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Triumph of the Will (1935)

“Moviemakers have copied Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film so often you’d think it would lose potency. But Triumph remains scarily effective, climaxing with the Nuremberg Rally, captured from hundreds of angles, with its massed columns of storm troopers unblinking in their reverence for Adolf Hitler, the short, unimpressive leader being made to look godlike.”

Casablanca (1942)

“Even if you don’t know this movie, you know this movie: Bogie and Bergman steam up Rick’s Café Américain, drummer Dooley Wilson pretends to tickle ivories he couldn’t actually play, Peter Lorre snivels. Claude Rains rounds up the usual suspects. And Paul Henreid stands tall as a Czech Resistance leader in Vichy-controlled Morocco. Yes, it’s a romance, but the atmospherics clicked with audiences from the moment Warner rushed it into theaters on the heels of the Allied invasion of North Africa. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

“POWs march defiantly into a Japanese prison camp whistling the ‘Colonel Bogey March,’ then build one magnificent bridge—the best British engineering (and director David Lean’s crew) could manage. Alec Guinness plays their commanding officer, so intent on besting Japanese counterpart Sessue Hayakawa and preserving morale that he’s blind to the consequences of working for the enemy. The story is based on that of the Burma Railway, which a little more than a decade earlier had cost tens of thousands of laborers their lives. One of the screen’s great epics.”

The Longest Day (1962)

“Working docudrama-style in black and white, five directors and thousands of actors recreated D-Day. The Sixth Fleet assisted, and there were Allied and Axis military consultants behind the scenes and portrayed on screen by a stellar cast that seems to have included every able-bodied actor of the day, from John Wayne to Paul Anka.”

Das Boot (1981)

“German submarine crewmen listen to Allied sonar ping. Depth charges rattle the sub (and the theater audience). To attain two-plus hours of claustrophobic terror, director Wolfgang Petersen used models for nearly every exterior shot. Would you believe those depth charges that looked just-this-side-of-nuclear on screen were firecracker pops in real life? Das amazing.”

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

“Steven Spielberg’s depiction of Omaha Beach in the first 27 minutes is probably the most intensely realistic rendering of combat committed to celluloid.”

Beyond the War: Harold and Maude (1971)

“I share a birthdate with Bud Cort— Harold of Harold and Maude, and my psychic twin. You know how your mind fixes you at a certain age? Mine froze me circa 1971, as it did Cort. I didn’t see his name on screen again until 2000, in the credits for Pollock. I thought, Wha? And it hit me: The pudgy, bald art collector was Harold, grown old, while I…. Well, let’s say illusions die hard.”


Bob Mondello has reviewed more than 1,000 films for NPR’s All Things Considered. His broadcast essays have ranged from digital animation to Hollywood’s take on atomic weapons. His father served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Europe and in Korea.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.