Must see lesser known WWII films
July 16, 2015 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm embarking on a project to watch 50-100 WWII movies over the next year or so. There are an overwhelming number of movies to choose from, and I'm endeavoring to cull the list to the best/most thought provoking/most significant (whatever these things mean to you).

You can assume I've seen or am aware of anything that is super popular or considered a classic. But after that top layer of movies, I'm having trouble distinguishing what should go on the list. Examples currently queued up/recently seen are The McKenzie Break, Attack!, The Victors, and The Young Lions. Movies that are probably too "obvious" are things like A Bridge Too Far, The Caine Mutiny, Downfall, Das Boot, and the Big Red One.

Foreign movies are fine.

A "WWII movie" could also include movies about the Holocaust that predate major military action or movies that immediately post date the war and center on its consequences. The list would ideally not include movies that are set in the 1940s or tangentially involve WWII where the war is not substantially relevant (like, I don't know, Indiana Jones movies).

Links to imdb or wiki entries would be most helpful, as would a sentence or phrase arguing for why a particular movie deserves to be on this list. My trouble is not in finding movies to fill the list, but in trimming the list down (for example, I have an entire book devoted to this topic-I'd just like input from you smart and interesting folks about movies you'd recommend).
posted by MoonOrb to Media & Arts (63 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Max Manus is supposed to be a great movie. I have yet to see it but it is supposed to be very good.
Edit: Sorry my reason is that its an aspect of the war you don't usually see, so it will help round out your experience.
posted by Busmick at 12:43 PM on July 16, 2015

The Devil's Brigade.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:45 PM on July 16, 2015

A Midnight Clear
posted by Gorgik at 12:55 PM on July 16, 2015

Is Life is Beautiful too popular? It's so human and beautiful and sad.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:00 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Run Silent Run Deep
The Dam Busters (based on a true story, to boot)
Stalag 17 (maybe too well known?)
The More The Merrier is based in DC during WWII's housing shortage. Period romantic-comedy sort of thing.
Lots of other things on this list as well, including plenty I've never heard of.
For pure looniness, Where Eagles Dare
posted by jquinby at 1:01 PM on July 16, 2015

Just watched, and loved, the Sophia Loren movie Sunflower, which is fascinating for it's Italian and Soviet perspectives.
posted by bendybendy at 1:02 PM on July 16, 2015

Come and See is a Russian film about a boy who joins the resistance. I was lucky enough to be alerted to it when it was shown in a revival house near me, so I saw it on the big (well, biggish) screen in a large dark room with strangers.

At the end of the film, we all stumbled out of the theatre, wide-eyed, completely overwhelmed. This is one of the hardest films to watch that I've ever seen and it is one of the most impactful films about war that I've ever seen. I recommend it to anyone, but in particular, to someone who is looking for WWII movies.
posted by janey47 at 1:07 PM on July 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hell Is For Heroes. Steve McQueen and Bob Newhart. Bob Newhart! It's on Netflix streaming.
posted by bluecore at 1:12 PM on July 16, 2015

Escape From Colditz
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:12 PM on July 16, 2015

Please see the Yugoslav film _The Battle of Neretva_ which has many international stars including Yul Brynner and Orson Welles. A brilliant and extremely moving film about a little known but important "fourth front" battle led by Yugoslav partisans.
posted by charlesminus at 1:14 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Sorrow And The Pity

both are classic documentaries
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:22 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sahara - not the one with Matthew McConaughey.

The Bridge - a German film about a bunch of Hitler Youth kids who end up abandoned as the real Wehrmacht crumbles around them, and end up trying to hold the titular bridge against the allied advance.
posted by Naberius at 1:25 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Die Brücke - German film set near the end of the war, focusing on schoolboys in a town about to be attacked by the Allies.
Rome, Open City - Italian film set in Rome during the German occupation in 1944.
German, Year Zero - 'sequel' to the above, set in Berlin after the war.
Bicycle Thieves - also immediately post-WW2, an Italian father searches for his stolen bike.

