WW2 films based on real-life events from The Great Escape to Dambusters

Photo of a projector and a World War Two image of a flugzeugträger bombing

There have been hundreds of films made about the Second World War since the conflict ended right up to today. Many are fictional stories that take place in the World War Two ‘universe’, as it were, but there are several that are directly based on - or take heavy inspiration from real-life events such as the D-Day landings, the Battle of Stalingrad and the cracking of the Enigma code. Here we take a look at some of the best 'based-on-real-events' World War Two films of all time.

The Great Escape

Based on the 1950 book The Great Escape by Stalag Luft III prisoner Paul Brickhill, director John Sturges had been trying to get the story of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III POW Camp made for thirteen years. He finally got his chance after the huge success of his 1960 film, The Magnificent Seven. The escape was undertaken by British and Commonwealth airmen, but to appeal to domestic audiences and ensure box office success, Sturges needed to scatter the film with a few Hollywood heavy hitters. Thus, the camp in the film became home not only to British and Commonwealth airmen but also to several American flyboys.

Sturges assembled a stellar cast to play the prisoners including Steve McQueen as ‘Cooler King’ Virgil Hilts, James Garner as Bob ‘The Scrounger’ Hendley, Donald Pleasance as Colin ‘The Forger’ Blythe and James Coburn as Sedgwick ‘The Manufacturer’. The film was made at the Bavaria Film Studio in Munich, with the infamous motorbike chase filmed in meadows outside the town of Füssen. For insurance reasons, Steve McQueen wasn’t allowed to film the iconic motorbike jump. That honour fell to stuntman Bud Ekins.

The film tells the story of the ‘Great Escape’ that took place in 1944, with most characters fictionalised versions of the men who took part in the escape in real life. Sick of the troublesome activities of serial escapees, the Nazis decide to round up the worst offenders and intern them in their own camp – Stalag Luft III, located 100 miles southeast of Berlin. With added security in place, it’s hoped that this beefed-up camp will finally put an end to the prisoners’ escape attempts. Of course, anyone who’s seen this Bank Holiday favourite knows the exact opposite happens as ‘Big X’ (Richard Attenborough) puts together an ambitious plan to build three tunnels called Tom, Dick and Harry and get 200 prisoners out in the space of one night. After digging the tunnels and ingenuously disposing of the mountains of soil disturbed, 76 prisoners successfully escape dressed in civilian clothing before the escape is discovered and shut down. The ending reflects the grim reality of what happened to fifty of the escapees in reality – due to their lack of uniforms upon recapture, they were treated as spies and murdered by the Gestapo. So as not to not end his film on a total downer, Sturges closes The Great Escape with the recapture of the fictional Hilts, back in the cooler with his baseball glove and ball, ticking down the time until he can plan his next escape.

A box office hit on its release in 1963, Sturges’ award-winning tale of Allied ingenuity and determination is not only one of the best Second World War films ever made, but it also stands as a fitting memorial to the fifty men of Stalag Luft III who lost their lives during the real ‘Great Escape’.

Bridge on the River Kwai

Director David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. The movie draws its inspiration from the notorious ‘Burma Death Railway’, which was built by the Japanese using Allied prisoners of war as slave labour. Thousands died in the railway’s construction, and those who survived the living hell of building it were physically and psychologically damaged by the experience, most for the rest of their lives.

The film is a fictional account of the construction of a bridge over the River Kwai. Starring Alec Guinness as the stubborn British Army Colonel Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa as the Japanese camp commandant Colonel Saito, the film focuses on the conflict between these two men as the pressure placed on Saito to finish the bridge rubs up against Nicholson’s stiff-upper-lipped determination that military rules for the treatment of his officers and enlisted men be stuck to, to the letter. This leads to an increasingly furious Saito going to extreme lengths to break Nicholson’s resolve, and to Nicholson’s slow descent into madness as his officiousness morphs into a determination to build the bridge to the highest possible standards as proof of superior British engineering. It is only at the end of the film when a commando raid to blow the bridge is foiled by Nicholson that he realises what he’s done and he blows the bridge himself.

