Brad Pitt might have made it onto this list for Inglourious Basterds, which we bigged up here recently. This time we’ve gone for Fury, the stirring, bloody 2014 film in which he plays Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a tough Sherman tank commander entering Germany just as the Nazis make their last stand in 1945. His not-so-crack team of undisciplined newer recruits soon find themselves behind enemy lines with only one way out…
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The Great Escape (1963)
Having made The Magnificent Seven a couple of years earlier, director John Sturges was something of a dab hand at ensemble adventure movies. It might be set in the Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp, but there’s no getting around how much fun The Great Escape is. As the ‘Cooler King’ who shows no respect for his Nazi guards, Steve McQueen gave the world a new template for cool heroism – with a little help from a motorbike. In the end, his performance is almost as memorable as the theme tune.
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Christopher Nolan’s bold and brilliant film tells the story of the famous Allied withdrawal from France in 1940. Razor-sharp editing – the film comes in well under two hours – and a wonderful score help pinpoint the heroism amid the horrors of a retreat like no other. Having refused CGI, Nolan zeroes in on the individual efforts of some remarkable characters – including Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot and Mark Rylance’s civilian sea captain – to create a powerful work of art.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Twelve condemned soldiers are handed a shot at salvation: they’ll be pardoned – if they complete a suicide mission into Nazi-occupied France. There’s an appealing amount of humour among the grit, as the Hollywood hard man of his era Lee Marvin tries to turn the convicts into commandos, before they head to France with orders to blow up a chateau full of German officers. A huge box-office success on its release – despite the sky-high levels of violence – The Dirty Dozen is once-seen-never-forgotten cinema. (See also: Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone.)
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Now widely and often proclaimed as the greatest film in the history of Hollywood, Casablanca was made on a tight budget while WW2 still raged. There’s not an ounce of fat on it: the dialogue’s snappy, the performances crackle and the whole thing pops. Humphrey Bogart is an American running the bar in wartime Casablanca. He’s cool, aloof and only quietly troubled, until an old flame (Ingrid Bergman) walks in. This is a romantic adventure that’s a lot of fun – and all the better for its hard edge.
Flags Of Our Fathers (2006) & Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
This remarkable Clint Eastwood double bill tells stories from 1945’s Battle of Iwo Jima. Flags of Our Fathers is all about what happens to the six American servicemen who appear in a world-famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph as they raise a flag on the Japanese island. Letters From Iwo Jima revisits the battle from the perspective of Japanese soldiers. Eastwood’s even-handed approach helps him capture the full, horrific impact of war on the human spirit.
Watch them both on Amazon Prime
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
This epic war film swept the board at the 1958 Oscars. As he tells the story of a group of POWs ordered to construct a railway bridge in Burma, director David Lean lampoons the British class system, while slowly and steadily raising the pressure as he builds towards an almost unwatchably tense finale. He’s helped along the way by an outstanding cast that includes Sir Alec Guinness as a lieutenant-colonel with an almost absurd commitment to military discipline.
Watch it on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube Movies
Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
Eddie Chapman was an underworld boss who swapped safe-cracking and Soho to become a spy and saboteur for WW2. With charm and intelligence to burn, he became one of Britain’s finest double agents. After getting caught on Jersey just as the Germans invaded, Chapman offered himself to the German secret service. He ended up in solitary confinement in a concentration camp in France, but talked his way into work as a secret agent for the Nazis. With access to the newly opened National Archive, author Ben Macintyre tells his story in wonderful, grisly, rich detail. This is real-life history presented as a Boy’s Own thriller.
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Berlin Diary by William L Shirer
Shirer was an American foreign correspondent based in Berlin from 1934 to 1941. As the Nazis rose to power and Europe headed inexorably towards war, he broadcast from across the continent to millions of Americans. In 1938, he was the only Western reporter to see German troops march into Austria; a couple of years later, he broke the story of France’s surrender. Eventually he wrote a defining book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Berlin Diary is his private journal of his time on the continent, taking the reader right up to the point in late 1940 when he realises Germany is shaping to accuse him of espionage. Personal, profound and gripping.
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Men At Arms by Evelyn Waugh
Stylish satirist Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall) spent WW2 in the Marines, then the Royal Horse Guards. Personal experience informs his hilarious, farcical Sword of Honour trilogy. Men At Arms, the first book in the series, sees 30-something Guy Crouchback signing up and hoping his age will not keep him from the front line. As it turns out, age is not the problem: drunken fellow officers and a one-eyed brigadier are much bigger blockers to his ambition.
