World War I: Great Films About The Great War
April 2017 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I (or The First World War). In much of Europe it was originally referred to as The Great War, a tag that was also common in America. Here in The States, as early as 1918, it was frequently referred to as The World War. And there were more names: “The War to End War,” as well as the “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy,” (a slight variation of a line from President Woodrow Wilson’s speech before a joint session of Congress seeking a declaration of war against Germany). Although there were wars with higher death tolls previous to World War I, those wars played out over decades, and, in a few cases, even centuries. In the relatively short span of time between July 1914 and November 1918, roughly twenty million people died during that first worldwide conflict, the highest rate of war-related deaths per annum in human history to that date.
So, why did I begin with semantics concerning the war’s name? It’s because people at that time realized how absolutely horrific the war was and how much they hoped there would never be another like it. Sadly, it quickly paled in comparison to the atrocities perpetrated during World War II, which began just twenty-one years later. With a death toll of over sixty million people between 1939 and 1945, The Second World War shunted the earlier conflagration into ancient history. According to Wikipedia, films about World War I total a little more than 130, while films about World War II number more than 1,300! That is, of course, ten times as many, which brings me to my point. As dreadful as World War II was, by any metric, it wasn’t ten times as bad as World War I! While we often get as many as twenty new films a year telling (or retelling) stories set during the latter war, it’s rare to get more than a couple of new films set during the former. All things considered, it’s hard to fathom why so little attention is paid to The First World War, which was a major historical event in its own right.
Nevertheless, there are still a number of great films set against the backdrop of World War I. Perhaps unsurprising is the fact that half of the list is made up of titles made during the two-decade period bookended by the First and Second World Wars. Alternately, it’s quite surprising that not a single American film from the past half century appears here! The films that are mentioned here represent several countries, languages, and perspectives. For those seeking to gain a greater understanding of the conflict, to get a broader overview of how films have dealt with the subject over the years, or are just looking for quality films to view, this (chronological) list is for you.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) Now best remembered for giving a bit player – twenties icon Rudolph Valentino – his first starring role, producer-director Rex Ingram’s epic concerns an Argentine extended family whose loyalties are divided due to its French and German ancestors. It was one of the earliest anti-war films. The blockbuster was responsible for creating the image of Valentino as the quintessential Latin lover, inspiring the tango craze, and such fashion fads as gaucho pants!
The Big Parade (1925) Upon the death of Rudolph Valentino in 1926, John Gilbert became Hollywood’s leading heartthrob, thanks in part, to starring in this picture. Gilbert plays a high-living young man from a wealthy family who enlists in the army upon America’s entry into the war. Once in France, the carefree doughboy meets and falls in love with a French girl. When, he is sent to the frontlines and witnesses the horrors of war, however, he becomes a changed man. Topping $22 million worldwide, it was the highest-earning picture of the silent era, having cost just $250,000 to make!
Wings (1927) The first of several popular pictures to feature aerial dogfighting, it was also the first winner of the Best Picture Oscar and the only silent to take the honor. It was directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, a former ace fighter pilot with France’s famed Lafayette Escadrille. Wellman earned the Croix de Guerre with two palms before being shot down and returning, injured, to the United States, and ending up in Hollywood. The plot concerns three childhood friends who serve in the war: the two males serve as fighter pilots, while the female is an army nurse. The nurse is played by Clara “The It Girl” Bow, reason enough to see this film.
Westfront 1918 (1930) Produced during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, this is probably the greatest (and very possibly the only great) German-language film ever made about the war. Set in France during the war’s final months, the story follows four German infantrymen who are gamely trying to outlive the conclusion of hostilities. Upon coming to power in 1933, the Nazi propaganda ministry immediately denounced the film for its overt pacifism and alleged defeatism.
Hell’s Angels (1930) The often-brilliant, but decidedly eccentric multi-millionaire Howard Hughes produced and directed (with uncredited assistance from James Whale and Edmund Goulding) this spectacle of aerial dogfighting. Originally started filmed as a silent picture in late-1927, it was almost entirely reshot when sound became available. It’s notorious for its budget overages and for causing the deaths of three stunt pilots. Still, it earned double its cost and provided Jean Harlow with her first leading role.
