*If you've only got limited interest and want it all narrowed down to a few films, check out my TEN ESSENTIAL World War II films list. Otherwise, grab a drink and dig deep into my findings.
The idea for this series on World War II grew out of my bigger project on action scene lists as I was trying to complete the best World War II sequences. I ended up watching so many war films and had so much data and commentary that didn't fit that list, I decided to expand it into something that could house it. I've been watching and documenting World War II for well over half a year now, something I also did for my Westerns project, and I'm ready to being sharing my findings on this incredibly diverse and rich genre of film.
As context to this collection of guides and for your exploration of this genre, I've put together three key points I'd like to share with you:
1. War is Complicated: The ethical complications of war are an immense subject that often plays out better in the context of dramatizations (like the stories these movies capture) than in abstract propositions on paper. Is it ever right to go to war? Is war okay if it is defensive or an act of resistance? Having gone to war, are there moral lines that should never be crossed? Questions of ethics, authority, purpose, and meaning are ever present in the stark realities presented by war. It’s no surprise then that war films often reflect these complications: how do you tell an accurate war story? Should it be packed with war action as some soldiers experienced, it or does it have to be monotonous and dull as some experienced it? Are commanders wise and smart or are they ignorant buffoons who throw away the lives of innocent and trusting soldiers? Is war a necessary evil or a supreme corruption of human nature? Are the heroes of one side but supreme villains to the other? Is morality just a matter of which country you were born in? To my mind, the better war films choose to engage these questions rather than ignore them.
2. Picking from a Vast Library: With such a wide-ranging conflict like World War II that involved over 100 million participants and 30 countries, it’s no wonder that our global culture has produced so many World films that cover the questions above and more. My intent for this list was not to be completely comprehensive - there are just far too many World War II films (well over 1,000) for me to attempt that. Instead, my goal was to view enough of the war films that a) are still talked about and watched by the public to this day b) represented certain sub-genres c) received critical accolades and awards or d) interested me. This led to the viewing of over 175 World War II related films. There are some blind spots you should be aware of and the biggest one is in foreign films. I was only able to see a little over a dozen non-English productions which meant the films I watched were largely American or English. This was mostly due to the lack of information and access. Speaking of access, my primary way of getting these war films was through DVD (I still do Netflix DVD), but I had to go high and wide for many of these. Here's a list of the streaming services I used (some on free week trials) to view these varied films: Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Starz, Mobi, Tubi, Youtube, Showtime, HBO Max, Cinemax, and Vudu.
3. Film Guide Goal: My goal in making this list is to first and foremost to find an outlet to share my thoughts on this little film obsession/project of mine. The truth is, I just don't many any close friends who share this obsession (to the depths I have gone anyways) and are willing to watch and discuss it at the same lengths. Being able to share it out here in the ether of the internet gives me a chance to discuss and reflect on it. This is why you'll find a short commentary on every film I viewed for this project.
The second goal is to offer an invitation/guide to others who enjoy this genre and to check out the best it has to offer. There are lots of World War II films with different viewpoints, but since there are only so many ways you can say, "War sucks," or, "Heroes are great" without it being redundant. Many war films repeat similar messages, often using similar stories, similar characters, stock dialogue, etc. I’ll do my best to steer you from what I think are mediocre or redundant stories and give you ones that I think do the best job telling their stories, themes, history, and lessons. Another thing to keep in mind is this: circumstances out of control from the creators can inhibit otherwise good movies. For instance, 1980’s The Big Red One is a great overview following a unit from North Africa to VE day. However, budget constraints and studio tinkering make the film seem like battles consisted of like 5 guys. They just couldn’t do scale shots and our squad almost never interacts with other squads due to limits. This is death to a good war film about battles. Additionally, what may have been groundbreaking for its time, take the visual effects to show the dive bombing of dams in 1959's The Dam Busters can later feel dated and overshadowed by better visual effects, though not always better writing or characterizations. All this said, I’ll do my best to balance and weight this for ya. This is why you find a recommendations list at the bottom of each film guide where I will try and sift through and offer you a viewing guide to the best of the best.
That said, I hope you enjoy the guide. Feel free to share and leave comments.