The best World War II movies of all time (September 2023) |
The Greatest Generation provided inspiration for some of the most compelling moments in cinema history. Here are the best World War II movies to educate and entertain you.

The six years of global conflict that comprised World War II changed the world politically, culturally, and technologically — and paved the way for some of the most provocative, engaging, and horrifying pieces of cinema ever created. The films on this list commemorate the battles fought on land and sea; they document the evil minds that conceived of and executed the Holocaust, and tell the stories of the innocent people who survived and perished in the concentration camps.

From those who lost their lives fighting on behalf of others, to unsung heroes, to those who made it home, unable to free themselves from the mental shackles of their experiences, the movies and filmmakers featured on this list ensure the tragedies and traumas of WWII will never be forgotten. 

Credit: Everett Collection

Casablanca (1942)

There are love stories, and then there's Casablanca. The oft-quoted film follows the trench coat-clad Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American expat and owner of a nightclub in Morocco, whose political neutrality and cynical disposition can be traced back to a failed relationship with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). When Ilsa and her husband Victor Laszlo turn up in Casablanca, desperate for help in escaping the Germans, Rick must decide which is stronger: his love for Ilsa, or his desire to help the world thwart a fascist regime. Representing one of the many wartime films made by the studio system in the early years of the second World War, Casablanca defied expectations upon its release, earning a Best Picture win, and a permanent place in cinema history. While the film is shot in black and white, Casablanca finds depth and color in the story's love triangle, and by illustrating the difficult moral choices these complex characters are forced to make. —Robert English

Where to watch Casablanca: Max

Credit: Everett Collection

Come and See (1985)

Few films have captured the horrific experiences of war as vividly and poetically as director Elim Kilmov's 1985 picture. Come and See follows Flyora, a young Belarusian boy who joins the Soviet resistance against German forces after finding an old rifle. Atrocities await the child soldier at every turn, as he endures unimaginable suffering through a lens that's somehow both surreal and all too real. Drawn from the personal experiences of Kilmov and co-writer Ales Adamovich, Come and See is a truly terrifying spectacle — and it's one of the most poignant anti-war films ever made. —R.E. 

Where to watch Come and See: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Everett Collection

Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Peterson's war epic (translated to The Boat) depicts the claustrophobic world of a German U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. The film was shot in chronological order over the course of a year to capture a pale, bearded crew hardened by months at sea that feel like a lifetime. The result brings stunning realism to the terror and conditions of naval warfare, with intense action sequences and a great eye for detail.  Even at two-and-a-half hours, Das Boot is a relentless, emotional ride that grows grimmer by the minute. —R.E.

Where to watch Das Boot: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Everett Collection

Downfall (2004)

Downfall recounts the final days of Adolf Hitler and his entourage in their fatalistic bunker as the Soviets close in on Berlin. Bruno Ganz — who was originally hesitant to take on the role — brings complex depth to the Führer, so much so that the film received backlash for humanizing one of history's worst dictators. Still, it was released to critical and financial success, earning a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Director Oliver Hirschbeigel relied on eyewitness accounts and historical records to ensure accuracy while tackling the unthinkable:  exploring the many dimensions of a man whose evil knows no bounds. —R.E. 

Where to watch Downfall: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Warner Bros.

Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan traded spaceships for fighter jets in this fast-paced, action-heavy narrative about the British Army's attempt at evacuating the compromised beaches of Dunkirk. Portraying the historic battle from land, sea, and air, this intense film grips viewers from the first gunshots until the inspiring end. Throw in a heart-pounding soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and a debut role for not-so-underground musician Harry Styles, and it's no wonder that Dunkirk was a financial and critical success. —R.E.

Where to watch Dunkirk: Max

Credit: Everett Collection

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Studio Ghibli, the hallowed film company behind animated classics like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl's Moving Castle, is known for its mystical creatures and fantastical worlds. But in 1988, writer-director Isao Takahata cast aside the feel-good formula and created this heart-wrenching tale of two siblings trying to survive in Japan as World War II draws to a close. In a world where animated movies can sometimes be regarded as vapid pieces of children's entertainment, Grave of the Fireflies remains one of the most visually stunning and emotionally moving genre films of all time, no matter your age. Make sure to bring tissues for this one. —R.E. 

