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Lawrence of Arabia is certainly one of the more memorable epics to deal with World War I, but filmmakers through the decades have deftly covered most theaters of combat and aspects of the war.

‘Great War’ Films

By Richard Farmer
4/30/2015 • Military History Magazine

July 2014 marked the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, and museums, archives and governments worldwide will continue commemorations through November 2018. While exhibits of uniforms, weapons, vehicles and other artifacts will certainly help illuminate the causes, conduct and consequences of the war, those seeking a more personal and visceral perspective can turn to a host of feature and documentary films that detail virtually every aspect of that first truly global conflict. If we’ve missed any classic films, or you have your own favorites, comment below and get the conversation started.

Among the first motion pictures to depict World War I’s grim realities was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) [ Watch on CinemaNow ], and it remains one of the best. Based on the eponymous novel by wartime German army veteran Erich Maria Remarque, the film follows a group of German friends as they transition from students to soldiers and experience the insanity and horrors of war firsthand. All Quiet depicts life and death in the trenches with unflinching realism that shocked audiences of the time. It also captures the alienation soldiers often feel while home on leave that makes them long to return to the front. Released by Universal Pictures when the war remained fresh in people’s minds, the film may have led star Lew Ayres to declare himself a conscientious objector early in World War II, though he served in the Pacific as a medic. A television version, airing in 1979, features sturdy performances by Richard Thomas (John-Boy of The Waltons fame), Ernest Borgnine and Donald Pleasence.

The Fighting 69th (1940) [ Watch on CinemaNow ] is based on the exploits of the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment, which at the outset of the war was folded into the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. While the central character, Jerry Plunkett (James Cagney), is fictional, other characters are based on actual members of the 69th, including Medal of Honor recipient Major William “Wild Bill” Donovan, poet Sergeant Joyce Kilmer and military chaplain Father Francis Duffy. Structured around actual events, the story line relates the transformation of young tough Plunkett into a solid, self-sacrificing soldier. Along the way the movie introduces viewers to the difficulties America faced in raising an army capable of participating in the largest war the world had yet seen.

‘While York’s marksmanship stood out, he was otherwise typical of millions of men from rural America who, despite their limited understanding of the war and its causes, left home to do their duty as they saw it’

Moving from the city to the country, Sergeant York (1941) [ Watch on CinemaNow ] profiles real-life doughboy Alvin York, a pacifist from rural Tennessee whose change of heart regarding combat led to action that earned him the Medal of Honor. Starring Gary Cooper, with perennial co-star Walter Brennan as his hometown pastor, the film addresses York’s attempt to claim conscientious objector status on religious grounds and the negative view many Americans then held of anyone taking such a moral stand. The action that brought him fame is only a small part of a movie focused more on personal character. While York’s marksmanship stood out, he was otherwise typical of millions of men from rural America who, despite their limited understanding of the war and its causes, left home to do their duty as they saw it. After repeated refusals, York finally agreed to authorize the movie in order to finance construction of a Bible school.

Paths of Glory (1957), director Stanley Kubrick’s first significant box office success, is loosely based on mutinies in the French army in the spring and early summer of 1917. In order to quell dissent among frontline units, France’s military and political leaders ordered mass trials of the mutineers, more than 40 of whom faced execution. Paths of Glory depicts one such trial. It is an intense film, and Kirk Douglas is riveting as Colonel Dax, an officer assigned to defend three of his soldiers arbitrarily charged with cowardice. An ironic footnote is an appearance by actor Wayne Morris, a decorated seven-victory U.S. Navy fighter ace during World War II, in the role of a cowardly lieutenant.

A classic film that encompasses not only the war but also the social upheaval it wrought is Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937). Captured by the Germans, two French aviators, aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and working-class Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are transferred from several POW camps after failed escape attempts. Arriving at a fortressed mountain prison, de Boeldieu enjoys a more comfortable relationship with camp commandant Rittmeister von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) than with fellow Frenchmen of lesser pedigree (the noblemen often converse in English so French and German subordinates won’t understand them). Still, de Boeldieu agrees to provide a distraction for an ultimately successful escape by Maréchal and nouveau riche French Jew Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). Shot by a reluctant von Rauffenstein, de Boeldieu dies pitying his German counterpart, who must adjust to the upended postwar world they both foresee.

