This August sees the centenary of the First World War. This tragic conflict destroyed nations, took millions of lives, and changed the map of the world. Many films have been made about this war, and this seems a suitable time to examine some of them. I normally seek out lesser-known films for my posts; but on this occasion, I have decided that the circumstances warrant a reminder of the best films made about this terrible war.
At the end of hostilities in 1918, films soon began to appear. They mostly portrayed the victors, justly winning a noble and worthwhile war. Although the first film in this list is from sometime later, 1930, by which time there had been a chance to reflect on the loss, and perhaps to question the validity of all this carnage.
Please be aware that all these reviews contain plot spoilers.
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
So much has been written about this film, I feel little need to add more. I will though, for the benefit of anyone who has never seen it. The film is a faithful adaptation of the German novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, published in 1929. Although it follows the fortunes of a group of young Germans, the film was made in the USA, directed by Louis Milestone, and starred Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim. Like the book, the film takes an obviously anti-war stance. We see impressionable schoolboys flock to join the army, only to be bullied at training camp, then terrified at the front. They find solace in comradeship, and are taken under the wing of an experienced soldier, Katczinsky. Some are mutilated, some killed. One youngster faces the horrors of trench warfare, when after wounding a Frenchman; he is forced to watch the man die slowly, unable to leave the safety of the shell-hole.
When they get the chance to rest at the rear, they make the acquaintance of young French girls, get drunk, swim in the river, and show the viewer that they are still no more than boys. Home on leave, parents, neighbours, and others show little understanding of life at the front, and the young men discover that they would rather be back with their comrades, the only ones able to understand their experiences. The film-makers should be given credit for not steering away from the depressing outcome of the book. In doing so, they left us with a marvellous film about men in war, and shattered ideals.
It’s also worth watching the decent remake from 1979, with Ernest Borgnine, and Richard Thomas.
La Grande Illusion (1937)
Jean Renoir’s film, based in part on his own experiences in the French Air Force during the war, is a prisoner of war story, with an international cast. It has a mannered, claustrophobic feel, and deals with issues of nationality, social class, and the relationship between captive and captor. Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay take the roles of two French airmen, De Boldieu and Marechal, from very different sides of the tracks. Shot down by the aristocratic German flier Von Rauffenstein (a suitably Prussian Eric Von Stroheim), they are amazingly invited for dinner, showing that the old ideals of chivalry between warriors were still upheld during this carnage. When the two airmen are later sent to a prison camp, they join in with escape plans, and try to dig a tunnel. However, they are moved around to different camps, and their generally disruptive attitude, and attempts to escape, result in them being sent off to the supposedly escape-proof mountain castle, Wintersborn.
Here, they once again encounter their old adversary, Von Rauffenstein. Much to his regret, Rauffenstein has been placed in charge of this prison after being wounded, and no longer able to fly in combat. The pair also meet up with an old comrade from the former prison, Rosenthal, (Marcel Dalio) and the three hatch a plan to escape from the castle. Fresnay’s aristocratic officer De Boldieu decides that he will distract the guards, so that Marechal and Rosenthal will be able to escape by lowering themselves on ropes.
The plan succeeds, and the two make their escape, having to leave De Boldieu high up in the castle. When he refuses to come down, Von Rauffenstein reluctantly shoots him, hoping only to inflict a small wound. But the injury is mortal, and we see the two lamenting the war as he dies, wondering what the future holds for the aristocracy of Europe. The others make their escape to Switzerland, but not before encountering a helpful German housewife, who shelters them, and is soon attracted to Marechal. He decides that he loves the woman, and resolves to come back for her after the end of the war.
Renoir covers so many things in this film. Social class, aristocratic friendships, the twilight of chivalry, and the need for national honour and duty above all. He shows that the enemy is not always what it seems, and that good resides in everyone, to some degree.
Paths Of Glory (1957)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starring Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax, this wonderful anti-war film tells the story of a company of French soldiers, as they undertake a hopeless mission against a German position in 1916. It is based on the novel of the same name, which was itself based on the true story of the mutiny of some French regiments during WW1.
