War stories are great movie premises for several reasons. World War II movies, for one, give viewers an understanding of past events that helped shaped the world and history as we know it. They also invoke various emotions, that of hate, sadness, anguish, fear, pity, and the feeling of hope and hopelessness.
War is never easy. It is hell, brutal, and bloody as it involves lives lost, countries damaged and cultures broken. It splits families apart and tests everyone’s ultimate resolve, especially the leaders. Battles won or lost shape our past, present, and future.
Thus, filmmakers and viewers always become fascinated by war stories because they bring out humanity’s true nature, especially during dark times. Below we run down the 25 greatest war movies ever made, which includes some classics.
- Inglourious Basterds (2009)
- Empire of the Sun (1987)
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
- The Imitation Game (2014)
- Schindler's List (1993)
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
- Lore (2012)
- The Way Back (2010)
- Stalingrad (1993)
- The Pianist (2002)
- Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
- Dunkirk (2017)
- The Thin Red Line (1998)
- Fury (2014)
- Come and See (1985)
- Naked Among Wolves (2015)
- Life Is Beautiful (1997)
- Atonement (2017)
- Casablanca (1942)
- Das Boot (1981)
- The Great Escape (1963)
- Valkyrie (2008)
- Darkest Hour (2017)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
This Quentin Tarantino film features a group of Jewish-American soldiers on a daredevil mission: to assassinate top Nazi officials. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads the ragtag crew of bloodthirsty hooligans in this alternate history of WWII.
Meanwhile, in German-occupied France Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) plots her revenge against Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who slaughtered her family when she was young. A German hero takes an interest in her and plans for a movie premiere at the theatre she runs. Lt. Raine and his men learn of the event that will bring in attendance every major Nazi officer and together with Dreyfus, they concoct a thrilling and risky plan to achieve each of their goals.
Director: Quentin Tarantino— Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino — Cast: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger— Run Time: 2h 33m
Empire of the Sun (1987)
This Steven Spielberg classic is set during WWII and follows the struggles of James Graham, a young affluent English boy separated from his family during the Japanese invasion of China. His life is turned upside down during the invasion of Shanghai on Dec. 8, 1941. He is brought to a confinement camp next to an airfield where, despite his struggles to survive, he still manages to turn his life around and uplift the spirits of those around him.
This war movie is based on J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel and stars a young Christian Bale as Jim (James). It is a war movie that speaks of the harsh realities of war, especially in the eyes of the young. It makes you laugh, cry, angry and feel all sorts of emotions as you see the consequences of war through Jim’s eyes.
Director: Steven Spielberg— Screenplay: Tom Stoppard — Cast: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Ben Stiller, Joe Pantoliano, Rupert Frazer— Run Time: 2h 33m
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Studio Ghibli is no stranger to rich, affective, and devastating portraits of World War II Japan. This animated film based on the book by Akiyuki Nosaka captures the heart and soul by putting siblings trying to outlive the war at the heart of the story.
Seita and Setsuko, two young Japanese siblings, get separated from their parents during an American atomic bombing. They must completely rely on one another to survive. But they struggle with their necessities including food, water, shelter, and medicine as the war rages on around them.
The brother braves the raining fire for the sake of her sister. But alas, as with the harsh consequences of war, death is inevitable. Grave of the Fireflies is not something anyone would want their young kids to watch because it is heart-wrenching and depressing. But it is a very compelling film about the harsh realities of war and how it greatly affects children the most.
Director: Isao Takahata— Screenplay: Isao Takahata— Cast: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara, Kazumi Nozaki — Run Time: 1h 29m
The Imitation Game (2014)
This WWII drama tells the story of mathematical genius Alan Turing and his efforts to crack the Nazi’s enigma code. Based on the book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the film follows his and that of his colleagues’ tireless dedication to decrypt German intelligence for the British government.
The covert operation occurs within the confines of Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. During this time, Turing was seen as a difficult and aloof person to work with because of his high-and-mighty attitude.
However, prejudice aside, his team, which comprises of chess wizards, linguists, and intelligence officers, eventually cracked Germany’s so-called unbreakable World War II Enigma machine. Their success helped shorten the war and ultimately, save thousands of lives.
