The so-called Great War and its movies

The First World War, called The Great War before a worse one followed it, created some exceptional cinema. Why is that?

Perhaps, it’s the timing. The ascendancy of feature-length films happened as the war was being fought. Another possibility: World War 1 was so horrible, and yet so pointless (we weren’t fighting fascism yet), that it makes a great background for an anti-war film.

Here are my ten thirteen favorite World War 1 movies. I’ve listed them in the order they were made, so that the first films come almost from the front.

[Note on 10/24/2021: Soon after I posted this article, I realized that I missed three very important films. So I wrote a second article. I have now combined the two.]

And yes, I should have written this article two years ago, in the centenary year of 2018.

A Shoulder Arms (USA, 1918)

I know, this isn’t a feature film, but audiences came to see the Charlie Chaplin short, not the alleged feature. Chaplin took a big risk making a war comedy while the conflict was raging in Europe. Would those with relatives overseas (dead as well as alive) laugh at the mass killing of young men? (On the other hand, people were dying like flies from influenza at home.) And yet the movie, which opened less than a month before the armistice, was a huge success. And for a good reason: It’s very funny. There’s something very special about Charlie disguised as a tree, chased through a forest.

A- J’Accuse! (France, 1919)

Abel Gance creates both a massive, three-hour epic and an intimate love triangle, all set over the full four years of World War 1. The film was shot during the last months of the war and the first months after the armistice. Some of the battle scenes were shot in a real battle. Gance shows us the horrors of war, but I can’t quite call J’Accuse! an anti-war movie. War becomes a main character’s redemption. No one ever suggests that this war is pointless. The Germans are treated as cruel and evil brutes. Gance’s French patriotism slides troublingly towards nationalism. Read my Blu-ray review.

A The Big Parade (USA, 1925)

One of the best films about World War 1, made while the war was still a recent memory. John Gilbert, sans mustache, plays a spoiled rich kid who signs up almost on a lark, enjoys fun and games safely behind the lines, falls in love with a French girl (neither speaks the other’s language; a perfect romance for a silent film), and then is dropped into an unrelenting Hell. The only thing that keeps me from giving this film an A+ is an expensive battle scene that the studio added against director King Vidor’s wishes.

B+ Wings (USA, 1927)

Most WWI movies are set on the ground. This was the first about those who fought in the air. A big epic of flyboys at war, it took its time developing the atmosphere and characters, and foreshadowing an important death. When the action starts, we’re entirely invested. The two leads, Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Richard Arlen, give realistic and subtle performances. There’s a moment when Arlen’s character is receiving a medal, and the weary sadness and confusion on his face speaks more volumes than any dialog ever could. The wonderful Clara Bow, despite her top billing, is wasted here as the ingenue. Read my SF Silent Film Festival report.

A All Quiet on the Western Front (USA, 1930)

The first great American talkie is also a war movie delivered with a powerful anti-war message. When war breaks out, a young, naïve German student patriotically and enthusiastically volunteers for the grand adventure. What he finds instead is a non-stop hellhole with no good guys or bad guys…just losers no matter what side they’re on. Universal made separate talkie and silent versions; both are excellent. Read my SF Silent Film Festival report.

A+ Grand Illusion (France, 1937)

Set mostly in prisoner-of-war camps, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece finds sympathy between both sides of the conflict. Grand Illusion sets such differences as nationality and class against the healing power of our common humanity. The French prisoners and their German guards try their best to be civilized in a world where civilization is all but outlawed. Jean Gabin stars as a French officer of common stock, but you’ll likely remember Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German facing the end of his way of life. One of the last WW1 films made before WW2. Read my A+ appreciation.

A The African Queen (USA/Great Britain, 1951)

Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Africa, and Technicolor all make for splendid entertainment in John Huston’s romantic comedy action adventure. The start of the war traps an earthy, working-class mechanic (Bogart) and a prim and proper missionary (Hepburn) behind enemy lines and hundreds of miles of jungle. It’s a bum and a nun on the run, facing rapids, insects, alcohol (he’s for it; she’s against it), German guns, and an unusual (for Hollywood) romance between two moderately-attractive middle-aged people in filthy clothes. See my Blu-ray review.

A+ Paths of Glory (USA, 1957)

Stanley Kubrick doesn’t just show us that war is hell. He illustrates how helpless men go through that hell for the benefit of powerful men. When an impossible mission inevitably fails, the officers who planned the fiasco get off the hook by arranging for three enlisted men to be tried for cowardice – convictions and executions are foregone conclusions. After all, three executions is easier than admitting the generals’ mistakes. Kirk Douglas plays the honorable officer who tilts at the windmills of corrupted military justice. Read my A+ report.

A+ Lawrence of Arabia (USA/England, 1962)

Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T.E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. It also shows a very different theater of the war. Read my A+ appreciation.

A King of Hearts (France/Italy, 1966)

Few World War 1 films are as funny, and none so magical, as Philippe de Broca’s charming comedy. A Scottish soldier is sent to deactivate a time bomb that will soon destroy a small, French village. The townsfolk have run away, but the inhabitants of the local insane asylum are suddenly free to do what they want. These gentle souls create a community far kinder and much more delightful than the war outside the city’s walls. Georges Delerue’s brilliant musical score turns a somewhat silly fable into a glorious fantasy.

A- Gallipoli (Australia, 1981)

Two young, exceptional sprinters (Mark Lee and Mel Gibson) meet at a competition, become friends, and go to war almost for a lark. At first, it all seems like fun–especially when they’re in Egypt and acting like first-world tourists in a third-world country. But then they’re shipped off to Turkey, where the British use the Australians as cannon fodder. The turning point is a visual masterpiece: handsome and happy young men frolic and swim in a bay…until shrapnel starts hitting the water’s surface.

A+ They Shall Not Grow Old (England/Australia, 2018)

I generally disapprove of colorizing and other technologies that make old movies look new, but this is different. The British cameramen who, more than 100 years ago, shot what would become Peter Jackson’s World War 1 documentary were recording reality, not creating art. Jackson’s team took jerky, flat, black-and-white, and badly-worn newsreels, and turned them into smooth, colorful, 3D records of a long-lost past. It’s not always perfect; occasionally the faces look painted, but for the most part, it put me in the trenches to a degree I never experienced before.