What I've compiled below is a list of ten films I feel are essential to understanding the sweep of World War II. Think of it as an entire education on the war in ten viewings. The goal here was to give you the best broad overview of (admittedly American-centric) the diverse experiences found in that conflict. The list pained me to make because it omits so many worthy films; but I hope this narrow focus becomes a helpful guide for those wanting "simple." That said, let's get into it.
Reason It's On the List: You need to watch at least one mega-budget World War II battle recreation from the pre-CGI era of film. As good as special effects have become (and 2019's Midway might be the WWII peak) there's still nothing that can compare to practical airplanes, ships, and explosions done right and you can't get any better than this epic that covers the attack on Pearl Harbor from both the Japanese and the American perspectives.
Commentary: "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was the call sign the Japanese pilots were to send back to their officers if they were able to achieve the surprise they so desperately wanted and regrettably were able to achieve. The surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor is one of the major turning points in American and world history - bringing the United States fully into World War II. It's not a surprise then that the event has been covered many times in several films. No film has covered it better than Tora! Tora! Tora! and it is easily the best of the mega-budget large scale event recreations to come out of the 60s-70s. The leadup to the attack takes up the first half of the film and sets the stage perfectly; introducing the key figures and mindsets on the American and Japanese sides. The second half of the film pays off in a sequence that is allowed to build and feature multiple facets of the attack. Being before the age of CGI, there’s a commitment to doing things practical that payoff in ways that films today just can’t pull off. Sweeping aerial shots have a different feel when we know the planes in them are real and the damage being done is practical. There’s some jaw dropping stunt work and large-scale explosions here as well. Mixed in with the real location work is some hit and miss miniature and rear screen projection work. Despite some distracting miniature and rear projection work and the lack of the more dynamic CGI shots of Michael Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor sequence, this one remains a cut above. I might like a couple of the eye-popping CGI shots, but it completely lacks the cheesy Hollywoodization that Bay’s “let’s get revenge on them Japs” version lets run throughout the sequence. This 1970 version is the single richest recreation in terms of scale and it is immensely benefited by allowing the sequence to speak for itself without filling it with cheesy glamorous supporting roles that only serve to distract. Most action films need it, but war recreations like this one certainly don’t. This is one of the gems of not just World War II cinema, but war cinema in general.
Commentary: Without a doubt, this is the most miserable war film I’ve ever seen. Since it is a mini series instead of a 2 hour film, the experience lasts nearly ten hours. To be fair, a miserable experience does not equal a bad film and as you can tell by my rating, this is not a bad film at all. After the success of Band of Brothers in 2001, most of the same creatives came together to make another miniseries covering the Pacific side of World War II. In doing so, they had a small problem to address, Band of Brothers was iconic and already cemented great tales of leadership, courage, and heroism in the popular imagination. Heck, "Band of Brothers" men's groups became popular in many churches I was part of. Was this new miniseries just going to be another Band of Brothers but with palm trees instead of European hedgerows? How could The Pacific differentiate itself?
Commentary: This is the most underrated and forgotten spy gem I've come across. I'd venture to say it's a better spy film than any spy film Hitchcock ever made. Set in Ankara, Turkey this espionage story takes place from 1943-1944. The plot gets kick-started when a valet to the British ambassador to neutral Turkey arrives at night to the home of a German foreign officer named Moyzisch (a real life individual whom wrote the book this film is based on) looking to sell photographs of the top secret documents that pass the British ambassador's desk. The Germans begin a back and forth where they want to trust the information, but also not get duped in case the valet is a British double agent. They dub the spy "Cicero" for his high class and sophistication. If this all sounds familiar, it is because it is based on the real life "Cicero Affair", but has been embellished and adapted in a way that makes it both an essentially true recounting of the affair, but also a comprehensive spy story that hits on the themes of the dangers, rewards, and folly of espionage. This film came out a full 11 years before any Bond film and thank goodness it's not obsessed with making it more action oriented or broad for the audience. This is a nuts and bolts, "I've got secret information to sell" spywork and this film is an excellent education in the basics of the running a spy. I think Le Carre would have loved this story, but I can't find any comments he's made on it.
Two examples that I think highlight the inherent tradeoffs of the spy game that get emphasized so perfectly here: Since the documents that Cicero are passing to the Germans are of such top secret nature and of such high quality, they struggle to believe it's genuine. In other words, because it's so genuine, that's good reason to doubt it is genuine! Additional circumstances lead the Germans to question whether or not he is a British agent. Even to this day, it is hotly debated among intelligence historians whether or not "Cicero" was really a British double agent or not. A second example is that Cicero was paid off in forged bank notes - a different secret German operation that you can see play out in the film The Counterfeiters. Just when Cicero believes he has gotten away with everything, fulfilled his dream, and sits down to a meal to enjoy it, everything falls out from under him. It's a classic moment.