I'd especially recommend the two set in Germany, and if you only see one, make it the first one. [edit, on non-preview, Naberius recommended it as well, under its English name, The Bridge]
posted by Pink Frost at 1:26 PM on July 16, 2015

Also highly recommend the film noir Act of Violence.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:32 PM on July 16, 2015

Go For Broke! is a 1951 film notable for its positive depiction of Asian Americans.
posted by neutralmojo at 1:46 PM on July 16, 2015

Also, Red Cherry. Very depressing, based on a true story.
posted by neutralmojo at 1:49 PM on July 16, 2015

Two British classics (in the "Keep Calm and Carry On" mould):
A Matter of Life and Death
This Happy Breed
posted by dogsbody at 1:49 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Depending on where you live, the title is slightly different but The Americanization of Emily/The Education of Emily needs to be on you watch list, especially if you want a film examines the idea that the glorification of war is foolish.
posted by sardonyx at 1:58 PM on July 16, 2015

Black Book, Soldier of Orange, Carve Her Name with Pride, Army of Shadows, The House on 92nd Street, Charlotte Gray-- all movies about spies during WWII.

This is a really good list. In fact, thanks for the question. I'm going to try and work my way through this list.

The Train, The Pianist, The McKenzie Break, A Bridge Too Far, Fires on the Plain, King Rat, Midway, Mr. Roberts, Paths of Glory, Sink the Bismark, Stalag 17, The Man Who Never Was, Lacombe Lucien, Sophie Scholl the Final Days.
posted by H21 at 1:59 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am watching these movies now on Film Four (UK) and many are pretty bland propaganda films shot while the war was underway. One of Our Airplanes is Missing is probably the best of them.
posted by parmanparman at 2:01 PM on July 16, 2015

Kelly's Heros
Empire of the Sun
posted by mbatch at 2:02 PM on July 16, 2015

Seconding the Burmese Harp.

The Shop on Main Street


It's obscure, but I want to put a plug in for Ill Met By Moonlight. It deals with the war in Greece, and the story is actually true. Available online various places, including here.

I'm a sucker for WWII prisoner movies (The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and Bridge on the River Kwai being some of the more famous ones). I second Escape from Colditz. I hear less about A Man Escaped and King Rat than some other of these movies so I will mention them here.

Does Mister Roberts count?
posted by gudrun at 2:04 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

John Boorman's Hope and Glory is an excellent film about living through the Blitz.
posted by octothorpe at 2:10 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Haytarma ("Return")(1993) [YouTube link: Russian and Crimean Tatar, with English subtitles]

The first cinematic work that depicts the deportation of the Crimean Tatars from their homeland on May 18, 1944. Drawing on the story of Amet-Khan Sultan, the Crimean Tatar fighter pilot who became a Hero of the Soviet Union for his service to the Red Army, the film was the first narrative feature-length production to be produced by Crimean Tatars in Crimea.

It caused some controversy when released.
posted by Kabanos at 2:13 PM on July 16, 2015

Europa Europa : "autobiography of Solomon Perel, a German Jewish boy who escaped the Holocaust by masquerading not just as a non-Jew, but as an elite 'Aryan' German."

The Thin Red Line may be too popular/obvious but it seems like it's often forgotten.
posted by certs at 2:15 PM on July 16, 2015

Ah, forgot about Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence, starring David Bowie among others.
posted by jquinby at 2:20 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seven Beauties
posted by cazoo at 2:22 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

"None but the Brave" is a heartbreaking movie with an ending that will stay with you. It was made in 1968, after a lot of the wounds had healed, and features an American squad and a Japanese squad on a Pacific island. The Japanese are represented sympathetically.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:28 PM on July 16, 2015

The Cross of Iron
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:39 PM on July 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not a fan of combat films, but here are some films that deal with the effects of WWII that I've enjoyed:

The Search is one of my favourites. It deals with displaced children immediately after WWII.
To Be Or Not to Be
Forbidden Games
General Della Rovere
Two Women
Mrs. Miniver
From Here to Eternity (okay, this might be too obvious)
Au Revoir les Enfants
The Last Metro
posted by modesty.blaise at 2:43 PM on July 16, 2015

near-match? -Little Dieter Needs to Fly focuses on the Viet Nam war experience of a pilot who was literally a child of WWII.
posted by j_curiouser at 2:47 PM on July 16, 2015

Das Boot and Defiance are two I really enjoyed and have not seen listed here. Also, don't miss Band of Brothers and Ken Burns' The War if they are not already on your list.
posted by effluvia at 3:30 PM on July 16, 2015

A League of Their Own

The Magic of Ordinary Days was a Hallmark movie on TV about a woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock by a solider on the home front and is sent off to marry a farmer because of the shame; Japanese-Americans from the local internment camp also work on the farm. It's surprisingly good.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:56 PM on July 16, 2015

These are all great so far! I've seen probably 25 or fewer out of all of these so I'm building an awesome list. If it helps clarify, I'm more interested in feature films than documentaries for this particular viewing project, although I will probably just make a separate list of documentaries for another time.

