8 World War II Films Worthy of Any Collection

War is Hell, but it does offer endless opportunities for great (and often not so great) movies. That goes double for WWII. The recently released Dunkirk reminds us vividly of that fact. The reviews have been ecstatic and clearly make it the first film of the year likely to be nominated for Best Picture of 2017, not to mention leaving home theater fans salivating over the release, later this year, of the Blu-ray (and, presumably, the Ultra HD Blu-ray).

While I haven’t yet seen Dunkirk, its release sent me scurrying to my disc collection for other great titles. Some worthy entries aren’t there, most notably Saving Private Ryan. I don’t know why I never acquired it, except perhaps that it’s ultimately a downer, though often acknowledged as one of Steve Spielberg’s best films, if not the best. In a similar vein is the more recent Hacksaw Ridge. I do have that film on UHD Blu-ray, but haven’t yet worked into the mood to watch it. Like Ryan, it’s reportedly extremely violent and bloody.

Then there are the inevitable oddities and peripheral films that don’t directly involve combat but are clearly of the era. Some are on Blu-ray, others only on DVD. These would certainly include Casablanca (a beautiful Blu-ray transfer), The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lifeboat—the latter (DVD only) interesting because it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, takes place on a single set (the eponymous dinghy), and stars Tallulah Bankhead who manages to remain perfectly coifed even after escaping from her torpedoed ship. Perhaps we could even include Captain America: The First Avenger in this category. It’s pure fantasy but clearly set in WWII.

But a few WWII films in my collection do stand out and deserve a look if you haven’t seen them—or are worth a second (or more) viewing if you have.

Patton – See it not only for the performance of George C. Scott but also because this Best Picture winner stands out in so many other ways. Shot on 65mm film, it’s an excellent Blu-ray, at least in its second release. The original Blu-ray was subjected to excessive noise reduction in an effort to remove film grain, which removed detail as well. But that version should now be long gone from retailers.

The Longest Day – A popular tactic in 60’s epic movies was to pile-on the star cameos, and from John Wayne to Red Buttons this one has a bundle. The Blu-ray of this black and white, widescreen film offers a solid transfer and two commentary tracks. Oddly, the film is so bloodless that it carries a G-rating (probably for its video release, as I don’t believe movies were given ratings in the 60s). It’s humbling to realize that many audiences in its original 1962 release would have included actual D-Day veterans.

Tora, Tora, Tora – The best of the Pearl Harbor attack films (let’s not even go to the 2001 Michael Bay version—a badly bungled opportunity!). Viewing the attack from both sides (shot by both American and Japanese crews) it’s almost a docu-drama in style, unencumbered by the extraneous sub-plots that weigh down so many war films. The Blu-ray is excellent, with solid video quality and good sound (though not spectacular by modern standards). It’s also loaded with star cameos, but most of them are second tier performers best known to casual moviegoers as “oh, yea, it’s…that guy.”

Das Boot – The only entry on this list to view the action from the German side. There are several versions of this film, since this was originally a 5-hour production for German television. The Blu-ray discussed here is the shorter, theatrical cut. It’s self-contained, with no hint that anything is missing. English and subtitled German tracks are included. I’m torn between them; the German track sounds more authentic and is better acted, while the dubbed track lets you concentrate on the compelling visuals. While more than a few WWII submarine films were made, this is easily the best of the them.

A Bridge Too Far – The disastrous Operation Market Garden was a combined airborne/ground mission conducted by the Allies, just months after D-Day, designed strike into the heart of Germany’s industrial heartland and, in the ever-popular phraseology, end the war by Christmas. The most ambitious airborne operation of the war up till then, it ended badly and was a major setback.

Beautifully photographed and loaded with action, this is one of the better WWII films from an era (60s-70s) full of them. It’s yet another production with all-star cameos that sometimes work (with youngish Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine) and sometimes doesn’t (when a too-familiar face crops up—surprise, there’s Robert Redford!). The dialogue and battle sounds are effective for a 70s movie, with substantial bass support. But the film suffers sonically from one of the worst written, recorded, and performed scores I’ve ever heard. At least it’s only intermittently distracting.

The Battle of Britain – In the aftermath of Dunkirk, Britain waited for a German invasion it was certain would come. But (spoiler alert!) the Brits discouraged it thanks to their (vastly outnumbered) Royal Air Force aircraft and pilots, a brilliant (for the time) command and control network, radar, and Hitler’s decision to turn his bombers on English cities, including London, rather than continuing to hammer the RAF’s airfields. The land invasion never came.

The film is slowed unnecessarily by marital subplot, though thankfully it doesn’t take up much screen time. The 1969 special effects are also sometimes unconvincing. The pre-CGI dogfight scenes are well done, but many shots of exploding aircraft clearly look like flimsy models. Beyond these reservations, however, the movie is superb. The score is outstanding, some of it featuring the work of noted British classical composer William Walton. The cast also reads like a Who’s Who of British acting legends. Most of their roles are small, with Laurence Olivier, for example, getting some choice lines in his small role as Air Chief Marshal Dowding, including an exchange with his civilian boss about Dowding’s grim letter assessing their situation, “Of course you know, Dowding, that I’ll have to show this to the Prime Minister”….”That’s why I wrote it.”

