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The First World War in Movies

1917 will be the latest addition to a growing list of films set around the Great War, but here are some others that tackled the trenches.

With a star-studded cast including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Richard Madden – the new First World War film by Sam Mendes – director of Skyfall and Spectre – has some high expectations behind it. Indeed, 1917 promises to bring a fresh take on a cinematic history rich with World War One films by following two young British soldiers tasked with delivering a message deep in enemy territory to save the lives of 1,600 men. And whilst some cynics may believe all First World War movies are covering the same ground, film has always found a way of telling it from a new perspective…

Warning! The following contains spoilers!

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    Paths of Glory (1957)

    Much like the upcoming 1917, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1957 film Paths of Glory also centres around soldiers being set a seemingly impossible task. However, Paths of Glory – based on a book of the same name – is far from a tale of heroism and triumph. 

    The plot follows Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax who is attuned to a number of wrong-doings amongst some of the generals he works for. After a division is sent on a suicide mission and another division refuses to follow, Dax steps up to defend the men sentenced to death. An unfair trial results in needless bloodshed of their own men and even though Dax spends much of the film pursuing justice, the end of the film sees him return to war – the suffering seemingly can’t be stopped. Taking a very much anti-war stance, Paths of Glory is a somber analysis of the injustices of the First World War.  

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    All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

    Also based on a novel, All Quiet on the Western Front is an early example of a feature that used the power of cinema to give a damning representation of the war. Released in 1930, the film’s standpoint proved a problem being originally banned in Hitler’s Germany for being ‘anti-German’ and even in Australia. Regardless of controversy, the feature – following the journey of a young new recruit Paul Baumer – was hit with instant critical acclaim.

    Lauded for its realism, All Quiet on the Western Front is a stark portrayal of the true nature of the First World War. Following Paul from an eager new recruit and witnessing the events which crush his enthusiasm, we experience the disenchantment of the glamour built up around battle. And when our protagonist dies reaching for a butterfly and a batch of new recruits pour in over the backdrop of a graveyard – we are reminded that Paul’s is just one story of turmoil in tens of millions. 

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    Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

    Moving on from that somber note, our next film is far from the grit of the previous two. The first British film on our list, Lawrence of Arabia takes us away from trench warfare and into the lesser known area of the Arab revolt. Peter O’Toole portrays the real-life army-officer T.E. Lawrence and as he strides around the desert in some stunning costumes and with perfect hair, it is clear this is certainly a glossier depiction of war.

    Yet Lawrence of Arabia, for all its entertaining and crowd-pleasing aspects, dwells much on the turmoil of the individual. We see Lawrence carry out various attacks, executions and even mercy-killings and his subsequent moments of introspection where he struggles with the psychology of taking someone’s life. And whilst many First World War films don’t tend to focus on the Allies’ middle eastern campaign, this is perhaps what makes Lawrence of Arabia so special with the perfect backdrop to explore the war through a new perspective.

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    They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

    With so many First World War films in cinematic history, a new perspective or a new way of presenting the subject matter is quite hard to find. Yet in 2018 the revolutionary documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old from Director Peter Jackson did just that. By colourising footage from the First World War, inputting sound effects and interlacing interviews with survivors, They Shall Not Grow Old delivered a new, authentic experience to viewers.

    The result is a unique and highly emotional feature which bridges the gap between our present day and the black and white footage seen in museums and clips. This way Jackson brings the woes of the war brightly into our vision. The fact that we are seeing real people who laughed, loved and died in the war never ceases to bring back the rare impact of this film.

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    Gallipoli (1981)

    Another example of a lesser-visited aspect of World War One is the Australian offering from Director Peter Weir – Gallipoli. This film follows some optimistic young Australian soldiers enlisted in the First World War who find themselves on the Turkish front in the doomed Battle of Gallipoli.

    Following Frank and Archy (played by Mel Gibson and Mark Lee) and their friends, it would be easy to suggest, like All Quiet on the Western Front, that Gallipoli is a derogatory look at how the war snuffed out the youth and enthusiasm of young men. However, there is something about Gallipoli which seems different and more complex. Whilst Frank somewhat embodies the cynical outlook of the futility of the first world war, something in Archy’s contrasting optimism and enthusiasm gives us a broader view. It’s a film that, whilst not condoning it, refuses to ignore the patriotism and spirit that motivated many of the soldiers that fought and thereby avoids the suggestion that these men died for nothing.

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    War Horse (2011)

    The final film on this list celebrates the most unlikely of the First World War heroes – the horses. Once a popular West End play based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, converting War Horse into a feature film was a huge undertaking which is perhaps why this was a task shouldered by legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

    Following an unbreakable bond between a boy and his horse, War Horse takes the emotional charge of an animal film and somehow weaves it into the already upheaving backdrop of war. Somehow, with Joey the horse as the protagonist, we experience both the Allies and the German’s from a neutral point of view and yet still follow the epic stories of soldiers on the front. Yes it’s cheesy and yes it is implausible – but through the way it tells the story, War Horse manages to communicate both the sense of waste and the humanity of soldiers on both sides, whether man or animal, without losing its warmth.

So there you have it – some of the iconic war movies from the last 100 years that have demonstrated the impact of the First World War in cinema. What other films do you think have significantly addressed the war? We’d love to hear them in the comments below! 

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