Compared to the wealth of World War II movies out there, the filmography of the Great War is as scant as a Tommy’s rum ration. Ask someone to give an example of the 1914-18 war on screen and “Blackadder Goes Fourth” is as likely an answer as, say, All Quiet On The Western Front. But if the romance and uplift craved by Hollywood filmmakers were in conspicuously short supply in the muddy trenches of Flanders and the Somme, a disproportionate number of Great War movies now rate as masterpieces. Directors had to strive for new heights – emotional and technical – to capture the sheer savagery and senselessness of the conflict. With Steven Spielberg following the likes of Renoir, Kubrick and Milestone with War Horse, we’ve cast an eye back over the cinema of World War I...
Director: Rex Ingram
The guns had only been quiet for two years when this classic Great War flick wrapped. Rudolph Valentino (or, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, ‘Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina’) starred as an unusually dashing French poilu who fights bravely in the face of the apocalypse, while nursing a tender romantic subplot to his heart. Most famous for its tango scene, its battle scenes – particularly the ‘Miracle of Marne’ in 1914 – are still impressive. Contains as much noise and fury as could be squeezed into a silent movie, as well as an fairly stereotypical portrayal of the dreaded Hun.
Director: King Vidor
King Vidor brought World War I back home on a typically epic scale. Like Michael Cimino and The Deer Hunter 50 years later, his interest lay in showing war’s grievous impact back home, but he threw in some thunderous battles, too, to show what the doughboys had faced at the front. Vidor’s silent spectacular was one of the highest grossing films of its time and earned plaudits from veterans for its depiction of the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918, the battle which more-or-less created the rock-hard reputation of the US Marines in one bloody bash (the site remains hallowed ground for the Corps). “War had not been explored from the realistic GI viewpoint", he complained at the time, "it was more based on songs like 'Over There' and songs of that sort”. Vidor changed all that with this pacifist masterpiece.
Director: William Wellman
A peerless portrayal of the air war over the trenches, spiced up with romance and derring-do, Wings pipped classics like Sunrise and The Crowd to win the first-ever Best Picture Oscar. There was a sweep and certainty to the air war that was perhaps missing in the mud and confusion of the trenches, which might explain why filmmakers like William Wellman, and the Howards – both Hawks and Hughes – took to the skies. This staple tale of innocence lost in flimsy biplanes thousands of feet above the front has been told and retold in films like Dawn Patrol (1938) and Aces High (1976) – even from a German perspective in 1966’s Blue Max – but rarely with such exuberance. Writer John Monk Saunders, the man behind Howard Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol and an army flier himself, should be credited with bringing a genuine sense of vérité to the dogfights.
Director: Howard Hughes
If you’ve seen The Aviator, you’ll know that for Howard Hughes, spectacle was everything. He designed this film’s dogfights and used 87 planes to recreate the bloody aerial combat over the Western Front. It was tough going – the shoot cost the lives of three pilots – and the World War I veterans Hughes had hired for the climactic battle refused to participate in the stunt, leaving the director to take to the cockpit. Needless to say, he crashed. Still, you can’t deny that the results of his efforts look spectacular onscreen, and proved an inspiration for George Lucas as he created the aerial dog-fights of Star Wars.
Director: Lewis Milestone
Famously, Lewis Milestone’s World War I classic found no favour with Hitler and his goose-stepping goons from Berlin, despite offering a German perspective on the conflict. The Nazis hated its anti-war message so much that they released rats in cinemas that were screening it before eventually banning altogether. But even Hitler, a veteran of the trenches himself, must have recognised its power and accuracy. Milestone shows the war through the eyes of young Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), who survives long enough to see it snuff out a generation around him, and the director’s technical wizardry still staggers, with virtuoso tracking shots, whistling whizz-bangs and thousands of extras lending realism to the centrepiece battles. But it’s in the moments of quiet furlough that he captures the poignancy of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel and the confused logic of this conflict. The heartbreaking ending eloquently sums up the pity of war.
