A-List: Top Five World War II Movies of All-Time

By J. Don Birnam

January 5, 2015


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The release of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken reminds us that just as sure as there are movies, there are movies about World War II. The bloodiest conflict in human history has spawned hundreds if not thousands of feature films, many produced while the conflict was still ongoing. World War II flicks also feature prominently - where else? - at the Oscars, with several of them winning Best Picture (most recently The King’s Speech). The conflict that transformed the course of human history forever has captured audiences’ imaginations for decades. This year alone we have no fewer than three serious awards contenders centered around the conflict - Unbroken is joined by The Imitation Game, about the cracking of the Nazi Enigma code, and Fury, about American tankers in the waning days of the war in Europe. The Monuments Men is yet another 2014 movie centered around that conflict (and others, like Best Foreign Language Film contender Ida, touch upon certain war effects).

So, what are some of the best World War II themed movies of all-time? Doing research on this topic proved that coming up with the list is nearly as impossible as coming up with a list of greatest movies of all times. Online sources list anywhere between 10 and 50 World War II movies produced worldwide for each year between 1939 and the present.


It does appear, however that some of the definitions that the online portals use are somewhat loose, and I will restrict them now to make my life easier. For example, online sources will list movies taking place entirely outside of the 1939-1945 period as World War II movies if they touch on themes such as causes and effects of the war. But, to make my life easier, I will require that at least a significant portion of the movie I list here take place during the actual war - that is, between September 1, 1939, when the armed conflict began in Europe, and September 2, 1945, when the Japanese signed their surrender in the Pacific.

Thus, iconic movies like The Best Years of Our Lives (winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1946, dealing with WWII veterans and the challenges they face) will not appear here. Nor will movies that perhaps explain or are symptoms of the upcoming war - Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda piece Triumph of the Will, made in 1935, will not be listed (nor will another favorite, The Sound of Music, which takes place in the days of the Anschluss, before the official start of the war). Finally, another favorite of mine, Judgment at Nuremberg, is also out because it deals mostly with the consequences for Germany of the war, not the war itself.

Some more arbitrary rules: I am excluding post-2010 movies as I tend to do when listing top films for any category, as recency makes their evaluation difficult. I’m also leaving out movies that center mostly around The Holocaust. As a subset of WWII movies they are massive, and are worthy of separate analysis on their own. Thus, one of the best movies of all-time, Schindler’s List, and other magnificent pieces such as The Pianist, will not be seen today.

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