5 Fingers is well written, directed, and acted. The writing bears out meticulous work on the details with little moments of surprising knowledge, like inside jokes about German Foreign Secretary von Ribbentrop and a keen understanding of class resentments and trappings in British society. It also bears out in some surprisingly suspenseful sequences, including a wonderful scene where through a series of escalating events, Cicero is finally revealed by the simple diligence of a cleaning lady. James Mason, who plays Cicero, does a grand job here - I think more iconic than his Rommel performances. The final act features some nice twists and turns but it is always clear and easy to follow - you really don't know how it is going to turn out. This might not be a high octane spy film, but it's likely one of the most insightful and educational about what real spy work looked like in World War II than any other film in the category.
The film begins in 1942 with Hitler getting a new secretary. In truth, much of the film is based on the account of this secretary and her time spent in the bunker with the inner circle in those fateful last days. A real interview with the aged secretary Traudl Junge opened the film with haunting words, "I've got the feeling that I should be angry with this child, this young and oblivious girl. Or that I'm not allowed to forgive her for not seeing the nature of that monster. That she didn't realise what she was doing. And mostly because I've gone so obliviously. Because I wasn't a fanatic Nazi." The film then enters into the bunkers under Berlin where the German high command spend the final weeks of the war in 1945.
I won't recount the full events here because that's not the point of these commentaries. I'll say this though, for the casual history fan and those deep into history, a film like this one gets better and better with each viewing. It is so handsomely produced and acted (with an iconic performance from Bruno Ganz) that it feels we are intruding on the actual history and with each view gaining more and more insight into the mind and spirit of that group. Yes, this film could likely be trimmed a bit to make the story better paced, but there's too much great history here to be lost. I'm okay with a bloated runtime when the insight is this strong. Paired with a film like 2001's Conspiracy and you have great insight into how the Nazi leadership worked - with fear, ambition, and fanaticism always infusing their actions.
A final quote from Traudl Junge closes the film, "All these horrors I've heard of during the Nurnberg process, these six million Jews, other thinking people or people of another race, who perished. That shocked me deeply. But I hadn't made the connection with my past. I assured myself with the thought of not being personally guilty. And that I didn't know anything about the enormous scale of it. But one day I walked by a memorial plate of Sophie Scholl in the Franz-Joseph-Strasse. I saw that she was about my age and she was executed in the same year I came to Hitler. And at that moment I actually realized that a young age isn't an excuse. And that it might have been possible to get to know things." Get beyond the meme and watch this whole film.
Coming from a Lutheran background, the film does well to imagine Sophie in the vein of Martin Luther - driven by her religious convictions against a system that demands she deny them. In a revealing moment her police interrogator asks, "Why do you risk so much for false ideas, young as you are?" Sophie responds, "Because of my conscience." This film swims in the same vein as A Man For All Seasons and while not being as good as that film, illustrates well the soul that refuses to "go along" - that refuses to not say what her conscience demands. At the heart of "resistance" films is the conflict - will you compromise your conscience and go along with the others for the sake of your life, or will you fight back? This is one of my favorite stories of a German who decided to fight back.
Commentary: I love this film. It's my second favorite film of all-time. It's one of the masterpieces everyone talks about that still holds up when you get to it. I tell you this so that you'll understand that my bias is up front in this commentary. This classic film is set in the titular town of Vichy occupied town of Casablanca in 1942. Morocco is the final destination for many immigrants and refugees looking to flee Europe and get a plane to Lisbon and then America. Since the town is controlled by the Vichy government, approved travel papers are required to get out and these can be secured from Capt. Renault played by Claude Rains. It just so happens that two blank transit papers were stolen off German couriers and were to be traded in the popular cafe "Rick's" owned by the American Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. The papers went missing in the cafe just as the infamous French resistance leader Victor Laszlo and his wife Illsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) show up in the cafe. The rest of the story revolves around Laszlo trying to secure those transit papers and leave occupied territory - but the Vichy and German authorities as well as Rick Blaine all figure into the story as different kinds of obstacles.
This film straddles many of my WWII subcategories and so you'll find it in the special ops/spy/resistance category as it's primary story is about a French resistance leader escaping the authorities and the primary theme sees the main character learning that there's some things important enough to stick your neck out for (a not so subtle dig at isolationists). However, the film would be just as comfortable in the comedy section. In fact, I think it has more famous jokes and laugh lines than any comedy I've put in that category. It also finds a place in this category. Yes, this film is about resistance but at its center is the romance between Rick and Ilsa. I couldn't bring myself to keeping it in just one category.
