Grave of the Fireflies

Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Movies About World War II

The Second World War was perhaps the most momentous and world-changing historical event to occur during the era in which motion pictures have existed. Naturally, it’s been a popular subject to make movies about – hundreds of movies from even before the war was over right up to this week’s release of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’. How well that one stacks up to the classics remains to be seen. In the meantime, we’ll devote our latest Roundtable to some of our other favorite films about WWII.

Luke Hickman

As much as I love and praise ‘Saving Private Ryan’, I feel like there’s one perfect WWII film that’s underrated, overlooked (probably because all the dialogue is in Japanese) and wholeheartedly deserves more love. I’m talking about ‘Letters from Iwo Jima‘. Clint Eastwood made a pair of Iwo Jima films, one from the U.S. perspective and one from the Japanese perspective. The U.S. story wound up being the awful ‘Flags of Our Fathers’, which plunked around slower than the terrible piano-driven score. But the Japanese story is strong, intimate and beautiful. For me, it was easily worthy of landing in the Top 5 for 2006 and still stands among the best WWII films.

M. Enois Duarte

When it comes to the war genre, I’m particularly fond of those films which dare to look at the damage inflicted by warfare and not just at stereotypical scenes of battle and heroism. (Not to say I don’t also love that stuff.) I’m thinking of movies like ‘Casablanca’, ‘Atonement’ and ‘The English Patient’. However, for this week’s topic, the war epics ‘Das Boot‘ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ deserve special recognition for being even more daring. Both films challenge audiences to understand the same war from the unexpected perspective of the people who have been perceived and depicted as the enemy.

In Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 German classic, moviegoers experience the manic suspense and debilitating fear a soldier suffers while also trying to survive and do the best they can for their fellow soldiers. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s superb portrayal of the Battle of Iwo Jima defies all expectations by asking his audiences to step into the shoes of the Japanese soldiers, to listen to the pains, the panic and the concerns of fighting for family and country they endured.

In both films, and the reasons why I love them so much, the filmmakers explore fear as a universal emotion experienced by all soldiers, not something unique only to one side of a war. They dare to make audiences empathize with the men the world has deemed as adversaries to what turned out to be the right side of history.

Brian Hoss

In a very deep genre, full of traditional and outlying films, I’m left thinking about two specific favorites: ‘A Bridge Too Far‘ and ‘Patton‘. Both are imminently rewatchable. ‘Patton’ provides a healthy depth while ‘A Bridge Too Far’ can boast of making good use of a star-studded cast. And yet there are so many other choices that could also be considered for just such qualities. Don’t make me choose! (Also, I hope that everybody who wants to, gets to see ‘Dunkirk’ in 70mm.)

Josh Zyber

Let me get this out of the way first and toss out some honorable mentions to several big titles that we’d be remiss not to mention: ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘The Dirty Dozen’, ‘The Great Escape’, and of course ‘Schindler’s List’. (I’m sure somebody will give me crap for not including ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’, but honestly neither is among my own favorites.)

Amidst all that and many others, it may seem strange to pick an animated movie for this topic. How could a cartoon possibly compare to some of the all-time great live-action epics about the war? Well, anybody who’s ever seen Isao Takahata’s 1988 anime masterpiece ‘Grave of the Fireflies‘ knows exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, I bet a number of you couldn’t stop tears from welling up in your eyes as soon as you saw the banner image at the top of this post.

If you haven’t seen it yet, this movie will absolutely wreck you. It’s a devastating emotional powerhouse. The tale of two young children struggling to survive on their own in war-torn Japan when their father doesn’t come back from combat is one of the finest examinations of the collateral damage that war inflicts. I can think of no live-action war movie its equal.

Call out some of your favorite WWII movies in the Comments.

28 comments

    • Alex

      Thank you bringing that one up!! It’s a superb movie that sadly few people have seen. My father grew up in England during WWII and he ranks “Hope and Glory” as his very favorite movie..

  1. Thulsadoom

    Though there’s no combat, I’d have to go with ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ with David Niven and Kim Hunter. 🙂

      • Lobert Ledford

        That’s crazy and cool. It seems like no one ever heard of it. It has so many well known actors in it, and is a great movie. I knew I would like it after that opening scene. I bought the Region B blu ray as soon as it was released, but it actually plays the film portion in US players if you press the “top menu” button on your remote. I’m not sure if it’s available in region A now or not. This was the first time you could get it in widescreen. I even own the laserdisc and studio “package” I got from Ebay just for the hell of it.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          Still no Region A Blu-ray, unfortunately.

          Keith Gordon’s adaptation of Vonnegut’s ‘Mother Night’ (another a WWII story, this one about spies) is also very good.

          • Lobert Ledford

            Yes, another good one. I checked out all of Keith Gordons films because of A Midnight Clear. Can’t say I liked every one of them though. Who would have thought Arnie Cunningham would go on to make good WWII films….

