10 great First World War films

With the definitive screen version of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms returning to cinemas to mark the centenary of the First World War, eyes front for our list of 10 of the best films set during World War I.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

It was on 28 July 1914 – a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked a diplomatic crisis across Europe – that the opening shots of ‘the war to end all wars’ were fired, as Austria-Hungary prepared to invade Serbia. On the eve of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4 August, with German forces occupying neutral Belgium, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey is said to have remarked: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Four years later, the First World War had claimed almost 17 million lives.

From now until 2018, the BFI is marking the centenary of World War I with a massive programmes of key films, archive TV, rereleases and archival discoveries. It begins in June with a season looking at the social and political landscape of Europe in the years before the outbreak of war, as well as the rerelease of a remarkable rediscovery. Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932) was the first adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s great novel, some 25 years before Charles Vidor’s more famous version with Rock Hudson. Though lesser known, the earlier film has a significant edge, Borzage choosing to jettison the spare muscularity of Hemingway’s prose in favour of his own swooningly romantic brand of sensual expressionism.

Gary Cooper (here at his best) is the American soldier drawn – first by lust, then by fate – to nurse Helen Hayes, a newly bereaved widow sucked into another doomed romance she has little power to resist. Borzage sculpts images and layers sequences with staggering virtuosity (aided by Charles Lang’s exquisite photography), building to a transcendent climax of which even Carl Dreyer would have been proud. There may not, ultimately, be all that much of Hemingway which finally remains, but it’s one of the finest films made about the generation that was lost to the war.

With A Farewell to Arms back in cinemas from 30 May, it’s time for a rundown of 10 more of the best movies set during the dark years of World War I.

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Director Charles Chaplin

“I was worried about getting an idea for my second picture,” wrote Charlie Chaplin in his autobiography. “Then the thought came to me: why not a comedy about the war? I told several friends of my intention, but they shook their heads. Said [Cecil B.] De Mille: ‘It’s dangerous at this time to make fun of the war.’ Dangerous or not, the idea excited me.”

Chaplin still had reservations about the finished film and came close to suppressing the whole venture. Of course it was a smash, its success perhaps going some way towards encouraging him to push even further with his supreme wartime satire The Great Dictator (1940) some two decades later.

Shoulder Arms’ extended dream sequence sees the little tramp in heroic mode, saving France and the girl (Chaplin regular Edna Purviance) from the clutches of the Kaiser, who is captured and sent on his way with a boot up the arse by Charlot’s ‘Awkward Squad’ private. Bringing back 13 enemy soldiers to the flooded trenches for an over-the-knee spanking, Charlie’s superior asks how he captured so many. “I surrounded them,” comes the little fella’s timeless reply.

The Big Parade (1925)

Director King Vidor

The biggest financial success of the silent era, King Vidor’s The Big Parade is an epic drawn from tiny moments. Its influence may be apparent in war movies as disparate as Mario Monicelli’s La grande guerra (1959) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), but its formal complexities and unhurried approach to structure still feel innovative and refreshing today.

It takes the best part of 90 minutes for us to get to the battlefield, Vidor establishing relationships and romance during the bucolic downtime of the soldiers’ arrival in France. When the call to arms does come – “It had begun!” – a 10-minute sequence in which the lovers part proves a masterpiece of construction and heart-wrenching poignancy.

The first attack sequence – as the men march through a forest under enemy fire – is breathless in its unnerving simplicity. The stark border of charred trees that frames the approach to the battlefield is as evocative a gateway to hell as any seen since.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director Lewis Milestone

It’s difficult to dispute the sheer emotional power of Lewis Milestone’s quintessential WWI picture, despite its unashamedly forceful anti-war sentiments. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s now classic 1929 novel, it charts the tragic fortunes of a group of idealistic young German school friends who are sent to fight in the trenches. Technically groundbreaking, All Quiet on the Western Front’s relentless commitment to depicting both the horror and monotony of front-line warfare has seen little of its force blunted in the eight decades since its release. Milestone’s film was instantly acclaimed as a humanist classic and made history as the first film to win Academy Awards for both best picture and best director.

But it wasn’t the only film released in 1930 to approach the Great War from a German perspective. Arriving in Stateside cinemas a mere six months later, G.W. Pabst’s superior masterpiece – and first sound picture – Westfront 1918 (unfortunately unavailable for home viewing in the UK) proffers a vision of hell quite unlike any of its contemporaries: there are few films which foreground the everyday insanity of life in the trenches with such vital immediacy.

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Director Howard Hughes

In winning the first ever best picture Oscar, William A. Wellman’s Wings (1927) single-handedly kickstarted the craze for aviation spectacle in late 20s and early 30s cinema. The standard it set for airborne orchestration was far-reaching, director Tony Scott even referencing it as a research tool for Top Gun (1986) some 60 years later. But if there was one filmmaker whose infatuation with the picture scaled unprecedented heights of obsession, it was Howard Hughes.

The most expensive production of its era (a record it held for nigh-on 20 years), Hell’s Angels’ modus operandi was simple enough: to go one better than Wings. In fact, the breathtaking intensity of the Zeppelin sequence alone makes it hard to argue that Hughes missed his target. Sure, it’s clear that his priorities don’t lie on the ground (he farmed out directorial duties on dialogue scenes to James Whale), but there’s more to Hell’s Angels than the legendary production history appropriated by Martin Scorsese for The Aviator (2004). After more than 80 years, this independent blockbuster of epic ambition retains its ability to dazzle and awe.

The Lost Patrol (1934)

Director John Ford

For all its vast expanses of scorched desert (Arizona, doubling for Mesopotamia), there’s a claustrophobic intensity to the tightly-wound breakdowns of John Ford’s The Lost Patrol. Victor McLaglen is the sergeant charged with leading his men out of the inferno after their commanding officer is taken out by a sniper. Seeking refuge in an oasis alternately dubbed the ‘Garden of Eden’ and the ‘Devil’s Backyard’, the disparate bunch make their own appointments with death at the hands of an unseen enemy.

“I’m here amongst great soldiers, the kind you read about in Kipling… They’re so modest, they don’t even see the glory in it,” says a young recruit. Ford sees little glory either in the madness and distrust that quickly descends on the hemmed-in troop, only the irony in the empty gestures exemplified by McLaglen’s maniacal final assault, and the slow-march to his maker made by Boris Karloff’s zealous Sanders – stripped to rags, holding a makeshift crucifix aloft.

The Road to Glory (1936)

Director Howard Hawks

Its schmaltzy denouement aside, Howard Hawks’s The Road to Glory certainly improves upon his earlier WWI collaboration with writer William Faulkner, Today We Live (1933), even if it doesn’t quite stand up to the director’s superior (and frustratingly unavailable) wartime aviation picture, The Dawn Patrol (1930). Shot by Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland, it’s one of Hawks’s darker ventures, his authorial idiosyncrasies still present (piano scene, check), if not always as cohesively embedded as in his best films.

Recalling Tiger Shark (1932) in the dynamics of its central love triangle, The Road to Glory leavens the sombre mood with doses of humour, but it’s a series of strikingly bleak images which sticks in the mind: a screaming soldier – caught in barbed-wire and surrounded by the corpses of his would-be rescuers – is put out of his misery; a squadron leaving their post atop a German mine look over their shoulders at the plume of smoke from the detonation they’ve escaped, at the expense of those left behind. There’s a nervousness to the humour and romance here – among all Hawks’ men of action, these are more aware than most of the looming shadow of death.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Director Jean Renoir

Not only the supreme anti-war statement, but also a permanent fixture in the upper echelons of greatest films of all time lists, Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece was not without its detractors. Ok, said detractors may have principally consisted of members of the Nazi Party – given Goebbels’ instructions that all prints of this ‘Cinematic Public Enemy Number One’ be destroyed – but it was also banned by French authorities after the outbreak of the Second World War for fear of its negative influence on fighting morale.