Director: Morten Tyldum – Screenplay: Graham Moore – Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance – Run Time: 1h 54m
Schindler's List (1993)
A brutal and depressing reminder of the Holocaust comes in the American epic historical drama Schindler’s List. This war movie tells of Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler’s (Liam Neeson) humanitarian efforts to save Polish Jews from death.
Schindler capitalizes on the Nazi’s rise to power and opens a factory that manufactures cookware and utensils. He employs the Jews in Krakow’s ghetto including accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley). For Stern, this means freedom for himself and the others from death camps.
However, the Germans ultimately sent Schindler’s workforce to the Plaszow Forced Labor Camp where they could face their inevitable death. Schindler witnesses firsthand the torture and unimaginable sufferings inside the camp and develops a conscience.
He turns his factory into a sanctuary for Jews where they find their chances of survival against the Nazi regime. By the time the allies defeated the Germans, Schindler managed to save about 1,100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
This World War II movie is a compelling reminder about man’s ability to show compassion no matter the circumstances and regardless of upbringing and origin. Schindler was a greedy German, but his selflessness took over when he learned the true value of human life. This film is incredibly hard to take and for a very good reason because it shows the brutal Nazi regime and changed Hollywood’s depiction of the Holocaust.
Director: Steven Spielberg – Screenplay: Steven Zaillian – Cast: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz – Run Time: 3h 15m
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg unknowingly triggered an increase in calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs following the release of this World War II movie. So realistic was its depiction of the horrors of the war that it greatly affected servicemen suffering from PTSD.
It is a very hard-to-watch film albeit a cinematic masterpiece in terms of the war genre. Spielberg used visceral elements to bring viewers to the grotesque horror of war, aptly opening the story with the Allied invasion of Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944.
Saving Private Ryan follows a group of U.S. soldiers sent on a mission behind enemy lines to find a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action and bring him back home to his grieving mother. The film focuses on the value of human life across a series of battles and Spielberg certainly did not go subtle on the visuals and sound effects to bring the terror of war closer to home.
Director: Steven Spielberg – Screenplay: Robert Rodat – Cast: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti – Run Time: 2h 49m
Lore is based on the bestselling novel titled The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert and was in the 85th Academy Awards under the Best Foreign Language Film category. This is a World War II drama that tells a story of discovery, love, and friendship.
It follows siblings on a search for a better life in the aftermath of the war in southwest Germany. The events take place after the death of Adolf Hitler when the siblings are left to fend for themselves amid the arrest of Nazi believers, including their parents, by Allied forces. They are forced to travel 900km away on foot to their grandmother’s home.
The plot follows the title character (Saskia Rosendahl) and her four siblings as they embark on a journey that would change their beliefs about the Nazi regime and open their eyes to the realities and casualties of their parents’ actions. She develops a revulsion toward her parents after she realizes the torture and atrocities that happened at the concentration camps.
Along the way, they meet other Germans and encounter a mysterious Jewish man named Thomas who was liberated from a concentration camp. He later became their guardian.
Lore and her siblings battle through illnesses, starvation, and other challenges during their journey. All the time, the charismatic Thomas (Kai Malina) provided support and helped them through the harrowing ordeal.
The film tells an unconventional yet moving and intriguing story of the Holocaust and Nazism through the eyes and emotions of 14-year-old Lore, who is the only one capable of comprehension among her younger siblings. Meanwhile, the cinematography heightens the emotional heft and evokes both wonder and horror. It is a World War II movie with a fairytale-like feel to it because of its poetic cinematography.
Director: Cate Shortland – Screenplay: Cate Shortland, Robin Mukherjee – Cast: Saskia Rosendahl, Kai-Peter Malina, Nele Trebs, Ursina Lardi, Philip Wiegratz, Mike Weidner, Hans-Jochen Wagner, Nick Holaschke, André Frid, Mika Seidel, Eva-Marie Hagen – Run Time: 1h 49m
The Way Back (2010)
Loosely based on the 1956 memoir “The Long Walk,” this World War II movie tells the story of a former Polish prisoner of war Sławomir Rawicz. It chronicles his escape from a Soviet Gulag and into freedom.
