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20 Best Prisoner of War Movies Ever Made


20 Best Prisoner of War Movies Ever Made


Summary

  • Some war movies focus on the bleak experiences of POWs, highlighting human resilience and survival beyond combat heroism.
  • Land of Mine
    ,
    1971
    , and
    Rescue Dawn
    are moving portrayals of the psychological ordeals faced by POWs, showcasing human endurance.
  • These 20 poignant POW films navigate themes of compassion, humanity, and survival, delivering powerful viewing experiences.

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Most war movies are concerned with depicting the combat and heroism of the battlefield. But there are other profound and insightful movies that shed light on a bleaker and darker aspect – the experience of being held as a prisoner of war, or POW. Soldiers who are subjected to involuntary confinement and deprived of freedom after the war is over face a psychologically taxing ordeal, and to translate that into film is as arduous as it is courageous.

Over the decades, Hollywood and international cinema have produced several outstanding movies that bring the POW experience to the screen in an unflinchingly honest and deeply moving way. They do not glorify war or violence; instead, they provide a glimpse into the human spirit and its power to endure in the face of tremendous odds. Whether based on real events, memoirs, or fictional stories, these movies have a tremendous impact.

In this list, we have narrowed down the 20 best prisoner of war movies ever made. While they are undeniably difficult to watch at times because of the harrowing stories they tell, each of these movies delivers a powerful viewing experience. This is all because, at their core, they navigate themes of compassion, humanity, survival, and resilience.

20 Land of Mine (2015)

Set in postwar Germany in 1945, Land of Mine is a movie inspired by true events that took place across the shores and fields of Denmark between May and September 1945. It follows a group of young German POWs who are forced by Danish sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller) to remove live land mines planted all along the coast using their bare hands. As the fear and the danger of their jobs sinks in, the prisoners try to survive their mission.

A Brilliant and Intimate Experience

Told from multiple perspectives with the kind of realism that makes your stomach lurch, Land of Mine is a harrowing movie. Director Martin Pieter Zandvliet crafts an experience that feels intimate and grueling. The desperately determined young soldiers portray the complexity of war, and the reconciliations of being pushed to the brink even after it’s all over. Lauded for its bleakness, the movie was nominated for Best International Feature at the Academy Awards. Stream on Starz

19 1971 (2007)

An underrated gem, 1971 takes place in Pakistan circa 1977, six years after the Bangladesh Liberation War. During the event, six personnel from the Indian Army were taken as POWs, and while they remained physically healthy under captivity, they were filled with despair, and their mental health deteriorated with every passing hour. When they learn that their planned repatriation is nothing more than a lie, they devise an escape plan.

Masterclass in Filmmaking

Directed and co-written by Amrit Sagar along with Piyush Mishra, 1971 brings an observant eye to how a group of soldiers’ grip on reality slips when they’re in isolation. Manoj Bajpayee leads the movie with a profound and understated performance and is supported by remarkable turns from Ravi Kishan, Piyush Mishra, Deepak Dobriyal, and Manav Kaul. For its realistic and unflinching treatment of the subject, and for building subtle suspense, the movie won massive domestic acclaim, later winning the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi.

18 Rescue Dawn (2006)

In Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale stars as a German-American pilot named Dieter Dengler, whose plane was shot down over Laos in February 1966. He was then captured by the Pathet Lao, a group of villagers aligned with communist interests. After refusing to sign a document that condemns America for their war efforts, Dengler is taken to a prisoner of war camp, imprisoned, and tortured to unbelievable lengths. Struggling to stay alive, Dengler managed to escape, but now has to contend with both the Pathet Lao and the harsh wilderness.

A Testament to the Human Will to Survive

This is the second time Werner Herzog has dramatized the extraordinary true story of naval aviator Dieter Dengler for the big screen, the first being a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Herzog depicts one man’s relentless perseverance in a visceral and intense way. The true-to-history details paired with Bale’s ferociously real performance are what make the audience feel every blow and feel immense respect for the heroic acts of ordinary men. While it wouldn’t make a big splash at the box office, it would earn several nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor in a Drama at the Satellite Awards. Stream on Kanopy

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17 Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

Devils on the Doorstep is a subversive war movie. It is set in China in 1945, towards the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, when a small village’s leadership is seized by rebels. One of the peasants is ordered to house two captured Japanese soldiers. Their presence in the home leads to dangerous tensions within the community, and as time runs short, the peasants are forced to decide the prisoners’ fate.

Jiang Wen’s satirical black comedy is definitely not traditional when it comes to the prisoner of war subgenre, because it does not take place in a camp. However, the anti-war sentiment is high because it also dissects how wartime atrocities disguise themselves in layers of misconduct, tragedy, and moral pitfalls. The movie tries to approach its heavy themes with deceptive lightness and embeds essential critique within its complex narrative. And for that reason alone, it is a must-watch.

