The 10 Best Movies Set in the 1940s, Ranked

The 1940s was a transitionary decade due to the impact of World War II. These movies explore the era from all kinds of angles.
The 10 Best Movies Set in the 1940s, Ranked

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Leading out from the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, the 1940s started deep in the trenches of World War II.

As such, most movies set in the 1940s are World War II movies—but we aren't going to touch on those in this article. We already have a separate article all about the best WW2 movies of all time!

Truth is, not everybody was fighting, plotting, or nursing through the 1940s. For many people, the global war was little more than TV static humming in the background as they lived their everyday lives.

Here are our picks for the best movies set in the 1940s that highlight the decade but aren't about World War II.

10. A League of Their Own (1992)

Directed by Penny Marshall

Starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna

Comedy, Drama, Sport (2h 8m)

7.3 on IMDb81% on RT

In 2022, Amazon Prime released a comedy sports show about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which played the field while men were off fighting in the war.

That show was based on Penny Marshall's sports-comedy A League f Their Own, which featured its own set of characters and subplots before the Amazon Prime series evolved the concept.

Still, the foundation of A League of Their Own remains true, based on the real-life Rockford Peaches team. Tom Hanks and Geena Davis imbue the lighthearted comedy with that retro, feel-good vibe of a 90s family flick. This one also happens to star Madonna!

9. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005)

Directed by Andrew Adamson

Starring Tilda Swinton, Georgie Henley, William Moseley

Adventure, Family, Fantasy (2h 23m)

6.9 on IMDb75% on RT

The first movie installment of The Chronicles of Narnia—based on the beloved fantasy novels by C. S. Lewis—is probably the only one worth watching. But it's a great one! A real charmer that can easily stand alone as a complete, compelling narrative.

Andrew Adamson set the franchise up with a promising start, enchanting children and adults alike with its snow-dusted whimsy.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe begins in a blitzed 1940s London, where four siblings are evacuated to the countryside. There, a normal-looking wardrobe turns out to be a portal to Narnia, a mythical land of magical beasts and talking beavers.

8. The Good Shepherd (2006)

Directed by Robert De Niro

Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro

Drama, History, Thriller (2h 47m)

6.7 on IMDb56% on RT

WW2 laid the groundwork for many things: computers, microwaves, nuclear weapons, the SAS, the United Nations, and the CIA.

That last one is the subject of The Good Shepherd, which features the heavily dramatized story of the birth of the CIA. The whole thing is spearheaded by William J. Donovan (played by Robert De Niro), an intelligence officer who headed the CIA precursor, OSS.

Matt Damon, however, is the real star of The Good Shepherd. He plays the fictional Edward Wilson, who's based on two early CIA operatives: James Jesus Angleton and Richard Bissell.

And as in many movies involving spies, espionage, World Wars, the Cold War, or government officials, Edward must ultimately choose between his duty and his family.

7. On the Road (2012)

Directed by Walter Salles

Starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart

Adventure, Drama, Romance (2h 4m)

6.0 on IMDb45% on RT

In On the Road, the "cowboy music twanged in the roadhouse" and "everything was about to arrive" for Sal Paradise.

Sal is a wannabe writer who spends the 1940s hitchhiking across the states, dancing and boozing his way to the promise of more.

For Sal, Los Angeles—or, at least, the idea of it—was his "one and only golden town." On top of that, the idea of Dean Moriarty (the restless, carefree embodiment of the Beat generation) was also better than he turned out to be in real life.

Not only is On the Road based on the novel by Jack Kerouac, Sal himself is based on Jack Kerouac, who lives an unsustainable life at breakneck speed. Walter Salles turned the literary classic into a frantic road movie, starring Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, and Sam Riley.

6. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Directed by Mike Newell

Starring Lily James, Michiel Huisman, Glen Powell

Drama, Romance, War (2h 4m)

7.3 on IMDb81% on RT

We could all do with some wholesome, seaside British romance from time to time. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is just the ticket, whether you read it or watch it.

