Exactly one month after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia, and after weeks of diplomatic negotiations that went nowhere, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914 — a date often regarded as the first day of what would come to be known as The Great War, now better known as World War I.
While cinema had been in existence for over two decades by the time the first World War began, World War II has greatly eclipsed its predecessor in terms of its breadth of cinematic representation. Yet The Great War — with its many intersecting transnational conflicts and its location at the historical precipice between 19th-century trenches and 20th-century machine warfare – has produced an incredible number of fascinating, haunting, and even touching stories about a world experiencing accelerated change, many of which have made their way to celluloid.
So for the 100th anniversary of The Great War, we’ve assembled a list of 8 worthwhile films that give us a glimpse into this complicated conflict that helped shape the 20th century.
The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme is probably the most important barely known documentary of all time, firstly since it is arguably the earliest nonfiction feature produced and secondly because it is one of the most influential ever released, helping to boost morale during the war in the UK and support in the US (and concern in Germany!).
It’s also very notable for combining actual recordings of real troops as well as staged battle scenes, intertwined enough that it’s not always easy to tell what’s direct documentary and what’s recreated or just plain created. Almost 100 years since it was made, its form and purpose are still relevant to that of much of modern documentary. — Christopher Campbell
See also: The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
Hell’s Angels (1930)
Howards Hughes’ attempt to cash in on the commercial success of Wings (the first-ever Best Picture winner) was originally met with great skepticism by the Hollywood community, especially since Hughes made ever more dangerous demands from his stunt pilots (risking even his own life in the process) and then made the incredibly expensive decision to reshoot the film in sound partway through production because talkies had become the new rage. The result was a hugely popular example of the best of Hollywood excess, complete with melodrama, star worship, and action sequences that have held up surprisingly well against the test of time. Wings may have been Hollywood’s first great WWI drama, but Hell’s Angels was its first WWI blockbuster. – Landon Palmer
See also: Wings (1927), The Roaring Twenties (1939)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of wide-eyed German soldiers who enlist in the conflict only to discover the true horrors of war. This bold film was made at the opening of a decade that would close with the first days of World War II. That war was a righteous one for the Allies, making sympathetic movies about the Germans less en vogue, but before that, All Quiet on the Western Front looked at the humanity of the German soldier. Sure, the characters stumble a bit at the beginning with authentic American accents and corny American slang of the time, but once the battle sequences start, with a brutality that was censored from American films once the Hays Code came into full effect, the message is clear: war is hell for everyone.
All Quiet on the Western Front reminds us that in all war, both sides use everyday people as cannon fodder, and both sides suffer. — Kevin Carr
See also: Journey’s End (1930), The Road to Glory (1936)
The Grand Illusion (1939)
A film that reflects on a devastating war made and released on the eve of yet another, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece depicts how war both makes profound connections between people and destroys those connections in turn. And while the film is an incredibly touching portrayal of relationships formed during times of crisis, it also retains the biting satire Renoir was so well known for with films like Rules of the Game.
As I said about the film in 2012, “Grand Illusion is a film about the absurd differences that define us, divide us, and are ultimately the source of the world’s conflicts. The film satirizes national borders, class distinction, religious identity, and status within military hierarchies.” – LP
See also: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
Paths of Glory (1957)
Easily the most harrowing anti-war film ever made during the Classic Hollywood era, Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of a military officer’s dedicated defense of soldiers who did not take part in an ill-fated raid places our terms of military courage, and what we can expect of humans in battle, directly on trial. Kirk Douglas endured negative publicity and United Artists took a great risk on the film’s unhappy ending, but these diversions from the norm make Paths of Glory a standalone investigation of heroism in an era that continually regurgitated simple, received notions of the word. And Kubrick and Georg Krause’s cinematography in the trenches is simply stunning. – LP
See also: Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Great War produced arguably Hollywood’s greatest epic, a film that defined scale and CinemaScope framing. David Lean’s depiction of British officer T.E. Lawrence’s role during the Arab revolt uses its massive scale to depict an empire in the throes of its last days, dramatized by Lawrence’s (Peter O’Toole) conflicted allegiances between his home country and his adopted one. As historian Scott Anderson’s new book about Lawrence shows, there was a great deal more complicated drama in Lawrence’s life and relationship to Arabia than is available in the figure’s Hollywood treatment. But as 70mm retrospective showings of the film’s cast of thousands occasionally remind those who have the opportunity to revisit this epic, they truly don’t make ’em like they used to. – LP
See also: Sergeant York (1941), The African Queen (1951)
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s follow up to the worldwide success of Amelie was a WWI love story that was at once classically simple (following a relationship into and out of the horrors of war) and incredibly complex (the film probably has more subplots than the number of nations involved in The Great War). Jeunet clearly revels at the opportunity to apply his idiosyncratic visual style to such a grand scope without eschewing the requisite tearjerking. Despite the supposedly conventional nature of the material on the surface, A Very Long Engagement is one of the director’s most inventive works, and it’s a lush, full vision to behold. – LP
See also: Joyeux Noel (2005), War Horse (2011)
The White Ribbon (2009)
Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner is often quickly described as a story of proto-Nazi children and is thus interpreted as a film about violent unrest within sectors of German society that planted the seeds for the Second World War. But to read the film in such a way overlooks the richness and complexity with which Haneke portrays the gradual unraveling of a seemingly isolated hamlet while a much sooner war approaches. The White Ribbon ends with a figure of authority declaring that unfortunate truths are better left unspoken, and the dark dramatic irony of this declaration is made all the more potent when spoken on the eve of unfathomable violence. – LP
See also: For a very different film that pays strict attention to period detail, Gallipoli (1981)