With the centenary of the Armistice now upon us, it’s a good time to remember some of the best movies made about World War 1. WW1 movies are sadly rather rare in comparison to WWII, perhaps because of America’s late entry and comparatively light casualty count. The so-called “War to end all Wars” was unable to bring an end to the violence, instead ushering in a seemingly endless variety of new weapons and tactics. Battle continues to exist, but World War 1 changed it forever. These movies will show you exactly how WWI changed the world, for better and worse.
The Dawn Patrol
First filmed in 1930, the 1938 remake of The Dawn Patrol is the one best remembered by film buffs. Based on John Monk Sunders’s short story “The Flight Commander” and directed by Edmund Goulding, it stars Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone as pilots with the 59th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (today’s Royal Air Force). A significant amount of footage from the 1930 original was reused to lower production costs, although that doesn’t detract from the film’s themes of death, fear and the stresses of command. It’s also known for “Stand to your glasses steady”, a wartime pilots’ song still sung today.
Though not without its historical inaccuracies, 1981’s Gallipoli is a World War 1 classic. Directed by Peter Weir and starring Mark Lee and Mel Gibson, it depicts two young Australians on their way to the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. On their journey they—like their country—come of age and lose their innocence as WW1 lingers on. Gallipoli is sometimes criticized for its anti-British bias, but the final scenes, depicting the slaughter at the Battle of the Nek on August 7, 1915, are unforgettable.
Paths of Glory
1957’s Paths of Glory is one of the all-time classic anti-war movies. Stanley Kubrick directed the adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s novel, with Kirk Douglas starring as Colonel Dax. Dax is forced to defend his men not against the enemy, but their own troops when his superiors demand summary punishment after they fail an impossible mission. Paths of Glory examines war differently, looking at cowardice, betrayal and the disregard for ordinary soldiers by their commanders. Hailed as a classic now, it was highly controversial in its day.
The Trench is a rather overlooked gem. An independent production released in 1999, it stars a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as a battle-hardened veteran about to begin 1916’s Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916 is believed to be the worst day in British military history, with some 57,000 men killed, wounded, missing or captured on that day alone. The Trench follows Sergeant Winter (Craig) as his platoon prepares to go over the top. Claustrophobic, grim and often depressing, it’s still a superb depiction of daily life in the trenches on the Western Front.
All Quiet on the Western Front
1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, adapted from the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is a classic not only within the genre, but filmmaking itself. Directed by Lewis Milestone, the film achieves (ahem) a milestone in its depiction of World War 1. From their initial patriotic, nationalistic fervor, a group of young Germans lose their innocence (and their lives) amid the carnage of the Western Front. 1979’s television adaptation, which won a Golden Globe, is also worth watching. The novel’s title came from a German Army communiqué issued near the war’s end reading “Im Westen nichts neues”, which translates most directly to “in the West, nothing new.”
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Beneath Hill 60
The underground war fought on the Western Front and at Gallipoli has been, until recently, a rather overlooked aspect of WW1. With both sides facing stalemate, above ground tunneling and detonating vast mines beneath enemy trenches became one way to try breaking the deadlock. Both sides deployed Tunneling Companies, often composed of skilled laborers and miners drafted for their specialist skills. The underground war involved stealth, patience, nerves of steel and the constant risk of being buried alive as tunnelers tried to explode counter-mines to destroy their opponents. Beneath Hill 60 follows one of Australia’s tunneling units as they prepare to destroy German defenses at Messines Ridge, and has a truly tragic ending.
Released in 1976, Aces High is a combination of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Sagittarius Rising, the memoir of RFC ace Cecil Lewis. Colin Firth plays rookie pilot Croft and the movie follows him over his first (and last) week as a frontline fighter pilot. Directed by Jack Gold, it also stars Malcolm McDowell as squadron commander Gresham, cracking under the constant strains of casualties and command. Christopher Plummer plays veteran pilot Uncle Sinclair, who takes Croft under his wing, all while Simon Ward’s Lieutenant Crawford is driven mad by constant fear. At one point the average life expectancy of a rookie RFC pilot was a matter of days. Mostly aged around 20, RFC rookies had two choices: Learn quickly, or die.
Lawrence of Arabia
This 1962 epic had all the usual Hollywood trappings without the now-customary Hollywood schmaltz. The cast alone makes it worth watching. Peter O’Toole plays the legendary T.E. Lawrence, sent to assess and advise Arab forces in their campaign against the German and Turkish opposition. Instead, Lawrence turned himself into a WW1 legend—and the Arabian forces into a major threat against their opponents. Lawrence was always torn between loyalty to his country and his Arab ‘irregulars’, and O’Toole plays him masterfully. Lawrence was also right to be suspicious of British intentions in the region, especially when British officials claimed not to have any.
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Released in 2008, Passchendaele focuses on the experiences of a Canadian WWI soldier, Michael Dunne. Written, directed by, and starring Paul Gross of Due South fame, Passchendaele was partly inspired by the experiences of Gross’s grandfather Michael Joseph Dunne on the Western Front. The grim opening scenes, in which Dunne bayonets a German soldier through the forehead, were taken directly from Gross’s grandfather’s experience. While the battle scenes are graphic, Passchendaele is far from a guts’n’glory epic or a voyeuristic gorefest. The effects of the war, both on those Canadians who fought and those who remained at home, are well portrayed without being unduly schmaltzy or overly worthy. Unfortunately underpromoted on its release, it’s well worth watching.
The Road to Glory
Howard Hawks, one of early Hollywood’s most celebrated directors, was obsessed with aviation. He transformed this interest into a prolific career in movies when he realized that he could film the stunts he loved so much as part of a larger narrative. Although 1930’s original The Dawn Patrol (mentioned earlier) is said to be even better than 1926’s The Road to Glory, Hawks’s earlier film is still available for viewing today and exemplifies the ways in which World War 1 was portrayed in the interwar years in the United States.
Released the year after The Road to Glory, Wings is not only a great WWI film—it was also the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film stars silent film starlet Clara Bow as Mary Preston a girl wildly in love with her neighbor, Jack Powell (Charles Rogers). When Powell is sent off to France, Mary follows as an ambulance driver. This war-romance drama, which was also one of the first to show nudity, remains relevant and utterly watchable to this day.
Testament of Youth
If you’re looking for a WWI movie to watch alongside a more sentimental viewer (perhaps your mother), you can’t go wrong with Testament of Youth. This film, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir, focuses on how women (particularly the middle class) were impacted by World War 1. Although Brittain tried first to write a novel based on her experiences, she soon realized that the grief and pain she felt made it impossible for her to write about anything but her personal feelings and choices. Alicia Vikander’s turn as Brittain may wring a tear from even the most cynical viewer.
Featured still from "Paths of Glory" via Bryna Productions