16 Bullet in the Head (1990)

Written, produced, and directed by John Woo, Bullet in the Head is a distinctive film that borrows from all genres, including action, crime, drama and war. It depicts Hong Kong in 1967, when growing civil unrest led several to commit themselves to a life of crime. The protagonists — Ben (Tony Leung), Paul (Waise Lee), and Frank (Jacky Cheung) — are three best friends and criminals who flee out of the country after murdering someone. Their escape takes them to Vietnam, and they are soon captured by Viet Cong forces after a smuggling operation goes wrong.

Gripping and Tragic

Woo kick-started a brand of stylized action infused with dramatic intensity with this movie, and it went on to reflect in his other, less grimy films like Face/Off and Hard Boiled. The interweaving characters and their personal tales amid brewing social tension offers psychological insight into the reasoning behind violence and victimization. Plus, the movie creates a deft balance between being a crime drama and a prisoner of war epic, with its bleak tone and haunting visuals.

15 Eastern Condors (1987)

Directed by and starring Sammo Hung in the lead role. Eastern Condors takes you back in time to the late 1970s, right after the Vietnam War ended, and tells the story of a group of Chinese prisoners who arrive in the country for a covert mission – to preemptively destroy missiles left by the U.S. Army on Vietnam soil. However, when they get caught, not only do they put up a fight, but they also hatch a daring escape plan.

An Unsung Gem of the POW Experience

Hung’s directorial style is nuanced; it prioritizes human connections and the utter disregard for war over gentle shots of the landscape, conveying either underlying social commentary or the fragility of society. It also focuses more on over-the-top action sequences and thrilling martial arts fights to keep viewers entertained. Co-starring Yuen Biao, Joyce Godenzi, Yuen Wah, Lam Ching-ying, and Yuen Woo-ping, Eastern Condors is a unique prisoner-of-war movie.

14 Trial on the Road (1986)

Trial on the Road, a black-and-white Soviet film set in World War II. It’s director Aleksei German’s solo directorial debut, and it is based on the true story of his father, Yuri German. The plot revolves around a Russian POW who is not immediately executed, but is instead put to the test by two partisan leaders, who order him to go back to a Nazi-controlled railway station and hijack a train.

Honors a Real-Life Story

Apparently, the movie is a recreation of real accounts that happened in the life of a former Red Army officer, who, despite his various acts of loyalty, was always treated with suspicion and had to die in battle to prove his heroism. German infuses subtle grace into the movie, making sure its themes of justice, power, trust, and reconciliation are heard loud and clear. The movie may have been banned in the Soviet Union for controversial depictions of Soviet soldiers, but it also paints a hopeful vision for storytelling and honoring an individual’s story.

13 Empire of the Sun (1987)

Based on J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, this coming-of-age drama gets expert treatment from director Steven Spielberg. It is set during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and it follows the story of James Graham, a young boy who got separated from his parents and grew up enclosed in a WWII internment camp. Having faced hunger, illness, and the psychological impacts of isolation himself, James helps other prisoners build a life of their own amid the turmoil.

Portrays Adolescence Resilience Like No Other

Usually, prisoner of war movies are centered around an adult character brave and resilient enough to face the atrocities of captivity. What makes Empire of the Sun so hopelessly beautiful is the fact that its lead is a young boy, whose innocence is mistaken for optimism. Christian Bale delivers a marvelous performance as James, with Spielberg’s distinguished direction and Allen Daviau’s pristine cinematography making every scene equal parts earnest and heartbreaking. Rent on Apple TV

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12 Missing in Action (1984)

A POW action thriller, Missing in Action follows veteran Colonel James Braddock (Chuck Norris), who escaped from a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp ten years ago. He is called in by the U.S. government to lead a rescue mission for the American troops who are still being held captive. Braddock creates a clever strategy and meets up with an old Army friend to save them from the camp, which is controlled by ruthless General Tran.

Delivers Entertainment and Insight

Unlike other bleak POW movies on the list, Missing in Action takes an enthralling approach towards the subgenre and satisfies the audiences’ thirst for action-fueled revenge stories. Starring Chuck Norris, M. Emmet Walsh, and James Hong, the movie can be considered peak ‘80s cinema not only for the fact that it delivers entertainment while honoring soldierly pursuits, but also because it led to the development of a prequel, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, and a sequel, Braddock: Missing in Action III, in 1985 and 1988 respectively. Rent on Apple TV

11 Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

We’ve seen holiday horrors and Christmas action movies. But this subversive movie from the ‘80s turns it up a notch by delivering a prisoner of war story set against the backdrop of Christmas. In a WWII Japanese POW camp, a British officer arrives and openly resists the oppression of the authorities. Lt. Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti), the only prisoner fluent in Japanese, acts as a correspondent between both sides and tries to bring them to an understanding.

