The best Second World War movies

From heart-pounding action and gripping drama, here's our pick of the best movies about the Second World War that you definitely shouldn't miss

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN 1998 film about Second World War starring l r Tom Hanks Matt Damon and Edward Burns
Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks Matt Damon and Edward Burns, is one of the best films ever made about the Second World War. (PA)

With Remembrance Sunday fast approaching, the UK is set to remember those who lost their lives serving in wars and other conflicts – historic events that film-makers have long sought to capture the tragedy, heroism and drama of on the big screen.

While the annual commemorative event originally marked the end of hostilities of the First World War on 11 November, 1918, it now remembers those who died in other conflicts including the Second World War.

And the events of 1939-45 have provided some of the most emotive and powerful moments on screen.

Whether it’s Saving Private Ryan, or the haunting and powerful Schindler's List, or the evacuation in Dunkirk, war films offer a vivid journey through history, entertaining while also paying tribute to the heroes who shaped the world we know today.

From heart-pounding action, gripping drama, and stories that capture the human spirit in times of turmoil — Here's our list of some of the best Second World War movies that you shouldn't miss.

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Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Normandy landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998. (PA)

Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg is set during the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach and the subsequent mission to save the titular Private James Francis Ryan, played by Matt Damon.

The film follows Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and his squad as they embark on a perilous journey behind enemy lines to bring Pte Ryan safely home after his three brothers were killed in action.

The opening 27-minute sequence depicting the Omaha Beach assault is particularly famous for its graphic and unflinching portrayal of the horrors of war.

Critics applauded Spielberg for his commitment to historical accuracy and his ability to humanise the soldiers on both sides of the conflict and Hanks' performance.

The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Spielberg.

IMDb rating: 8.6/10

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

LE PONT DE LA RIVIERE KWAI THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI 1957 de David Lean Sessue Hayakawa Alec Guinness. d'apres le roman de Pierre Boulle based on t
Set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during WWII, Bridge on the River Kwai follows a British Colonel and his men who are forced to build a railway bridge for their captors. (PA)

Set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Thailand, the film follows actor Alec Guinness taking on the role of British Colonel Nicholson and his men who are forced to build a railway bridge for their captors.

As the story unfolds, it explores themes of duty, honour, and the human spirit in the face of adversity.

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The film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture; Best Director for David Lean, who is one of the most celebrated British film-makers of all time; and Best Actor for Guinness, who later found fame with a new generation by playing Obi-wan Kenobi in the Star Wars films.

IMDb rating: 8.1/10

Dunkirk (2017)

DUNKIRK 2017 Warner Bros film
Christopher Nolan's 2017 film Dunkirk tells the story of the Normandy evacuation in 1940. (Warner Bros.)

Hailed as a masterpiece, Christopher Nolan's war epic tells the story of the Dunkirk evacuation with a unique narrative structure.

The film weaves together three narratives set on land, sea, and air during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

It stars Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Harry Styles in a notable acting debut.

Critics lauded Nolan's use of practical effects and minimal CGI, creating a tense and realistic portrayal of the harrowing rescue mission.

Critics lauded Nolan's direction and the immersive experience it offers and described Dunkirk as the director's "best film so far" – although it lost out on Best Picture at the 190th Academy Awards.

IMDb rating: 7.8/10

Schindler's List (1993)

Schindler's List (Credit: Universal)
Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece of the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, starring Liam Neeson as Schindler. (Universal)

Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved over a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

Starring Liam Neeson as Schindler, Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth, a SS Second Lieutenant, and Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, a Jewish employee helping Schindler.

Critics called it a haunting and powerful film, with Spielberg's direction receiving widespread acclaim, one critic described that whist "Spielberg is not visible in this film. But his restraint and passion are present in every shot".

It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won seven including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

IMDb rating: 9.0/10

Das Boot (1981)

Prod DB © Bavaria Films / DR LE BATEAU (DAS BOOT) de Wolfgang Petersen 1981 ALL. avec Jurgen Prochnow marine allemande, sous-marin, kriegsmarine, WW2, guerre 39-45,  d'apres le roman de Lothar G. Buchheim
German war film Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen earned critical acclaim for its gripping detail and portrayal of submarine warfare. (PA)

Das Boot is a German war film that offers a gripping and claustrophobic portrayal of life aboard a German U-boat (submarine) during the Second World War.

The story follows the crew of U-96 as they embark on a perilous mission in the Atlantic Ocean, facing relentless enemy attacks and the psychological strain of submarine warfare.

The film explores the tension, camaraderie, and the harsh realities of underwater combat, delivering a compelling and immersive wartime narrative.

The film is is an adaptation of Lothar-Günther Buchheim's novel of the same name, inspired by his own experiences as a war correspondent aboard a U-boat.

Director, Wolfgang Petersen earned critical acclaim for his meticulous attention to detail and realistic of submarine warfare on film.

IMDb rating: 7.5/10

The Pianist (2002)

USA. Adrien Brody  in the (C)Focus Features movie :  The Pianist (2002). Plot: A Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Ref:  LMK110-J9984-080623 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets.
The Pianist (2002) is a biographical drama directed by Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody, of the true story of a Polish-Jewish pianist who survived the Holocaust. (LMKMEDIA)

This film, directed by Roman Polanski is based on the memoir of Władysław Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist who survived the Holocaust.

Adrien Brody delivered an emotionally charged performance in the lead role, earning him an Academy Award for Best Actor.

The film is noted for its unflinching portrayal of the horrors of war and the resilience of the human spirit, as well as its hauntingly beautiful score by Wojciech Kilar.

Critics hailed Brody's Oscar-winning performance and Polanski's direction, whose parents died at Auschwitz.

IMDb rating: 8.5/10

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima provides a unique perspective on the Battle of Iwo Jima by focusing on the Japanese soldiers defending the island during the Second World War. (PA)

Directed by Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima, is unique in its focus on the Japanese perspective during the Second World War.

The film provides a more empathetic and humanised portrayal of the Japanese soldiers defending Iwo Jima.

Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya give compelling performances. Critics praised Eastwood's direction and the film's ability to bridge cultural divides, offering a more balanced view of the war in the Pacific.

Critics found it to be a poignant and humanising portrayal, with Eastwood's direction being a standout.

IMDb rating: 7.8/10

The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape tells the story of a group of Allied prisoners in a German prisoner of war camp who plan an elaborate escape. (PA)

Directed by John Sturges, The Great Escape tells the story of a group of Allied prisoners in a German prisoner of war camp who plan an elaborate escape.

The film boasts an ensemble cast, including Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough. Steve McQueen's motorcycle chase scene is particularly iconic and remains a memorable cinematic moment.

Critics appreciated the film's blend of suspense, humour, and camaraderie among the characters and iconic performances. Described as "a motion picture that entertains, captivates, thrills and stirs."

IMDb rating: 8.2/10

Watch: Saving Private Ryan (25th Anniversary Fathom Events 20 Second Trailer)