With his latest film “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan has returned to war; World War II, specifically. Although the J. Robert Oppenheimer biopic doesn’t feature any scenes of soldiers heading into battle, it’s a war movie at its heart, with the conflict in Europe and Asia motivating the morally reprehensible actions of the Manhattan Project in the States. “Oppenheimer” makes, in some ways, a good companion piece to Nolan’s 2016 hit “Dunkirk”: a more conventional (relatively speaking) depiction of the war, from the perspectives of the ordinary soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation.
From the moment it ended, World War II has proven fertile ground for hundreds of directors, as Hollywood stars have geared up to fight some Nazis. But, perhaps due to the relative recency and large scope of the conflict, the war has also invited an unexpected level of nuance and diversity of perspectives. One of the earliest great cinematic treatments of the war was 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives”: an Oscar-winning drama about three U.S. veterans struggling to readjust to their lives back home after their trials during the war. Other classics of the World War II genre include Pear Harbor romance “From Here to Eternity,” Steve McQueen action film “The Great Escape,” and pulpy thrillers like “The Dirty Dozen.”
The best of WWII films never lose sight of the idea that this was a conflict fought by individuals. Their weapons and their ideologies were varied, but this was history guided by people not easily categorized in simple moral columns. Some of their personal struggles came to represent the conflict that enveloped so many, but these specific tales left indelible marks in our conception of a war that ended over seven decades ago.
IndieWire has rounded up a list of the 15 greatest modern World War II films, roughly defined as the greatest movies to tackle the subject in the last 30 years. The films range from epics like “Saving Private Ryan” to intimate dramas like “Grave of the Fireflies.” Entries are listed chronologically.
With editorial contributions by David Ehrlich, Steve Greene, Chris O’Falt, Zack Sharf, Anne Thompson, and Graham Winfrey. This story was originally published in August 2016 and has since been updated.
1. “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988)
Because of the nature of the film industry, our most famous cinematic depictions of World War II come from the American point of view, and the civilians from Germany, Italy, and Japan are often reduced to faceless extras in the conflict. The most famous Japanese film set during the war, “Grave of the Fireflies” flips the script to focus on the horrors of war from the perspective of innocent children affected by the brutal campaign on their shores. The Studio Ghibli film from Isao Takahata focuses on Seita and Setsuko Yokokawa, two ordinary children from the city of Kobe, who lose their mother in the 1945 bombing of the city. As their father is currently serving in the military, the two are forced to rely on each other to find basic food and shelter, but the brutal conditions of war make hope hard to find. It’s one of the starkest and most upsetting films about World War II ever produced and a reminder that even the “enemy” side of every conflict has ordinary people just struggling to survive. —WC
2. “Schindler’s List” (1993)
For all the films set during World War II, many avoid directly tackling the Holocaust; it’s simply too difficult to do justice to the sheer horror of the lives lost. That’s not to say that there aren’t great cinematic treatments of the event — see nine hour French documentary “Shoah” for an essential text — and “Schindler’s List” remains the most famous portrayal of the Holocaust on screen. Steven Spielberg’s film depicts the story of the titular Oskar Schindler. A German industrialist and Nazi Party member, Schindler used his position to save over a thousand Jewish people from concentration camps by employing them in his factories, and Spielberg’s film, lead by a magnificent Liam Neeson in the starring role, tracks his growth from an apathetic opportunist to an unlikely hero. The film is Spielberg’s most sobering and difficult movie, but one of his very best. —WC
3. “Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
There are war movies before “Saving Private Ryan,” and war movies after “Saving Private Ryan.” No other film on this list did more to fundamentally alter how we envision the greatest armed conflict of the 20th Century, and no other film on this list did more to fundamentally alter how we represent it onscreen. Steven Spielberg’s 1998 masterpiece changed the game by bringing us closer to the action than ever before, beginning with the peerlessly visceral Normandy Beach sequence that captured the grotesque horror show of an invasion and showed them to us as though we were there on the sands of France. Focusing on the value of a single human life across a series of battles in which brave men dropped like flies, “Saving Private Ryan” rekindled our love of World War II movies by stripping the genre of its romantic veneer. —DE
4. “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
The other World War II movie of 1998 to get nominated for Best Picture, “The Thin Red Line” represented director Terrance Malick’s return to filmmaking, after he all but disappeared for a 20 year stretch. And what a return it was; “The Thin Red Line” saw Malick put his own, individualistic stamp on the World War II movie, creating a feature only he could make. Based on the 1962 novel by James Jones, the movie depicts the 1942 Battle of Mount Austen from a variety of perspectives of U.S. soliders fighting in the campaign. Malick’s signature gorgeous nature photography is on full display, as is his philosophical bent; over the course of the film, the large ensemble cast — including Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, and Woody Harrelson, among many others — narrate on the conflict, and ruminate on why they’re fighting the battle in the first place. Any director could make a movie about World War II, but Malick went further and created a treatise on the nature of war itself, and why humanity is drawn to it, over and over again. —WC
5. “The Pianist” (2002)
Roman Polanski’s Best Director victory was one of the most surprising in Oscar history. For Polanski, who as a child survived the Krakow Ghetto after losing his mother, the film about a Polish Jewish musician’s (played by Adrien Brody) struggle to stay alive after the Nazis invade Poland is clearly and deeply personal. While the filmmaking craft behind the film is pure Polanski, it stands out as one of the director’s most straightforward and unironic narratives. The film is a remarkably simple story — devoid of plot devices constructed to milk emotions from the audience — about survival amid destruction. Nonetheless, its quiet, unassuming examination of life, art and evil is one of the most moving films ever made. —CO
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