6 Essential World War I Films

In 2010, Peter Jackson delivered a list to Total Film of his six favorite WWI movies. Gallipoli (1981) was one of them and Jackson wrote the following:

The film has some historic flaws – the climatic Lighthorse charge on the Nek at Gallipoli on August 1915 was not doomed because the ‘British were drinking tea on the beach’, as the film claims. It was doomed because while the Australians charged the Nek from below, the New Zealanders, who were supposed to simultaneously attack from above, didn’t show up. But that’s another story, one i’d love to make as the 100th anniversary gets closer.

Well, the anniversary is here, Sir Peter. While we’re waiting for that movie, we’ll have to settle for Jackson and Weta Creative Director Richard Taylor’s “trench experience” at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, opening in April.

When you’re writing about movies portraying World War II, there are so many of them you have to divide them into two categories – pure action/comedy adventures à la The Guns of Navarone (1961) and dramas like Schindler’s List (1993). When it comes to World War I, very few films have been made in comparison. But they are usually of the latter category, earnest dramas that address the pointlessness and brutality of war. World War I is rarely an adventure, perhaps because it is known as one of those wars that seems so unnecessary in hindsight. It’s easier to have fun with a war that is so clearly defined as good vs. evil as World War II.

Still, the centennial anniversary is here. I’m not out to surprise you, but these are six essential films about the Great War:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – One of the earliest Oscar Best Picture Winners shows World War I from the German perspective, but is universal in its depiction of enthusiastic teenagers hoping to get some excitement out of war but only experiencing pain and misery. Technically very sophisticated for its time, with a few unforgettable images. Also benefits from the fact that it was made only a decade after the end of the war.

Grand Illusion (1937) – One of the masterpieces of 1930s French cinema tells the story of class relationships between French prisoners of war in a German camp during WWI. One of Jean Renoir’s greatest films, it has Erich von Stroheim in his most memorable part as a German aristocrat. Much like All Quiet on the Western Front, this film made an effort to emphasize what we all have in common rather than what sets us apart.

Sergeant York (1941) – Most of the films I’ve included on this list shows soldiers realizing the stupidity of this war. Howard Hawks’s movie on the other hand celebrates the heroism of Alvin York, one of the most decorated American soldiers in the war. As portrayed by Gary Cooper, York joins the Army as a conscientious objector but turns out to be an excellent marksman and  kills to save his comrades in arms. Benefiting from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film is still one of the most successful ever at the box office.

Paths of Glory (1957) – One of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest films portrays the utter stupidity of military leadership that ends in the execution of French soldiers who refuse to obey orders that would result in suicide. The original book by Humphrey Cobb was first turned into a Broadway play, but it alienated audiences because of its harsh anti-war sentiments. It seems people needed a second world war in order to understand better.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – Perhaps the closest one comes to a World War I adventure, although this one does have plenty of darkness in its portrayal of the British Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and his efforts to unite Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire. Has its battle sequences, but it’s easy to forget the war as the film focuses intensely on Lawrence and his experiences in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Gallipoli (1981) – Peter Weir’s film depicts one of the most unfortunate Allied campaigns of the war from the perspective of the Australians and New Zealanders who bled in it. The script paints the British as entirely responsible for the disaster, which is false, but it is nevertheless a vivid and beautiful portrait of regular guys who came from the Australian countryside to fight in a war that didn’t really concern them.

The clip above shows the final scene from All Quiet on the Western Front. The ultimate symbol of that war?

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