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World War I: rarely covered on film

World War II has inspired far more movies than any other war, which is understandable, given the sharp demarcation between good and evil that characterized the battle against Hitler and his allies. By contrast, World War I is rarely depicted on the screen. It doesn’t offer the same moral clarity as the fight against fascist tyranny. In one of the best World War I movies, Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli,” a hermit living in the Australian outback asks the young hero how the war started. “I don’t know exactly,” the eager recruit replies, “but it was the Germans’ fault.”

That muddled sense of purpose may explain why filmmakers have shied away from the Great War, as it was known before people dreamed there might be even more devastating conflagrations on the horizon.

Nevertheless, some great directors besides Weir — Jean Renoir, David Lean and Stanley Kubrick among them — have found rich, dramatic material on the battlefields of World War I. Now Steven Spielberg begs to be compared to those masters in his new opus, “War Horse.” But he doesn’t match their achievements. He doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable in this terrain as he was when he directed “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” two World War II movies for which he won Oscars. (Spielberg also helped to produce two acclaimed World War II miniseries for television, “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.”)

One reason for Spielberg’s current failure may be found in his taste for easy emotional uplift. But another factor is undoubtedly the confusing moral landscape of World War I. The disappointment of “War Horse” becomes even more glaring if you look back at some of the landmark movies that did capture the chaos of the 20th century’s first major war.

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The early films about WWI, including “Wings,” honored at the first Oscars, tried to celebrate the heroism in this conflict. Those simplistic movies don’t really capture the monumental impact of the war — the loss of life (an estimated 15 million soldiers and civilians killed) and the loss of core beliefs in an orderly universe. Many major writers expressed the profound sense of dislocation this worldwide upheaval had produced. W.B. Yeats wrote in 1921, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

The first important movie to express this despairing point of view was Lewis Milestone’s film of Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which won Academy Awards for best picture and best director in 1930. It was an unusual Hollywood movie for the period, since it was told from the point of view of German soldiers and emphasized the futility of their search for meaning in the conflict.

In 1937, as Europe was edging toward another conflict, Renoir made “Grand Illusion” to remind the world of the sacrifices of World War I. It was the first foreign language film to be nominated for best picture, and in its three-dimensional view of both French and German soldiers, it brought a deep spirit of humanism to its portrayal of wasteful, meaningless combat.

Most of the important movies since then have sustained this pointed antiwar message. Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) features electrifying battle scenes, shot with hand-held camera, in which French soldiers are ordered to mount a futile charge against a German fort. The film is not just antiwar but also anti-authority; it scathingly criticizes the arrogance of aristocratic officers sending their men off on a hopeless mission.

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Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” the Oscar-winning best picture of 1962, offers a more complex point of view. Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence is a genuinely heroic figure, pushing himself to almost superhuman limits, though the script (by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson) also observes the neurotic lust for blood and glory that drives him. If the film finds more triumph in the First World War than many other movies, this may be because it examines a lesser-known part of that conflict — the Arab revolt against the Turks, fueled by their dream of independence. This brilliant film has never lost its relevance, and it seems startlingly prescient today, when a new series of Arab revolts are roiling the Middle East.

A few more movies deserve to join this list of memorable evocations of World War I. Weir’s “Gallipoli” (1981) is one of the most heartbreaking, since it draws us close to its naïve Aussie protagonists (Mark Lee and a very young Mel Gibson), whose idealism is destroyed by the savagery they confront on a Turkish battlefield. The poetic final images freeze the sense of inconsolable loss.

The most vivid scenes in Edward Zwick’s uneven “Legends of the Fall” (1994) are the harrowing World War I battle scenes when Brad Pitt’s character fails to save the life of his younger brother, played by Henry Thomas. French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet took a more fanciful approach to the futility of the war in “A Very Long Engagement,” his 2004 film about a stubborn woman (Audrey Tautou) who tries to discover what happened to her fiancé during the hellish battle of the Somme.

The battle scenes in “War Horse” recall several of these earlier films without quite equaling their impact, perhaps partly because Spielberg is working too hard to find some relief from the darkness. A climactic scene in “War Horse” comes when a British and a German soldier join forces to rescue a horse entangled in barbed wire. This scene of cooperation between enemy soldiers echoes an Oscar-nominated French film from 2006, “Joyeux Noel,” based on a famous incident of British, French and German soldiers crossing battle lines to celebrate Christmas together in 1914. But that poignant French film has a more biting point to make; it goes on to chronicle the punishment ordered by higher authorities against the soldiers who tried to find a shred of common humanity amid warfare.

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By contrast, Spielberg’s simpler affirmation of comradeship rings hollow. Certainly, he knows how to stage an effective battle scene, but any larger themes are subordinated to the sentimental reunion of a boy and his horse, as John Williams’ overbearing music soars. Unlike some of the other directors that have turned their camera on the horrific waste of World War I, Spielberg has labored to make a feel-good movie about a war that undercut all possibility of hope and glory.

calendar@latimes.com


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