7 must-see Second World War films

Rife with drama, tragedy and danger, the Second World War has inspired – and continues to inspire – countless filmmakers across the world, generating a huge catalogue of action movies, thrillers, animations and romantic dramas. Here, we highlight just a few of our favourites…

The 1993 film ‘Schindler’s List’. (AF Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)
The 1993 film ‘Schindler’s List’. (AF Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Schindler’s List (1993)

 
Despite being a mainstream Hollywood movie, Steven Spielberg’s haunting Schindler’s List broke new ground for its unflinching portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust. 
 
The multi-award-winning film recounts the extraordinary real-life actions of Oskar Schindler, an industrialist and Nazi party member believed to have saved the lives of around 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. Schindler recruited Jewish workers to his factories in Nazi-occupied Poland and bribed Nazi officials to protect them from deportation to concentration camps. He is believed to have made a total of seven lists filled with the names of those he intended to save, four of which still survive today. 
 
Spielberg was drawn to the story by Thomas Keneally’s 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel, Schindler’s Ark. "It was a dry, dry book," Spielberg told the New York Times. "I thought if I could take that approach with a motion picture, I could present it almost like a series of events, facts and dates. And the emotionality would be much stronger". Spielberg chose to shoot the film almost entirely in black and white. His crews also filmed at many of the real locations, including the gates of Auschwitz.
 
The film’s shocking subject matter was close to home for Spielberg, whose own relatives were murdered in Poland and Ukraine during the Second World War genocide. After refusing any salary for directing the film, in 1994 he used the movie’s profits to found the USC Shoah Foundation (originally named the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation). A not-for-profit organisation that has collected and preserved more than 54,000 video testimonies from Holocaust survivors, the foundation is intended to educate future generations about the genocide.
 

The Great Escape (1963)

 
With its stellar cast, thrilling action sequences and inimitable theme song, The Great Escape has certainly earned its place as a stalwart of British Christmas television scheduling. Depicting the daring 1944 escape made by Allied airmen from a Polish Prisoner of War (PoW) camp, the 1963 film is an iconic – if somewhat bombastic – celebration of wartime bravado, heroism and derring-do. 
 
The film is largely based on a 1950 book by former Australian PoW Paul Brickhill, a fellow prisoner at Stalag Luft III whose severe claustrophobia prevented him from taking part in the escape. 
 
The true events behind the film certainly had all the drama, tension and tragedy a Hollywood movie producer could wish for. Organised by RAF squadron leader Roger Bushell (the inspiration for the film’s ‘Roger Bartlett’ character, played by Richard Attenborough) and designed to disrupt their Germans captors as much as possible, the escape saw Allied PoWs dig three escape tunnels. Known as Tom, Dick and Harry, the tunnels were intended to reach more than 300ft under the camp boundaries to the woods beyond. On the night of 24 March 1944, some 76 men made their audacious escape from the Stalag Luft III camp, but within a matter of days, 73 escapees had been recaptured. Angered and embarrassed by their actions, Hitler personally ordered for 50 of them to be shot.
 
Many aspects of the escape depicted in the film reportedly reflect reality, such as the elaborate preparations undertaken, the huge number of PoWs involved and the nerve-shredding moment the tunnel came up short and escapees had to run to the trees over open ground. However, some of The Great Escape’s most memorable moments are undeniably based more on ‘box office appeal’ than historical fact, such as Steve McQueen’s audacious motorbike chase as all-American hero Virgil Hilts (a fictional character – no US soldiers were involved in the real escape). This sequence did not appear in the original script ¬– it was reportedly added in to soothe the ego of Steve McQueen, who kicked up a fuss about the size of his part and demanded more screen time. On the film’s release, the iconic sight of McQueen’s bike flying triumphantly over barbed wire was deemed so preposterous that former PoWs booed in the cinemas.
 
Despite several film companies initially being reluctant to back The Great Escape (perhaps due to the lack of a glamorous female love interest), it was one of 1963’s box office hits. Indeed, the film has gone on to become a much-loved classic of Second World War cinema – in the words of a 1963 Time Magazine review: “The Great Escape is simply great escapism”. 
 

Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape’. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
 

Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

 
Produced back-to-back and released only a few months apart, these two films from director Clint Eastwood offer a dual perspective on war. Audiences witness the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima unfold from both the American and Japanese viewpoints. 
 
One of the bloodiest clashes of the war in the Pacific, the battle saw 100,000 US troops launch an assault on the strategically placed island of Iwo Jima, which was held by 22,000 deeply entrenched Japanese defenders. A huge number of lives were lost over the course of the five-week conflict. Its opening day witnessed almost 2,000 deaths, and only around 1,000 of the 22,000 Japanese soldiers survived.  
 
Flags of Our Fathers looks at the story behind a photograph of a group of unknown American soldiers raising the US flag on Iwo Jima – one of the most famous photographs of the Second World War. We see the battle through the flashbacks of this small group of ‘flag-raisers’ who struggle to deal with being labelled heroes on their return home.
 
