The cinema of World War II is gritty, glorious and seriously extensive. There were so many great war movies made during the war itself, it’s a wonder anyone was available to do any actual fighting. Since then, each decade has spun its own take on this epic conflict, mining nuance from what’s often depicted as a black-and-white struggle between good and evil. And from Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ to Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’, filmmakers have even crossed the divide to tell stories from the enemy’s perspective.

But with so many WWII films out there, which ones are the greatest? From big-budget action epics, subtle romances, tragic dramas and starkly realistic depictions of the conflict, here are 50 of the best World War II films, as chosen by our Time Out writers and the venerable director, Quentin Tarantino.

Recommended: London and UK cinema listings, film reviews and exclusive interviews. ShareTweet  

The best World War II movies: 50-41

50  

Paratroop Command (1959)

Quentin Tarantino kicks things off with a riveting obscurity

Quentin Tarantino says… ‘This is by one of my favourite directors, William Witney, an American who quit the movie business to go into the army. You can tell it was made by someone who’d been there. It follows a group of paratroopers in Italy, but one of them’s a fuck-up who accidentally kills one of his team. So he has people in the platoon who want to kill him, just waiting for the right gunfight. And the end of the movie is so exciting. They have to cross a field of landmines, sending one guy in after another until he gets blown up. Eventually, somebody will get to the other side. All these characters just start getting wiped out.’   49   Film

Escape to Victory (1981)

Football, football über alles

Footie and war! Like those birthday cards in the ‘For Boys’ section of card shops with a picture of a racing car jumping over a steam train full of cowboys, ‘Escape to Victory’ has everything for the sexually immature adolescent male. But this comic-book fantasy, in which Allied POWs are forced to play a lose-lose football match against their Nazi captors, turns out to be a whole big barrel of fun. Sure, it’s hardly a masterpiece, but any film starring Sly Stallone, Pelé, Max Von Sydow and Bobby Moore has to be worth 117 minutes of anyone’s time. PF

Buy, rent or watch ‘Escape to Victory’ Read more ADVERTISING

48   Film, Drama

Stalingrad (1993)

Winter is coming

Forget ‘Enemy at the Gates’ and the 2015 Fyodor Bondarchuk CG-fest, this rare Germans’ eye view of the conflict is a much more authentic glimpse of the hell that was Stalingrad – the turning point in World War II and one of the most brutal battles in human history. Thomas Kretschmann plays a Nazi office leading a platoon into the crucible and, in the spirit of ‘Das Boot’ (with which this film shares producers), struggling to lead them out again. It’s harrowing, bleak viewing. It’s also an incredibly honest example of a film addressing a country’s horror-filled past: honest and uncomfortable to the last. This story had no happy ending. PDS

Buy, rent or watch ‘Stalingrad’ Read more 47   Film, Horror

The Keep (1983)

Totally schlossed

This is a gloriously bizarre cod-spiritualist dark castle chiller from a pre ‘Miami Vice’ Michael Mann. The mist-shrouded opening sequences, as Jürgen Prochnow’s dead-meat Nazi platoon occupy the titular demon-occupied fortress, are breathtaking, Mann’s superb eye for visual detail fusing with some spectacular design work to create a real atmosphere of impending dread. It begins to fall apart with the introduction of Scott Glenn’s mystical Jewish translator (yes, his name really is Glaeken Trismegestus), but the film’s unashamed weirdness and wondrous sets have helped to build a pretty solid fanbase. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Keep’ Read more ADVERTISING

46   Film

Days of Glory (2006)

Out of Africa

There are hundreds of untold WWII stories still to be filmed. Rachid Bouchareb’s drama shines a light on those North African soldiers drafted in to fight for the Free French after D-Day. The film itself is a mite predictable, but what’s impressive are the ripples it created: after release, the French government agreed, for the first time, to begin paying compensation to the remaining widows of North African fighters. Proof that a work of art can still have direct political impact. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘Days of Glory’ Read more 45   Film, Drama

The Pianist (2002)

Tinkling the ivories

Roman Polanski kicked off the twenty-first century with a sophisticated, Oscar-winning WWII survival drama which not only offered an authentic depiction of the Warsaw ghetto, but proved that – controversy aside – the director could still deliver when it mattered. Adrien Brody deservedly picked up Best Actor for his muted portrayal of Jewish concert pianist Władysław Szpilman, whose mission to stay alive against titanic odds is an inspiring testament to the human instinct for self-preservation. DJ