  2. Csm101

    I’ll have to go with Saving Private Ryan for three reasons. One, I had never been so utterly horrified by what I’ve seen in a war movie up to that point. Two, the color bleaching process was so novel and seemed so appropriate for the movie. Nowadays, it seems a little overused. Three, that shot where the camera bobbles from underwater to above and under again. Those techniques were so imaginative and fresh (to my eyes at least). And that was just the first fifteen minutes!

  3. Bolo

    As for one’s that haven’t been named yet…

    ‘Blackbook’ – a solid resistance thriller and one of the few movies that show how a lot of the real horrors came after the war when witch hunts for collaborators began.

    ‘Enemy at the Gates’ – a good sniper action movie with solid performances and some very tense sequences.

    ‘The Tin Drum’ – it’s like Charles Dickens by way of David Lynch in WW2. This film made a huge impression on me as a kid. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Criterion put out a good edition of this, but in between the standard def release and the blu ray, the director released a new cut, so I think the blu only contains the director’s cut, which I find inferior. I’ll hold on to my DVD.

  4. charles contreras

    The Dirty Dozen and Saving Private Ryan. Someday I have to run those as a double feature, provided I take a vacation day because of the combined running time. My runners up would be Midway and Pearl Harbor. The attack scenes in Pearl Harbor are clearly the highlight of the film.

  5. CHRISTOPHER GAYNOR

    FOR DAS BOOT, THE FULL GERMAN TV VERSION….TORA, TORA, TORA AND THE THIN RED LINE, FOR ACTION-BASED STORIES AND THE FRENCH TV SERIES, A FRENCH VILLAGE, TRACING A LARGE CAST OF CHARACTERS FROM THE ONSET THROUGH THE END OF WW2….FINE ACTING, STORY ARCHS AND PRODUCTION VALUES…..AND LASTLY….DOWNFALL, WITH KLAUS KINSKY PLAYING HITLER IN HIS FINAL DAYS IN HIS BERLIN BUNKER.

  6. Bill

    WWII is my favourite genre. The best for me include, The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, Bridge On The River Kwai, In Harm’s Way, Tora, Tora, Tora, Guadalcanal Diary, The Great Escape, Schindler’s List, Downfall, Patton, Guns of Navarone, A Bridge Too Far, Devil’s Brigade, Where Eagles Dare, Away All Boats, Lifeboat, Destination Tokyo, In Which We Serve, Flying Tigers and any other WWII film involving John Wayne. I could go on and on but lastly honourable mentions to Mr. Roberts and the Caine Mutiny.

  7. Deaditelord

    Excellent choice Josh. I remember renting Grave of the Fireflies on VHS when I was 17 and was an absolute mess when the end credits rolled. If Wikipedia is to be believed, some crazy executive thought it was a good idea to pair Grave of the Fireflies with My Neighbor Totoro when it was initially released in Japan. Hopefully, My Neighbor Totoro was shown first so that young kids could enjoy it before being traumatized by Grave of the Fireflies.

  8. Paul

    This is all over the place and includes some previously listed that I want to highlight. I’m not a big John Wayne fan but I always try to catch “In Harms Way” on TCM. I love the long cut of “The Big Red One.” A great movie about the camaraderie of a group of soldiers as they move through the war. The end of the film with Lee Marvin and the young boy in the death camp just destroys me! I also love “The Thin Red Line.” The way Malick juxtaposes nature and human folly is astonishing. I also have come to greatly appreciate “Fury” although it took repeated watching to get at the heart of it. Brad Pitt’s tank commander has much in common with Lee Marvin’s sargent in “The Big Red One.” In both cases they are leaders trying to help their men survive while still fulfilling their duty.

  9. Lord Bowler

    My favorite war film would have to be ‘Patton’, with ‘Von Ryan’s Express’ being close. Others are ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘The Great Escape’.

    I’m a big John Wayne Fan and love the film ‘In Harm’s Way’, mentioned by someone else above. Another great Wayne War film are ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ and ‘They Were Expendable’.

    If you’re a fan of Rutger Hauer, there was a great TV Movie called ‘Escape from Sobibor’.

    And, another film I enjoyed was ‘The Young Lions’.

  10. NJScorpio

    I’ve been jumping on interesting DVD multi-packs from Wal-mart that include Instawatch digital copies, in instances where the digital copies are not being sold individually, or are being sold at very high prices, and the physical discs are not normally bundled with digital codes.

    In this instance, I just ordered a DVD set of ‘Midway’, ‘MacArthur’, and ‘To Hell and Back’. These are DVDs, and (if Instawatch works) include UltraViolet SD copies.

  11. Paul Anderson

    Wow. I apologize if my eyes deceive me, but not one single mention of William Wyler’s masterpiece “The Best Years of Our LIves”. It’s not only my favorite WWII film, but one of my favorite films…ever. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography is put to subtle yet incredible use and the daunting 3 hour running time is anything but. You get so caught up in the lives of Fred, Al and Homer that the movie itself seems half as long. Incredible performances by March, Loy, Andrews and especially Teresa Wright. Yea, it blows every other WWII film out of the water with nary a single action sequence. Wyler’s best film by far, and that is saying something seeing as he directed Ben Hur and won 3 Academy Awards as Best Director during his career.

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