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All 10 of Wolfgang Petersen’s Hollywood movies, ranked

Since the recent passing of acclaimed director Wolfgang Petersen, his 10 Hollywood feature films are ranked all the way up to the very best.

Photo via "onnola" (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The cinema world just lost one of its most notable filmmakers after the recent passing of director Wolfgang Petersen. For just over 40 years, his films have made a lasting impression on the big screen in Hollywood.

He began his filmmaking career in his native Germany during the early 1960s, making his mark by directing television programs and a few short films featured in his homeland. His first theatrical feature film came in 1974, a thriller titled, One or the Other of Us, starring frequent collaborator and German actor Jürgen Prochnow. Then, in the 1980s, his reputation as a gifted filmmaker grew internationally with the critically-acclaimed war drama, Das Boot, in 1981.

As his past work lives on in his absence, how do all of his Hollywood feature films rank among themselves? This list features Wolfgang Petersen’s 10 movies, ranked all the way up to his absolute best.


This psychological thriller from 1991 was written and directed by Petersen and based on a Richard Neely novel of the same name. The movie starred Tom Berenger, Greta Scacchi, and the late Bob Hoskins in a plot about a man who slowly realizes that the people around him are ultimately not who they seem. The audience follows the main character, played by Berenger, as he struggles to fill gaps in his memory stemming from a recent car crash. The plot featured all the usual trimmings of a decent thriller: lies, affairs, near-death experiences, and one or two people ultimately buying the proverbial farm. These ingredients didn’t mix well for a product with a palatable payoff by the end credits. In fact, at a critical score of 36 percent, this movie is the lowest-rated Petersen film on Rotten Tomatoes.

Enemy Mine

This pick was once a widely-forgotten sci-fi, action-drama from 1985. It starred Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. as warring lifeforms that must reluctantly put aside their differences in order to survive on an uninhabitable planet. The production originally began in early 1984, but with a British director Richard Loncraine at the helm. Creative differences between Loncraine, the film’s producers, and the movie studio caused a new director, in this case, Petersen, to step in on the way to completing production on schedule. Regardless of the director, this was a sci-fi film with a plot that audiences were either going to get or not. Unfortunately, it was the latter as the movie bombed in the U.S., despite a slightly better international reception at that time. Since then, the movie has grown a little after gaining cult-level popularity among the masses.


Petersen directed and co-produced this 2006 American action disaster movie that co-starred Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, and Emmy Rossum. Poseidon was the third movie that was based on the 1969 novel, The Poseidon Adventure, written by American writer Paul Gallico and is a remake of the popular 1972 film of the same title. This movie about a doomed cruise ship looked a lot better than the previous one from the seventies, naturally, due to the advancement of digital special effects over the years. Because of this, the film was even available on both standard and IMAX screens for its 2006 theater release. However, as good as the finished product looked, critics and audiences felt that the screenplay couldn’t keep the movie from noticeably sinking at the box office.


The 2004 sword-and-sandals epic starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Orlando Bloom had Petersen behind the camera, only in the director’s chair for this production. The film features a screenplay that was inspired by the classic epic poem, Iliad, by the Ancient Greek author Homer. In full disclosure, it was loosely based on the events regarding the Trojan War, as told from Homer’s priceless work and perhaps this is where the finished product falters, despite its worthy efforts. The events depicted in the original poem take place over several years, 10 to be exact, whereas this film has the timeline jampacked into a couple of weeks. This considerable veering from the factual path is what seemed to lose audiences ultimately, even though Pitt’s noble portrayal of Achilles helped earn Troy enough at worldwide box offices for an eighth-place finish in 2004.

The Perfect Storm

Petersen directed and co-produced this biopic from 2000 that told the story of the fishing vessel, Andrea Gail, and her entire crew’s tragic demise at sea. This film was adapted from a 1997 creative nonfiction book of the same title by Sebastian Junger. His novel told of Satori and Andrea Gail, two ships that were deadly victims of the North Atlantic “Perfect Storm” that occurred in the fall of 1991. The production co-starred George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg in performances that carried the movie to a positive turnout at the U.S. box offices. The Perfect Storm also earned two Oscar nominations, including one for a Best Visual Effects nod, likely paving the way for the type of special sights audiences would see years later in 2006’s Poseidon.

