The poster for Hells Angels, a a World |War I film from 1930.

The Best Films, Shows, and Books About World War I and World War II

On November 11, countries around the world pause to remember the fallen soldiers of World War I and World War II. In many countries, soldiers from other conflicts are also remembered on this day. For example, in Canada, men and women who continue to serve in the armed forces are remembered. The red poppy flower is the symbol of Remembrance Day in many countries. The poppy’s origins come from a poem written by a Canadian soldier named John McCrae in World War I. He titled his peon In Flanders Fields.The poem refers to a poppy field growing over the graves of dead soldiers in the Flanders region of Belgium. The poem is traditionally read during Remembrance Day ceremonies, particularly in Canada and the United Kingdom.

World War I and World War II were massive global conflicts that had huge historical ramifications. Therefore, countless books, films, and shows have been made on both conflicts. This article will discuss some of the best World War I and II books, shows, and films of all time. These examples do not glorify or romanticize the conflict in any way. In fact, they are sobering accounts of the true horrors of war. We’ll start off with books.

Literature

World War I and II are popular subjects for books. While there have been fiction novels written about the World Wars, like Robert Hariss’ Fatherland, this list will focus on non-fiction World War I and II books.

The Guns of August: Barbara W. Tuchman

The cover for the Guns Of August. A man in a suit inspects rows of troops.
Source: The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman, Paperback | Barnes & Noble® (barnesandnoble.com)

World War I was the first major global conflict in history. Millions of young men from around the world joined the army and fought on battlegrounds in Belgium, France, Russia, and the Arabian peninsula.

In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman explores the events leading up to the conflict, as well as the first month of the war. The book is divided into separate sections. The opening half of the book focuses on the motives and preparations for war. The reader learns that several countries had plans in place in the event war broke out. Next, Tuchman details the inciting event for World War I, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the global response to that event. Tuchman follows this section with an account of several European countries preparing for war. The rest of the book is devoted to the first battles on the Western Front, the Eastern Front, and at sea.

A running theme throughout The Guns Of August is the sheer incompetence and arrogance of the world leaders and their generals. Tuchman describes how several leaders believed their country had the economic power to wage war. They also believed in a quick war, one that would only last several months. Many nations underestimated the advance in military technology. Therefore, many did not update their military strategy/training. This failure caused millions of deaths. Lastly, many leaders blindly believed in their military superiority. As a result, many generals sent their troops headfirst into battle without considering the consequences.

Final Thoughts

Tuchman’s book is extremely detailed. You can tell that Tuchman spent endless hours researching the subject. However, the amount of detail in the book may turn away some readers. The book has so much detail that at times it can be a dull read. However, The Guns Of August is the definitive book on World War I. Tuchman expertly explains the root causes of World War I as well as the opening month of the conflict.

The Second World War: Antony Beevor

The book cover for Anotny Beevor's The Second World War/
Source: The Second World War by Antony Beevor (goodreads.com)

British historian Antony Beevor has written many books on World War II battles. However, The Second World War covers the entire conflict, from the invasion of Poland in 1939 to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Beevor manages to explore all of the campaigns in World War II. For example, Beevor examines the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, which some argue was the start of World War II. Most World War II books briefly mention this conflict, but Beevor explores it in detail.

What makes The Second World War excellent is Beevor’s writing style. Instead of drily listing facts, Beevor describes the human side of the war. We experience World War II through the eyes of the common soldier or civilian. This approach makes the book an informative and engaging read.

Television

There have not been many fictional television shows about World War I or World War II. Most of the shows about the conflicts are television documentaries. While some of them are cheaply made, others are high-quality productions. The following list will feature both documentaries and fictional television shows.

Apocalypse: World War One

The poster for Apocalypse: World War I/ Two soldiers with gas masks fire a mahxine gun.
Source: DVD Film – Køb Billige DVD Film Online På Nettet Her (gucca.dk)

This documentary is a French production that covers the entirety of World War I. The documentary is split into 5 different episodes, each running close to one hour. While only an hour cannot adequately cover the conflict, Apocalypse: World War One remains an engaging and sobering documentary.

