20 Must-See Movies to Revisit the Horrors of WWII – Updated in 2019

It is fair to say that we are all horrified and fascinated by the second World War. The shocking truths of the genocide. The seemingly inexplicable rise of Nazism in multiple countries. The atrocities committed by the Allies in the face of their fearsome enemy, such as the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. The often overlooked struggles of the Russian soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front.

The stories of WWII are stories of inexplicable horror, but also triumph over adversity. Even more than 70 years on, when most people who experienced the world are no longer with us, they still fascinate us.

Here are 20 of the best WWII movies that you can watch, excluding documentaries. There are so many good documentaries that would need a whole other list!

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

IMDB Score 8.2/10

Based on the novel by French author Pierre Boulle, this British-American movie is based in the historical setting of the construction of the Burma Railway (1942-1943), when all prisoners in a Japanese prison camp were forced to work on the construction. Starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, there are no weak links in this ensemble cast.

Casablanca (1943)

IMDB Score 8.5/10

One of the more romantic movies on this list, this epic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, still tells and important and disturbing story about the era. It focusses on an American expatriate who must choose between the woman he loves and his commitment to the resistance. Released during the war, the movie had a significant impact of public opinion during those crucial days.

Das Boot (1981)

IMDB Score 8.4/10

This German movie is an adaptation of Lothar Gunther Buchheim’s novel that follows a German U-boat and its crew as their patrol in the Battle of the Atlantic. It shows both the tensions of battle, and the tedium of waiting. It also shows ‘the enemy’ as real people with ordinary motivations, simply trying to do their best by comrade and country.

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

IMDB Score 7.8/10

Directed by Robert Aldrich, this MG-British Studios movie is based on the E.M. Nathanson novel inspired by the real life group called the Filthy Thirteen. Featuring an ensemble cast including Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Charles Bronson, they star as a group of the army’s worst convicts that are trained to be commandos in order to embark on a suicide mission.

Downfall (2004)

IMDB Score 8.2/10

Another German movie about the period, directed by Bernd Eichinger, the movie stars Bruno Ganz as the Fuhrer at the centre of it all as he spins out of control in the face of his ultimate defeat. The movie is based on eyewitness accounts, survivor memoirs and the historical sources for the final days of the conflict. The movie was controversial for showing the human side of members of the Third Reich.

Dunkirk (2017)

IMDB Score 7.9/10

This Christopher Nolan movie depicts the Dunkirk evacuation of British and French troops during the opening days of the war, from three perspectives: land, sea and air. Another excellent ensemble cast give this movie its spirit, including Fion Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

IMDB Score 7.8/10

This Steven Spielberg epic stars Christian Bale, John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson before they were household names. It focusses on a young boy, Sim, who goes from being party of a wealthy British family in Shanghai to a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp. The movie focuses on Jim’s loss of innocence, an experience shared by millions.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

IMDB Score 8.5/10

This Japanese animation is certainly not for kids. Based on the semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the Studio Ghibli firm tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to survive the closing months of the war. The movie was written and directed by Isao Takahata and stars Tsutomu Tatsumi and Ayano Shiraishi.

The Great Escape (1963)

IMDB Score 8.2/10

While this Steve McQueen movie might feel like a great romp, it is actually based on Paul Brickhill’s first-hand account of the mass escape of British Commonwealth prisoners from a German prisoner of war camp in Poland. Americans were included among the escapees in order to give the movie appeal to a local audience.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

IMDB Score 8.3/10

This gory Tarantino take on the era stars Brad Pitt, Christopher Waltz and Michael Fassbender. It tells an alternative history of two plots to assassinate the Nazi leadership, one planned by a young French-Jewish cinema owner in occupied Paris, and another by a group of Jewish-American soldiers. Waltz gives a standout performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

IMDB Score 7.9/10

Directed and co-Produced by Clint Eastwood, this movie starring Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya portrays the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers. It is a companion piece to Eastwood’s other epic, Flags of Our Fathers, which looks at the same battle from the American perspective. Despite being an American movie, it is almost entirely in Japanese.

Life is Beautiful (1997)

IMDB Score 8.6/10

This Italian comedy-drama, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, focusses on a Jewish-Italian bookshop owner who uses his fertile imagination to protect his young son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp. The movie was largely inspired by the experiences of Benigni’s own father, who spent two years in a German labour camp.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

IMDB Score 8.2/10

Far from just a fantasy movie for kids, this Spanish dark fantasy from Guillermo del Toro is set in Spain in 1944, and intermingles the real world and the mythical world to tackle some heavy themes. It also tells one of the less well-known stories of the era as we see how the war of the world rocked even countries that were not directly involved.

Patton

IMDB Score 8/10

This is a biographical war movie about General George S. Patton. Starring George C. Scott as Patton himself, this script by Francis Ford Coppola explores the life and exploits of the controversial general. It shows the ego and politics of the military, even in the face of the ultimate enemy.

The Pianist (2002)

IMDB Score 8.5/10

Produced and directed by Roman Polanski, this biographical drama tells the story of a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer, played expertly by Adrien Brody, who was forced to perform for the Nazi elite. He uses his position to help the resistance, while feeling guilt for his privileged position, and his empathy for the German officer that helped him.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

IMDB Score 8.6/10

Spielberg’s more successful attempt at a war epic, this harrowing movie that runs for more than two and a half hours stars Tom Hanks as a squad leader searching for a paratrooper, Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. Known for its brutally realistic scenes of battle, it manages to be action packed without glorifying war in any way.

Schindler’s List (1993)

IMDB Score 8.9/10

Yet another entry on this list from Steven Spielberg, this historical period drama stars Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of thousands of Polish-Jewish refugees by employing them in his factories during the war. As he witnesses the horrors of war, we see Schindler’s motives for his activities change from making money, to saving as many lives as possible.

Son of Saul (2015)

IMDB Score 7.5/10

This Hungarian movie is set in Auschwitz and follows a day and a half in the life of Saul, played by Geza Rohrig, a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner interred there. His job is to salvage valuables from the clothes of the dead, as well as clean and maintain the gas chambers. One day he finds a boy who has survived the gas, only to see him brutally murdered by a German doctor, upsetting the equilibrium that he has found in his daily grind.

Stalingrad (1993)

IMDB Score 7.5/10

This German war movie follows a platoon of German soldiers transferred to Russia, where they eventually find themselves part of the Battle of Stalingrad. A penal platoon, they struggle to ensure the harsh cold and harsh conditions of the Eastern Front. They must decide whether to continue, or take their futures into their own hands.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

IMDB Score 7.6/10

This movie from director Terrence Malick, based on the James Jones novel, tells the story of the Battle of Mount Austen, which was part of the Guadalcanal Pacific Campaign. Starring an ensemble cast led by Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel and Nick Nolte, the movie’s title is a reference to the line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy in which he calls the foot soldier “the thin red line of heroes” that can change the course of war.

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