Where to watch Grave of the Fireflies: Vudu

Credit: Francois Duhamel/TWC

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Bloody shootouts, quippy dialogue, historical revisionism — it's trademark Quentin Tarantino at his best. Inglourious Basterds follows a group of Jewish US Soldiers led by a fearless lieutenant as they plot to assassinate Nazi leaders while a French theater owner pursues her own revenge. The two-and-a-half hour runtime races by as we're treated to audacious, history-defying scenes and nail-biting confrontations. The cast includes the likes of Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, and Melanie Laurent, but stealing the show is Christoph Waltz in his Oscar-winning performance as Colonel Hans Landa, who Tarantino called the "best character I've written and maybe the best I ever will write." —R.E.

Where to watch Inglourious Basterds: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

It's definitely a bold choice for a director to portray Adolf Hitler as a playful imaginary friend to a 10-year-old Nazi boy, but Taika Waititi managed to pull it off. Jojo Rabbit follows Jojo, played by the adorable Roman Griffin Davis as a devoted Hitler Youth who finds out his less-than-ardent mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl in their walls. The Thor: Love and Thunder helmer passionately directs a story that's both hopeful and deeply tragic, putting children at the forefront of a world undergoing dramatic change. With vibrant colors, complex characters, and an upbeat soundtrack, Jojo Rabbit is an endlessly entertaining satire that you'll enjoy with every rewatch. —R.E.

Where to watch JoJo Rabbit: Amazon Prime Video

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) KEN WATANABE
Credit: Merie W. Wallace/Warner Bros.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Clint Eastwood shot Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima simultaneously, giving perspectives on the battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese sides. The latter stands out as the superior of the two films, as it did critically at the time, garnering four Oscar nominations. It's a sorrowful, intimate story reminding us that regardless of which side they were fighting on, at the war's center, the soldiers were just human beings. —R.E.

Where to watch Letters From Iwo Jima: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Mudbound (2017)

Like The Best Years of Our Lives, Mudbound looks at two soldiers, one white and one Black, as they both adjust to life after the war. Jason Mitchell is exceptional as Ronsel Jackson, bringing emotional honesty to a war hero who, because of the color of his skin, is treated like anything but. The film also features an all-star cast including Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, and Garrett Hedlund. —R.E.

Where to watch Mudbound: Netflix

Saving Private Ryan (1998)TOM SIZEMORE (L) and TOM HANKS
Credit: David James/Dreamworks

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan brings viewers to the ground level of the Normandy invasion, complete with intense bloodshed and an incredible attention to detail. Starring Tom Hanks, Vin Diesel, and Matt Damon alongside a dazzling ensemble cast, the film follows one unit's heroic mission to bring a private home after his three brothers perished in action on D-Day. It's still a shock that the film lost the Best Picture Oscar to Shakespeare in Love (though Spielberg did win for Best Directing), but the test of time has looked more favorably on Saving Private Ryan. —R.E. 

Where to watch Saving Private Ryan: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Everett Collection

Schindler's List (1993)

Another much-revered Spielberg-directed war film, Schindler's List is one of the most intimate and affecting onscreen depictions of the Holocaust. Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who operates under the radar to save his Jewish workers from Nazi persecution. In a year where he also released Jurassic Park, Spielberg returns with a movie that remains hopeful in one of the darkest corners of human history, paying tribute to the millions who lost their lives and to those who survived. It's a hard movie to watch, but it's one that everyone should experience at least once. —R.E. 