To give a sense of where the "I am already likely to have seen it or have it on my list already" line is, movies like Stalag-17, Mister Roberts, From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, Das Boot, A Bridge Too Far, Kelly's Heroes, and The Pianist all are the type of movie I'm likely to have seen.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:10 PM on July 16, 2015

The British movie 633 Squadron is an entirely fictional daredevil-pilots movie which, along with the based-on-true-events The Dam Busters (which is supposed going to be remade any year now if Peter Jackson can stop making hobbit movies long enough to work with Stephen Fry's completed script), are both movies that together inspired the last act of a little movie you have probably seen called Star Wars: A New Hope. 633 has pilots in a similar sort of precision bombing scenario, while The Dam Busters is more of a visual reference for the same kind of low-level attack.

The Studio Ghibli anime movie "Grave of the Fireflies/Hotaru no haka" (1988) is a powerful and heartbreaking movie about a young teenager and his kid sister who are orphaned after a firebomb attack on their hometown of Kobe. It's a movie about the struggle for survival for civilians in wartime, and it doesn't focus on the atomic bomb like a number of other movies trying to tell the Japanese story. Geez, I haven't seen this movie in 20 years and I've got a lump in my throat just thinking about it. There was evidently a live-action remake in 2005, but I've only just learned of it. "Fireflies" is one of Roger Ebert's Great Movies and his review is worth a read.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:12 PM on July 16, 2015

Two German movies about the immediate post-war era and Germany trying to deal with it that come to mind are Murders Among Us (one of the first post-war Germany movies) and The Marriage of Maria Braun.
posted by skynxnex at 4:19 PM on July 16, 2015

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger were an English production team who made several interesting and unconventional war films during and soon after WWII, including: 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp', 'A Canterbury Tale' and 'Stairway to Heaven' (also known as 'A Matter of Life and Death' (noted above)).

Speaking of eccentric English war films, there is also the cynical black comedy How I Won The War, which features a charming supporting role by the famous pop singer John Lennon.
posted by ovvl at 4:36 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two beautiful Russian films:
Tomorrow Was the War (set in pre-war times)
The Cranes are Flying
posted by peacheater at 4:45 PM on July 16, 2015

A few favorites of mine: Devil's Brigade, and this trio of Sam Fuller films (he's done some other war pictures but these are my favorites of his): Steel Helmet, China Gate, Merrill's Marauders.

Wanna feel sad? Human Condition.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:47 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Japanese girl war workers in a Kurosawa film: The Most Beautiful

British women war workers in a very famous British film that started as a documentary: Millions Like Us

British woman avoiding the war by marrying a war mega-profiteer on an island off the Scottish coast, where she meets an impoverished, cursed local laird on leave from his soldiering duties: I Know Where I'm Going

Bonus: it's a film by 'The Archers," Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

American women war workers (hard to find films about these): Maisie Goes to Reno (she's a war worker just at the start), Tex Avery's Swing Shift Cinderella

Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun (an anti-war Hollywood WWII film from the platoon level, made in the spring of '45). The fears the guys have in this film of never-ending war made sense in the face of preparations to invade Japan.

Sam Fuller, by the way, thought A Walk in the Sun was terrible, especially after how good Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front had been. He even wrote Milestone a letter after he saw the film in 1946, in which he says "most of the doggies in my outfit automatically would recollect All Quiet and your touches; and we would agree your touches were on the ball. But this abortion of Boy Scouts and Northwest Mounted Policemen I saw in A Walk ... is going to cause a lot of doggies to lose faith in you. As a matter of fact, I got a letter from a guy in Chicago last week who saw A Walk and he blew his top. I thought he was premature. Now I understand why he blew his top. Is it possible that a colonel okayed so many adolescent boners?" The whole letter appears in an article by NJ Cull in The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2000.