Director: Jean Renoir
As famous clever-clogs Samuel Johnson once stated, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” and Jean Renoir shows why in his POW masterpiece. The director, a veteran of the war himself, had a thing or two to say about the futility of nations fighting to preserve a dying social order, or men killing out of misplaced idealism. His film hardly ventured to the Front but still laid bare the huge impact of World War I, not least on society itself. Its famous ending sees aristocrats Erich von Stroheim and Pierre Fresnay accepting that their era has passed, while the working class Jean Gabin and Jewish Marcel Dalio escape across the Alps to an uncertain future. “Frontiers are made by men”, points out Dalio's weary poilu, “nature doesn't give a damn”. Needless to say, Josef Goebbels banned the film, labelling Renoir “Cinematic enemy number one”, thus depriving German audiences of an anti-war masterpiece. Look out for its 75th anniversary restoration this year. In your face, Goebbels.
Director: Edmund Goulding
Of all the films about the Royal Flying Corps – Blackadder’s ‘20 Minuters’ – this one has the most moustaches. Fittingly, they belong to the faces of Errol Flynn and David Niven, a two-man debonair force that’s more than a match for anything the Hun can throw at them. They play a pair of RFC pilots, Captain Courtney and Lieutenant ‘Scotty’ Scott, whose devil-may-care attitude hardens as their squadron is gradually wiped out. With booze-soaked fliers and every mission an open invitation to a fiery death, Edmund Goulding’s terrific and surprisingly objective film was strong medicine for audiences on the verge of another European war. Still, the bit where Flynn almost single-handedly destroy the Kaiser’s war effort in one raid would have boosted moviegoers’ morale.
Director: Howard Hawks
Like a black-and-white Expendables, Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York is a straight-up tale of heroism served to a nation that, in 1941, needed rousing for another war. Unsurprisingly, considering the film’s propaganda role, the Germans don’t come out of it too well – they’re basically unusually sneaky cannon fodder for Gary Cooper’s doughboy – but the essence is the story of a good man doing his duty... and everyone else’s too.
Director: John Huston
John Huston’s adaptation of C. S. Forester’s novel is more romance than war flick, but it does dip a toe into the croc-infested waters of the German East Africa campaign. The Congo setting is a world away from the morass of the Western Front, with mozzies for mud and rapids rather than artillery to worry about, but the Germans, village-burning bounders to a man, are every bit as detestable as the World War II Nazis Bogart faced in Casablanca. Bogey and Katharine Hepburn’s impromptu mission to sink a German gunboat was a construct of the story, but it was inspired by the real Battle for Lake Tanganyika in 1915.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Alongside All Quiet On The Western Front and Grand Illusion, Stanley Kubrick’s movie is the greatest of all World War I films. After an ill-conceived attack on a heavily fortified German position called ‘the Ant Hill’, conniving French generals Adolphe Menjou and George Macready demand scapegoats to cover their own incompetence. The cruel show trial that follows sees three soldiers tried on trumped-up charges of cowardice, an injustice assailed by Kirk Douglas’s noble Colonel Dax, their advocate in the kangaroo court. The final scene, meanwhile, is a masterpiece of comradeship and compassion and one in the eye for anyone who thinks Kubrick is cold.
Director: David Lean
While David Lean’s great desert epic won’t need much introduction, the wartime history it depicts might. Those mahoosive camel charges and wrecked troop trains, so breathtaking on the big screen, don’t always tally with events (the Bedouin attack on Aqaba in 1917 was, in reality, a much smaller affair), but Lean’s epic dragged the much-neglected Arab Revolt and Middle East campaign into the popular consciousness.
Director: Richard Attenborough
Richard Attenborough’s first directorial feature is an enduring satire of the war. A musical, it uses the songs of the time to chart the conflict from origins to armistice, ending with a single shoot that lingers long in the mind: a sea of British graves stretching endlessly across a verdant landscape. The ensemble cast was a Who’s Who of British thesps (Bogarde! Gielgud! Olivier! Redgrave! Another Redgrave!), but it’s John Mills’s portrayal of General Haig, playing leapfrog as the casualty figures pour in, that best captures the madness. Not subtle, but certainly powerful.
