated since the unsuccessful attempt on his life the previous year, as actor Bruno Ganz‘s pallid, lined, jowly appearance reflects. To place Hitler at the center of a film is to risk legitimizing his viewpoints — that the craven Himmler was a traitor for seeking a political settlement with the Allies, that no alternatives existed except miraculous victory or suicide — and to risk generating sympathy for a mass-murdering madman. Ganz’s Hitler is indeed pathetic in both senses of the word, pitiable as well as repulsive, but the facts of his fall, so faithfully presented in this film, leave no doubt as to his dangerous instability as the war in Europe came to its dramatic finish in Germany’s crumbling capital.
- Global ranking: 1308
- 10,317 users have ranked it
- Wins 46% of matchups
- 679 users have it in their top 20
Topic: The surrender of Japan, 1945
The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 is perhaps the single most significant and controversial event in any war, ever. Yet most Americans know very little about the relationship between the bombs and Japan’s surrender. They don’t know why Japan hadn’t surrendered before the first bomb, given that Allied forces were almost ready to invade the Japanese home islands; they don’t know why Japan didn’t surrender before the second bomb; they don’t know about Japan’s attitude toward the Russian declaration of war, which occurred on the same day the second bomb was dropped; they don’t know about the extraordinary interventions of the usually-aloof Emperor or the machinations of Japan’s severely divided government. Yet the truth about Japan’s surrender, if it can be known, is to be found in these details. This movie’s plot points align very well with recent multinational scholarship on the end of the war, and Japan’s Longest Day covers the decisive events of mid-August 1945 with the same level of detail that Tora! Tora! Tora! gives to Pearl Harbor and The Longest Day gives to D-Day. Like The Longest Day, the movie’s cast of is a who’s who of Japanese film: Kurosawa’s muse Toshiro Mifune plays the head of Japan’s “war faction” who resisted surrender even after two atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war, and Ozu’s frequent star Chishu Ryu plays Japan’s final wartime prime minister.
- Global ranking: 21,977
- 6 users have ranked it
- Wins 53% of matchups
- 0 users have it in their top 20
Topic: Returning home and adjusting to peacetime, 1945-46
Inasmuch as much less was known during World War II about the physiological and psychological effects of stress, it is tempting to call The Best Years of Our Lives “ahead of its time.” But it wasn’t; nothing really is. Everything is, definitionally, of its time. What The Best Years of Our Lives demonstrates is not that the filmmakers had a special insight into the condition that would come to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but that the condition was recognized at the time the film was made – if not known medically and categorically, then known by its symptoms. Any open-eyed observer could see that war hurt some people in ways that were invisible. Alcoholism, withdrawing from family and society, suicidal thoughts, divorces: many returning soldiers encountered these obstacles on the journey back to normalcy, and The Best Years of Our Lives gave them a voice even at a moment of national triumph and celebration. It won Best Picture for 1946 on the strength of its story about three soldiers whose lives after the war do not pick up where they had left off. One (Fredric March) turns to drink, another (Dana Andrews) finds that he no longer knows his wife, and a third – played by real-life veteran and double-amputee Harold Russell – struggles to adapt to his new disability. We don’t learn much about what these men did during the war, but few movies have so poignantly articulated how soldiers fared on the home front.
- Global ranking: 195
- 1762 users have ranked it
- Wins 47% of matchups
- 99 users have it in their top 20
Topic: The Holocaust, 1941-1945
It is fair to say that when most people today think of World War II, among the first images to come to mind are those related to the genocide of European Jews. The Nazi government’s relocation of Jews to ghettos, labor camps, and death camps did not feature prominently in most films made during the war, nor in postwar combat films like those in this list. No Allied country had a stellar record on racial equality or religious tolerance, and the war was conceived of as a fight for democracy, not a fight on behalf of a beleaguered ethnic minority. In retrospect, however, the absolute horror of the concentration camps makes every battle and campaign pale in comparison, and the Holocaust has become the world’s most powerful collective memory from the conflict. Since this list began with a documentary, it is fitting that it end with one: in nine hours of footage, Shoah tells the story of the Holocaust (called “Shoah“ in Hebrew) using only the words of the crime’s survivors and perpetrators. There are no recreations, there is no archival footage – only memories put into words and spoken into the camera. Shoah is one of the longest movies available publicly, so few will attempt it and fewer will finish it, but no cinematic exploration of World War II is complete without it.
- Global ranking: 2817
- 128 users have ranked it
- Wins 59% of matchups
- 9 users have it in their top 20
There are literally hundreds of World War II combat and Holocaust films. Which ones would you include on a 10-movie watchlist?