World War II arguably has been the richest source of cinematic material in history, spawning hundreds of films dealing with actual fighting, or the lead-up to it or aftermath of it. This week director Clint Eastwood, who was 11 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, adds another entry in the genre with “Flags Of Our Fathers, the story of the men who fought and died at Iwo Jima.
Assembling a list of the top 10 World War II films of all time is a brutal task, because the definition of such a film can be broad or narrow. There are movies that deal mostly with combat. There are others set in specific areas of the war, like prisoner of war or concentration camps, naval vessels, air bases or boot camps. Still other films take place against the backdrop of the war, either at home or abroad.
The following is a sampling from all those categories. The primary criterion is excellence.
Tastes and sensibilities over the years have certainly changes, so some of the more romanticized films on the list that were made years ago might seem tame in comparison to some modern entries that involve a grittier realism. But what they all have in common is the ability to capture the impact of World War II on mankind:
‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)
David Lean’s epic surrounds British POWs forced by their Japanese captors to build a bridge in a rugged jungle. Led by Col. Nicholson (Sir Alec Guinness), the Brits decide to show their captors a thing or two about work ethic, obligation and dignity by performing the task a high level while maintaining the honor of the officers involved. Unfortunately, they don’t know that Allied forces have a plan to bomb the bridge as soon as it’s complete. The crux of the film is a riveting battle of wills between Nicholson and his Japanese counterpart, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel and also starring William Holden and Jack Hawkins, it was one of the highlights of Lean’s long and illustrious career. It not only won seven Academy Awards but was the No. 1 film at the box office that year.
This is a love story and not a boots-and-bayonets saga, but it’s one of the greatest American films of all time. And it works so well because of the stakes involved, as the Nazis are the primary reason why Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is rooted in his café in Casablanca and why Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) are on the lam and why they all come together in an exquisite script by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. An unsung hero is director Michael Curtiz, who allows a patriotic fervor to bubble underneath as the love triangle unfolds but never lets it all get overcooked. And this film features one of the finest supporting casts ever, featuring Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and, of course, Dooley Wilson as Sam. While it is fictional, it helped to illustrate how the war touched places around the globe that had seemed like sanctuaries. “Casablanca” snagged Oscars for best picture as well as for its director and writers.
‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)
The temptation is to first cite director Steven Spielberg’s other honored World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan.” But while that’s an example of great filmmaking, it isn’t a great film. Aside from the opening 20 minutes of documentary-style hell on Normandy Beach, the rest of it is an ordinary tale with stock characters, book-ended by a needless exercise in nostalgia. “Schindler’s List,” meanwhile, is a true masterpiece and almost completely bereft of the sentimentality Spielberg is often knocked for. Liam Neeson plays war profiteer Oskar Schindler, who eventually develops a conscience and rescues many of the Jews in his employ from certain death. The script, adapted by Steven Zaillian from a book by Thomas Keneally, builds masterfully from the early stages of the Nazis’ presence in Poland until the end of the war. The term “triumph of the human spirit” is too casually thrown around when describing such stories, but here it’s absolutely appropriate.
‘The Great Escape’ (1963)
John Sturges directed this testosterone-filled, fact-based adventure yarn about the mother of all escape attempts from a German POW camp. The iconic image is that of Steve McQueen high-tailing it away from his Nazi pursuers, but summing it up by that alone is selling it way short. The strength of this picture is in the battalion of supporting actors playing expertly crafted roles, among them Charles Bronson, Sir Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and David McCallum. There are equal amounts of revealing character moments and white-knuckle thrills, thanks to the crackling screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett. The film was passed over by the Academy, garnering just one nomination for film editing. But it has gone on to occupy a hallowed place in the annals of war films as well as inspiring new generations of motorcycle enthusiasts.
‘The Big Red One’ (1980)
Samuel Fuller’s autobiographical account of a squad serving in the 1st Infantry, the oldest continuous serving division in the U.S. Army, is largely unknown to many casual film fans but has always been appreciated by the hardcore cognoscenti. The picture is not so much about a contained “Saving Private Ryan” like mission, but rather a series of episodes at times frightening, at others poignant, but always riveting. And it gives a grunt’s eye view of the madness of war. Lee Marvin is at his gruff and charismatic best as the sergeant in charge of a band of weary soldiers trying desperately to get through their hitch and survive. Fuller was a hard-boiled B-movie brawler whose pictures always aimed for the gut. His original version of this film was gutted by the studio, but recently a reconstructed version was released, which added about 45 minutes of footage and restored much of the breadth and power of Fuller’s original vision.
‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998)
Whereas Spielberg got his point across by using thousands of bullets in “Saving Private Ryan,” director Terrence Malick did so with a choice few reserved for key moments in telling a story about events surrounding the battle of Guadacanal. Adapted from a novel by James Jones, it’s a poetic discourse on the impact of war upon the hopes and dreams of young men. Malick juxtaposes the blood and gore and madness with the serenity and beauty of nature to great effect. Actors love Malick, so it’s no surprise he was able to round up a top-notch cast headed by Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, John Travolta, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson and George Clooney. The gorgeous cinematography by John Toll is almost a character itself, and it complements the film’s heart-rending tone perfectly. While it wasn’t ignored upon release — the Academy honored it with seven nominations, including two for Malick — it’s likely this will gain stature in the years to come.
‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967)
Like “The Great Escape,” this picture boasts a macho cast of Hollywood heavyweights in a ripping tale of military convicts recruited for a suicide assault on a German stronghold. But it’s often misunderstood. It’s not all guts, glory and gunpowder. In fact, most of the action is reserved for the third act. The meat of the story follows this motley band of misfits as Lee Marvin (brilliant as a rebellious major at odds with his superiors who has to impose discipline on his newfound charges) struggles to whip them into shape. The cast includes such rough-as-burlap personalities as John Cassavettes (who received an Oscar nom), Telly Savalas, Charles Bronson and Jim Brown along with Donald Sutherland, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan. Directed by Robert Aldrich from a script by Nunnally Johnson and Lukas Heller, “The Dirty Dozen” has become one of the gold standards for high-octane guy movies.
‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953)
In “The Godfather,” Mario Puzo’s reference to singer Johnny Fontane wanting to land a role in a war picture to rejuvenate his career is said to have been inspired by Frank Sinatra securing the role of Pvt. Maggio in this, which earned the crooner an Oscar. But “Eternity,” set against the backdrop of life at Pearl Harbor before, during and after the Japanese attack, is more than that. It’s escapist melodrama of the highest order. Director Fred Zinnemann took on a job of adapting a hugely popular novel that many said could not be made into a movie without severely altering its scope and racy content and put it into the pantheon of cinematic classics. The cast also includes Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine. The image that lingers is the one of Lancaster and Kerr rolling around in the surf together, but there’s so much going on, including some of the darker aspects of military life.
Sometimes the perfect actor meets the perfect role. That was the case here with George C. Scott playing Gen. George S. Patton Jr., the esteemed tank commander of the U.S. Army who was respected by friend and foe alike. Sometimes biopics can fall into an annoying “and then this happened” formula. But the script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North feels fresh and original throughout. Also, this is the unvarnished truth, illustrating the general’s many faults, and not simply a glossy red-white-and-blue celebration of an American military legend. While this is a war picture on an epic scale, the focus is more about the magnitude of one man whose life is deeply rooted in conflict, who needs an enemy and the thrill of combat to make him feel alive. The only sad part about “Patton” is that Karl Malden’s excellent portrayal of Gen. Omar Bradley is so overshadowed by Scott. The film received 10 Academy Award nominations and won seven Oscars. Ironically, although Scott won one of them for playing a highly competitive individual, he refused to accept it because he didn’t consider himself in competition with any actors.
‘Mrs. Miniver’ (1942)
Aside from Pearl Harbor, the war didn’t hit directly on the home front for Americans. But it did for the British. Director William Wyler’s story about a middle-class English housewife (Greer Garson) trying to keep her family together and safe when Nazi bombs start to fall all around them had such a powerful impact on those who saw it that Winston Churchill later said it was more influential in hastening U.S. involvement in World War II than a whole fleet of destroyers. Based on a series of newspaper columns, the film beautifully depicts life in a quaint English village, complete with red and white roses entered in a floral contest. Then it shows in touching fashion the effect of war’s ugly intrusion and successfully shattered the myth in the minds of many Americans that all English lived a life of high-brow snobbery. “Mrs. Miniver” won six Oscars, including best picture and best director. But Wyler couldn’t be there to collect: He was flying a bombing mission over Germany at the time.
Honorable mentions: “Das Boot,” “The Train,” “The Best Years Of Our Lives,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Longest Day,” “Stalag 17,” “A Walk In The Sun,” “The Pianist,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Europa, Europa,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” “To Hell and Back.”