The film was a critical success and a box office smash hit, going on to win seven Oscars including Best Director for Lean, Best Actor for Guinness and Best Supporting Actor for Hayakawa. Today, The Bridge on the River Kwai is considered of such cultural importance that it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress.

The Dam Busters

The Dam Busters used to be on the television seemingly on a weekly basis, but now this 1955 retelling of the raids on German dams in the Ruhr Valley has been quietly shelved thanks mainly to a never-ending argument about whether viewers should be allowed to hear the name of Guy Gibson’s dog. As a result of its lack of airtime, many younger viewers are more familiar with the film’s stirring theme tune than they are with the movie itself.

The film is actually less about Operation Chastise (the mission itself occupies only a small section of the film’s 155-minute run time) and more about the training of the crews who would fly the mission, and the story of the man who invented the bouncing bombs the crews would be using – Barnes Wallis.

Played by Michael Redgrave at the top of his game, the film explores the internal conflict Barnes Wallis went through as he honed his remarkable invention – his desire to help the Allied war effort and his perfectionism rubbing up against the overwhelming sense of guilt he feels about the lives his invention will claim as the dams are smashed and those who live in the valleys below meet a watery end. Richard Todd, meanwhile, is 617 Squadron leader Guy Gibson, deploying the very stiffest of stiff upper lips as he steels his men for the dangerous task that lays ahead. The attack on the Ruhr when it comes is spectacular (by the standards of 1950s special effects at least) and the famous Dam Busters March will stir even the hardest of hearts.

The film was a huge box office success in Britain when it was released in 1955, though it fared less well in the United States. Almost seven decades after release, The Dam Busters remains a fitting tribute to Barnes Wallis, Guy Gibson and the 56 men of 617 squadron who lost their lives in the real raids. Oh, and that theme tune is to die for.

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s 1986 best seller tells the story of Oscar Schindler, a cunning Czech industrialist who saw the opportunity to make himself rich in occupied Poland by running an enamelware factory using labour from the Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis in Krakow (and later at the Płaszów forced labour camp). At first Schindler is only interested in what he can personally gain from the war, but after witnessing the atrocities committed by SS officer Amon Göth – played with astonishing malevolence by newcomer Ralph Fiennes – he realises that the regime he has profited massively from must be resisted at all costs and as many lives as possible must be saved. Both in the film and in real life, Schindler’s efforts – which involved bankrupting himself as he used every trick in the book to protect the workers in his care – kept 1,200 Jewish men, women and children out of the hands of the SS to survive to the end of the war.

Liam Neeson gives the performance of a lifetime as the avuncular Schindler, ably supported by Ben Kingsley as his right-hand man Itzhak Stern and the truly astonishing Fiennes as the monstrous Göth. As one would expect, it is not an easy film to watch as it depicts in graphic detail the reality of life in the ghetto and camp system and the utter disregard the Nazis had for human life, but with its central message that ‘to save one life is to save the world entire’. Schindler’s List shows us both the dark and the light side of humanity in one of the most groundbreaking and important films ever made about the horrors of the Holocaust.

Downfall

Based on historian Joachim Fest’s Inside Hitler’s Bunker and Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge’s Until the Final Hour, Downfall is a German-language film that tells the story of the final days of Adolf Hitler and his dwindling band of loyal supporters as the Battle of Berlin rages around the bunker where the Führer has gone to ground.

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel with a powerhouse central performance by German actor Bruno Ganz, Downfall portrays the insane dictator’s final weeks in the Führerbunker as the Red Army closes in. This is a very different Hitler from the confident leader we see in 1942 at the very start of the picture. Ganz portrays him as a man aged before his time – crippled by Parkinson’s disease and pumped to the eyeballs with drugs, smashing his fists down on maps, issuing spittle-flecked orders to long-dead generals to turn the tide of a war he has already lost, irate at everyone in the country (but himself, of course) for letting him down. It also shows day-to-day life in the bunker, vividly bringing to life what it must have been like to work in that doomed environment as staff, secretaries, military personnel and officials make plans to abandon the man they once adored. We all know how this story ends, but to see it played out on screen is mesmerizing.

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 77th Academy Awards, Downfall is a study in the banality of evil and a fascinating portrait of how the mighty fall. A must see.

Written by:

BP Perry