This cinematic version follows Polish army officer Janusz Wieszczek (Jim Sturgess) and seven other prisoners as they journey 4,000 miles away from the Gulag camp on foot. Along the way, they meet Polish orphaned girl Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who is also on a quest of her own.
The Way Back is more of a survival movie in that it shows the characters’ determination to survive in very real situations. They are not up against armed men but against the harsh force of nature. In their journey, they have to brave the harsh cold of Siberia and the hot and dry temperature of the Mongolian desert.
The film shows their resolve to gain their freedom despite their hostile environment. They battle the freezing cold, starvation, thirst, sandstorms, sunstroke, and blisters. Best of all, they learn to rely on each other along the way. This film shows mankind’s natural survival instinct and heroism when in dire situations.
Director: Peter Weir- Screenplay: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke- Cast: Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Ed Harris, Mark Strong, Jim Sturgess, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård, Dragoș Bucur, Alexandru Potocean – Run Time: 2h 13m
This is a cinematic depiction of the brutal battle of Stalingrad told through the eyes of German officer Hans von Witzland (Thomas Kretschmann) and his battalion. It shows the torment, anguish, death, and destruction around them as he leads his platoon into the crucible and struggles to get them out alive.
The battle of Stalingrad is undoubtedly one of the most brutal battles in human history. Vilsmaiert did not hold back in his depiction of this turning point in World War II. This movie is a gripping, poignant, and pitiful visceral presentation of the war that focuses on the invading German army into the Soviet Union.
Director: Joseph Vilsmaier- Screenplay: Jürgen Büscher, Johannes Heide, Joseph Vilsmaier, Christoph Fromm- Cast: Dominique Horwitz, Thomas Kretschmann, Jochen Nickel, Sebastian Rudolph, Martin Benrath, Sylvester Groth– Run Time: 2h 14m
The Pianist (2002)
Roman Polanski always manages to find the poetic beauty in chaos and destruction as seen in this cinematic adaptation of the autobiography “The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945.” It follows Polish Jewish radio station pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, as he experiences the devastations of World War II in Warsaw.
He is brought to the Warsaw Ghetto, gets separated from his family during Operation Reinhard, and finds himself hiding among the ruins of Warsaw, armed with a thirst for survival and passion to play the piano even amidst the chaos.
This World War II movie is not subtle in its depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. It is very compelling in its feeling of helplessness, sadness, and hopelessness. Plus, the musical score only adds to the somber visuals in the film.
Director: Roman Polanski- Screenplay: Ronald Harwood- Cast: Adrien Brody, Emilia Fox, Frank Finlay, Thomas Kretschmann, Ed Stoppard, Michael Zebrowski, Jessica Kate Meyer, Maureen Lipman– Run Time: 2h 30m
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
This film explores the battle of Iwo Jima both from the Japanese and American perspectives. Shot back-to-back, the story mirrors each other in many ways. But unlike in other Hollywood war films, the sympathy extends towards the Japanese.
The story is told through General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who is tasked to prepare for an imminent attack from the American troops. But he is not in favor of the rigid and traditional approach recommended by his subordinates, leading to resentment among his staff.
Meanwhile, poor baker Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), thrust into the life of war, strives to survive the harsh regime of the Japanese army itself. Both men, who only dream of home, find the strength, courage, and honor amidst the horrors of war.
Director: Clint Eastwood- Screenplay: Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis- Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Hiroshi Watanabe, Yuki Matsuzaki, Takashi Yamaguchi, Takumi Bando– Run Time: 2h 21m
Christopher Nolan brings a visceral and heart stopping depiction of “Operation Dynamo” in May/June 1940. Britain’s attempts to rescue British and French soldiers trapped in the French port town of Dunkirk end in massive casualties as the Germans have control of the skies. They mercilessly bomb the soldiers and civilians alike. The only way out is through the seas but even this becomes a deadly feat.
