Top 5 World War II Movies: Of God, Country, Sacrifice, and Freedom

Michael Clark

As our country gets further away from World War II, the nation’s collective memory of its importance to our history becomes more ephemeral with each subsequent generation.

Memorial Day was first observed on May 30, 1868, in honor of deceased Civil War combatants. The holiday developed greater resonance in the wake of the two world wars yet, sadly, more people now view it as the unofficial start of summer, not knowing (or wanting to know) its origins or meaning.

This is the first in a planned series of a half-dozen lists of movies associated with particular American and non-American wars. Hopefully, they will be embraced by the young and young at heart who wish to find out about, or to be reminded of, what giving, sacrifice, and patriotism is all about.

‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)

Easily the finest example of historical fiction ever committed to film, screenwriter Robert Rodat and director Steven Spielberg’s awe-inspiring epic is everything that modern-day America needs to know about “the Greatest Generation.”

Immediately after the D-Day landing at Normandy, Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and seven other soldiers are sent on a mission to find Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) whose three brothers were recently killed in action. The story culminates in the defense of a bridge, which is equally as visceral (if not more so) than the opening salvo.

Poster for "Saving Private Ryan." (Dreamworks Pictures)
Poster for "Saving Private Ryan." (Dreamworks Pictures)
The winner of five Academy Awards (including Best Director), the film—in the most controversial Oscar ceremony in history—lost the top prize to “Shakespeare in Love,” one of, if not the most overrated Best Picture winners in history. To date, "Saving Private Ryan" is just one of only three movies to win the PGA (producers), DGA (directors), Golden Globe, and Best Director Oscar without also winning Best Picture.

‘Casablanca’ (1942)

Depicting little actual “war,” director Michael Curtiz’s iconic melodramatic mystery was one of the few movies taking place during World War II that was produced when the war had just started and the outcome unknowable. Based on the unproduced stage play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” it puts equal emphasis on espionage and the toll that events such as these often take on romance.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick, whose life as a Moroccan club owner gets turned upside down with the arrival of his former lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance officer. Alliances and allegiances are tested, and the fate of all involved lies in the hands of Capt. Renault (Claude Rains), a French police officer.

Promotional poster for "Casablanca." (Warner Bros.)
Promotional poster for "Casablanca." (Warner Bros.)
The influence of “Casablanca” cannot be overstated. From the theme song (“As Time Goes By”) to the volumes of quotable dialogue and the generations of filmmakers it inspired, it is (almost) without peer.

‘Patton’ (1970)

The then relatively unknown co-writer Francis Ford Coppola, in tandem with director Franklin J. Schaffner (“Planet of the Apes,” “Papillon”), pulled off the mighty feat of crafting an American New Wave quasi-anti-war movie wrapped in traditional Hollywood packaging.

As the title character, George C. Scott (who later refused to accept his Best Actor Oscar) thoroughly committed to the role of a driven and obsessed soldier. He played Patton as one who believed he had reincarnated, spouted profanity while quoting scripture, and was utterly unflappable in the face of battle.

Promotional ad for "Patton." (20th Century Fox)
Promotional ad for "Patton." (20th Century Fox)
Credit goes to all involved for not making this a fawning, rose-colored-glasses, lionizing bio-flick. Rather it's a few warts-and-all years in the life of one of the most revered and complicated patriots in American military history. In addition to Scott's, the movie won six more Academy Awards including Screenplay, Director, and Picture.

‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)

Adapted from the 1952 French novel of the same name by Pierre Boulle (also, the original “credited” screenwriter), director David Lean’s landmark epic is one of only a few movies of its kind (“Stalag 17,” “The Great Escape,” and “Von Ryan’s Express” being the notable others) presented from the perspective of Allied POWs.

Sir Alec Guinness won his only Oscar for playing Col. Nicholson, a by-the-book, stiff-upper-lipped British officer. When ordered by the Japanese army to instruct his men to build a bridge with what was effectively slave labor in order to harm his and other countries' forces, the colonel flatly refused.

Poster for "The Bridge on the River Kwai." (Sony Entertainment)
Poster for "The Bridge on the River Kwai." (Sony Entertainment)
After coming up short in a long battle of wills, Nicholson reluctantly succumbs to his handlers, oversees the construction of the bridge, and takes great pride in the end result. What Nicholson hasn’t counted on and cannot foresee is the late arrival of his fellow countryman (Jack Hawkins) and an American counterpart (William Holden) determined to upset the apple cart.

‘Dunkirk’ (2017)

If you’ve never heard of Dunkirk (in France) or the World War II battle that took place there, don’t feel uninformed. It happened almost 18 months before the United States joined the hostilities in earnest, and it was technically a huge setback for the Allied forces, much in the same manner that Apollo 13 was a failed mission to the moon.

What the movie puts across in spades is that eluding defeat (or capture or death) is often more difficult and, yes, sometimes more honorable than achieving victory.

Promotional ad for "Dunkirk." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Promotional ad for "Dunkirk." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Presenting action from the overlapping and interwoven perspectives of sea, land, and air, the three principal plot lines take place in the space of one hour, one day, and one week—which is designed to and succeeds in disorienting the viewer for the duration.

It remains the shortest (106 minutes) movie of writer and director Christopher Nolan’s career. He cleverly worked in a similar narrative style to that which he previously employed to brilliant effect in both “Inception” and “Interstellar.”

Special Mention: ‘Band of Brothers’ (2001)

Not a feature film, this 10-part HBO epic was produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (who also directed one episode), and it reinvented the miniseries blueprint in the process.

Based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose (who also served as a consultant on “Saving Private Ryan”), the dramatized series focuses on the nonfictional events of the soldiers making up “Easy” Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. It features a slew of superb performances, one of the best coming from future “Homeland” and “Billions” star Damian Lewis.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.