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 WW1 changed the world, for better and worse.
A Very Long Engagement
This French film starring Audrey Tautou and Gaspard Ulliel follows a woman named Mathilde as she searches for her beloved fiancé who has disappeared from the trenches of the Somme during the war. Her fiancé, along with four other soldiers, was convicted of trying to escape military service, and sent to “No Man’s Land” to meet his end at the hands of the Germans. However, Matilde refuses to believe her fiancé is dead, and through her investigations and battlefield flashbacks, Matilde and viewers alike discover the brutalities and atrocities of World War I.
Joyeux Noel—written and directed by Christian Carion—is a fictionalized retelling of an actual historical event. In the December of 1914, a German opera singer travels to the front line to sing carols for the Christmas holiday. A truce from all sides commences, and the various soldiers come together to exchange gifts and stories from home. This film gives the perspective of the French, Scottish, and German men sent off to war, and details not only the disconnect of the higher ups from the sacrifices of the battlefield, but the negative fallout from a Christmas truce which celebrated humanity.
The Red Baron
The German-British biographical film The Red Baron boasts stars Matthias Schweighöfer, Joseph Fiennes, Lena Heady, and Til Schweiger. Based on the fighter pilot Baron Manfred von Richthofen, who was one of the most acclaimed German pilots of World War I, this film follows his journey of disillusionment. While at first Richthofen regards combat as an exciting challenge, his growing feelings for the nurse Käte and the time he spends in the military hospital opens his eyes to the true extent of war’s atrocities.
This box-office hit was turned into a drama film after the original novel of the same name was published in 1982 and a subsequent stage play was adapted in 2007. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie stars Jeremy Irvine in his big screen debut, as well as other notable actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, and David Thewlis. A beloved Thoroughbred—Joey—belonging to a young English farmer is sold to the army, and over the course of four years he experiences the dark realities of war through the hands of the English, German, and French soldiers. Telling stories of desperation, loss, determination, and love, War Horse captures the scope of World War I on and off the battlefield.
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Flyboys—featuring James Franco during his rise to stardom—follows a group of American men who enlist in the French Air Service in 1916. In a squadron known as the Lafayette Escadrille, volunteers including a Texan rancher, a black boxer, and a New York Dilettante undergo training which can’t even begin to compare to the rain of fire in air combat. As they face battle, some rise as heroes, while others succumb to enemy fire. Though these characters are fictional, their actions and fates were based upon real men who became the first American fighter pilots.
Three British soldiers find themselves stranded in No Man’s Land in this 2013 Australian film. Survivors of an Allied charged gone wrong, they won’t survive for long if they can’t find a way out of the muddy purgatory. German forces close in on the men, and an all-out attack from both sides could get them killed in the crossfire. With grenades exploding and time running out, will the soldiers make it through the night?
Oh! What A Lovely War
A bit of a change of pace, Oh! What A Lovely War is a British musical comedy directed by Richard Attenborough. Though the film—like its characters—starts out upbeat and optimistic, a darker perspective gradually consumes the tone. Mostly focusing on the Smith family as different members go off to war, the action also tackles infamous events that occurred during World War I, such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the truce during the Christmas of 1914. Keep an eye out for cameos from notable actors like Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier.
All the King's Men
First broadcast by the BBC as a television drama, this 1999 film is based on the non-fiction book by Nigel McCrery. After the men of King George V’s estate joined the 1/5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment, they went into battle at Gallipoli under the command of the manager of the estate, Captain Frank Beck. However, no soldiers returned from that fateful battle. Rumored to have disappeared after walking into a strange mist, the Royal Family sends an investigator to discover the truth behind the odd disappearance of the soldiers.
With Gary Cooper in the titular role, Sergeant York is based on the diary kept by the real-life Sergeant Alvin York. This film takes viewers from York’s humble beginnings as a farmer in Tennessee to his rise as one of the most celebrated American servicemen of World War I. Though York is an incredible marksman, his recent devotion to religion leaves him feeling conflicted about taking lives in war. As battle leaves no room for the indecision of men, York must kill or be killed, and rise to the occasion when the lives of his fellow soldiers are endangered.
For the viewers with a taste for the artsy out there, the 1963 recording of Benjamin Britten’s classical “War Requiem” acts as the soundtrack to this film, with no spoken dialogue to contrast the music and lyrics. As some of the lyrics of Britten’s composition are pulled from poems written by World War I veteran Wilfred Owen, the film uses Owen as the central character. Using imagery that depicts the horrors of war, the nonlinear narrative also branches out to portray other soldiers, as well as a nurse. This film stars notable actors Nathaniel Parker, Tilda Swinton, Laurence Olivier, and Sean Bean.
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 the Great War 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; 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 this point, the average life expectancy of a rookie RFC pilot was a matter of days. Mostly around 20 years old, these 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.
Related: 9 Best World War I Books
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 "All Quiet on the Western Front" via Universal Pictures