Greatest War Movies


The Greatest War Movies
Film Title/Year/Director, War-time Setting and Brief Description

Ministry of Fear (1944)
d. Fritz Lang

WWII, England

This noirish war film and mystery thriller from Fritz Lang about deception and intrigue was adapted from a Graham Greene novel of the same name. The film was infused with an atmosphere of dread and fear.

It told about Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) who was recently released from Lembridge Asylum during wartime England (during the Blitz) - he had been incarcerated for two years for the mercy-killing of his wife. He became unwittingly involved with a Nazi German spy ring (fronted by a charitable organization) when he guessed the weight of a raffle cake - hiding microfilm - at a village fair, the film's MacGuffin.

While investigating the enemy network behind everything, he found himself accused by Scotland Yard of an agent's murder, and became warily involved with beautiful German expatriate and Austrian refugee Carla Hilse (Marjorie Reynolds).

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
d. Mervyn LeRoy

WWII, April, 1942, Tokyo, Japan bombing mission

Mervyn LeRoy's true-to-life film starred Spencer Tracy as Lieut. Colonel James H. Doolittle, famous for leading the first homeland bombing attack of B-25 bombers (from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier) on Tokyo during WWII, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a secret bombing mission supported by 16 flight crews, who were to drop their bombs and then land in friendly China, although some of the crew members had to ditch their fuel-empty planes and suffered injuries and amputation.

The war film, which won an Academy Award for Special Effects (mixing actual footage and stock footage), was based on mission pilot Ted Lawson's 1943 book of the same name.

Rome, Open City (1945, It.) (aka Roma, Città Aperta)
d. Roberto Rossellini

Time of Anti-Nazi Resistance in Rome during German occupation of Italy in WWII

Roberto Rossellini's influential, low-budget documentary-like landmark film formally introduced Italian Neo-realism - it was the first film in a Rossellini 'war trilogy' of post-war Neo-realistic films. The gritty and realistic post-war film was set in the underworld of war-time resistance, with the use of on-location cinematography, grainy low-grade black-and-white film stock and untrained actors in improvised scenes.

The film followed the plight of fugitive Resistance leader Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), who was eventually caught and tortured to death, after being betrayed by traitorous ex-girlfriend and prostitute Marina Mari (Maria Michi).

In another of the shocking, realistic scenes, pregnant widow Pina (Anna Magnani) ran after a military truck hysterically screaming the name of her lithographer fiancee and underground leader Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), who was just arrested. She broke away from a soldier molesting her and ran after Francesco, when she was abruptly machine-gunned and killed one day before her planned wedding day. Witnessing the murder was Pina's ten year-old son Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) and brave Catholic parish priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi), both involved in the Resistance movement. In the film's conclusion, the priest was apprehended and about to be executed by a hesitant Italian firing squad, when the German officer in charge personally decided to shoot him.

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) (aka Ernie Pyle's Story of G.I. Joe)
d. William A. Wellman

WWII campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy

William A. Wellman's poignant but unsentimental action-war drama was released just after the German surrender. It was one of the best and most realistic of all WWII combat films. The film included an Oscar-nominated performance by Robert Mitchum as tough Lt./Captain Bill Walker, and featured a number of GIs appearing as extras.

It told the story of Company C, 18th Infantry foot-soldiers of the US Army chronicled by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and war correspondent Ernest "Ernie" Pyle (portrayed by Burgess Meredith), during miserable campaigns in North Africa and Italy, especially the Battle of Monte Cassino. Pyle was allowed onto trucks traveling to the front for the first time by Lt. Bill Walker, and endured the arduous hardships along with the untested infantrymen.

They Were Expendable (1945)
d. John Ford

The Philippines, PT boats in combat against Japanese during the early months of WWII (Dec 1941 - April 1942)

Toward the close of the war, John Ford based his realistic, under-rated and bleak (black and white) film upon the true, inspiring story of the Navy's PT boat squadrons and crews based in the Philippines during the early years of the war that faced the advance of Japanese forces.

The film was based on William L. White's bestselling 1942 book about a torpedo boat squadron commander (Lt. John Bulkeley, changed to Brickley and played by Robert Montgomery) and executive officer/skipper (Robert Kelly, changed to Rusty Ryan and played by John Wayne).

A Walk in the Sun (1945)
d. Lewis Milestone

WWII, Italy, 1943

This was Milestone's second (and middle) film in a war trilogy, composed of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Pork Chop Hill (1959). It is often considered one of the best WWII war-battle films ever made, although it was essentially bloodless. It thoughtfully portrayed the psychological stress felt by the US GIs. Milestone's modest yet starkly realistic, dialogue-filled, unglamorized combat film, based upon the novel by Yank Magazine's Harry Brown, followed an American infantry unit in 1943, led by platoon squad leader Sgt. Bill Tyne (Dana Andrews) that was struggling to survive during a mission.

