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4 Movies That Got World War II Right, According to a Historian

6 minute read

With the 75th anniversary of end of World War II approaching — May 8 marks V-E Day, the end of the war in Europe, and Aug. 15 marks V-J Day, for the Japanese surrender — a cycle of remembering that era-shaping conflict will also come to an end.

But the war’s presence in everyday life won’t disappear when the anniversary passes, thanks in part to its large impact not only on world events, but also on popular culture — including cinema. World War II was depicted on screen while it was still being fought, and continues to inspire Hollywood to this day. But not every movie does an equally good job of capturing what that period was really like.

Here are four films that accurately depict life during and after the war, according to Rob Citino, Senior Historian at the National World War II Museum. Citino has talked about World War II films on Turner Classic Movies and the Service on Celluloid podcast, and weighed in on the most accurate films about D-Day for the 75th anniversary last summer. Here are his choices for the top movies that accurately reflect the impact and experience of World War II, for the troops as well as those on the home front.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the selected films

Casablanca (1942)

World War II was fought for intensely moral reasons. Hitler and the Japanese militarists had to be stopped, and this movie is about the need to be clear about your moral purpose. Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, is running an American café in Casablanca, and his famous line, he says it several times, is “I stick my head out for nobody.” At the end of that movie, Humphrey Bogart sticks out his neck for Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the resistance figure who has to be smuggled out one step ahead of the Nazis to lead the worldwide struggle against fascism. It’s an inspiring movie for that. It expresses a high truth about World War II, that this was a moral conflict, that you had to be sure you were on the side of the right guys, and in this case, the right side happened to be on the side of the Allies.

The movie also shows Americans as they like to see themselves, in the character of Rick. We don’t pick a fight with anyone unless when we see someone being picked on, and then we step in. That’s been extremely important to American memory of the war.

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The More the Merrier (1943)

Scene from The More the Merrier
Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), and Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) sunbathe and socialize on the roof of their apartment house, in the 1943 film The More the Merrier.John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis—Getty Images

Directed by George Stevens and starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, it’s a trenchant look at the American home front during World War II. It’s about the great internal migration at the time: Of the 135 million people in the country, 24 million moved from their place of residence to work on war industries to help advance the war effort. This story is about people coming to the Washington D.C. area to work in these new offices and bureaucracies that were opening up to run the war. There’s a housing shortage, so Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea are in the same apartment actually. One of the characters mentions there are eight women to every man in this town. The freer sexual mores is a common theme of war films. You see it in a lot of U.S. films made during the war, and this is one of them. The war is in the background, but, by and large, this is a movie about human relationships and social change during war. It’s also hilarious.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

It’s about three servicemen who come home from the war and try to pick up their lives where they left off. One is an older guy, played by Fredric March, who has a family and goes back to his job at the bank. A younger guy, played by Dana Andrews, was a hero in the Air Force and is back to being a soda jerk. A lot of guys were able to stay home and advance, but he’s been gone.

But the reason this movie works is because of the third: a sailor, played by Harold Russell. He was not a professional actor; he was a serviceman in the war who had both hands blown off in a training accident. He has prosthetic hooks, and watching him dress, watching him drink a cup of coffee, watching him try not to notice the stares of the people on the street — it’s devastating.

To me it’s maybe the best film made about World War II because it’s about what happens after those 16 million men and women came back home. Some of them bore psychic scars and others bore physical scars, like Harold Russell.

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Stalag 17 (1953)

This one is about the “forgotten front”; there are very few movies made about POWs. (The Bridge on the River Kwai is one.) Directed by Billy Wilder, Stalag 17 is about men in captivity and how you go kind of stir-crazy. You try to remember why you’re in this war in the first place, but it gets increasingly difficult. You have a lot of time on your hands and some of the things that happen in the barracks are really hilarious. There’s a rat race between [actual] rats named Equipoise and Schnickelfritz, and the prisoners put bets on their favorite rats. The prisoners try to have a Christmas dance in which the men dance with one another. There is also a spy among them.

But William Holden, who plays J.J. Sefton, is the star. He’s maybe the first great American anti-hero. He doesn’t spout patriotic slogans. He doesn’t salute the flag. He runs a little trinkets shop and barters with the Germans because it makes his life more comfortable, and he sells to his fellow prisoners in the barracks. When the plot of “who is the spy inside the barracks?” is slowly uncovered, then you see William Holden step up.

One thing you hear from a lot of veterans is the guy who talked the most about his wartime service and how brave he was is the often the man who did the least. So here’s William Holden who is not claiming to be a hero; he just wants to survive this. When a job needs to be done, Holden is the one who does it, and he is one of the most unforgettable characters in American cinema.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com