Top 5 World War II Movies

Top 5 World War II Movies

Fury is out in theaters and, as I predicted, took the Box Office with a narrow margin of victory over Book of Life and last week’s #1, Gone Girl.  I am actually seeing the movie tonight!  The reviews I have read put it in solid contention with previous war movies for one of the better World War II movies.  I am intrigued by what is being described as a World War II action movie, something you don’t expect from a movie set during this time, and that it is different in portraying the realities of warfare on the European front.

That got me thinking; what would the competition be?  World War II is decades in the past and there have been some stellar stories told and re-told that deserve mention on a list of Top 5 World War II movies.  Sadly, I cannot mention Band of Brothers, which would easily compete for #1.  However, in a nod to fairness, Band of Brothers is not a movie and is a TV mini-series that rates among the best TV shows of all time.

Putting aside regrets, what are the World War II movies that we love?  I am not talking about movies that might take place during World War II, or even movies that might have some of World War II in passing.  I am talking about your in the trenches, Nazi-fighting, khaki wearing WWII epics.  Load your M1 Carbine, hop in your Sherman tank, and ride across the Maginot line to span the decades in search of what I think are the Top 5 World War II movies.

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Tora Tora Tora

5) Tora! Tora! Tora!

I had a tough time making a decision on which older movie to include in the #5 slot.  I was going to go with The Longest Day, a movie that had some influence on other D-Day movies and had much more star power.  However, I decided to go with the best movie about the Pearl Harbor attacks to try and spread out the Top 5 around the different fronts.  I could have possibly gone with the John Belushi comedy, 1941, but it is really not that good and has aged poorly.

Not giving the time of day to the Ben Affleck flop-tacular, Pearl Harbor, the #5 World War II movie is the 1970 movie, Tora! Tora! Tora!.  The movie tosses aside making this movie a schmaltzy and boring love story that makes no sense(sorry Bat-fleck, I needed to make one jibe) and is a dramatic re-telling of the political and historical events, as well as the US blunders, that led up to the “Day of Infamy”.  While not expertly done from a dramatic sense–Roger Ebert did not like this move AT ALL–the movie’s events are very accurate and the effects once the attack begins are spectacular and gripping, for which the movie won an Oscar.  Definitely worth your time if you enjoy history but might be a little slow if you are used to movies higher up on this list.

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Inglourious Basterds

4) Inglourious Basterds

A-rear-bah-der-chee!  Who thought fictional history could be so fun and exciting?  There is only one mind that could have produced a movie like Inglorious Basterds, and that is the iconic Quentin Tarantino.  This movie feels like a revenge, exploitation film for every person who ever suffered under the Nazi regime.  Tarantino’s fingerprints of cut-and-paste influences, like most of his movies, are all over the film and is such an inspired, violent romp through war-torn France.  Brad Pitt is fantastic and over-the-top, Christopher Waltz is spookily dubious and arrogant, and the smaller parts by Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, and B.J Novack are inspired and brilliant.  The characters are witty, larger-than-life, hilarious, and memorable.  Roger Ebert quipped that his characters don’t chew the scenery, they merely lick it, a funny observation that Inglourious Basterds takes the characters right to the edge of hamming it up and walks that fine line to perfection.

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Bridge on the River Kwai

3) The Bridge on the River Kwai 

One of the all-time classic World War II movies. Alec Guinness stars as Colonel Nicholson, a British PoW, who leads his men in construction of a railway bridge for their Japanese captors.  The twist is that Allied forces are covertly planning to blow up the railway.  The ultimate resolution of the movie is a tad more ambiguous than you would expect from a war movie, but is thought-provoking and a stimulating end to a gripping movie.  It is superbly acted and Guinness rightly received the Oscar for best actor.  The film claimed 6 more Oscars in 1958 and is considered a cinema classic for its time and to this day.  So, if you are looking to see why the cast of Star Wars leaned heavily on Guinness’ professionalism and acting credentials as Obi-Wan Kenobi, go back twenty years and watch his master-class performance in this movie.

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The Thin Red Line

2) The Thin Red Line

It’s been awhile since I have seen this movie, but I know that I was close to putting it in a 1st place tie with the #1 pick.  An adaptation of the 1962 novel by James Jones, The Thin Red Line is a polar opposite to Inglourious Basterds and a different aesthetic and pace than the #1 movie (I’m sure by now you have figured out #1).  Cinematically beautiful and contemplative, it is a metaphysical portrait of life, death, and war.  Whereas other World War II movies hit you over the head with the brutality of death (I’m thinking of early review of Fury), Terrence Malik takes time to reflect on the nature of war and the fruits of the choices characters make in the movie.  I can’t say much more about this film than to recommend it.  It is an incredible experience that will either shake you up or put you to sleep.  It really depends on what you like from your war movies.

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Saving Private Ryan

1) Saving Private Ryan 

The high watermark of World War II movies and the source material for pretty much every WWII dramatization since then, Spielberg’s epic is one of his masterpieces and will forever be that high water mark.  The opening scenes of D-Day are such a graphic depiction of a historical moment that tends to be highly romanticized, that it culturally changed how we view that morning on Normandy Beach.

The movie changes tones after the D-Day invasion and Tom Hanks carries the narrative as he leads a group of soliders to rescue Private Ryan, the last of four brothers left alive in the war.  Along the way, Hanks is confronted with the consequences of sacrifice for the sake of one man’s life/country’s mission, and the tension mounts as lives are lost and the mission seems more and more like a lost cause.  Often mistaken for an uber-patriotic film, I see this movie as one of the first real explorations, along with The Thin Red Line, of the de-glamorization of World War II, even though our culture managed to warp it into a video game series that lost sight of what the movie was about (Call of Duty).

There is a ton of merit to the debate over this movie and The Thin Red Line, but I am wondering what you think.  Is Saving Private Ryan better than The Thin Red Line?


i love war movies. i love old war movies, i love new war movies, i love inbetween war movies. odd on account of how much i detest war. but, i am also a history major. here is my Top 5 World War II Movies.

1. Band of Brothers (Letterboxd let’s me pick it as a movie!)
2. Saving Private Ryan
3. Bridge Over the River Kwai
4. Patton
5. The Dirty Dozen

Honorable Mentions. Tora! Tora! Tora!, Midway, A Bridge Too Far

on a side note. i need to watch The Thin Red Line again. i remember hating it when i watched it. maybe i could appreciate Malick more these days.

I think you would. The Thin Red Line is extremely contemplative and a much slower (deliberate is the nice word) paced movie. How I forgot Patton is beyond me, but we already discussed my teenage self thought Patton was boring, but it’s worth a rewatch.

Strangely, I have never seen A Bridge Too Far or The Dirty Dozen. Seems silly since Inglourious Basterds is inspired by The Dirty Dozen.

By far my favorite is Band of Brothers. I didn’t feel like I could include it, but after seeing Fury I wanted 8 hours more of camaraderie and brotherly relationships, which Band of Brothers gave us. I could watch Bastogne over and over again.

I like Inglorious Bastards. Given, the whole movie is downhill after the opener, but it’s great.

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