They were making a frontal assault on a fortified, Nazi-occupied farmhouse in Italy, as part of the Allied attack on Anzio. The tension and fear was brilliantly captured on the faces of the terrified soldiers as they took a short, six-mile journey (from the coastal beach at Salerno, moving inland through the Italian countryside) to the farmhouse where they also were on a mission to blow up a bridge. Despite heavy losses and fearful madness, the bridge was destroyed and the platoon triumphantly captured the fortified farmhouse.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
d. William Wyler

US Homeland following WWII

William Wyler's Best Picture winning film depicted the difficulties of demobilization. It was a landmark, classic drama about three WWII veterans attempting post-traumatic readjustment to peacetime life and discovering that they had fallen behind.

Perhaps the most memorable film about the aftermath of World War II, it unfolded with the homecoming of three servicemen to their small town: Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) who turned to drinking, Air Force major Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) who was rejected by his wife (Virginia Mayo), and double-amputee seaman Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) who agonized over his relationship with his girlfriend-fiancee Wilma Cameron (Cathy O'Donnell).

In two of the film's memorable scenes, Hoagy Carmichael taught double-amputee Russell to play Chopsticks on the piano, and Russell displayed his vulnerabilities to his fiancee in his bedroom.

Notorious (1946)
d. Alfred Hitchcock

Rio de Janiero in Brazil after WWII

The 'master of suspense' created a compelling spy mission interwoven with a romantic love story. The dark, intricate film was thematically concerned with both political (and sexual) betrayal and issues of trust, friendship, and duty embodied in the characters' relationships.

Hitchcock told the subtle tale of beautiful but confused and agonized American spy Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) with a reputation for loose living as a playgirl (she was the American-born daughter of a convicted Nazi sympathizer) who unwillingly infiltrated an evil German cartel by marrying the Rio-based enemy leader Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) living there incognito.

A love triangle developed between three of the characters - the Nazi villain, a federal intelligence agent named T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), and the woman.

Battleground (1949)
d. William A. Wellman

WWII, The Battle of the Bulge (Siege of Bastogne in Belgium), December 1944

The first significant post-WWII film in the US was this MGM film - the ultra-realistic, grim and authentic war film followed a group of raw American recruits of the 101st Airborne Infantry Division fighting in the Battle of the Bulge (the Siege of Bastogne). When caught in the "fog of war," they were cut off from supplies reinforcements and military intelligence.

Van Johnson starred as paratrooper Pfc. Holley, while Ricardo Montalban played the part of Pvt. Johnny Roderigues, and John Hodiak was featured as Jarvess, all stressed-out GI comrades. The film won two Academy Awards: Best B/W Cinematography, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
d. John Ford

A US Army cavalry post in the Southwest, 1876

John Ford's autumnal western starred John Wayne as a retirement-age cavalry captain named Nathan Brittles. The Captain attempted, in one last patrol, to prevent a large-scale Native-American Indian uprising with Chief Pony That Talks (Chief John Big Tree) following General Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

It was noted for Winton C. Hoch's beautiful Oscar-winning color cinematography (the film's sole nomination and win). This was Ford's personal favorite of the so-called 'cavalry trilogy' of films.

The Third Man (1949, UK)
d. Carol Reed

Post WWII-Vienna, sectioned up between US, UK, French, and Soviet occupation forces

Carol Reed's film was a visually-stylish noir thriller - a paranoid story of social, economic, and moral corruption in a depressed, rotting and crumbling, 20th century Vienna, split among the occupying forces, following World War II.

Unusually reckless, canted camera angles (one of their earliest uses), and wide-angle lens distortions amidst the atmospheric on-location views of a shadowy Vienna cast a somber mood over the fable of post-war moral ambiguity and ambivalent redemption.

The deliberately unsettling, tilted angles reflected the state of the ruined, fractured and dark city, filled with black marketeers (Orson Welles as Harry Lime), spies, refugees, thieves, and foreign powers seeking control.

Twelve O'Clock High (1949)
d. Henry King

WWII, England, 1949 (flashback to late 1942)

This war movie about leadership starred Gregory Peck as Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, the tough, discipline-oriented commander assigned to the struggling 918th Bomb Group (of the US Eighth Air Force) of B-12 bombers located at Archbury, England in late 1942.

His character was based on Colonel Frank Armstrong, Jr. whose exploits in whipping into shape the real-life 306th Bombardment Group at Thurleigh Field in England were documented in the 1948 novel of the same name.

The Greatest War Movies
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | 1900s-1920s | 1930s | 1940s-1 | 1940s-2 | 1950s
| 1960s-1 | 1960s-2 | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s-now

Previous Page Next Page