World War II is arguably the darkest chapter in the history of humanity. More than sixty million people died, including about forty million civilians, and Eastern Europe saw the Battle of Stalingrad, the single largest battle to take place in any war.
Given its historical relevance and long-lasting impact, filmmakers have used the conflict as a setting for films ever since it ended. The following list will recognize the very best of these, ordering them by rank. These will include both works that showcase soldiers fighting, and ones that focus on the civilians whose lives were ruined and forever altered by the war.
John Wayne's legacy gets more complicated as the years go on. Regardless of his ideologies, he still starred in a handful of great films, one of which is Sands of Iwo Jima. The movie portrays the landmark battle, including the iconic moment when the soldiers raise the American flag on Mt. Suribachi.
An aspect that allows this film to stand out is the use of actual battle footage, with several marines who were present during the real fight even making cameos.
Audie Murphy received every combat medal possible during his service in World War II. His most impressive feat came from holding off a horde of German soldiers for over an hour, killing up to fifty of them.
Upon returning home, he became an actor and starred as himself in To Hell And Back, detailing his heroic exploits during his service. As is the case with most veterans, Audie was plagued with PTSD for his whole life after the war, falling into addiction and financial problems as a result.
This one is the outlier of the list. It doesn't attempt historical accuracy, nor is it patriotic fanfare. Inglorious Basterds more closely resembles a western set in World War II. Quentin Tarantino makes films like no other, and his take on the conflict is a wild one.
Christoph Waltz's career broke out with his iconic role as Hans Landa, the brutal SS Officer whose performance proved chilling, terrifying, and deeply fascinating. Fortunately, Waltz is said to be a far nicer person in real life than his character in this movie.
Son of Saul is a Hungarian film depicting a concentration camp prisoner's attempt at giving a boy he insists is his son a proper Jewish burial. Saul, the titular character, is a part of the Sonderkommando, a small group of prisoners who were forced to clean up the gas chambers post-execution and cremate the remains of bodies.
The film's portrayal is as hard to stomach as it sounds. One can never truly understand the experience these people went through; however, Dario Gabbai, the only living survivor of the Sonderkommando, has said the film's depiction of the camp is accurate. The unique cinematography and sound design help engross the viewer even more into the oppressive environment.
The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, depicting the invasion of Omaha Beach, was so realistic that it triggered some veteran's PTSD. A Hollywood film had never really depicted war zones with such unrestricted honesty, and Steven Spielberg's film did its best to portray the brutality of war.
Some have criticized it for glorifying the conflict, including some veterans. Regardless of what one thinks about the movie, it is undeniable that it was masterfully crafted.
Roman Polanski's film details the true story of Władysław Szpilman as he hid in occupied Warsaw for two years. The accomplished musician survived by luck and the kindness of a few strangers, most of whom recognized him from his concerts and playing.
Polanski himself survived World War II in his youth, but lost his mother, giving the film an extra layer of authenticity. Adrian Brody stars in the leading role, in what is the highlight of his career. While he hasn't equaled his performance yet, being in just one of these is more than most people can say.
The only director to earn two entries on the list, Steven Spielberg's World War II film, Schindler's List, tells a different story to Saving Private Ryan. Oskar Schindler saved over a thousand lives by keeping his Jewish employees safe from deportation using his connections and bribes.
This small act of decency during a hellish period in Poland's history made for one impactful movie. Like Son of Saul, no one can truly depict the hell found in deportation and concentration camps with one hundred percent accuracy, but it is important that the story is told respectfully on film.
World War II films from the Soviet Union have an entirely different tone. They are rarely patriotic, instead opting to mourn the staggering loss of life. Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood is about an orphaned child who escapes a prison camp. Even at such a young age and small size, he desperately wants to help in the war effort to avenge his family.
Even though it is more than half a century old, the movie contains some incredibly graphic imagery, including stock footage from the war itself. It lacks the long shots and meditative tone of the director's later work, but it is still as good as the rest of his filmography, if not better.
The only animated film on the list, Grave of the Fireflies won't fool anyone into thinking it's a kids movie. It tells the true story of a young boy surviving with his sister after a bombing raid over Kobe, Japan.
It is by far one of the saddest animated films ever made, detailing the civilian cost of war. Being oceans away, Hollywood couldn't tell this type of story with the same authenticity, but in 1988 when the film came out, these events were only just over forty years old in Japan.
Set in Belarus, Come and See was originally titled Kill Hitler, which better describes the film's tone. It's not so much depressing as it is angry that such an atrocity took place and the only thing people can really do is make sure it doesn't happen again.
Adding to the legitimacy is the screenplay, written by a veteran who fought with the Partisans as a teenager, and the fact it was filmed in chronological order. The lead actor was even fired upon with live ammunition in some scenes. This trip through hell should be required viewing for anyone fortunate enough to never have lived through a war.