A black-and-white, sometimes Technicolor Memorial Day: Classic movies about World War II

Posted May 30

From a daring escape from Nazi Germany to a Marine stranded on an island with a nun, the world of cinema is rife with stories of wartime.

Here are five films from the 1940s and 1950s that show life during World War II, or at least how it was portrayed by Hollywood. Some of the movies are based on true stories, and each can help viewers remember and appreciate the sacrifices troops have made for their country.

Note: These films were released before a film ratings system was instituted. Because these movies deal with wartime violence, caution should be used when viewing them with children.

Air Force: “Flying Tigers”

It’s 1941, and Jim Gordan and his fellow American pilots have decided that although the United States hasn’t entered the war, they are ready to battle the enemy. Stationed in China, they help fight off the attacking Japanese. Although their jobs are dangerous and the squad frequently suffers losses, they enjoy the bonuses paid by the Chinese government for each Japanese plane shot down. Despite the promised financial boon, fliers are scarce, so Gordon travels to Burma and desperately hires pilots who don’t have the best histories or intentions. As the missions increase in danger, the men of the “Flying Tigers” mature. Then, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, their work becomes more personal.

Starring in one of his earlier war films, John Wayne is terrific in this 1942 movie that shows the historical efforts of Hollywood war propaganda during the height of World War II. Loosely based on the real-life Flying Tiger squadron, this film can be viewed on Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

Army: “Sahara”

Sgt. Joe Gunn is a tank commander fighting against the Germans in Libya, and he and his men are in a tight spot. Surrounded on three sides, their only chance for survival is to attempt to escape into the Sahara Desert. With a damaged tank, their ragtag group grows as they pick up Allied stragglers. Desperate for water, they take a roundabout route to locate a well, but their progress is hampered when they stumble across a German platoon. It seems as though it will be a battle to the death as each side fights for access to the precious water that holds the key to all their lives in the barren land.

Sahara” is a 1943 movie starring perennial tough guy Humphrey Bogart. Viewers will probably want to watch with a cool drink in hand, as watching Bogie’s plight in the desert can cause excessive thirst. This war drama can be seen on Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

Marines: “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”

After being adrift in the ocean on a life raft, Cpl. Allison is overjoyed to spot an island. His exploration of the island brings him to Sister Angela, who breaks the news that they are the island’s only two inhabitants. But soon their little spot on the sea is overrun with Japanese soldiers, and the two must attempt to keep their presence hidden. One night, Allison sneaks into the Japanese camp for supplies and is nearly caught. In his effort to remain concealed, he kills a Japanese soldier, thereby alerting the rest of the camp to his presence. Now the corporal and nun are even more desperate to remain hidden as the enemy seeks retribution.

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr star in this 1957 movie fraught with suspense and a little romance. “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” can be seen on Amazon Video, Google Play and Vudu.

Navy: “They Were Expendable”

Lt. John Brickley has taken charge of a squadron of new PT boats, but when he and his men are assigned to an island in the Philippines, they realize their boats are seen as humorous and ineffective. Determined to prove their detractors wrong, Brickley and his men, including Lt. Rusty Ryan, embark on several attacks, firing down planes and fighting against the Japanese navy. Along the way, Ryan finds time to romance a nurse. But then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the fighting becomes even more serious. As boats become inoperable and their friends perish, Brickley and Ryan become even more devoted in fighting for their country.

Robert Montgomery and John Wayne star in this wonderfully detailed 1945 movie. “They Were Expendable” can be seen May 28 at 11 a.m. Mountain time on TCM. It can also be viewed on Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

Homefront: “The Mortal Storm”

Freya Roth lives an idyllic life in Germany with a comfortable home and wonderful friends. But Hitler’s rise in 1933 creates tension in her family, and in their fervor for their new leader, her brothers leave home and her fiancé quickly abandons one of their oldest friends. Distraught over the fractures in both her family life and German society at large, Freya and her friend Martin Breitner try to live under the radar. But when they see innocent people targeted by the ever-fanatic Nazis, they are unable to stay out of the limelight and become targets themselves. Their only way to safety is to ski across a dangerous mountain pass to the safety of Austria, but the Nazis don’t forget past slights easily.

Starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, this 1940 movie is particularly moving when viewers realize that only a small portion of Nazi Germany’s true terrors were known at its making, yet director Frank Borzage does an excellent job of capturing much of its essence. “The Mortal Storm” can be viewed on DVD.

Elizabeth Reid has bachelor's degrees in economics and history. She has worked in retail, medical billing, catering, education and business fields. Her favorite occupation is that of wife and mother. She blogs at


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