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The 10 best World War II movies: Our top picks

The most devastating conflict in human history has made for some truly compelling cinema

Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, and other actors playing as American soldiers riding a boat in "Saving Private Ryan."

There’s no way around it: World War II is still the most relevant conflict in modern history. With so much death and destruction, it took decades for some countries to recover from the blood shed; some countries are still affected by the aftermath almost a century afterwards. Because of the layered, multi-faceted extent of the war, filmmakers have been able to dissect and analyze various stories, people, and places that shaped the war period. Christopher Nolan’s newest movie, Oppenheimer, is set to cover the process of how the atomic bomb was created; this was the weapon that essentially ended the war. To get ready, we’re here to give you our top picks for the best World War II movies.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan
Genre Drama, History, War
Stars Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns
Directed by Steven Spielberg

This Steven Spielberg-directed film contains some of the most famous portrayals of violence during wartime in the history of film. The opening sequence in which we see graphic depictions of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach in France remains an iconic and perfectly vivid representation of the horrific experiences soldiers had to live through to obtain victory during World War II. Tom Hanks gives a chilling performance as Captain John Miller.

The Pianist (2002)

The Pianist
Genre Drama, War
Stars Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Frank Finlay
Directed by Roman Polanski

Sometimes we get so caught up in the violence and the toll of the battlefield that we forget the very human and emotional traumas that affect people who never step one foot into the military world. World War II was the type of conflict that defined these struggles for civilians. The Pianist captures one man’s immensely depraved situation in Warsaw, Poland, after the Nazi regime takes over the country. Adrien Brody delivers his best-ever performance, one that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. The main character’s propensity for playing the piano helps us see the beauty and perseverance in even the darkest of times in our world’s history.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai
Genre Drama, History, War
Stars William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins
Directed by David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai was considered one of the most vast and ambitious films from the 1950s; it still holds up on re-watch today for its dedication to telling a story of usually forgotten circumstances. Japan forced British prisoners of war to build a passageway across the aforementioned river during World War II. It was one of the horrific black marks on the country of Japan during this time period, and the movie helps to focus on the human aspects of the tragedy, painting a clearer picture of the people involved.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Inglourious Basterds
Genre Drama, Thriller, War
Stars Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

War isn’t supposed to be funny, but Quentin Tarantino is able to juggle the sincerity of the time period with his signature blend of outlandish, violent humor in this Academy Award darling from the late 2000s. The story follows vengeful Jewish soldiers who use chaotic and dark means to fight back against the Nazi regime during World War II. Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz are the standout performers here.

Schindler's List (1993)

Schindler's List
Genre Drama, History, War
Stars Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
Directed by Steven Spielberg

There isn’t much more that can be said about Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Schindler’s List. This biographical story shows how Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, came to save the lives of an immense number of Jewish civilians who would have otherwise died in the Holocaust. Schindler used his power as an employer to keep Jewish people working under his watch in factories, and in return, those Jewish people helped support him later in life. The film is famous for its incredible cinematography and dedication to a melancholy aesthetic.

Dunkirk (2017)

Genre War, Action, Drama
Stars Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance
Directed by Christopher Nolan

For film nerds, there isn’t a better spectacle than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The highest-grossing World War II film at the box office, this movie is chock-full of exciting yet realistic scenes that bring to light the magnitude of the conflict. The best parts of the story are those that show the most human elements of being in the military, giving credit to selfless acts of sacrifice in the name of others.

Casablanca (1942)

Genre Drama, Romance
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
Directed by Michael Curtiz

A true classic of Hollywood cinema and also the only film on this list that was made in the midst of the war itself, Casablanca is a romance movie at heart. The protagonist must battle his own personal convictions, sacrificing either his love for a woman or his loyalty to ending the German’s war efforts. The tone is surprisingly uplifting for a film that was closer to the happenings of real life than any other we’ve talked about here.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave of the Fireflies
Genre Animation, Drama, War
Stars Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara
Directed by Isao Takahata

Americans often forget about the tragic and catastrophic consequences inflicted on Japan during World War II, especially the atomic bombings that ended the conflict in the Pacific and the war as a whole. This beautiful anime film remains the gravest reminder of the ways Japanese civilian life was changed forever in the 1940s, as it follows two young children in their quest for survival during wartime. The movie helped demonstrate the merit of Japanese anime in the United States and worldwide.

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Life Is Beautiful
Genre Comedy, Drama
Stars Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Giorgio Cantarini
Directed by Roberto Benigni

If you get over the subtitles in Life is Beautiful, your eyes will be opened to the power of parental creativity and selflessness. The movie follows a dad who has no other way to shield his child from the horrors of the Holocaust than to pretend the whole thing is one big farce. Not everyone will enjoy this comedic decision from the film, but it shows the lengths humans will go to to overcome adversity of the most despicable kind.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1950)

Sands of Iwo Jima
Genre War, Action, Drama, History
Stars John Wayne, John Agar, Adele Mara
Directed by Allan Dwan

One of the most recognizable John Wayne films of the era, Sands of Iwo Jima is a story about hard-ass sergeant John Stryker and the relationships he built with his soldiers during the war that ended with the Allied victory in the Pacific. This movie is the second-oldest on the list behind Casablanca, and as such, it also helped show people what life was like in the midst of the battles during while memories of the war were still fresh.

Editors' Recommendations

Movie images and data from:
Shawn Laib
Shawn Laib is a freelance writer with publications such as Den of Geek,, Edge Media Network, diaTribe, SUPERJUMP…
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