Meanwhile, the film’s Japanese companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, sees the encounter through the eyes of the Japanese garrison under attack and their charismatic commander, General Kuribayashi. Filmed almost entirely in the Japanese language – a bold move for American Hollywood director Clint Eastwood – Letters from Iwo Jima was generally better received by critics than its American counterpart. The film was praised for its sympathetic and humanising take on the Japanese perspective on war. 
 
Film critic Roger Ebert commended Eastwood’s double-sided take on Iwo Jima for highlighting that “life or death, heroism or folly: it all comes down to which side you're on, and which piece of ground you're occupying at any given moment”.
 

Das Boot (1981)

 
Claustrophobic yet compelling, Das Boot depicts life onboard a German U-Boat submerged in the depths of the Atlantic.
 
It’s 1942 – the war is beginning to turn against Hitler and the Third Reich’s propaganda is wearing increasingly thin. The audience’s insight into the action comes from Lt Werner, an enthusiastic yet naïve war correspondent assigned to report on the submarine’s progress. In contrast, the U-boat’s war-weary captain (reportedly based on real-life U-boat captain Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock) is highly cynical about the regime he serves and about Germany’s progress in the war.
 
Tension mounts as the submarine creaks and groans, and shelling is heard overhead. Yet it’s not only the constant risk of imminent death that Das Boot evokes so effectively, but also the mind-numbing boredom of life on board a submarine. The sweaty corridors and cramped living conditions of the U-boat make for very uncomfortable viewing. 
 
While Germany’s Second World War fighting forces are frequently portrayed on film as two-dimensional villains entirely devoted to National Socialism, Das Boot gives these men a human face. They are neither heroes nor villains, but rather ordinary men grappling with everyday concerns and individual fears. In the close quarters of the submarine we watch them bullying one another about photographs of loved ones, slicing the mould off bread, visiting the medic to be treated for crabs and singing along to British anthem “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary”.
 

Jürgen Prochnow as the U-boat captain in 'Das Boot’. ( Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
 

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

 
Steven Spielberg’s hugely ambitious epic has gone down in movie history for capturing the immense scope and scale of the Second World War’s western front with a grim and gruesome realism. 
 
The audience follows Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) as he works his way through the devastated landscape of war-torn France in search of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), a young soldier who is to be returned to the US, after his brothers have all been killed in action. 
 
Critics praised the film’s opening half hour – a brutally immersive depiction of the US Omaha beach landings of 6 June 1944 – as an unrivalled set piece portraying the chaotic horror of war. Filmed in freezing seas off the Irish coast, the sequence featured around 1,500 actors and cost an estimated $12m (of the film’s $70m total budget). Unusually, Spielberg chose not to storyboard the scene, arguing that he wanted his actors’ responses to be as spontaneous and believable as possible. 
 
The director also stated that he "did not want this to look like a technicolor extravaganza, but more like colour newsreel footage from the 1940s, which is very desaturated and low-tech”. The cinematography was therefore designed to evoke to the grainy photographs of the real D-Day landings, as immortalised by wartime photojournalist Robert Capa.
 
On its release, Saving Private Ryan’s depiction of war was deemed so intense that a nationwide phone line was set up by the US Department of Veterans Affairs to offer support to those who found it too traumatic.
 

Tom Sizemore and Tom Hanks in ‘Saving Private Ryan’. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
 

Downfall (2004)

 
In this chilling portrayal of Hitler’s final days in the ‘Fuhrer bunker’ audiences watch the dictator unravel as the Third Reich collapses around him. Outside, chaos reigns as Soviet forces close in on Berlin.
 
The film is based partly on the memoirs of Traundl Junge, a personal secretary who worked for Hitler between 1942 and 1945 and eventually joined him in the Berlin bunker. As the gaping holes in his war machine began to emerge, Junge described Hitler’s behaviour as becoming increasing erratic and unstable, culminating in his eventual suicide. The fate of others was equally harrowing – the Goebbels’ family joined Hitler in an attached bunker, with Joseph and his wife ultimately giving cyanide capsules to their children to “save” them from living in a world without Nazism. 
 
Downfall made waves for its detailed and intimate portrayal of history’s most vilified figure. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel acknowledged the dangers of getting an onscreen portrayal of Hitler wrong, stating: “it was a great risk for all of us. I was scared everyday I was shooting. It is a very thin line we were walking”. 
 
Writing for The Guardian in 2004, historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw suggested that the strength of the film “which no documentary or history book can achieve, is to simulate the sense of being an observer in the bunker, watching the drama unfold and reach its grisly climax. As I sat in the empty Manchester cinema watching the superb reconstruction, I could not imagine how a film of Hitler's last days could possibly be better done”.
 
What is your favourite Second World War film? Tell us by tweeting @HistoryExtra or by posting on our Facebook page
 
On 26 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol's M Shed for a day of talks re-examining the momentous global conflict of 1939-45.
 
To find out more about our Second World War Day, and to buy tickets, click here.
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