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Great flicks of the Good War

Published August 26, 2005

Hollywood was a devoted ally in the World War II effort, from war bond tours and USO shows to the flag-waving propaganda created by filmmaking veterans such as John Ford and Darryl F. Zanuck.

What Hollywood does best, of course, is make movies to entertain audiences. Films were a link to loved ones in the 1940s, a reminder of America's greatness in the 1950s, and an allegory of wartime folly and tragedy in the post-Vietnam era.

Time to do my part to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Here's a list, in no particular order, of essential World War II-related films that are directly linked to combat (otherwise, Schindler's List would be here) and, in one case, U.S. Army veterans coming home. We salute them all.


Patton (1970) - For my money, the greatest World War II movie ever, with its balanced politics - hawks and doves both admired it at the height of the Vietnam War - and a monumental performance by George C. Scott as Gen. George S. Patton.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) - The opening D-Day sequence is a masterpiece of horror and historical detail. Then director Steven Spielberg sends a platoon on a possibly futile mission to rescue the sole surviving son of a Midwest mother.

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) - War correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) chronicles the boys of Company C, an Army unit assigned to North Africa. Robert Mitchum earned his only Oscar nomination as a conscientious commander.

Twelve O'Clock High (1949) - Gregory Peck toughens up a bomber squadron for duty over Germany. Dean Jagger won a best supporting actor Oscar as the new general's ally, an aging desk jockey whose battle intuitions are still intact.

The Longest Day (1962) - The best of the big-budget, all-star war epics, tracing the D-Day invasion under the leadership of four directors, five screenwriters, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum. German forces never had a chance.

The Big Red One (1980) - Cigar-chomping Samuel Fuller directs his account of D-Day with understated violence and a "war is hell" agenda. Lee Marvin plays a World War I vet assigned to a 1st Infantry rifle squad advancing from Africa to Omaha Beach to the heart of Germany.

Battle of the Bulge (1965) - Adolf Hitler's desperate 1944 attempt to forestall Allied forces and urge a treaty became the costliest World War II confrontation for both sides. The tank assault surprises Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw and Robert Ryan, who regroup their forces to wear down German fighters.

A Bridge Too Far (1977) - Allied forces try and fail to capture vital German bridges, blocking the Rhine from enemy vessels. The sterling cast includes Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Laurence Olivier, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Anthony Hopkins.

To Hell and Back (1955) - It sounds like a publicity stunt, hiring Audie Murphy - recipient of more than two dozen WWII medals, including the Medal of Honor - to play himself in a movie. But Murphy had 14 films to his credit by then, and wasn't bad.

A Walk in the Sun (1945) - Dana Andrews and Richard Conte lead a platoon into Nazi-occupied Italy in 1943 to capture a fortified farmhouse. Spielberg claimed this underseen film was an inspiration for Saving Private Ryan.


They Were Expendable (1945) - Director John Ford's wartime experiences inspire a tribute to U.S. Navy PT boat defenders of the Philippines.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) - The quintessential Pacific theater drama, starring John Wayne as a U.S. Marine father figure to green recruits during a pivotal battle.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) - Spencer Tracy plays Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, commander of a daring bomber raid over Japan that gave Americans hope about the Pacific combat zone.

PT 109 (1963) - Based on the U.S. Navy career of John F. Kennedy. Cliff Robertson plays the future president as captain of a boat sunk by a Japanese destroyer. The resulting story of survival and heroism became political legend.

Guadalcanal Diary (1943) - Another key victory in the Pacific, this time on the ground. Like many war films of the era, this was rushed into production only weeks after the 1942 battle.

Bataan (1943) - Ditto for this U.S. Army classic, which also featured a racially integrated platoon that was uncommon in real life.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) - Moby Dick on a submarine. Clark Gable is a commander obsessed with sinking a particular Japanese ship, while Burt Lancaster questions the mission's necessity.

The Thin Red Line (1998) - Certainly the most poetic of any film on this list, often at the expense of pacing and action. But Terrence Malick's all-star adaptation of James Jones' Guadalcanal novel has its admirers.

Flying Leathernecks (1951) - Another Guadalcanal drama, this time with John Wayne and Robert Ryan clashing about training and strategy for a Wildcats squadron attack.


From Here to Eternity (1953) - Passion and rivalry on an Army base in Hawaii, interrupted on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor is bombed. Winner of eight Academy Awards, including best picture.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - Not a battlefield in sight, but a moving account of physically and emotionally scarred World War II veterans returning home. Another best picture Oscar winner, along with six other prizes.


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - Allied troops are held as POWs, with Alec Guinness and William Holden in charge. Sessue Hayakawa's Oscar-nominated performance as the camp commander was one of the first exploring the enemy's mindset with a measure of respect.

Das Boot (1981) - Wolfgang Petersen's classic portrait of life and death aboard a German U-boat submarine trapped underwater.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) - Events leading to the Pearl Harbor attack are painstakingly dramatized from U.S. and Japanese perspectives.

Hell in the Pacific (1968) - A downed U.S. pilot (Lee Marvin) swims to an island where the only occupant is a Japanese officer (Toshiro Mifune). Conflict becomes cooperation, and a subtle antiwar message.

Cross of Iron (1977) - Sam Peckinpah's World War II take on All Quiet on the Western Front, with James Coburn as a German soldier leading troops on a reckless mission ordered by a vain commanding officer (Maximilian Schell).


Until the Vietnam War unceremoniously ended, Hollywood was comfortable using combat as a standard action movie engine. These four adventures set during World War II are worth their popcorn any day:

The Dirty Dozen (1967) - Perhaps the all-time "guy movie," with Lee Marvin training a platoon of court-martialed murderers to assassinate German officers.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) - Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton scale a perilous mountain to rescue a U.S. general from German captors.

The Great Escape (1963) - Allied POWs get a lesson in cool from Steve McQueen, plus a few tips on motorcycle stunts.

Kelly's Heroes (1970) - Eastwood again, flanked by his own, comical dirty dozen, stealing gold bullion hidden by the enemy.

Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or His blog is

[Last modified August 25, 2005, 14:17:03]

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