Fuller had direct experience of combat from North Africa through Normandy and beyond as infantry in The Big Red One. His movie of that name is excellent, and the novel of the same name by him is maybe even better; he couldn't get funding to tell his whole story in the movie.

Norman Lloyd's acting is one of the delights of A Walk in the Sun; he's also in Hitchcock's war-worker film (at least for a little while it's a war-worker film!) Saboteur.

By all means do see "Come and See"--a late Soviet film where the special effects are real giant explosions and fires, and the terror you see in the actors probably was often unfeigned.

See as well when you have plenty of time and ability to concentrate, Das Boot. It deserves a setup with the best possible surround sound system. With Das Boot there are many versions, so check on which seems best before you watch it.
posted by diodotos at 6:05 PM on July 16, 2015

Ill Met by Moonlight (mentioned above) and Cockleshell Heroes can be found together at

Other WWII films by The Archers (Powell and Pressburger) that I don't think have been mentioned include:
Contraband (1940)
49th Parallel (1941)
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)
The Volunteer (1943)
The Small Back Room (1949)
The Battle of the River Plate (1956)
posted by Ranucci at 7:04 PM on July 16, 2015

I've done a mini-version of this, focused on movies made during the war. There's a fascinating (sometimes eerie) quality about watching movies about a war made by people who didn't know how it would end. Here are some in that vein, most of which have been mentioned, but I'll give a quick blurb about why I think it's good or important.

I'll second the Powell and Pressberger movies mentioned. The pair made amazing films from an artistic standpoint, and were quite influential.

To Be Or Not To Be: How do you do a dark but slapstick comedy in 1942 about the Polish underground? I'm not sure, but Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, pull it off.

Millions Like Us is fascinating for being a stiff-upper-lip British film from 1943. It's a feature-length film about women in an aircraft factory with their men at war, but it's really a government-sponsored propaganda film that is a weird mix of pseudo-documentary and Everyman-type morality play.

30 Seconds Over Tokyo, which has Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum, is based on the true story of the U.S.'s first strike back at Japan after Pearl Harbor. Uses actual war footage in some of its scenes, which I don't think was common back then.

Destination Tokyo stars Cary Grant on a submarine. It was popular at the time, but later caused a bit of a hullabaloo for having allegedly communist-sympathizing dialogue, and the director got hauled I. Front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Branching out from the made-during-WWII category, TIme Out London actually has a really great list of 50 WWII movies. Some of them are the big ones, but many aren't.
posted by alligatorpear at 7:12 PM on July 16, 2015

Not movies, but:

Band of Brothers
The Pacific -about as realistic as it gets.
posted by H21 at 8:45 PM on July 16, 2015

Nthing Come and See...

"There is no gung-ho action here, there are no uplifting stories of daring and cunning. It's all about the pity and horror of war. The unwavering direction of Elem Klimov and the pyrotechnics of his actors and effects people are made all the more potent by the knowledge that the terrible events shown in the film have a firm foundation in reality. There's a whiff of Soviet propaganda in the depiction of the fearless partisans (although that, of course, is fascinating in its own right) and nothing here could be accused of being subtle, but, then there's nothing subtle about war either, and this is still a singularly powerful film."

source: Film4
posted by Mister Bijou at 12:51 AM on July 17, 2015

Heroes of Telemark is fantastic - it's based on a true story about the Norwegian resistance, with lots of exciting ski chases and tense breaking into Nazi bases.
posted by tinkletown at 2:42 AM on July 17, 2015

Also haven't seen Went The Day Well? on the list - Nazi advance invasion group masquerades as Americans in a small English village.
posted by tinkletown at 3:23 AM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Talvisota (The Winter War) is a brutal Finnish film about the Soviet invasion.

Thirding Come and See! - although it is an incredibly tough film to watch. I'm not sure anything I've ever seen or read has got across the barbaric insanity of the partisan wars in occupied Belarus, Ukraine and Russia as well as that film. Bloodlands is a good (though incredibly bleak) book about the same theatre.

I also enjoyed Zvezda (The Star), which features the same actor as Come and See! but as an adult. It's a touch sentimental, but it's a pretty solid film.