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Pianist’  Read more ADVERTISING

44   Film, Drama

The Dam Busters (1954)

Buuuh buh buh buh buh-buh buuuh buh…

‘The Dam Busters’ represents a particularly British type of cinematic military endeavour, shuffling us in and out of an endless series of stuffy boardrooms, past a chain-smoking array of lab-coated eggheads and through a rigorous testing process before allowing its audience to experience anything approaching excitement. Happily, said development is lent charm and eloquence by the ever-impeccable Michael Redgrave as ‘bouncing bomb’ boffin Barnes Wallis. And the actual busting of the dams of the Ruhr Valley is an edge-of-the-seat, seat-of-the-pants ride. ALD

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Dam Busters’ Read more 43   Film, Comedy

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Cary on cross-dressing

Hollywood has a bad reputation for fixing tricky book titles, like going from ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ to ‘Blade Runner’. In the case of French Army Officer Henri Rochard’s autobiography ‘I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress’, we reckon they had a point. In this jolly gender-swap comedy from screwball master Howard Hawks, Cary Grant plays Rochard (mercifully eschewing a French accent), whose romance with chauffeur Ann Sheridan somehow leads to him dressing as a woman and smuggling himself into the US. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘I Was a Male War Bride’ Read more ADVERTISING

42

The cinema of World War II is gritty, glorious and seriously extensive. There were so many great war movies made during the war itself, it’s a wonder anyone was available to do any actual fighting. Since then, each decade has spun its own take on this epic conflict, mining nuance from what’s often depicted as a black-and-white struggle between good and evil. And from Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ to Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Cross of Iron’, filmmakers have even crossed the divide to tell stories from the enemy’s perspective.

But with so many WWII films out there, which ones are the greatest? From big-budget action epics, subtle romances, tragic dramas and starkly realistic depictions of the conflict, here are 50 of the best World War II films, as chosen by our Time Out writers and the venerable director, Quentin Tarantino.

Recommended: London and UK cinema listings, film reviews and exclusive interviews. ShareTweet  

The best World War II movies: 50-41

50  

Paratroop Command (1959)

Quentin Tarantino kicks things off with a riveting obscurity

Quentin Tarantino says… ‘This is by one of my favourite directors, William Witney, an American who quit the movie business to go into the army. You can tell it was made by someone who’d been there. It follows a group of paratroopers in Italy, but one of them’s a fuck-up who accidentally kills one of his team. So he has people in the platoon who want to kill him, just waiting for the right gunfight. And the end of the movie is so exciting. They have to cross a field of landmines, sending one guy in after another until he gets blown up. Eventually, somebody will get to the other side. All these characters just start getting wiped out.’   49   Film

Escape to Victory (1981)

Football, football über alles

Footie and war! Like those birthday cards in the ‘For Boys’ section of card shops with a picture of a racing car jumping over a steam train full of cowboys, ‘Escape to Victory’ has everything for the sexually immature adolescent male. But this comic-book fantasy, in which Allied POWs are forced to play a lose-lose football match against their Nazi captors, turns out to be a whole big barrel of fun. Sure, it’s hardly a masterpiece, but any film starring Sly Stallone, Pelé, Max Von Sydow and Bobby Moore has to be worth 117 minutes of anyone’s time. PF

Buy, rent or watch ‘Escape to Victory’ Read more ADVERTISING

48   Film, Drama

Stalingrad (1993)

Winter is coming

Forget ‘Enemy at the Gates’ and the 2015 Fyodor Bondarchuk CG-fest, this rare Germans’ eye view of the conflict is a much more authentic glimpse of the hell that was Stalingrad – the turning point in World War II and one of the most brutal battles in human history. Thomas Kretschmann plays a Nazi office leading a platoon into the crucible and, in the spirit of ‘Das Boot’ (with which this film shares producers), struggling to lead them out again. It’s harrowing, bleak viewing. It’s also an incredibly honest example of a film addressing a country’s horror-filled past: honest and uncomfortable to the last. This story had no happy ending. PDS

