World War Two was the most destructive global conflict in history. Over 50 million soldiers and civilians died, 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the atom bomb devastated Japan and entire cities were destroyed by air raids. In addition to the bloody scars left behind by physical death and destruction, the wide-ranging psychological damage caused by the war has been felt acutely in the decades since.
There are a huge number of films about World War Two, as filmmakers have attempted – with varied success – to capture the near endless aspects of the conflict. From intimate biopics to sprawling battlefield epics, a handful of films about World War Two stand out because of their emotional potency, attention to detail and vivid depiction of warfare.
Here’s our selection of 5 of the most striking World War Two films ever made.
The Great Escape (1963)
Hugely enjoyable, The Great Escape is based upon a 1950 non-fiction book of the same name that details a firsthand account of the mass escape of British Commonwealth prisoners of war from a German prisoner of war camp in Lower Silesia, now Poland. Though the characters and many of the events are highly fictionalised, the film is based upon a true story, and the lively script and action-packed narrative have cemented the film as a classic.
The film is perhaps most famous for both its theme tune – which is still sung enthusiastically by football fans in particular – and its motorcycle chase and jump scene sequence, which is considered one of the best stunts ever performed. When it premiered in 1963, the film emerged as one of the highest-grossing of the year, and has been cited by directors such as Quentin Tarantino as having inspired their work.
Schindler’s List (1993)
1993’s Best Picture Academy Award winner tells the story of Oscar Schindler, an industrialist and war profiteer who staffs his Krakow factory with Jews, thus protecting more than 1,000 people from almost certain death in Auschwitz. By the middle of the film, Nazi oppression evolves into the horror of the Final Solution, with a central performance from Ralph Fiennes, who co-stars as the utterly inhuman SS Officer Amon Göth, being particularly notable.
Liam Neeson stars as Schindler himself, portraying him as a morally complex character, both charismatic and womanising. He was duly Oscar nominated for his performance. The film is shot in black and white, except for the famous red jacket of a little 3-year-old girl, which helped it nab a win for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. In addition, Steven Spielberg was awarded Best Director.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
An incredible D-Day opening sequence sees American troops landing to stiff resistance on Omaha Beach, which has been cited as one of the most terrifyingly realistic World War Two battle scenes in cinema. What follows is a mildly implausible plot of a group of men being sent to find one Private Ryan, whose brothers had died on D-Day. The film ends with a remarkable set piece battle amongst a ruined French town – including multiple tanks.
The film was a commercial and critical success, being nominated for 11 Oscars and winning 5, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg, and today is heralded as a classic.
This detailed, claustrophobic account of Hitler’s last days during the Battle of Berlin is perhaps most famous for Bruno Ganz’s staggering central performance as the dictator himself. A German-Austrian-Italian co-production, the film effectively captures the sense of misery that engulfed 1940s Berlin – and indeed the wider world – as the horror of the ongoing conflict shuddered to a close.
The film was somewhat controversial because of its ‘humanisation’ of Hitler; however, the film earned positive reviews and a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Along with The Theory of Everything, this was one of the most talked-about films of 2014, both because of its subject matter – cracking German World War Two intelligence messages at Bletchley Park – and its stellar leading performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as the brilliant but troubled cryptanalyst Alan Turing. The film’s title quotes the name of the game Turing proposed for answering the famous question, ‘Can machines think?’ in his significant 1950 paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’.
The film also delves into Turing’s personal life with a particular focus on his struggles with his homosexuality and hormone ‘therapy’ treatment he was subjected to a result. Supported by cast members such as Keira Knightley, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance and Matthew Goode, the film became the highest grossing independent film of 2014, some $233 million, and garnered eight Oscar nominations, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay.