6 Great POW Films Based on True Stories

As a group of people whose wartime experiences often involved enduring unbelievable torture or inventing ingenious methods of resistance, it is not surprising that there have been many great dramatic films made about prisoners of war. Unbroken, a film about the life and wartime experiences of former Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, is just the latest attempt to bring a real POW’s story to the big screen. Directed by Angelina Jolie, this film was adapted from a bestselling non-fiction book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand.

According to the official movie website, Unbroken is “an epic drama [that] follows the incredible life of olympian and war hero Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII — only to be caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.”

While the film has yet to be reviewed by the critics, Unbroken received a “largely positive” reaction from the audience at its world premiere in Sydney, Australia, on November 17, according to Variety. Unbroken will make its U.S. theatrical debut on Christmas Day, just in time to qualify for Academy Award consideration. However, you don’t have to wait until Christmas to see a powerful POW film based on a true story. Here are six other great movies based on true POW stories that film aficionados can enjoy before seeing Unbroken. Movies are listed in order of their critical rankings from Rotten Tomatoes and other film review aggregator websites, from lowest to highest.

6. The Railway Man (2014)

Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star in this drama based on the real life experiences of Eric Lomax, a British military officer who is brutally tortured at a Japanese POW labor camp in Thailand during World War II. The Railway Man garnered several film festival awards and currently has a respectable 66% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes and a 59 Metascore (mixed or average reviews) from Metacritic.

“Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film remains respectable and restrained until the very end — but the performances are so strong and the ultimate catharsis that occurs is so palpable that it sneaks up on you with an unexpected emotional wallop,” wrote RogerEbert.com film critic Christy Lemire.

5. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Like Unbroken, the story told in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence focuses on a battle of wills between a defiant POW and the guards who have imprisoned him. In the film, British soldier Jack Celliers (David Bowie) is tormented by Japanese Captain Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto). As noted by PopMatters, the film is based on author Laurens Van der Post’s own experiences at a Japanese POW camp that he documented in his novel, The Seed and the Sower.

Renowned actor/director Takeshi Kitano plays Sergeant Gengo Hara and Tom Conti plays Lt. Col. John Lawrence, the character who represents Van der Post. Directed by Nagisa Oshima, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence currently has a 79% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

4. Empire of the Sun (1987)

While POWs are usually thought of as captured combatants, they can also include non-combatants who were inadvertently caught up in a conflict. Based on author J.G. Ballard’s actual childhood experiences during World War II, Empire of the Sun tells the story of a young boy who is transferred to a POW camp in Japan after being separated from his parents in Shanghai. The young boy is portrayed by Christian Bale, while John Malkovich costars as a captured American sailor and fellow POW.

New York Times film critic Janet Maslin called this Steven Spielberg-directed film “a visual splendor” and praised the young Christian Bale’s ability “to handle an ambitious and demanding role.” Empire of the Sun was nominated for six Academy Awards and the film currently has an 83% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

3. Rescue Dawn (2007)

Director Werner Herzog was so enthralled with the story of American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler that he made two films about the man. The first, made in 1997, was a documentary film called Little Dieter Needs to Fly that Herzog made for German television. Ten years later, Herzog made Rescue Dawn, a feature film about Dengler’s wartime experiences that stars Christian Bale as Dengler and Steve Zahn as Duane Martin, a fellow American POW.

In the film, Dengler is captured after his plane is shot down over Laos. After being tortured and starved in a North Vietnamese POW camp, Dengler and several of his fellow prisoners engineer an unbelievable escape. Rescue Dawn was almost universally acclaimed by the critics and the film currently has a 90% “Certified Fresh” approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes.

2. The Great Escape (1963)

Not only is The Great Escape arguably the most famous movie about POWs in American cinema, it is also a true story. Based on an actual prison break from a supposedly inescapable Nazi POW camp during World War II, this John Sturges-directed film features an all-star ensemble cast that includes Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, and James Coburn.

The Great Escape was a hit with audiences and critics alike and is now widely considered one of the greatest World War II adventure movies ever made. The critics at Rotten Tomatoes gave The Great Escape a 93% “Certified Fresh” approval rating and called it “an all-time action classic.”

1. A Man Escaped (1957)

Renowned French director Robert Bresson helms this influential POW thriller that is based on the true story of World War II French Resistance fighter André Devigny. In the film, Lieutenant Fontaine (François Leterrier) is captured and imprisoned in an infamous German POW camp in France. Fearing he will soon be executed, Fontaine immediately begins plotting his escape. Besides featuring a gripping story about a POW escaping certain death, Bresson’s film has been hailed for its stripped-down, no-frills direction.

“Watching a film like A Man Escaped is like a lesson in the cinema,” wrote Roger Ebert. “It teaches by demonstration all the sorts of things that are not necessary in a movie.” A Man Escaped currently has a 100% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, although it has not received enough required reviews to garner the “Certified Fresh” seal.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS

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