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World War I Movies Go Over the Top at the Box Office

‘1917’ isn’t the only recent movie to find success with the Great War.
Over The Top
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on January 14th, 2020

Sam Mendes‘ 1917, which just received 10 Oscar nominations, also topped the box office last weekend, dethroning Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in the number one spot. Although the movie officially opened on Christmas Day, the release was held at only 11 screens until January 10th, when it expanded to more than 3,000 locations in North America. With this widening came a proper debut attendance of about $37 million. While not a huge number, especially when considering the reported production budget of 1917 was around $100 million, when it comes to World War I movies, it’s a nice haul.

The Great War, as the first World War was originally called, has given us some classics of cinema, including Lawrence of ArabiaPaths of Glory, and of course, All Quiet on the Western Front. But it’s not been as popular a setting for movies as World War II, especially in the modern era of Hollywood. There are a number of reasons for this, including such simple matters as it being a more complicated conflict in terms of basing stories in that time and it being less visually appropriate for blockbuster spectacle. There’s only so long that audiences will stick with scenes in the trenches.

It also helps for the movies to be good. The last 25 years have brought a number of critically panned wide releases set in World War I, including Richard Attenborough’s In Love and War, based on the experiences of Ernest Hemingway, and the corny CGI-heavy Flyboys. Their Rotten Tomatoes scores are 11% and 33%, respectively. However, Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s A Very Long Engagement is Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and despite having the same star, it failed to draw anywhere near the audience size that Jeunet’s Amelie had a few years earlier.

Steven Spielberg brought World War I back to greater cinematic prominence with his 2011 adaptation of War Horse (also released on Christmas Day), and it was a modest success despite having one of the filmmaker’s lowest openings and lowest overall domestic and worldwide box office grosses. Technically, without adjusting the amounts of Lawrence of Arabia and Sergeant York for inflation (both of which would show higher than $400 million), War Horse had easily become the highest-grossing World War I movie at the time with a domestic take of nearly $80 million.

Six years later, Wonder Woman topped it in its opening weekend alone by giving the war its first real blockbuster treatment in half a century. When Captain America: The First Avenger set a superhero movie in World War II, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We’d already had plenty of action movies with that setting, as bombastic as, say, Pearl Harbor, and sometimes even involved in total fantasy, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark. Wonder Woman gave moviegoers a less-familiar war, and although much of it could be criticized for simplifying the conflict and making it narratively seem like a World War II plot, the most iconic image that came out of the movie — Wonder Woman going over the top from the trenches into No Man’s Land — was very specific to World War I.

Domestically, Wonder Woman was huge, but it still comes up short compared to Lawrence of Arabia by a bit, when we adjust for inflation, though worldwide, it’s definitely the World War I champ. And just one year later, World War I received the spotlight again in another very successful film. Peter Jackson‘s They Shall Not Grow Old has been less celebrated for its box office achievement, partly because its release was an odd one that even disqualified it from Oscar contention. First put out as single-day Fathom Events screenings in late 2018, the documentary later wound up with a traditional release a couple of months later.

They Shall Not Grow Old was a hit in those initial screenings, ranking second place for the day in its December 17th debut. Then, when it opened for the regular release, in fewer locations, it ranked in the top 10 for that weekend, which is a genuinely rare feat for nonfiction features, especially those comprised solely of century-old footage. At the end of its run, the film grossed close to $18 million domestically and took a spot among the highest-grossing documentaries of all time. That’s a list that mostly includes concert films and Disneynature titles and political docs from Michael Moore and Dinesh D’Souza.

Audiences weren’t so much interested in learning about World War I as seeing that war as they’d never seen it before. The makers of They Shall Not Grow Old took archival footage from the Great War and meticulously reconstructed the material while colorizing it and transforming it to 3D. The result is absolutely stunning. The doc looks fine now streaming via HBO platforms, but the optimal way of seeing it was in the theaters, and that necessity was honored with substantial box office figures. No other documentary about World War I is going to see that sort of success on the big screen again.

So is World War I only doing well of late because of gimmicks? Not unlike the special circumstances that made They Shall Not Grow Old a must-see film in theaters, 1917 has been mostly known, even before its release, for being a “one-shot” movie, or least mostly appearing as if all filmed continuously in one take (there are hidden cuts and even a few hard cuts). Even while being character-driven to a degree, 1917 is primarily a technical marvel. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is the star more than any of the actors or their roles. We’re drawn to the movie for how it’s shot rather than what it’s about.

The question for Hollywood, then, is whether World War I should continue to be a setting for war movies, as a trend, following the box office success of 1917. Wonder Woman, They Shall Not Grow Old, and 1917 offer audiences very different looks at World War I, which is good for a part of history that’s not easily put into a box as a subgenre. And they have unique approaches that appeal to moviegoers beyond their setting and subject matter. Where the World War I movie goes from here is difficult to predict, though I do think as more gimmick-driven (not in a bad way) World War I movies succeed, the war will become more common in a way that normalizes it and allows more general films involving World War I to flourish.

Next month, we’ll possibly see 1917 become the first Best Picture winner to really deal with World War I since 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia (excluding Out of Africa, for which the war is tangentially part of the story). And the first one to focus on the European part of the war since 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front (excluding Cavalcade, which only features the war briefly). If it wins at the Oscars, as it did at the Golden Globes, 1917 will temporarily close a loop since the first-ever Best Picture winner was Wings, a film about World War I fighter pilots. Or it could just be another World War I set Best Picture nominee, like War Horse.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.