Singularly Unforgettable War Drama

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is an arresting movie. It stars David Bowie in the lead role, opposite an empathetic Tom Conti and acclaimed Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto playing a fiercely ethical camp commander. Director Nagisa Ōshima tries to turn the focus away from war’s binaries and places it on men discovering their fragilities and finding common ground, which is what makes this particular film unique and unforgettable. On top of starring in the film, Sakamoto’s accompanying score would also win a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. Stream on The Criterion Channel

10 The Deer Hunter (1978)

Criticized for being historically inaccurate in its depiction of the Viet Cong, this Best Picture winner centers around the lives of three friends whose lives are forever altered by the Vietnam War. It starts off with Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steve (John Savage) attending wedding celebrations in their Pennsylvania mining town. The film then proceeds to show them during their military service, and later trying to readjust to life after surviving a Vietnamese POW camp.

Portrays Post-War Trauma

Considering The Deer Hunter as a prisoner of war movie is really subjective, because only the second act of the movie is set in a camp. And even that representation is not wholly authentic, because it shows the prisoners being forced to play Russian roulette by their captors. The rest of the movie focuses on their time after the war. Yet, Michael Cimino’s sprawling epic is praised for its incredible cast — which includes Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken among others — as well as its emotional resonance. Controversy aside, the harrowing second act and the resulting trauma inflicted on the main three are utterly gripping to witness. Stream on Fubo TV

9 The Round-Up (1966)

The movie that established Miklós Jancsó as an internationally acclaimed director, The Round-Up, is unlike several other movies on the list. It does not take place in a Vietnam POW camp and has nothing to do with the post-WWII world. Instead, it took place after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, with the followers of leader Lajos Kossuth being rounded up in prison camps. However, when a new group of guerrilla fighters is suspected to have more of Kossuth’s followers in hiding, those operating the prison attempt to unveil their identities via any means necessary.

Represents the Bleakness of the Hungarian Plains

The movie showcases several instances where prisoners are subjected to a variety of tricks and techniques of torture in order for them to confess their mistakes. Jancsó uses an unconventional lens, one that relies more on space and movement rather than violence or brutality. The backdrop of a desolate Hungarian plain in the mid 19th century acts as a visual and poetic representation of the technique, making the movie oddly beautiful.

8 The Hill (1965)

Directed by Sidney Lumet, who adapted the story from Ray Rigby and R.S. Allen’s play of the same name, The Hill takes place in a hard Libyan Desert. While British prisoners there are subjected to sadistic drills on a routine basis, a greater shift occurs when five new soldiers, including Sergeant Major Roberts (Sean Connery), arrive at the detention camp. Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry) orders them to continuously climb an artificial hill under the scorching sun.

Deeply Moving Character Study

Lumet’s movies have a knack for penetrating our conscience. His character studies are so poignant and severe that it’s hard not to ponder the soul-corroding nature of captivity and war itself. Sean Connery, Harry Andrews, Ian Bannen, Ossie Davis, and Alfred Lynch deliver explosive performances, turning the taut and minimalist setting and dramatic use of natural sounds into an observation more than a fact. The incredible cinematography found throughout would win The Hill a Best British Cinematography award at the BAFTA Awards. Rent on Apple TV

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7 The Great Escape (1963)

Appropriately titled, The Great Escape is a movie about Allied soldiers putting together a full-proof escape plan from a German POW camp. Set during the Second World War and based on a real-life mass escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war, the movie follows multiple soldiers held captive in a camp designed to be inescapable. Despite the close watch of their captors, they manage to dig tunnels to escape from. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, and Charles Bronson all co-star in this classic war story.

True Story About a Mass Escape

John Sturges’ star-studded blockbuster is perhaps the greatest prisoner of war movie of all time. Sure, it delivers pure pulpy entertainment, but in the process, the movie never forgets that its heart lies in paying tribute to bravery, freedom, and community. At three hours long, it is well-constructed, brilliantly paced, and considered genuinely captivating. Its practical motorcycle chase, which serves as its explosive climax, is also considered to be one of the most impressive stunt sequences ever put on film. Stream on Prime Video

6 Destiny of a Man (1959)

Destiny of a Man, also released as Fate of a Man in some countries, is a Russian-language prisoner of war movie. It tells the story of a Soviet soldier, Andrei Sokolov (Sergei Bondarchuk), who gets torn from his family due to World War II. In May 1942, he was taken to a Nazi concentration camp, where he endured the cold brutality of the Germans. Managing to somehow escape, he returns to his small homeland, Voronezh, only to learn that his wife and three children have died.

