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Their finest hours: 20 of the best WWII films ever made

D-Day marked a major turning point in Second World War and its impact has been captured many times on screen. With his head above the parapet, Graeme Ross examines the classics

Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk
Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk
Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from Casablanca
Steve McQueen in The Great Escape
Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List

By Graeme Ross

20. The Longest Day (Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Gerd Oswald, Bernhard Wicki, Darryl F Zanuck, 1962)

An epic all-star international cast in this drama, just under three hours long and chronicling the D-Day invasion from the standpoint of both sides, which Life magazine dubbed "The Longest Headache". A grimly authentic recreation of events with Oscar-winning special effects and cinematography. D-Day veterans served as consultants, and one star, Richard Todd, saw action in Normandy.

19. Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975)

Operation Overlord was the code name for the Battle of Normandy, and this stark low-budget film follows one young soldier from boot camp to his death on Sword Beach. The black and white cinematography blends seamlessly with archive footage, and the result is a film very different in approach from The Longest Day.

18. Where Eagles Dare (Brian G Hutton, 1968)

The prolific thriller writer Alistair MacLean was never well served by the film adaptations of his hugely successful novels, apart from the obvious exception of The Guns of Navarone. This thrill-a-minute blockbuster also succeeds, largely due to MacLean's own screenplay and the star pairing of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood who team up to rescue a high-ranking American officer from a seemingly impenetrable German castle. The Nazis are, of course, mere canon fodder for our heroes, and it pays to suspend disbelief with some signature MacLean plot twists.

17. Twelve O'Clock High (Henry King, 1949)

Gregory Peck was given an Oscar nod as the general who replaces the commanding officer of a US army bomber squadron who has become too emotionally close to his beleaguered men. He ruthlessly sets about restoring morale, but eventually falls prey to the same syndrome. One of the first films to tackle the psychological effects of war on servicemen, and has been used for decades as a training film not just for the armed forces but organisations like hotel chains and the emergency services, about the effects of the burden of command.

16. The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967)

A huge box-office smash featuring assorted murderers, psychopaths and various other army prisoners, all given a chance of redemption in a hopeless suicide mission behind enemy lines. Audience manipulation at its zenith, thanks to a brilliant cast headed by Lee Marvin, and Aldrich at his most nihilistic. One star, Charles Bronson, was awarded a Purple Heart during his own Second World War service.

15. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, 1980)

Based on Fuller's own experiences, The Big Red One follows American soldiers and their transition from callow youths to battle-hardened veterans under their tough but fatherly sergeant (a terrific Lee Marvin). Eloquently and movingly illustrates the futility and tragedy of war.

14. The Dam Busters (Michael Anderson, 1955)

With its stirring theme music and spectacular (for the time) special effects, The Dam Busters (below) is one of the most famous of all British Second World War films. It chronicles the exhaustive development by engineer Barnes Wallis of the bouncing bomb and its deployment in the famous raid that destroyed two of Germany's strategically important Ruhr dams in May 1943. Though many details of the raid were still classified, this is still a pretty faithful account of events - a patriotic tribute to unsung heroes, but a film that never flinches to show the true human cost of war.

13. From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

Hamstrung by the censors, Zinnemann made the best film he could from James Jones's controversial novel. The ensemble cast is superb, with Ernest Borgnine, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift and Oscar-winning Donna Reed all at the top of their game, while Frank Sinatra also proved he could act and lifted the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, horse's head or not. The recreation of the Pearl Harbour attack by the Japanese is a standout in a film that won eight Oscars.

12. The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)

Based on the true story of allied prisoners planning a mass escape from a German prison camp, the jauntiness of The Great Escape jars with the grim reality of the executions of many of the real-life escapees on whose story the movie drew. However, this much-loved blockbuster remains one of the most famous films ever made and has a stellar international cast, some of whom, including Donald Pleasence, had been prisoners of war.

11. Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

A companion piece to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which told the story of the battle for Iwo Jima from the American perspective, this is the better of the two films, told from the viewpoint of the Japanese. The film movingly humanises the Japanese soldiers fighting against near impossible odds.

10. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

Malick returned to directing after a two-decade absence in stunning fashion with his adaptation of the autobiographical James Jones novel. The Thin Red Line follows a troop of American soldiers during the battle for Guadalcanal and, as befits a Malick picture, boasts sumptuous production values and beautiful cinematography in this dreamlike study of men in war as the Eden-like landscape becomes a living hell.

9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

The celebrated prisoner of war epic set in Japanese-occupied Burma with Alec Guinness as the British colonel obsessed with building the titular bridge. Colonel Nicholson's reasoning is that if the prisoners can build the best bridge they can, it will boost their morale and show the camp's brutal commandant that the British soldier is superior to the Japanese, oblivious that in doing so he may be aiding the enemy. As much a battle of wills as a great action movie, this enduring classic won seven Oscars.

8. Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

A classic of Italian neorealism with many unforgettable images full of raw immediacy, and featuring an immense performance from Anna Magnani. Open City is a stark, brutal account of the Italian resistance during the Nazi occupation of Rome, which the director shot in piecemeal fashion in a ravaged city only recently liberated by American forces.

7. Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981)

A masterful ultra-realistic account of a German U-Boat crew during the Battle of the Atlantic, which favours suspense and tension as much as thrillingly authentic battle scenes. Das Boot incorporates a strong anti-war message while emphasising the sailors' contempt for the Nazis as they (and the audience) experience the long days of tedium and claustrophobic horror of underwater warfare.

6. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

Heartbreaking and thought-provoking anime from Studio Ghibli about brother and sister Japanese orphans desperately trying to survive in the dying days of the war. A haunting anti-war statement almost without peer, adapted from the story by Akiyuki Nosaka and based on his own experiences in Kobe.

5. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

A stunning achievement, which on release immediately entered the pantheon of great war movies. Three separate stories - the soldiers on the beach and one young Tommy in particular, the Spitfires overhead, and the brave civilians who risk their lives to cross the Channel in their boats to help with the rescue, are intertwined to a wall-of-sound backdrop.

4. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)

Until Saving Private Ryan, with its shockingly realistic opening half hour on Omaha Beach during the Normandy landings, no Hollywood film had shown the carnage of warfare quite so graphically. Spielberg then poses the question "how do you find decency in the hell of warfare?" as Tom Hanks's troop go deep behind enemy lines to rescue one man so he can return home to his grieving mother who has lost three of her other sons.

3. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)

This harrowing Russian masterpiece drew on the experiences of the film's writer, Ales Adamovich, who witnessed many of the atrocities portrayed. A surreal, nightmarish experience as we witness the transition of a carefree 14-year-old Belarusian boy become a resistance fighter, traumatised by the barbarism of the invading Nazi forces.

2. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

The romantic drama par excellence spends most of its running time in Rick's nightclub, apart from the glorious climax at the airport, but with its war-torn setting and those nasty Nazis, Casablanca (below) is a classic war film too. Stars, script, director and music all align perfectly to create one of Hollywood's most legendary films.

1. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Spielberg's deeply personal masterpiece is perhaps the most moving war film ever made. All the more so with the knowledge that it was based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, who originally set out to make his fortune by exploiting cheap Jewish labour in Krakow. However, as Schindler witnesses the unfolding horror of the Holocaust, his motivation changes and he bribes Nazi leaders to keep his employees out of the extermination camps, saving more than 1,100 lives. The winner of seven Oscars, Schindler's List does full justice to Thomas Keneally's source novel.

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