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6 World War II Classics

A List of Great Movies About the Good War


More than another war, World War II has been the source of inspiration for a number great war movies. While there were numerous flag-waving films made during the war, it wasn’t until after the guns had settled that filmmakers began taking a more realistic look at the events of 1939-1945. Slowly but surely, Hollywood turned a jaundiced eye toward the good war and by the late 1970s, a public weary from another difficult war gravitated toward realistic films that reflected their cynical mood. Whether patriotic or anti-war, there is a great movie about World War II for everyone.

1. ‘A Walk in the Sun’ – 1945

20th Century Fox
A simple, but thoroughly compelling film directed Lewis Milestone, A Walk in the Sun was unconventional in its depiction of the fear and isolation felt by the average infantryman – unusual for any movie from the early classic era, let alone one made while the bombing were still being dropped. Adapted from a novel by Yank magazine writer Harry Brown, the film starred Dana Andrews as Sgt. Bill Tyne, a platoon leader by default tasked with the nearly impossible mission of leading an assault against a Nazi-occupied farmhouse in Salerno, Italy. As each member of the platoon reveals their true colors in the face of death, Tyne watches one man after fall in the attack despite the unit’s constant refrain that “Nobody dies.” Though it received strong critical acclaim, A Walk in the Sun faded from public view until later generations discovered the film on video.
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2. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ – 1957

Sony Pictures
Not only a great movie about World War II, The Bridge on the River Kwai was one of the best films ever made by director David Lean. The winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, the film starred Lean favorite Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, a defiant British officer and leader of a group of POWs in a Japanese camp who caves to pressure by an equally strong-willed prison commander (Sessue Hayakawa) to build the titular bridge. As Nicholson obsesses over its construction, an American POWS (William Holden) escapes, only to be forced into returning in order to blow the bridge up. Both a great war movie and examination of powerful battle of wills, The Bridge on the River Kwai should be required viewing for any classic movie fan.
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3. ‘The Great Escape’ – 1963

MGM Home Entertainment
Based on a true story of a daring POW escape from a high security Nazi prison camp in 1944, The Great Escape was an harrowing wartime action thriller that featured a large ensemble cast of Hollywood and British heavyweights. While the main star was undoubtedly Steve McQueen, who played an all-American Air Force captain who helps organize the mass escape, the film contained a who’s-who of actors from both sides of the Atlantic, including James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, and James Coburn, all playing either fictional or composite characters who took part in an escape via underground tunnel that resulted in most being captured or killed. One of the highest grossing movies of 1963, The Great Escape has grown in status as an all-time World War II classic.
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4. ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ – 1970

Warner Bros.
Less a war movie than a satirical examination on the insanity of war, Kelly’s Heroes was a hit with both audiences and critics upon its release, and has consistently ranked high on the list of best wartime comedies. Featuring a large ensemble cast, the film starred Clint Eastwood as a demoted former officer who learns of a cache of gold bars worth millions sitting in a bank 30 miles behind German lines. Determined to get something for himself and his platoon after routinely being shafted from the spoils of war, Kelly enlists the help of a hustling supply sergeant named Crapgame (Don Rickles), a hard-driving unit leader called Big Joe (Telly Savalas), and a Bohemian tank commander known as Oddball (Donald Sutherland). The unit spends three days going AWOL in pursuit of financial glory while ducking both the Germans and their superior officers. Be sure to pay attention to the end when Kelly’s Heroes pays brief homage to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Kelly, Big Joe and Oddball face down the last remaining German tank guarding the gold.
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5. ‘Cross of Iron’ – 1977

Embassy Pictures
Often forgotten among Sam Peckinpah’s more famous works like The Wild Bunch (1969) and The Getaway (1972), Cross of Iron was the director’s only war movie and one of his angriest films. Filled with intense and seemingly endless battle scenes, Cross of Iron was the rare World War II film that was shown from the German perspective. It starred James Coburn as a Nazi corporal who receives the coveted Iron Cross despite his loyalties resting in his family and fellow soldiers rather than blindly pledging allegiance to Hitler. But when a Hitler loyalist (Maximillian Schell) takes command, the two engage in a bitter battle of wills while fighting a relentless hoard of Allied soldiers. Though uneven in spots, Cross of Iron is a lesser Peckinpah masterpiece and one of the more interesting looks at the Second World War.
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6. ‘A Bridge Too Far’ – 1977

MGM Home Entertainment
Yet another film that features an all-star cast, A Bridge Too Far was far more reflective of the dark mood of the late 1970s and less patriotic than other movies made about World War II. Directed by Richard Attenborough from a script by William Goldman, the film contained a bevy of stars that included Sean Connery, Michael Caine, James Caan, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, and Robert Redford. They form an Allied group that enacts a plan to push German forces through Holland by taking five bridges, only to literally go a bridge too far by coming face to face with an elite unit of Nazi soldiers. Both a reflection of and answer to the more flag-waving epic The Longest Day (1962), A Bridge Too Far was an engrossing, albeit cynical film that accurately depicted the true horrors of war.
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