OK, so maybe “glorious” isn’t the right word to describe WW2, but these movies certainly are badass. We’re really psyched about this weekend’s release of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, so we thought we’d take a look at some of the best cinematic World War II offerings of the past. In the effort to narrow down the list, we’re not counting Holocaust movies, nor are we counting TV movies — sorry, but watching Band of Brothers just would’ve taken way too long. Recent flicks like Valkyrie and Miracle at St. Anna both have their moments, but they’re too new. So, without further adieu, here are The 15 Most Glorious World War 2 Movies.
1. Sands of Iwo Jima
As classics go, you could do a lot worse than this John Wayne movie, made only four years after the war ended. Wayne — arguably better as a marine sergeant than a cowboy — plays John Stryker, who leads his men into the bloody Battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific campaign. The battle scenes are pretty sanitized by today’s standards — especially considering how bloody Iwo Jima really was — but it’s old-fashioned manly patriotism at its best.
2. The Thin Red Line
Mostly overlooked by critics at the time of its release, The Thin Red Line, by eccentric director, Terrence Malick, is a gruesome, disjointed, dreamlike war epic, which traces the characters’ transition from “youth” to “adulthood” (a theme common to all Malick’s movies) during the battle for Guadalcanal. And while some may find it a little too slow, meandering and sometimes straight-up boring, the tale’s cinematic poetics explore deeply into the inner workings of war, humanity and the human soul.
Telling the story of Hitler’s last few days, Downfall was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. It features a killer performance from Bruno Ganz as Hitler, and includes such chilling scenes as true Third Reich believer Magda Goebbels poisoning her children before committing suicide, lest she let them live in a world without National Socialism.
On a lighter note, Downfall has also found a second life on YouTube thanks to a series of videos that take one scene from the movie and replace its subtitles to amusing effect. Check out “Hitler and the Grammar Police,” “Adolf Hitler’s Vista Problems,” and “Hitler Gets Banned from World of Warcraft.”
4. Come and See
Viciously brutal, unflinchingly gruesome and visually, aurally and emotionally breathtaking, Come and See follows a lone soldier through the wasteland of Eastern Europe and a soul-crushing series of horrific indignities. Using all resources in the filmmaker’s tool chest, director Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece brings us as close as any film ever has to the nauseating, visceral realities of war.
Definitely the trippiest World War II movie you’ll ever see, Slaughterhouse-Five ends on an alien planet with the hero having sex with a movie star in a zoo — which happens after he dies of old age. The movie suggests that all the interspersed war scenes — in which he fights in Germany, gets captured, and witnesses the bombing of Dresden — are just as insane as the aliens and time travel. It can’t touch the ultra-brilliant classic novel by Kurt Vonnegut upon which it’s based, but Vonnegut fans would be remiss not to check it out. (And while you’re at it, watch the World War II-themed adaptation of his novel Mother Night, starring Nick Nolte as a former American spy who worked as a Nazi propagandist.)
6. A Bridge Too Far
I’m only including one “Bridge” movie on this list, so I figured I’d give A Bridge Too Far the attention instead of the obvious choice of The Bridge on the River Kwai. While the latter has well-deserved status as a classic, A Bridge too Far is also terrific (if long), and boasts an amazing cast of badasses including Sean Connery, James Caan, Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, and Laurence Olivier. It was an enormous success in Great Britain when it was released in 1977, but had a disappointing run in the U.S. — probably because, as the title implies, the good guys don’t exactly win the battle, and Vietnam-scarred audiences weren’t in the mood for a downer.
Along the anti-war lines of Slaughterhouse-5, this is another adaptation that can’t touch the novel (by Joseph Heller) that it’s based on. But it’s definitely worth seeing. Heller’s sardonic humor is very much intact, and the cast — including Alan Arkin, Buck Henry, Jon Voight, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, and Orson Welles — is top notch. Yossarian (Arkin) desperately wants to get out of the war and tries to feign insanity, but since insane people want to fight, by trying to admit he’s insane, it proves he’s not insane. It’s a total catch-22. Oh wait…
8. The Big Red One
Rich, detailed and all-encompassing, this masterpiece follows the 1st US Infantry Division from North Africa to Czechoslovakia. The film is essentially director Samuel Fuller’s telling of his own wartime story, giving The Big Red One a haunting sense of realism, isolation and dislocation. But despite its masterful storytelling, the film was largely overlooked until a 2004 remastering, containing an extra 47 minutes, was released at the Cannes Film Festival, seven years after Fuller’s death.
9. Saving Private Ryan
The cornerstone of all great modern war movies, Saving Private Ryan is hard to top, especially in its opening scene of the American soldiers landing at Omaha beach. Tom Hanks is obviously awesome, but it’s the cowardly soldier Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies, recently seen on Lost) who sticks with you. And how about Adam Goldberg’s death scene? Damn.
10. The Great Escape
Another terrific cast, led by Steve McQueen, The Great Escape is usually considered the best escape movie ever made. (Good thing: you don’t call your movie The Great Escape unless you mean it.) Concerning a mass escape attempt from a supposedly “escape-proof” German POW camp, it won only one Oscar (Best Editing) when it was released in 1963, but is currently listed among the top 100 of IMDb’s “Top 250” list.
11. Das Boot
Originally filmed as a 5-part miniseries for German TV, Das Boot follows a single mission of the German U-boat submarine, U-96 and its crew. Playing out almost entire within the under water confines of the U-boat, Das Boot submerges viewers into the cramped, uncomfortable, horrifically claustrophobic world of a WWII submarine. To maximize the effects, the film was shot sequentially (a rare filmmaking move), over the course of two years, so that the actors’ hair and beard growth and signs of strain would be more accurately portrayed. After watching this, you’ll never want to go under water again.
12. Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima
So I’m cheating a little here by including both of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies about the Pacific campaign, but they really do compliment each other perfectly. Letters from Iwo Jima got the Best Picture nomination, but Flags of our Fathers — in telling the story of the men who ended up in that famous photograph of a group of soldiers raising the American flag — is severely underrated. You know how I mentioned that Sands of Iwo Jima “sanitized” the Iwo Jima battle scenes? Yeah, Eastwood definitely doesn’t do that in either of these movies.
This George C. Scott-led biopic of General George S. Patton’s experiences in World War II is most famous for its opening scene — featuring Scott giving a speech in front of a massive American flag — but is a terrific movie all the way through, working as both a character study and a killer war movie.
Patton’s famous bluster seemed to rub off on Scott. Scott won the Oscar for Best Actor, but refused to accept it because he considered the Oscars “a meat parade.”
14. From Here to Eternity
Essentially a romance, From Here to Eternity oozes with tragedy, love and pain. This classic story of a group of US soldiers in Hawaii shortly before the Pearl Harbor attcks landed eight Academy Awards (out of 13 nominations). And with an all-star cast, including Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra, it’s not hard to see why.
15. The Dirty Dozen
This archetypal “men on a mission” movie was what inspired Tarantino to write and direct Inglourious Basterds in the first place. The plot: an unpopular but capable army major (Lee Marvin) is forced to train a team of twelve convicted criminals to parachute behind enemy lines and assassinate a series of Nazi officers. There isn’t much pathos and there isn’t much drama: it’s just a hell of a lot of action and a hell of a lot of fun.