Five WWII Movies to See Before 'Dunkirk'

One movie can only capture so much.

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is drawing raves for telling the true tale of a history-changing rescue at the French port circa 1940. Had German forces wiped out the thousands of those trapped Allied troops the tide of war may have changed.


“Dunkirk” is but one chapter from World War II, an epic fight richly realized on movie screens for generations. Nolan’s film goes to great lengths to reflect war in all its ugliness. At times, it succeeds. It still can’t fill in all the gaps.

The following five films help do just that. Consider rewatching them before ponying up to see Nolan’s latest epic.

“Saving Private Ryan”

What’s left to say about Steven Spielberg’s war epic? The Omaha Beach sequence that opens the film nails the carnage of war better than any film in screen history. From there we learn about a more personal story, one filled with sacrifice, duty and honor.

Tom Hanks may have won Oscars for “Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia.” His turn in “Saving Private Ryan” as Capt. John H. Miller remains his finest big screen hour.


You can’t win wars without clear-thinking generals. George C. Scott brought U.S. General George S. Patton to life in this 1970 film. Giving Scott the Best Actor award hardly seemed enough. He became Patton before our eyes, translating the leader’s vision, his passion and his excess for generations of film audiences.


Think military strategy and you’ll likely recall an image of Scott barking orders and getting the job done.

“Schindler’s List”

The Holocaust continues to inspire and horrify filmmakers. Spielberg focused on an unlikely hero in his Oscar-winning feature. Oskar Schindler saved more than a thousand lives through his courage and ingenuity. It’s a tale tailor-made for the big screen, yet it’s how the director frames those nightmarish images that made the movie so remarkable.

“Letters from Iwo Jima”

One of Hollywood’s most patriotic souls told a very different World War II saga back in 2006. Clint Eastwood dropped two movies that year. The first, “Flags of Our Fathers,” told a more traditional WWII story centered on the Battle of Iwo Jima. “Letters from Iwo Jima” viewed the same fight but from the Japanese perspective.

This wasn’t moral equivalency theater, though. Eastwood’s canvas proved more expansive and thoughtful than that. Watching the film offers audiences a fresh way to view combat and its casualties.


“Twelve O’Clock High”

It’s impossible to reflect WWII without the air power that weighed so heavily on the outcome. This 1949 film stars Gregory Peck as Brigadier General Frank Savage, a warrior whose disciplinary tactics alienate his fellow pilots. The general’s methods get results, saves lives and have a devastating impact on the Nazi war machine.

The Peck film doesn’t sugarcoat the men who helped win the war. They’re blunt, bold and sometimes cruel to those around them. Their heroism is equally on display.


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