Flammen und Citronen is a pretty good film about the Danish Resistance.

Also seconding Max Manus, that's an excellent film about the Norwegian Resistance.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:20 AM on July 17, 2015

What about Hitchcock's Lifeboat? Not really "about" the war, but definitely an interesting psychological take on it.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 5:36 AM on July 17, 2015

PT 109. Future President John F. Kennedy's story of a PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat that was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.

They were Expendable. The role of PT boats set in the Japanese taking of the Philippines.

The Sands of Iwo Jima. The Marines take the island. The number of lead and supporting characters who die reflects the actual brutal fighting.

Twelve O'Clock High. A bomber group commander struggles with morale problems because bomber crews suffered the highest casualty rates of all the US armed forces.

Command Decision. Same theme as the above, except it's the top Army Air Corps generals struggling. The above is the better film.

Run Silent Run Deep. Accurate depiction of submarine operations. First rate acting. Drama provided by the Captain's obsession with sinking a certain ship.

Hell in the Pacific. Two first rate actors, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, are a pilot and naval officer marooned on an island after a battle. IIRC the first half hour has no dialog.

The Indianapolis speech from Jaws. If this doesn't chill you, then you ain't human (or already know the story).
posted by Homer42 at 9:01 AM on July 17, 2015

I came in to also recommend Millions Like Us, which I saw streaming on Netflix; I liked the view at what British women war work was like (having been exposed to the American variation). I also liked Heroes of Tellemark a lot.

If you can stand classic wartime melodrama, I love Since You Went Away, which is a (n American) homefront movie with a great cast and all sorts of emotion. It's on US' TCM Monday night.

Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondant takes place just before the war and is a rallying cry to what was going on over there.
posted by julen at 9:23 AM on July 17, 2015

Re: the bombing of Dresden, there's a couple essential films where it happens, although a lot of other stuff does too, in other times and places: Slaughterhouse-Five and Map of the Human Heart.
posted by Rash at 10:18 AM on July 17, 2015

And no mention yet of Catch 22? A classic, perhaps, but super popular? Not any more.

Hope young people are still reading the book... if not, alas.
posted by Rash at 10:24 AM on July 17, 2015

Seconding Since You Went Away -- that's an incredible picture.
posted by Rash at 10:28 AM on July 17, 2015

Someone up above mentioned When Trumpets fade which is about the Battle of the Hurtgen Forrest. Excellent. One other movie cam out of the Hurtgen: The execution of Private Eddie Slovick.

I'm sure you have seen the Battle of the Bulge, which is mostly fiction... Try Battleground

For a non- Battle related I highly recommend To Have and Have Not. Humphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall...You know how to whistle, don't you?

Need a French Film or two: Renoir's The Rules of the Game Set just before the war with Hitler looming it caused riots in theaters when first shown.
posted by Gungho at 1:34 PM on July 17, 2015

Sophie's Choice
The Best Years of Our Lives
Au Revoir Les Enfants
posted by litgrl at 8:11 PM on July 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Spies of Warsaw was a recent (2013) miniseries set in Paris, based on one of Alan Furst's excellent WWII-centric, mostly Paris-centered spy novels. It's about a French Colonel attached to the French Embassy in Warsaw taking part in the discovery of the German build-up on the Polish border in '37-'38. The miniseries also integrates a scene from one of Furst's earlier books, "The Polish Officer," in which the Polish treasury's gold is secreted out of the country by train following the start of the invasion.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:52 PM on July 21, 2015

Days of Glory is about Algerian soldiers fighting to liberate France from the Nazis. It is interesting because of the way the French treat the Algerians.
Are Patton and Battle of Britain too obvious?
Yanks is more of a romance, dealing with American soldiers stationed in the UK in the days leading up to D-Day. It is interesting for the tensions and dynamics amongst the soldiers, and between the soldiers and the local civilians.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:03 AM on August 24, 2015

Die Brücke / The Bridge is streaming in its entirety on YouTube.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 1:05 PM on September 18, 2015

Just finished watching Ip Man tonight... While the subject isn't WWII, about half the movie takes place in a Chinese city occupied by Japan and focuses on the interactions between the occupiers and the Chinese. Also one of the best martial arts films I've ever watched.
posted by el io at 12:05 AM on September 28, 2015

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