From the Charlie Chaplin’s classic “Great Dictator” released in 1940 to 2012’s sadly mediocre “Emperor” about the American occupation of Japan, World War II movies have been staple Hollywood fare for nearly seven decades. Picking the best is hopelessly subjective, depending on whether you prefer intense personal portraits or epic battlefield dramas.
I’ve omitted popular films that just didn’t click for me. “Battle of Britain,” “The Big Red One,” “Run Silent, Run Deep.” Others came close: “The Dirty Dozen,” “Cross of Iron” and “The Thin Red Line” are just a few of the also-rans. I loved Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” a pulp fiction version of World War II – but like the movie versions of “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse 5,” the connection with reality is so stretched that calling them “war films” does the movies and the genre a disservice.
My picks in alphabetical order:
“The Americanization of Emily” (1964) A sharp Paddy Chayefsky script drives black comedy about a self-proclaimed coward hailed as the first American to die on D-Day. James Garner and Julie Andrews star.
“Battleground” (1949) Van Johnson and future U.S. Sen. George Murphy head a strong cast in gritty telling of the Battle of the Bulge. There’s cowardice, heroism and pointless death in this realistic film.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) More than a half century later, its tale of three veterans readjusting to home life resonates with humanity. Best picture Oscar.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) David Lean’s saga is very long, but worth the sit. William Holden, Hollywood’s favorite war cynic, is at his best as the reluctant hero. But Alec Guinness’ British commander is the film’s linchpin – a study on the power and blindness of pride. Best picture Oscar.
“Casablanca” (1942) It’s a Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman romance using the war as a backdrop. But for those looking for rousing war images, you must remember this: Paul Henreid leading the Cafe Americain in the “Marseilles,” and policeman Claude Rains throwing the Vichy water in the waste can after shooting a German officer.
“The Conformist” (1971) Hard-to-find Bernardo Bertolucci film is a tense character study of one man’s descent into the Italian fascist police state. Outstanding for showing the duplicity of interior and exterior lives of Mussolini’s prudish fanatics.
“Das Boot” (1981) War from the other side. This sometimes self-serving German film captures the claustrophobic, tense, dirty, terrorized world of underwater combat better than any movie before or after. Skip the English dubbed version, marketed as “The Boat.”
“Enemy at the Gates” (2001) The largely fictionalized “based on a true story” film centers on a Vasily Zaitsev, a lowly Red Army soldier who become a feared sniper during the Battle of Stalingrad. Jude Law is good as Zaitsev, though Ed Harris as his German nemesis never really fits the part. A rare film about the most crucial battle in the key front of the war.
“Forty-Ninth Parallel” (1941) Smashing story of sailors from bombed German U-boat attempting to make their way across Canada to the then-neutral United States. Emeric Pressburger won an Oscar for best story.
“From Here to Eternity” (1953) Sometimes overwrought tale of Army life in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s clinch on the beach is a Hollywood icon. Best picture Oscar.
“The Great Dictator” (1940) Charlie Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is the spitting image of dictator Adenoid Hynkel of Tomania. Chaplain’s ballet with a globe-shaped balloon is unforgettable.
“The Great Escape” (1963) Gripping POW drama with all-star cast. Steve McQueen was immortalized as the “cooler king” who attempts to escape over the Swiss border by jumping a stolen German motorcycle over a barbed-wire fence.
“The Harp of Burma” (1956) Slow but moving story of a Japanese soldier obsessed with burying the war dead. Kon Ichikawa’s film is one of the best anti-war films ever made.
“Lacombe Lucien” (1974) Complex Louis Malle film tells the cautionary tale of a young boy who just wants to belong. When the French Resistance won’t have him, he joins the Gestapo - only to fall in love with a Jewish tailor’s daughter.
“Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) It’s exceptionally rare to get a chance to see war from the enemy’s point of view, and the brilliance of Clint Eastwood’s film is that it humanizes the Japanese defenders of the rock in the Pacific without soft-pedaling the brutality and sometimes mindless regimentation that drove them to their deaths.
“Lifeboat” (1944) Based on a John Steinbeck story, the survivors of a torpedoed ship wrestle with the moral questions of the war when they rescue a German from the ship that sank them. Alfred Hitchcock’s taut direction makes this talkative film work.
“The Longest Day” (1962) Way too long, the first half of this spot-the-star, D-Day epic is a snooze. But when the shooting starts, it’s rip-roaring.
“Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1956) Gregory Peck is just right as Madison Avenue executive joining the rat race while wrestling with his conscience over the German soldier he killed and the Italian woman who bore him a son, both of whom he left behind.
“Mrs. Miniver” (1942) Showing the British stiff upper lip to the American moviegoing public, this stylish film features Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as the perfect upper-crust couple struggling through the Battle of Britain. Best picture Oscar.
“Open City” (1946) Powerful portrait of Romans fighting the Nazis in the waning days of the war. Roberto Rossellini film is one of the best of the great period of postwar Italian films.
“Patton” (1970) George C. Scott’s towering portrayal of Patton and Francis Ford Coppola’s crisp, literate script portray the great tank commander as a heroic, neurotic mystic unashamed to savor the carnage of war. A rare sweeping epic with great individual performances. Best picture Oscar.
“Sahara” (1945) This story of a lone tank lost in the desert has been copied several times. Humphery Bogart at his hard-boiled best.
“Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) Practically a Marine recruiting commercial, the film is watchable for a classic John Wayne portrayal as a crusty sergeant leading his men up in the bloodiest battle of the Pacific campaign. Intercuts real footage of the battle. Also rare: Wayne dies at the end.
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998) The amazing sequence on Omaha Beach is reason enough for this Steven Spielberg film to make the list. Tom Hanks is understated as the English teacher turned platoon leader looking for a soldier tapped to return home because his three brothers had already died in the war. The beginning sequence and coda are hoary Spielberg sentimentalism at its worst, but for the rest, the movie earns its place on my list.
“Stalag 17” (1953) William Holden again as the cynical GI everyman, battling suspicious fellow GIs who believe that he is a German agent. Holden won a well-deserved Oscar for this POW film, which spawned copy-cat dialogue from “The Great Escape” to the “Hogan’s Heroes” television series.
“They Were Expendable” (1945) Director John Ford’s tale of the role PT boats played in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. Coming at the end of the war, Ford could allow a more grim tone than earlier films because the audience knew it would all turn out OK.
“Twelve O’Clock High” (1949) Air Force officer Gregory Peck is pushed to the limit as he must send men to sure death over the skies of Germany. Dean Jagger won a supporting Oscar.