Where to watch Schindler's List: Amazon Prime Video

SOPHIE'S CHOICE, Meryl Streep, 1982
Credit: Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Sophie's Choice (1982)

The early '80s psychological drama Sophie's Choice is notorious for being the vehicle that won Meryl Streep her first Best Actress Oscar — her second Oscar win overall — but the film's narrative is far less established. Adapted and directed by Alan J. Pakula from William Styron's 1979 novel, Sophie's Choice tells the story of Catholic, Polish Auschwitz survivor Sophie (Streep) who, after immigrating to America, engages in a tumultuous love affair with an American Jew named Nathan (Kevin Kline). Nathan and Sophie befriend Stengo (Peter MacNicol), an aspiring novelist who recently moved to their New York City boarding house, but the connection between the three friends threatens to topple years of secrets that Sophie has worked hard to obscure. The titular scene is eternally haunting, but the rest of the film is just as compelling, and at times, even stumbles into heartwarming territory, before descending into madness and misery. —Ilana Gordon      

Where to watch Sophie's Choice: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Everett Collection

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Released a year after the end of the war, The Best Years of Our Lives is an epic film about three soldiers who return home and soon realize their families are irrevocably changed. William Wyler's nearly three-hour masterpiece was both timely and timeless, with a smart script and a full range of emotional depth. The movie took home seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and an Honorary Oscar for actor Harold Russell for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans." —R.E. 

Where to watch The Best Years of Our Lives: Amazon Prime Video

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, 1957
Credit: Everett Collection

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Long before he was dueling Darth Vader in Star Wars, Sir Alec Guinness starred in this tour de force WWII film as Colonel Nicholson, a British POW who, with his unit, is tasked with building a railway bridge across the river Kwai in occupied Burma while Allied forces plan to destroy it. The film is grand on every level, delving into the gray areas of war with a bombastic final act that rivals action scenes today. Director David Lean is perhaps the king of 20th century historical epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), but The Bridge on the River Kwai was his first foray into the genre, one that would lay the groundwork for his legacy. —R.E.

Where to watch The Bridge on the River Kwai: Max

THE GREAT ESCAPE, Steve McQueen, 1963
Credit: Everett Collection

The Great Escape (1963)

This classic film features nonstop thrills on land, sea, and air, all within a gripping tale of freedom. The Great Escape tells the story of three Allied POWs planning their escape from a German camp . The cast — including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner — is triumphant, and director John Sturges does an excellent job highlighting the resilience of humanity. While the film didn't win many awards, it was one of the highest-grossing films of 1963, and will always be remembered as one of the greatest prisoners of war movies ever. —R.E. 

Where to watch The Great Escape: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Jack English/TWC

The Imitation Game (2014)

The Imitation Game proves that mathematics can be just as tense and interesting as warfare. Based on the book by Andrew Hodges, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the ingenious Alan Turing, a British cryptographer who attempts to crack German intelligence codes while coming to terms with his sexuality. The well-written script shines a light on a lesser-known pocket of WWII history, and its stirring acting makes this period drama all the more memorable. Cumberbatch received his first Oscar nod working alongside a cast of British acting elite including Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Rory Kinnear, and Charles Dance. —R.E. 

Where to watch The Imitation Game: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Everett Collection

The Longest Day (1962)

Even though Saving Private Ryan is perhaps the pinnacle of D-Day portrayed on the silver screen, 1962's The Longest Day is still a crowning achievement. Based on the nonfiction book by Cornelius Ryan, the film tells the events of the invasion from American, French, British, and German perspectives. It also features an ensemble cast with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history, including John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, and Richard Burton (and almost starred former president Dwight D. Eisenhower as himself). While the film falters in the distraction of some of the well-known Hollywood players, the close-up style works well in depicting the historic events, the grand scale of the invasion, and an insightful picture of everyone involved on the fateful day. —R.E.

Where to watch The Longest Day: Amazon Prime Video

Credit: Everett Collection

The Pianist (2002)

The Pianist is a harrowing look at the destruction of Warsaw and the horrors of the Holocaust through the eyes of a Jewish musician. Unfortunately, the film is shrouded in the continuing controversy of its director, Roman Polanski. But that doesn't diminish the remarkable achievements of the rest of the cast and the crew, especially Adrien Brody, who, at the tender age of 29, is still the youngest actor to win the Best Actor award for playing the role with heart, power, and deep sadness. —R.E.

Where to watch The Pianist: Amazon Prime Video