10 Best Prisoner of War Movies, Ranked


Of the many unpleasant things associated with war, the experience of being a prisoner of war would have to rank among the least desirable, for obvious reasons. Survivor testimonies from being in prison camps where enemy combatants are the wardens/captors are always harrowing to read, and though certain prison camps have likely been worse than others, none have conditions one would ever want to experience for themselves.

Various war movies deal with being captured and imprisoned by an enemy force during warfare. The majority of these prisoner-of-war movies revolve around World War II, and occasionally other 20th-century conflicts, like World War I and the Vietnam War. Some focus on survival, while others are centered around escape, and are generally based on true events/people or, at the very least, inspired by real-world events. Some of the best of these films are ranked below, beginning with the very good and ending with the greatest.

10 ‘Empire of the Sun’ (1987)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

Most war movies focus on adult characters, and thereby, it checks out that the majority of prisoner of war movies also focus on adults, especially owing to the fact that (generally) soldiers are of adult age. But Empire of the Sun stands out in this regard, largely following Japan’s invasion of Shanghai and subsequent imprisonment of foreigners through the eyes of a child (played by a young Christian Bale).

It’s one of many Steven Spielberg movies to depict a real-life historical event, with the semi-autobiographical story here (based on the experiences of writer J.G. Ballard) feeling authentic and even brutally honest at times. It depicts an already harrowing and intense survival story that’s made to feel all the more harsh because it features a child at the center of it all, which all adds up to make Empire of the Sun a powerful watch.

Empire of the Sun
Release Date
December 11, 1987
Runtime
154m
Main Genre
War

Rent on Apple TV

9 ‘Land of Mine’ (2015)

Director: Martin Zandvliet

Image via Nordisk Film

Land of Mine presents the daunting reality that even once a war is officially over, and the fighting is said to have ceased, the horrors of the situation don’t immediately go away for everyone. Movies like 1948’s Bicycle Thieves and some other Italian Neorealist films show the effects of war’s aftermath on civilians, but Land of Mine opts to take a different approach, following a group of young German soldiers shortly after their country’s surrender in May 1945.

These soldiers/prisoners are assigned an incredibly dangerous task by Danish authorities: they’re to remove countless mines from the shores of Denmark that had been planted there earlier in the war by German forces. It’s a vital film in showing how the horrors of war continue after wars are technically over, as well as for being extremely intense and harrowing an experience to watch, owing to all the scenes of risky mine defusing.

Watch on Starz

8 ‘Rescue Dawn’ (2006)

Director: Werner Herzog

Steve Zahn and Christian Bale in 'Rescue Dawn', wounded and unkempt
Image via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Werner Herzog has told the story of naval aviator Dieter Dengler twice in his filmmaking career. The first time was through an excellent and extremely personal 1997 documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, with the second time coming almost a decade later. This time, it was a feature film called Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale in the lead role and presenting a more cinematic/dramatic retelling of Dengler’s life.

Rescue Dawn is particularly focused on Dengler’s experiences during the Vietnam War, predominantly what happened when his plane was shot down. He was imprisoned and tortured for half a year, and then mounted a daring escape attempt from the prison camp, ultimately being on the run alone in the jungle for several weeks. It’s a grueling and intense watch, but definitely a compelling one that solidly retells an unbelievable true story.

Rescue Dawn
Release Date
September 9, 2006
Director
Werner Herzog
Runtime
126

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7 ‘Stalag 17’ (1953)

Director: Billy Wilder

Robert Strauss, William Holden and Harvey Lembeck in Stalag 17
Image via Paramount Pictures

One of many great movies directed by Billy Wilder during the 1950s, Stalag 17 sees him bringing his sense of humor to a genre that doesn’t typically cross over with comedy: the prisoner of war movie. It takes place during the end of 1944, with its main characters being a group of American soldiers being held captive in a large German prisoner camp.

Its premise and use of humor might make viewers think of the TV series Hogan’s Heroes, and Stalag 17 might also scratch a similar war/dramedy itch to M*A*S*H. It’s extremely well written and utilizes its confined premise well, balancing some comedy with the more serious elements inherent to the war genre to great effect, with Stalag 17 overall feeling like a movie of the ‘50s that’s held up pretty well.

Watch on Tubi

6 ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956)

Director: Robert Bresson

François Leterrier as Lieutenant Fontaine, looking sadly through prison bars in A Man Escaped
Image via Gaumont Film Company

Prison escape movies don’t get much more direct or satisfying than A Man Escaped, which is a classic French drama/war/thriller movie that breaks this type of film down to its bare essentials. The imprisoned French Resistance fighter who’s seeking freedom doesn’t have the luxury of assembling a team to break out alongside, and so the audience watches as he painstakingly plans and then executes an ambitious escape plan all on his own.

This simplicity might make A Man Escaped sound a little boring on paper, but thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an oddly engrossing movie, its deliberate pacing never feels slow, and it has a persistent sense of quiet tension throughout that always keeps things engaging. Prisoner of war movies centering on a daring escape rarely manage to feel a whole lot better than this.