First, the documentary takes a personal approach to its subject. We view the war from the personal accounts of soldiers and civilians. This establishes a connection between the viewer and those who lived, died, or survived the war. Second, the documentary uses stunning historical footage. The restored footage breaths life into the subject matter. It is almost like taking a time machine into the era. The footage also reveals the true horrors of the war. We see the suffering soldiers on every side. Last, the narration adds to the horror and tragedy of the conflict. The narrator does not try to glorify the war. In fact, the narrator simply describes the gruesome nature of the war.

Apocalypse: World War One is a documentary on one of the most devastating conflicts in human history. If your looking for a documentary that covers the entire war in an engaging way, then it is the one for you.

Band Of Brothers

The title screen for Band Of Brothers. Several soldiers are lined up on a hill, their features hidden by sadows.
Source:Band Of Brothers Wallpapers – Wallpaper Cave

Band Of Brothers debuted on HBO in 2001. The miniseries covers Easy Company, Second Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the famed 101st Airborne Division. Easy Company fought in some of the most significant battles of World War II, including the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of Bastogne. The series follows the company’s beginning during basic training. We then witness the various battles they fought in. Band Of Brothers ends as Easy Company enters a defeated Nazi Germany. The central character of the series is Richard Winters, who begins as the company officer and rises to the rank of major. Winters is portrayed as a brave leader who cares about his men’s safety. The series also has a large ensemble cast, with each episode focusing on one character.

What makes Band Of Brothers so special is the connection it establishes between the viewer and the characters. As you watch the series, you get emotionally attached to the characters. You laugh along with them in lighter moments. And you feel their pain when one of their comrades is wounded or killed. The battle scenes are also realistic. You can tell the cast spent months undergoing military training.

Band of Brothers set the benchmark for World War II shows. Its highly realistic combat scenes, coupled with the outstanding performances by the cast make this show special. As stated by the review site Rotten Tomatos, “Band of Brothers offers a visceral, intense look at the horrors of war – and the sacrifices of millions of ordinary people who served.”

Film

Now we come to film. Both World Wars have been popular topics in the film industry. Even during both wars, several countries produced propaganda films that celebrated their military mites. Other films celebrated war, making it look like a grand adventure. However, the films on this list expose the true brutal nature of war.

Paths of Glory

Kirk Douglas in a scene in Paths of Glory. Douglas is standing in a trench with several other soldiers.
Source: Paths of Glory (1957) | The Criterion Collection

This film by Stanley Kubrick is set on the western front during World War I. Kirk Douglas stars as French officer Colonel Dax, who is tasked with leading his troops on a suicidal attack against a well defended German position. During the attack, Dax orders his men to retreat. Dax’s superiors become furious at his order and demand scapegoats for the attack’s failure. Eventually, three men are selected and tired for cowardice. The sentence is death by firing squad. Dax comes to his men’s defense, citing their bravery in combat. However, he is unable to save them. The men are all shot.

Kubrick’s film reveals the ego and incompetence of military leaders. The film shows that, often times, military leaders do not understand the realities of war. They are so far removed from the front lines that they have no sense of the true situation. Paths Of Glory is a tragic film that exposes the futility of war.

All Quite On The Western Front

The poster for All Quiet On The Western Front.
Source: 1001 Classic Movies: All Quiet on the Western Front (oldhollywoodfilms.com)

Released in 1930, All Quiet On The Western Front explores the German experience during World War I. The film stars Louis Wolheim as Paul Bäumer, a young German who enlists in the army with his classmates. Each has idealized beliefs about war. Many see it as an adventure where one can become a hero. However, the boys soon learn the realities of war. One by one, Paul’s classmates die or are wounded. Paul’s company endure the hardships of trench warfare, including deadly attacks on enemy trenches. Paul soon becomes bitter and disillusioned with the heroic war propaganda. When he goes home on leave, he struggles to adapt to civilian life. The only place he feels comfortable is in the trenches, suffering and dying with his fellow soldiers.

All Quiet On The Western Front stands out from the other war films of the era. While most portrayed war as fun and a noble event, this film showed war in all its horror. It realistically depicts the futileness of trench warfare, where soldiers hurled themselves at the enemy’s machine guns during bloody attacks. The film also depicts the disillusionment many soldiers experienced after they came home from war. All Quite On The Western Front is one of the best films of all time. It also remains one of the most striking anti-war pieces ever created.

