Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

10 films on the Great War

As was the case with novelists and poets, film-makers took an altogether less heroic approach to the first World War than they did to the second

Tue, Aug 5, 2014, 21:10


A study of the first World War on film confirms something we always suspected. Whereas the movies were eager, right from the beginning, to mythologise the second World War and celebrate its supposed gung-ho heroics, directors — like poets and novelists — took an altogether more sober and cautious approach to the Great War. The jingoism wore off very quickly and, when it was all over, it was not all that easy to tell exactly what the fighting had been about. The fact that the conflict began again two decades later has made it harder still for later film-makers to paint the first World War as a worthwhile conflict. (Though, during the recent commemorations, more than one historian has made the case for the war as a genuine and necessary crusade against tyranny.)

So, we have no Great War equivalents of Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone. On reflection, the significant imbalance concerns the strangely antiseptic view of the later conflict. It seemed to trigger some genuine shock when, in Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg revealed that people died horribly on D-Day. Shouldn’t this have been obvious?

Anyway, here are 10 significant films about this awful event. None of them exactly glorifies violence. Though a few do allow in a touch of romanticism.


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Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of a French court martial gets at the pointlessness of blind courage and the feebleness of donkey-brained authority. Features some of the director’s greatest tracking shots and a furious performance from Kirk Douglas. A great deal better than the director’s later, manacled Full Metal Jacket.


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There have been other versions of Erich Maria Remarque’s great novel, but none has quite the immediacy of Lewis Milestone’s version. Completed just 12 years after the conflict ended, the film won over US and British audiences despite focussing on a German soldier. Such was the ambivalence about this war.


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It is surely significant that the closest thing we have on this list to a heroic depiction of the British war (and it’s not that close) takes place hundreds of miles away from the Western Front. David Lean’s film is now more than a little problematic — not least for its use of a browned-up Alec Guinness — but its sweep cannot be denied.


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The importance of Gallipoli to the Australian psyche cannot be underestimated. Even now there are furious disputes as to whether the British generals used the Aussies as cannon fodder. Peter Weir’s powerful, beautiful film is very much on the ANZACs’ side, but it is too gripping to be mistaken for propaganda.


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By many calculations, King Vidor’s film was the most successful of the silent era. The beautifully made picture follows the adventures of three US soldiers from very different backgrounds as they advance towards mayhem. The Big Parade never rushes on its passage through 141 minutes. Everything is considered. And when the battle finally does come it is properly horrible.

J’ACCUSE (1919)

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There is much to admire in Abel Gance’s extraordinarily timely anti-war film — made just months after hostilities ended. Much of it was filmed on the real battlefields. The anger at the authorities is undiluted. The film is, however, most remarkable for the scene in which the bodies of the slaughtered rise from the grave. Many were played by genuine veterans, some with visible facial injuries. Unlike anything before or since in cinema.


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This one is, of course, a bit of a cheat. Michael Powell’s great films flits from the turn of the century to the first World War and on to the second. But those scenes in the great war are among the best in the Archers’ sly dissection of the patriotic urge. No other British film has packed so much between its groaning sides.


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Take heed of that date. The 50th anniversary of the conflict came at a time of political volatility. Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War shocked and delighted theatregoers before become a defanged film. Then there was Joseph Losey’s great film about a young soldier who just decided to walk home. The British Paths of Glory?


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The sunniest film on the list tells the story of a highly decorated soldier raised in a poor section of Tennessee. Howard Hawks directed Gary Cooper to an Oscar for a film that, thanks to patriotic fervour kicked up by Pearl Harbor, ended up becoming one of the biggest hits of the decade. A rare American treatment of a war that barely scraped the US’s paintwork.


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This list is not in any way ordered, but we have almost certainly left the best film until last. Mind you, there are few films better in any genre than Jean Renoir’s study of French interactions in a prisoner of war camp. La Grand Illusion allows the characters to construct a microcosm of European society in its time of distress. The conclusions were sufficiently worrying for the gathering hawks that Joseph Goebbels ordered it banned. We can probably take that as a recommendation.