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AD Cooper takes us through the history of World War I, or The Great War, and its film adaptations, from “The Big Parade” to “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “War Horse”. 

Movies about the Great War of 1914-18 tend to fall into categories:

  • Made during the War such as The Somme (1916), D W Griffiths’ Intolerance (1915) and Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918)
  • Made retrospectively such as King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), and All quiet on the Western Front (1930)
  • Made as World War 2 propaganda such as Sergeant York (1941)
  • The revisionists’ films such as Stanley Kubrick’s highly-controversial Paths of Glory (1957)
  • Satirical perspectives (Oh what a lovely war!)
  • Anti-war King and Country (1964, UK) and Johnnie got his gun (1971, USA)
  • More recently, World War 1 films have been spliced into other genres such as supernatural (Deathwatch) and zombie (World War Dead – the Rise of the Fallen)
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Kirk Douglas in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957)

The historical context

The Great War represented a seismic change in politics, economy, social behavior, female emancipation, warfare and much more. By the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918, three king emperors had abdicated, the map of Europe and the Middle East was being re-drawn, 17 million people were dead and 20 million injured.  It was an industrial war, with new weapons such as poisonous gas and long-range artillery, but it also accelerated innovations such as plastic surgery, lightweight metal alloys, raincoats and wristwatches. 

The war affected every household in the UK through rationing, air raids and the loss of their loved ones. It threw long shadows for several decades after, with many soldiers learning to live with their physical and mental injuries. 

Mud, muck and bullets

The truth about the war was kept secret for morale and propaganda reasons. In reality, it was shell shock, horror, hardship, mud, carnage, blood, muck, rats, corpses, lice and bullets. When the men came home, they rarely spoke about their life-defining experiences. 

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The Big Parade directed by King Vidor (1925)

The war is usually depicted as being literally bogged down in the trenches of the Western Front in France as above.

In fact, there were several other fronts such as Russia (Nicholas & Alexander, Dr. Zhivago), the Middle East (Lawrence of Arabia), the Turkish Front (Gallipoli, The Water Diviner) and East Africa (The African Queen). Air warfare developed quickly during this conflict later resulting in The Blue Max, Aces High, Fly Boys and Zeppelin.  

There was also shellshock (King and Country, Regeneration), executions for cowardice that were probably shellshock (Private Peaceful, Paths of Glory), and terribly injuries from the new weapons (The Officers’ Ward).

But what pervades most films about World War 1 is the sense of camaraderie amongst the patriotic men who went off to fight for their country – whichever side they were on. This is notable in All Quiet on the Western Front, which was accepted as a seminal account of war and friendship adapted by Eric Maria Remarque’s book. Although it tells the German perspective, it’s been filmed twice by the USA.  

The Battle of the Somme

In 1916, the Battle of the Somme became famous for carnage that is beyond comprehension. On the first day, the British dead and wounded numbered over 60,000 – that’s a good crowd at Manchester United. 

The War Office created a film to mark the four-month battle, and released the feature length silent film to record audiences. Cameramen took immense risks to capture the battle scenes with the camera poking above the trench in full view of the enemy and the cameraman’s cranking hand wrapped in a khaki handkerchief. 

Whilst it was a box office hit, the film caused a lot of trouble with the British population who saw the reality and often futility of trench war for the first time, and it was considered something of a propaganda disaster. No other official war film was issued as a result, but newsreels kept the propaganda machine turning. 

It was the Yanks what won it

The American film industry churned out war films as soon as it entered the war in 1917. 

Many were for propaganda purposes such as The heart of humanity where Eric Von Stroheim plays the archetypal Hun whose casual brutality caused massive controversy and anti-German feeling. 

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Eric Von Stroheim got type cast as the German aggressor – here in La Grande Illusion

Much derided for their late arrival in the war, the Americans suffered 320,000 dead and wounded. However, they released films about the Great War telling heroic stories of the ‘dough boys’ that suggested that they’d defeated Germany single-handedly. British veterans were very offended by this one-sided view.

German Films

Germany produced many films during the war for propaganda purposes, such as Westfront and Four Infantrymen on the Western Front, but it took until 1921 before they started generating anti-war films such as Die Bergktaze (The Mountain Cat) and Namelose Helden (War, or Nameless Heroes). 

