In celebration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, here’s the definitive list of the BEST WWII films of all time
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
On 8 May, 75 years ago, the Allies marked their defeat of the Axis menace in Europe. To honor those who sacrificed and made that momentous victory possible, I have decided to do something ridiculously less heroic: rank the top-five World War II films of all time.
So, without further ado, here is the list, ranked from last place to first.
5. ‘Europa Europa’ (1990) – Based on the autobiography of Solomon Perel, the story follows the travails of a German Jewish boy who, in trying to escape the Holocaust, goes from being a hunted Jew to a Soviet orphan to a German war hero to a member of the Nazi Youth. Perel runs from Germany to Poland to the Soviet Union and then back to Germany, but no matter where he goes, the war relentlessly follows.
A magnetic lead performance from Marco Hofschneider and skilled direction by Agnieszka Holland make ‘Europa Europa’ a must-see for World War II cinephiles.
4. ‘Downfall’ (2004) – Set in Hitler’s bunker during the final days of the Third Reich, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film focuses on the Fuhrer’s struggle to maintain his delusions of grandeur as the cold hand of reality closes around his neck.
The glorious Bruno Ganz gives a transcendent performance as Hitler descending into the grasp of a mesmerizing madness. ‘Downfall’ masterfully reveals Hitler’s bunker to be the maze of his mind, and a prison to those who fully bought into his cult of personality.
3. ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) – In Christopher Nolan’s perspective-jumping cinematic odyssey, we are taught the hard but important lesson that survival is not heroic, but rather instinctive, and that it is in defeat, and not victory, that character is revealed.
‘Dunkirk’ is a visual feast of a film, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and magnificently directed by Nolan. It also boasts a stellar cast and terrifically effective sound design, sound editing and soundtrack. The film succeeds not only as a pulsating World War II masterpiece, but on its release in 2017, also as a deft metaphor for Brexit.
2. ‘Das Boot’ (1981) – A taut and at times terrifying psychological thriller set on a German U-boat as it wages war in the Atlantic.
Like a sea serpent, Wolfgang Peterson’s film dramatically wraps itself around you and then slowly constricts, leaving you gasping for air. ‘Das Boot’ is as viscerally imposing a war film as has ever been made as Peterson’s directing mastery makes U-96 feel like a claustrophobic, underwater tomb.
1.‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) – After a 20-year hiatus, revered director Terrence Malick returned to cinema with this staggeringly profound and insightful meditation on war.
Unlike Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’, which came out the same year, was a highly popular, flag-waving hagiography to the Greatest Generation and focused on the physical toll of war, Malick’s masterpiece concerns itself not with physical carnage, but the emotional, psychological and spiritual cost of war.
‘The Thin Red Line’ isn’t so much about fighting a war as it is about how living with war ravages your soul. This is exemplified by the most heroic act in the movie, when a soldier risks his life to administer morphine to a wounded comrade just so he can die more quickly.
It’s unconventional in its storytelling approach, and refuses to conform to the strictures of Hollywood myth-making, preferring instead to force audiences to confront their own complicity in the evil insidiousness of war.
In the movie, Private Edward Train eloquently gives voice to the film’s philosophical perspective with the following monologue on the inherent wickedness of war: “This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
In short, ‘The Thin Red Line’ is the best World War II film ever made because it is the most poignantly human World War II movie ever made.
As you may have noticed, my list leans more toward modern cinema because the art and technology of filmmaking have advanced enormously over the past 75 years. I also favor more serious fare over populist entertainment, so terrific movies such as ‘The Dirty Dozen’ or ‘Inglourious Basterds’ fail to make the cut. Classics like ‘Casablanca’ and ‘From Here to Eternity’, meanwhile, were left on the cutting-room floor because they are set in World War II rather than being about World War II.
Movies such as ‘Schindler’s List’ weren’t considered because I somewhat irrationally consider them to be ‘Holocaust films’ rather than ‘World War II films.’ That may be a distinction without a difference, but it’s a distinction I nonetheless make.
‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘A Bridge Too Far’, ‘The Enemy at the Gates’, ‘Stalingrad’ (1993), ‘Patton’, and ‘The Great Escape’, all just missed the cut and had to settle for an honorable mention, even though I love them.
With regard to my definitive list, I’ll end by quoting Nick Nolte’s bombastic Lt. Col. Tall from ‘The Thin Red Line’: “It’s never necessary to tell me that you think I’m right. We’ll just... assume it.”
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.