World on Fire and 12 more war movies and shows
“War, huh, yeah. What is it good for? Ahh…” Edwin Starr’s famous anti-war anthem obviously wasn’t talking about board games, comic books, documentaries, films, series and soundtracks. The act of war can rewrite history and devastate millions, but it’s also served as an inspiration for many entertainment spin-offs – leaving a deluge of meaningful and thoughtful pop culture in its wake.
Here are several war-inspired films and series now streaming that will take you into the middle of the action, adventure and human drama.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was unflinching in its visceral depiction of the D-Day landings. In a sensory overload, viewers were transported to the electrifying moment that landing craft hit the beaches under a hail of bullets. Taking it a step further is 1917, a simulated single-shot experience of World War I partially inspired by stories told to director Sam Mendes by his paternal grandfather, Alfred.
Known for American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall, Mendes is a seasoned director who seems to rise to any occasion. It certainly helps when you’re collaborating with cinematographer and Oscar regular Roger Deakins (Fargo). Together the filmmakers immerse us in a sweeping tale of courage, endurance and sacrifice as two young British lance corporals are randomly selected for a do-or-die mission. Ordered to go beyond enemy lines, the young men attempt to call off an attack and save 1 600 lives after telephone lines are cut.
A swirling, soaring and epic war adventure, 1917 is a must-see that sets the bar high – it won three Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Cinematography, Visual Effects and Sound Mixing on the back of 10 Oscar nominations.
IMDB rating: 8.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 89%
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are probably best known for their Oscar-winning collaboration in Saving Private Ryan. Band of Brothers represents one of several brilliant World War II co-productions between the duo in a bid to conquer the war genre across film and television.
Based on Stephen E Ambrose’s eponymous 1992 novel, the Emmy Award-winning series dramatises the journey of the “Easy” Company through World War II. From boot camp training to the end of World War II, we follow the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, based on Ambrose’s research with veterans.
Starring Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg, Colin Hanks, David Schwimmer and Damian Lewis (now famous for Billions), Band of Brothers is a solemn, gutsy and authentic representation of the airborne division and World War II. Monumental and visually striking, the ensemble effort echoes its title with a moving war theme and interviews with actual members of “Easy” Company to root it in history.
IMDB rating: 9.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 94%
If you want war underdogs, look no further than Child 44, a mystery thriller drama starring Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel, Joel Kinnaman and Jason Clarke. Loosely based on Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, this war mystery thriller adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s novel is directed by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) and produced by Ridley Scott (American Gangster).
Tracking with Leo Demidov (Hardy) and set in the Stalin era Soviet Union, the rise-and-fall story traces an orphan’s life as he becomes a national icon before an investigation leads him to be stripped of rank. Slowly gathering lost ground and self-respect, he stumbles upon more evidence to suggest a serial killer is at work in a country where this type of crime “doesn’t exist”.
An intriguing story backed by typically great work by Tom Hardy, Child 44 recalls Valkyrie, Citizen X and even The X-Files at times. Solid production values and an unforgiving USSR atmosphere power this weighty serial killer hunt followed through by an accomplished cast.
IMDB rating: 6.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 27%
My Father’s War examines the fractious relationship between a war veteran and his rebellious son. Following David’s life-altering involvement in the undeclared Angolan Bush War, we journey with his son Dap, who tries to make sense of personal issues stemming from their disconnected relationship. This intimate Afrikaans-English war drama stars Edwin van der Walt, Stian Bam and Erica Wessels, three of South Africa’s finest acting talents. Focusing on this tight unit, the Smit household’s dysfunction plays out in Dap’s dreams as he imagines being at war with his father.
Putting himself in his father’s shoes, the rebellious, angst-fuelled youth begins to empathise with David’s post-traumatic stress disorder. Grappling with anxiety, depression, distress and frustration, the earnest drama comes to focus on universal themes relating to forgiveness. An accurate representation of the Bush War in Angola, Dap’s dreams serve as war flashbacks, escalating the human drama from intimate to epic as SADF choppers and trucks enter the fray.
IMDB rating: 7.8/10
The Man with the Iron Heart is an intense and brutal biographical war drama thriller directed by Cedric Jimenez. Based on Reinhard Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid in the 1940s, the authentic and beautifully composed war film unpacks the evil and twisted character, building to the infamous assassination plot.
