I was going to compile my definitive list of great films set during World War II. Too long.
Then I considered a list of films about World War II that, taken together, would comprise a history lesson about the war. Also too long.
So instead, I've come up with this: an eclectic groups of films set during World War II. Not definitive, not comprehensive, many notable omissions, but able to convey just how damn many good movies the great man-made cataclysm inspired. Why the "Good War" has inspired so many outstanding movies is a topic for another time.
Suffice it to say, these films all come highly recommended.
- Saving Private Ryan (1998) Spielberg. With its opening scenes on D-Day and its climactic last stand, Ryan set the gold standard for movie battle scenes.
- Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) Fleischer/Fukasaku. The day that will live in infamy and the lead up to it as seen by both the Japanese and Americans. Have a history lesson along with your entertainment.
- Open City (1945) Rossellini. Rome in 1944 under Nazi occupation. The resistance. Lots of ordinary people who'd been through the events depicted in lieu of professional actors. Actual locales used. A veritable historical document.
- Mrs. Miniver (1942) Wyler. The British home front during the blitz, the evacuation of Dunrkirk. Strong cast led by Greer Garson.
- Das Boot (1981) Peterson. Life and death on a German submarine. Epic and intimate. A positively great film.
- The Great Escape (1963) J. Sturges. The true story of the audacious plan for over 200 allies to escape from a POW camp. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, James Garner.
- Army of Shadows (1969) Melville. Extremely realistic, extremely powerful look at the French resistance in occupied France. One of the great films of all time of any kind.
- Casablanca (1942) Curtiz. On top of everything else, Casablanca gave audiences a real sense of the desperation of many Europeans to get the hell out of Nazi-occupied Europe. A rightly beloved film that conveyed much truth about what was transpiring at the time.
- The Shop on Main Street (1965) Kadar/Klos. From Czechoslovakia, a look at the effect of the Holocaust on non Jews and the horrible decisions they were forced to make.
- The Story of GI Joe (1945) Wellman. The story of the American foot solider as seen through the eyes of the premier war correspondent Ernie Pyle, portrayed by Burgess Meredith.
- Soldier of Orange (1977) Verhoeven. The war from the perspective of a group of Dutch friends who go in different directions once the Nazis invade. Rutger Huaer features as a member of the underground.
- Schindler's List (1993) Spielberg. Powerful. Heart-breaking. Depressing. Inspiring. The horrors of the Holocaust and the heroic efforts of one man to save as many Jews as possible. Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of a sadistic German officer is one of the most indelible performances of evil in cinema.
- Since You Went Away (1944) Cromwell. One family at home in the U.S. with father off fighting. A touching film about the home front.
- Downfall (2004) Hirschbiegel. Hitler and company's last days through the eyes of his secretary. Bruno Ganz is amazing as Der Fuhrer.
- Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Lean. Alec Guiness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, the jungles of Burma, culture clash, Action, a dash of romance, oral confusion, and a bridge.
- The Last Metro (1980) Truffaut. Another excellent film depicting Parisians hiding from Nazis. Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu star.
- Action in the North Atlantic (1943) Bacon. The role of the heroic merchant marines in the war (like my dad!). Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey and Alan Hale star. Somewhat realistic, certainly exciting.
- Europa Europa (1990) Holland. A Jewish lad in the Hitler Youth? Come on! But it's a true story! It's the fascinating tale of an innocent switching sides in an effort to survive. Too many people have missed it.
- The Pianist (2002) Polanski. Another Holocaust story. Another tale of survival. This one starring Adrien Brody as a Jewish musician in Warsaw, Poland. Amazing performance and even more amazing set designs.
- Lacombe Lucien (1974) Malle. Set in Vichy France; the protagonist is a collaborator. War does funny things to people, usually without their even realzing what's going on. Our "hero" is an 18 year old farm boy who has a Jewish girlfriend but ends up working with the bad guys.
- Twelve O'Clock High (1949) King. Yes there is action in the air but this film is highlighted by the manner in which it shows the psychological strain of war. Gregory Peck is brilliant in the lead role.
- Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) Eastwood. The famous battle from the Japanese perspective. Much better than its preceding companion film, Flag of Our Fathers. Stark, unflinching look at battles and the men who, out of a sense of duty, fight in them.
- Closely Watched Trains (1966) Menzel. The war is seemingly a backdrop to this story of a young Czech railway dispatcher's apprentice and his efforts to "grow up." However those who didn't go to war often found that the war came to them. Difficult decisions must be made. Bittersweet.
- Hell in the Pacific (1968) Boorman. It's pretty much just Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on an island during the war. The ultimate odd couple. A great the-folly-of-war picture.
- To Be Or Not To Be (1942) Lubitsch. Why not a comedy to round out the list? Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, along with a delightful supporting cast, in this funny story about an acting troupe that takes on the Nazis in occupied Poland.