The High Command order this regiment to take a notoriously difficult defensive bunker, nicknamed the ‘Anthill’. Generals Broulard and Mireau (chillingly portrayed by George Macready) seek to impress the high command with this futile attack, at any cost. We see them discussing the possibilities of their own casualties as a result of friendly fire, and also how many will die before the first man reaches the enemy.
When Dax hears of the plan, he rushes to see them, to argue for the futility of the attack, and how many lives will be lost. The generals will hear none of it though, and the order is given.
The battle is a disaster from the outset. All the men are either killed, wounded, or trapped in no- man’s land. One company refuse to leave their trenches, and Dax returns to try to persuade them to take part in the assault. But the colonel is knocked unconscious by a falling body, and the troops refuse to go. Mireau is beside himself when he hears of this ‘mutiny’, and orders the French artillery to fire on their own men in reprisal. However, the artillery officer refuses, and the mission is a complete failure. Mireau insists that some men be tried for cowardice to avoid any personal involvement in the debacle, and bring blame on the troops instead. Three men are chosen by their company commanders, supposedly at random. However, we see reasons for two of these choices, with the unfortunate third man simply selected by ballot.
Dax was a lawyer in civilian life, so is chosen to defend the men. It soon transpires that the court-martial is a sham. No proper defence is allowed; Dax’s arguments are glossed over, and crucial evidence is deemed inadmissible. The men are found guilty, and sentenced to death by firing squad. Dax is sought out by the artillery officer, who tells him of Mireau’s order to shell his own trenches. He goes to see Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and tries to blackmail him into showing the men mercy, to no avail. The next day, the whole regiment is paraded to witness the execution. The men are brought out and tied to stakes. One prisoner, injured in his cell, is semi-conscious on a stretcher, but even he is still tied to the stake. After the execution, a furious Dax is summoned to see Broulard once more, in the presence of Mireau. Keen to disassociate himself, Broulard tells dax that Mireau will be investigated for the order to shell his own trenches. He even offers Dax promotion to the vacant general’s position, in the hope of also buying his silence. But the disgusted colonel tells the man what he thinks of him, and leaves to rejoin his men.
Kubrick has left us with one of the best films about this war, indeed of any war. The seedy machinations of the general staff, contrasted with the appalling conditions suffered by the ordinary soldier, and the overwhelming sense of futility for many, against the greed and ambition of some. This is a film of great importance, both as history, and cinema, and that is why it is still as powerful today.
King and Country (1964)
Director Joseph Losey decided to cast his long-time collaborator, Dirk Bogarde, as the lead in this English film on a similar subject.He added a cast of wonderful British character actors, with the young Tom Courtenay as the deserter, and Barry Foster, James Villiers, and Peter Copley, all excellent as upper-class British officers. Then he added the Australian, Leo McKern, as the medical officer, playing the role of a stiff upper-lipped English officer very well. The setting is suitably claustrophobic, and feels like a theatrical production. The re-creation of trench life, in mud and rain, is very well done given the limitations, and it never feels less than authentic. Rats are in evidence, as is the general feeling of being involved in a futile, and pointless campaign. Tom Courtenay’s character, Arthur Hamp, has endured the war from the very start. He is the last survivor of his original company and one fateful day, he decides to ‘walk home’ to England. He manages to get a surprisingly long way before being detained by the Military Police for not having the correct leave papers.
Brought up on charges of desertion and cowardice, Hamp is not unduly concerned. He feels that he has done nothing wrong. He has seen all of his friends killed, many in terrifying circumstances. He just wanted to go home, and decided to, as he puts it, to ‘go for a walk’.
But this is Passchendaele, in 1917, and the war is at its zenith. Ordinary soldiers cannot be allowed to wander off as they see fit, heading for a rest at home. Hamp is a simple, uneducated man. He sees no wrong in his actions, and feels that he has done enough. After all, he volunteered in 1914, and has endured many years of hardship and terror. He pleads ‘Not Guilty’ to the charge of desertion, and Dirk Bogarde’s character, Captain Hargreaves, is assigned to defend him. Hargreaves is an effete, upper-class person, and he is annoyed by Hamp’s ignorance, and ridiculous arguments.