The story is told through the eyes of those part of the evacuation fleet, specifically two Royal Air Force fighter pilots, a soldier, and a group of civilians on a boat. This World War II movie is all about survival and man’s selfless acts of heroism in the middle of a battle.
Director: Christopher Nolan- Screenplay: Christopher Nolan – Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Luke Thompson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Aneurin Barnard – Run Time: 1h 46m
The Thin Red Line (1998)
After a 20-year hiatus from Hollywood, Terrence Malick returns to direct on of the best World War II movies of its time based on the James Jones’ autobiographical 1962 novel of the same name. The film brings a fictionalized version of the battle for Guadalcanal, with a deeper focus on redemption and the meaninglessness of war.
This movie is more than just mindless series of battles but also looks deeply into the heart and soul of the men engaged in war. It explores the destruction that war creates for the mind and soul of the disenchanted soldiers.
Director: Terrence Malick- Screenplay: Terrence Malick – Cast: Jim Caviezel, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Kirk Acevedo, Ben Chaplin, John Cusack, Paul Gleeson, Woody Harrelson– Run Time: 2h 50m
This World War II tank drama follows a five-man tank crew led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt) on a mission behind enemy lines. He and his crew fight their way across Germany in April 1945, with an intent to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.
However, they are outnumbered, outgunned, and Collier has a rookie soldier to look out for. The film is not as gory as Saving Private Ryan but tells all too well the extent of what war can do to people. Especially in the context of the film, the focus is on these men aboard a Sherman tank, as they embark on a harrowing mission, from which they are even uncertain if they can come out of alive.
Director: David Ayer- Screenplay: David Ayer- Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jim Parrack, Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood– Run Time: 2h 14m
Come and See (1985)
War can take years from our lives, in a sense, as the trauma can have a life changing effect in our mental and physical health. As is the case with this classic World War II movie set on the territory of Belarus in 1943.
A young Belarusian boy Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko) witnesses the horrors of the Nazi regime and is forced to let go of his childhood to be a man in a matter of days. He finds a discarded rifle and his life changes forever. He joins the Soviet resistance movement and goes through the horrors of World War II.
Similar to “Grave of the Fireflies,” this WW film offers a child’s eye perspective of wartime atrocities. Flyora’s optimism gets shattered when his platoon is massacred, and he is forced to survive alone in the wilderness. This classic film interprets war as it should be no matter how you look at it: disorienting, disheartening, and horrific.
Director: Elem Klimov- Screenplay: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov- Cast: Olga Mironova, Aleksey Kravchenko, Liuomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Viktors Lorencs, Evgeniy Tilicheev, Jüri Lumiste– Run Time: 2h 22m
Naked Among Wolves (2015)
A remake of the 1963 film and based on the Bruno Apitz novel of the same title, this heart-wrenching World War II film takes place entirely in the confines of the Buchenwald concentration camp. It chronicles the story of a 3-year-old Polish Jewish boy who was smuggled in the camp inside a suitcase by his father.
It tells how he survives life in prison and the deception and misdirection used to spare him from extermination in Auschwitz, where he was presumably killed. The film later reveals the disturbing truth about how he survived until Buchenwald was liberated.
Naked Among Wolves depicts the horrors of the Holocaust and focusing on the plight of the young boy adds much more emotional heft. Apitz, who was also a prisoner at the time, heard stories about the child through the prison grapevine and saw a dramatic potential to his story. He initially wanted a film adaptation of his story. But he was turned down until he made it into a bestselling novel.
The movie also tells Apitz’s experiences in the concentration camp and on hearsays about the child. The success of the movie eventually led to the discovery of the real boy years after. Stefan Jerzy Zweig was identified as the Buchenwald child and he too published a memoir, to tell the truth about his life in the concentration camp.
Director: Philipp Kadelbach – Screenplay: Stefan Kolditz – Cast: Sabin Tambrea, Florian Stetter, Peter Schneider, Sylvester Groth, Rainer Bock, Maria Simon, Ulrich Brandhoff, Torsten Ranft, Andreas Lust – Run Time: 1h 45m
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
A classic WWII drama that highlights a father’s determination to protect his son’s childhood amid the devastation of the Holocaust. The story centers on a Jewish waiter who with his son, becomes victims of the Nazi regime and sent to a concentration camp.