Renoir was one of the great humanists of the screen, and La Grande Illusion serves as a manifesto for dignity in the context of pervasive inhumanity – no wonder Goebbels hated it. It’s an atypical war film when compared with the rest on this list, its PoW camp setting away from the front line providing a microcosm of social and ideological diversity. La Grande Illusion deals in nobility, both in terms of a crumbling social order and the codes of human decency on war’s level playing-field – the grandest illusion being that it’s the former, rather than the latter, that’s worth fighting for.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Director Stanley Kubrick

While Stanley Kubrick would later go on to satirise the machinations of the war machine much more transparently with the bitingly farcical Dr. Strangelove (1964), his trademarked cynicism is no less penetrating in the earlier Paths of Glory, even as it plays out in a distinctly minor key. If, along with Spartacus (1960), it initially comes across as the director’s most straightforward star vehicle, a closer inspection reveals it to be a subversion of just that.

Kirk Douglas is the officer charged with selecting three men from his battalion to be tried for cowardice after failing to attack a vital enemy position. While the kangaroo court which follows allows for Douglas’s impassioned plea against the “mockery of all human justice,” his Pyrrhic victory over one hubristic superior amounts to little more than sabre-rattling in the face of Adolphe Menjou’s slick puppeteer. Kubrick’s famous tracking shots and mastery of the battlefield sculpt indelible images, but it’s his pitch-black humour and the film’s withering final line that ultimately cut to the bone.

La grande guerra (1959)

Director Mario Monicelli

Winner of the Golden Lion at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, where a new restoration was screened back in 2009 (a year before director Mario Monicelli’s suicide at the age of 95), La grande guerra is a masterpiece of WWI cinema ripe for wider rediscovery. Controversial – and consequently cut – on release for its cynical take on the notion of patriotism, Monicelli’s astutely judged blend of comedy and tragedy follows two good-for-nothings in their attempts to shirk any and all responsibility at the Austrian Front.

What begins with odd-couple badinage soon takes on a darker hue, before the ruthless emotional wallop of its finale. Monicelli may be painting in elegantly sweeping takes across a broad canvas (the battle scenes are extraordinary), but it’s his attention to detail – from the officers’ hollow efforts at boosting morale to the colour given to even the smallest supporting player – that brings La grande guerra so vividly to life.

King and Country (1964)

Director Joseph Losey

The most chillingly bleak of all the films on this list, American ex-pat Joseph Losey’s King and Country tells of the fallout from a young private’s (Tom Courtenay) attempts to walk home to London from the Western Front. Was he suffering from shell-shock or simply a deserter? Dirk Bogarde is the officer tasked with pleading his case to the trench tribunal, to save him from being shot for cowardice.

“A man can only take so much. So much blood, so much filth, so much dying,” Bogarde tells the court, as Losey textures his cramped frames with rot and putrescence, the trenches a cesspit harbouring vermin and death. A fog of despair hangs over questions of duty and class raised by the young man’s case. The fade between the skeletal remains of a dead soldier and Courtenay on his bunk in the opening moments suggests a foregone conclusion, but even the pervasive air of decay and disorder that follows does little to prepare one for the effect of the botched execution with which this harrowing film ends.

Your suggestions

Wings (1927)

Wings (1927)

  1. Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927)
  2. Oh! What a Lovely War (Richard Attenborough, 1969)
  3. Les Croix de bois (Raymond Bernard, 1932)
  4. Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981)
  5. J’accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)
  6. A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004)
  7. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
  8. The Spy in Black (Michael Powell, 1939)
  9. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
  10. The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, 1930)

A 1927 aviation epic soared into pole position when we asked you on Facebook and Twitter what we’d missed from our list. William A. Wellman’s recently restored film Wings won the first ever Oscar for best picture and is the story of two love rivals from an American small town who are billeted together as airmen in the war in Europe. Several of you thought Wings deserved a place ahead of Hell’s Angels, the film it inspired.

Richard Attenborough’s musical WWI satire Oh, What a Lovely War! also proved popular, along with a number of titles that are sadly difficult to see in the UK at the moment (thus off limits to our list), including Howard Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de bois and Abel Gance’s epic 1919 battlefield drama J’accuse.

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