(While WWII documentaries aren’t the subject here, there’s a raft of good ones available on disc, streaming, and cable. Among the very best is a 26-part British production, The World at War narrated by Olivier.)

Into the Storm – This HBO movie is a follow-up to an earlier production, The Gathering Storm. Both movies center on Winston Churchill, in the lead up to the war in Gathering and in the war itself in this film. Both productions are superb, though this one is more directly related to the war. The casting differs in the two films (Albert Finney as Churchill and Vanessa Redgrave as his wife Clementine in Gathering and Brendon Gleeson and Janet McTeer in this one), but I’d be hard pressed to name a preference. There’s no war action here (apart from a few scenes, mostly WWII newsreel footage), just compelling History. The movie does dwell a bit too much on flashbacks (or flash-forwards if you prefer), covering the surprising shift in British politics shortly after the war. They do slow things down, but the special features explain why the story was told this way. Oddly, neither film was ever released on Blu-ray, only on DVD. But even on DVD both of them offer effective picture quality and sound, though you won’t choose either of them to demo your home theater. The drama and performances are the main attractions here.

Band of Brothers – OK, this isn’t a “film,” precisely, but rather a 10-episode, 2001 HBO mini-series. But what a series! It follows the story of Easy Company of the US 101st Airborne Division from boot camp to end of the war in Europe. It offers picture and sound of feature film quality, a compelling narrative, consistent superb performances, and plenty of action. Be advised, however, that some of the episodes are quite graphic.

This series was followed nine-years later by The Pacific, a similar story about the war in (you guessed it) the Pacific theater. But it was a mixed bag and never came close to catching lightening in a bottle in the way Band of Brothers did.

Extended form television such as this has its plusses and minuses when compared to a feature film, but in Band of Brothers the plusses clearly dominate. Don’t be surprised if you can’t resist binge-watching the entire series.

bears_t2's picture

I think Downfall should be on your list also. Probably the most realistic portrayal of the last days of the Third Reich.

Sceptic's picture

It shows the good and the bad from the Japanese and the Americans and definitely should be in everyone's film collection.

BillK's picture

I'll never understand why so many people like to attack Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor unless they were expecting some post-modernist take on the events of the day and the reasons behind the attack.

What Michael Bay set out to do was make a 1940's war film, one that, were it in black and white, would have mixed in with contemporary films such as "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo."

In that he succeeded magnificently. The story line was unabashedly romantic and rightly so. Many derided parts of the film they thought were corny only to find out they were in fact historically accurate, and ironically when he tried to be historically accurate in showing the number of planes involved in the attack, test audiences thought it looked "fake" because there were "too many."

If you don't like the framing story, that's fine, but some have complained that as soon as you found out one of the characters was going to be a father, you knew he would die - once again, I cite films such as "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo."

I don't know which opportunity Norton feels was bungled, but the biggest opportunity I see that was missed was to ever release the incredible Vista Series Director's Cut on Blu-ray (the only release in HD being the inferior theatrical cut.)

prerich45's picture

I can't believe Midway didn't make it!

llauck's picture

I enjoy watching Midway over A Bridge Too Far. Great naval battle footage combined with excellent acting with Hollywood's top leading men. The battle changed the direction of the war.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
I've seen many of Michael Bay's films, and for me Armageddon and the first (but only the first (!) Transformers movies are guilty pleasures. But Bay always seems to make one or more odd decisions in the script and/or editing that take me out of the story. For Pearl Harbor the capper for me was the inclusion of the Doolittle raid at the end. I think he wanted to end the film on an upbeat note, but that raid is a story for another movie. And including the main characters in both of these events was a stretch too far. I also recall gaging on my popcorn when they were monitoring the Doolittle mission by radio from a distance only satellite technology could reach. ( I believe they were listening Pearl Harbor, but when I tried to confirm this today my Blu,-ray of the movie refused to play on three different Blu-ray players--Oppo, Samsung, and Panasonic.)

Midway was a close call, but I don't have it in my collection so couldn't confirm it. I did see it years ago. A remake might be in order. Hollywood is nothing if not driven by the box office, and the success of Dunkirk might get a few more WWII films greenlit..

Todd Sauve's picture

Dunkirk disappointed me. Probably because I know too much about WW2, since I'm a history buff. But the REALLY STUPID things some of the soldiers did were almost beyond belief. For starters, right at the beginning of the film about six soldiers are walking down the middle of a deserted street in Dunkirk when five of them suddenly get picked off by a German sniper. It seems to me that in basic training they would have been taught NEVER to walk down the middle of an open street when the enemy is known to be near. You always run from doorway to doorway or some other opening where you can get out of the line of fire quickly. The film was full of goofy gaffs like that and totally ruined what I hoped would be a realistic experience.

I realise things like that did happen, but generally only to total newbies on the front line. By the time the British and French were trapped in Dunkirk these soldiers knew up from down or they would never have survived that long.

Anyway, those who know their WW2 history should be prepared to be disappointed.

David Vaughn's picture
Todd, I complete agree with you on Dunkirk (or what I call it, Dumbkirk). Too many things took me out of the movie, especially the jumping through different timelines/points of view. I thought it was just me, but when the movie ended, the audience was dead silent and comments heading out of the theater were filled with a lot of WTF's and "Why did I waste my time and money on this."
pw's picture

A great WW2 film, who cares if it never actually happened..

ivoryhoward's picture

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