The stellar cast of Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Jack Reynor, Jack O’Connell and Mia Wasikowska offer convincing performances to help audiences experience the life and times. Sparing no expense in terms of production values, Jimenez immerses us in the sights and sounds of World War II. From impressive visuals to a soaring soundtrack, The Man with the Iron Heart is transportive cinema relaying a critical turning point in the resistance, backed by a solid ensemble.
Sprawling and epic,The Man with the Iron Heart is also harrowing and disturbing, counterbalanced by the fascinating true story of Heydrich in all its Nazi pomp and pageantry. The result is an admirable, compelling, detestable and immersive film of raw visceral power and cutthroat apathy.
IMDB rating: 6.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 67%
Saving Private Ryan (Netflix)
The first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan have been said to overwhelm the war veterans who probably never thought they’d have to live through D-Day again. Aiming for a bullet-riddled full immersion, Steven Spielberg has crafted a visceral masterpiece in translating the devastation and sensory overload of the Normandy landings. Every detail was painstakingly recreated – with rounds famously having been fired from authentic World War II weapons into pig carcasses – to bring the iconic beach invasion to life.
Based on the story of a daunting mission to bring young Private Ryan home alive after his three older brothers are killed in action, the film follows a platoon of soldiers under the command of Captain John Miller. Starring Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), this Oscar-winning and epic war adventure drama gives audiences an authentic taste of World War II. Starting with fury, it finds its rhythm, managing to entertain as a war actioner without losing its anti-war sentiment. From rigorous boot camps for the actors to its amazingly realistic war experience, it’s one of the finest war movies of all-time.
IMDB rating: 8.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 93%
World War II in Colour (Netflix)
We’re so used to seeing World War footage in black and white and everything else in colour that it almost seems unreal. Now in an age where deep fake technology can literally swap faces, it’s good to know that visual technology is also being used to revive important historical footage. This is the case with World War II in Colour, a documentary series that does what the box says by bringing the past to life in vivid colour.
Accentuating the realism of the staggering historical events brings them into clearer focus from a visual point of view. Yet, this spectacular World War II series is also loaded with dense all-encompassing information. Using classic voice-over narration to guide the history and moving pictures, it fills in many blanks even if you took history as a school subject. Going to great lengths to make the footage more relevant, it goes to even greater depths to contextualise turning points.
Instead of seeing history as black and white, World War II in Colour tackles the slow and steady build of Hitler’s Third Reich and the international turmoil that created the fertile ground for Germany’s threat to democracy and life as we know it.
IMDB rating: 8.7/10
Operation Overlord was a real airborne mission during World War II, which serves as the title for the comic book style war horror thriller of the same name. Essentially an Inglourious Basterds and The Evil Dead mash-up, this is a pulpy, fun and intense actioner that goes from intimate behind-enemy-lines peril to underground-Nazi-laboratory mayhem.
Directed by Julius Avery, produced by JJ Abrams and featuring a mostly unknown cast, nothing’s done in half-measure as a small band of American soldiers discover on the eve of D-Day. Fans of the video game Wolfenstein will feel right at home in this claustrophobic Nazi gore fest. Starting with a dangerous airdrop, things fall apart as paratroopers try to find solace in a small French village on their mission to destroy an important communication tower.
Destined to be a cult classic, the B-movie force is strong in Overlord, which goes on a horror rampage in an attempt to entertain and raise dopamine levels simultaneously. It’s definitely not for everyone but will be a cannon blast of fun if you can handle intense action, ruthless Nazis and bucket-helmets of gore.
IMDB rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 81%
The Train of Salt and Sugar is a war adventure thriller directed by Licínio Azevedo. Submitted as Mozambique’s official Best Foreign Language Film, the Oscar hopeful wasn’t ultimately nominated. That said, it carries an award-worthy payload thanks to its rich dramatic themes, powerful performances and timely African narrative.
On the surface, The Train of Salt and Sugar journeys with passengers who are escorted by soldiers on a dangerous cross-country trip covering 500 miles to trade salt for the precious commodity of sugar. Commissioned to protect those on-board from rebel armies and railway sabotage, soldiers abuse their position of power under the laissez-faire command of the enigmatic Seven Ways.