In an attempt to hold his family together and shield his son from the horrors of a Jewish Concentration Camp, the father uses his imagination to turn the Holocaust into a game in which the grand prize is a tank.
Director: Roberto Benigni – Screenplay: Vincenzo Cerami, Roberto Benigni – Cast: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini, Marisa Paredes – Run Time: 1h 56m
Based on Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, this romantic drama is set in World War II and split in three parts. It tells the unwavering love story between an affluent British woman and the servant’s son, with whom she is in love with.
They find their chance of happiness disrupted and find themselves split apart because of a little girl’s lack of discretion. She frames the son for a crime he did not commit and irrevocably changes the course of several lives. The film threads a delicate and heartbreaking narrative from the days before Dunkirk to the distant future.
Director: Joe Wright – Screenplay: Christopher Hampton – Cast: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Brenda Blethyn, Saoirse Ronan, Juno Temple, Alfie Allen, Patrick Kennedy, Benedict Cumberbatch – Run Time: 2h 3m
A beloved classic love story set in the middle of World War II. It tells the tale of a cynical expatriate American café owner torn between his love for an ex-lover and his duty for his country. Rick Blaine runs a nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco during the early stages of WWII. His café has become a haven for refugees looking to escape to America.
One day his ex-lover Ilsa and her fugitive husband land in his doorstep asking for his help in escaping the Nazis. What makes this film unique was the fact that the actors themselves experienced the war in real-time as the movie’s release came in the middle of the war in 1942.
Director: Michael Curtiz – Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch– Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet– Run Time: 1h 42m
Das Boot (1981)
If “Fury” focuses on soldiers inside a Sherman tank, this classic World War II movie finds them packed inside a German U-boat, a cramped quarters for its crew at best at just 10 feet by 150 feet. The film treks the crew’s mission to attack Allied envoy.
It also explores the U-boat’s claustrophobic effects to these men as they try to survive not just the war, but also their claustrophobic predicament. They struggle to live cramped inside the rickety boat board out of their wits.
Director: Wolfgang Petersen – Screenplay: Wolfgang Petersen– Cast: Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Klaus Wennemann – Run Time: 2h 29m
The Great Escape (1963)
This film is based on the mass escape of British prisoners of war sent to an “escape-proof” German war camp Stalag Luft III in March 1994. The film tells the true story of two dozen of these men as they brave through Nazi-occupied territory toward their freedom.
This is a highly enjoyable film that doesn’t dwell too much on the gloomy side of World War II. Quentin Tarantino admitted that the film inspired him to sit down and write “Inglourious Basterds.”
Director: John Sturges– Screenplay: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett – Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, James Donald – Run Time: 2h 52m
This is a dramatization of the July 20, 1944 assassination and political coup by renegade German army officers against Adolf Hitler. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) arranges for the internal emergency measure called Operation: Valkyrie to be changed to allow his fellowmen to seize control of Berlin in the aftermath of Der Führer assassination.
Bryan Singer opted out of making a bloody film and instead swerved for a more suspense-filled action movie. It is engaging to watch as Stauffenberg slowly brings his plan into fruition. But along the way, sacrifices have to be made as a combination of bad luck and human errors derail their goal.
Director: Bryan Singer – Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Nathan Alexander – Cast: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Carice Van Houten, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, Thomas Kretschmann, Terence Stamp – Run Time: 1h 56m
Darkest Hour (2017)
The film treks the difficult decision that newly-elected UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill has to face during World War II. As Adolf Hitler’s regime slowly makes it ways across Europe, Churchill finds himself under great pressure to decide the fate of his country.
Should he commence peace negotiations with the dictator or fight the seemingly indestructible Nazi forces knowing that it could mean the end of the British empire. This war drama stands out because of its many references to historical facts.
Director: Joe Wright – Screenplay: Anthony McCarten – Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, David Schofield, David Bamber, Joe Armstrong, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup – Run Time: 2h 5m