Watch on Criterion Channel

5 ‘The Deer Hunter’ (1978)

Director: Michael Cimino

Robert De Niro as Michael in The Deer Hunter’ (1978)
Image via Universal Pictures

When talking about prisoner-of-war movies, The Deer Hunter is a slightly difficult one for a couple of key reasons. The first is that this Best Picture-winning war movie only partly deals with the experiences of being a prisoner of war in Vietnam, contained within the second of the film’s three acts. Earlier parts of the movie concern the main characters before they go to fight in Vietnam, and then the final act of the movie deals with their life post-service.

The second reason the prisoner-of-war scenes in The Deer Hunter are difficult to discuss is because they feature prisoners forced to play Russian roulette, the historical accuracy of which was questioned and caused some controversy. The film does find time, owing to its epic length, to successfully address the experience of fighting in Vietnam before, after, and during, but perhaps reading some of the details as metaphorical rather than literal is the best way to approach things.

The Deer Hunter
Release Date
December 8, 1978
Director
Michael Cimino
Runtime
183 minutes

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4 ‘Grand Illusion’ (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir

Erich von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay sitting next to each other in The Grand Illusion.
Image via Réalisation d’Art Cinématographique

Jean Renoir was arguably at the peak of his directing powers in the 1930s, making films that commentated on aspects of society in ways that could be equal parts funny and sad. Grand Illusion does lean more on the serious side of things, as a prisoner-of-war drama (and one set during World War I, notably), though it does still unpack class differences through its narrative, with characters from a variety of backgrounds becoming imprisoned together.

The French prisoners continually plan an escape, even though it consistently looks all the more unlikely to come to fruition, while a German officer finds himself strangely drawn to one of the prisoners he’s supposed to be overseeing. Grand Illusion is a complex and always intriguing classic of French cinema, and undoubtedly one worth checking out for those who want to see a daring film lay the foundation for many war/prison movies to come.

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3 ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ (1983)

Director: Nagisa Ōshima

merry christmas mr lawaence
Image via Shochiku Fuji

Telling a story about a clash of cultures while being set almost entirely in a prisoner of war camp and partially qualifying as a Christmas movie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence really does have it all. And that’s before even mentioning its surprising cast, with iconic British musician David Bowie playing one of the main prisoners, and acclaimed Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto playing the head of the camp (Sakamoto also composed the film’s memorable score).

It’s a strange yet hypnotic movie, with a constant conflict playing out inside the camp; one just as emotionally devastating – albeit less physically explosive – than the conflict that would be playing out on the battlefield during the Pacific theater of World War II. It’s a tense and troubling film, but still, it remains easy to recommend Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence to those who appreciate the war genre but want to see something they probably haven’t experienced before.

Watch on Criterion Channel

2 ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957)

Director: David Lean

Sir Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, standing in front of a group of soldiers in The Bridge on the River Kwai
Image via Columbia Pictures

An adventure/war movie that won Best Picture, all the while also being an undeniably excellent epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai centers on a group of British prisoners forced to build a bridge by their Japanese captors during the Second World War. Even though the destruction of the bridge would benefit the overall Allied cause, the British colonel in charge of overseeing the construction rejects such plans, owing to the surprising sense of pride he finds in the project.

Perhaps The Bridge on the River Kwai is commenting on how the human mind and/or spirit needs to latch onto whatever it can, to keep the body going in difficult circumstances. Or it could just be a commentary on the mindlessness and pointlessness of war, ultimately being something that leads to everyone losing. It’s also possibly both; it’s ambitious and successfully chews all it bites off, justifiably earning its status as a classic in the process.

The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date
October 11, 1957
Director
David Lean

Cast
William Holden , Alec Guinness , Jack Hawkins , Sessue Hayakawa , James Donald , Geoffrey Horne

Runtime
161

Rent on Apple TV

1 ‘The Great Escape’ (1963)

Director: John Sturges

The Great Escape (1963)-2
Image via United Artists

The Great Escape’s title is a perfect one, because it’s all about an escape, and it’s an indisputably great movie. It’s set during World War II, and follows the day-to-day lives of numerous prisoners at a prison camp that’s designed to be as difficult to escape from as possible. The Allied soldiers nevertheless want to give escaping a go, preparing a complex scheme to break free and escape their German captors.

The Great Escape is a movie that runs for almost three hours, but that runtime ends up flying by, owing to just how fantastically the movie is paced and how suspenseful it manages to be. War movies don’t get much better than this, and neither do prison movies, so it ends up simply being a fact that The Great Escape remains the gold standard for how to best craft a prisoner of war movie.

The Great Escape
Release Date
June 20, 1963
Director
John Sturges
Runtime
172

Watch on DirecTV

NEXT: The Longest War Movies of All Time, Ranked by Runtime



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