Among the many surrealist looks at the war, one of the most entertaining is director Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966), a comedy-drama that takes a literal view of the conflict’s insanity. Sent to a French town to disarm a bomb planted by the retreating Germans, a kilt-wearing Scottish soldier (Alan Bates) finds it populated by escapees from the local insane asylum, whom he mistakes for the townspeople, who have fled. While trying to find the bomb, the young soldier tries to make sense of the residents’ antics, leading to a surprising but fitting ending.

Looking beyond the war of attrition on the Western Front, some movies remind viewers it was a global conflict. In 1932, for example, two films depicted the Italian front. The Doomed Battalion, co-directed by Cyril Gardner and war veteran and champion skier Luis Trenker (who wrote and stars in the film), deals with a unit of Austrian mountain troops holding a position 12,000 feet in the Tyrolean Alps against an Italian force that occupies the town in the valley below where most of the Austrians’ families reside. That year also saw the release of Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1941) [ Watch on CinemaNow ], based on the semiautobiographical novel by Ernest Hemingway. Although less notable for the horrors of war in Italy than for the romance between the American medical volunteers played by Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, the film won two Academy Awards.

Moving to the Middle East, Gallipoli (1981) [ Watch on CinemaNow ] relates the futility of the failed 1915–16 Allied campaign in the Dardanelles against the German-allied Ottoman empire through the eyes of two Australian friends, portrayed by actors Mark Lee and a pre–Mad Max Mel Gibson. Like many, if not most, of their contemporaries, these young men start out as idealists in search of adventure, only to be confronted by the war’s brutal realities. Peter Weir directed this critically acclaimed Australian film.

While Gallipoli bogs down in bloody stalemate, the sweeping desert epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) [ Watch on CinemaNow ] centers on the bold exploits of legendary British officer T.E. Lawrence, who convinced the disparate tribes of the Arabian Peninsula to revolt against their Ottoman overlords. Although based on historical characters and events, the film takes literary license in many areas and generally advances the legend more than the real man—who, for one thing, was much shorter than starring actor Peter O’Toole. Directing the film was David Lean, who also related Russia’s World War I experience of revolution, civil war and communist domination in his monumental and hugely entertaining 1965 film Doctor Zhivago.

For a unique take on the war in a forgotten corner of the world, there is no better film than The African Queen (1951) [ Watch on CinemaNow ]. Directed by John Huston and set in German East Africa, it spins the tale of a grizzled, hard-drinking Canadian riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart), a British missionary (Katherine Hepburn) and the rundown eponymous vessel they plan to take downriver to Lake Tanganyika and there transform it into a makeshift torpedo in order to sink the enemy gunboat Queen Louisa. Very loosely based on events in the region, the film was shot in Africa—reportedly so Huston could go elephant hunting—and is a delightful change from most adventure films of the period, which were largely shot on Hollywood soundstages. The film gave Bogart his first real opportunity to play someone other than a smooth gangster, and the role won him the 1951 Academy Award for best leading actor.

While many films thrilled audiences with tales of dashing, scarf-wearing World War I aviators, most of the films made in the 1920s and ’30s are more memorable for their aerial stunt work than their often-hokey screenplays. Among the best of the genre is the silent film Wings (1927) [ Watch on CinemaNow ], directed by former Lafayette Flying Corps fighter pilot William Wellman and starring Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow and Gary Cooper (in a brief appearance that helped launch his career). The film was also the first to receive the Academy Award for best picture. Howard Hughes’ 1930 action film Hell’s Angels is better remembered for its spectacular dogfight sequence—arguably the last of its kind—and for Jean Harlow than for its story. The same might be said for its contemporary, director Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol, with Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a film whose flying sequences were reused in a far more dashing 1938 Edmund Goulding remake starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven.

Perhaps the best combination of an engrossing story mated to convincing air action is John Guillermin’s The Blue Max (1966) [ Watch on CinemaNow ]. The film follows German Army Air Service Lieutenant Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), a cynical field-commissioned officer of low birth who seeks to rise through the ranks by achieving acedom and attaining the Pour le Mérite—the fabled Blue Max award for extraordinary valor. The movie’s array of aircraft (most modified from 1930s de Havilland Tiger Moths and Stampe SV.4 biplane trainers) saw much use in later and lesser films, but The Blue Max, co-starring James Mason, Jeremy Kemp and Ursula Andress, still holds up admirably.

