contributed by Melissa Lucas, senior staff writer
Search online for good WW2 movies and Saving Private Ryan will be at the top of nearly every list. It is one of the most famous military movies for good reason. The reality of war differs not just from conflict to conflict, but from day to day within any given conflict. Saving Private Ryan managed to portray many of those realities with stunning accuracy all within a single film. There is no arguing that it is one of the best WW2 movies out there.
Which is why we didn’t include it on our list. You know about it already. You’ve probably already seen it. We want to tell you about some of the other WW2 movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services – all of which are also well worth your time. Here are our top ten picks, plus two runners up.
Awarded 1957’s Oscars for best picture, best director, best actor, and best adapted screenplay, among others, Bridge on the River Kwai is one of many mid-century World War 2 movies and is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, let alone one of the best WWII movies. It’s an intimate portrayal of British Colonel Nicholson who has been ordered to surrender by Allied command and is forced to lead a team of fellow POWs as they construct the Burma Railway Bridge, which will strategically connect Bangkok and Rangoon. Meanwhile, British commandos conspire to destroy the bridge before it is completed. Madness ensues as the film and many of its characters come to a heroically tragic end.
Nazi officials rest easy in the assumption that terrible weather and rough seas mean there is no possibility of an Allied invasion on the horizon. However, the Allies push forward and proceed with the largest coordinated attack in military history. Not only does The Longest Day provide a sweeping overview of the political and military events leading up to D-Day, it pays special attention to individual characters – both Allied and German, from top-level officials to soldiers on the ground – as the story of D-Day unfolds before the viewer’s eyes.
This unique World War 2 film follows several British Commonwealth soldiers as they escape from a German POW camp. Each soldier brings a unique skill to their plight, and viewers find themselves enrapt in the intricacy of The Great Escape plan. Somehow the film manages to create an air of lightheartedness, which contrasts with a brutally realistic climax – earning it a place our list of the most iconic WW2 films in cinematic history.
The Dirty Dozen is based on the true story of twelve military convicts who came together for a suicide mission leading up to D-Day. The group of convicts, most of whom have been imprisoned for heinous crimes, are to parachute across enemy lines and assassinate high-ranking German personnel. This violent, high drama World War 2 movie breaks from typical cinematic portrayal of the period. The plot follows this unlikely group of “heroes” as they form a spirited unit and strive to complete their mission.
A soldier for life and perhaps one of the most famous Generals in American military history, General George Patton had quite an eccentric personality. Patton, the film, was written by Francis Ford Coppola and stars George C. Scott. The story follows the General through his activities and accomplishments of WWII, beginning with the North African campaign and ending with his removal from command for his outspoken views. This very good WW2 movie and epic biopic manages to capture Patton’s unique character in glorious fashion, and as such, was preserved in the U.S. Film Registry for being historically significant.
Adapted from a best-selling German novel, Das Boot looks at life aboard a German U-Boat. With a captain who’s sense of duty supersedes his disdain for Hitler and Nazism, it becomes difficult for even the strongest of objectors to avoid feeling an emotional connection to these German soldiers. Described as electric and unrelenting, Das Boot combines cramped visual imagery along with a constant underwater soundtrack, which intensifies the actors’ portrayal of the toll war takes on soldiers, regardless of which side they are on. This is one of the movies about WW2 on our list with subtitles, which may turn some viewers off. But we assure you, it’s well worth the watch.
Pulling from his firsthand experiences as a soldier – specifically from the Guadalcanal Campaign – James Jones wrote the 1962 novel upon which The Thin Red Line was based. There is no restraint in the writing, and viewers experience the brutality of war alongside the film’s characters as it ravages the world. Left in its wake are nothing but destruction, pain, and terror. It is said that significant screen time for major actors was cut in favor of brutal Pacific battle images combined with impactful voiceovers. The result is one of the best WW2 films on Netflix and a wartime reflection that is poetic in nature, but certainly not for the faint of heart.
Soldiers on both sides of any battle are faced with similar experiences. Violence, injuries, illness, and death. Fear, loneliness, and desperation. Clint Eastwood finds sympathy for the enemy as he depicts the Battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath from the perspective of the Japanese. Letters from Iwo Jima follows a private and general through their last stand as they fight for their lives and for their country.
While Hacksaw Ridge might not be one of the most famous WW2 movies on our list, it’s still a fan favorite and is based on a true story. War movies don’t often include pacifist heroes, but that’s exactly what you can expect from this one. The film tells the compelling tale of conscientious objector, Private First-Class Desmond Doss, who volunteers to join the army as a medic in the middle of WWII. PFC Doss is ridiculed, bullied, and ostracized by his unit for his pacifist views and refusal to bear arms. Despite his personal stance on the war, Doss becomes a celebrated war hero when he singlehandedly rescues 75 soldiers from the top of Hacksaw Ridge after a particularly brutal day of combat during the Battle of Okinawa.
Unique to most movies about WWII, Dunkirk uses multiple timelines to capture the full picture of events surrounding the 1940 Allied evacuation of Dunkirk. One storyline follows stranded soldiers over the course of a week. The second portrays a single day in the life of civilians attempting to rescue stranded soldiers via boat. The third covers just an hour of time in which an Army pilot storms the beach from overhead. With an emotional culmination that effectively captures the spirit of the soldiers who so desperately fought to defeat the enemy, Dunkirk is one of the most famous World War 2 movies created in the 21st century.
Some of the most poignant movies related to the second world war aren’t in English. One in Russian and one in German, we think these two excellent films have a right to be on our list of the best.
Told through the perspective of a young man in Belarus, this Soviet anti-war film depicts the devastating impact of the Nazi occupation in Eastern Europe. The movie’s plot follows Floyora as he imitates a soldier and ultimately summons war to his village. What ensues is a brutally disturbing and terrifyingly powerful reflection of the innocence lost by hundreds of thousands of citizens as Hitler’s influence continued to expand throughout Eastern Europe. Come and See may be one of the toughest movies about World War 2 to watch but it’s worth the effort, anyway.
This historical, German language war drama is set during the Battle of Berlin as the Nazi Army faces imminent defeat. Barricaded inside a bunker during the final days of his life, the audience gets a fascinating peak at the human side of Adolf Hitler and members of the Third Reich. The production of Downfall allowed Germany to take an active role in the telling of its own history, and explores Hitler’s motives and military decisions prior to taking his own life. This World War 2 movie received a large theatrical release and was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2004 Academy Awards.
There is no shortage of great World War 2 movies on Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming platforms. Stay tuned for additional lists which include WW2 documentaries and non-combat films, among others.
In the meantime, check out the other films included in our Greatest War Movies series, where you’ll find our top picks for films about the American Revolution, Civil War, WWI, Vietnam War, and the Wars in the Middle East.
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