World War I inspired some cinematic masterpieces. Here are a few of them
It was the “war to end all wars.”
Sadly, that was far from true.
But World War I, which took place from 1914 to 1918 with the U.S. joining the fight in France in 1917, changed the world and warfare forever.
Though young men went to war for the adventure and the romance and had patriotic stars in their eyes, they soon found themselves in small trenches dealing with snipers, rain, snow, gas, rats and bombs.
A film set in World War I often focuses on the horrors and futility of war. World War II movies tend to be stories of victory.
Many of those who survived came home with post-traumatic stress disorder. But no one really knew what it was or how to handle it. The vets suffered from lost limbs, shell shock and weak lungs due to exposure to gas, as well as depression and drug addiction. And like today’s veterans, many had a hard time finding jobs and were homeless and living on the streets while fighting their demons.
The Great War has inspired filmmakers over the past century to create a number of works, many of them masterpieces and almost all with antiwar themes.
The latest is a new film from Oscar-winner Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”). His “1917” opened Christmas Day. Nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, “1917” is personal to Mendes — the film is based on a portion of a story his grandfather told him about the war.
Here are some of the other films about World War I.
“The Big Parade” (1925)
World War I was so traumatizing that it was seven years after the conflict ended before Hollywood looked back at the horrors of the hostilities. “Big Parade,” directed by King Vidor and produced by MGM, was initially envisioned as a low-budget film featuring studio heartthrob John Gilbert. But during the production, the studio realized it was an epic in the making.
Based on Laurence Stallings’ autobiographical story, “Plumes,” the film follows a rich young man (Gilbert) who joins the U.S. Army’s Rainbow Division and is sent to France, where he loses a leg in the conflict. Renée Adoree plays the young French girl with whom he falls in love; Karl Dane is one of the working-class friends he makes during combat.
Lauded by critics and embraced by audiences — it played for a staggering 96 weeks at the Astor Theatre in New York City — the film was the studio’s biggest box-office hit until 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”
Winner of the first best picture Oscar, this rip-roaring World War I romance-action-drama was the first to depict the brutality of the air combat aspect of the war. Directed by William A. Wellman, a decorated combat pilot during the war, “Wings” follows the adventures of two small-town rivals — played by Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen — who become ace flyboys in France. Clara Bow, the “It” girl, plays the vivacious young woman who grew up with both men and joins the war effort as an ambulance driver.
A young Gary Cooper gives the film’s best performance in his two-minute scene as an ill-fated young pilot with a penchant for a Hershey bar. The highlight of the film is the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which Wellman rehearsed for 10 days with 3,500 infantrymen. Some 300 pilots were used in the film, with the United States Army Air Corps supplying planes and pilots.
“Wings” also raised some eyebrows with a quick glimpse of a topless Bow, as well as for a scene with two men kissing.
“Hell’s Angels” (1930)
Martin Scorsese re-created a lot of the production of Howard Hughes’ high-flying World War I aviation classic in 2004’s “The Aviator.” Originally a silent, Hughes went back and re-shot a lot of the footage with the advent of the talkies. Ben Lyon, James Hall and teenage Jean Harlow star in this expensive classic about two British brothers who enlist in the Royal Flying Corps.
A young James Whale directed the talkie sequences while Hughes helmed and designed the dogfighting sequences. Aerial cinematographer Elmer Dyer supplied the astonishing footage of air combat. The legendary Paul Mantz was the principal stunt pilot, and the rest of the flyboys were made up of former World War I pilots.
Hughes flew one of the most dangerous of stunts only to crash his plane and end up with a skull fracture. Three pilots and a mechanic were killed during the production. One of the highlights of the film takes place in the German zeppelin airship. When the airship is being attacked by British planes, the commander decides to jettison as much as he can to gain altitude and speed, even sending his crew to their deaths as they jump out of the dirigible.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930)
Winner of a best picture Academy Award and an Oscar for director Lewis Milestone, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is one of the greatest antiwar films produced by Hollywood in the 20th century. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s bestseller, the drama follows the harrowing exploits of young, fresh-faced German soldier Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), who with six of his best friends begins World War I as a patriotic soldier fighting for the Fatherland.
As his friends die in the trenches, however, Paul becomes a world-weary soldier sick of the mud, the smell of death, the rain and the constant sniper fire. One of the greatest scenes finds Paul trapped in a foxhole overnight with a dying French soldier. Equally powerful is a Last Supper-style sequence in which the soldiers pass blood-soaked bread and a bottle of cognac. And you may feel like you’ve been punched in the gut with the last scene — when Paul’s hand reaches for a butterfly before he’s shot dead by a sniper.