Buy, rent or watch ‘Stalingrad’ Read more 47   Film, Horror

The Keep (1983)

Totally schlossed

This is a gloriously bizarre cod-spiritualist dark castle chiller from a pre ‘Miami Vice’ Michael Mann. The mist-shrouded opening sequences, as Jürgen Prochnow’s dead-meat Nazi platoon occupy the titular demon-occupied fortress, are breathtaking, Mann’s superb eye for visual detail fusing with some spectacular design work to create a real atmosphere of impending dread. It begins to fall apart with the introduction of Scott Glenn’s mystical Jewish translator (yes, his name really is Glaeken Trismegestus), but the film’s unashamed weirdness and wondrous sets have helped to build a pretty solid fanbase. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Keep’ Read more ADVERTISING

46   Film

Days of Glory (2006)

Out of Africa

There are hundreds of untold WWII stories still to be filmed. Rachid Bouchareb’s drama shines a light on those North African soldiers drafted in to fight for the Free French after D-Day. The film itself is a mite predictable, but what’s impressive are the ripples it created: after release, the French government agreed, for the first time, to begin paying compensation to the remaining widows of North African fighters. Proof that a work of art can still have direct political impact. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘Days of Glory’ Read more 45   Film, Drama

The Pianist (2002)

Tinkling the ivories

Roman Polanski kicked off the twenty-first century with a sophisticated, Oscar-winning WWII survival drama which not only offered an authentic depiction of the Warsaw ghetto, but proved that – controversy aside – the director could still deliver when it mattered. Adrien Brody deservedly picked up Best Actor for his muted portrayal of Jewish concert pianist Władysław Szpilman, whose mission to stay alive against titanic odds is an inspiring testament to the human instinct for self-preservation. DJ

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Pianist’  Read more ADVERTISING

44   Film, Drama

The Dam Busters (1954)

Buuuh buh buh buh buh-buh buuuh buh…

‘The Dam Busters’ represents a particularly British type of cinematic military endeavour, shuffling us in and out of an endless series of stuffy boardrooms, past a chain-smoking array of lab-coated eggheads and through a rigorous testing process before allowing its audience to experience anything approaching excitement. Happily, said development is lent charm and eloquence by the ever-impeccable Michael Redgrave as ‘bouncing bomb’ boffin Barnes Wallis. And the actual busting of the dams of the Ruhr Valley is an edge-of-the-seat, seat-of-the-pants ride. ALD

Buy, rent or watch ‘The Dam Busters’ Read more 43   Film, Comedy

I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Cary on cross-dressing

Hollywood has a bad reputation for fixing tricky book titles, like going from ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ to ‘Blade Runner’. In the case of French Army Officer Henri Rochard’s autobiography ‘I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress’, we reckon they had a point. In this jolly gender-swap comedy from screwball master Howard Hawks, Cary Grant plays Rochard (mercifully eschewing a French accent), whose romance with chauffeur Ann Sheridan somehow leads to him dressing as a woman and smuggling himself into the US. TH

Buy, rent or watch ‘I Was a Male War Bride’ Read more ADVERTISING

42   Film, Thrillers

Black Book (2006)

Dutch courage

Almost three decades after his handsome but rather sedate resistance story ‘Soldier of Orange’, shockmeister Paul Verhoeven revisited WWII for a tale of Jewish subterfuge and erotic espionage, filling the screen with all the sex, death and pube-dyeing the earlier film sadly lacked. But beneath all the nudity and bloodshed is an intelligent, original study of occupation and revenge: the final shot, subtly drawing parallels between the occupation of Holland and the birth of Israel, is courageous and brilliant. TH

Buy, rent or  Film, Thrillers

Black Book (2006)

Dutch courage

Almost three decades after his handsome but rather sedate resistance story ‘Soldier of Orange’, shockmeister Paul Verhoeven revisited WWII for a tale of Jewish subterfuge and erotic espionage, filling the screen with all the sex, death and pube-dyeing the earlier film sadly lacked. But beneath all the nudity and bloodshed is an intelligent, original study of occupation and revenge: the final shot, subtly drawing parallels between the occupation of Holland and the birth of Israel, is courageous and brilliant. TH

Buy, rent or 

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