However, the exhausted German public wanted escapism in the 1920s. This, combined with the rise of the Nazis, forced many German filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder to head off to the USA.  

The fallout from the war

As is the way in wars, the next generation soon forgot.  The perception was of the wounded and the war veterans becoming the ‘Forgotten Men’, whose sacrifice and pain is not appreciated. This attitude pervaded amongst the dole queues and the disabled and decorated veterans begging on the streets, and helped spread social unrest in the 1920s and 1930s. It even featured in Busby Berkley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 with a tableau of forgotten soldiers. 

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Joan Blondell sings “My Forgotten Man” in Gold Diggers of 1933

There is also a group of films that count as War World I films because the war is the inciting incident to the story. Some showed the side effects of war on the Home Front, e.g. Waterloo Bridge, The Water Diviner. A personal favourite of mine that fits into this category is Random Harvest. 

Marking the centenary

Obviously, marking the centenary of the war has generated new films, but few of them have anything new to say. Women are still presented as the brave wife, mother, sister at home or as a nurse at the front. The French film A very long engagement is an exception of the modern films by depicting war in all its visceral reality with a story mostly told from a female perspective.  

War Horse directed by Stephen Spielberg

War Horse directed by Stephen Spielberg

Modern fiction based on historical fact by Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong), Pat Barker (the Regeneration series) and Michael Morpugo (War Horse, Private Peaceful) has prompted new interest in the war.  In the case of War Horse, the stage adaptation was infinitely more moving and impressive, as the film is littered with distractions from CGI, anachronisms and inaccuracies – e.g. a horse couldn’t have galloped up a trench as it wasn’t wide enough and they were never dead straight.

There are still many more stories to be told about the Great War, but please can they be more than just mud, muck and bullets?

Great War films (not a exhaustive list – and not all worth watching):

Intolerance (1916), The fall of a nation (1916), Westfront (1918), The heart of humanity (1918), Four Infantrymen on the Western Front (1918), The Mountain Cat (1921), Hell’s Angels (1930), All quiet on the Western Front (1930/1979), Tell England (1931), A Farewell to Arms (1932/1957), The man I killed (1932) , La croix de bois (1932), The Lost Patrol (1934, The Road to Glory (1936), Dark Journey (1937), Le Grande Illusion (1937), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Sergeant York (1941), Random Harvest (942), The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Africa Queen (1951), La Grande Guerra (1959), Jules et Jim (1962), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Oh what a lovely war! (1962), King & Country (1964), Dr Zhivago (1965), The Blue Max (1966), Zeppelin (1971), Nicholas & Alexandra (1971), Gallipoli (1981), Biggles – Adventures in time (1986), Life is nothing (1989), Hedd Wyn (1992) – the only Welsh-language film nominated for an Academy Award, Regeneration (1997), In love and war (1997), All the King’s Men (1999), The Trench (1999), The Officers’ Ward (2001), Deathwatch (2002), Joyeux Noel (2005) a British, French & German co-production, Days of Glory (2006), My boy Jack (2007), Flyboys (2006), The Red Baron (2008), Passchendale (2008), The White Ribbon (2009), War Horse (2011), Private Peaceful (2012), 37 days (2014). Testament of Youth (2014), The Water Diviner (2014), World War Dead – the Rise of the Fallen (2015)

Further reading:

Cinema & the Great War by Andrew Kelly (a very personal critique that only reviews certain films).

A D Cooper is a director, producer, writer and multi-media copywriter. She’s won awards for advertising writing, for screenplays long and short, written 80+ scripts for Ninja Warrior (Challenge TV) and published articles, short stories and joke books. Weary of waiting for someone to film her scripts, she started directing in 2010 creating a slate of short films including two corporates, a documentary and a museum installation. All of her fiction shorts for Hurcheon Films have been selected for international festivals, with Ace (2013) garnering five awards. Her most recent projects are an award-winning historical docushort Writing the Peace, a stage version of her World War 1 short film A Small Dot On The Western Front which she wrote, produced and directed, an experimental short film Spring on the Strand (selected for 3 festivals in the USA), The Penny Dropped (Award of Merit in a US shorts competition), and Home to the Hangers newly completed for the Directors UK Alexa Challenge 2017.

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Posted on Jul 6, 2015

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