Air Force One

One of the most popular movies of the late 1990s and certainly of Harrison Ford’s legendary career, 1997’s Air Force One was yet another project that Petersen not only directed but also co-produced. Ford starred as the President of the United States in this mid-air action thriller along with Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, William H. Macy, and Petersen’s most familiar actor, Jürgen Prochnow in a small supporting role. While the fictional events of the film depict an unlikely chain of events where a U.S. President fights off foreign hijackers aboard Air Force One, that doesn’t mean this movie wasn’t entertaining. It’s one of Petersen’s better films while not breaking too far away from the realism involving the real plane and its unique passengers. Over the last 25 years, this award-nominated movie has gone down among Ford and Oldman’s fan-favorite acting performances as well.


Just a couple of years before Air Force One, Petersen directed and co-produced this award-winning pandemic thriller that featured a fictional take on how a contagious and deadly virus could overwhelm not just a local town but an entire country. Outbreak’s plot is based on the best-selling 1994 novel, The Hot Zone, written by Richard Preston. A number of famous faces gave great performances, such as Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Patrick Dempsey. While the story was entertaining, it has become more relevant given recent global health events. In fact, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the movie became the fourth-most-streamed film on Netflix in the United States. However, at the time of its theatrical release, the critical response wasn’t too healthy despite favorable box office returns both domestically and abroad.

The NeverEnding Story

This 1984 fantasy classic was certainly special. Despite Das Boot being Petersen’s first American-released feature film, The NeverEnding Story would be his first English-language production. Petersen directed and co-wrote the movie, which is based on the 1979 novel of the same title written by German writer Michael Ende. The story follows a young boy who, through a magical book, experiences the adventure of a warrior fighting to protect the mystical world of Fantasia. Even though Petersen was rumored to have deviated from the original storyline during production, the film is one of the most remembered fantasy films of the modern era. It also became a staple of 1980s pop culture with music that ranked high on several international charts. In fact, it was recently featured during season three of Stranger Things, which of course is set in the mid-’80s.

In the Line of Fire

American political action thrillers were definitely a successful genre during Petersen’s career and this film that he directed in 1993 is proof. Starring Clint Eastwood, the story follows a veteran Secret Service Agent who tracks a man attempting to assassinate the President of the United States. While it isn’t based on actual events, Eastwood’s character is written to be the last remaining member of JFK’s detail when he was shot and killed. The movie also featured stellar performances from John Malkovich and Rene Russo. After its release, the film made back over four times its budget at the box office and earned a number of Oscar and BAFTA nominations.

Das Boot

This is the one that laid the foundation for Wolfgang Petersen’s remarkable directing career. Also a co-writer of the 1981 film, the story is set during World War II, following a German U-boat crew during the “Battle of the Atlantic.” The screenplay is based on Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s 1973 novel of the same name. At the top of the cast was Prochnow, along with fellow German actors Herbert Grönemeyer, and Klaus Wennemann.

Believe it or not, plans for this movie began in the mid-1970s. Several American directors were thought to be attached to the production at different times. Popular American actors, such as Robert Redford and Paul Newman, were said to star in separate movie adaptations that ultimately never set sail. Petersen and his German cast and crew proved necessary to give the film the authenticity a story like this required and deserved. Das Boot earned the most Academy Award nominations of any of the films Petersen directed during his career, six in total including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The six nominations are still the most nods ever for a German film, as well.

Hassan Green
About the author

Hassan Green

Hassan is a proud dad, a habitual night owl, and a passionate fan of many sports, James Bond films, visiting Canada (well, Toronto to be exact), the power of humor, and great food. He often believes that coffee can and will save the world. Hassan tries to be charitable with some of his free time and energy to his local community. In the meantime, he's also attempting to get his one-man podcast back off the ground.