For his part, the simple working-class Hamp cannot see that he has done wrong. He denies that he was a deserter, and keeps repeating that he was just ‘going for a walk’. He is examined by the company doctor (Leo McKern), to see if there is any medical reason to stop the trial, or to excuse his actions. To Hargreaves, it seems that this man must be affected mentally, by his years at the front, but the doctor can find no evidence of this. Crucially, when questioned by the prosecuting officer (James Villiers) Hamp admits that he understood it was wrong to leave his post, and walk towards the coast.
In a telling scene during the court-martial, Hamp’s comrades are seen in a rain-filled trench. They have captured one of the many rats that infest their bunkers, and they put the rat on trial, before battering it to death. The point is obvious. Hamp has no more chance than the rat. With no option but to find the man guilty, the commanding officer sends a request to headquarters, asking for clemency, due to the good record of the soldier. But this is denied. With a big offensive coming up, they cannot afford to show weakness to a deserter. Hamp is sentenced to death, and his friends get him drunk before the execution. The next morning, Arthur is given sedatives by Hargreaves, and has to be tied to a chair, which is dragged to a corner of a trench. His own officer, Lieutenant Webb (Barry Foster) has to carry out the sentence, using men from Hamp’s platoon. They botch the shooting, as they do not want to kill their friend. Webb is unable to finish the man off, and Hargreaves steps forward, placing a pistol, against Hamp’s face. Before he fires, Arthur rouses, and says “Sorry sir.”
A grim story, filmed in authentic conditions, with a powerful message about war.
Aces High (1976)
Many films have been made about the war in the air. Using aircraft as weapons was a new concept in 1914, and they were initially utilised only for scouting and reconnaissance purposes. However, it wasn’t too long before they were fitted with guns and devices to drop bombs. By the end of the war, it had become obvious that they would have a crucial role to play in war. In 1930, two of the best-known films about the air war were released; Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, and Howard Hawks’ Dawn Patrol.
Years later, Dawn Patrol was remade, and in 1966, George Peppard starred in the glossy The Blue Max. For me, the English production Aces High dealt with this aspect of the war in a more convincing way.
With a superb cast of British character actors, realistic locations, and exciting scenes of combat in the air, this low-key film always feels authentic. It does not flinch from the reality of the life of the young pilots. They have little future, with a life expectancy of only a few hours in the air, arriving at the front with scant training and too much enthusiasm. Malcolm McDowell gives a career-best performance as the cynical young commander, Major Gresham; a former public schoolboy, treated as a hero and legend by his young fliers. He drinks constantly, and refuses to befriend the other officers, as he knows they will soon be dead. He is only able to relate to the wounded base officer, Captain Sinclair (Christopher Plummer), known to everyone as ‘uncle’.
The action in the film lasts for only seven days. During this period, we see new fliers arrive and get killed, and the escalation of using aircraft as weapons, with attacks on ground troops and bombing raids. The young pilots get leave to the local town, where they get drunk in the bars, and seek the company of young women. They sing songs in the Officers’ Mess, and set places at dinner for comrades lost that morning. Simon Ward plays the part of Flight Lt Crawford. He is a man terrified of the war, and complains of headaches, hoping to avoid having to fly in action. It is the arrival of the young Lt. Croft (Peter Firth) that the plot hinges on. He was at the same school as Gresham, and idolises the older officer. He soon realises that he is not the man he thought, and sees the effect that the war has had on his former hero. This film offers no answers, simply showing the absolute futility of what was happening.
Despite some problems with using aircraft which were not strictly accurate, and the insertion of combat scenes from other films, ‘Aces High’ remains the definitive film about the war in the air during WW1, and has not lost any of its impact in the years since it was released.
I could go on. There are many other terrific films about this war that I could recommend, but then this article would become a book! I would urge anyone interested in the subject to seek out The Officers’ Ward (2001), Regeneration (1997) and Life and Nothing But (1989). There are also many films about the war against the Turks at the time, including Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), and of course, Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962).