More dubious is the mixture of replica and computer-generated aircraft that inhabit Flyboys (2006), a movie based on French fighter squadron N.124, better known as the Lafayette Escadrille, whose pilots were largely American volunteers. The film characters are loosely based on real members of either the escadrille or the Lafayette Flying Corps, which channeled excess volunteers to other units. An example of the latter is “Skinner,” a black member of N.124 based on Eugene Bullard, a bone fide lightweight boxing champion who served in the Foreign Legion before qualifying as a pilot and flying with escadrilles N.93 and SPA 85. Sorry to say, most of the actual flyboys serving in N.124 were vastly more interesting than anyone in this cast, and the film’s dogfights generally pit Nieuport 17s against Fokker Dr.I triplanes—German fighters nobody in the Lafayette Escadrille ever encountered during its time at the front.

If documentaries are more to your liking, several provide excellent footage and commentary.

Produced by CBS and narrated by actor Robert Ryan, the three-disc series The Complete Story: World War I (1963) features black-and-white historical film clips from the era. Generally viewing the war from a U.S. perspective, it relates the controversial sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania and events on the home front, including opposition to the United States’ entry in the conflict. The series does venture beyond Western Europe, however, to explore the Allied intervention in Russia (see “First Shots of the Cold War,” by Anthony Brandt, May) in the wake of its 1917 revolution and to discuss how the war prompted the rise of communism and fascism in postwar Europe. Bonus episodes cover a range of headline prewar events, including Robert Peary’s 1909 journey to the North Pole and the 1912 sinking of the British liner RMS Titanic, as well as such postwar events as Prohibition and women’s suffrage.

The more recent five-disc Trenches: Battleground WWI (2006), an eight-episode series with three bonus episodes, combines frontline footage and photographs with no-nonsense narration some viewers might find dry. Actors liven up the script with period quotes from soldiers, leaders and civilians, and the producers include interviews with veterans of both the Allied and Central Powers forces. One annoying aspect for the purist, however, is that the producers have reused footage—sometimes in mirror image—to illustrate different battles.

The First World War (2003) is a well-produced four-disc, 10-episode series that combines period black-and-white footage with color segments from recent visits to key locations and incorporates clips from postwar movies to illustrate certain battles. The script features passages from the journals and letters of everyday soldiers and citizens, as well as quotes from political and military leaders. Voice actors provide much of the narration, though the producers use period recordings of wartime leaders whenever possible. The narrative style is more personal than that in Trenches and less dramatic than Robert Ryan’s delivery in The Complete Story. The series devotes several episodes to Africa, the Middle East and other overseas locales largely ignored in the other documentaries.

If you want a break from the forced march of a documentary series, consider two outstanding recent single-episode documentaries, The Last Day of World War One (2008) and Paris 1919 (2009).

The Last Day of World War One, an episode of the British television series Timewatch, is among the most captivating documentaries about the war, in which narrator Michael Palin recounts the events on Nov. 11, 1918, the day fighting ceased on the Western Front. It also features commentary by Joseph E. Persico, author of Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918. In one scene illustrative of the war’s lasting legacy, Palin examines a pile of relics, including unexploded ordnance, recently unearthed by a farmer. The program ends with the stories of the last men killed in action just before the armistice went into effect at 11 a.m., the unnecessary loss of life and the controversy that resulted.

Paris 1919 is a unique docudrama based on the postwar framing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended hostilities between Germany and the Allies. It combines actor portrayals of the major participants with narrated period footage and photos of the Paris Peace Conference and its participants. The film focuses on the background and behind-the-scenes events of the conference, including how cartographers redrew the map of Europe and how economists and accountants sought to calculate the massive monetary damages inflicted by the Germans. It also re-creates private discussions among the primary Allied leaders as they work out a strategy to punish Germany for the war and keep it from regaining its prewar strength. At times actors address the camera directly, bringing the audience into the moment. The production is entertaining enough to hold a casual viewer’s attention and informative enough for anyone interested in the history behind the war’s end.

Richard Farmer retired as a master sergeant after a 34-year Army career, in which he served with the 101st Airborne Division, the 24th Infantry Division and various units of the Ohio Army National Guard. He deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008. For further reading Farmer recommends Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, by Joseph E. Persico; All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque; and Father Duffy’s Story: A Tale of Humor and Heroism, of Life and Death With the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, by Francis P. Duffy.

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