These films — some classic, some destined to become so — can inspire us as we face hardships and challenges today.
Greyhound whisks the viewer back to an age even more anxious than our own: The middle of World War II, when the free world faced a challenge unlike any that had come before. Bullets and bombs, not germs, were the greatest perils of the day, and Nazism posed an existential threat that makes the coronavirus almost look like a mere annoyance. The men and women who faced those times carried with them a well-deserved moniker: The Greatest Generation.
No wonder why World War II serves as the backdrop for many of cinema’s greatest movies.
What follows is a rundown of some of the greatest films (from the oldest to the newest) that show World War II and the people who participated in it from all angles: from the battlefront to the homefront, from palaces to prison cells. Most are members of the Greatest Generation, or served to inspire those who were.
It seems only fitting that we begin our list with one of the greatest movies of all time, set in one of the world’s most exotic locales.
Just how enduring is Casablanca? Even people who’ve never seen this Golden Age gem can quote it. Ironically, no one expected the film to do much. But released just as the war was becoming an awful reality for so many Americans, Casablanca hit a chord. Perhaps it’s because many actors were war victims themselves, lending a taste of reality to thestory. When Rick’s patrons break into a rendition of “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, to drown out some swaggering Nazis, we see one woman—played by Madeleine LeBeau—cry. The tears were real: Germany had gobbled up her native France and she, like many in the scene, was a refugee.
The film doesn’t depict your traditional battlefront heroism: Humphrey Bogart’s jaded Rick Blaine runs a nightclub of all things, and when we first meet him he hopes to stay as neutral as Switzerland. But just as the war found America, the war found him, too. And as he and old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) rekindle their relationship, he slowly finds a new sense of purpose blossoming. Winner of three Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this is a film that can’t be missed. (And you can see it on HBO Max for free.)
2The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Greatest Generation’s fight didn’t end when the war did. The Best Years of Our Lives takes us into the lives of three vets—including one who lost both of his hands—and the challenges they experience adjusting to civilian life in a rapidly changing post-war world.
The film featured an A-list cast including Fredric March and Myrna Loy. But it also featured the inexperienced actor Harold Russell, a grocery-store manager who joined the Army following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He lost both of his hands in a demolition accident in 1944. In the film he plays former football star and Navy vet Homer Parrish, who breaks off his engagement with his sweetie because he doesn’t want to burden her with his disability. His portrayal impacted Hollywood so much that the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” And then it gave him a real Oscar for Best Supporting Actor—making Russell the first and only person to win two Oscars for the same performance.
Russell’s Best Supporting Actor award was one of seven Oscars the film won in 1947, and it’s still considered one of the best movies ever made. In 1989, when the National Film Registry set aside its first 25 movies for preservation in the Library of Congress, The Best Years of Our Lives and Casablanca were both on the list. (You can rent the film on iTunes and Amazon Prime for $2.99.)
3Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Another winner of seven Oscars, Bridge on the River Kwai takes us all the way to a Japanese prison camp in Burma. There prisoner Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) embarks on a steely war of wills with the prison’s commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), over the construction of a massive bridge (over, of course, the River Kwai).
This is another story of untraditional heroism, and indeed, some might argue whether it’s heroism at all. Nicholson’s resistance turns into a strange sort of partnership with Saito toward the end. But it makes for one of the most entertaining, and thought-provoking, movies based on World War II you’ll see—one that was well deserving of the Best Picture Oscar it earned. And it holds up quite well, despite being more than 60 years old. You can rent it on Vudu for $1.99, Amazon Prime for $2.99 or on iTunes and YouTube for $3.99.
4Saving Private Ryan (R, 1998)
Of the four Ryan brothers sent to fight in World War II, three were already dead. The fourth, James Francis, was somewhere in Normandy, with the 101st Airborne Division. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and a contingent of seven men are sent to rescue him—to bring the boy home.
Many consider this Steven Spielberg film to be among the best war movies of all time. It manages to convey the true horrors of war without diminishing the bravery of those who fought in it. And when Miller tells Private Ryan to “earn this” chance at life—to not let all the sacrifice go to waste, it reminds us all that life itself is a precious gift from God. And that we, too, should never waste a second. Brutal and brilliant, Saving Private Ryan didn’t win an Oscar for Best Picture (that went, in one of Oscar’s biggest upsets, to Shakespeare in Love), but it did win five others. You can watch it for free with a subscription to HBO Max or Hulu, and it’s available to rent on a host of other services beginning at $2.99.
5The King’s Speech (PG-13, 2010)
Not every battle was fought with bullets. The battle that Prince Albert, Duke of York, fought against his own speech impediment was arguably as important as many a World War II skirmish. After struggling with a pronounced stutter for most of his life, the prince (known as Bertie and played by Colin Firth) turns to speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) for help. Just in time, it turns out. Soon his older brother abdicates to marry a young divorcee. Not long after, Britain declares war on Nazi Germany. It’s up to Bertie—now King George VI—to both calm his people and inspire them in the face of unprecedented peril.