Das Boot

Let Werner, the Captain, and the Chief Engineer in Das Boot.
Source: Das Boot (1981) | HD Windows Wallpapers (winwallpapers.net)

This film follows a German submarine (U-Boat) crew on a mission during World War II. The crew are tasked with patrolling the Atlantic ocean for enemy merchant ships carrying war equipment. If they find any enemy ships, they’re ordered to destroy them. Joining the crew on their mission is war correspondent Lt. Werner. Werner is totally unprepared for life on a U-Boat. The men live in dirty, damp, and cramped conditions. They are unable to wash themselves for weeks on end. The crew spend long, boring hours searching for enemy ship convoys. This fruitless search sometimes stretches for days or weeks on end. Once the U-Boat encounters enemy warships, the men endure the horrifying experience of submerging underwater while the ship drops explosive depth charges on them. The crew also feel the exhilarating rush once they torpedo and sink an enemy ship.

Characters

Like many war films, Das Boot has an ensemble cast. The most important character in the film is the Captain. He is a 30 year old veteran who openly expresses his bitterness and hatred towards the Nazis and the war. His second in command, the Chief Engineer, is a loyal and capable crewmember. However, he worries about his wife, especially after learning about an air raid on the city she lives in. Lastly, the first Watch Officer is a young, by the books crew member who is fearsely devoted to the Nazi party. This slowly changes as he experiences the hardships of submarine warfare.

Das Boot excels at depicting the claustrophobic life of submarine warfare. The entire cast give excellent performances. And the combat scenes are tense and exciting. You’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat whenever a warship attacks the U-Boat. Das Boot is an exciting and exceptional war film from the German perspective.

Saving Private Ryan

Tom Hanks as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan.
Source: Saving Private Ryan Wallpapers – Wallpaper Cave

Directed by Stephen Spielberg, this epic war film follows a squad of U.S. soldiers tasked with rescuing a single soldier after all his brothers are killed in combat. The film is set during the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, which is commonly known as D-Day. Tom Hanks stars as U.S. Army Rangers Captain John Miller, the leader of his squad. Matt Damon also stars as the titular Private John Ryan. Lastly, Tom Sizemore stars as the squad Sergeant Mike Horvath.

Saving Private Ryan is famous for its opening sequence. The scene takes place during the initial landings of D-Day on June 6. Miller and his men land on the zone codenamed Omaha Beach. Unfortunately, this zone was heavily defended by the German forces. The Germans had several concrete bunkers and machine gun nests. As soon as the U.S. soldiers stepped off their landing craft, they were cut mercilessly down by enemy machine gun fire. Others lost limbs from enemy artillery. Eventually, the Americans pushed through the German defenses and secured the beachhead. However, it came at a terrible loss.

A Realistic and Gripping Film.

Outside of the opening scene, Saving Private Ryan includes many spectacular combat scenes. A notable example is the final battle scene where Miller and his squad assist Private Ryan and his platoon to defend a small French town from a German attack.

Spielberg’s film does not glamorize war in any way. In fact, the film accurately shows what war is like. Death can be sudden, while other times it is painful and slow. Limbs are blown off, and some soldiers lie bleeding on the ground, crying out for their mother. All of this is included in Saving Private Ryan. This realism has been praised by several World War II veterans who participated in the D-Day invasion. Several were moved to tears when they first saw the film.

Saving Private Ryan is an action-packed and emotional film. Its realism and powerful story make it one of the best war films ever made.

Conclusion

Poppies on a war memorial
Source: Remembrance Day ceremonies across the Lower Mainland – CityNews Vancouver

World War I and II were two of the most devastating human events in history. Millions of men either died or were maimed for life. As a result, several books, television shows, and films have been made about both wars. There are countless non-fiction World War I and II books to choose from. Some focus on particular events or battles, while others provide a broad overview of each conflict. Some films and TV shows are guilty of glamorizing each war, portraying it as a heroic event. However, the shows and films on this list depict the true nature of war. War is a harrowing experience where millions pointlessly die.

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