Memorial Day is upon us once again, and we’re all asked to reflect and honor all of the fallen American soldiers that have died in wars. Outside of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in recent decades, my generation really doesn’t have much exposure to the World Wars, Korea or Vietnam – outside of the movies. But we all know World War II, which made me rank the best World War II Movies of all time.
In Hollywood, World War II movies reign supreme. I think it’s the combination of two theaters of war, with several landscapes ranging from French countryside, or Eastern European ghettos, Pacific islands or North African deserts. And there have been fewer villains in modern history able to match the evil and hatred built up for/against Adolf Hitler and his Nazi soldiers. WWII has its place as one of the world’s most influential wars, according to Norwich University, one which historians continue to study in order to learn from it so as to avoid repeating it.
Without question, the horrors of World War II have produced some of the greatest stories on film. Their entertainment value is unquestioned, but really, my generation has learned more about The Greatest Generation through these movies than anywhere else.
If I were doing a mock draft of movies, here are my favorite World War II films. I have a couple rules – there has to be some sort of combat (Casablanca was great, but too much piano, not enough German tanks). My other rule is the subtitles have to be few and far between (although a couple made it into Round 2). If I wanted to read about World War II, I’d look it up on the Interwebs.
Best World War II Movies of All Time: Mock Draft
1.01 Saving Private Ryan
The first 20 minutes are up there with the top 20 minutes in all of film, including “The Godfather” scene when Michael takes out the other dons, the chariot race in “Ben Hur,” and in “Mrs. Doubtfire” is running back and forth, changing costumes at dinner with his family and also trying to get a job with Mr. Lundy’s TV station. Think Dan Marino: Great right out of the gate.
1.02 The Great Escape
Steve McQueen was a notorious race fiend, and he reportedly forced them to add the motorcycle chase scene at the end. Knowing that the rest of it is based on a true story of a group of Allied prisoners of war trying to escape a Nazi camp makes this movie even more compelling. It’s like when Priest Holmes finally escaped Baltimore.
1.03 The Dirty Dozen
Think Ocean’s 11 with Nazis! If they did a remake of this nowadays (unthinkable!), they’d have a cast that included: Daniel Craig, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Wahlberg, Bruce Willis and Ravens LB Ray Lewis. The Dirty Dozen is one of those movies that you will stop what you’re doing to watch, no matter what. Mom’s heart surgery will have to go on the back burner. And those launch codes will still be there in 150 minutes. This group reminds me of the New Orleans Saints, ironically enough, because of their star-studded Fantasy talent.
1.04 Schindler’s List
Ralph Fiennes’ role as Amon Goeth, the leader of a Nazi concentration camp, ranks up there as one of the all-time meanest villains on film. Even Hitler would have cringed a couple times at this guy. My top-five film villains include: Goeth, Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life), Darth Vader, Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs), and Annie Wilkes (Misery).
1.05 Kelly’s Heroes
One of those rare war comedies? One of those rare Clint Eastwood comedies? It’s also one of those rare movies that tries to be in the World War era, yet it has a few hippies among the characters. Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savales and Carroll O’Connor headline this cast. And don’t forget a young Harry Dean Stanton, as well.
1.06 Inglourious Basterds
I’m still bitter that “The Hurt Locker” won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture in 2009 over Basterds. Is there a better fantastical ending to Hitler’s life than the fate he met in the theater? And Quentin Tarantino’s opening scene on the dairy farm in France was one of the best scenes he has ever filmed – and he couldn’t do it without the talents of Christolph Waltz. In that scene, he was able to flip back and forth through German, French and English languages without skipping a beat. It made the scene even that much more palpable.
1.07 The Big Red One
Strangely, this was huge when I was a teenager, and then it was forgotten for 20 years, and now it’s starting to get its due as a solid war film. Don’t discount it just because Mark Hamill was in it. It’s a great concept too, of a soldier from WW I, who makes a mistake, and is able to try to correct it as an officer in WW II. The best Big Red One in sports? Ozzie Smith.
1.08 Stalag 17
Sure, it’s the basis of Hogan’s Heroes, but let’s not mistake it as a farcical comedy, with buffoon Nazi guards. William Holden stars, and there are plenty of great actors surrounding him. Billy Wilder directed this film and was nominated for an Oscar, but he lost out to the director of From Here to Eternity in 1953.
Another Holden vehicle, this movie won seven Academy Awards in 1957 for what has been called a historically important film by critics. Gotta love some whistling, too! Obi Wan Kenobi is a pretty great actor as well. It’s one of those long movies that you’ll see once and want to see every 10 years.
1.10 The Longest Day
Probably the biggest “epic” portrayal of the invasion on Normandy, with 42 international stars in this ensemble, including: Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Peter Lawford, Richard Burton and Robert Wagner. Despite the huge cast, it’s actually one of the more educational flicks about D-Day.
1.11 Where Eagles Dare
A team of commandos have to rescue a captured American General from the Nazis in a fortress in the Swiss Alps. Plenty of great action sequences, Burton and Eastwood. Do not confuse this with the Sammy Hagar song, “Where Eagles Fly,” which is pretty awesome in its own right. This is the LeSean McCoy of Fantasy World War II movies.
1.12 Von Ryan’s Express
Frank Sinatra’s best movie? Not a big stretch to say that. But he was great in this film about a gritty American Colonel who leads American prisoners of war in an escape attempt on a train traveling across the Italian countryside.
2.01 Battle of the Bulge
2.02 The Train
2.03 Guns of Navarone
2.04 The Pianist
2.06 A Bridge Too Far
2.09 Das Boot
2.11 Mister Roberts
2.12 Flags of Our Fathers
In doing my research, I came across a few movies I hadn’t seen, but sound pretty good. They’re like Fantasy Sleepers that I’m excited seeing what they can do. Here’s my top 14 still-need-to-see movies:
- Mrs. Miniver
- The Thin Red Line
- Paths of Glory
- Empire of the Sun
- Inglorious Bastards
- Black Book
- Battle of Britain
- Paratroop Command
- The Great Raid
- In Harm’s Way
- Hell in the Pacific
- Cross of Iron
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David Gonos spent 5 years as a CBSSports.com Senior Fantasy Writer and three more years writing with SI.com. Over the past 17 years, his work has been published on NFL.com, MLB.com, FanDuel, FoxSports.com and USA Today. Since 2001, he has been tracking down the Top 50-plus Free Fantasy Football Draft Tools online. You can contact David Gonos here.