10 great World War 2 films

David Gritten / 08 February 2017

Ten of our film critic’s favourite World War II films, in alphabetical order.



Das Boot (1981)

A German film, showing the harsh realities of war from the opposing side: the fearful crew of a U-boat suffer anxious, heart-stopping moments when they know their craft is being tailed by Allied craft. This greatest of all submarine-based films captures unforgettably the claustrophobic atmosphere on board; and it’s eye-opening (though obvious, really) that the Germans below the waves were as terrified of the Allies as we were of them.  Several scenes in Wolfgang Petersen’s brilliant film are heart-stoppingly tense. (149 mins)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

In Burma, British POWs construct a railway bridge under orders from the Japanese. The prisoners’ commanding officer (Alec Guinness) takes pride in the work he is supervising, while knowing nothing of the Allies’ plans to destroy the bridge. David Lean’s film takes an ironic view of heroism and duty, yet there are several rousing sequences – notably the Colonel Bogey march, whistled insolently by the British troops as they march into the prison camp. (161 mins)

Casablanca (1942)

Just because there are no battle scenes doesn’t mean this memorable romantic drama isn’t a war film. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (both superb) as Rick and Ilsa, old flames back in Paris who reunite in the Vichy-controlled Moroccan city of the title and conspire to secure her escape from the Germans with her husband, a Resistance hero. Witty, eminently quotable script, smouldering chemistry between the leads, life-and-death issues at stake: it’s movie perfection. (102 mins)

The Great Escape (1963)

POW escape movies are a significant sub-division of war films – and this may be the best. A group of Allied prisoners (Brits, Yanks, Aussies) plot their escape from Stalag Luft North, a German prison camp. It’s resolutely old-fashioned, and probably seemed that way when first released – yet it’s a stirring account of resolute courage and ingenuity. Highlights? The terrific, jaunty theme tune, of course: and a heart-stopping escape sequence with Steve McQueen braving barbed-wire fences on his motor-cycle. (173 mins)

In Which We Serve (1942)

A blatant attempt to drum up support at home for Britain’s war effort, yet it’s emotional and moving just the same. Noel Coward (channelling Louis Mountbatten) captains a destroyer that is torpedoed during the Battle of Crete. He and his crew members recall their days afloat. Coward plays it ultra-posh, while his working class crew obey his every word to almost comic effect; but this is brilliantly conceived lump-in-the-throat propaganda – the perfect tonic for wartime cinemagoers back in Britain. (114 mins)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A post-war film, strictly speaking, with David Niven as an RAF squadron leader who suffers brain damage after being forced to bail out of his plane. His medical condition leaves him between this world and the next. The great British film-making team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger stage his story as an outrageous fantasy, full of flair and style, with outrageous sets – notably the famous Stairway to Heaven.

It’s visually arresting, there’s a passable love story, and the whole production brims with imagination and zest. (104 mins)

The Pianist (2002)

In this poignant Holocaust drama, Adrien Brody plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, a talented Jewish concert pianist forced into the Warsaw ghetto as deportations to death camps began. Separated from his family, he escaped and survived by going into hiding in the city. Film-maker Roman Polanski drew on his own experiences as a younger man in a Polish ghetto in order to create this extraordinary film; it went on to win three Oscars. It’s riveting, sobering and poignant – and considerably less sentimental than many other films on this subject. (142 mins) 

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg fashioned a remarkable tribute to the courage of those troops who made it as far as Normandy’s Omaha Beach on D-Day. Its jaw-dropping first half-hour is a graphic reconstruction of the danger and death that accompanied the landings; then the story narrows down, with a squad of eight men on a mission to rescue the sole survivor of four American brothers, who is trapped behind enemy lines. But it’s those early battle scenes that hit home: they’re both spectacular and powerful. (170 mins)

Schindler’s List (1993)

This astonishing film charts the gradual flowering of one man’s moral courage: Oskar Schindler (brilliantly portrayed by Liam Neeson) was a real-life factory owner who arrived in Poland to make his fortune, joined the Nazi party for social advancement and hired several Jews. But as he observes Jewish people being exterminated by the Nazis, he bribes an SS officer and arranges to have more 1,100 saved from certain death.

Shot breathtakingly in black-and-white, this is Spielberg’s masterpiece – it is unrelenting and brave, with a coda that underlines the good works performed by the imperfect Schindler.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

This feels like a war movie as philosophical epic, with writer-director Terrence Malick tracking the fortunes of a US army rifle company, fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal. Malick takes a broad view of war, combat and destruction – the effect they have not just on the men who fight, but the natural life and environment in which they do so. It follows that the film is ravishing to look at; it has a meditative, dream-like quality about it. It makes you understand how precious the planet is, in a manner most films never even attempt. (170 mins)

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