How on earth do you narrow a list of top World War 2 movies down to just five? Since the war itself, there have been so many high quality films from across the globe that focused on this troubled time in our world’s history. When trying to narrow down this list, I wanted to make sure that the war was a key character in the story and not simply the backdrop. Several classic films such as “Casablanca” are set in wartime but the war isn’t central to the picture. But I didn’t want to restrict the list to only combat centered movies. So while the war is a key ingredient in the films I chose, combat doesn’t have to be the main focus. These five films are war pictures that not only show the action of the battlefield but the horrible effects and atrocities of World War 2. As always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these World War 2 films are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE PIANIST” (2002)

The Pianist” is a painful yet moving film about a Jewish-Polish pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman. The movie covers the Nazi invasion and eventual occupation of Warsaw, Poland as well as the subsequent Warsaw Uprising by the Polish resistance. We follow Szpilman and his family as the Nazi’s invade. We see them confined to the horrible conditions of the Jewish Ghetto. We even see the Nazis begin shipping out Jews to the nearby death camps. Szpilman’s struggle to survive isn’t always easy to watch. There are some genuinely heart-wrenching and disturbing scenes that still stick to me to this day. But the entire film is done responsibly and it packs such an emotional punch that you’ll never want to forget this dark time in our worlds history. Adrien Brody won the Best Actor for his portrayal of Szpilman and it was well-deserved. It won numerous other awards and remains one of the most powerful World War 2 films out there.

#4 – “SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”  (1998)

A World War 2 movie from 1998, “Saving Private Ryan” was Steven Spielberg’s hugely popular film that also received several Oscar nominations. Spielberg’s movie has been praised for its intensely realistic portrayal of combat during the war. The intensity of the battle sequences mixed with the enormous attention to detail gives the movie a heightened realism that’s hard to forget. The story captures the extraordinary emotions which are fueled by both the camaraderie and the loss of soldiers in battle. We see it’s effects on the men and we see the effects on their family. A sensational cast led by the always diverse Tom Hanks lay the story out for us with honesty and grit. And the opening 30 minutes which features the Omaha Beach landing on D-Day will go down as one of the most piercing and powerful scenes in movie history. “Saving Private Ryan” is a movie that calls us to remember a war we should never forget and Spielberg’s accomplishment should never be forgotten as well.

#3 – “THE LONGEST DAY” (1962)

“The Longest Day” may have the greatest ensemble cast in the history of movies. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Wagner, Eddie Albert, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and so many more star in this large-scale depiction of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. The movie looks at D-Day from all sides, the Americans, the British, the French Resistance, and even the Germans. The attention and effort put in “The Longest Day” is evident. The movie was influenced by contributors from all sides of the war including those who fought on June 6, 1944. At almost 3 hours, the movie goes to great lengths to look at all that went into the planning and execution of that gutsy and dangerous invasion. Great performances and several classic scenes help make “The Longest Day” one of my favorite war films of all time.

#2 – “SCHINDLER’S LIST” (1993)

Steven Spielberg’s brilliant film “Schindler’s List” is one of the most devastating movies you’ll see. But it’s also an example of filmmaking at it’s best and, much like “The Pianist”, it looks back at a horrific time in our world’s history that we should never forget. The film revolves around the true life story of Oskar Schindler, a money-hungry German businessman who arrives in Krakow after the Nazi invasion in hopes of making tons of money exploiting the war. Instead we see a remarkable personal transformation. But the film should be most remembered for it’s realistic portrayal of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Spielberg’s use of black and white instead of color and his filming technique gives the movie an almost documentary feel. Also his careful attention to detail and honest depictions of the horrors that took place make the film even more potent. “Schindler’s List” is a monumental achievement even though it’s one of the most difficult movies to watch.

#1 – “FLAME AND CITRON” (2008)

I can see where it would surprise some to see a more recent Danish picture at the top of my list of World War 2 movies. “Flame and Citron” is a movie many have probably never heard of but everyone should see. It’s an enthralling film about two Danish resistance fighters who carry out hits on Nazi officers , key Nazi targets, and Nazi sympathizers during the German occupation of Denmark. It’s loosely based on true events and is told from a unique perspective that really grabbed me. Thure Lindhardt and the wonderful Mads Mikkelsen are brilliant as the secret assassins and Christian Madsen’s direction is top-notch. “Flame and Citron” is a gritty and unashamed look at the war through the eyes of a persecuted people who were willing to fight back. It’s a movie that’s flawlessly executed (no pun intended) and that reveals a side of the war that was completely new to me. It’s an incredible movie and one that I can’t recommend enough especially to those who love war films.

See something on my list you disagree with? Did I leave your favorite World War 2 movie off? Please take time to share your comments or post your list of the best World War 2 movies. The more comments, the better the discussion.

20 thoughts on “5 PHENOMENAL WORLD WAR 2 FILMS

    • I love “The Thin Red Line”. In fact, it was #5 on this list all the way up to last night. It was in my original draft. I had the photo attached and my comments all typed up for it. But after struggling with it, I ended up putting “The Pianist” at #5. But “The Thin Red Line” is right there with it.

      I almost made this a “Phenomenal 5 + 1” but I felt that might be cheating! It’s a great movie.

  1. Gaudacanal Diary, Stalag 17, They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Inglorious Bastards, Battle of the Bulge & Bridge Over the River Kwai. Many great war/war era movies.

    The Best Years is actually early postwar and tells the story of servicemen returning home. It is heart wrenching at times, but a superb movie with Fredric Marsh and Myrna Loy. Mrs. Miniver stars Greer Garson and is basically a british version of Best Years.

    William Holden added his best American wise guy to Stalag 17 and The Bridge. Both movies though tell compeling war stories.

    From the John Wayne tough guy movies to the modern ones that made the top five list, this is a genre with no shortage of great films!

    • Some great titles you mentioned and many of them were considered. There are easily over 1,000 WW2 pictures if you consider the foreign picture movies as well and I really hated to leave some of them off. I also figure several people will shake their head at Flame and Citron but I absolutely love it.

  2. I think a lot of people skipped on Life is Beautiful because of Benigni’s strange behavior (like stepping on Billy Bob Thornton’s head at the Oscars). It is too bad because it is a very good movie.
    I think Schindler’s List probably is deserving mention also.

    Actually, this should be divided into sub-categories – one for actual combat movies and the other for civilian life during wartime. There would of course be some crossover in categories.

  3. Darn, I still haven’t checked out Flame & Citron even though my good friend Paula gave me a review of it a while ago. It looks really good! I’m curious about The Pianist also. Glad to see Schindler’s List, that is an outstanding film that lingers long after the end credits roll.

  4. The movies listed are great. I also like some action with my drama, too, so I also like me some Midway (with Charleston Heston and Henry Fonda) and The Battle of Britain (with Michael Cain and Christopher Plummer). What can I say, I love WWII dogfighting action. (Any surprise that I’m an aerospace engineer now?)

    For more somber movies, I also like Enemy At the Gates and Defiance.

  5. Nice list! my fave WW2 movie is Pearl Harbor from Micheal Bay. (No it’s not, just kidding) Checking to see if you’re awake lol. Sink The Bismarck is a fave of mine actually among some others. Good list. I’ve never seen Flame and Citron. Gonna check it out.

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