I tend to watch Casablanca at least once a year and like all the great films, Casablanca is so rich and layered that it rewards multiple viewings & seems to change the older I get. In my teens, I was surprised by the film's wit and humor. It was the first time I found myself laughing out loud & quoting a B&W film. In my twenties, I was taken in by the love stories: Rick-Ilsa, Ilsa-Laszlo, and even the near tragic sub-plot of the two Bulgarians cleverly weaved throughout the film. Now I'm moved by the film's cynical atmosphere, Rick's idealism broken into scrupulous pragmatism ultimately redeemed by a noble forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and finally Laszlo's inspiring and dogged patriotism. The performances are iconic and spot-on, especially the delightful Claude Rains who gets most of the films funniest lines. Few films boast a roster of characters this memorable, this enjoyable, and this heartbreaking. The writing, which at first can seem convoluted, deftly introduces a large cast of well-drawn characters who each play their own important role in telling the story. Everything leads up to that famous third act, which features a few quickly paced twists that continue to feel fresh to this day and remain enjoyable even after seeing the film well over ten times.
Reason It's On the List: Simply put, 2001's HBO miniseries Band of Brothers is the best thing ever made about World War II combat (in any theater). I've seen no other work that is as diverse in character, plot, action, and theme while retaining richness in a single narrative and maintaining consistently high production values. War is complex and while it is horrifying and evil, it also contains moments of nobility, courage, and good. Most great films about WWII are lucky to capture one of these aspects. Band of Brothers ably captures the complexities unlike anything else on the list. That's why it's essential viewing for anyone seeking to learn more about the war.
Commentary: Coming back to this venerated series so many years later and after running through war film after war film, I wondered if the quality of this series would hold up on re-inspection. Similar to the The Pacific miniseries that came a decade later – Band of Brothers gives a kind of overview of a major theater of war. In this case, the miniseries follows Easy Company of the 101st Airborne division from boot camp, to England, to D-Day, to French hedgerows and towns, to Operation Market Garden, to the Battle of the Bulge, to concentration camps, and all the way to VE-Day. The miniseries format gives the ability to tell multiple stories, chronicle a range of characters, and portray a full spectrum of war experiences. Because they are focusing on one company, the narrative always feels focused and cohesive, a trait that The Pacific lacked, despite its grander ambitions. The action in the series follows in the style of Saving Private Ryan with an emphasis on three things: intensity, violence, and tactics. The stand out feature here, and what separates this from its sister series The Pacific, is the series’ clear view that there really are some redeemable aspects to be found in the hell of war. The series identifies three in particular: The camaraderie and relationships built among the soldiers, the power of good leadership, and courage/bravery/perseverance in the face of great suffering and fear. This is why the characters of Band of Brothers, like Dick Winters, Lipton, Compton, Guarnere, Malarkey and Doc Roe, are revered by its fans and not more faceless soldiers forgotten as soon the screen goes black. The creators laid out the scope of the episodes perfectly, allowing a quick pace, constantly changing scenery that brings fresh settings, new characters getting focused on or old characters getting spotlighted for the first time.
The emotional climax of the series is the two-part episode covering the events surrounding the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne. In a genius move, as the men hit their lowest point of suffering, the series puts us in the shoes of the company medic, Doc Roe. We get to experience his day to day as he seeks to serve, despite harboring clear worries about if it all matters. The series finds time to validate another heroic role – giving comfort in the middle of suffering. Likewise, as they conclude their time in Bastogne, the focus centers on Lipton for the first time as he takes the leadership role and sees man after man go down. Particularly affective is the mental breakdown of Compton, a once steadfast leader of the men. After the men take the town of Foy we are given one of the most haunting and striking images of all war cinema: Easy company sitting in a church, listening to the beauty of an angelic sounding choir, as we visually see the casualties of Easy company slow fade from existence. It's haunting. The film wraps up in its last few episodes by focusing on the rundown of the war. In my opinion, this is the single best primer on the American experience of the European theater in World War II - and more than that- one of the best pieces of art on war in general.
If You Liked This One: If you don't have the time for a ten-part miniseries, then watch 1998's Saving Private Ryan which plays like a condensed version of Band of Brothers that miraculously sacrifices little in its briefer runtime. To my mind, these two films are the best this category (or all of war cinema to be honest) has to offer and it killed me to leave it off of this list. For more like this, I'd recommend 1943's Sahara with Humphrey Bogart, 1953's The Desert Rats with Richard Burton, 1953's The Cruel Sea with Jack Hawkins, and finally 2020's Greyhound with Tom Hanks.