Based on the 2008 novel, this historical drama is reliably nostalgic and held up by an equally reliable cast led by Lily James.

Guernsey is the second-largest of the Channel Islands and was occupied by Germany during WW2. But this movie focuses little on Nazis and machine guns. Instead, it's about a quaint little book club that meets every Friday night.

When a big-shot author hears about them, she decides to sail over to write an article—not something they're particularly keen on.

5. The Notebook (2004)

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner

Drama, Romance (2h 3m)

7.8 on IMDb54% on RT

Before he was trying to steal Margot Robbie's heart in Barbie, Ryan Gosling was trying to win over a spoiled Rachel McAdams in The Notebook. (Ironically, the two didn't get along on set!)

Ryan Gosling's Noah starts thing off by cracking jokes at a carnival in 1940, and then building her a dream house after the war.

The kissing-in-the-rain trope has never been done so well as in Nick Cassavetes's adaptation of the 1996 romance novel, nor the archetype of the incessantly arguing but deeply in-love couple.

4. Lolita (1997)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith

Drama, Romance (2h 17m)

6.8 on IMDb69% on RT

Despite the fact that distribution was near-impossible in the US and Australia, most people still know Lolita and what it's about. Vladimir Nabokov's perverted novel ranks among other controversial cult classics like Diary of an Oxygen Thief and The Kindly One.

As for Lolita, Adrian Lyne was the second director to adapt it to film in 1997 (after Stanley Kubrick's attempt in 1962).

The story centers on a tweed-wearing English professor (played by Jeremy Irons) in the 1940s, who falls for a 14-year-old girl (played by Dominique Swain). So, he rents a room in her mother's home and whisks the underage Lolita away.

For context, the professor is in his late thirties, hence the controversy and distribution troubles. Even so, critics praised young Dominique Swain's performance, which was packed full of female rage against the creepy Jeremy Irons.

3. Kill Your Darlings (2013)

Directed by John Krokidas

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall

Biography, Drama, Romance (1h 44m)

6.4 on IMDb76% on RT

Stereotypically, artists don't make the best soldiers. There have been exceptions, of course, and some of history's greatest poets were war poets, such as Wilfred Owen.

But we can't imagine someone like Allen Ginsberg—the real-life Beat poet who was staunchly countercultural and anti-war—dropping out of university to invade Normandy.

John Krokidas's vintage biopic Kill Your Darlings recalls the 1940s, a decade when seeds were sown for the post-war counterculture that was spearheaded by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

But just because they weren't in the trenches doesn't mean nobody was killed...

2. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Starring Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López

Drama, Fantasy, War (1h 58m)

8.2 on IMDb95% on RT

Most fantasy films are kid-friendly adventure tales that promote ideas of friendship, love, bravery, and triumph over evil. Not quite the case when it comes to Pan's Labyrinth.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro—who's known for his love of dark fantasy—Pan's Labyrinth is substantially darker than any film in the Harry Potter, Narnia, or Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Del Toro's mythical creatures verge on the horrifying, but creatures like the faun in Pan's Labyrinth are the ones guiding the young female protagonist Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) on her quest through a newly discovered magical realm in 1944 Francoist Spain.

1. The Godfather (1972)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan

Crime, Drama (2h 55m)

9.2 on IMDb97% on RT

Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather was on The New York Times Best Seller list for 67 weeks, but Paramount executives were still wary that a film adaptation wouldn't guarantee a hit.

As such, they wanted to set The Godfather in modern-day Kansas City, which would've been a much safer bet with much lower costs. Thankfully, director Francis Ford Coppola refused.

Today, The Godfather is often cited as one of the greatest movies in history, and who knows if that would've still been the case if Coppola hadn't stuck to the story's original setting!

This epic gangster movie about the Corleone crime family in late-1940s New York is also an exploration of WW2's aftermath and a corporate America where the Mafia tried once more to be in charge the way they were during the Great Depression.