The Dawn Patrol (either version: 1930 or 1938) Both versions of this tale of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps are excellent, the later one a near scene-by-scene remake of the earlier one. The lead protagonist is an ace fighter pilot highly critical of his superior, but when he himself is promoted to squadron leader he finds just how difficult it is to send out his charges every day knowing that some of them may not return. The earlier version, directed by Howard Hawks, stars Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., while the later version, directed by Edmund Goulding, stars Errol Flynn and David Niven.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1931) Director Lewis Milestone’s film, adapted by a quartet of screenwriters from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is notable for the time for being an American film that told a story from the enemy’s (German) point of view. Unabashedly anti-war, the film won the Oscar for Best Picture. Moved by the experience, Lew Ayres, the movie’s young star, later declared himself a conscientious objector during WWII, a decision that would cripple his film career going forward, though he actually served with distinction as an army medic for three-and-a-half years.
La Grande Illusion (1937) Social class affinity exerts more force than nationality when two French flyers are captured by German forces and sent to a POW camp run by a sympathetic commandant (played by silent star/director Erich von Stroheim). Legendary filmmaker Jean Renoir made this anti-war film just three years before Nazi forces overran France during The Second World War.
Sergeant York (1941) Unlike the inter-war films that were largely anti-war, this biopic embraces bravery. Gary Cooper stars as pacifist Alvin C. York, who gradually transforms to larger-than-life hero in the Battle of the Argonne Forest during the war’s final days. Although the film was released over two months prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s abundantly clear that the Hollywood propaganda machine had already geared up for the probable entry of the United States into World War II. Propaganda, yes, but it’s smooth, effective propaganda under the guidance of director Howard Hawks.
Paths of Glory (1957) Starring Kirk Douglas and produced under his Bryna Productions banner, this anti-war film was controversial for its less-than-flattering depiction of officers. In fact, several European nations banned its showing for decades. Directed and co-scripted by Stanley Kubrick, the movie examines the moral responsibility of the army’s officer corps for the men in their command. In this case, a French regiment in the trenches of the Western Front is sent against a well-defended German position with very limited tactical advantage to be gained and extremely little hope of success.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Set in the Arabian Desert, director David Lean’s sprawling (and lengthy) biopic follows young British officer T.E. Lawrence, who helped organize competing Arab tribes into a united front against the Ottoman Empire, the region’s dominant power, centered in Turkey. Peter O’Toole, plucked from virtual obscurity to play Lawrence, turned into a superstar overnight and became one of the most important actors of the decade. An enormous critical and commercial success, the film went on to win seven Oscars, including for Best Picture.
Gallipoli (1981) One of the earliest Australian productions to become an international hit, it was also the country’s most expensive film to date. The Allied campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula during 1915 was designed to spearhead an eventual attack on Constantinople (now Istanbul) that would quickly knock Turkey (an ally of Germany) out of the war. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and British troops landed on April 25, beginning a bloody eight-month struggle that ended in a stalemate. Still unknown to global audiences at the time, Mel Gibson’s career got a big boost from this Peter Weir film.
The Very Long Engagement (2004) French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet reteamed with his Amélie star Audrey Tautou for a love story/war movie/mystery that is in part horrifying, sad, and whimsical. It’s a balancing act that somehow always works to perfection. The story, which actually begins before the war and ends after it, concerns a pair of childhood friends come sweethearts whose love affair is derailed by The Great War. The scenes of trench warfare are appalling gruesome, while the romantic aspects are heartrending and uplifting.
Joyeux Noël (2005) The film is based on the actual spontaneous stoppages of the war along the trenches of No Man’s Land on Christmas Eve 1914 during which soldiers from opposing sides laid down their arms for several hours and interacted peacefully (yes, there were consequences for doing so in several cases). The European co-production features a number of first-rate actors from multiple countries speaking their native tongues in this tour du force by French writer-director Christian Carion.
Those are the highlights of a century of filmmaking with World War I as its subject (with possible apologies to Italian director Mario Monicelli’s 1959 film The Great War, which I have yet to see). These films are great, one and all, but it does strike me that it’s much too short a list for an event of such magnitude in human history. Perhaps there are other impressive films yet to be made, but for now, The First World War has been surprisingly neglected.
Kevin Kretschmer is a librarian at the Franklin Avenue Library, a branch of the Des Moines Public Library. He has a B.A. in journalism from the University of Iowa, an M.A. in Film Studies, also from the University of Iowa, and an M.L.I.S. in Library and Information Studies from Dominican University. He has previously worked as a film reviewer for The Daily Iowan, in Iowa City, as an entertainment journalist/film reviewer for the news service All My Features, in Chicago, and, more recently, wrote the Media Musings: Mad About Movies, Music, and More blog for the Des Moines Public Library.