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The Naked and The Dead by Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer, a dominant cultural figure in 20th-century America, made his name in 1948 with The Naked and The Dead. After serving with the cavalry in the Philippines, 23-year-old Mailer wrote the novel in little more than three months and, on his own admission, thought it might be “the greatest book written since War and Peace”. It certainly cuts deep, zooming in on a small group of soldiers to show how war isn’t about fighting for grand causes; it’s about fighting for your friends.
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Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard
It took the great British writer JG Ballard 40 years to write about his boyhood experience of a Japanese internment camp. In Empire of the Sun, young Jim Graham lives with his parents in Shanghai, which is occupied after the Pearl Harbor attack. In the chaotic takeover, Jim is separated from his parents and goes into hiding. He eventually emerges to begin an ambivalent relationship with his Japanese captors. Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood adaptation of Ballard’s memorable book earned six Oscar nominations. Starring a 13-year-old Christian Bale, it’s also worth your time.
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Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser
George MacDonald Fraser is best known as the author of the brilliantly funny Flashman series of novels. Quartered Safe Out Here is his recollection of life as a 19-year-old private fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in Burma, alongside a group of eccentric Cumbrians. With his novelist’s eye for detail, this memoir rattles along: the frontline action is gripping and Fraser’s portrayal of the wider experience is personal and vivid.
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World War Two in Colour (2009) & Greatest Events of World War Two in Colour (2019)
When it debuted a decade ago, World War Two in Colour showcased the latest in colourisation technology. It used vividly remastered archive footage to tell the full story of World War Two, starting with ‘The Gathering Storm’ as the failure of Western powers to act decisively emboldens Mussolini and Hitler, and running through to ‘Victory in the Pacific’ as President Truman drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A decade on, Greatest Events uses previously unseen archive footage to zoom in on key events like the siege of Stalingrad, the Battle of Midway, and D-Day.
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Band of Brothers (2001) & The Pacific (2010)
Both of these companion miniseries need to be seen. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Band of Brothers tracks ‘Easy’ Company – led by Damian Lewis as Major Dick Winters – all the way from training in the States onto the battlefields of Europe. Encapsulating the horrors and the heroism of war, it picked up Emmys, Golden Globes and other awards by the fistful. Almost a decade later, Spielberg and Hanks also oversaw The Pacific, which follows three Marines into terrifying combat out east. While retaining its predecessor’s commitment to realism, it takes a wider angle to capture the life-defining impact of their service on themselves and the people they leave behind.
Watch them on Now TV
Das Boot (1981)
Wolfgang Petersen’s masterpiece stands out for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s told from a German perspective. The action takes place in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a U-boat as it attacks convoys of British ships in the Atlantic. Just beware, Das Boot has a complicated history: it was a TV series that was cut into a much shorter film, of which there was then a Director’s Cut and eventually in 2018 a (surprisingly creditable) remake. What you really want is the full 282 minutes of the original series in all of its sweaty, tense, claustrophobic glory. The link below will take you to it.
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Five Came Back (2017)
This Netflix three-parter tells the fascinating story of five A-list Hollywood directors joining the forces to make films for the American war effort. In active service, they come up against government red tape and the vicissitudes of real-life war as they struggle to stay true to their artistic visions. They return changed, and haunted. Look out, in particular, for the story of John Ford, who ends up in the right/wrong place on Midway Island to capture footage of a Japanese attack. The short documentary he made won him a Purple Heart – you can watch it here.
Watch it on Netflix
The History Of WWII
Ready to jump in a little deeper? Over the last couple of years, American history graduate Ray Harris has pumped out almost 300 (and counting) podcasts about WW2. Early pods cover the basics – the rise of the Nazis, appeasement, Mussolini’s early life – before Harris dives into greater detail about later events. Most recently, his focus has been on the war in the Pacific, looking at the fall of Hong Kong, Singapore and other significant episodes in Asia. Harris even offers a premium service that gets you a couple of extra pods a month – which are made to answer listeners’ questions and requests.
World War 2 Collection
Over the last few years, the Beeb has been gathering first-hand accounts of significant moments in WW2. It now has more than 50 to explore, each one packaged as a standalone 10-minute podcast. Episodes run from eyewitness stories of Hitler’s death and the final battle for Berlin to tales about lesser-known events such as the sinking of the Lancastria and Finland’s desperate fight against the Soviet Union. There are also more topical reflections on how sex, jazz and ‘fake news’ were used to undermine Germany.
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