WWII Movie Survey

Richard Ector's picture

WWII Movie Survey

In teaching classes on World War II history, we were curious about the undergrads’ frame of reference via WWII movies they may have seen. We initially asked students to list the movies they recalled seeing, giving them no prompt or list of movies to choose from. The most-listed movie was invariably Saving Private Ryan.

Later we started a list of movies to help jog their memories, allowing students to check off those they’ve seen. With 130 movies currently, the list keeps growing and is far from complete; new additions like the forthcoming Dunkirk are yet to be added. We include some of questionable relevance, such as the recent German movie “Look Who’s Back” (Er ist wieder da), and some are only loosely connected to WWII. We’ve avoided documentaries and History Channel-type productions (Ken Burns “The War” is an exception). Our point has been to get a sense of what students have learned from such outside sources, so we’re loose with definitions.

It’s been pointed out that some students learn (?) – or at least gain historical impressions – from video games. We’ll stick with movies for now, but Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, keeps a list of WWII video games here for those interested.  

Once we started using our list, Saving Private Ryan remained at the top. Schindler’s List and Sound of Music usually come in second. We’re comfortable with ambiguity and there’s nothing scientific to this approach, but it’s interesting to contemplate how student’s perspectives might be shaped by what they’ve seen. Comments welcome.

We make the list available to anyone who would like to use it here. If you know of movies to add please respond to re01391@georgiasouthern.edu and we'll continue to update the list. For instructors so inclined, if you choose to survey your students, if you send us the results we’ll keep a running tally that can be viewed by all.


Rick Ector, Georgia Southern University and Envisioning History


Thank you for sharing your list. I think it is helpful to be able to discuss a concept with students by connecting it to some popular cultural reference, such as a television show or film. The challenge, however, is finding a reference that the majority of the class is familiar with. I teach the first half of the U.S. Survey (to 1877) to community college students. When I started teaching in 1998 most of the students in the class had seen Gone With the Wind, which made it a very useful reference point for the Civil War and Reconstruction. That number has been dropping steady. This past fall, only two students in the class had seen it.

Greg Dehler
Front Range Community College

My research paper for level 400 history was titled "Film as Holocaust Representation." While the films I analyzed were specific to "Holocaust Films," (defined in my paper), the ones that are not on your list are: Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg (God afton, Herr Wallenberg), Hidden In Silence, and The Devil's Arithmetic