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World War II – brutally waged from 1939 to 1945 – has been extremely fertile ground for the cinema. The first WW II movie, not surprisingly, appeared only two months after the start of hostilities. On November 3, 1939, the British-made The Lion Has Wings made its debut in the United Kingdom, paving the way for an onslaught of subsequent World War II movies that stretch from 1939 to the present day.
Here are seven classic World War II movies that every serious film buff should never miss. Bombs away!
1. The Bridge on the River Kwai (Columbia, 1957)
William Holden stars as Shears, an American “naval officer” who escapes from a brutal Japanese prison camp in Southeast Asia. Landing in Ceylon, Shears is recruited by British special ops Force 316, where he is ”persuaded” to lead a commando mission back to the camp in order to blow up a railway bridge spanning the river Kwai. The bridge is the handiwork of a British POW colonel, who has taken great pride in his engineering feat.
Also on board are Alec Guinness (Lt. Colonel Nicholson), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa (Col. Saito), James Donald (Major Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lt. Joyce) and Ann Sears (Nurse).
Budgeted at $3 million, The Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed in Ceylon – now Sri Lanka. Sheffield Steel built the actual bridge for $250,000 while Chemical Industries blew it up, along with a locomotive and six railroad cars.
The Bridge on the River Kwai – winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Guinness) and Best Director (David Lean) – rates as one of the finest movies ever made. “Brilliant is the word, and no other,” opined film critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (12/19/57).
- Great line: “Do not speak to me of rules. This is war! This is not a game of cricket!” – Sessue Hayakawa
2. Patton (20th Century-Fox, 1970)
George C. Scott has the title role, portraying General George S. Patton Jr. (1885-1945) during his campaigns of World War II. Also in the cast are Karl Malden (General Bradley), Stephen Young (Captain Hansen), Michael Strong (General Carver) and Frank Latimore (Lt. Colonel Davenport).
Scripted by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton is a sweeping $12 million historical epic, tracing the legendary general’s exploits from North Africa to the end of the war in Europe. George C. Scott is riveting as the legendary “Old Blood and Guts,” whose love of battle produced both equally ardent admirers and detractors.
Patton – complete with realistic battle scenes, including a memorable aerial attack on the general’s headquarters in North Africa – won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Scott, which he refused), Best Director and Best Writing.
- Great line: “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” – George C. Scott
3. Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks, 1998)
Tom Hanks (Captain Miller) and Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Horvath) lead a squad of American Rangers on a mission to retrieve paratrooper Matt Damon (Private Ryan), whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Also along for the trek into D-Day hell are Edward Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Barry Pepper (Pvt. Jackson), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish) and Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo).
Written by Robert Rodat and directed by Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan features some of the most grisly war scenes ever filmed. The bloody combat action begins at Dog Green Sector on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, where Hanks and his men are nearly cut to ribbons by withering enemy fire.
Saving Private Ryan won five Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) and Best Sound Effects (Gary Rydstrom, Richard Hymns).
- Great line: “This Ryan better be worth it. He’d better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb or something.” – Tom Hanks
4. The Victors (Columbia, 1963)
The once blacklisted Carl Foreman, a U.S. Army Signal Corps veteran of WW II, produced, wrote and directed this sprawling, episodic movie that follows an American infantry squad from England to post-war Germany. Vincent Edwards (Baker), Albert Finney (Russian Soldier), George Hamilton (Trower), George Peppard (Chase), Eli Wallach (Sergeant Craig), Melina Mercouri (Magda), Jeanne Moreau (French Woman), Rosanna Schiaffino (Maria), Romy Schneider (Regine) and Elke Sommer (Helga) head the large, international cast.
The Victors, which took nearly a year to make, was filmed in Sweden, England, France and Italy. In Salerno, the production was hampered by strong earthquakes, which damaged sets and contaminated the drinking water.
The Victors features a number of memorable scenes: an American race riot at a Belgium nightclub; the execution of an Army deserter by firing squad as Frank Sinatra croons “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the background; the brazen shooting of a puppy by a battle-hardened G.I.; and a searing knife fight between a Russian and an American soldier in post-war Berlin.
- Great line: “If you feel you need to report this pray your country is never occupied.” – French officer Maurice Ronet to Eli Wallach after forcing a band of surrendering German soldiers into a firefight.
5. Stalag 17 (Paramount, 1953)
William Holden stars as Sgt. J.J. Sefton, a smooth American operator who peddles his wares and services at a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1944, much to the displeasure of his fellow POW’s. Also in the cast are Don Taylor (Lt. Dunbar), Otto Preminger (Von Scherbach), Robert Strauss (Animal), Harvey Lembeck (Shapiro), Richard Erdman (Hoffy), Peter Graves (Price), Neville Brand (Duke) and Sig Ruman (Schulz).
Budgeted at $1.3 million, Stalag 17 – based on the Broadway play by former POW’s Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski – was filmed at the John Show Ranch in Woodland Hills, California, which served as the fictional German prison camp.
Stalag 17 features both comedy and drama. Regarding the former, one of the best scenes takes place when a drunken Animal pines for an imaginary Betty Grable. The drama comes when the prisoners snatch Lt. Dunbar from the Germans, hiding him in the camp’s water tower as they prepare to bust him out with a traitor still in their midst.
Stalag 17 won three Academy Awards: Best Actor (Holden), Best Director (Billy Wilder) and Best Supporting Actor (Strauss).
- Great line: “He’s a Nazi, Price is. For all I know his name is Preissinger or Preishoffer. Oh, sure, he lived in Cleveland. But when the war broke out, he came back to the Fatherland like a good little Bundist. He spoke our lingo, so they sent him to spy school and fixed him up with phony dog tags.” – William Holden
6. The Great Escape (United Artists, 1963)
John Sturges directed this fact-based drama set at a model German POW camp in 1943. The new camp is supposedly “escape proof,” but that doesn’t prevent Steve McQueen (Hilts), James Garner (Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Bartlett), James Donald (Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Danny), Donald Pleasence (Blythe), James Coburn (Sedgwick), David McCallum (Ashley-Pitt), et al., from digging tunnels and making their way to freedom.
Budgeted at $4 million, The Great Escape was filmed on location in Germany. The movie provides some seriously taut drama, along with a thrilling motorcycle chase scene that features stuntman Bud Ekins (subbing for Steve McQueen) jumping several rows of barbed wire fence on his modified 1961 Triumph TR6 Trophy Bird.
- Great line: “Wait a minute. You aren’t seriously suggesting that I get through the wire…and case everything out…and don’t get picked up…to turn myself in and get thrown back in the cooler for a couple of months so you can get the information you need?” – Steve McQueen
7. The English Patient (Miramax, 1996)
Anthony Minghella directed this beautiful, haunting film adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel. Ralph Fiennes has the title role, playing a badly-burned Hungarian cartographer whose life during World War II is presented in flashbacks. Also in the cast are Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (David Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katharine Clifton), Naveen Abdrews (Kip) and Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton).
The English Patient teems with romance and small-scale war action. One of the most searing scenes in the film is the plane crash in the North African desert, which sets the story in motion.
The English Patient won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Binoche) and Best Cinematography (John Seale).
- Great line: “I once heard of a captain who wore a patch over a good eye. The men fought harder for him.” – Ralph Fiennes.