These films -- some classic, some destined to become so -- can inspire us as we face hardships and challenges today.
A new Tom Hanks movie, Greyhound, is coming out July 10: Not in theaters, of course, since most of them are closed (and many of us wouldn’t buy a movie ticket even if they were open), but on Apple TV+. It’s arguably the most anticipated movie of the COVID crisis thus far. And in many ways, it’s a perfect film for these anxious times.
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.