While George VI wasn’t technically a member of the Greatest Generation, he helped inspire that generation through his courage, commitment to duty and yes, through his speeches, too. The movie—originally rated R for a stream of f-words uttered by the future king during his training—is otherwise surprisingly mild. It became the year’s most honored films, winning four Academy Awards (including Best Picture). You can rent it on YouTube and Amazon Prime for $3.99.
6Hacksaw Ridge (R, 2016)
Like George VI, young Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) never fired a shot in battle during World War II. Unlike George VI, the man was on the front lines. In fact, because of his religious convictions, the “soldier” refused to even carry a gun—serving as a combat medic without as much as a sidearm to protect himself. Some of his fellow soldiers considered him weak or called him a coward—until Doss redefined heroism during the Battle of Okinawa on Hacksaw Ridge, rescuing 75 soldiers.
Directed by the talented but controversial filmmaker Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge is as brutal and bloody a movie as you’ll see. But in the midst of all of that blood, you find a man of unshakable faith and unwavering conviction. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it eventually won two. It’s available for rent on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime for $3.99.
7Dunkirk (PG-13, 2017)
It was a disaster, plain and simple. The Nazis had all but destroyed the French army. Most of the British forces were surrounded—locked on a tiny sliver of land with the stormy English Channel separating them from home. The goal wasn’t to win: It was to survive.
But, as chronicled in Christopher Nolan’s riveting, meticulously crafted war film, survive they did. Dunkirk takes us through the rescue effort through three overlapping narratives: on land, on sea and in the air. Driven by Hans Zimmer’s relentless score, this tight, 106-minute flick never lets up—and it never lets the audience down. The film made a little history itself, too, earning $525 million worldwide and becoming the highest-grossing movie about World War II (passing Saving Private Ryan). It was nominated for eight Oscars and won three of them. And it reminds us all that ultimate victory isn’t just about racking up wins, but weathering the losses and living to fight again. You can watch it on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime for $3.99.
8Jojo Rabbit (PG-13, 2019)
It wasn’t just the Allies who fought Nazi Germany. A handful of brave Germans did so, too. Jojo Rabbit, a really funny and surprisingly sweet story from New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, centers on 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a Nazi wannabe whose best friend is a made-up version of Adolf Hitler. But Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is the film’s real hero. She takes in a Jewish girl (whom Jojo eventually discovers) and works for the German resistance at, obviously, great personal risk. She knows that at any time, someone could rat her out—including her own conflicted son.
Obviously, anytime a movie features a Nazi sympathizer as its main character and showcases a comical Hitler, it’s bound to take some flack, and Jojo Rabbit certainly did. But the movie’s charm, warmth, and wit won over many a critic (its six Oscar nominations are testament to that) and showed what heroism looked like inside the Third Reich. It is, alas, also one of the pricier options on this list. You can rent it from a variety of sources, including YouTube and Amazon Prime, for $5.99.
9A Hidden Life (PG-13, 2019)
All he had to do was sign.
Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) wasn’t being asked to do something unusual, mind you. Every man signed an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler in Austria during the war. They had to. It was just a piece of paper; just a formality. But Franz thought differently. Powered by his deep Catholic convictions, the farmer refused to pledge his fealty to the Fuhrer—despite pressure from the mayor, his lawyer, and even Church leaders.
It’s strange to think that Jojo Rabbit came out the same year as director Terrence Malick’s pensive, poignant and, at times, visually breathtaking look at another form of behind-the-Reich resistance. But while Jojo and his mother were fictional creations, Franz and his wife, Fani, were real people. In fact, the real Franz Jägerstätter was eventually beatified by the Catholic Church. You can watch this beautiful, inspiring film on Vudu, YouTube and Amazon Prime for $5.99.
10Greyhound (PG-13, 2020)
Like Franz Jägerstätter and Desmond Doss, U.S. Navy Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) is a man of deep faith. He prays when he wakes up. He prays when he goes to bed. He silently prays before his infrequent meals, and he turns to the Bible for guidance in this, his most perilous assignment. Leading a team of destroyers (including his flagship nicknamed Greyhound), the commander’s been tasked with safeguarding a convoy of cargo ships across the rough and wild Atlantic Ocean in 1942—including a five-day stretch of sea without air cover called the Black Pit. There, a pack of German U-Boats waits for him—promising to make Krause’s first command a memorable one.
Tom Hanks watched Greyhound move from theaters to Apple TV+ with “absolute heartbreak,” according to an interview with The Guardian. He’d love for audiences to experience the film with all the sound and picture quality that traditional movie theaters can provide. But in a way, the movie doesn’t suffer much on the small screen. It is, at heart, an intimate film, with many scenes taking place on the Greyhound’s claustrophobic bridge. It shows a captain at war with his own insecurities as well as the Germans—fighting both to see his mission through. The Battle of the Atlantic is often overlooked in the annals of World War II. Greyhound illustrates why it shouldn’t be. And, of course, you can watch this movie for free on Apple TV+.
We could go on, of course. So many great movies have been made about the Greatest Generation in this defining moment, and I’m sure you might be saying “Hey, you missed this one” about a handful. But it’s a start.
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