Director: Jack Gold
Basically R.C. Sherriff’s play, Journey’s End, fitted with twin machine-guns and a propeller, this bleak British war film is set in the air but soaked in the fatalism of the trenches. Malcolm McDowell is the hard-drinking Stanhope figure, trying to hold his nerve, keep his squadron together and live up to the hero worship of newbie pilot Peter Frith. If you’re familiar with the play, you’ll know that things don’t end well for his RFC pilots, including nervy Simon Ward and old salt Christopher Plumme (pictured), as a series of spectacular dogfights does for them all. In contrast to propaganda flicks like Sergeant York, Aces High takes notions of heroism and duty and drops a bomb on them.
Director: Peter Weir
The film that launched Peter Weir and Mel Gibson onto the international stage, Gallipoli shows the war from Australia’s point of view, culminating in the futile, bloody Battle of the Nek against the Turks. Weir freights it with political meaning – the Anzacs are sent over the top while the Brits sip tea on the beach – as well as raw emotion. It’s become a key statement of Australian identity, as well as a seminal anti-war film.
Director: Ed Zwick
Ed Zwick’s historical pudding carried audiences from the prairies of Montana to the trenches of France and back again. Every inch the Hollywoodised take on the conflict and a self-conscious apeing of silver screen epics, the wartime elements are depicted with all the attention to detail you’d expect from the history buff behind Glory and, while brief, are probably the strongest scenes in the film. The unit Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn and Henry Thomas join, the 10th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, is shown in action at Ypres in 1915.
Director: Gilles MacKinnon
With terrific turns from Jonathan Pryce and Johnny Lee-Miller, and a view of the Great War that’s at once elegiac and gut-wrenching, Regeneration should have led on to bigger and better things for director Gilles MacKinnon. Sadly this moving, cordite-stained adaption of Pat Barker’s Booker Prize-winning trilogy never found the audience it deserved. More’s the pity: from its opening, an lingering overhead shot that impassively absorbs the full horror of no-man’s land, to subtle character studies of war poets Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) and Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce), it’s a brilliant exploration of trench warfare’s brutal impact on the psyche. Warning: includes actual poetry.
Director: William Boyd
Novelist William Boyd’s first film is set in the nervous lull before the first day of the Somme. It’s an unusual perspective on the bloodiest day in British history, showing the huge tension soldiers endured in the prelude to the big push and examining the nature of comradeship in the trenches. The platoon of stock characters, Cillian Murphy, Daniel Craig, Ben Whishaw and Danny Dyer among them, owe something to Sherriff’s Journey’s End, and the ending to Weir’s Gallipoli freeze-frame, but it's earnest and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s no spoiler to say that even 007, Q, The Scarecrow and, um, Danny Dyer stand no chance in the face of the German machine-guns.
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
A love story, mystery and war film all wrapped in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magical-realist touch, A Very Long Engagement harks back to the behind-the-lines love stories of Big Parade, Wings and Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, as well as the raw anger of Paths Of Glory. There’s the mindless folly of frontal attacks, shellshock, exploding airships, artillery fire and barbed wire as far as the eye can see, with Jeunet showing the blithe disregard for casualties that was a feature of the war for so long. Credit to production designer Aline Bonetto, whose recreation of the Somme battlefield (and 1920s France) earned her an Oscar nomination.
Director: Christian Carion
Most people know about the Christmas truce of 1914 – two armies spontaneously putting down their weapons to take part in a giant, international version of Secret Santa – but it took French director Christian Carion to see its dramatic potential. Of these films, it’s the closest in tone to War Horse, capturing a unique moment in the war with a high gloss sweep and romance you won’t find in hardbitten films like All Quiet On The Western Front or Paths Of Glory. The events of that famous festive period are seen through the eyes of six characters, including Diane Kruger’s opera singer and Daniel Brühl's hopeful young German, until the powers-that-be decide to cancel Christmas. With artillery.
Director: Jeremy Sims
Like the upcoming BBC adaptation of Birdsong, this underrated Aussie straight-to-DVD’er heads underground to show the subterranean struggle below the Western Front. A band of men from the Australian Tunnelling Company are, ahem, charged with blowing the German frontline into the middle of next frietag just in time for the Battle of Messines. This was not a good film to be (a) in the German frontline, or (b) a canary. It is, however, a pretty good film: no less an authority than Peter Jackson, who’s long been nursing plans to make a World War I film of his own, named it as one of his top films about the conflict.