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Films of World War I

Updated on September 15, 2014

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms, October, 1918.
Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms, October, 1918. | Source

Charlie Chaplin And Comedy

Released four weeks before Armistice Shoulder Arms remains the most brilliant comic portrayal of the war. Chaplin created comedy by using the camaraderie of all soldiers. The film was funny in 1918 as it is now. Audiences loved to see soldiers kick authority's butt.

In the film, Chaplin's half brother, Sydney, played both the Kaiser and an American sergeant. Chaplin dreamed of kidnapping the Kaiser while portraying the absurdities of military life. He was a genius in using both slapstick and sentimentality.

Once soldiers and civilians could laugh at the military life, the experience of war became tolerable.

Later comic movies about WWI included Laurel and Hardy, Pack Up Your Troubles, 1932. The Marx brothers made Duck Soup in 1933.

All Quiet on The Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front

Perhaps the single most compelling image to emerge from WWI is the hand of a German soldier in the trenches reaching for a butterfly just as he is shot by a sniper. All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone portrayed the anonymity and tragedy of war. The German soldier, Baumer, was played by Lew Ayres.

The novel which inspired the movie, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque published in 1932 is considered the most significant war novel of the twentieth century. Even so, with millions of readers, the novel did not reach the numbers of viewers touched by Milestone's film version.

Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper depicted the wartime bravery of Alvin York. Sergeant York captured single handed over 100 soldiers in the Argonne forest in 1918.

Jean Renoir's masterpiece The Grand Illusion portrays captured French soldiers behind German lines. The story provides the tension between the social bond of career officers on both sides of the war and the national bond of individual soldiers. In a diversionary plan the main character dies to allow his soldiers to escape.

Howard Hawks' film The Road to Glory (1936) again portrays French soldiers who refuse to obey orders in a suicide mission. Two of the soldiers are later shot for treason. The greatness of this film is due to the subtle genius of Hawk's directing and the fine actors, Frederic March and Lionel Barrymore.

These films convey the universal conflict of soldiers in a world at war.

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo in Mata Hari
Greta Garbo in Mata Hari | Source

Gary Cooper

Cooper immortalized the life of Alvin York
Cooper immortalized the life of Alvin York | Source

Femmes Fatales at War

The role of female spy was given its most memorable performance by Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1932). Before she was caught at the game of spying Garbo seduces both Lionel Barrymore and Roman Nevarro. In the end Greta Garbo is put to death.

I Was a Spy (1933) starring Madeleine Carroll and directed by British director Victor Saville is another fine depiction of romantic melodrama and patriotism. The film does not reach the cinematic power of Mata Hari.

The White Star is a tale of tragic love. The lovers are parted by war. News of death on the battlefield leads the heroine to join a convent. However her love is not dead. He is blind. In the movie the heroine forsakes her vows as a religious and walks into the sunset with her lover. In the book the lost lovers remain asunder.

This story was so popular that the movie was remade twice. The original (1915) starred Ronald Coleman and Lillian Gish. The first remake (1933) starred Helen Hayes and Clark Cable. The 1957 remake starred Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. The audience never tired of the WWI heroine's anguish.

Oh! What a Lovely War

Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) used the lyrical songs of the popular culture during WWI to contrast with the horror of trench warfare. In one scene, Sir Douglas Haig, played by John Mills, leapfrogs over a colleague to a contemporary ditty. Haig's legacy includes the field of endless crosses behind him in the film.

The picture presented almost too harsh of a contrast even assuming the general knowledge and acceptance of the gross incompetence of WWI generals. This film was one of a small group of pacifist films.

John Mills Playing Sir Douglas Haig

Oh! What A Lovely War, a pacifist film
Oh! What A Lovely War, a pacifist film | Source

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Mythology is a film category of its own. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse directed by Rex Ingram appeared in 1921. Starring Alice Terry and Rudolf Valentino, the film opens on the eve of war with the prediction of doom. The Book of Revelation was about to come to pass.

Rudolf Valentino seduces the wife of a French senator. For the next for years all is swept away before the horsemen of Conquest, War, Pestilence, and Death. In the end Valentino dies in a military encounter with a German cousin. He appears in a vision to his lover instructing her to return to her husband who needs her.

Also mythical is an early film classic, J'Accuse, by the French filmmaker Abel Gance. In his first version (1919) the dead soldiers return from their graves to see if their sacrifice was in vain. In Gance's second version (1937), the dead return to terrify the living and put an end to all war.

The resurrection of the dead to teach moral lessons was a common device in WWI movies between WWI and WWII. Perhaps the audience was looking for something of value in such tremendous loss.

Soldiers Against the Sky

Image from the film version of Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms.
Image from the film version of Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms. | Source

The Experience of World War I

A Farewell to Arms

The film industry provided a visual memory of the war that is still what viewers see when the war is discussed. The most popular and enduring visual from WWI films is soldiers in silhouettes marching single file against the sky.

The 1932 film version of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, directed by Frank Borzage provided classic battle front images. The silhouettes, the explosions at night, and the surrealistic chaos of battle are to this day the images of WWI most familiar to audiences. There is a beauty and a balance in the cinematic scenes that glosses the reality of war.

A Farewell to Arms depicts the retreat of the Italian army from Caporetto. In the end Gary Cooper, a deserter, reaches the bedside of Helen Hays in time to say farewell.

Films such as Eisenstein's Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) and David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) capture the monumental scale and epic proportions of battle. These two movies are set in the period of the war but express themes that transcend the war itself.

From Vaudeville to Social Force

During 1914-1929 the film industry became a social force in its own right. While many films transcended political propaganda into a world of universal themes and pathos, many did not. Nations and governments quickly understood the power of film.

Bold nationalistic music, heroic marching soldiers, airplanes crossing the skies, and flags raised behind the smoke all became symbols of patriotic fervor. Propaganda became an art. Movies stirred the emotions of massive numbers of viewers.

War portrayed as a glorious and romantic pursuit of national right is the prevalent theme in countries at war or just ending a war. Few films depicted war as a catastrophe. Pacifist films such as Paths of Glory (1957) staring Kirk Douglas were refused license for decades in France. While Nazi Germany banned showing All Quiet on the Western Front.


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