“Grand Illusion” (1937 in France; 1938 in the U.S.)
Jean Renoir’s World War I masterpiece, of which Orson Welles once said, “If I had only one film in the world to save, it would be ‘Grand Illusion,’” was the first foreign-language film to be nominated for best picture.
Like Wellman, Renoir was a World War I vet. He served in the French army, where he was shot in the leg. He later became a reconnaissance pilot.
It’s an exceptional film that Renoir imbues with his trademark humanism. Set in 1916, the film revolves around a German air ace (Erich von Stroheim) who shoots down a spy plane that carries a wealthy captain (Pierre Fresnay) and a working-class lieutenant (Jean Gabin, wearing Renoir’s own French Flying Corp uniform).
“Sergeant York” (1941)
Released three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, “Sergeant York” hearkens back to the Great War and hero Alvin C. York, who hailed from humble roots in Tennessee. York was a religious pacifist and wanted to register as a conscientious objector but was persuaded to enlist.
He became one of the most decorated Army soldiers, receiving the Medal of Honor for killing at least 25 enemy soldiers and capturing 132 when he led an attack on a German machine-gun nest. York insisted that Gary Cooper, who was 40 at the time of production, play him. And though he was 10 years older than York was during the war, it turned out to be perfect casting.
The film went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1941 and received 11 Oscar nominations, with “York” earning lead actor for Cooper, who would later say he and York had quite a few things in common. “We both were raised in the mountains — Tennessee for him, Montana for me — and learned to ride and shoot as a natural part of growing up,” he said, adding that it was his favorite film but not because he won the Academy Award. “I liked the role because of the background of the picture, and because I was portraying a good, sound American character.”
“Paths of Glory” (1957)
The emotional wallop of Stanley Kubrick’s exceptional World War I drama is tough to forget.
Produced by and starring Kirk Douglas, “Paths of Glory” explores the madness of a war where commanders throw young men into battle knowing there is no hope of them coming back alive. In the film, a general (Adolphe Menjou) convinces another general (George Macready) he can advance his career if he leads a successful attack on an impossible outpost called the Anthill. Douglas’ Colonel Dax leads the men into this insane battle and suffers huge loses. Both generals refuse to accept responsibility for the defeat, so they choose three men from the regiment and charge them with cowardice. Dax, an attorney, tries to defend the men.
The battle sequence is harrowing. Shot on location in Germany, the trenches were made 6 feet wide — they were usually 4 feet — to accommodate the cameras. Kubrick later said, “For this sequence, we had six cameras, one behind the other on a long dolly track which ran parallel to the attack. The battlefield was divided into five ‘dying zones,’ and each extra was given a number ranging from one to five to ‘die’ in that zone, if possible, near an explosion.’ ”
“King and Country” (1964)
Joseph Losey directed this heart-rending World War I drama that doesn’t feature a battle sequence. It revolves around a young, naive soldier (Tom Courtenay) who, after enduring three years in the trenches, walks away and attempts to return home. Dirk Bogarde plays the officer assigned to defend the young man, who obviously is suffering from shell shock.
Initially made in a studio for television, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where Courtenay took home the award for best actor. Though the theatrical release was not successful at the box office, “King and Country” ended up earning four BAFTA nominations. New York Times film critic Eugene Archer beautifully captured the film’s impact on the viewer, describing it as an “uncompromising film. Some of its scenes are so strong they shock.”
Peter Weir directed this stirring World War I drama about the all-volunteer army of young men from Australia and New Zealand who joined the British to fight in Europe. Though the men had no stake in the war — it would not affect their islands — they felt it was their patriotic duty.
The men are part of a doomed naval invasion of Turkey, where they are pinned down on the beach by a better-trained and more prepared enemy. The casualties were enormous. Weir and writer David Williamson immediately draw you into the action with the film’s two main characters, friends Archie (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson). The film won eight Australian Film Institute Awards, and both Weir and Gibson became international sensations.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” (2018)
Oscar-winning New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings” trilogy) has long been a World War I buff — his grandfather served with the 2nd South Wales Borderers during the conflict. And his love for the subject is palpable in this extraordinary documentary.
Given hundreds of hours of footage of World War I from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, Jackson and his team masterfully restored and colorized the material. Most of the voice-over is from World War I vets talking about their experiences, recordings that were found in the BBC archives.
In his review last year, L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan said one of the most “fascinating through lines is that almost all the young soldiers — and some were as young as 14 or 15 — enlisted because they thought it would be an adventure, over within months and too exciting to be missed. They soon found out differently, and we hear about the desolation, the dead bodies, the rats, the lice and the poison gas.”
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