A Groundbreaking Soviet War Film

The movie, which is an intimate adaptation of a short story written by Mikhail Sholokhov, is directed by Sergei Bondarchuk (in his feature directorial debut). He builds a rich and complex narrative and generates empathy from the viewers by following one man’s journey as he walks away from violence and towards hope, only for his soul to be left bare by the harsh realities of the world around him. The screenplay, the cinematography, and the performances add realism to the movie, eventually leading it to win the Grand Prize at the first-ever Moscow International Film Festival.

5 The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

One of the greatest British films of the 20th century, The Bridge on the River Kwai is also set during the Second World War. In the movie, we follow Colonel Nicholson (William Holden) as he’s tasked with overlooking the construction of a vital bridge via the labor of British POWs. A proud perfectionist, Nicholson soon gets embroiled in the project. Meanwhile, Shears, a former American escapee, is sent back to plant explosives on the bridge and blow it up.

Guinness’ Award-Winning Performance

A clash of wills, heavy consequences, and escalating tensions between men and their captors are what make the movie a masterpiece. Crafted with layers waiting to be examined, The Bridge on the River Kwai acts as an allegory for the irrationality of war and its ability to bring out the worst in people. Other than Alec Guinness (who won the Best Actor Oscar for his role), William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Sessue Hayakawa also deliver nuanced performances. Additionally, the movie won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is regarded as an epic war drama. Stream on AMC+

4 The Colditz Story (1955)

At the height of World War II, the Germans transformed Colditz Castle into an infamous, high-security POW camp and named it Oflag IV-C. There were several Allied soldiers already imprisoned in the fortress when British officers Pat Reid (John Mills) and Richmond (Eric Portman) arrived with agendas of their own. Through teamwork, support from other prisoners, and repeated gambits, Reid and company try to outwit the Germans and engineer a mass escape.

Examines Post-War Optimism

The post-war years were ripe with stories of heroism and nobility, and the 1950s made sure to tell as many as possible. Belonging to the subgenre, The Colditz Story is based on true recollections of Pat Reid himself, all of which he penned into a memoir in 1952. It is directed by Guy Hamilton, who makes sure to infuse the grave narrative with an entertaining blend of realism and drama. Praised for portraying prison life as well as the wits of those who escaped, it is a true gem from Hamilton’s filmography prior to his involvement in the James Bond franchise. Stream on Tubi TV

3 A Man Escaped (1956)

A classic French drama/war thriller, A Man Escaped documents one of history’s most harrowing prison escapes. With the title having already given away the ending, one would think there’s little to look forward to in the movie. But this meticulously filmed real-life account of Fontaine (François Leterrir), a French Resistance fighter, and his year-long plan to break out of a Nazi camp using unlikely tools while avoiding suspicion, suggests otherwise.

Raises Tension at Its Suffocating Best

Devoted fans are aware of Robert Bresson’s knack for relying on character studies and observational methods of filming over artifice or action. And when it comes to telling a well-engineered and genuine tale of one man’s patient defiance, suspense, quiet tension, minimalism, and deliberate pacing are tools he needs at his disposal. A Man Escaped is among the few war movies with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes Score. Stream on The Criterion Channel

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2 Stalag 17 (1953)

Known for directing some of the greatest comedy classics like Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed this prison of war movie, and suffice it to say, the outing was one of his most distinguished works of all time. Stalag 17 is set in a WWII German POW camp during the end of 1944, and it documents the uneasy camaraderie between the troops held there. Suspicion arises when their escape plan is thwarted and one particular soldier is accused of being an informant.

Dissection of Manipulation and Mistrust

Wilder’s dynamic screenplay holds a subtle air of humor that brings morally gray areas and complexity even to the simple hostility between soldiers held as prisoners. The tense atmosphere leading to a dramatic climax is anchored by phenomenal performances from William Holden, along with Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, and more. What’s more interesting is that the movie uses its confined setting to churn out sincere emotions and laughs in good measure. Stream on Tubi TV

1 The Grand Illusion (1937)

One of the few prisoners of war movies to be set during the First World War, The Grand Illusion is lauded by critics as “one of the most haunting of all war films.” Its story concerns a group of French soldiers who are captured and sent to a German prison camp housing prisoners of higher social class. As they share a high-security fortress, class divides fracture their bonds. Regardless, an escape is planned. Jean Renoir both directed and co-wrote this film, with Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, and Pierre Fresnay attached to the principal cast.

Landmark Examination of WWI

The first foreign language film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Grand Illusion infuses a sincere tale of humanity and challenges the audiences’ preconceptions of what it is like to be on either side of the barricades. The characters, all multidimensional, bring out all sorts of emotions, from rage to compassion, as Jean Renoir portrays their shared plight. The movie also paved the way for more prisoner of war movies, and it is undoubtedly one worth checking out.

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