The Best Movie Ever: World War II
World War II has had an indelible impact on the motion picture medium, providing a profound backdrop for serious dramas, brutal action stories, tragic romances and even the occasional comedy. As first war to be captured largely on camera, audiences were provided with real-life images of the battles taking place on both fronts, forcing Hollywood to approach the material as seriously as possible, and with the propaganda needs of almost every country involved at an all-time high, it also fell to the filmmakers of the world to drum up support for troops on all sides, and make sure audiences were informed and inspired by the monumental events taking place all over the planet.
Related: The Best Movie Ever: Action-Horror
World War II movies rank among the best and most unforgettable movies ever made. But what’s the best World War II movie ever? That’s what CraveOnline’s critics are here to decide. Join William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold, Brian Formo and Fred Topel as they present their picks for the greatest World War II movies ever made and try to back up their picks. Then scroll down to the bottom of the page and let them know what YOU think by voting for your own favorites.
[Please note that, for the sake of this particular article, films focusing exclusively on the Holocaust are deemed worthy of their own, separate genre. The tragedies that befell the victims of the Third Reich have led to a very different sort of filmmaking, focusing on sensitivity and absolute loss, making them difficult to directly compare to dramas about warfare, espionage and the families dealing with the affects of World War II from the safety (or relative safety, or outright lack of safety) of their homes. In the interest of narrowing down this vast topic, CraveOnline has decided that films about the Holocaust deserve their own, separate discussion. This week’s Best Movie Ever will focus on a different sort of World War II movie. We will most likely approach the other sort in a future installment.]
My father was the World War II historian in the family. His pick for the best World War II movie ever made was actually Sam Peckinpah’s brutal Cross of Iron (1977), which starred James Coburn, Maximillian Schell and James Mason as Nazis on the Russian front, fighting deadly winters and moral corruption within their own ranks. It’s absolutely a contender and worthy of a mention, but my own tastes tend towards films that more clearly fit crowd-pleasing genres (Hell is for Heroes) and/or more sensitive portrayals of trauma (this weekend’s Fury). And the film that very neatly fits both, and can make me cry every damned time I watch it, is a film called Mrs. Miniver.
Although it won Oscars and busted blocks when it was originally released in 1942, audiences don’t talk about Mrs. Miniver very much today. I consider that a cultural crime. William Wyler’s ripping, heart-wrenching propaganda effort illustrates an important aspect of the war that often gets overlooked in America: The Blitz. The families suffering through nightly bomb raids and trying to keep their morale high while domination by the Nazies seemed imminent, just around the corner. (And yes, they still had it easy compared to many other Europeans, but we’ll cover the harrowing Holocaust genre at a later date in Best Movie Ever.)
Greer Garson stars as the title character, a housewife trying to keep her family together during the absolute roughest times, pretending that neighborhood flower competitions still matter while her son is up in the sky, fighting the Germans by night. Unlike the American portrayal of women during WWII, she’s in the thick of it, her bomb shelter rocking nightly, and Nazis literally falling out of the sky. Watching a woman who never knew real danger dealing with the enemy literally in her own back yard is a masterwork of character-driven suspense. You feel for the Minivers. You know that Wyler’s film is utter propaganda but it’s so effective you stop caring about the film’s mission statement, and just hope that the film’s inevitable casualties aren’t the characters you love the most. (They are. You will bawl your eyes out.)
Like I said, I’m not World War II expect. But you know who was? Winston Churchill called Mrs. Miniver was worth “six divisions of war effort,” so effective it was at making audiences abroad realize just how important it was to join the fight. Who am I to argue with Winston Churchill? Who are you? Mrs. Miniver isn’t just the best World War II movie. It may also be one of the most important films about the era.
It’s been said (by the Americans, at least) that World War II was the last “great” war. It saved America from a Great Depression, united a nation against a common enemy, and was the last time we fought for clear and noble reasons. The movies about WWII – at least the ones about the American soldiers’ experience – tend to reflect that. In countless films, we have seen bands of brothers, committing acts of bravery, facing down bad guys, often sacrificing themselves for the good of the mission. Even if the combat is colored by death and violence, it’s still generally seen as something that is, at the end of the day, generally heroic.
This is, of course, only a comment on the experience of the American soldier. Tell the same story from the perspective of a European Jew, and you have an entirely different genre to contend with.
The best film in the former category, is probably William Wyler’s 1946 Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives. This is the earliest film I can think of to deal directly – and honestly – with the post-war experience. Three men return home from the war, all missing something. One loses the ability to relate to his family. Another loses any capability of holding down a job, a problem further compounded with a general lack of opportunity for small towns not expecting their boys to come home. The third returns with his hands missing, but manages to maintain a sense of humor. Returning from a combat experience is largely marked by a nascent and powerful sense of ennui. How bland and meaningless is a calm, domestic lifestyle once you’ve already held a comrade’s guts in your hands. But there is still hope, still love, and still ways to heal. The Best Years of Our Lives looks at all of these problems with a knowing eye, made all the more relevant by its timing; this was a drama directly reflecting what was going on outside in 1946. It’s an emotional epic, damning, moving, relatable, tpopical, and very, very real.
My author’s page says that as a state award-winning junior critic for a high school newspaper I gave Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line a D-. Okay, it was a small state. The Gem State. I didn’t get The Thin Red Line. I grew up with nature. I saw and heard birds all the time. What’s this narration about nature to open a war film? I was a neophyte cinephile at the time. Actually to call myself a cinephile would’ve been ridiculous. I’d yet to see Bergman, Godard, Jarmusch or fill-in-the-blank. I just went to the video store a lot. But I hugged the new release wall. I knew modern movies. And I read about them. Before The Thin Red Line was released there was a lot of writing being done about Malick and how he vanished from filmmaking for 20 years and what a momentous occasion his new film was. To me, “Badlands” was just a Bruce Springsteen song and The Thin Red Line was most memorable for Woody Harrelson sitting on a grenade to save his troops.