Grappling with gender relations, soldier-civilian dynamics and brutal terrorist encounters, it plays like a western, powered by a transcendent performance from António Nipita and an intimidating turn from pillager-in-waiting, Thiago Justino. An edgy tale of a war-ravaged railway and countryside, it has glimmers of Apocalypse Now and Titanic against an unforgiving African landscape.
IMDB rating: 6.5/10
The Angolan Bush War was South Africa’s Vietnam. Resulting in some of the largest battles on the African continent since World War II, it inspired a number of books and films in an attempt to come to terms with the 24-year conflict. Playing into the same restless spirit of Full Metal Jacket comes Moffie, a film by Oliver Hermanus (Endless River) starring Kai Luke Brummer.
The SADF is known for its rigid, tough and even brutal barracks and boot camp training regime. With all young South African men forced to serve compulsory military service for two years, independent spirits were quashed in a drive to prepare them for war and turn cadets into soldiers. Much like Kanarie, Moffie examines the trials of a gay conscript who tries to keep his homosexuality a secret.
A poetic yet brutal coming-of-age war drama, Hermanus swathes us in beautiful visuals – a stark contrast with the racist, homophobic and ugly atmosphere. It’s a powerful film, immersing itself in the South Africa of 1981 and relaying the harrowing experience of surviving boot camp only to grapple with the senselessness of war.
IMDB rating: 6.9/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 91%
World War II wasn’t just about soldiers, tanks, evil pageantry, oversized maps and mahogany war rooms. These iconic elements tend to demand greater focus as witnessed in pop culture based on the conflict since 1945, but what about the rest of us? World on Fire hinges on the refreshing perspective of how ordinary people are affected by the war across Britain, Poland, France, Germany and the United States.
Peter Bowker wields the human drama of this far-reaching ensemble series without flinching. Sidestepping the propensity to have everything in English, he goes for a more authentic feel by casting Polish actors and home languages. While handsomely mounted, World on Fire is a work of fiction, crafting compelling love and war stories that are geared for dramatic effect.
Featuring the likes of Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) and Helen Hunt, it boasts a broad and talented cast. Lavish production values and engaging stories make for a bold and intimate take on a typically big picture event-based retelling of the age.
IMDB rating: 7.3/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 84%
There are few survival stories as inspiring or extraordinary as that of Louis Zamperini. The 5 000-metre distance runner represented the United States at the 1936 Berlin Olympics before risking his life for his nation during World War II. After a near-fatal plane crash in the Pacific, Zamperini and two crewmen survived 47 days on a raft at sea before being captured and incarcerated at an infernal Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
Angelina Jolie is best known for her roles as Tomb Raider and Maleficent but is steadily making a name for herself as a filmmaker after directing The Land of Milk and Honey, Unbroken and By the Sea. Taking on a script by the Coen brothers, she takes charge in this gritty coming-of-age survival drama, starring Jack O’Connell, Domnhall Gleeson and Garrett Hedlund.
Based on a remarkable true story, Unbroken brings Zamperini’s amazing life story into focus. A triumph of the human spirit, Unbroken shows the courage and resilience of a young man who’s conviction and faith pulled him through the darkest of days.
IMDB rating: 7.2/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 51%
Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren are two of the most celebrated and respected actors of our time. Their long-awaited match up alone is enough to compel this cat-and-mouse thriller about a consummate con man who targets a recently widowed woman worth millions. Having played a Nazi war criminal in hiding in Apt Pupil, McKellen fulfills a brilliant casting decision, which cleverly ties in with World War II.
Re-teaming with Bill Condon after Gods and Monsters and Mr Holmes, the old pro makes switching from trickster to old man with a gammy leg seem effortless. As McKellen spars with Mirren, who slowly turns up the heat, this entertaining potboiler leverages its star power through its many twists and turns. The Good Liar knows where its strengths lie with a refreshing and well-matched pairing. A fine production with a curious proposition makes for classy and high-value entertainment.
Playing like an enjoyable paperback novel, The Good Liar’s the sort of page-turning escapism that stays one step ahead to remain elusive. McKellen and Mirren deliver as promised, showing their class, spurred on by a compelling story and veritable chess game between two masters.
IMDB rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 63%